Balloon Rides Ten Dollars

From the funeral parlor porch I saw the sign BALLOON RIDES TEN DOLLARS and thought, why not?

The balloons, bobbing back and forth in the field across the road as if floating on a huge, slow sea, glowed against the dimming sky.

I walked through the beaten grass to the nearest, a yellow and gold affair with an affable woman about my mother's age in the basket.  Beside it another, much younger woman and her small child were standing oddly, toe to toe, blond head to blond head, holding each other's hands but leaning backwards with their rear ends, so they made a set of unequally sized parenthesis.  I thought of my own mother, dead these seventy-two hours, and wondered if we'd ever stood in such a fashion.

Ten dollars? I said.

What?

Ten dollars?  I had my wallet out.  For the ride?

The woman in the basket blinked.  Oh, yes, that's right.

I handed her a ten and climbed in.  The basket smelled of the fuel.

How long will the ride be? I asked.

Ten dollars, she said, and reached down for a sandbag, which she levered over the side.

There were three more.  I thought I should explain about my back, so I did.

No matter, she said, bending to retrieve another.

After she tossed the last one, the balloon began to rise into a slight wind, so we pendulumed up the first ten feet.  I grabbed a side and she stumbled back and forth.

Well that's no fun, she said.  A man with spiked hair began running toward us from a circus tent, shouting.

Let's fix that, she said, and fired up the gas.

We shot up, a hundred feet in a second, my stomach dropping, ears popping.  The roar of the gas was obliterating.

Down below an entire crowd had gathered where we'd been just a minute before, as if they'd emptied into a drain.  They were all waving.  I peered over and waved back.

Now they started with both hands.

I glanced at my companion.  She smiled at me, but something was wrong with her eyes.  The eyelids seemed filled with fluid, as if she'd just been stung by a hundred bees.

Are you drunk? I asked.

She slipped her lower lip over her upper one and seemed to consider the question.  We were still going up, moving laterally as well, and below us, the people were just dots.  The funeral home with the cars around it I could still make out and then it, too, slipped into other buildings, like a river entering the sea.  The pleasant scent of manure came from distant fields.

Define drunk, she said at last, shouting over the roar of the burning gas.

We climbed so quickly.  The sudden chill raised goose bumps on my arms, the sky turned indigo, a weird green phosphorescence began to tremble around the balloon.

Have you done this before? I asked.

She smiled and nodded.  Oh yes, of course.  Once.  But that time someone else was in control.  She leaned back in the corner and slid down, letting her head fall against her knees and then, in a movement of peculiar modesty, tented her blouse away from her chest and threw up inside it.

The numbers on my watch were just visible.  The visitation was almost over.  Soon everyone would file out and look up at the sky, to find balloons glowing like immature stars, not quite ready to take their spot in the heavens.  Higher up, if they tilted their heads a bit more, they might see us rising and rising, a speck of moving light.  They'd think of my mother, I hoped, beginning her immense journey, and for the moment I was glad.

Once the fuel ran out—I imagined darkness, a furious plummeting, perhaps what my mother had felt at the end—I expected a different reaction.  

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