That's a rather existential question, I think we can all agree.
Let's start with why you are probably here: my writing.
For the past few years, I have been immersed in literary fiction, with my latest project being a novel, Ahnwee Days, a satire on the perils of small-town life. My short stories have appeared in seventeen literary magazines and anthologies, most recently American Fiction 14, and Hunting in the Dark was published as a “flash novel” by Bartleby Snopes (Oct 2014). Thus far, I have been a finalist for five short story contests and counting. **sigh** One the bright side, my one-act, Manfinders.com, was the Metropolitan State University playwriting contest back in 2003.
Regarding non-fiction, I am the author of Bi America: Myths, Truths, and Struggles of an Invisible Community, a book about the bisexual community and the bisexual experience. My work is or has appeared in the Handbook of LGBT Elders (Debra A. Harley and Pamela B. Teaster Editors, Springer 2016), the Lambda Book Report, reviewing LGBT books of note, the Journal of Bisexuality, and the now defunct GLBT Press paper in the Twin Cities. I am a former columnist for Lavender Magazine in Minneapolis, with For Whom The Bill Tolls looking at LGBT community groups in the Twin Cities and In the Pink, examining LGBT health. I have also been published in the Star Tribune.
Something new is publishing and editing. I am the founder of Flexible Press, a new little publisher dedicated to supporting authors, communities, and mission-driven non-profits through story. Starting with my own Tales of Block E collection, in 2018 we published Lake Street Stories, 12 short stories about South Minneapolis’s main street. Next, in July 2019 we are publishing Under Ground by Megan Marsnik, which was serialized in the Star Tribune in 2015. Also coming this fall will be Home, an anthology asking the question: what does “home” mean to you?
I do other stuff besides write and publish; although, it doesn't seem like it sometimes. Depending on the day and the weather, I can be found hiking in state parks, working out at the Y, or just hanging out at one of about twenty coffee shops I frequent.
And I have a real job: I am currently employed as a communications professional.
AN ANTHOLOGY OF SHORT STORIES BY TWIN CITIES’ AUTHORS
ABOUT LAKE STREET: Lake Street cuts across Minneapolis from west to east, from the urbane to the urban to the blue-collar. North and south, it is the dividing line between inner-city neighborhoods and tidy bedroom communities. Lake Street is a polyglot of people from all corners of the world mixing with lifelong Minneapolitans. It lives and breathes and pulsates with energy born of hope for a new beginning, with the history of what was. Lake Street is South Minneapolis’s heart and soul.
Editor: William E Burleson
—William E Burleson
—Lucy Rose Fischer
All profits are donated to CLUES (Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio), a linguistically and culturally relevant resource and service nonprofit organization whose programs and services connect individuals and families to resources, skills, institutions, and systems and create an environment for people to be engaged and empowered. CLUES 720 East Lake St. offices were heavily damaged in a recent fire. (www.clues.org)
Published by Flexible Press
Flexible Press is a fledgling publisher of fine fiction and the brainchild of its publisher William E Burleson.
More from Flexible Press:
"Tales of Block E was so enjoyable. It was funny, sad, and hopeful, with characters wonderfully portrayed and with so many lives intersected in so many surprising and touching ways."
"I found it difficult to put the book down and finished it with more empathy for our urban outcastes. A great read!"
" Nice to find a writer who is chillingly honest, gob-smackingly funny, and still caring without descending into bathos."
About Tales of Block E
A man living in a flophouse tries to impress his long-estranged blind father by embellishing on what the old man can’t see. Two employees of a porn theater pick the wrong day to get stoned. A fragile young woman and follower of a street preacher witnesses a tragedy, setting her on a mission that may be beyond her abilities. It’s 1979 on Block E, a woe-begone Times Square-type district filled with characters of all stripes—hookers and the homeless, addicts and drug dealers. But the streets also belong to the hopeful—the many people wanting so much more. These are the Tales of Block E, three stories of people in a place and a time long gone but not forgotten.
READ MORE about the very real location that serves as the setting for The Avenue.
In 1978 (one year before The Avenue takes place) WCCO TV made a 1/2 hour special about the block. TAKE A LOOK
Shinders to Shinders is a short film made by Daniel Polsfuss with choreographer Patrick Scully and poet Roy McBride. It was filmed on four consecutive Sundays between 2:00 a.m. and sunrise in 1982, and first shown projected on a billboard above Shinders on 7th on Block E. A MUST SEE
Hi--I hope you can check out my short story, Hunting in the Dark!
About Hunting in the Dark:
Paul and his high school friends sit at a fire, maybe fifty feet from and above the rapids on the Black River and twenty steps from J.J.’s family’s cabin. Five friends, close as blood brothers, are there to celebrate their youth without the prying eyes of their parents. Poor and rich, urban and rural, they are unaware of the different paths they are on. This coming of age story asks: how do privilege, circumstance, and blind luck govern our fate? And what risks are we willing to take along the way?
What people are saying:
"For all the toughness of his characters and the sharp edge of his hard-hitting style, William Burleson reveals a tenderness toward his characters that will make you care as much about them as he does."
--Stephen Wilbers, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist and award-winning author of several books on the craft of writing and the history of the Boundaries Waters of Northern Minnesota.
Read the preview at Amazon.com:
J.J. started the Chevy up, patched out in the gravel, but then moved slowly down the drive, into the absolute dark except for what the headlights found...more
Hunting in the Dark was originally published by the late, great Bartleby Snopes press. It’s now in its second edition and the inaugural missive from my new Flexible Press.
Have you been to a bisexual community picnic? How about a bisexual conference? A bi cabaret? Do you know if there is a bisexual community where you live?
In the United States there are at least five million bisexual people, generally invisible to the straight society, the gay community, and even to each other. While the vast majority of these five million people live within the straight or gay world, some have formed a community of their own. Bi America will take you on a tour of this bi community, and help us understand what it means to be bisexual in America.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: Because
Chapter 2: Relating Bisexuality to the World: The Jerry Springer Show
Chapter 3: Bisexuality Defined
Chapter 4: In Search of a Bisexual Community
Chapter 5: Women’s and Men’s Experiences: Penthouse Bisexuals and Support Group Men
Chapter 6: The Transgender Community
Chapter 7: What Is The Relationship Between Non-Monogamy and Bisexuality?
Chapter 8: The Bi Community in the Time of AIDS
Chapter 9: The History of the Bisexual Community
Chapter 10: The Future of the Bi Community: GLBT Identity vs. Cyberspace
Chapter 11: Because Repris
Appendix A: The Survey
Appendix B: The Bisexual History Project
Appendix C: Resources
I HAPPENED TO STUMBLE ON YOUR BOOK when I was wandering around the library one day out of boredom. I checked it out, out of curiosity. I have been a bisexual since I could remember, but being only 18, and having just came out, I was interested in a resource. I immediately related to many of the topics. I have never felt more like I was inside my own head. All the things that I think, all the things that I experience, hate and invisibility, were there. I felt like at last, someone understood me. My first serious girlfriend broke up with me last week, because she said that she couldn’t deal with the idea that I would leave her for a man, and she found it hard to believe that I loved her because I was a bisexual. I have dealt with comments like this from so many lesbians i have befriended, and your book opened my eyes. I am not the only one, and there is a Bi community that will welcome me, despite my inability to “pick a gender”. Thank you so much, I have never felt so much at home in my orientation, or so happy in my choice to be openly Bi.–S.H. 2-10-2006
“I HIGHLY RECOMMEND THIS BOOK to anyone who is curious about bisexuality, loves a bisexual person, or thinks they might be one. Bi America has been waiting for a book like this. Written in an engaging, witty, and conversational style, it vividly paints a picture of the hopes, dreams, and struggles of bisexual people in the United States today. Burleson combines information and personal interviews from the Bi History Project, an online support group, and bi community activists and participants to convey a sense of the out and proud bisexual community–who we are and where we’re heading.”– Beth A. Firestein, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, Inner Source Psychotherapy
“ENJOYABLE AND INFORMATIVE. . . . There is no question that this book will provide readers with a better understanding of the social, sexual, political, and HIV-associated situations of bisexuals and help them to quell the related misunderstandings that surround them. Burleson writes beautifully and provides a very evenhanded depiction of the bisexual in America .”- Martin S. -Weinberg, PhD, Professor, Department of Sociology, Indiana University ; Co-author of Dual Attraction: Understanding Bisexuality
“THIS BOOK OFFERS IN-DEPTH KNOWLEDGE OF BISEXUAL ACTIVISM AND COMMUNITIES in the US , including local, regional, and cyberspace groups. It situates bisexual practices in the context of other queer practices and communities in the US , including transgender, HIV, and non-monogamous.”– Serena Anderlini D’Onofrio, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Humanities, University of Puerto Rick, Mayaguez; Editor of Plural Loves:Designs for Bi and Poly Living
I JUST FINISHED YOUR BOOK a couple weeks ago and I can’t tell you how much it has helped me! I’ve on a bulletin board for married women who love women, some of whom are Bi. I’ve recommended your book at least 20 times since I finished it…it seems that there is always a question someone asks that you’ve answered in your book!
Seriously…thank you. It’s so difficult to find information on bisexuality here, and in spite of the internet, I still found myself at a loss for direction at times. Your book was a Godsend!
Ahnwee Days is my new 74,000-word manuscript in search of a publisher. Are you a publisher or agent? Contact me!
Life is not going as planned for Sybil Voss. Growing up in a small town on the Great Plains, she had one goal: to get out as soon as she could. She succeeded, moving to New York after college and building a reasonably happy life. But now she’s back, the sole caregiver for her elderly father who suffers from “media-induced psychosis” and can only communicate through TV sitcoms.
But Sybil’s making the best of it, running her antique business, “New York ’Tiques,” serving as mayor (since no one else ran), and organizing a town festival, Ahnwee Days.
Problem is, things are not going well for her tiny town of Ahnwee. What was once a hopping little city with actual businesses and families is slowly becoming a ghost town. The remaining 200 residents have to put up with the insult of a lake so polluted that it glows in the dark, a wind turbine on the edge of town that occasionally golfs cars into the rough, and the ever-present smell of pig manure from the factory hog farm on the hill. How could it get worse?
It can and does. The pig farmer says that the land the town sits on is his, and he wants to expand his manure pond. At the same time, the local Indian tribe also claims to have papers for the land, and they want it for an RV park for their casino. That's not all: Green Systems Power, a wind turbine factory, wants the town’s land for parts storage, and they’ve bought a county commissioner to make it happen.
With her friends, a lonely widowed knitting store owner and a midget—sorry, little person—beef jerky king with anger management issues, Sybil is fighting back. As Sybil says, “Sure, Ahnwee is just an antique shop, yarn store, strip joint, and meth lab, but it’s OUR antique shop, yarn store, strip joint, and meth lab.”
Along the way we meet a mayor of a rival town with unclear motives, a nerdy strip club owner and his “girls,” and an existential — and suicidal — town pastor. Our heroes hold a town meeting and a press conference, and they appeal to the county board, all with the same result: humorously dismal failure. The only thing left to try is for Sybil to run for, and win, a seat on the county board. How can that fail?
Ahnwee Days is a laugh-out-loud satire about the value of community and how small towns across the country are struggling against forces far beyond their control, a story that can best be described as Garrison Keillor meets Chuck Palahniuk.
American Fiction Short Story 2014 Finalist
Most days Fox hung around outside Paul’s Superette after school like all the other kids. The treeless corner of broken pavement and street lights was the natural place for guys to hang out, Paul’s being the only business around for several blocks, and there was nothing else to do. Fox seemed popular among the horde of teen boys and, rarely, teen girls, their faces reflecting our written-off, forgotten inner-city neighborhood—poor white kids, lots of Mexicans, a few black kids from a nearby high rise, and a selection of new immigrants of all shades from places I had never heard of. I went to school with Fox. Not that we were pals or anything, but I knew him from homeroom. He was an Indian kid, high cheekbones, crew cut, tough—even at sixteen his shoulders filled out his t-shirt like Adrian Peterson; he would laugh at my jokes, and we even talked a couple times about the Vikings and other guy stuff. Being friendly sometimes might explain why he saved me one day...
A Compact Man
Adam brought a homemade pie. His younger sister brought a green bean side dish, her oafish husband, and Adam’s beautiful, curly-haired four-year-old niece. His mother cooked the Thanksgiving turkey. His father didn’t do anything.
His mother, a small woman with very-black hair and good posture, took the pie from Adam carefully in two hands. “Thank you, Adam. You are a wonderful cook.”
“You’re looking good, Adam,” His sister said as he shed his long grey wool coat in the vestibule of the seventies split level....
Tree House Trilogy
1: Tree House
The day the lumber arrived in Jack’s driveway Phil didn’t think anything of it. Two-by-fours, two-by-sixes, plywood—nothing unusual. He assumed Jack was working on a deck or something.
“Jack, are you working on a deck or something?” Phil yelled over the white plastic picket fence between their properties.
“Or something, yes,” he said, cutting the straps off the load in his driveway. Jack grunted and groaned, breathing hard. Jack was maybe mid-thirties but he looked older, pear-shaped and out of shape....
Now appearing in The Neighbors, a Zimbell House Anthology
Manipura, a Love Story
I farted in yoga class today.
I didn’t mean to. Really. While I’m certainly not above letting one go if needed, I wouldn’t purposely pass gas in a room full of people. We are talking a quiet room, too: just a little Tibetan monk music and the male waif instructor calling out the poses. In a way it was his fault; I was just trying to do what he always talked about, to relax and focus on my breath. But as I went from hala-asana (plow pose) into ananda balasana (happy baby pose) I relaxed the wrong muscle, and bam! Rumble in the Bronx. Did anyone notice? Hell, yeah. They couldn’t have missed it. We’re not talking about a little freep. No, this was a sonic boom...
Read the entire story at the humor website Decasp
American Fiction Short Story 2014 Finalist
My first fire was the 1982 Columbus Street fire. RC and I and three other boys were hanging out with Axel on the roof of the Chicken Shack, talking about poontang and how we were getting so much we weren’t getting enough sleep (lies, of course), when Axel heard a siren. Axel was our unspoken leader, a lanky dude with long hair and a bad complexion who was older than he should have been. What ears! Axel could tell right away if a siren was from an ambulance, a police car, or a fire truck. Without a word, we five followed him down the fire escape, falling all over each other, and piled into Axel’s ’78 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. Gravel flying, we bounced out the alley and into the street, “Kashmir” blasting from the eight-track….
Appearing in American Fiction 14
Men With Nets
2014 Machigonne Fiction Contest semi-finalist
We stood in the spring-swollen river, sun falling behind the birch and poplar trees lining the tops of steep, rocky hills on each side. The north shore of Lake Superior, the final destination of the rapid, freezing-cold water, was a hundred yards away or so, and between us and it were six other men, all standing knee deep just like us, dressed just like us, all looking for the same prey. Hip-waders. Wool and gore tex. Hats with earflaps. Beer bottles and flasks. Men standing at the ready, nets, aluminum with nylon filament, poised in front of bodies and resting on shoulders, buckets near on shore, handy for when the onslaught came. Some in pairs and some alone, we all looked downstream, waiting, while the din from the stream battering rocks drowned out any conversations, unless the man stood right next to you…
Appearing in The New Guard 14
Frogtown Multicultural Fair
Late afternoon I walked back to my apartment in Frogtown from a small coffeehouse on University Avenue. I like to study out. It’s so boring to be cooped up all the time, and all I did was study. Taking on a full load of credits and a lifetime of debt tends to mean you study a lot.
After a block, I passed this guy chaining up his bicycle. A sort-of metallic green Cannondale mountain bike. It looked new. As I passed by not thinking about anything, I saw him struggle to put his Kryptonite lock around a signpost and lock it. Strange how it caught my eye: he set the bar into the U part and turned the key, but, as he got up, he left his keys hanging off the side…
Appearing in Lost Lake Folk Opera v2n2
Hot, Safe Fun
We shook. I liked to shake hands—builds trust, especially with middle-aged men. I took my seat behind the desk. He looked around my small office, examining one poster at a time with the wide-eyed reverence of a child’s first visit to an amusement park. He stopped at one poster for an extended visit; it featured two shirtless young men standing close together, one guy looking at his friend’s chest, the other holding out a small red condom package and looking at the camera. The caption said, “Hot, Safe, Fun.”
I opened his chart. “You’re here for an HIV test?” I wondered if he would answer, his attention so focused on the poster.
Now appearing in the 2014 anthology: Recognize: Voices of Bisexual Men. Available now in paperback
Twelfth, the Hard Way
I washed highball glasses in the bar sink. I did it without looking—dip, dip, shake, and stack, a thousand times a day. Porn played on TVs hanging from the ceiling while the sound system provided some techno for a soundtrack. Around the room a couple-dozen customers leaned on the bar or on wobbly high-tops while balancing their drunken asses more and more precariously on wood stools, fighting battles that cannot be won, looking for solutions in the shadows, hoping for love, settling for lust, replacing the pain…
Appearing in the March 25, 2013 issue of the late Prague Review
Escape of the Six Breasted Nymphs
His palms were covered in sweat. He took a deep breath and reached out to knock. The hotel room door swung open just before his knuckles could do their work, leaving his fist to swing in the air and him off balance. A small round woman with small round glasses stood in the doorway.
“You must be Mr. Opie,” the long gray-haired cherubic mother figure said.
“Is Mr. Blackwell in?”
“Why, yes, dear. Please come in.”
Once in the hotel room, he dropped any pretense of being cool, instead reverting to a slobbering fan. “I can’t believe I’m here, in this room, about to meet the best author in the world!”
“Well, thank you, dear.”
Samuel Blackwell never appeared at Sci-Fi cons, so when he heard Blackwell was the keynote of the Mincon convention, Allen couldn’t send in his registration fast enough….
Appearing only in the 2013 humor sci-fi anthology, Cosmic Vegetable
Playing With Trains
I met Bruce’s father before I met Bruce. My mom and I were moving our boxes into our new home, an ugly old brownstone on the edge of downtown in a neighborhood with no trees.
“Is he your boy?” he asked my mom on the front stoop. “Handsome young man. You must be very proud.” No one ever referred to me a handsome before. Seemed improbable, if welcome to a skinny, gangly thirteen year-old…
Appearing in the February 1, 2013 issue of the late great Parable Press
I stand in a small wicker basket hanging below an enormous white balloon floating above the green French countryside, the chaos of battle three-thousand feet below, spread before me as gaping wound running north and south. Flashes of red, clouds of dust and smoke, I am expected to observe where the shells are falling. I am the eyes of the artillery set up miles from the battle…
Appearing in issue #3 of Niche Magazine
Penelope and Abe
Penelope and Abe walked their two dogs down the overgrown dirt path on a particularly beautiful spring evening, scent of lilacs and cottonwood fluff in the air. The lake at the regional park with its dense canopy and rugged trails was Penelope’s favorite place to exercise. She believed communing with nature a requisite fundamental to being human.
Abe would rather have been home watching Mad Money…
Appearing in the 2013 inaugural issue of the late great The Milo Review
An Unfortunate Incident
My penis came out at work.
I was at a meeting, just a regular old meeting, and there it was in all its five-and-a-half inch turgid glory. One minute we are all sitting around a conference table listening to Anne prattle on about the SWOT analysis, the next minute my engorged penis was poking straight up out of my chinos.
Part of that was my fault….More
Appearing in issue #6 of Neutrons Protons
At 6:00 AM I went to the park across from the courthouse to wait and see what work would come in. Already the usual people had gathered, and by 7:30 there was quite a crowd. It was a dusty morning. Not good, since, being after Memorial Day, we all wore white tuxedos…
Appearing in the December 2011 issue of the late great FortyOunceBachelors
The man stands on the corner, against the red brick wall of the once-department store. As I leave my job at Foot Locker, it’s hard not to notice him, his body reminiscent of a Charles Addams cartoon, hunched, and porcine, cloaked in a black wool, ankle-length coat with a fur collar; his round face, high cheekbones, bug eyes, he is a spitting image of Peter Lorre—uncanny, really…
Appearing in the Fall 2011 issue of 34th Parallel
He put a quarter in the machine just as he’s put quarters in machines much like this one for over three decades. The coin hits the bottom of the empty cash box and responds appropriately, to spec, lights turning on, translite fireworks on the backbox arching and flashing and making recorded explosion sounds for exactly six seconds. Looking good. He checks his clipboard, running down the list. Lights in the four thumper-bumpers: check…
Appearing in the Fall 2011Clare Literary Journal
First published in the Fall 2011 issue of 34th Parallel
The man stands on the corner, against the red brick wall of the once-department store. As I leave my job at Foot Locker, it’s hard not to notice him, his body reminiscent of a Charles Addams cartoon, hunched, and porcine, cloaked in a black wool, ankle-length coat with a fur collar; his round face, high cheekbones, bug eyes, he is a spitting image of Peter Lorre—uncanny, really. He wears a classic cloth cap, making his face all the rounder. All of which is good enough to draw one’s attention on a downtown street, but that’s not the main thing. His left hand in his pocket, he holds balloons in his right. Latex, apparently filled with helium, at the end of a normal length of string, a standard bunch of balloons. Easily twenty or more. Under the streetlights, the world tends toward the monochromatic, but still I can tell they are red and green, blue and yellow, purple and pink. 'Tis very strange, this squat man and his balloons.
The weirdo is on the other side of the street as I hurry across the avenue. Distracted, I fail to pay attention to traffic and a cab nearly runs over my feet making an illegal turn. While it is late, after 8:00, being just before Christmas, there are still a number of day people about, carrying bags, laughing, making their way to transit and their cars. As I pass the balloon man, I can detect no expression on his face, no clues of his thinking, no transparency of his motives. Newspapers and other scraps have blown against his legs, creating a circle of litter about him, and I deduce that he has not moved for quite a while. Passing within five feet, neither of us speaks.
I report to my job the next day after class, head full of literature, of Sartre and Camus, of art history and French film, of women’s studies and Betty Friedan. All are my favorite subjects: French film because of their stark beauty, existentialists because of their fundamental truth, and women’s studies because of the girls. In the case of the latter, I am the only man in a class of women, and while I admit less than pure motives for initially signing up for the class, I have become a better man from reading the Feminine Mystique. As a theater major, I believe it crucial that I expand my view to be more inclusive of other worlds, other cultures, other ideas than our routine, middle-class mores propagate. This is my belief, this is my manifesto, this is how I shall guide my life from this point forward. I shall allow beauty and truth to be their own justification, my mind to expand to the corners of the possible, and my heart to govern my struggle.
For now, my struggle is putting a size-eight running shoe on a size ten foot. But she has always been a size eight, she tells me. I lie and say that these shoes run small. I guess beauty and truth take a back seat to commission. Thus is the struggle of the proletariat.
At the end of the day, pulling my LLBean backpack on one shoulder, I come out of the backroom. The lights switch off in blocks as I approach the front checkout where the manager waits. I unzip the bag—laptop, a tattered copy of the Myth of Sisyphus, and a Klean Kanteen stainless steel drink bottle—for her inspection. Bag back on my shoulder, the manager unlocks the door.
—Goodnight, Todd, she says.
I pause outside and check foursquare on my iPhone. Jesús is at Camp, Gillian is at Om, and Ezra and Tre are at Café Urbane. Hmmm…I’m not feeling Om tonight, certainly not Camp, but a cup would be nice.
On the cold, windy street, a hint of dry snow falling, I survey my route three blocks to the bus stop. Nothing unfamiliar. Except, there he is. Identical to last night. Same exact spot. Seemingly the same exact balloons. Same clothes, same expression, same litter. There are a lot of wackos in the naked city.
Café Urbane, my favorite place to chill, filled with just the right people, not the usual pretenders. I bring my café Americano over to the table where Ezra and Tre are both furiously texting.
—’Sup, I say.
Seems Tre has the night off from his lately more than FWB Gillian, so she could go to some bachelorette party. Thus, her being at Om tonight. Ezra is doing the usual, as in not much. He’s wearing some clearance Target wear and a dirty pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars.
—Hey, Ezra, come on downtown and let me set you up with some new shoes, okay?
—Whatever, Todd, Ezra says. Look at you. You look like an Abercrombie & Fitch mannequin.
Just trying to help. Sheesh. Ezra can be fun, but he sure can be a dick, too. I can’t resist.
—And while you’re at it, stop by the Apple Store and trade up from that Nokia POS cell of yours. What is that, a 6300?
The next night I get off work, walk out the door, and there is the balloon man across the street, once again. Exact same spot. And the next night and the next. A new night person taking up residence on what is now his special corner. That makes for five straight nights I walk by him, not a word said. I wonder about his holdings. Are they for sale? If so, his salesmanship needs work. No sign, no call for “Balloons! One dollar!” No “Hey, buddy, interest you in a balloon?” Are they merely a prop in some sort of street person performance art?
My day off, Sunday, I sleep in, sleep it off, and roll out of bed about noon. Throwing on a vintage Led Zeppelin t-shirt, distressed Diesel black jeans, and my new Harley-Davidson boots, I grab my leather jacket and go out for coffee. I step out of my apartment building and onto Lake Street. Blinded by the sun, I rub my eyes, scratch my head, and nearly collide with my neighbor, who is texting, walking her wiener dog.
—Oh hey, sorry, Holly.
She tells me about a party she’s having in a couple weeks, an after-the-holidays-recover-from-our-family-of-origin party. Sounds splendid. She throws mad parties; lots of ladies, more of the Yoga set than Betty Friedan. Definitely, the place to, as they say, see and be seen.
—You’re lookin’ good, Todd. Are those Diesels?
Yes, I will definitely have to make this party. Maybe I have a chance with Holly; she’d look good on my arm with her raven black hair, modern dance body, wearing her little black mini.
Eventually, we go in opposite directions. On the corner is my target, Café Urbane. I get my café Americano, sit in the window in an old brown leather living room chair, and pull out my iPhone to see what’s up. One text: Jesús is just getting home after the night out. Dude’s gay, and the man knows how to party. Ezra is silent, and so are Tre and Gillian. Sunday morning for you. Or noon, anyway.
I look out the window, heavy traffic flowing by, sun glinting off windshields and mirrors. A pause in the traffic, and there he is, across the street, facing my way. Same balloons. Same coat. Same, same, same. WTF?
I watch him over the next hour, trying to understand. Trying to get a clue as to his motives. In that I am disappointed because he doesn’t move, he doesn’t flinch, for the entire hour. People walk by, but no one approaches, and he appears to say or do nothing. I can’t guarantee he’s actually alive. He doesn’t appear to be animate, that’s for sure. Cities are rife with colorful characters, but this one is starting to piss me off.
I toss my biodegradable coffee cup into the compost and walk out onto the street. He’s gone as if he’d never been there.
Back at work on Tuesday, I yell at a bunch of skateboard punks obviously shoplifting Nike Air Max shoes from the display. I’m not sure what they plan to do with one shoe, but maybe it’s the sport of it. The titular leader of the delinquents calls me a zebra-bitch. Apropos, given my stupid-fucking referee uniform. I laugh.
End of the day, bag inspected, out the door, I stand outside. Yes, there he is. I’d have been disappointed if it were any other way. Crossing the street, unusually bitterly cold tonight, I walk by and say,
He doesn’t reply or acknowledge in any way. I catch my bus.
At Lake Street, I duck into Café Urbane, thinking one more café Americano for a nightcap. I check my messages and talk with my dear mother for the first time in days. Now sufficiently wired, it’s time to walk the four blocks to my apartment building. Nearing home, I startle and freeze in my tracks. The balloon man is standing in front of my building. How can it be? Why is he here? I continue, slowly now, expecting his agenda to finally be revealed. I am mere feet from him as I turn up my stone stairs, measuring every step, never taking my eyes off him. He, on the other hand, is seemingly oblivious to my existence. I am at a loss. By pure instinct, I go with muscle memory and ascend the stairs, unlock the security door, and go inside. Once in my apartment, I regain my center and run to the window to look out.
He is gone.
The next day at school, Ezra and I leave class to meet our posse. My head hurts. Stage: Craft and Critique often gives me a migraine. Ezra and I have nothing in common when it comes to the theater; I model myself after Godard and Herzog, and he is inspired by Wes Craven.
It is class break and lunch time, so we move with a sea of students up to the union. I see him: the balloon man is on the plaza, centered in front of the building. I can’t believe it. I stare at him as we flow with the crowd into the building. As we walk, I ask Ezra,
—Bro’, did you see that guy?
—The guy with the balloons?
—A guy with balloons? No, I didn’t see a guy with balloons.”
Ezra is smiling, and I wonder if he’s giving me shit. We go downstairs to The Barrel. I get a garden sandwich and join Tre, who is reading about pottery shards on his Kindle.
—Hey, dude, did you notice the balloon man coming in?
—What balloon man? he says.
—That strange dude holding a bunch of balloons. Right outside. On the plaza.
They look at me like I’m insane.
—What’s he talking about? Tre says to Ezra.
—Beats me. I think Todd’s losing it. Ezra replies.
—Come on. Really? Neither of you saw him?
I tell them about what’s been going on: the Charles Addams character, Peter Lorre, bunch of balloons, stalking. Ezra laughs.
—’Sup? Gillian says, walking up to the table with a tray holding one jumbo salad and water.
—Todd’s being high-strung, Tre says.
—So nothing new, she says.
They laugh. Fuckers. Ezra could have been messing with me, but if he didn’t see the balloon man, it reinforces my theory, my worst fear: the balloon man doesn’t actually exist. That he is a figment of my imagination. Could it be? Am I going crazy? Too much pressure—school, work, school, work—and now I’ve finally broken, lost touch with reality.
—You gotta relax, Gillian says.
Or could he be the representation of something else? The embodiment of my existential angst, perhaps? Maybe my id, brought to life to haunt me. He could be my punishment, my own personal purgatory, sent to punish me for whatever actions and intentions deemed worthy.
—He can’t. He’s been rehearsing Hamlet, and he’s Method, Tre says.
—In other words, “Drama Queen,” Ezra says.
Once again, they all laugh at my expense.
— I prithee do not mock me, fellow student, I protest.
They don’t understand: what if this balloon demon is a messenger, sent by God or the gods to warn me of my path, my hedonism that must stop? Or could he be Gabriel, and I am chosen to warn the world of the end?
I must know. I plan to take a picture of him with my iPhone, but when I leave after lunch, he is gone.
Another night of kids buying status embodied in shoes. Another night of neon lights and paper cuts. After the lights flick off in patterns, after the boss checks my bag, I walk out on the avenue prepared, iPhone at the ready. Things to say, like, “What the fuck, man? You following me?” “What do you want?” “Are you lookin’ for trouble?” But he is not there. For the first time in two weeks, he is not on the corner across the street. What does THIS development mean? Is this a sign that my fever is breaking? Has the ghost moved to fresher haunting? At once relieved and ill at ease, I hope I never see the apparition again, but at the same time, I’m not sure I can live without knowing the truth, however horrible it may be.
I go home. He is not in front of my building, nor do I see him the next day or the next. Sunday I go to Café Urbane for a scone and cup, and he is not there either. But what is there is a single balloon, tied to the espresso machine. One red balloon.
—Where’d you get the balloon? I ask the tattooed young Latina barista.
—Beats me. It was here when I got in.
What does this mean? Was he here? Was this a message? Why the change in strategy? Could it mean whatever his horrible mission is it is now coming to a head?
—Can I have it?
She unties it and hands me the string. I hold the end of the string in front of my heart, red latex balloon floating just above my head. All seems in order. It’s just a balloon. I go outside and across the street to where I saw him before and stand in the same spot, holding my balloon as he did his bunch. Ezra walks up, apparently on his way to Café Urbane. He stops, stares, and says,
—Sad, man. Just sad.
He walks on. Fuck him. Something is going on, something big, something…I don’t know: symbolic? Sinister? Revelations-esque? Beats me. And that’s why I have to know what’s happening.
But nothing happens. People walk by, saying nothing. I say nothing. No epiphany is forthcoming. No enlightenment achieved. I let go of the balloon and watch it float away.
I weather the holidays fine, welcoming the break from class and tolerating Christmas dinner with my mother and Al, her third husband. My half brother and a half sister—the brother from number two and the sister from number three—were there, and I might as well not even be in the room. A faint echo of a long-forgotten relationship, I am too dear Mother a forgotten item left behind after what turned into not much more than a date. Mother told my therapist she did the best she could; true, but her best didn’t add up to much.
I have not seen the balloon man for over a week, but he has been busy. I go to work to find a yellow balloon at the register. No one knows how it got there. I see a balloon soaring into the sky for no reason. There’s a balloon tied to a lamppost outside of the Jungle Theater. My awareness keen, my attention sharpened, I know every new balloon brings me closer to whatever foreshadowed conclusion.
Saturday night, I arrive at Holly’s party next door, early, around ten. I get a text from Jesús saying he is a block away, so I wait for him to make our entrance together. Above, I see people on the balcony with red cups, wearing black t-shirts and mini-skirts without coats even though it must be below zero. I don’t have a coat either, having commuted only a few yards down the street from my building, and thus, the air bites shrewdly.
Jesús and I get to the third floor and follow the music (something from Mali, I’d guess). Holly’s wiener dog barks when we knock. Holly opens the door; she is wearing a lime green party dress and heels. We walk into the apartment filled with people, but not only people: balloons. Red and green, blue and yellow, purple and pink. There must be twenty or twenty-five, maybe a hundred balloons.
—Cool balloons, Jesús says.
I freeze. Fear, confusion; I feel like a pawn in a game, a rat in a maze. How can he haunt me like this? What have I done?
Holly hands me a red cup.
—Where’d you get the balloons? I say.
—Ezra brought them. Aren’t they great? It’s like some kid’s birthday party in here. It’s good to see you! We never get a chance to talk. How’s drama school going? You’re in something by Shakespeare coming up, right?
I spot Ezra across the room with Gillian and Tre. I ignore Holly and make my way through the people.
—Bro’, where’d you get the balloons?
—Hey, Todd. ’Sup?
—The balloons, Ezra, where’d you get the balloons?
—Funny story. Got them from this weird guy on the way here. He gave them to me. I offered to pay, but he handed them to me and walked away. Man, there sure are some freaks in this town.
I push my way through the crowd, run out of the apartment, out of the building, and into the street. I can still hear the music above. Looking up, there’s Ezra, Tre and Gillian above, laughing. Partiers pack the balcony, all watching me. It is cold but I am hot; steam rises off my sweating body.
There he is, across Lake Street, dispassionate, now without his usual balloons floating above him. I yell across the street,
—Devil! Whither wilt thou lead me? Speak! I'll go no further.
He says nothing, standing as always, not seeming to take notice of me.
— Speak. I am bound to hear.
— On him, on him! Look you how pale he glares! His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones. Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!
— What dark message do you bring? Spit it out! Have your say and be gone, oh Clown of Death!
Still nothing. This cannot stand. The moment of truth is at hand. I run across the street, blood-lust in my heart. A city bus hits me square on and I fly through the air, landing in a broken heap on the opposite curb. Strangely, I do not lose consciousness, and it does not hurt, even though my left arm is obviously twisted behind me and my left foot is next to my ear. I’m looking up at the sky. The round face of the Clown of Death enters my field of view, now standing above me. I can’t talk. He looks down on me, expressionless. Fade to black.
Waking up, the searing pain announces my return to this world before I open my eyes. I see a white ceiling. I begin to perceive the beep and whir of machines.
It sounds like my mother. It is. Her face comes between me and the ceiling. Her eyes are red.
—Oh, honey, you’re going to be all right. Don’t you worry. They are taking good care of you. I’m here. We were so scared!
Third husband Al’s face, smiling, joins my mother’s. I want to talk but can’t. I turn my head to the left; it hurts to do, but I must. My arm is in some device, wrapped in plastic. I can’t look down to see my leg, which burns as if every inch is being attacked by a tattoo needle. Machines flash, click and buzz. I slowly, painfully turn my head to the right. Tre and Gillian are here, Gillian crying with Tre’s arm around her waist.
—Oh, Todd, we’re so, so sorry, Gillian says.
—Really, dude, Tre says.
Ezra walks into the room carrying a red balloon.
—Ezra! Gillian says.
—What’s the matter with you? Tre says.
Published in 2013 in Niche Magazine
I stand in a small wicker basket hanging below an enormous white balloon floating above the green French countryside, the chaos of battle three-thousand feet below, spread before me as gaping wound running north and south. Flashes of red, clouds of dust and smoke, I am expected to observe where the shells are falling. I am the eyes of the artillery set up miles from the battle, firing blindly, counting on spotters such as myself to ensure the shells are finding their purchase, or, at least, not blowing up our own. My balloon is tethered via a cable to a spot a mile behind the French lines so that the Hun on their side of no-man’s-land cannot shoot me. Windswept and cold, I look through binoculars, yelling instructions into a field telephone to a man below. Five degrees left! Two degrees right! Up six degrees! That’s it! Six panzers, three o’clock!
Bullets rip through my wicker basket, wood splintering; my hands instinctively cover my face from flying shards. The binoculars fall through what had been part of the floor and side of my basket, and I watch them spin, tumble out of sight. A bright blue Fokker tri-plane roars by at a hundred miles-per-hour chased by two of my Sopwith Camel protectors. Careless! I neglected to spot the enemy plane coming in from behind me for the kill. A real boner, I should have jumped before the plane got near; that is what we are trained to do. The hydrogen above is highly explosive and my position puts me ridiculously in peril. Time to correct my mistake, and I prepare to jump. I pull on my harness connected to the parachute in a bag hanging below, but there is no tension in the straps. I’ve made the jump seven times before—not a high number, many of my balloon corps colleagues have jumped twenty even thirty times—and I know the straps should have some tension, but instead it’s light as thread. I pull and pull, until the ends appear, shredded, unattached.
I yell into the phone, I’ve been hit! The parachute is gone! Bring me down! But no one answers, the phone, dead. I look through the gaping hole. Not only is the parachute gone, so is the cable holding me in place and the phone line that went with it. I look up to see which direction the cigar-shaped kite balloon points and thus where the wind is blowing, but I already know the answer: from the west, from the French positions to the Germans.
My fate is sealed. I will die today—minutes, maybe hours, I’m not sure, but today. There is no escape, nothing to try, no one to make my case to.
Around me, the air battle boils between three Camels and the now two Fokkers who want me dead, the rattle of machine guns, brightly colored planes dodging and spinning in the three-dimensional battlefield. The second Fokker makes a pass at the balloon itself, bullets passing through the fabric envelope without obvious or at least immediate consequences. The bullets alone usually do not ignite the hydrogen, but they do create leaks and tears. The Fokker who sealed my fate sets up to make another pass, but before he can, a Camel scores a hit, the blue tri-plane disintegrating as if papier-mâché, the pilot tumbling out into the air. No parachute opens. I feel no triumph. Nor do I feel animosity against my killer. Quite the opposite. He was one of my brothers, people of the air. If he didn’t kill me, someone else will. That has been my fate since I was assigned the balloon corps; this is the nature of this war. In fact, I hold no grudge against anyone below, no matter their nationality. I’m sure they don’t belong there any more than I do here.
I am not a soldier, at least not at heart. I am a philosopher, a graduate from Notre Dame. However, while Plato said “Knowledge is the food of the soul,” it doesn’t put dinner on the table. I am a pharmacist by training. Or, more accurately, training to be a pharmacist, apprenticing at a small apothecary in my neighborhood. When I went through draft processing in April, America had just declared war joining the side of the Brits and French. When they asked me my profession, I said “pharmacist” but the apparently deaf-in-one-ear old clerk heard “farmer,” guaranteeing my enlistment not in the medical corps but in the infantry. I got lucky, or I thought so at the time, by being assigned to the balloon corps. No trench foot, no lice. But it was not luck; anyone could see I would have made for a poor poilu. Not that the standards are high, but a farmer would have made a better choice. I am only five-foot-two and weigh no more than one-hundred-twenty pounds. In basic training, I wasn’t strong enough to drive a bayonet into a muslin dummy; one could only imagine what a failure I would be on a real Hun.
But being light is of benefit to me now, as the basket is severely weakened. I lean on the side to avoid the hole, holding onto one of the ropes connecting me to the balloon. I consider jumping, be done with it, but no, I won’t do that. Not that I am afraid to die. As an atheist, I have no soul to reconcile, no lord to sit in judgment. However, I certainly do not covet death, either. I value life, in fact, at this moment more than ever. Socrates said that “Death may be the greatest of all human blessings.” I don’t know about that, but I’m going to find out soon enough. No, all that is left is to extend my life as long as possible. Isn’t that all any of us can do, no matter what the time left? Make the best of the time we have, however limited? The reality that in my case it is a matter of minutes, maybe an hour at the most, makes no difference. Who am I to say what the value is?
The wind is gone for me as I am moving with it across the countryside. Before me is the front, but I prefer to look behind me, at the rolling verdant hills, lush, a patchwork of farm fields framed by hedgerows and stands of trees. “Nature is the art of God,” said Dante, although, in my case, it would have to be a metaphorical god. A town in the distance—white houses with tile roofs, a church steeple—seems strangely quiet, peaceful, despite the proximity of the horror below. A town much like my own Midwestern American town. Tree-lined streets, white fences. I can see my little brother, wearing his professional baseball uniform for the first time, so proud, Mom and Pop smiling. Eighteen and off to play town ball after being the high school star, next stop the bigs, who knows. It was not to happen, though. War.
The basket is crumbling, little by little, the remaining floor sagging, pulling apart. The basket is only five by five feet, a quarter of which is already gone, so there isn’t room for more disintegration. I loop my arms around a rope in case of sudden failure and to perhaps take a little weight off the weakened structure.
The explosions from mortars and artillery grow louder. I pass over the French lines into no-man’s-land, stretching from horizon to horizon. Now probably fifteen hundred feet off the ground, I am going down, the holes taking their toll. I feel cold to my marrow. No longer green and sage, the land around me is in scarred in various shades of gray: light gray earth, dark gray trunks of burned trees, medium gray smoke from fire, and light gray smoke from the gas. Accenting the otherwise colorless field below are flashes of red explosions. I cannot yet see the red of the blood spilled between the trenches. Dust and smoke increasingly obscure the sun; what had been a bright blue day is now brown, hazy. Below, I see a straight line through no-man’s-land, what appears to be a short stone wall; yes, this must have been a pasture, horses, perhaps. I can imagine a lush green paddock with wild grape vines crawling over the wall, maybe trees. There are no trees now, no grape vines, no horses.
I hear a sound as if Hades has opened its doors to the screams of the damned. To my right, thousands of French boys jump over the top, running into the gray landscape, getting maybe twenty or thirty feet before dropping on top of those who came before. Some get as far as the stone wall where they huddle three, four, five or more deep, but it’s a false hope, and the artillery and machine guns find them soon enough. Quickly tens, hundreds, thousands are now dead or dying from ripped open bodies, smashed organs, severed arteries or the choking gray mist of chlorine gas. Funny—up in my balloon at three-thousand feet, the war was abstract even though it was splayed out in front of me. Now that I am getting closer and closer, the artillery, the guns, mines, are for the first time all too real. Had I thought myself a mere spectator?
I am well within range of German rifles. I release my bowels—something one spends an entire lifetime trying not to do when dressed is now completely irrelevant. No one fires. They are focused on the charging poilu; I am no threat to them. A curiosity, I am sure, but not a threat.
I smell the battle, the acrid odor of gunpowder and ozone. Still, now that they are quite finite, all my breaths are sweet. I remember lying with a French prostitute I had hired for the night in Paris on my last leave. “An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris,” said Friedrich Nietzsche, and she surely was an artist. After she had taken my virginity, she slept next to me, and, even though it was quite dark and I was quite drunk, I remember watching her chest rise and fall, amazed at the wonder of it all.
The basket finally gives in and cracks in half. Holding onto the rope, I swing above the tattered remains of wicker, trying unsuccessfully to find somewhere to place my feet, the broken wood swinging away each time my foot makes contact. The jute cuts into my hands. The balloon is fast losing shape, and fabric blows and whips around me. The ground is getting closer fast, but I am still high enough to see the German lines ahead of me, boys behind the parapet, guns all pointing ahead. I hear hundreds yelling behind me, what remains of the push. I can’t believe anyone has made it this far. I enter a cloud of smoke prepared for my next breath to be my last, but the smoke is from simple fire, not chlorine gas. It reminds me of camping with my family on an island in the river when I was ten. The campfire seemed to follow me no matter where I sat. My parents, my little brother, and I fishing, singing songs. A happy time. In the dark next to the fire, I laughed at my pop’s attempts at scary stories, although they seemed to work on my brother.
Below me, the ground is littered with bodies. I hear the screams now, see the French boys jerk and drop in rows, as the machine gun sweeps from right to left, left to right. My younger brother willingly joined and went off to war to—in the words of President Wilson—make the world safe for democracy. The Frenchman Ernest Renan said a half-century ago, that “The greatest men of a nation are those it puts to death.” I remember getting a letter in May from Pop telling me their son, my brother, had died in the Battle of Cantigny. Indeed. The greatest men.
I see heads turn skyward as the huge, barely inflated white fabric slowly falls from the sky with its cargo of one man holding onto a rope kicking in the air. I am grateful for my diminutive frame, and remember how, despite my stature, I could do more chin-ups than any other boy in school. The earth approaches, and judging from the pace of my descent, it occurs to me for the first time that I might just make it to the ground in one piece. What happens then is anybody’s bet. For now, no one shoots at me, and I am grateful if puzzled, why not. I am low enough to see their faces. Both the French and the Germans stare in wonder as I descend between them.
I touch down, as gentle as can be, and suddenly, strangely, inexplicably, I am standing on the ground. Still a bit of hydrogen left, the fabric of the balloon billows around me as if I were walking in a cumulus cloud. All I see is the gray ash of the battlefield at my feet and the undulating fabric making up my private world of white. I remember hiding under the covers with my brother; I must have been no more than five, he then three, laughing, our father pretending he couldn’t find us. The sound of battle, so loud moments ago from above, are muted, muffled, removed from my reality. But I know my world is an illusion; the battle all too real. At any moment, I am sure to be shot or have the remains of the balloon hit a mine or be hit by a shell and burn. But I find peace, if only for a moment, in pretending the war cannot find me.
Published in the fall 2011 Clare Literary Journal
He put a quarter in the machine just as he’s put quarters in machines much like this one for over three decades. The coin hits the bottom of the empty cash box and responds appropriately, to spec, lights turning on, translite fireworks on the backbox arching and flashing and making recorded explosion sounds for exactly six seconds. Looking good. He checks his clipboard, running down the list. Lights in the four thumper-bumpers: check. Crossover tube lit: check. Ramp lights on: check. One by one, all the tiny lights are checked visually and then literally on the clipboard, and all are deemed satisfactory. The machine—a product born of art design from the guys upstairs, expert circuitry layout from the engineer, quality manufacturing on the part of the suppliers, careful handling and soldering of a half-mile of color-coded wires from the line staff—now benefits from the experienced quality assurance, “QA,” of Felix Hoyt.
—Good, he says, laying the clipboard down on the old, handmade wooden tool cart next to him. The cart was easily as old as Felix, maybe older. Felix is fifty-nine. The Rally Pinball Company is sixty. The factory has moved on three occasions—the first time being in fifty-five, when it first expanded; in seventy-eight, when it expanded again after the company’s best year, selling twenty-five thousand machines all over the world; and again in ninety-five, when the company contracted, that year selling only thirty-six hundred machines. ninety-five was also the year the family who started the business sold out to a group of investors, a group of crooks according to many, who promptly moved manufacturing from an old brick building downtown to a modern concrete rental in an industrial park in Bloomington. The cart, well, no one would be surprised to learn that it made all those moves.
Felix made two of those moves himself. There would be no more moves for Felix, since these were the last minutes of his last day, as it was for all the employees at Rally Pinball. The last business exclusively manufacturing pinball machines, Rally sold just over a thousand machines this year, the victim of a slow bleeding that started with Pong and Asteroids and slain finally by a tidal wave of electronics. Who needs a chrome ball, as in a physically real metal ball, not to mention all the other bricks and mortar of bumpers and plungers and flippers and thousands of other props, when you can download an app for free?
He examines the plunger. Twisting it, pulling it back, feeling the compression in the spring. Somewhere there’s probably a device that would tell him the exact compression of the spring in pound-foot. Such a device may have been purchased by the group of investors as they sought to “improve” operations sometime in the past. Such a device may even be in the cart right next to him if he looked. Instead, Felix checks it by feel, the way he’s done it since ’80 when he moved off the line and took over from Horace Portchek. Horace showed him how in his last days before the going away party and he and his wife heading out on the road in their Winnebago, the achievement of his retirement dreams, all paid for by his Social Security and the defined benefit plan the family who owned Rally provided for retirees. If Felix of the present stood next to Horace of 1980, one might easily remark how much they look alike—a coincidence, one can assume—in that they are both, shall we say, robust men, a product of a lifetime of beef-eating, both with baby bird hair and lined faces, both with calloused hands and stubby, tar-stained fingers. Horace doesn’t look like that now; he died many years ago when he flew off Highway One into the Pacific between San Francisco and LA with his wife and Winnebago. And Felix didn’t look like that in nineteen-eighty. He was younger and very handsome: dark wavy hair, blue eyes, and solicitous smile. He was not only good looking, he was a catch. A young man with a steady job. A young man living the dream.
He was single then. He met the woman who would be his bride in ’83 when he backed his Caprice into her Civic in a grocery store parking lot. All his fault, he got out of his car, apologizing profusely. He found a true beauty. Later, when having a beer after work with his friends from the factory, he said it was love at first sight. As they courted and then married, they made love knowing in their hearts that no one could ever have had what they had, that they were the sole proprietors of that kind of passion.
Around Felix, fixed to their workstations on the factory floor, are the last seven employees, the final shift, putting their tools into boxes provided to them by the latest investment group, boxes destined for auction. They do this painfully, reluctantly, grudgingly, with no joy or passion. Many of these people have worked here for almost as long as Felix, one even longer. Now they are all going home for the last time. But that’s not what Felix is thinking about. No, he’s not thinking about his friends and co-worker’s pending unemployment; nor is he thinking about his job, his unemployment, about the mortgage, about health insurance, about college tuitions. No, Felix is thinking about his last game, this last machine.
First things first. If there’s one thing Horace impressed upon Felix, it’s the need to follow procedure. Felix presses each flipper button, and the corresponding flipper works. He tries different tempos, trying to illicit errors—better now than when the machine is set up in some bar or bowling alley somewhere. It seems to be fine; however, Felix knows the real test is when the ball hits because the cheap solenoids they’ve used for the past ten years can fool you. Next, Felix looks at the ball. Looks good. He gently uses the plunger to make it roll just a bit up the entry lane to see its roll. He’s seen a few off balance ones in his time, but this one is straight and true. He sighs, pulls back the plunger, and launches the ball. As has happened the vast majority of the thousands of times he’s done this, it follows the prescribed path up the entry lane, arching across the top, until it reaches the upper left corner, a slingshot, sending the ball back across to the other side and another slingshot, which sends it back again, only this all happens in less than a second, each time it’s momentum eroding, just like it should, until it finally finds the left rollover, lighting the letter “U” above it. Exactly how it is supposed to be.
Now Felix has to play the game for real. Up until now it’s been all by the book, but once the ball comes through the rollover at the top, there is no by the book. No two games are the same. Felix has to play the machine and play it well, testing each component, making sure when it says double bonus, it is in fact double bonus, making sure that the playing field isn’t a hair off six and a half degrees—something that has been measured, but measuring isn’t the same as playing—making sure the playfield isn’t warped causing the ball drain to the right or left, making sure the bumper is tuned just right so that the ball doesn’t bounce in the same place forever, making sure any of a hundred-plus details are just so. Felix has played this particular machine since its introduction in nineteen ninety-five. While there have been refinements since, it’s still largely that same machine. Old school. No whirling spinners, toys, electromagnets, or ball captures. Two flippers, just the way it should be.
When Felix got a job at the factory at twenty-three, fresh out of a tour in Vietnam, he thought he was king shit. And he was, among his friends, all of whom grew up playing pinball at the bowling alley. As did Felix, who was well known among a certain set as a real master of the game. Now he would work to build the machines. Later, after he and his comrades had long moved to playing pinball at Jake’s off the freeway, he got to tell them that he would now be the new QA officer, no longer making the machines, but playing the machines for a living, all day, eight hours a day. Plus a raise. His friends all looked up to him, envied him. King shit indeed; truly, living the dream.
The ball bounces around between the thumper-bumpers, dropping finally to a flipper for the first time. Felix fires it back up with the right flipper via the spinner on the left. The flipper feels right. Strong, with the right amount of authority. That solenoid’s fine. The ball is above the slots again bouncing right and left, before picking a different rollover than the last time, lighting an “S.”
While he plays, he’s not thinking about going home to an empty house: his daughter off to college, his son in the Marines—he volunteered, not like his old man—and his beautiful wife…his beautiful wife…What happened? One day she got her own bed, then she moved into another room, and finally she slept in another house. People say they drifted apart—it happens that way sometimes, no one’s fault, no one to blame. And Felix didn’t harbor a grudge, but none of that made it easier.
After this game, he’ll slap an inspection sticker on the back of the machine, put on his coat, say goodbye to everyone and go home to a frozen pizza and some boob-tube. When he’s safely in his recliner, clicker on his thigh, pizza on a plate in his lap, paper towel tucked under his neck, Sports Center on, he won’t think about how the house still looks like his wife is in the other room, same trinkets, photos, furniture—minus a few things she took of special sentimental value—representing a clean, drama-free break two years ago. He won’t think about how he’s one man in a three-bedroom house, the other two bedrooms set up as if his son and daughter still live there, beds made, shelves dusted. No, he’ll be thinking about what’s next. Too young to retire, and, even if he could, no pension like the one Horace got, since that beni ended when the family sold out to those thieves. Skills limited to making pinball machines, he might as well be a mail sorter on a train. He’ll say to his empty house,
—What am I supposed to do? Somebody tell me, what the hell am I supposed to do?
But now he plays. As always, he plays because that’s what he’s paid to do. But this time, he also plays for his co-workers. This time, he plays for honor. And he plays brilliantly. Already he has double bonus, first ball. He’s racked up seven hundred and fifty-six thousand points before draining for the first time. He watches the score tally, the bonus points add up, all according to spec.
It seems fine, passing inspection, but he should play another ball and test the tilt with a little nudging. He launches the next ball and picks up where he left off. The ball almost drains down the middle, but he executes a delay shot off the end of the flipper that fires the ball so hard it bangs against the top glass. He smiles.
—Hey, Felix, take it easy. We need to get that out of here in one piece.
The foreman, Charlie, slaps him on the back and walks on. Felix doesn’t like it, mainly because it interrupts his concentration, but also because he wishes Charlie would die. That child, that skinny little college kid, got the job only because he is some nephew of the managing director. Charlie doesn’t know shit about pinball. Screwing around with his blackberry, now that’s more in his wheelhouse. The little weasel probably spends his day twittering or whatever that is. He feels his face getting red. How could he respect someone who doesn’t understand the game?
The madder Felix gets, the better he plays. A loud knock announces a free game.
—Way to go there, Felix, someone says behind him.
He considers, just for a moment, tilting the machine as he’s supposed to do, to make sure that works right, but for the first time ever, he decides not to. Instead, he plays.
He becomes aware of someone standing next to him, then on both sides. He traps the ball, holding the ball back with the flipper, takes a breath, and looks at his two co-workers on each side of him, both fine men, both people he’s worked with for most of his adult life, guys who stood up for each other at their weddings and at their sides at funerals. He drops the flipper letting the ball roll and fires it through the spinner on the left and up the ramp to the overhead, where it lands in a saucer. As designed, the ball pops out of the saucer to the thumper-bumpers. Felix nudges the game with his hip, keeping the ball moving between the thumper-bumpers longer than it would naturally, the oldest pinball trick in the book. He’s not sure what that is testing, and he never does it, generally, but he wants to now. He senses more people are standing behind him. The ball comes off the bumper and flies down the right gutter. Felix looks around. All his co-workers are there, crowding around him.
—You almost have another game.
—Will you look at that.
Charlie walks up from behind the machine. —Hey, guys, let’s say we wrap this up. Time to go home.
No one says anything, all looking at the foreman, and then, —Charlie, do we have to explain this to you? The man on Felix’s right says.
—Leave us alone, says a woman behind Felix.
—Leave Felix alone, says a man.
—You don’t have to get nasty about it, Charlie says, looking like a mix of threatened and uppity. —I want to go home. Don’t you all want to go home?
—Yeah, Felix. Play.
Felix launches the third and last ball. It goes through the “U” rollover again.
But his hot hand continues, ball taking on a life of its own. It comes down from all angles and with various speeds, but Felix is able to dig it out every time. He hits the last of the drop targets on the right, granting triple bonus and setting off the fireworks display on the backbox for exactly four seconds. Spec. The ball comes down and he executes a perfect dead flipper pass from the left to the right, seamlessly launching the ball back to the ramp and the saucer.
There’s no memory now on Felix’s part about QA, clipboards, and stickers; there’s only him and the machine. There’s no unemployment, no divorce, no disappointment, no empty rooms. There’s only a steel ball and lights.
A second game knocks, and his friends cheer.
—Come on, guys. Really. Let’s go home. That machine passes, Charlie says, now next to the backbox.
Without missing a shot, without breaking concentration one bit, Felix yells,
—Charlie, this machine doesn’t pass until I say it passes.
—What’s wrong with you? Don’t get all mouthy with me.
Felix fires the ball back to the top, through the spinner, but it goes down the “S” again, still one light to go.
—Charlie, someone behind him says, —I swear to God, if you don’t leave Felix alone right now…
Charlie doesn’t say anything else, drifting off, teeth clenched. The ball finds a rhythm between the three thumper-bumpers racking up points as Felix takes the chance to stretch his stiff back. But that lapse of concentration costs him, as the ball comes off a slingshot too high and drain lane left. The group groans, but instead of game over, Felix puts the left flipper up and gives the machine a hip-nudge on the left side at exactly the right moment, causing the ball to bounce up out of the drain to the right flipper. He fires it back to the top, through the spinner.
—That’s a “death save”!
—Felix did a death save!
His friends and co-workers cheering, fully appreciating a move all have heard of but few have seen. The ball bouncing back and forth, before it goes through the right rollover, finally lighting the last letter, the letter “A,” setting off the fireworks display, this time for a full seven seconds.
The bank of lights overhead flick off and the machine goes blank. The ball hits a silent bumper and, momentum deadened, finds its way down the middle, past the useless flippers, into the drain.
—I’m telling you, go home, Charlie says from across the floor, standing at the breaker panel.
—What did you do that for? Someone says.
—Charlie, what’s the matter with you? He had over two and a half million!
—Have a heart, will ya?
But there’s nothing else to do. The last seven employees drift off in different directions, show over. Felix takes a day-glow green sticker off the cart, initials and dates it, and places it behind the backbox. He opens the cash box and retrieves the quarter, returning it in its rightful place on his cart. The next day that very same cart will not go in the truck with the rest of the stuff headed to auction, but will be thrown in a dumpster as worthless, quarter and all. And the next day, one of the investors will arrive with two hired movers who will load the last Fourth of July model pinball machine by the Rally Pinball Company into a pickup and deliver it to the investor’s rec room. But now, Felix walks across the floor, to the break room, and to his locker. The others don’t look at him, not knowing what to say, not sure what to do. Felix, without fanfare, takes his coat out and puts it on, and says goodbye to no one in particular.