Her name was Christine, blonde, wild hair that floated in the wind, a profile like Bardot’s, a nose too small and a chin too square, but beautiful all the same. She spoke carefully, delicately, her words clipped and precise, her voice always mellow and laughing as she spoke. Her hair smelled like shampoo and her breasts pushed against her blouse, as though trying to break free from confinement. All I knew about her could be spelled out in a few seconds. She had graced the earth for nineteen years, had been married and separated, was the mother of a two-month-old baby boy, wanted to be a writer, and had attempted suicide three times within the past four months–twice with razor blades and once with sleeping pills.
I had met her earlier in the evening when Mel Thomas and I drove down to Shady Knoll to entertain at a private party. Before leaving Jackson, Mel wanted me to stop and pick up his date. The girl was Christine.
During the day I am a starving and frustrated young writer working feverishly on the next short story, always knowing that this is the one that will sell. After it comes back from the editor’s desk, rejected time after time, I place my hopes on the next story and send it out with stars in my eyes and a confident cloud of glory around my head.
I shoot at stars with an air rifle.
Evenings, I cloak myself in the guise of a singer and entertain here and there, playing my guitar, singing folk songs and crooning ballads to rock-and-roll graduates who wonder why Elvis Presley sent chills down their backs not so many years ago. Though I often dislike singing for some of these people, it is the bread in my mouth. I sing folk music because the taste of the earth is there, the feelings of the long buried but never forgotten loves, the deathlike drudgery of the chain gang derelicts always within sight of the ghastly prison walls that close in around them, hoping, cursing, praying for revenge and escape.
I croon because I can. I am good at it.
It was a month of ghosts and goblins, witches and rattling bones, pumpkins with hollow faces. It was a month when love ends for the summer and hate bubbles up to face a frozen winter––the month of death, October, when love can bloom and wither in a night.
After the songs were sung, the jokes sprung and the night still hung in the dark October sky, we headed back to Jackson and this little party with some not-so close friends in a hazy little room with just a bed, three chairs, and a stereo sitting in a corner on the carpeted floor choking to the sounds of Beethoven’s fifth.
There were six of us and only Mel had brought a girl––yellow-haired and pale with a straight pink scar on her left wrist and a fresh slice on the other. The right wrist was stitched and swollen up on a frail and delicate arm. Two yellow balloons lay at the foot of the bed. I didn’t know why they were there. In fact, I hardly noticed them at the time. The party threatened to last forever, rolling on and on further into the morning, then coasting toward the dawn––rolling yet, but slowing.
I popped the easy-open tabs on the last six-pack. Christine came over and sat on the arm of’ my chair. I sat back and she reclined against me. Mel sat on the floor immersed in a trance.
“Fake,” someone yelled, “you’re drunk.”
Mel sat cross-legged, arms folded, eyes glassy and staring into nothing. “So are you.” he said, without moving his lips. “Quiet, please,”
“Want another beer, Christine?” I asked, “Or is seven enough?”
“Ale,” she said. “And, yes, I’d like another.”
“Give her a razor blade,” someone said, “She’ll put on a great show.”
“A bit messy, but great.”
She didn’t know whether to smile or hide her face. She looked at me and attempted a look of pity that looked like a Greek mask of tragedy while Beethoven played in the background.
“Hey, Christine, why don’t you read our palms?”
I felt her back stiffen against me. The scent of dew slid by and around me, then she relaxed again. “All right,” she said. “If you want.”
“Who wants to be first,” someone said. “Mel, for Christ’s sake, get up and come to.”
“I would ask you to dance if I could stand up without falling,” he said .
“You are without a doubt a very fine gentleman,” she said.
“Yes, without a doubt.”
Christine began reading palms. Mel was to die young, along with two others whom I called Zake and Jake for lack of a better name. My palm was evidently novel length because she read for several minutes. I was to live to a ripe old age, and have three mistresses, a wife, and three children. I was to quit striving for recognition and become content with an ordinary life, then after the years have mellowed me I am to pick up my stray and dormant ambitions and become a great success.
The party was still, the atmosphere eerie. The hushed voice of doom had silenced everyone.
“You’re a witch,” Zake said. “A goddamned real live witch. And drunk, too. Haw, I’ve never seen a drunk witch.”
“You’ve never looked closely in the mirror,” I said. It was lame, but the best I could do at the time.
The party had gone the course of all parties, the rolling stone was now still and moss-covered. Mel had come out of his trance without any noticeable after-effects. Freud’s theories had been examined, and found acceptable but lacking. Our fortunes now lie bare and cold before us at 4:00 A.M. on a Sunday-turned-Monday morning.
“I have to go,” I said. “I’m a little stoned out. It’ll take me an hour to drive home in this condition. “
“Yeah,” Mel said. “I’ve got to be running too. I’ve got an 8:30 class to make. Calculus. Of all times to have calculus! 8:30 they’ve got to pick. He stumbled over his feet and caught himself on the arm of a chair.
I disappeared into the hallway, then turned back. “By the way, it was a very fine party. Thanks to whoever was responsible.”
“That’s me,” Jake said.. I didn’t really know his true name. “Hey, I forgot your name.”
Adam Rawlings,” I said.
“Come again, Adam, as Eve said,” he replied.
I laughed politely and closed the door behind me.
Christine came out into the hall carrying one of the yellow balloons that had been lying at the foot of the bed. “Do you really think that it is safe for you to drive?” she asked, closing the door. The moonlight gathered around her face.
“I have a long lifeline on my palm, remember?”
She laughed. “Yes, but that doesn’t prevent tragedy. You have several tangent lines that run off into tragedy. You ought to delay it as long as you can.”
“I have to sleep,” I said.
She walked over to my side, the balloon, the fat little yellow balloon in her hand. “Touch this a moment,” she said, placing my hand on the yellow skin. I love yellow balloons. “There’s a story behind it. I’d like for you to hear my story about a yellow balloon. Perhaps you could write it much better than I.”
“I would love to hear it,” I said,
“You can come over to my place,” she said.
“I thought you were with Mel.”
“He wouldn’t mind. I’m the constant Good Samaritan.”
“Then I would be crazy not to accept, wouldn’t I?”
“Yes, very much so.”
“Then I accept.”
“Perhaps we could take the bus,” she said. “I’ll tell Mel we’re leaving.”
“The folks have gone for the weekend,” Christine said, opening the door. “I do hope Larry’s all right.”
“My baby. He’s so cute. I told the neighbors to come in and check on him every now and then. He’s all I have.”
“Sit down for a second while I check to see that he’s all right.”
The soft red couch sat upon grass-green thick carpeting. A small orange stain at the foot of the couch glowed in the semidarkness making the carpet seem greener than green. I lit a cigarette and awaited her return. I could hear her cooing far down the hall.
“He wants his bottle,” she said, coming down the hallway. She disappeared into the kitchen and I followed.
“It’s a wonder he didn’t howl all night.”
“I gave him a few drops to make him sleep,” she said. “Doctor’s orders. He has an extremely bad digestive tract. I don’t know what will happen when we have to put him on solid food.”
“Do you leave him like this often?”
“No, just when I have to. Sometimes the walls close in and I have to get away. Usually my parents are here to look after him.”
“What about a sitter? Don’t you ever get a sitter for him? He’s only two months old. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Babies.”
“I shouldn’t have left him, I know.”
“Promise me you’ll get a sitter next time and ‘I’ll be happy again.”
“Yes, I promise.”
“What ‘s that stuff?” I asked. She was putting drops from a brown bottle into the formula.
“…three … four …five. Phenobarbital. The doctor says he needs it. It makes him sleep. I can’t stand him when he howls.”
She put the formula on the stove. I said nothing and returned to the sofa.
In a few minutes, her head peeked around the corner and a little painted finger wiggled for me.
“He’s so cute,” she whispered. “Just like his father.”
“Not like his mother?”
“Just a little. Maybe in the eyes.”
She adjusted the bottle and the baby sucked with wide blue eyes.”
“Look, the hair. Isn’t that something for his age?”
“Sure,” I said. “He’s…”
“Shhh… he’s going to sleep.”
“They can make anybody dopey. They’re very dangerous you know.”
“It keeps him quiet,” she said. “I love him, but I hate him. “The motherly instinct was lost in me somehow.”
“Maybe you married too young.”
“Yes,” she said. “Perhaps.”
We were sitting on the couch. The green carpeting with the stain glowed orange and yellow in the faint moonlight under our feet. The yellow balloon lay in her lap, her fingers running over the tensile yellow skin. Her nails were painted red but badly bitten, leaving little crescents of fingers above the nails.
“When I first met Larry’s father, my husband, it was at a street carnival. I was carrying a yellow balloon, like this one. It could have been no other color but yellow. Yellow symbolizes love. Doesn’t yellow mean1 love to you?”
“It could,” I said.
“What other color could be love? What color is love?”
“Perhaps red. Perhaps white.”
“White is not a color. It’s a combination of all colors. And black is the absence of any color. Yellow is the color of love, red the color of anger, and green the color of hate.
“I was carrying my yellow balloon by the merry-go-round listening to the tinkle of the calliope and suddenly, a gust of wind blew it from my hand. I reached out for it and caught it just as Gary grabbed hold. We both held it for an instant, rather like we both refused to give it up. Then he smiled and handed it to me. And that was how we met.”
She lit a cigarette. “Do you believe that when two people touch a love balloon at the same time that they will fall in love and their love will be strong until the balloon loses its air?”
“It’s new to me,” I said, “but fascinating. Go on.”
“We fell in love. Whenever we would meet we would buy a little yellow love balloon and blow it full and tie a knot in its tail to keep the air in. We even had a love balloon carried down the aisle with us when we were married.”
Her hands gently caressed the balloon with little squeaks of contact. “Gary is a writer,” she said, “like you, but he would not write without an inspiration. He was never satisfied with what he wrote and never sold a thing. I have only about ten thousand left in the bank now. Daddy gave me twenty-five when I turned eighteen and we lived on that until…”
“Until what?” I asked.
She stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray. “Until our balloon broke. I was eight months pregnant with Larry. When I was seven months pregnant I fell down the steps and they thought that I would lose him. Now they think that’s what is wrong with his digestive tract.
“Gary and I were sitting in a restaurant. We had our love balloon with us, lying on the table. A girl Gary used to know dropped over and sat with us without an invitation. She lit a cigarette. When she dropped the ashes in the ashtray the hot tip touched the balloon and it burst. Gary and I just looked at one another. We both knew.”
Her eyes rested on the balloon in her lap. “I will never trust anyone again,” she said. “Do you like the story? Do you think you would like to write about my yellow balloon?”
“It’s your story,” I said. “You should tell it yourself.”
“I’m so closely involved that I could not do it justice,” she said.
“I would love to write your story, Christine, but that’s not the end.”
“Why is that?”
“How old do you think I am, Chris?”
“Twenty-one. Just legal, not wise. But yet I know that there is more fantasy than fact in your story. The story doesn’t explain that slice on your wrist and that drugged baby sleeping in the other room.”
“I’m schizophrenic,” she said. “I have two personalities and five psychiatrists. Perhaps that explains something.”
I lit a cigarette and put my arm around her shoulder. She nestled towards me. “Tired?”
“Not really,” she said.
“Should I try to fill in some gaps in your story?”
“If you’d like.”
“If I hit the nail on the head, promise you won’t get angry?”
“The story stops before the wedding bells, I suspect. I imagine that there were no wedding bells and if a yellow balloon walked the aisle of matrimony, it walked by itself.”
“It makes an interesting footnote,” she said.
“Did you love him deeply?”
“And the girl with the cigarette?”
“He’s with her now.”
“And he never really returned your love. You sought attention with sleeping pills but prayed that you would be discovered before the four horsemen bore down upon you with the smell of death on their swords.
“And the wrists,” I continued. “When was the first time?”
“Just before the balloon broke and Larry was born.”
“What did it accomplish?”
“Do you mind if I talk about it?”
“No, I’d like to talk about it too. I want to get it out of my system.”
“Talk will help, but it won’t heal. Like the other wrist. It’s infected now, isn’t it?”
“I’m taking penicillin to keep the swelling down. The doctor may have to lance it. I would hate that. I don’t mind doing it myself, but the thought of letting someone else do it… Do you know what mood I was in? What would you guess would be my mood?”
“Unhappy. Brooding. Lonely and craving someone or something that was nowhere near.”
“I was happy, just as I am now. I went to the bathroom to powder my face. Daddy had left his razor blades lying on the lavatory. Larry was asleep and he had been a perfect little man all day. Mother was in the kitchen. Suddenly, I wanted to see my blood spurt up and away from me. I wanted to drain myself from my soul. I took the blade and cut deep. The doctor said another fraction of an inch and I would have severed my nerves and lost all control over my right hand. The blood spurted up, throbbing bright red and I ran out here laughing. The stain on the rug, there, see?”
She pointed to the glowing orange against the grass-green carpet.
“It’s hard to believe this night is happening, Christine,” I said.
“This morning,” she said. “The sun is almost ready to rise.”
“Then we have to watch the sunrise,” I said.
“I hate them,” she said. “They depress me. Every time I see a sunrise I would like to throw a stone at it.”
“Could I have another cigarette?” she asked.
I lit one and put it between her lips. Her head lay on my shoulder.
“A penny for your thoughts,” she said.
“They aren’t really worth that much. I’m debating.”
“With my conscience.”
“Adam. I like your name. Adam Rawlings. It floats through the darkness. Adam Rawlings is debating with his conscience,” she laughed.
I kissed her and she responded warmly with open lips and lascivious arms.
“What is your debate about?” she whispered.
“Whether or not to make love to you.”
“You have a choice?”
“Yes, there’s a choice.
“But what if I say ‘no’. Then there is no choice.”
“Would you say no?”
“Probably not. Even if I did, there’s always rape. But that ‘s already been done when I was fifteen.”
“You’re not shocking me, Christine. We passed the point of shock a while back. Are you drunk?”
“No, not now. I once was, but not now.”
“You know what?” I asked.
“Nobody has ever really loved you, have they?”
Her lips once again found mine. They were warm and sweet and seeking. Soft little slaps of’ love entwined with the waning darkness, and the sharp click of’ touching teeth.
“So, do you really hate men because of that?”
“They aren’t very gentle,” she said, seeking her breath.
“Am I gentle?” I caressed her softly near the small of’ her back.
“Yes, I suppose,” she sighed. “Uhmmmm, but I want a man who wants me for more than sex.”
“Of course,” I said. “You know something else?”
Our lips met again, her body arched and pushed towards me and she slid down on the sofa. “I think I could love you for you and you alone, even though what I’ve seen of your motherly instinct and those scars on your wrists ought to repel me.”
“You get to know a person psychologically and you can build your line on that.”
“I’m not building a line,” I said.
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m not going to make love to you,” I said.
“What if I should offer it?”
“Tomorrow you’d regret it.”
“You’re different,” she smiled.
“Dammit,” I replied.
We relaxed on the couch. “There’s a wonderful person hidden in there,” I said.
“You know, I like you, but…”
“Don’t say it,” I said. “I know what it is.”
“Tell me, then.”
“This is only for tonight and there is no tomorrow. You are only playing games. I am a game in the night. Tomorrow there will be more razor blades.”
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
“So did I guess right?”
“As close as anyone ever could.”
“Good. I want to love you, you know. I ache and want you badly. But I want to be more than just a game. Tonight could hurt us both.”
“There is no tomorrow.”
“What about a hospital? Have you ever considered one?”
“But you won’t go?”
“Ohhh, Adam. Adam One Night that cannot be always.”
“A hospital could help. I would wait.”
“No, you wouldn’t. I know you psychologically too. Besides, our balloon would lose all its air.”
The balloon lay against the wall on the sofa’s back.
“I would blow it up every day,” I said.
“Let’s talk about religion,” she said.
“Yes, do you have a religion of any sort?”
“Just my own. What about you?”
“I’m still looking.”
“Would you like to try mine on for size?”
“If you can explain the unexplainable.”
I noticed the golden light streaming in the window. “The sun is up,” I said.
“And I forgot to throw a stone.”
“You know, we’11 get drunk if we talk about religion. We can get drunk on thought as well as booze.”
“Let’s both get stoned on thought,” she smiled. “Try putting it as simply as you know how.”
“There is nothing but space and matter,” I said. “The smallest thing we know of is an atom, and it is divided into protons, neutrons and electrons, and other particles. Atoms go together to form molecules. But supposing that we are atoms, you and I,
“Forming a molecule by uniting?” she laughed. “What a line.”
“Not tonight,” I smiled.
“No, not tonight. Go ahead, please.”
“Well, if we were just simple atoms in a world far vaster than we could ever imagine,” I continued, “just an atom in some yellow balloon on some grand planet, and that in turn was just a molecule on some grander thing that we have no word for, eventually, at the peak of greatness, we would have God who can move and direct the tiny atom that we know. So on it goes in an unending circle.”
“Yes,” she said,” I like that.”We are simply protons that make up an atom of some unknown element that makes God. It’s good, but it makes me feel so small. If I feel much smaller I’ll go back to a razor blade diet.”
“I’m a poor analyst,” I said.
Someone knocked on the door and Christine began straightening herself. She pecked my lips with a kiss, brushed her hand through her hair, and answered the door. The scent of her beauty lingered and left me feeling hollow at the separation.
“It’s Mel Thomas,” she said. “He says he’s going to class and will drop you off at your car if you want to go with him.”
“I’d better,” I said. I have to get some sleep and back to work. Tell him I’ll be right out.”
She closed the door and sat beside me on the couch. The grass-green carpeting with its pale orange stain stared at me in the daylight. I found myself looking at the wound on her wrist where the stitches were still sticking out like tatters of thread on an otherwise perfect piece of cloth something entirely out of place. The wound was even more swollen than it had been during the night.
“Don’t look at it,” she said. “It’s ugly.”
“You really want to live, don’t you? I would never leave you alone if I thought you would go back to razor blades.”
“I want to live desperately,” she said, lighting a cigarette. She bent forward and kissed me on the mouth. “My One Night Adam.”
She picked the yellow balloon from the back of the sofa and put it on the burning cigarette. The sound was like the explosion of a bomb. The baby began to cry and the beauty that had been was suddenly shattered into dreamy fragments and lay at my feet in the cruel light of day.
“It would never work, you and me,” she smiled.
I shook my head.
“God, that baby. He wants another bottle. I’ll have to sit up with him all day.”
“Try not to hate it so,” I said. “It’s just a part of life that we all have to face. We call it reality for lack of a better name.”
“Goodbye, Adam,” she said.
“If you go to the hospital, I’ll wait for you to get out.”
“Perhaps I wouldn’t come out,” she smiled.
“But you would,” I said. “Just a short time and…”
She held up the small, limp fragments of the yellow balloon. “lt’s broken,” she said.
“Christine, I don’t even know your last name.”
“It’s just as well,” she said. “Don’t forget to write my story.”
-Ken H. Finton
October 9, 1963