She walks in the sunshine in the park holding a purple balloon, her arthritic arm protesting. Flowers perfume the warm air, tempered by a general greenness and the medicinal smell from the eucalyptus trees. She has come from her youngest granddaughter’s fifth birthday party, the balloon a prize of sorts, the party her first public gathering since Albert’s funeral.
She and Albert were married for fifty-six years, and had their trials over the years. He could be lazy on so many levels and she stubborn, but they’d come out of it all the best of friends, each other’s brightest shadow. She tells all this to the balloon as she walks, not caring that passersby greet her with indulgent smiles, thinking her senile. There are times she wants to be senile.
She’s tired, drained by the party, the effort of smiling and sustaining chit-chat with the parents of the other children, not having known any of them. Not that she hadn’t enjoyed the festivities, she had: the weather perfect, picnic delicious, and magic-act delightful. Her wool sweater was a mistake, however, prickling in the heat. She can already feel the rash on her slack, irritated skin, a small discomfort in the big scheme. Her granddaughter, more a Goldilocks than a Karen, had beamed while they sang Happy Birthday, and had presented her with the first slice of chocolate birthday cake, raising a lump larger than the dessert in her throat.
After the affair, her children wanted to drive her home. She insisted on walking, still steady on her legs despite her shrinking bones. She and Albert had liked to take long walks together, both big believers in the restorative powers of Nature. Even now she feels him beside her. It comes to her that this was what Albert had felt all those years. He’d lost his right arm in a mortar attack in Korea and to his dying day he could still feel that arm, both the pain and the wonder of it, and was taken to waving the phantom limb and wiggling his invisible fingers, marveling at the empty space that wasn’t empty.
Sometimes, he’d forget himself and offer the phantom limb to shake people’s hands, unnerving everyone. For a time after the war, while making love, he’d touch the ghost of his hand to her body, narrating how he was rubbing her nipples, squeezing and circling her breasts, and moving down her stomach. She hadn’t liked that, and he’d gotten angry. Eventually he’d stopped. Now feeling another’s touch was such a seldom thing she had to be content with mostly the memory of it. She’d react so differently to Albert’s ghost limb if she could only have it back. The balloon bobs in the breeze, as if nodding knowingly.
At home, she places the balloon in the center of her kitchen table, weighted down with a stone tied to the end of the ribbon. Albert’s armchair has become such a presence in the room, bigger than he ever was. Her children want her to get rid of his chair, but she can’t bring herself to do it. She’d just fall into the even bigger space it would leave behind. She returns to the kitchen, having changed out of her wool sweater, and sets about making a pot of green tea, the most caffeine her system can handle these days. This, too, she tells the balloon, noting how attentive it appears. Inspired, she removes a black marker from a drawer and draws two eyes, a nose, and smile on the balloon, standing back to admire her handiwork. Throughout the afternoon, she sits with her tea, telling the balloon every story about Albert she can remember or embellish.
It’s dinnertime, but she’s not hungry. Three out of four of her children have phoned to ensure that she made it home okay, that she’s doing all right. She’s so grateful for her children she tells the balloon, looking it full in the face, engaging it like she would a visitor. Only of course she stops short of offering it tea or a biscuit. The balloon’s face needs something more, she decides, and again reaches for the marker.
She adds eyelashes, brows, and hair. Just as she’s finishing up, just as the face is coming alive, the balloon pops. She cries out, staring at the purple strips littering the table, and can only just remember being so young that she’d cry over a burst balloon.
Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Ethel Rohan received her MFA in fiction from Mills College, CA. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from over seventy online and print journals, including elimae; PANK; Wigleaf; Storyglossia; Monkeybicycle; Word Riot; mud luscious; Staccato Fiction; and (So New) Necessary Fiction. She blogs at Straight From the Heart In My Hip.
© 2010, Ethel Rohan