17th Street Review

Excerpts of The Balloon Factory

S. Yarberry

FREAKOUT FREAK OUT

The night prior was very long. It consisted of philosophic discovery, beer, and kissing. The three of these crescendoing into a sexual experience that cannot be contained in the written word. At least not now, since I am very tired. It is the morning now, and in the morning I wake up, as we, humankind, are wont to do, unless of course met with fatality in the night. Although I often quote Blake—Every Mortal Loss is an Immortal Gainˆ— in moments where I am left without anything to say, such as in moments of great loss, I do find fatality both frightening and undesirable. This is all to say that when I wake up, as I have done every morning for years and years, thank God, I always think to myself: I have woken up. Some days this phrase is said with more enthusiasm than others. For instance, on a day where I wake up next to a beautiful dancer and without a pounding headache and no existential dread you might find me saying: I have woken up! In comparison to when I wake up alone, hungover, and filled to the brim with a variety of dread ranging from existential to minutely social; in such a case as this you might find me saying: I have woken up… in a downtrodden tone. Today though: I have woken up. I have actually woken up quite early—for the birds, that “morning chorus” as the poets say, have woken me before I prefer to be woken. There are many people in the world who delight in the sounds of birds—whether it be morning, noon, or night. However, I am actually sickened by the sounds of birds in all genres of the day. There is a poem I have pinned to the wall above the stove. Everyday as I wait for the water to boil for my coffee, I read this poem. The poem goes like this:

In the Desert by Stephen Crane

In the desert

I saw a creature, naked, bestial,

Who, squatting upon the ground,

Held his heart in his hands,

And ate of it.

I said, “Is it good friend?”

“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it

“Because it is bitter,

“And because it is my heart.”

Every morning I read this poem. I think apple, then passion, then passion-apple, then the water starts hissing and I lose my train of thought. I make coffee. I get dressed.

When I arrive at the building I am greeted not by Phillip but instead by Lily who is wearing a tight pink dress. She holds my hand in an intimate sort of way. She says, “Everyone here calls me The Patron Saint of Manufacturing, but you can call me Lily.” “Thank you,” I say, because it feels appropriate while also a bit nonsensical. She gestures for me to take a seat, then leaves the room. She calls from the hallway, “don’t go anywhere, don’t go anywhere.”

As I wait for Lily’s return I stare out the window. The sky is grey like a silverfish—glittery, almost, like it might slip away. There are many things in my life that have in fact slipped away: memories, silk sheets, voices of the long gone, opportunities, sweethearts, and, potentially, worst of all, ideas. A lover once laid down next to me, put her hand on my cheek, and said “I love you because you are bitter and because you are my heart.” I always smile at this. This never slips away, although the lover did indeed. I should switch “ideas” and “sweethearts.” If only ideas were more valuable than matters of the heart.

Lily enters the room holding a navy colored shirt. “Here,” she says. I slip it on over my white T-shirt. “You look like you know what you’re doing while simultaneously you look deeply troubled,” Lily says. Before I can respond, and I have nothing really to say, she takes her hand and places it on my shoulder. She looks at me in the eyes, she says, “All you have to do is be here.”

Lily takes me to a new room. It is a room full of mechanical happenings. There are others here. Not many, but a handful. She tells me for now just to watch. “Watch everything,” she implores, “let the voyeur in you take over.” She smiles. She has been smiling since we met. I sit down and watch. Lily is mostly interrupting the focus of other workers by putting her hand on a shoulder and saying things such as, “I hope you feel accomplished” and “I respect your choices.” Out of the corner of my eye someone in a flannel shirt is painting the walls a grey color—like the sky outside. A worker sees me watching the wall painter. The worker says, “The wall painter paints the wall the color of the sky everyday. It started off beautiful, then became a burden, and now is just all in a day’s work.” “Oh,” I say. The wall painter looks at me like he wants me to help. “Don’t help him,” says Lily while putting my hand in her hand. It was flirtatious and reassuring when Lily touched me. She then said “It’s okay to want what you want.” This comment frightened me, but I also liked it. “Okay,” I said. Someone dropped a pile of papers and they scattered across the ground. “Don’t help!” she demanded, as she could see in my eyes that natural inclination to assist in picking up the papers from the ground. She did help and I watched her pick up paper after paper while humming an indiscernible tune.

Someone sweeping the floors swept past my feet. “I’m the sweeper!” the sweeper said. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Well I’m The Sweeper Casanova,” the sweeper said. “It’s a pleasure,” I replied. We began speaking of mundane things at first: brooms, weather, traffic. Then things moved gradually to a familial conversation. Inventors. Lake houses. Pets. Then what we were doing here. Here as in this very building. “What are you doing here?” Casanova asked. “I’m making some money,” I responded. Money, I thought. How horrible of a word. Look at what I’m doing for money! I thought and thought. “I’m writing a biography of William Blake,” I told Casanova—my only confidant, so far. “Huh,” said Casanova. “There are many things one can do in a life,” the sweeper said and began sweeping, moving further away from me—slowly at first then Casanova seemed to be in another world entirely.

While sitting on my silver stool, watching and watching, I was hit suddenly with an immense weight that made tears come to my eyes. I was crying quietly at first but it grew into a startling sob. Something was in me, blooming—a treacherous bloom. Simply, I was struggling. William Blake in a letter once referenced his depression as “a bout of Melancholy,” and I often find myself using this turn of phrase when speaking of my own blue moments. I wanted to stand up and say: Just a bout of Melancholy! It’s nothing really, nothing really at all...Though I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. I merely sobbed while the wall painter painted and the workers worked.

As I sit crying on my silver stool Lily says, “Oh you’re a weeper.”

“It’s a weepy,” said a voice who would come to be known as Buck.

Lily corrected herself, “You’re a weepy then.”

“Excuse me?” I sniffled, “What do you mean by I’m a “weepy?”

Lily said, “All of us here have decided there are two kinds of people in this world: the weepys and the weep-nots.”

I wasn’t crying anymore.

“Maybe it is weeper…” said Buck.

“No one else here is a weeper besides you,” said Lily.

A weeper I thought to myself, I’m a weeper.

Someone called Lambchop put a hand on my shoulder. Lambchop said, “We don’t get to choose what kind of person we are.” Until this moment I had always thought we did in fact get to choose what kind of person we are. Now, though, the sole weeper of the group, I felt very comforted by Lambchop’s words. Perhaps we don’t get to choose. “Yes, perhaps we don’t get to choose,” I said.

WHEREFORE ART THOU

“Something special is happening,” a worker whispers into my ear. It is a startling thing to have whispered into one’s ear. I wouldn’t say I startle easily; however, surprise whispers where a stranger’s lips brush my ear would be an example of something that does startle me. “What is it?” I ask. “Brahms,” the worker whispers, “Brahms is speaking to us.” I had been smoking a cigarette and drinking on the job, which I had learned gave me an air of power and mystique amongst my supervisors and colleagues alike. For instance, The Sweeper Casanova had commented, upon seeing me in the midst of my activity, “I respect those who risk their lives for pleasure.” “Thank you,” I had responded. Lily had said, upon learning of my new traits, “You seem fulfilled for once.” “I am,” I had said, “I am.” I had to always be cultivating a self, here, ever since my incident—I found this to be an exhausting part of my life. I put my cigarette out on the ground very meticulously. I never leave a cigarette alone until I am certain each ember has been extinguished without question. Fires, I have learned from chatting with many a firefighter, are not only dangerous, but easily preventable. My process is simple: I stomp, inspect, stomp again, inspect for smoke once more, press the sole of my boot, again, upon the cigarette remains, before walking away, in which I peer over my shoulder to ensure there is not a stream of smoke wafting from my ephemera. I hope to avoid tragedies at all cost. I have always been this way. The drinking gives me much less anxiety and there is no process for my disposal of cans, bottles, and the like. The worker helps me check for embers before gently urging me towards the door.

As we approach the room where the machines churn, I am met with the sound. The sound referred to as “Brahms.” The worker touches my arm as we enter. The worker says, “It’s Brahms. It really is.” The worker takes me over to a machine. No one is working. Everyone is swaying. “A piano sonata,” someone whispers into my ear. “A piano sonata!” another worker chants. A woman swoons. Lily is humming aggressively to keep tempo. “I don’t know anything about Brahms,” I tell the worker. “Faux paux!” the worker shouts at me. “There is no security in ignorance,” says The Sweeper Casanova while shaking his head. “If you don’t know Brahms, then I don’t feel safe anymore,” says Buck. Workers are looking at me in disdain while swaying to the music. Lily comes over and says, “It’s okay to not know Brahms.” “Thank you for saying that,” I tell her. “I don’t want you to cry again,” she says. She kisses me on the cheek and decides to order everyone lunch for the occasion. When lunch arrives everyone is calling it hors d'oeuvres. Sandwiches, I think to myself, we are simply eating sandwiches.

In the days that followed Brahms was playing at all hours of the day. After closely inspecting the machinery I had found nothing to be wrong, but that the gears must be rubbing in such a way that it created a sound of a piano sonata. A rare, unlikely, but not an impossible happening. “Magic,” people whispered, or “God sent this to us,” others mused. As the days progressed workers began appearing at work dressed in parlor garments—vests, white gloves, novelty canes. The lunches became more extravagant and began consisting of mead, earthy cheeses, and pastoral meats. “Life without decadence is no life at all,” said the wall painter. The walls hadn’t been painted since the start of, what would come to be known as, “The Brahms Affair.” The walls were a bright and uneven hue of blue though if you listened carefully you could hear rain hitting the roof. The walls became a gravestone of a time before Brahms had changed everything.

One thing that quickly became a nuisance was that there was no way of turning the sound down without the risk of losing our music forever. I began to wonder if it would ever stop. Surely, I thought, as quickly as it began it could disappear. A brief silence, then the mechanical thrush of mechanism would take back over our days. I could continue my drinking and smoking in private—my only time of solace and repose.

Lambchop suggested we play a parlor game as people’s feet were beginning to hurt from swaying to the music. There was even a grumble that one thinker couldn’t think anymore—her head swimming with the grandiose symphony, a blur of music across her mind. “I can’t think. I can’t think!” she was saying over and over. It was disturbing nearly all of us. Lamchop suggested an exquisite corpse; therefore, an exquisite corpse was started. The final product read:

On a summer day in paradise

Someone uncapped a beer with their tooth

When the tooth cracked it became unbearable

Unbearably elegant in its red dress

A woman spoke. She said

The heart wants what the heart wants

The heart is wearing a red dress

Her eyes were like a thistle by the train tracks

No, her eyes were like a train going fast

When you look at what you have

You have nothing, but what one can grow

What can one grow?

It all starts in the back of the throat.

“I’m suffering from ennui,” said Lambchop, putting an end to the parlor game. However, the parlor game gave rise to the idea that a poetry reading from a real poet would be a nice thing to do with Brahms as the backdrop. Lily asked for volunteers. “Keats?” she suggested, “Someone could read quotes of Keats!” Buck said, “One could compose a poem for the occasion...I’m a fan of all that is contemporary.” I could see out of the corner of my eye that The Sweeper Casanova was looking at me. I was drinking my mead and chewing my pastoral meat and avoiding eye contact. I prayed that he didn’t remember my biography of William Blake. Does he even know who Blake is? I asked myself, but then felt like a snob for asking such a question.

He did remember. Casanova raised his broom into the air saying, “attention! attention all! There is a writer in the midst of this very room.” He then dramatically took the broom and tapped me on the shoulder with the brush. A gasp was audible from the workers and managers alike. Lily came over to me. She said, “You never mentioned this to me.” She was visibly heartbroken. “I’m so sorry I never told you this,” I said. She turned her head from me. “Read! Goddamnit just read.”

“I’m writing a biography,” I clarified to those gathered around me. “Oh a biography, that doesn’t count,” said Lily, perking up from her momentary despair. “A biography of William Blake,” I clarified further. Buck chimed in and said, “We haven’t agreed on whether biographies of poets are appropriate for this occasion.” Suddenly the music stopped. The rain pattered on the roof. No one knew what to do. That’s when Phillip reappeared. His vest maroon with gold paisley, his hair slick, his pants tapered, his cane novel. His voice stern and cordial. He said, “In times like these we must be open minded.” I was handed another glass of mead and a microphone. Phillip said, “Tell us the story of William Blake.” Everyone gathered and sat cross-legged on the linoleum tiles. I began, sheepishly: The Brief and Startling History of William Blake.

MONEY

“Beefcake Begonia, is that you?” I ask the woman sitting in the breakroom. “No, not in the least,” she says, “I’m Jessica.” “Oh,” I say. “And I’m Sodapop Jones,” says the man sitting next to her. “Oh alright,” I say. “A classic case of mistaken identity,” says Lambchop as he sits down to eat his lunch. “You look exactly like Beefcake Begonia,” I say to Jessica. “I’m not!” she implores, “I’m just Jessica.” “Leave her alone!” shouts Sodapop. “Okay, okay,” I say, “I’m sorry.” “Never say you’re ‘just Jessica’ babydoll,” says Sodapop Jones, “you’re everything and more…” “I would bet money that you were Beefcake Begonia,” I say. “Did Beefcake date a handsome fellow named Sodapop?” says Sodapop. “No,” I say, “but sweethearts come and go.” “That hurts my feelings,” Sodapop says. “I’m so sorry,” I say, “I’m so sorry.” “Now look what you’ve done,” says Lambchop as he puts a hand on my shoulder, “you’ve caused a case of mistaken identity.” “Everyone is uncomfortable now,” says Sodapop. “What else would you bet money on?” asks Jessica. “The thing is, I would bet money on a lot of things,” I say. “But what?” Jessica continues. Lily comes in right as Jessica proposes the question. Lily says, “Life’s a gamble!” Everyone smiles. Lily gestures at me and says, “This one just looks like a gambler.” “I agree,” says Lambchop, “a weepy and a gambler.” “Yes,” says Lily, “yes.” Sodapop chimes in, “we only just met and immediately I thought: gambler.”

As everyone weighs in on my appearance of that of a gambler, my mind goes wild. First, with wild geese—a big flock flying across the blue sky of my mind. Fantastic, I’m thinking as I make the sun set—the sky turning pink. Second, with wind, wild is the wind playing in the background. Lastly, with money. Wild with money. I used to spend many nights at the casino. The casino was called Big Money. When I walked in everyone called me “Ace” or “Champ.” “Good evening Ace,” the manager would say. The bartenders would all wink at me and slip me free drinks. “Whiskey on the rocks for our champ,” one would say. “Our Byronic Hero!” another would say amidst winking. “Howdy big spender,” Beefcake Begonia would whisper into my ear. We’d laugh. Beefcake and I would play the slots until the cows came home. The cows never came home. We would play the slots forever. Day and night blurred into one continuous smudge of my life. Where did the money come from? I don’t know. But I had it. I had it, then more and more of it. French fries and whiskey and money! This was one week. It’s neon in the middle and blurry on the edges, this memory—I mean. Beefcake Begonia, where did you go? As The Sweeper Casanova always says, “There’s no relief for a broken heart.”

“What’re you thinking about?” asks Jessica. I suddenly realize everyone has been waiting for me to answer the question. “We want to know,” says Jessica. “What would you bet money on?” asks Lily. “We can’t wait for your answer,” says Lambchop, “we just can’t wait any longer.” “We all care about you, so much,” says Lily. “Love,” I say, “I’d bet on love.” “Hmph,” says Lambchop, “I thought you would say ‘the future.’” “There is no future without love,” says Lily. “Where’s Jessica and Sodapop?” I ask. “Back to work,” says Lily. “We all must work,” says Lambchop, “or nothing would get done.” “I know,” I say. “You shouldn’t be concerned with other people’s whereabouts,” says Buck walking into the room. “I bet you never think about me,” says Lily. “I think about you,” I tell her. She places her hand on my cheek. “I’ve been thinking about your biography, often,” she says. “Have you ever questioned the folkways of the Romantic Age?” she asks. “I question the folkways of the Romantic Age on a daily basis,” I say. “Good,” she says. The Sweeper Casanova overhears us. He says, “One must have perspective!” “Right,” I say, “but where did Jessica and Sodapop go?” “They’re cowboys,” says Lambchop, “and you can’t keep track of cowboys.” “And you know we’ve tried,” says Lily. “Why are there cowboys at our balloon factory?” I ask. “You can’t keep track of cowboys,” says Lambchop. “I suppose that’s true,” I say. “It is true,” says Lambchop, “it’s one of the only truths.”

ENCOUNTERS WITH J.

Today, I encountered J. for the first time.

This encounter is brief like a camera flash and memorable like the way it sticks to your eyes. J. and I are in the breakroom. We both enjoy smoking cigarettes inside. We bond over such a delight as is smoking inside factorial architectures. We decide that we like what we consider “a smokey interior” and “going against the grain.” J. says, “Put a Virginia Slim in my mouth and call me a lucky man!” I do as I’m told—lighting the cigarette all the while saying “lucky man, lucky man” and smirking. We get along just fine, J. and I.

J. is what we call a “stand-in-balloon-man.” This lingo refers to a man standing in for a worker who is sick or off galavanting. J. loves galavanters. J. says, “Galavanters are how I make my money” and winks at me. He’s like the father I never had.

Our encounter braises many subjects: Fireflies, doormats, donkeys, dental dams (brief, but memorable!), lawn chairs, life guards, and old Kit Kat commercials. It’s this latter subject that compels me to turn on the small grey television in the corner of the room. The TV lacks commercials for sweettoothers. “If only the world revolved around sweet tooths!” J. says. “If only,” I nod, “if only.” The news is on. “The outside world!” shouts Lambchop. “The outside world, indeed!” I say. We laugh and laugh, then a melancholic silence falls upon us all. Virginia Slim ash falls to the floor. I give up on my cigarette and get ready to walk out of the room— Suddenly, J. shouts “wait! a bunch of cockers!” “Cockers?” I ask, inquisitively. “An elevator full of them,” he says with glee. “Oh wow” J. continues “like a room full of shiney snakes those little dogs are, huh..” “Dost thou like snakes?” an unmemorable worker asks. “Don’t interrupt me,” J. says, “but, yes, I love snakes and I love cockers.” “A gaggle of cockers squirming across an elevator floor! Heaven sakes!” J. says. His Virginia Slim burning close to his lips now. “Just imagine all the hair glimmering, cascading, to the floor. The small legs scuddling like crabs at the bottom of the sea. Hairy crabs! Cascading! Some say a spaniel is nothing but a spaniel, but I have always said cockers are the creme de la creme of the kingdom a la animalia.” J. says. “Don’t you agree?” J. asks. I nod. I nod hard and fast.“Cockers are such elegant animals,” J. keeps going, “don’t you think?” “I do respect a small spaniel with a silky coat,” I say. “A cocker is classy,” J. says. “A cocker is sassy,” J. says. “I’ve never met a cocker I didn’t like,” says J. “Dost thou have cockers yourself?” asks the unmemorable worker. “They come and go,” J. sighs. “What do you mean?” I ask. “Well let’s just say one of my mottos is Never send flowers! Always send cockers.” “Oh God, I see…” I say. “Risk it all or risk nothing!” I hear Lily call from the other room. “There’s a bellhop in there too!” shouts Lambchop. “A Bellhop?!” exclaims J. “A bellhop in an elevator,” I confirm. “Bellhops radiate elegance” J. states. “Sure,” I say. “A bellhop is classy,” J. says. “A bellhop is sassy. I’ve never met a bellhop I didn’t like,” J. implores. “I actually come from a long line of bellhops,” Lambchop says. “Don’t brag!” says Buck while unwrapping a sandwich. “The truth can never be a brag,” Lambchop responds. “We get it, your pocketbook is full of old bellhop money,” says Buck. I’ve never seen Buck like this—his face rosy and his voice trembling. Lily pokes her head in. Lily says, “Buck you look marvelous!” This calms Buck. “Thank you,” Buck says.

“Oh Lampchump,” says J. “you’re a lucky bastard!” “It’s Lambchop,” says Lambchop, “imagine cutting a sheep in half and you’ll never forget it.” “Oh wow,” says J. “I will never forget that.” “Occasionally violence is a useful tool,” Lambchop says. “Oh yeah?” says J. “Sure,” says Lambchop. We sit and watch the news. I imagine a bellhop cradling cockers like babies. I imagine the others inside—a fancy lady, a man with a voice like Elvis. “Light me another vinny!” J. demands. I do as I’m told, lighting another Virginia Slim, ash falling to the floor, mumbling lucky man lucky man, while the news unfolds—images of cocker spaniels lighting up like sirens in our minds—the day dragging on into night the way it always does.

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