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Grey Sparrow Journal and Press, as of January 31, 2018 will move to

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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The Specific Gravity of Balloons

by Eric Howerton

There was a time when I still liked balloons. This shouldn’t be read as a glib or humorous counterpoint to the events I’m about to describe, so I’ll say it again, but differently: there was a time when I still liked balloons, and, as it happened, this was a time when I understood very little about the nature of death.  I was five years old when the following events took place, and this was during an age when children could still ride in the front seat of an automobile without producing shame or condemnation, an age when the safety and well-being of minors was still very much a parental discretion.  From a young age I came to know the world through the windshield of a moving car, and as a result I developed a fondness for the way the world looked while you were passing it by.  From the passenger seat I might pretend that the world was moving past the car rather than the car moving through the world, though every time we reached our destination I was reminded, my foot touching fixed ground, that this was not the case, that movement made the world a fluid illusion, a tapestry of running shapes of colors.  I looked out from the car at the patches of green and triangular YIELD signs, the two-storey homes and the superficies of tall buildings masked prohibitively by dark windows, windows that looked so deep and bottomless they made me wonder why they were there at all.  Windows, I thought, were for clarity. Windows were for seeing through.


I remember the feel of the car window, flat and cool against my cheek, while my eyes traced the panels of curbs and walkways.  I had used these curbs and walkways in the way they are meant to be used, for traveling here and there and back again, but I had never before considered them objects of study until that day.  I was amazed that the sidewalks I’d used were at the same time partial and whole, made up of discrete yet identical units.  That the world contained elements both separated and joined within themselves is an observation that holds less romance for me now, though the marvel of this revelation made an impression on me I still remember. That the world teemed with contradictions that did no harm and neededno remedy wasn’t anything I could have articulated, but understanding it, knowingit, even as a vague or intuitive truth, gave me a certain amount of pride.


As a child I held certain opinions about death, and whether these were mature or out of the ordinary opinions I can’t say, for I’ve never discussed the matter of death with a child of any age.  What I do know is that whenever I heard the word death—or one of its variants—my thoughts flocked to the image of a small, isolated building.  The building contained a single room, and was located in a dense alpine forest.  It appeared as little more than an abandoned bunker, complete with four white walls and a flat, unpitched roof.  The forest was so overgrown and weblike that when you looked up you could barely see the sky peeking through the leaves.  When I heard death or dying or dead, my thoughts spirited away to whatever was in front of me, passed through the sylvan cover and arrived at the white building. Though I couldn’t see inside, I believed that the room was a place where the dead entered for all eternity, but precisely how they entered was and remains a mystery, for the room had no windows and no doors, no entrances or exits.  Protected by the thick cover of trees, it was impossible for anyone to find this place, though life has since taught me that everyone arrives sooner or later.


The day my opinion of balloons changed my mother was in the car with me, or I with her, and we were returning home from some routine outing, the nature of which I forget.  I remember the wind whipping through the cracks in the windows.  It pushed back my hair.  Approaching a stoplight, our car slowed and eventually came to rest on the hot, wavering asphalt.  On a nearby curb, a man appeared, an ordinary man whom I would have failed to notice had it not been for the colony of balloons hovering above him.  Though the balloons varied in color, they had the collective appearance of a clutch of grapes, and the man attending to the balloons appeared to strain against them, and they against him.  The balloons were light of course, lighter than air itself, and yet I couldn’t help but wonder whether how difficult it was to prevent the balloons from loosing themselves and floating away.  The man had a burdened expression, as though holding down something that weighed very little was just as difficult as lifting up something that weighed very much.


A moment after I noticed him, the ordinary man stepped off the curb.  He began to cross the street, his balloons trailing dutifully behind.  Not more than a few seconds later, he was struck by a navy truck approaching from the opposite direction, its driver staring off into the distance rather than halting to the red eye of traffic.  The force of the collision turned the ordinary man into an unfortunate one, and he became a contorted swirl of limbs and hurt.  The squeal of truck tires and my mother’s scream merged in ghastly stridence as the truck came to a tardy stop.  “Look away!” my mother commanded.  “Look away, look away, look away!” 


I did.  In what I now understand to be a natural and empathic restraint, I turned my face from the grizzly scene of the mangled man to the serenity of the open window, where I wanted nothing more than to bury my awareness in the deep, unfathomable tracts of the sky.  I wished to lose myself in the softness of the clouds, wanting nothing to do with thinking or seeing or hearing what was going on around me.  I wanted to surrender my consciousness to something that would absorb it and, in doing so, mute my senses, for every emotion begins with the senses, and without sensation there can be no beginning to anything.  There can be no panic.  No fear.   


The promising escape of the sky was maligned by a flourish of liberated balloons. Litters of red, yellow, blue, and green sailed upward, brutal reminders of a hand presently unable to tense.  In some way, seeing the balloons rise upward was far worse than the sight of the mangled victim.  I closed my eyes, hoping to hide in the quietude of some inner sanctum, but my mind couldn’t be hushed.  My senses had stained me.  Even with closed eyes, the images of the floating balloons remained, volleying against a sea of clouds.  I wondered whether, in his final moments as the truck hurtled toward him, the man had closed his own eyes or left them open.  If he’d closed them, what had he seen during the moment of impact?  What had he seen while tumbling through the air?  What was the shape of his pain?  What was its color?


I opened my eyes.  The air-borne balloons were farther away now, smaller, each one putting distance between itself and the others, all of them rising but no two rising together.  Each balloon was of its own accord, separate and alone, with a fate independent of anything and everything.


I heard the sounds of my mother weeping before I recognized what those sounds were.  I wanted to turn toward her, but I couldn’t find the courage to move my head for fear of catching sight of the ordinary man.  A few moments passed and eventually even the brightest balloons were swallowed by the enormity of the sky, a sky that offered no comfort and no remorse.  I again closed my eyes, but this time instead of the balloons I saw a room.  A room with four walls and an unpitched roof.  A room with no windows and no doors, no entrances or exits.  A room that was becoming increasingly difficult to see through the thick cover of trees.