“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?”

 

“Facing the Music” by Barbara Lange

2013 Salveson Prize in Prose

 

“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.” – Don McLean

 

American Pie

I am six years old, riding in my parents car. “American Pie” comes on the radio and I belt it out. It is 1976, the bicentennial, a very important year in my estimation. In my memory, it is always a bright, sunny day. The light coming through the windows of the car makes the black vinyl upholstery hot on my legs and I am filled with joy.

Almost forty years later, I still know all the words and when I sing along, I am still filled with joy every time.

McLean released 24 albums but this is his best known song. It is believed that the song is in reference to the death of Buddy Holly whose plane crashed on a winter night, in a cornfield north of my hometown.

 

“Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”

 

Larry

My father-in-law passed away much too soon. I believe he was ready but the family was not. He was 56 and his death was the result of complications following what was supposed to have been a simple angioplasty. He went to the hospital for his surgery one week after my youngest daughter was born and six weeks later he was gone. I miss him terribly.

My husband did not take his father’s death well. As a child he had been closer to his mother and it was only in his twenties that he and his dad began to connect. Seeing his son as a husband and a father allowed Larry to relate to Bert in a way they never had before. When Larry died so suddenly, Bert felt robbed. He was in terrible pain and there was nothing I could do to lessen it. It was years before he could talk about his dad without being overcome with emotion. Even now, seventeen years later, he cannot or will not say dead. He will say “Dad is gone,” or “Dad is passed,” but he never says dead. He is still working through the five stages, no one moves through them the same way.

 

“I went down to the sacred store where I’d heard the music years before but the man there said the music wouldn’t play.”

 

Liz

The dining room of the nursing home where I work is bustling with the usual chaos of the lunchtime routine. I am one of eight Certified Nursing Assistants rushing around, helping the residents to their tables for lunch: steering wheelchairs and pushing chairs to tables, assisting old women and men who walk unsteadily on legs that are tired and weak. The residents take their seats at their tables, greeting their friends and making conversation while the three nurses on duty pass out lunchtime medications and the kitchen staff prepares plates and pours drinks. Liz is seated at her usual table at the edge of the dining room near the entry.

At eighty-nine, Liz has lived in this nursing home for nearly eight years. She has children, but I have never seen them. There are pictures of grandchildren on a bulletin board in her room but Liz never talks about her children or her grandchildren, in fact, she rarely talks at all. Sometimes I wonder if she even knows where she is, or who. She spends most of her time sitting in a chair looking out the window and, as far as I can tell, she seems content to do so. Because she has been here for such a long time and because she is quiet and rarely any trouble, all of the staff are quite fond of her.

 

“So bye-bye Miss American Pie drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. Them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye singin’ this’ll be the day that I die.”

 

Mom

My mother is horrified at the prospect of people gawking at her body after she dies. I have been instructed that a visitation with an open casket should not be a part of her funeral. Once, during a disagreement, I told her that I was going to donate her to the Body Works exhibit. Recently, I discovered that it is possible to have a person’s ashes made into a diamond. Perhaps that’s what I’ll do with my mom. Instead of people staring at her dead body, they can ooh and ahh about what a pretty diamond she is.

 

“…and while the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown.”

 

Money

My dog, Money, is not well. She has not been well for a while. The vet believes she has had another stroke. She cannot walk, she can barely stand on her own, can no longer control her bladder. I have to accept that she will likely not recover from this one the way she did the last and it is breaking my heart. She is seventeen years old and she has been mine for almost all of those years. She was a skittish little dog when we adopted her from the Humane Society. They estimated her age at 6 months and they suspected that she had been abused. She made the trip home curled up on my lap. We lived on the verge of broke at that time and naming her Money was our little joke.

It has always been her habit to follow me from room to room; now she lies on her blanket in the living room and I can hear her whine as I leave the room. She can no longer get up and follow me. I hate to leave her lying there but I need to shut myself in the bathroom to cry. I know I am going to have to put her to sleep…

 

“… something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”

 

Pilot Error

Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson died when their a plane crashed in a field north of Clear Lake, Iowa on the morning of February 3, 1959 shortly after 1:00 am. Their pilot, Roger Peterson was 21 years old. It is believed that he became disoriented in the blizzard that was blowing that night and lost track of where the horizon was. Instead of flying up, he flew the plane into the ground at an approximate speed of 170 miles an hour. It is said that Buddy Holly’s mother heard about his death on the radio. I imagine her crumbling to the floor under the weight of disbelief and grief. It was after this incident that authorities began withholding names until family could be informed.

 

“…not a word was spoken, the church bells all were broken.”

 

Holding Hands

It is March 13, two days after my thirtieth birthday. Today seems to be another routine lunch service for Liz and her fellow residents as the nurse presses the collection of pills past Liz’s lips and holds the water to her mouth so she can take a drink and swallow them. She swallows and the nurse turns back to her medication cart to mark the chart and move on to the next person when a strange noise comes from Liz’s throat. The nurse turns back to Liz to see her beginning to shake slightly. After checking Liz’s mouth to make sure it is clear she calls across the dining room to another nurse, then, because I am the nursing assistant closest to the table, she turns to me and instructs, “Help me move her into the hall so this doesn’t scare the other residents” The nurse and I each grab an arm of the chair and drag. The gurgling clicking noise coming from Liz’s throat grows louder and she continues to shake.

Now in the hallway, three nurses, the director of nursing, and the facility administrator have gathered around the shaking, gurgling woman. They discuss possibilities and take turns checking her vitals. The clicking gurgling sound continues from somewhere in her throat. The nurse who had just given the pills believes Liz is choking on them but they cannot be found lodged in her throat. I stand helplessly by while the experts stand over the old woman discussing her situation. They are all talking about her, but no one is talking to her.

While they continue their discussion, I kneel down next to the chair and take her hand, her skin is cool and dry and papery. Liz turns to look me and I begin to talk to her, “It’s ok Liz, we’re here. Don’t be afraid.” I don’t know what else to do. Though I have worked here for a few years now, I have not been in a situation like this before. Now, as we hold hands and hold each other’s gaze I continue to speak, “You’re safe. The nurses know what to do. You’re going to be alright.” I think she hears me, she keeps looking at me but, as I continue to speak, her eyes change, their gaze becomes vacant, her hand goes limp. Liz is gone.

 

“Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died?”

 

Laughter

My father-in-law liked to laugh. I miss his laugh, it was as gruff and as genuine as he was. It was a laugh from deep inside and he only used it if something was truly funny.

I miss the times he laughed at me. He laughed because I didn’t know the difference between a tractor and a combine. The day I tried to help load pigs for market he snuck up behind me and yelled, “Careful! Don’t let them bite you!” That time he laughed so hard he almost fell over. He laughed at me a lot; this city girl his son had brought home to the farm, so curious about things that, to him, were mundane. His laughter was never derisive and that’s why I miss it. But more than his laughter, I miss our long talks over popcorn at his kitchen table.

He liked John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies and, having spent many hours watching reruns of the many movies with my own dad, so did I. He liked bad jokes (I wish I could remember even one). He was tough to a fault. He had fallen off his tractor one spring at the beginning of planting. He knew he was really hurt but he didn’t tell anyone. As a diabetic he had spent a lifetime learning to dislike doctors. Planting needed to be finished and he figured that if he went to a doctor he would be told not to work, or worse, hospitalized, so he climbed back up on his tractor and finished his work. “Didn’t it hurt?” I asked. “Hurt like a sonofabitch getting on and off the tractor but once I was there I was fine.” He went to the doctor after planting was finished, his pelvis was fractured and he was put on six weeks of restricted activity.

 

“…when the Jester sang for the King and Queen in a coat he borrowed from James Dean.”

 

Family Meeting

My parents, on the verge of their seventies, took advantage of an opportunity when my three siblings and I were all together to have a family meeting and discuss details of their final arrangements. Designating their executor was an easy decision, my brother has a degree in finance so he seemed the obvious choice. Then my parents raised the topic of medical power of attorney. My siblings stiffened at the thought of making medical decisions for one of our parents if the other parent weren’t there to do the job. As I looked around the table where we all sat, I saw the fear on my siblings’ faces. Their eyes were huge, their lips pressed tightly together none of them seemed to be breathing.   There was a collective sigh of relief from the three of them when Mom said they were thinking I should have this designation since I live the closest to them and am therefore the most readily available in an emergency. It is fortunate that I am also the one who is willing to deal with those decisions. I held my dog at the end of her life. In the nursing home where I once worked I held the hands of the dying. Death is an unavoidable and while I don’t rejoice in it I do embrace it as part of the journey.

 

“Now do you believe in rock-n-roll? Can music save your mortal soul?”

 

Songs at a Funeral

My husband wants to have Garth Brooks’ song “The Dance” played at his funeral. It is a fine song but I always tell him that “The River” would be a better choice. I think it has a nicer message than “The Dance” which is much too sappy for me. This is one of our topics we debate for fun from time to time. Some of our other topics are: Pearl Jam and Nirvana – genius or crap; and Tim Tebow – good enough for the pros? These debates usually end with one of us saying, “Well you’re an idiot.”   Then we laugh and change the subject. If he dies first, I will play the song he wants at his funeral. I just hope he realizes that no matter how often he insists that he’s a Buddhist, he’s getting a Methodist funeral.

 

“I know that you’re in love with him, cause I saw you dancing in the gym”

 

Bad Day

When I took Money to the veterinarian to be put to sleep my fourteen year old daughter insisted on going with me. I would never have asked her to do this, but Money had been part of our family for Courtney’s whole life. So she rode in the car with our faltering dog on her lap, stroking her fur and speaking softly, telling her everything was going to be ok. At the vet’s office, she decided that she couldn’t go in the exam room so she waited outside the door while I took the dog in. I would have preferred to be outside the room too, but I couldn’t bear the thought of my loyal little dog dying alone. I felt like I owed it to her to be with her at the end. No one should die alone. As we left the vet’s office, Daniel Powter’s song “Bad Day” was playing on the radio when I started the car. It seemed to be playing just for us so we sat in the parking lot and sang along and cried and hugged for a while. Then we went home to listen to our cat search for her dog.

 

“…and we sang dirges in the dark”

 

Last Request

The day Larry went to the hospital for his surgery he was not optimistic. The hospital was not a happy place for him. Before they took him for surgery he said something to my mother-in-law. He said, “If I don’t make it, I want Joleen to sing at my funeral, but only if it’s ok with Barb.” I learned about this when, before Larry’s funeral, my mother-in-law came to me to ask my permission. This was no small thing. Joleen was my husband’s ex-girlfriend. They had been quite serious and his family had been very fond of her. She and I had been in the college choir together, although her talent was so far beyond mine that there was no comparison.

The gravity of this request was almost too much for me, that Larry would think of my feelings in making his request, that Betty would think of my feelings in acting on his request when she didn’t have to. It was her decision, she could have just asked Joleen and said nothing to me about it. I had the right to say no, they gave that to me, and that gift proved to me that they thought of me as a member of their family.

At Larry’s funeral, Joleen sang In the Garden and her voice was just as gorgeous as I remembered.

 

“…and the three men I admired most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died.”