By Matthew Woodman
“The balloon, I said, is a spontaneous autobiographical discourse, having to do with the unease I felt at your absence.” – Donald Barthelme
“This is death.” The man reaches into his chest pocket, extracts a black balloon, places it to his lips—mouth to mouth—and begins to blow. As the latex inflates, a white skull swells and takes shape. “This is death,” the man repeats, tying the end. “Be back in twenty minutes.” We took death by the neck. Outside, sunshine and squirrels and people carrying backpacks from one corner of campus to the other.
Mark, feeling self-conscious and put on the spot, feigns nonchalance and bats the balloon with the tips of his right hand and then his left as if it were a beach volleyball. After three minutes of this back and forth, death bursts with sufficient force to exceed the speed of sound and—to the right of Mark’s temple—forms a small sonic boom. The people carrying backpacks who are not already watching Mark now turn in his direction where he, startled, stares at the torn rubber at his feet. It is now when Mark begins avoiding contractions, for example repeating to himself “I cannot” rather than the colloquial “I can’t.”
Though Greg’s balloon fails also to return intact, it does manage to keep its form longer than Mark’s. Greg cradles it, skull side out, under his arm down the hall. Greg has a girlfriend named for a country in Asia, though the spelling differs. Chyna keeps him company. Or perhaps he keeps her company, one finds these things difficult to judge. Anyway. One could argue the balloon is theirs, as in the plural possessive. They have time to stop and chat with people they know from other rooms, other schedules. When these people inquire as to the balloon, Greg informs them it’s an assignment they have to complete. They ask him what kind of class is that, and Greg agrees but continues, nonetheless, to stay on task. There is no warning before their balloon pops. It just pops.
Carla is more careful. Not that Greg was careless, but still. In the middle of the quad, a grid of booths and informational tables has been assembled along an x- and y-axis, Carla’s path the slope. A volunteer hands Carla a sticker in the form of a pink ribbon, one-and-three-quarters inches long, produced in sheets of twelve, with a self-adhesive backing. The volunteer looks at Carla’s balloon but doesn’t ask any questions, and Carla doesn’t volunteer any answers. Carla considers affixing the sticker to the balloon but chooses not to. The volunteer continues to distribute pink ribbons, and Carla continues to carry her black balloon along her twenty-minute trajectory.
Rayna takes her balloon and finds a man giving out free ice cream sundaes. Just vanilla and a dollop of chocolate fudge, but a sundae is a sundae, and a free sundae even more so. What’s with the balloon, the ice cream man asks. It’s supposed to be death, I think, Rayna replies. Huh, the ice cream man says, that’s weird. I know, right? Rayna agrees, thanks for the ice cream. Rayna is halfway through the sundae by the time she has to return, her arms full, where she began.
Kason arrives late and doesn’t get a balloon.
When the twenty minutes are up, we return to the room. The man leans against the white wall. He wouldn’t be out of place blindfolded, smoking a cigarette, hands tied behind his back.
“Now what?” we ask.
“That’s right,” the man confirms, “now what.”
– Matthew Woodman teaches writing at California State University, Bakersfield and is the poetry editor for the Chilean journal Southern Pacific Review. More of his work can be found at www.matthewwoodman.com.