There Were Balloons by Cathy S. Ulrich

When the old woman died, there were balloons.

They went dotting into the air like colorful punctuation marks, dragging tails along after them. After a while, the balloons disappeared, but they were still there, really, his mother said, just gone somewhere they could no longer be seen.

Before the balloons had gone into the air, a man had been holding them. He was a grandly fat man with magnificent bulges of flesh that made him seem very important. The child would have liked to hold one of the balloons, but his mother said they weren’t for children, though balloons usually were. That day, the balloons were for the old woman.

The child had fidgeted when they were at the church until his mother finally told him shush or she’d put him out in the car. He didn’t like his bowtie or his shiny shoes that pinched, but his mother said the old woman would have been pleased to see him so dressed up.

The old woman, before she died, had given him kisses when he and his mother came to visit. He didn’t like them. Her lips didn’t feel like lips at all, too dry and too sharp. But if he let her do it, she would give him a butterscotch candy from the bowl on her dining table.

Once, while he was at the old woman’s house with his mother, a small black kitten wandered in through the open back door and began licking a half-empty can of tuna the old woman had put out for it. The child had wanted to pick up the kitten and hold it, but the old woman told him he shouldn’t. They watched the kitten lick the tuna can while his mother put away dishes for the old woman.

Another time, his mother sat at the old woman’s piano and played the Chopin mazurka she’d learned as a child.

How lovely, said the old woman, and closed the piano lid when his mother was done.

After the very fat man let the balloons go up into the air, the child’s mother dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief and was sad, but he wasn’t sad. He watched the balloons go up and up, except for one that was caught in the scraggly branches of a tree. It was a yellow one, and he wished the tail was long enough for someone to pluck it out of the tree.

On the way back to the car, the child was carried by his mother though he was nearly getting too big for it.

Will we come back here for another party? he asked. This wasn’t a party, said his mother.

I thought it was a party, he said. He turned his head back to look and it was still there, the yellow balloon, entangled in the tree branches, bright and round and alone.


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