by Mather Schneider
At seven a.m. Jeremy had a cocaine hangover for the first time in four years. He’d left Kathy at home and gone out the night before with some friends. Now the car wouldn’t start. He went back inside the apartment where Kathy was getting ready and he called a cab. The cab came and took him and Kathy out of Tucson into the desert. Kathy talked politics with the driver but Jeremy just stared out at the sky, gigantic and blue as a cataract.
They pulled into a state park gravel parking lot. Kathy paid the driver and they got out. Kathy wore a pink blouse and short shorts to show off her long legs. Jeremy wore his regular jeans, white t-shirt a baseball hat with the logo of the mechanic shop where he worked. They stood and looked at the field in front of them. On the thin hide of brown desert grass lay about forty empty hot air balloons and their basketworks. They were like giant, brightly colored jellyfish on the bed of a dried-up ocean.
People unrolled their balloons, smoothed them, knotted and unknotted ropes, like fishermen. Somewhere a radio was tuned to the weather. It was dry and clear, 92 degrees already.
Men and women milled around, swapping ballooning stories amid sips of coffee. Indigo cigarette smoke curled up, formed fickle halos, disappeared in the morning air.
Jeremy thought of something he had done in gym class as a kid. The gym coach had produced a huge parachute and the kids lined up around it. It seemed a mile across. The children were told to lift the parachute above their heads. When the pillowy ceiling rose they looked at each other beneath it. There was a huge shady circle, a secret underworld that had not been there before. They let go and ran underneath it two at a time.
Kathy and Jeremy walked around looking for the purple balloon with IMPERICO written on it. IMPERICO was the corporation that owned the copper mine where Kathy worked. She was fresh out of college and it was her first real job, in the public relations department. She was in charge of the monthly news pamphlet. One of the first things she did was go to the pet store and buy a couple of rabbits. She let the rabbits out on the grass by the big IMPERICO sign on the outskirts of Tucson and took a photograph for the front page of the news pamphlet. It was a stroke of genius. Any company with cute little bunnies running around couldn’t be all that bad. The hot air balloon ride was a perk her boss gave her as a token of his appreciation.
Over on the south side of the field a balloon began to fill. It inched up. The wrinkles began to snap out until, thirty minutes later, it was a yellow god-clown bobbing over the creosote, MICROSOFT written gaudily across it.
They found their balloon. They met Doug and Bambi McCallister, the couple who owned the balloon and who did nothing but travel around the country to balloon festivals, all travel and expenses paid for by their sponsor, IMPERICO. Jeremy thought it sounded like an interesting, stress-free life, but the dark trenches beneath Doug’s eyes begged to differ. Doug was on the fat side and wore a Hawaiian shirt and green shorts. He looked at Kathy’s legs when he talked. Bambi was a big woman with dyed red hair who wore black jeans so tight it looked like she jumped out of the balloon to get into them. They were somewhere in their sixties.
Kathy and Jeremy watched Doug and Bambi start the burner that filled the hole with hot air. The purple balloon began to expand, colossal but basically massless, slow and graceful. Every color of the rainbow was represented, like flags for multi-billion–dollar corporations instead of countries.
The basket was six feet wide by six feet long by four feet deep. The four of them loaded in. It was as intimate as an elevator. The fire from the burner hissed upwards.
“You kids been together long?” Doug said.
“Four years,” Jeremy said.
“But it seems like four minutes, right?” Kathy said.
“Four minutes under the WATER,” Doug said, winking at Jeremy.
The ladies didn’t like that one much.
“We’ll test the air a bit,” Bambi said. “then we’ll end up over at Saguaro Park.”
“I know where that is,” Jeremy said.
“We should be up about an hour,” Doug said.
Doug turned the burner higher. The woven bottom sagged and groaned like a hammock under their weight as the earth began to fall away.
The balloons rose from the desert like spores. Irrigated farms checkered the ground like crossword puzzles in the immense stretches of wild brown desert. Mountains and red hills jutted up in the west.
Jeremy’s nose began to bleed. A couple of drops fell down into the air before he could get to his handkerchief.
“It’s the altitude,” he said to Kathy.
After about ten minutes of silence Jeremy and Kathy heard a sharp word from Doug. They both turned and looked at the McCallisters; then as soon as they looked at them, they turned away again.
“They can hear us,” Bambi said.
“I don’t give a shit,” Doug said. Then their voices lowered.
Kathy and Jeremy pressed tight against the basket wall. Jeremy leaned out as if to jump until Kathy frowned and pulled him back.
“Stop it,” she said.
Doug kept firing the burner. Between their hushed tone and the hissing of the fire, Kathy and Jeremy could only understand muffled phrases like “Don’t do me any favors” and “What am I supposed to think?” and “Fuck it!” Doug’s arm kept moving like he wanted to hit something. They were only four feet away.
There’s something beautiful about a hot air balloon. And there’s something sad too, thinking about the little people in the basket, free and trapped at the same time. He and Kathy met when Kathy moved to Tucson four years ago to get her master’s degree at the University of Arizona. She’d come from Chicago and called Tucson a “cute little place.” Lately she had been talking about marriage, having babies, buying a house. Jeremy had lived in Tucson his whole life. He looked down at the desert and recognized places where he and his friends had driven and parked their cars in high school and drank beer and shot their guns, places where he’d had sex with old girlfriends. He thought about one girlfriend in particular and scanned the neighborhoods to the east to see if he could find the roof of her parents’ house, that roof he had climbed up on so many times so that he could sneak into her window. He wondered where she lived now and was shocked to see how big Tucson had grown.
Bambi started to cry. Kathy got angry and wanted to say something to Doug, who was becoming threatening. Jeremy stopped her.
It went on for a few more minutes and then suddenly the McCallisters grew quiet. They seemed concerned about the burner. Something wasn’t right. Bambi kept looking down at the ground 500 feet below.
“I told you,” she hissed.
“Shut up,” Doug said, trying to do something which obviously was related to navigation.
There was a desert ranch below them. It was laid out orderly and straight, all right angles, as if a master plan was behind it all.
The balloon cast a shadow which got bigger and bigger. A few spotted cows scattered as if from some owl-silent predator. A farm boy ran with all his might toward the center of things.
They barely missed the power lines. Kathy clung to Jeremy as if she thought he was made of rubber and would not conduct electricity.
The balloon’s basket hit the ground with a car-crash-like jolt and they all gripped the sides and their knees buckled and they fell on top of each other. Jeremy’s arm accidentally knocked into Kathy’s stomach. They scrambled out of the basket onto the hard–packed pasture, grateful for the feel of the ground. The balloon slowly collapsed.
“Been doing this thirty–two years,” Doug said, “never had anything like that happen. Sorry, folks, wasn’t exactly the ride you expected.”
“Who wants champagne?” Bambi said. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen from crying. She dug a bottle of champagne out of a cooler and popped the cork. Then she poured it around in small paper cups.
“It’s tradition,” Doug said.
Jeremy looked down. He was standing in a cow patty.
The champagne bubbles rose to the top. It wasn’t very chilled.
“Want us to take your picture?” Doug said. “Only five bucks.”
“Well. . . .” Jeremy said.
“We’d love it,” Kathy said, still holding her stomach. She looped her hand through his arm and smiled. Doug held up the camera.
A cow stood twenty feet away looking at them with that look cows have. A couple of children and a dog hesitantly approached them through the field. A black pickup truck pulled up and parked outside the wire fence that enclosed the pasture. The truck had been following them the whole time and was supposed to take them back to where they started from.
Mather Schneider was a cab driver for many years in Tucson and now lives humbly and happily in Mexico. He has four poetry books available on Amazon with his first book of prose coming out this fall.