A Red Balloon
By Sean Lovelace
A man walks.
A man walks into a bar.
The bar has the latter days of America feel, slowly writhing, turning in like a snake eating itself, though I’m not entirely sure what that means. Mostly the walls smell like Cher, or Hall and Oates. Filtering down through the gardens of exposed ceiling wiring (many gaping holes) and spider-webbed conversations and sometimes you might see—or image you see—a possum crawling around up there along the pipes, stealthily. A beheaded suit of armor and a rack of repatriated coats and a cloudy aquarium with one sad, bloated fish and either holiday lights or ambulance lights off glass—something festive or horrible or that space between, the space mostly we dwell in, some form of dream-processing plant, basically the latter days of America (though I’m not sure what that means) if the latter days of America were more a state of mind, or a ferret hole full of beverages (coffee, beer, blood, etc.) and taxidermy, or I mean not a ferret hole, but a burrowing of people, a place for people to burrow…No one is having a seizure, that is good. There is a bartender and a depressive lifeguard and a drunk (as permanent as a plaque driven into the splintery pine) and an artful woman and the man.
The artful woman: She has dark black hair, slowly poured molasses, and the face of a flower, with golden jewelry dangling from her hair. She sits like architecture on her barstool. A large red balloon is tied to the stool. It suspends above her, like a foreign moon. They almost make a painting, a contemporary still-life, an odd captivation, a glow.
The man sits next to the lifeguard. He orders a beer and inhales chlorine.
“I’m wearing a bathing suit,” the lifeguard says loudly. “I’m wearing a bathing suit, that’s ridiculous. I mean look at my life. I’m dripping wet.”
The man turns to the lifeguard, just a kid really. He wears red surfer’s shorts. No shirt, no shoes. He’s drinking something blue. He has a smudge of brown hair. Water drips from his deeply tanned skin. The man turns back to the bartender and orders another beer. He drank the first beer quickly, but just about average for him: he considered beer as basically phases, or units in a series of phases. He was stacking phases is how he felt about beer.
“I’ve never saved a single life,” the lifeguard says. “I’ve never even dove into the pool off the chair. Not once. I just sit there watching all the crows eating French fries off the parking lot.”
The man turns his shoulders from the lifeguard. His theory is that while most people misunderstand language, they more readily understand body language. He finishes a phase and orders another.
The lifeguard continues: “My CPR license has been expired for three years, but no one cares. I couldn’t tell you squat about CPR. I drink a lot of soda. Sometimes I teach little classes to kids, like how to hold your breath or go fetch a little yellow ring off the bottom. It’s ridiculous, this life I’ve made. The days of my youth, I’m wasting them away. I’ve reached the point I don’t even stare at cleavage. Think about that.”
The man sits silently and looks at the foil on his beer.
“I’m going to die of skin cancer,” the lifeguard says. “I mean that’s a given.” The lifeguard starts sobbing, quietly, rhythmically. It sounds like a ceiling fan with a wobble.
The man stands and walks over and sits next to the drunk. The drunk leaps as if bitten, staggers up and over a pool table, crumples to his knees, coughs madly, recovers, moans like a wet wind moving through city buildings (deserted bookstores, etc.), rumblings of iron and towers, alleyways of shredded umbrellas and grief, and enters the bathroom, slamming the door shut. A thump, a clatter, then a larger thump. Glass shatters.
“Here we go again,” the bartender says and walks from behind the bar. He pauses to grab a pool cue then enters the bathroom.
The man looks at the woman, two seats over.
When I say artful, imagine flames, a fire either beginning or ending, the transfixed state of staring into flames—it’s evening, chili beans in your belly, your expectations for the century are settling in, sacred poetry crawls across the night sky, crystal irises of stars, constellations, chords of some owl or an idling Segway, some evening song around your waist, gold dust and wisps of purplish clouds, a handful of Cool Ranch Doritos I suppose, yawning, hypnotic dreams, opacities of fog, a stretching tremor (not so unlike the latter days of America, but I digress…)—this woman wears her clothing the way the Las Vegan skies wear the falling snow. Her eyes are cosmic slaps. Her hair poured molasses, as I mentioned earlier. Her legs a mechanical panther. Her breasts two ringing anvils.
The man walks behind the bar and grabs an ice cold phase.
“Don’t worry about me!” the lifeguard shouts, to no one. To the ceiling. “I’m just nothing but a chair—I’m used to it.”
The man grabs another phase and slides it to the lifeguard, but doesn’t compensate for the thin (0.25 inch) beads of water on the wood (the bartender is reliably unreliable at wiping down the pine) and so underestimates the effect of aquaplaning, the glass of the phase losing traction (becoming an uncontrolled artillery shell) on the film of water (such a surface has approximately the same friction coefficient as ice) and thus sliding off the bar and exploding into shards at the lifeguard’s feet.
“There it is exactly,” the lifeguard says.
The man walks over and sits alongside the woman. He decides to wait for at least fifteen minutes before speaking. He looks at the ass of a whitetail deer mounted on the wall. The walls also hold the ass of a lesser kudu, a dog, a starfish, and an armadillo. A song by Cher bounces from the jukebox, replacing a song by Cher. The man looks at the woman. Did I mention this entire time she’s been reading? The book is thick and green.
The man says to her, “If you were driving down the highway and I were a whitetail deer I’d run directly into traffic. I would hit a car about five or six cars in front of yours and then you’d be caught in traffic for a long time. I could stare at you while I was bleeding there on the highway shoulder. A big, dead whitetail deer, but I wouldn’t mind at all, baby, to die while staring at the underside of your car. While I was dying.”
The woman flips a page of her book.
The man says, “Hey. Your beauty rivals the graphics of Call of Duty.”
The drunk exits the bathroom, replaces the pool cue, winks at us, and says, “You know, sometimes the fish eats the man.” He goes behind the bar and pours a tea glass full of straight gin. He picks up a dented martini shaker, squints at it, and slips it into his jacket pocket. Smiling wildly, he starts sharpening a large knife the bartender used for slicing up lemons, limes, the occasional kiwi.
The man says to the woman, “So, I see you like books. I like books, too. Without you I feel like I’m in Azkaban and dementors are sucking away my soul, get it? Going to bed? Mind if I Slytherin? Is that a wand in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? Hey, do you get it?”
The man says, “Did it hurt when you invented disco?”
The man says, “Every breath you take…every tweet you make…I’ll be following you.”
The man says, “You are what I want for Christmas.”
The man says, “I would live totally alone on an island of epidemics if you would join me on the island.”
The man says, “You’re the only word that rhymes with orange.”
The woman turns another page. The man sighs and walks over to the drunk, raising his finger for a fresh phase.
“Why don’t you just buy her a drink?” the drunk says, steadily sharpening his knife.
The man looks at the woman. He hadn’t noticed she didn’t have a drink. He walks over to her.
“Hey,” he says. “Would you like a drink?”
She closes her book, and looks not at him, but towards him. The man feels the air stir like a mixture of silica and lead aluminate (with coloration of potassium dichromate or cobalt oxide [imagine a big-ass crystalline shower of blue flowers]). His elbows sweat. The woman says, “Yes. Yes, I would like a drink.”
The man turns to the bar, his heart going crazy. The woman unties the large red balloon, and floats away.
Sean Lovelace blogs at seanlovelace.com and he likes Velveeta and running, far.