“Battle of the Pink Balloons” by Desiree Diaz

2014 Salveson Prize in Prose 

Emma leans back in the corner of the booth, tapping her manicured nails on the edge of the Formica table, gazing at her reflection in the tinted window to her left. A few minutes pass, and she turns her attention to the woman sitting across from her, who has recently turned sixty. The old woman has dull gray hair, green eyes framed in wrinkles, and lines around her mouth. But it isn’t the gray hair that bothers Emma─ neither the crow’s feet, nor the laugh lines─it’s the flat-chested figure.

Sitting to Emma’s right is her daughter. Emma turns to study the wavy locks of chestnut hair, framing a pretty round face set with bright green eyes. Stephanie looks so much like her that Emma thinks, It’s like gazing into a thirty-year-old mirror. Hovering just above her daughter’s head are two pink balloons filled with helium, tied together with pink ribbon, attached to a loop on Stephanie’s jeans.

Interrupting Emma’s thoughts, the waitress places a menu in front of her, fills the water glasses, recites the Tuesday specials, and says she will give them time to decide on their order. They thank her, and Emma watches her walk away.

“Well,” the old woman says, “what shall we have to eat, dear?”

“I’m not really that hungry,” Emma says.

“You need to eat something, to keep your strength up.”

Emma rolls her eyes. She leans forward, places her elbows on the table, and says, “Will you please stop talking to me like I’m five years old?”

“Momma, you can’t be five, ‘cause I’m six,” Stephanie says. Emma gives her daughter a stern look, and Stephanie slouches in her seat.

The old woman leans forward. “That’s not what I’m doing.”

“Isn’t it?” Emma clenches her fist so tight that her nails dig into the palm of her hand. “You don’t have to coddle me, Bernice.”

“I know that,” her mother says. “And stop calling me Bernice.”

“If you know, then why do you do it? Coddle me, I mean.”

Her mother closes her eyes, takes a deep breath in, and slowly exhales.

Breaking the silence, Emma says, “Stop it. Stop coddling me.”

Bernice shakes her head. “So damn stubborn, just like your father.”

“Nana, don’t swear,” Stephanie says, shaking her index finger.

“Sorry, Sweet Pea.” Turning to face Emma, Bernice says, “So stubborn, just like your father.”

“I just don’t want to talk about it.”

“Emma Jean, you have to deal with it.”

“I’m dealing with it.”

“By not eating? That’s not how I dealt with it.” As she says this, Bernice points to herself, a habit that’s always irritated Emma.

“Fine, Mother. I’ll order something.”

The waitress returns, and the two women place their order. Emma looks at her daughter as if to ask whether or not she’s made up her mind.

“Tell the waitress what you want, Sweet Pea,” Bernice says.

Stephanie studies her kids’ menu. She glances at Emma, eyebrows arched, and places her order. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and a large Dr. Pepper.”

“We already had breakfast,” Emma says, “and lunch. It’s dinnertime. Order off the dinner menu, and have lemonade, not Dr. Pepper.”

“But I don’t want dinner and lemonade.” Stephanie sits back, arms folded over her chest. “I want Mickey Mouse pancakes and Dr. Pepper!”

The waitress offers to give them a few more minutes, but Bernice shakes her head. “No,” she says, “that won’t be necessary. Bring the child what she wants.”

The waitress looks up, admiring the balloons, and asks the girl where she got them. Stephanie’s face beams, her eyes lighting up. “Momma had a ‘pointment in the city, and then me and her and Nana went to the fair, and I got balloons and I got a teddy bear with a big pink bow─” She pauses, taking a breath. “─but Momma said I had to leave him in the car.”

“We had great fun,” Bernice says, “didn’t we, Sweet Pea?”

“We had sno-cones and cotton candy and I went on rides and everything!”

The waitress smiles and then tells the girl she’ll be back soon with the pancakes.

Emma lets out the frustrated sigh she’s been holding in─for so long, in fact, that she’d been thinking her cheeks would burst from the pressure of it. Her eyes are drawn to the pink balloons. So round. So full. She blinks to hold back tears as she studies the figure of the woman sitting across from her. Slowly, she moves her gaze upward until she meets the old woman’s eyes, anger building inside of her as she tries to give her mother the meanest look she can muster. “Why do you always have to do that?”

“Do what?”

“Let her have her way like that. You know I don’t want her filling up on junk food.”

“It’s just pancakes, not like it’s going to kill her.”

“Mother! She’s my daughter!”

“Stop bein’ mean to Nana.” Stephanie rolls her eyes. “Just ‘cause you’re sick, doesn’t mean I’m gonna be. I don’t hafta eat healthy all the time.”

Emma slams the palm of her hand on the table and glares at her mother. “See what you started?”

“Don’t sass your mother, Sweet Pea. Tell her you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry, Momma, but you’re not bein’ very nice, and Daddy says it’s a sin not to be nice.”

“Well, it’s not a sin when you’re sick,” Emma says. “When you’re sick, it’s okay not to be so nice sometimes.”

“But Momma, are you gonna turn into a boy?”

Emma gasps. “Where on Earth did you get that idea?”

“My friend Betty,” Stephanie says. “She told me that after you get ‘em, then if you lose ‘em, you turn into a boy.”

Bernice nearly chokes on her drink of water, struggles to get it down, and breaks into a fit of laughter.

Emma frowns. “Well, your friend Betty is wrong. I’m not turning into a boy.”

“Good, ‘cause I sure don’t want my momma to be a boy.”

Bernice, still trying to regain her composure, laughs so hard that tears run down her wrinkled cheeks.

Eyeing Bernice, Emma says, “It’s not funny.”

“Momma, I gotta go to the bathroom.”

“Okay, honey. I’ll go with you.”

“But I’m six already,” Stephanie says, “I can go by myself now.”

“Are you sure?”

“For Heaven’s sake, let the girl go by herself,” Bernice says. “We can see the door from here. Go ahead, Sweet Pea.”

Stephanie heads for the bathroom, and the two women watch until the door closes behind her. “There you go again, Mother,” Emma says.

“You know, this pissy attitude of yours is getting quite tiresome.”

“You don’t understand.”

“I do too understand. I’ve been there, remember?”

“I said, I don’t want to talk about it!”

“Well, you damn well better do something, before you piss off everyone around you!”

The other customers in the café turn to stare at the two women. Emma looks down, her face heating up. As the other patrons lose interest and return to their own conversations, Emma begins to cry. Bernice looks at her daughter, her own eyes pooling with tears. “Emi, dear,” she says, “please don’t cry. I’m not trying to fight with you, only help you.”

“I know.” Once again, Emma stares at her mother’s flat chest. “I just don’t want to look like, like─ ”

Bernice reaches across the table, covering Emma’s hand with hers. With her other hand, she wipes the tears from Emma’s eyes, searching them with her own. “Like me?”

“Oh Mother, I’m sorry. I really don’t mean it that way.”

“Yes you do, and I don’t blame you. Do you really think I wanted to look like this?”

“Well, at least you were okay with it.”

“Oh no, I wasn’t, not even close. I was just like you. Didn’t even want your father to touch me.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“I never knew you felt that way.”

“How could you? You were just a little girl.”

Emma leans back, rubbing her temples. “So,” she says, “how did you get over it?”

“You think I’m over it?”

“Aren’t you?”

Bernice looks up, seeming to be searching for the right words. “You don’t get over it, not ever.”

“But you had Dad, and us kids.”

“And you have me. And a husband. And a daughter.”

“I know.”

“And you also have options I never had.”

Emma looks down─the dainty, wrinkled hand covers hers once again, tightening its grip. Their order arrives, just as Stephanie returns from the bathroom. Once the waitress has gone, Stephanie looks up at her mother with puffy, bloodshot eyes. “Momma, I popped a balloon.” She cries, her eyes puffing up even more, cheeks flushed.

Emma fixes her gaze on the balloons. One remains round and full, the other reduced to a shriveled rubber morsel. She turns her head, locking eyes with her mother. “Don’t cry, honey,” she says, wrapping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders, “losing a balloon is not the end of the world. We’ll get you another one.”

Bernice smiles and says, “Now, how about some Mickey Mouse pancakes?”

 

“Fountain of Youth” by Tim Bascom

Fountain of Youth

By Tim Bascom
 

For my father, who remains remarkably young

 

To reach it, they had to hike twenty minutes along a wooded creek near the big river. During summer, their clothes clung with sweat as they sidestepped spider webs and eased through nettles. They arrived hot and dusty, itchy with mosquito bites. Then the two sons dashed ahead, browning trousers as they slid down the muddy bank and jostled for a first turn under the tree-root overhang.

Just to stoop into that damp, mushroomy shade was a relief, but the place felt almost enchanted at times because of a cool breeze exhaled from the ground, emerging along with a burbling spring. The chill air wafted out of a deep hole, feeling like something straight from the fridge. It drifted into the muggy vapor of the ravine, changing the whole mood of the day.

To avoid swallowing mud, their father scooped a bowl and let it clarify. Like a rippling lens, the water magnified everything—so that pebbles bulged twice as large. Even the little trail of sand under the pool seemed to pulse with secret life.

To drink they had to go down onto their hands and knees. They took long turns bowing into the grotto, but their father stayed longest, holding a half push-up with his face nearly submerged. When he backed out, he uttered a big “aaah” as if some much-delayed need had been satisfied.

“Years younger,” he said, incantation-like, suggesting that he was going to transform before their eyes. And perhaps the water did make him younger because he turned playful. When the boys asked him, on a whim, if he would help dig a cave, he surprised them by not hesitating: “Sure, let’s dig a cave.”

Back at the campsite, he helped to pick a rounded knoll and gather the necessary tools: a shovel, a hatchet, plus a few large serving spoons that might double as hand spades. He cut a circle into the slope, forming a barrel-like entrance. He got right down on his knees, taking turns with them as they reached into the hole and scraped.

The deepening entrance was hardly wider than the father’s torso, so that when he dug, he had to shove dirt between his knees. However, he kept at it, face to the hillside, slowly disappearing, until eventually he had emptied a ball-like interior where his sons could join him. Inside, their sweaty shirts went cool on their backs. The dark hollow seemed to exhale the same mysterious mineral breath as the spring—to whisper a hint of some subterranean elixir.

They opened the space a bit further and carved earthen benches. Then they sat and looked at the entrance. In the glimmering light, the father’s face was reduced to essentials: a high smudged forehead, a shock of black hair, a well-defined nose. He smiled softly. For a moment, all three were silent, savoring their shared secret.

In that cool shadowy remove, the two boys became caught up in their own dream-like thoughts, whispering what it might have been like to come from some past era when people lived in the ground—an ancient clan with an ancient way to stay young. Their father seemed a large child himself, stooped into their small world. If they dug deeper, the youngest boy asked, could they reach the source of the spring? Would it be a lake? A cold, black lake rippling endlessly?

Finally, they crawled back out into the brilliant sun patches. They blinked and grinned at each other, hearing the jackhammer noises of a woodpecker, the crinkling of leaves under their knees. Emerging felt like being born into a new world. It felt like starting all over again.

“The Sheep Shearers” by Joe Wilkins

The Sheep Shearers

By Joe Wilkins
 

A distinct culture has evolved out of the practice of shearing sheep.

– Wikipedia entry

 

All long necks and whiskers and three-day hangovers

sweated out on the peeling linoleum of some low-slung camper,

all greasy jeans and pearl snapshirts undone to the belly,

all black coffee and cigarettes and potted meat—

 

no one respectable, that’s for sure.

Though come March, it wasn’t about respectable.

From behind the old sofa, you watched Johnny Ahern

sprawl in a chair at the kitchen table,

 

wet trail of snoose dripping from his frog’s chin—

your mother fed him three kinds of pie,

your father shook his gnarled hand—

hand that could take a sheep to skin

 

in seconds—and said, Thanks for coming, Johnny.

Lord and the devil know we need you.

 

*

 

Skinny as a barn cat, the one that knocked on the door

and came in for chamomile tea and visit with your mother.

Her face was square and small, a ribbon of scar

from ear to chin, and after her small cup she rolled

 

a cigarette, tapped the ash into her palm. She was one of those

that could have been twenty-three or forty-two. No matter,

what you remember most is how her straw hair

was pulled back with flowers. It was yet mid-winter.

 

She must have grown them in whichever

rusted Airstream she called home, carried them in her lap

through a thousand icy miles of mountain two-lane,

set them in the sink after the table was broke down

 

into a marriage bed. And now, ringing her wrecked face—

umber buds, filigree of leaf, a crown of wild rose.

 

*

 

Milk-faced and bare-chested, trousers gone to threads,

they stood in a ragged line and stared at you. You

stared back. They didn’t speak but turned and ran

to the river. So, you followed. Picked up a rock,

 

like they did, and winged it at a carp. Together,

you floated a hunk of cottonwood to the far bank,

set a muskrat trap, jostled and laughed, and when the sheep

were sheared—the men gone into town for liquor,

 

women gathering dogs and laundry—

you sat on the steps and worked river mud

from in between your toes, felt with each breath the bluing bruise

on your chest, where, after she threw you to the ground,

 

that dark-eyed shearer’s girl propped a knee to pin you

and kissed you hard on the mouth.