Balloons by Terry Tierney

In mid-August the last wave of university graduates begins its migration back to New York City. Yard sales sprout on every street, piled with furniture, books, old clothes, and discarded lovers, a time for decisions.

I help Chelsea pack her Datsun, and at lunchtime we take my car to Otsiningo Park, the site of the annual Speidi and Balloon Festival. Over the campus radio station we hear the authorities cancelled the hot-air balloon launch this morning because of thunderstorms. They’ll try again tomorrow. But the food and beer booths are all open despite the Arctic cold front, their wet canvas and plastic tarps shining in transient sunbeams.

“This is fun!” Chelsea exclaims. She wears a green raincoat and a flat-brimmed cowboy hat, resembling a Mexican outlaw queen with her long dark hair pinned up and her orange umbrella tucked under her arm like a riding crop. Her sarcastic smile is contagious.

“Never ate a speidi,” I admit.

“Here’s your big chance.” We pick our way across the soggy grass to the speidi tent just as a lone customer squishes away. Chelsea waits for me to order my speidi, then asks for a soft pretzel with extra mustard. “Can’t do the spiedi thing,” she says.

Wiping off a steel picnic bench with a wad of napkins, we sit down to enjoy our meal. The damp cold seeps through my jeans as I huddle over the speidi for warmth. Chelsea studies my face when I venture my first bite.

According to speidi lore, the delicacy is marinated lamb grilled on a skewer and served on Italian bread, but it’s hard to identify or chew the fatty cubes of undercooked meat. I spit them into my napkin and look around for a dumpster.

“I tried to eat a speidi a couple years ago,” Chelsea confides.

“You could have warned me.”

“An experience you can’t miss.” She slides her pretzel between us to share. “They’re usually much better than this.”

“Never swallowed a whole hard-boiled egg either. Watching Cool Hand Luke was enough for me.”

Chelsea cracks a smile. “You like it here, Curt. .” She eyes my beer can, another sign I’m transforming into a townie.

“The bread is okay.” I toss my wad of half-chewed fat and grizzle into a cardboard trash bin stenciled with the festival logo, hoping to avoid another discussion about our pending separation. Chelsea and I are good at talking, but our conversations often evade resolution. We discussed the topic of sex for weeks before we slept together, and lately we talk about her graduation and her plans as if they’re happening to someone else, even as we packed her car. I always knew this day would come. Her ambition of teaching and earning a doctor’s degree in education at NYU was never a secret: our summer romance had a shelf date.

We dodge puddles back to my old Ford and drive cross the Exchange Street Bridge to the south side. Swelled with rain, the Susquehanna River flows in the wrong direction. It should drain downstate like everything else, but the current runs west, defying logic.

Chelsea packs a few last minute boxes, always the slowest chore, while I cart my meager possessions upstairs, starting with my coffee pot and an armful of books. I agreed to manage the building along with her other two converted Victorians for reduced rent. Her apartment comes as part of the deal, nearly twice the size of my cramped rooms downstairs.

She sold her bed so I lug mine up the narrow stairway along with my orange crate and an African violet, its plastic pot wrapped in gold aluminum foil, a gift from my friend Allen, who has already left for his new teaching position downstate. As always, the African violet seems to glow with premonition, its fuzzy leaves brushing in whispers.

When she carefully unwraps the flowerpot from my grasp, Chelsea eyes my other memento from Allen, a black and white photo of Allen Ginsberg wearing hippy beads.

“Supposed to be Ginsberg, but it really looks like Allen,” she says.

“Hard to tell them apart.”

“Except for their sexual orientation.”

“You mean Mona?”

“The real Allen Ginsberg would never put up with her.”

“She has her own poetry,” I reply with an exaggerated leer. Chelsea never took to my former girlfriend, now Allen’s.

She tosses a stray sock but it drops harmlessly in midflight.

After I drive out to fetch a Nirchi’s pizza, best in town, with mushrooms and peppers, we sit at her aluminum kitchen table and share a joint. Chelsea’s leaving the table and three matching chairs along with the threadbare armchair in the living room, doubling my array of furniture if you count the orange crate and my two sawhorses. When the weed smolders to ash we munch quietly.

“You can’t drive a forklift forever,” Chelsea says, clearing her throat with a swig of Diet Coke.

“I like that job. Moving pallets takes precision. And I get free milk.” I stand and reach into the refrigerator for another Genesee Cream Ale.

“You liked your old job. You’re built for construction.”

“The machines were bigger.”

“Wish I had more work for you,” she says. “Wish I had machines.”

When I was between jobs, maintaining her buildings helped me fill the gap, and now I can return the favor. I’m not looking for money. “I like your lawnmower. You could buy me a riding one.”

She shakes her head. “This isn’t about my machines or your holy forklift.”

Parmesan flies across the table as I tear open one of the tiny packets. I sweep the grains off the table and drop them on my pizza slice. Chelsea pretends not to notice.

“You say you want to learn computers,” she says.

“They have a computer at the dairy.”

“Why don’t you go back to school? You have the GI Bill.”

“I’m a terrible student,” I reply through a mouthful of Nirchi’s. “You know that.”

“Just take a computer course.”

“You like school and you’re good at it.” I stare at my green beer can, having heard all this before, but then she surprises me.

“I can teach here as well as New York.” Her moist eyes gleam under the dull kitchen light. I stare at the fluorescent bulb, both ends black and the tube faded to yellow, thinking I should replace it. Over the past few days Chelsea hinted I might be better off leaving Binghamton, breaking out of my rut and trying my luck downstate. Part of me knows she might be right, something about this place feels unhealthy, and it’s not just her pending absence. But I evaded her nudges, knowing how alien I’d feel in New York and how she was sure to sense my dissonance sooner or later, and blame our relationship rather than the place. My reluctance aside, I was never sure she wanted me to accept her offer.

Today’s the first time she mentioned forsaking her life in New York and remaining in Appalachia, as the students call the vast, sparsely populated region west of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

“You already shipped your piano,” I reply, “and you complain there’s no Bloomingdale’s.”

She flashes a quick grin. “There’s a Bloomingdale’s three hours away.”

“What about your PhD program?”

“You won’t ask me to stay, will you?”

“I’d love for you to stay, but you’d be miserable.” I sit back and sip my beer. My face warms with the strain of not asking her to change her plans, but our long weeks of discussing the separation make a final appeal easier to resist.

Chelsea dabs the olive oil off a wedge of pizza with a paper towel. Her eyes clear as she returns my gaze, curling her mouth playfully, treating her offer like a trial balloon, another flight of the annual festival. She bends her neck over the table. “I know you’re right,” she says, “but you’re not the typical townie.”

“You mean I’m not inbred?”

“You’re too Celtic looking.” She pushes away a strand of hair hanging above her pizza slice. “You have that sinister moustache, and your eyes are too smart.”

I raise my can in an Irish salute, acknowledging her apparent compliment and her unstated concern about what will happen once we’re apart, a concern I share. We’ve been careful to avoid promises. “You know I only date women who are leaving town.”

Shaking her head, she drops her paper towel on the table, careful to keep the oil off her fingertips. “I think you’re serious.”

The next morning we sit at the table one more time. I lap up Rice Krispies with free milk, Chelsea following each spoonful while the percolator hisses on the gas stove. She never eats breakfast. The fluorescent bulb flickers and hums.

When I drop the dishes in the sink, I hear her retreating down the stairs. I follow a few beats later, balancing my coffee cup. Down at the curb Chelsea leans toward her car, her back to me, frozen in place. She turns with a flowerpot cradled in her hands.

“Forgot to leave room for my African violets. What an idiot.” She presses the plant into my chest and rests her head on my shoulder. I hold her close, squeezing the pot between us and extending my coffee behind her back.

As our hug relaxes I stare down at her African violets, knowing she wants me to adopt them. I imagine the flowers spying on me, their plant network with pollen and spores hitchhiking on insects, broadcasting my secrets. Glancing away, I feel an urge to enhance the channel rather than disrupt it. I already have an African violet of my own, why not a chorus. Or maybe it works both ways, a purple antenna.

“They can stay with their cousins until you visit. Plenty of room on the orange crate.” My voice quavers, sounding like an echo. I lift the flowers from her cold hands and set them on the porch.

Trailing Chelsea’s Datsun down the hill, the scent of her exhaust whisks through my open window until she turns toward Highway 17. I find myself fighting the steering wheel, my mind drawn toward her taillights as if on rails. The traffic light changes between us and I jerk to a stop, inhaling the fog rolling off the river to clear my lungs, the sun cresting razorback hills. I twist my head away from the highway and drive toward Crowley’s Dairy. Cows never take the weekend off.

My tires buzz across the corrugated steel bridge over the Susquehanna, and the morning sky fills with hot-air balloons–green mint swirls, barbershop stripes, blue and yellow bursts, Easter egg dyes on inverted tear drops, all floating free below the white puffs of scattered clouds.

Terry’s collection of poetry, The Poet’s Garage, was published by Unsolicited Press in May 2020. His poems and stories have recently appeared in Typishly, The Mantle, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Front Porch Review, Jersey Devil Press, The Lake and other publications. Lucky Ride (Unsolicited Press), an irreverent Vietnam-era road novel, is set to release in 2021. His website is here.

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