There’s a man with balloons at our park today, which is where we wait after school in the unguarded hours before our mother gets home. We’ve never seen this man before, but like usual we’re alone, my brother and me, two kids hunched atop the climbing dome like abandoned chimps. The man stands below us with his balloons, all playschool colors, a bright stained glass shadow hanging over the mulchy ground near his feet. He calls up to us: Kids. Kids. Want to buy one?
Today, I am ten-and-half exactly, and my brother is twelve-and-three-quarters. I’ve promised to be responsible for him because sometimes he gets ideas the way our antennae picks up the Spanish channel from Greenville, some elsewhere static he can’t unhear. My brother wants more than anything to buy a balloon from the balloon man, even though he doesn’t have a cart like an official balloon seller would; he keeps all the balloons tied real tight on his forearm, so tight they leave welts. My brother starts asking questions—Why doesn’t the balloon man float away when he has all his balloons tied to him? He saw a program on TV last Friday about a man in a lawn chair who did just that. I tell my brother that all balloon men have lower halves that are made of metal, that the only reason we have balloon men at all is because so many soldiers came back from war with their lower halves blown off by grenades and land mines and whatever, and the missing parts get replaced with metal like a steam-powered mecha. Lucky for them, that’s a basic balloon man job requirement. It makes them heavy enough to keep from floating away.
She’s right you know, the balloon man says, and I hate that he’s listening. My brother says he wants a yellow balloon, because yellow is the color of popcorn butter and also the pirate doubloons in a video game he likes to play. The balloon man says, They’re only a quarter, I’ll give you two for a quarter, and I tell my brother he doesn’t have a quarter moments before he pulls one out of his shoe and says yes he does. I don’t know how the quarter got in his shoe and can only hope he didn’t take it from somewhere he wasn’t supposed to. How lucky you are, says the balloon man, and I tell my brother that balloons are bad for the environment. Every time someone buys a balloon, a sea turtle dies.
For a while, no one says anything. Then the balloon man smiles and nods and trudges back toward the road, his wares bopping in the air behind him, his bald little head low on his shoulders. Stupid, I say to my brother. What is wrong with you? You can’t just buy things from strangers like that, it isn’t safe. My brother doesn’t reply. He watches the balloon man shuffle so awkwardly away from us it’s like his lower half really is made of metal. He might be in pain. Just as he gets to the curb, three high school girls whip down the road on scooters, swinging close enough to startle him. They shriek whoop-whoop and ride off, the balloon man blinking foggily after them, and now I feel bad because he could actually be homeless, a homeless veteran. I don’t know the high school girls’ names, but I remember last month when we saw them at the bus stop and I hissed at them, rope of spit scattering on the sidewalk. All year long my saliva has tasted funny. I think I might be turning into something else.
Are we going to get down now? my brother asks. I think it’s time to get down.
In a minute.
He looks at his watch. It’s time to get down. It’s five-oh-three. Time to go.
Just wait, I say, watching until the balloon man is out of sight. You can see three-sixty degrees on top of the climbing dome; in fact we’d probably be okay if we stayed up here all night, my brother thinking about balloons, heart all swelled with latex longing, and me growing my eyeteeth out and sucking down my spit. The balloon man, I imagine him at home, wherever his home is. I imagine if he has any quarters he keeps them in his big metal belly, that when he drops them in through the grate they clang and they echo.
Jen Julian is a transient North Carolinian whose recent work has appeared or is upcoming in Okay Donkey, SmokeLong Quarterly, Jellyfish Review, JuxtaProse, and TriQuarterly Review, among other places. She has a PhD in English from the University of Missouri and an MFA in Fiction from UNC Greensboro. Currently, she serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Young Harris College in the mountains of Northern Georgia.