Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Pop

The first burst balloon was not entirely William's fault. The days had been getting shorter and the wind carried a chill, but he did not notice this as he walked home. Nor did he hear the people talking around him, the woman shouting into her telephone, the beggar asking for change. When there was a sudden release of air near his hand, he barely felt it. But a glittering frond caught his eye as it fell to the ground. He paused absent mindedly to look at it. That was when he heard the child crying.

The bright bit of foil, as it turned out, was a balloon, and it dawned on William that his cigarette had destroyed it. He was usually so careful when he smoked. He indulged rarely and his wife disapproved, so he conducted himself in small gestures. He took shallow inhalations. But this time, William had made one unconscious, extravagant wave; the next thing he knew, a sobbing girl stood beside him, scrubbing her nose on her sleeve. He began to apologize but she was not paying attention. He noticed, too, that the girl had Down's syndrome. For reasons he could not articulate, this made him feel worse.

The girl scrabbled to revive the deflated corpse with puffs and sobs, but her mother who, by then, had come over to investigate, plucked it out of her hands. "Evangeline, it's gone," she said in a musical singsong. "Crying will not bring it back."

In a brisk motion, Evangeline's mother tossed the balloon in the garbage. She produced a vial of hand sanitizer, which she used to swab Evangeline's face. The sequence of humiliations seemed harsh for one so small and woeful, but Evangeline stopped the flow of her tears with one surprised gasp. She stood up straight. Her mouth twitched, but she gazed up at William without rancor.  He could not meet her eyes.

William muttered something about buying the girl a new balloon, but the mother shook her head. She ushered Evangeline away from the scene of the crime. "Balloons pop, children cry," she said, "it's their nature, God bless'em. You'll know when you have one of your own."

He went home. It was still light out. He opened the curtains and stood in front of the window. He still felt guilty. Should he have tried harder to replace the toy? He never knew whether to press and in consequence seemed half-hearted. He took off his shoes and his suit jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. He washed the dishes from the night before and rubbed out the water around the sink with his socked foot. Most of the time, he was an earnest, responsible fellow, a model minority. He had a job in an office and he was happily married. But every time he made a bold statement, it turned out poorly. Choral solos, turns on the debate team--all disasters.

He was still cleaning up when his wife arrived at back at the apartment. Sarah was eight and a half months pregnant. Her coat didn't button up at her stomach, her briefcase banged against her any way she held it. She had been miserable since month seven. Her thick hair became greasy and she had dark circles under her eyes. She looked like a drowned kitten. Her unhappiness infected everything in the household. Despite both of their best efforts, the corners stayed dusty and plants wilted. Baby gadgets crowded the living room. The peaches that they kept in a basket on the kitchen counter felted over with mold in the space of one weekend. They came back on Sunday night to find a cloud of spores sitting next to their microwave. It was like discovering a bludgeoned body. William rushed his wife into the bedroom and closed the door. Despite her knocking and pleading, he would not let her out until he had disinfected the surrounding area. A faint grey ring remained on the Formica. Sometimes, or so William imagined, it glowed.

In earlier days, Sarah joked about their demon, half-breed baby. She scrawled 666 on her belly with a Sharpie and shook with laughter when William discovered her handiwork. She was facing upside-down when she wrote it, so the numbers looked elongated and ominous. The ink proved hard to wash off. When they went in for their ultrasound, the Eastern European technician glowered disapprovingly at Sarah's stomach. She informed them that they would be having a girl.

That was several months ago. Now Sarah found jokes tiring, and he had become cautious of making them.

The next day, the next week, perhaps, William was sitting on the subway with a bag full of flesh; he had a fatty steak, a haunch of red marbled beef, a turkey breast. He also carried a box of millet from the health food store--it was supposed to be high in iron--and a meat thermometer. On the train, he decided to take the instrument out of its package. A plastic sheath protected its long needle. He pinched the tip to check his temperature. He seemed warm, he thought. Maybe he had the flu.

A delivery boy stepped into William's car, holding a brace of pink balloons. He leaned against the door and balloons wandered between the handrails like dogs over a sidewalk. They rubbed against William's elbow and head. William felt annoyance twisting through him. He craned his head around to glare at the young man, but the youth was oblivious. His earbuds could be heard above the subway's squeals and his eyes were closed.

The young man's thoughtlessness made William furious. His fingers flexed around the instrument in his hand. Suddenly, without thinking, he plunged his meat thermometer into a balloon. Its violent demise sent the rest of the cluster scurrying away and then back again. But William did not hear the pop. He had a sudden vision of himself beaten up and lying on the floor of the train car, in a pool of his own blood. The sack of meat and groceries sat near his head. He saw Sarah's face, sorrowful but resigned. She was a widow and she would have to raise their girl alone.

But nothing happened. The pause stretched out, longer and longer. He gripped the meat thermometer anxiously, and waited for the delivery boy to gather his forces. The balloons shifted.

Finally, William hooked his head around again. The young man adjusted his iPod. His chin was still bobbing to the music. He had not noticed that he had lost some of his cargo. He looked at William looking at him, and he smiled beatifically.

William could feel his heartbeat slow. He glanced around the car. The boy hadn't noticed, no one had noticed, except for a middle-aged woman who was gawking at William's hand. He still grasped the meat thermometer in his fist. He stared back at her, then hastily sheathed it. He gave her a friendly grin, to let her know that she looked nothing like a side of roast beef, but this seemed to unnerve her. She got up quickly and went to stand at the back of the car. She put a book over her face. It was a hardback copy of Seabiscuit.

He felt ashamed of himself. Or he felt he should be worried. As he lay awake next to Sarah in the middle of the night, he thought about what it would be like to be punched and kicked. He could hear the thud of fists as the air escaped his body. Beside him, Sarah groaned and shifted. He put his arms around her, and he felt the foreign belly, so heavy and hot that it made him gasp. He pulled back and closed his eyes. At least her back felt the same way that it always had. She smelled faintly of steak and pepper. Comforted, he buried his head in her neck.

"Do you know the only thing that makes me happy now?" she asked.

It was Saturday morning and he was frying up turkey bacon. All week, he had been cooking and she ate everything he put in front of her. Her hair was slick and her blue eyes sparkled with life. All was once again well with the world.  She was smiling and he could not help but bask. He looked down modestly at his spatula and readied himself for praise and thanks.

"Do you want to know the only thing that makes me feel good these days?" she said. "Swimming. It's the only thing that brings me any relief. If I gained a hundred pounds, I'd make us live underwater. I'd telecommute. I've thought this through."

She paused and eyed the pan critically. "That bacon is going to be a bit dry, don't you think?" she said. "I like it fattier."

He felt a jab of disappointment. It wasn't that he expected compliments all the time, but he was doing well, was he not? He glanced over at Sarah. His wife was still humming contentedly. No matter, he told himself. As long as she was happy. He turned away and came back smiling. "It's not like real bacon," he said. "Eat up."

Yes, he was aware that his feelings weren't right. He should have been delighted, or nervous, or confused during this delicate time. Instead, pettiness pulled at his guts. Everyone else seemed to love Sarah. People stopped her on the streets and pressed their hands to her belly. Saleswomen smiled benignly at her when she knocked over displays of purses with her stomach. Gruff, pierced lads told her to take their seats on crowded subway cars. Her face, when confronted with such courtesy, resembled those of martyrs pierced by arrows or eaten by ravens. She was pale, serene and separate. And he was nothing. He held her bag and tied her shoes. His duties were carried out correctly and silently. People probably thought that he was her manservant. Once in a while, he wanted to intrude. He wanted people to know that he was the father of this child. He wanted a prize.

He liked her, and himself, more before this whole pregnancy thing had happened. He remembered wistfully the cold nights, walking drunkenly around the city. They held hands and peered into people's windows, staring at their paintings or cats or couches. Once, in summertime, an old woman overheard them trying to teach her parrot to swear. They thought they had been successful when they heard curses coming back at them. "Fucking Chink, he knows more words than you," the woman screeched, coming into view. "Get your own goddamn bird."

They ran and didn't stop for blocks.

Now, it seemed, they were not allowed extraneous movements. They could not be lazy, or silly. They were going to be parents, and they had to set their jaws and roll up their sleeves and gird up their loins for the baby. They needed to be sober, patient, and kind. The phone rang constantly. They were crowded by the toys, bottle warmers, pacifiers, and blankets. When they were not staring at parenting books, they were listening to the droning advice of Sarah's mother. He could not remember the last time that he had kissed Sarah deeply, or caressed her cheek.

Then, he was at work, at a goodbye party for Ilse, one of the project managers. She was moving back to Germany. She had always looked vaguely amused by her American colleagues, as if they rode by on unicycles, or juggled brightly colored balls. The more discomfited one seemed, the more entertained she was. Bob, her own boss, had not spoken to her in nearly two years because she made him squirm. It did not help matters that she bore a distinct resemblance to a young Eva Marie Saint.

There were cupcakes and balloons in the break room. Someone had poured red wine into plastic cups. Ilse perched in the middle of it all, holding an oversized novelty mug. The head of sales, Enrique, had presented it to her. He was now talking animatedly to an intern about the history of the Boston Red Sox. There was a dab of icing at the corner of his mouth.

William sipped red wine. It was 4:47 and he wanted to go home--not that there was any joy waiting for him at the other end. Sarah was working late most nights in preparation for her maternity leave. This evening would be a good time for him to assemble the crib. Or he could steam clean the rug. He considered these tempting possibilities, and he sipped more wine.

Enrique clapped William on the shoulder. "We should have thrown one of these little parties for you."

For a confusing moment, William thought he was being sent to Germany. But Enrique continued, "Your wife's going to burst any day, isn't she? What's she having anyway?"

"We're having a girl. Ann Ming."

"Tell you what, let's plan a man shower for you. We can have a few drinks, order in some steaks--you know, be like men used to be, before they had to be in the delivery room, holding hands and weeping softly."

"Well, thanks, but… "

Enrique waited for William to finish, but he didn't know how to continue.

There was a pause.

"Anyway, you think about it," Enrique said.

William found himself near the door, fiddling with the string of a balloon. Ilse tossed aside her oversized mug and came to stand beside him. "You are toying with my gift," she observed.

Blushing, he began to apologize but she was untying the balloon. "I tease," she said. "Here, for your baby, or your wife."

He protested. He stammered something about how children could suffocate when they played with plastic. Ilse looked at him sidewise. He didn't know what he was saying. Perhaps European parents let their offspring run wild with grocery bags and bubble wrap; the kids were probably too sophisticated to asphyxiate themselves. They were off lighting their own tiny cigarettes and talking about Sartre. But Ilse had stopped paying attention to William's discomfiture. She began undoing the string around the base of one of the silvery spheres. She wound the ribbon around her finger and gritted her teeth, determined to loosen the knot.

Out came the air with a triumphant whoosh. The balloon slipped out of Ilse's hand and shot crazily into the fluorescent light. Mariella, the administrative assistant, yelped at the noise, then promptly took a large swallow of coffee. Ilse gasped, surprised by what she had managed to do. She laughed out loud. Soon, William joined her.

There was pink cake at home, too. Sarah had already come back from work. It was her last day. She stood in the kitchen, shoving white bakery boxes into the fridge. A dishtowel was draped over her shelf of a belly. "Barefoot and pregnant," he said, kissing her, "just the way I like'em."

He felt lighthearted, despite the frown she gave him. She shook off his affection. "They had a surprise shower for me. And they made me take all of these brownies and the desserts. And I had my laptop, of course, and these stupid balloons, and they gave me the Diaper Duck, which must have weighed a million pounds."

"You should have called me. I would have come pick you up."

"I took a cab."

There was a pause.

"There isn't anything for dinner," she said, "unless you want sugar."

He put his arms around her and murmured that he wouldn't mind a little sugar if that was what she was offering. It wasn't quite the evening that Sarah had envisioned. She picked his hands off of her, opened the refrigerator, and shooed him out of the kitchen.

The living room was a mess, just as it had been since they had begun receiving gifts. A stroller hulked in front of the television. By the couch, they had built a fortress of boxes and crumpled wrapping paper. It felt like a crazy person's house. They were going to have to move. This had been his apartment ever since he graduated, and truth be told, he had never liked it. But soon there wouldn't be room to breathe.

He could hear in the kitchen the clatter and bang of pans. He wanted to get up and go to her. He wanted to push down her hands and button up her coat so that they could go out to eat greasy Chinese food, just like they used to. But he stayed still because that was what he was supposed to do.

He spied a bundle of balloons in the corner of the room. He got up and batted them around, pretending that he was a prizefighter. They bobbed back languidly, as if teasing him. He saw his reflection in one of them. Congratulations! it said. His chin looked puny and his eyes squintier than usual. He punched the reflection hard, again and again. The balloons kept coming back slowly for more. They seemed unconcerned with his growing agitation. Sweat formed on his upper lip. It was not satisfying to just hit them. He looked around and grabbed a pair of scissors. He gouged the face and it exploded under him with a magnificent bang.

His elation was temporary. When he looked up again, Sarah had come into the living room. He put the scissors down. Sarah sat on the ottoman. She was, William noticed, holding the spatula. He went over to take it from her, but she brandished it at him.

The room was quiet.

Finally, Sarah spoke. "What has gotten into you lately?" she asked. "I mean, I know, it's me, it's the baby, it's all this. But it's one thing for you to be worried. It's another for me to come in here and find you molesting a balloon."

He cleared his throat. "I don't think that's a fair representation."

Sarah wobbled to her feet. William jumped up to help her. "No, stop it, just stop it" she said. "And put those scissors away, you're making me nervous."

He protested thickly. But Sarah had already stalked off. They ate in silence. Sarah announced that she was taking a walk. "Alone," she told him. "But help me tie my shoes?"

He knelt down. "Don't go far," he whispered.

Perhaps she didn't hear him. She left without a word.

When the door closed, he put the dishes in the sink. He turned on the faucet and watched the soapy water rise. Sarah and he had been on the swim team together at university. Someone had dared her to jump off the highest diving board. When she reached the edge, she closed her eyes, just for a moment. But when she leaped, her face opened into a huge grin, and she screamed.

He observed her from below. He saw how she fell into the water with a painful splash. When she hauled herself out, she was red, but laughing. Later that evening, he walked through a crowd of her teammates and asked for her number. He expected her to say no. She was a golden girl, and he was that weird Asian kid. They were together from that moment on.

She had always been fearless and he had let her take the lead. But now she was striding through bramble and thicket into some wild unknown. She had become a sad, inscrutable guide pointing one way, and he had no way of turning his footsteps. Maybe they were having a demon baby. Sarah seemed to know something that he didn't--she felt something that he didn't--and for once, his less-than-equality made his lungs ache with protest.

When the dishes were put away, his phone rang. It was Sarah. "I think my water broke," she said, evenly. "No contractions, though. I'm on my way back. Get ready."

"What do you mean? I mean, are you sure?"

"I'm sure," she said. "I've very, very sure. Are you?"

There was a pause. "Yes," he said. "Yes, let me come get you."

"It's okay. I'm in the lobby," she said. Another pause. "I didn't go far."

She hung up. He stood and blinked for a few minutes. It was here, the baby was coming. He opened his eyes and it seemed that the room had gotten brighter. Soon, he realized, running to gather their things, soon he would have his wife back.