Our Balloonman
Which Art
In Heaven
--- Part II
Quite suddenly the sky turns iridescent, then a brilliant magenta. The usual spectacular tropical sunset that happens so quickly. Even when you are expecting it, it's a surprise --- the sudden end of the searing heat and too-bright sunlight. "How'd he get to be a quad?" I ask, watching the sun dying. The street turns dim and dusty. I can no longer see her face, only the outline of her head, the tiny round gold metal chain around her neck. She is still wearing her dark glasses.

She tells me about the drinking, and the general helling around when he was twenty. The drugs, the accident. "They didn't know whether he was going to live," she says. "He made it." She pauses. "I think he's a much better person for it," she says.

I look at the balloon man. He's standing under the one streetlight of Puerto Perdido. The light has just come on, so the balloons cast a dark cloud over him. There are many of the balloons, straining up on their strings, and he is such a tiny fellow --- so much that I half expect to see him take off, floating away into the starry sky, rising up into the stratosphere. Our balloon-man which art in heaven.

"A much better person," I say, nodding. "That's an awful thing to say," I tell her.

"I'm sorry?" She's not apologizing --- she just doesn't understand.

"I can't stand hearing that sort of thing," I tell her. "Saying that he's a much better person for it." She turns her head to watch the balloon man. He creates his monsters right there, out of rubber and helium. He fills the balloons from the great bruised silver tank at his side, twists them into animal faces, or strange bodies, twisting and turning them this way and that. When he fills the balloons with the helium, it makes a raw, screeching sound. She sits down on the curb next to my chair.

"I don't understand," she says, "...but maybe I never will. I don't know. I just don't have your experience." She rattles on, telling me that she is a professional nurse, living in Colorado. She says that even with her training, the hardest job is learning to deal with her brother's body. "I'm a nurse by training. I've done caths --- lots of times. And yet, nothing is harder for me," she says. She stops. "He was the one that used to pick on me all the time when we were growing up, never had any time for me, called me 'stupid.' And now there he is, lying flat on his bed. Sometimes I have to do his catheter in the morning. And he can't even cover himself up."

A little girl, she can't be more than five years old, is trying to push two boys, probably her brothers, up the hill, in a tiny scratched red wooden wagon, with warped wheels. One of the boys, the older one, is yelling "Recio, recio! " (faster, faster!) The other one is just sitting there, at the front of the wagon, without a stitch on, digging the hell out of his ride. The girl can barely get it to move, what with the hill and all: she's pushing with all her might.

"I don't even know what I mean about those words," I tell her: "Maybe it's not up to us to judge that sort of thing." What is it they say? Only the gods can worship god. Only the gods can pass judgement on us --- her brother, me --- the two of us, now so different.

Diego is behind me, pushing back and forth on the wheel chair, slowly, rhythmically. There's a fiesta in Pinotepla. He wants to go, to check on a young lady who he claims will be his next novia. He wants to get me over there because he knows that by ten, when things are starting to happen, I'll be drunk, and insist on going home to bed. He doesn't want to miss a thing. I've been to the Pinotepla fiesta before. The ground is sandy, people will be pushing in on my wheel chair from all sides. We'll get stuck in the dirt, people will stare. From two feet away they'll stop dead and stare. They always do. I'm probably the only six-foot gringo in a wheel-chair they've ever seen --- possibly the only one they'll ever see in this part of Mexico.

Given all the bother, I probably wouldn't even go...if it weren't for the fact that when I'm there, I'm living. Going out in the world, being part of a different world. The lady wants to know if her brother in his wheel-chair would be happy here. Sure, I want to tell her it'll be fine if he doesn't mind getting stuck, having people gaga staring at him, kids standing, just staring at him. It's all right, if you don't mind being a freak. I want to tell her that. But that sounds bitter and it probably would be a lie. There aren't many of us around, and we're the object of curiosity; but it's a curiosity coming from some of the kindest, most open people in the whole world.

I think of my times here, the despair that occasionally creeps up on me, despair at the inaccessible buildings, the places I can't even dream of getting up to, or down from; the times that my bladder is bursting, and there's no place to go, and I want to cry, yell at someone, anyone. And Diego, with his great wise serious eyes, and Chuy, dark Chuy, understanding, somehow, always figuring out what is going on, figuring a way for me to make it, without going balmy.

"It's a whole different world down here," I tell her. "Your brother might like it, Or, then again, he might despise it. You can never tell. It depends on him, and how much he wants to get away from the United States --- being with people who are totally different, who see him differently than you or the rest of them will see him." I think about what happened this morning, when I woke up. I was feeling blue, didn't much care about things, didn't want to respond to anything --- and then Diego started in pinching me, and then ducked away when I tried to grab him. He saw I was turning a bit sour, and he wanted to be sure I got my daily quota of tickles and pinches. I wonder if the attendants in the United States (what do they call them? --- personal care attendants) I wonder if they are allowed to tickle their charges when they start to feel bad. Is that written into their job description? Must give a good thorough tickling when the patient starts to feel bad.

"To me --- they're all gods, so I forgive them everything," I say. I think of Diego, with his great round face, Chuy with the elegant Mayan nose, both so wry and so compassionate. "What do you mean by that?" she asks, moving her hands vaguely. I wonder if I can get it across. "To be here, to really enter the country," I say, then I stop, then: "You have to be willing to leave so much behind. It's so different here. Maybe it's a form of love...but maybe there's a better word. Especially for those of us..." I want tell her, "for those of us like your brother and me..." but I don't finish the sentence.

Over where the sun has died on the horizon, there is a bare smudge of rouge, a burning off, so far off. "It's godlove," I think. "The gods know it well." I look up at her. She's gotten up, is brushing off her skirt. "It's hard for us to learn what they have to teach us," I say. "The people here learn to love so quickly and easily --- no matter how unloveable we may be." Some of us try to give love in return, I think. But we gringos are so much slower, so much more fearful. Up north, we call it love, but it's probably more like taking hostages.

All the while I'm still formulating whatever the hell it is I am supposed to be formulating for her, she turns, waves --- is gone. I'm still preparing my carefully thought-out conclusion --- and she's gone. "He's a much better person for it." Jesus. Where in the hell do they get that? He's a much better...Jesus!

It all puts me in mind of that funny line from Beckett. How did he say it? The trouble getting born? No, no. The trouble with her... that's it: The trouble with her was that she had never really been born.

--- Carlos Amantea

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