Stories told on the swings
Bobby’s uncle sold rags and bones, not bones of the people who no longer needed their clothes but bones of dead cows; cows that got stuck in the swamp (with no tractor to pull them out) or cows that got bloated from eating the wrong sort of grass; you could pierce their swollen guts and such a terrible wind would come out you’d want to fold over and stop breathing but in the world there were even poorer people than Bobby’s uncle and these people lived under bridges and if you gave them five dollars they would start humping each other; it was a noise like an animal pulling its leg out of the swamp, a sucky noise and sometimes the man on top would stop humping to light a cigarette, have a drag then go back to humping the woman again; and after that story we swung our swings higher, riding the wind and not saying anything and later much later when I’d stopped leaving money under bridges and stopped drinking cow’s milk I sometimes went to the playground at night, sat on the swings and worked myself up into feeling sorry about the world, everything warming up, all the homeless people and then sorry about myself until I was so bloated by it all I had to get my pen knife out, dig a little hole in my side and let the air come out.
Some fellas go at a balloon as if getting a quick rise is some small triumph; others stretch the neck of the balloon out between their fingers and wink, as if they know things others don’t; some seem reluctant to put their lips to rubber and only blow feeble spurts of breath into the balloon and you know, just know those fellas could never please a woman.
The Guinness record is 910 balloons per hour. But I don’t expect to see that here. I had 100 in an hour and then the guy cramped up bad. Low on oxygen. Hands so clawed he could no longer tie off the balloon.
‘Sit down, man,’ I told him. ‘No record is worth that.’ This same long- haired fella comes back the next week with three women to cheer him on. The women dress the same and each with a blue scarf around their heads.
He grins at them. Then his thin shoulders heave forward and back as he blows up the first balloon.
At 150 the stall is running out of space. The balloons bob around behind the counter, some sail off before I can catch them. The hot-dog man next door lets rip when one lands by his cooker. By then a crowd has formed, attracted by the commotion. The man gropes wildly around for the next balloon.
The three women yell his name. ‘Steadfast! Steadfast!’ I’m thinking Mormons. Serial wives. Then I’m wondering if there’s something else going on here because this long-haired fella is a long way from beating any record. You don’t know, none of us knows what goes on behind closed doors. When I give Steadfast a little stuffed toy for his efforts and watch who he gives it to – what sweet lady he favours – it’s no surprise the whole crowd is watching with me.
The phone rings for the third time in a row. Uh, oh, I think, what is it? I’ve closed the stall for winter, just left the last of the red and yellow balloons bobbing in the front window.
A woman’s voice on the phone tells me she needs me to open up the stall. Now. I can hear sobbing in the background. ‘There’s been a terrible accident,’ she says. ‘Please, can we have the balloons he blew up …’
The wives gather the balloons, and with arms full carry them to the back of an open boot. I don’t ask any questions about the car accident; whether Steadfast is going to be buried with the balloons or whether they’ll let them just drift off into the sky. Folks mourn in their own particular way. The youngest one hangs back. I find her behind the counter. She holds a red balloon over her head, air quietly hissing out. Her hair trembles. When his breath flows over her skin, she gives a little moan.
Romance in the lower and upper atmosphere
Me with my girl in the grass gazing up at what looks like pinpricks in the great blanket of sky. It’s getting cold. ‘Well, I say, have you had enough?’
Back inside, she goes around the house, lighting candles. I don’t know what she’s got against electricity. Swarms are drawn to the flame and there’s an awful burning smell.
Later she tells me we’re like identical stars but moving in opposite directions.
‘That’s just today,’ I say, ‘Just today you feel that way.’
That whole lunar month we orbit each other. My naked eye observes all her comings and goings, all her little divergences. She dyes her hair pink. She takes up running. Each day she runs further and further. When she gets up to speeds of 100kms an hour I know I’ve got trouble. When a bright light streaks across the sky, followed by a trail of hot gas something inside me breaks.
I climb the roof. I square my jaw. ‘Go on, shoot me,’ I say, ‘shoot me, lady star.’
I don’t go on about Pluto because lying beside me in the grass is my twin star who complains the grass is getting damp, it’s the dew and, have I had enough yet, have I had enough of being out here because inside could be a lot warmer so we go inside and I light candles, white votive candles, one over there, one over there until the whole house glows but I can see he’s worried about swarms coming in and he looks at the windows as if by looking at them I’ll know what he wants me to do and then he starts on about electricity, how it saves lives, and I say it’s not about saving anything but he keeps on about how we should support the electric companies, and he’s like a dog with a bone, he won’t let go until I’m forced to say that maybe he’s right and he comes over and tells me I’m awfully pretty and he leans over and blows on my face and says his only wish is that we keep moving in the same direction and I can’t help it but right there in the back of my mind, despite my love, the achy love I have for him that rises, tugs me into his gravitational field, despite all that I see something sick and wounded I need to outrun.