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On Silver Skates


ISSUE:  Summer 1989

The green balloon rose through the tree. Hendrick remembered thinking some kid his age must have let the string slip through his fingers; distracted by the puppet show or the clog dancers or some other event at the park fair, so the balloon had escaped. Hendrick remembered how the balloon made its way upward through the tree, climbing dextrously from limb to limb like a gymnast or a monkey in a zoo. Each bump against a branch, any contact with a leaf twig could have punctured the thin skin, but the balloon remained a perfect oval, rising higher and higher as if guided by some intelligence on the ground; perhaps, by the boy or girl who had let it slip away.

Or maybe he had done the trick, willing the balloon its safe journey, maybe making a bet with the powers that govern such things: that if the balloon did not burst, then this day would come out all right. He would not do anything dumb or silly to embarrass his father during the park fair and the day would come out all right. He had held his breath as the balloon bounced against the maple’s canopy once, twice and then again, blindly feeling for an opening and then, suddenly, it slipped through the leaves and into the uncluttered air. Free.

“Where have you been, Skippy, I’ve been looking for you?” His father had appeared, and the question was snapped toward him as the older man made his rounds, as a shortstop might whip the ball over to Musial at first base. Hendrick had fallen in, almost running, taking three steps to his father’s one stride. “You’re my right hand. Did you deliver that message to the Dixie Doodles?”

“Yessir.”

“Good man. Now here’s the mayor. Over by the puppet stage. Now, look sharp,” and they set off in that direction, the right hand with the ruby ring on its small finger already extended as they neared the official party. “Mr. Mayor, welcome. I’m Butch Hendrick.”

“He runs Special Events for the Parks,” an aide quickly told the mayor.

“Why of course, Butch. This is an outstanding occasion. Outstanding.” The politician’s huge, black hands not only enveloped his father’s hand, but then they moved to grip his shoulders, his upper arms as if to estimate his volume for a package. Then the genial face lowered over him. “And this must be young Mr. Handrack.”

“Hendrick,” his father said. “He’s my right hand.”

“I can see that. Indeed, I can see that. Now, what I want to know is when is that barbecue going to get ready?” The politician rolled his eyes and everyone laughed. Some looked at each other and then laughed. “If you think I’m a good mayor; I am a Chief Justice Supreme of barbecue.”

“That’s going to be in about an hour. After the Golden Age horseshoe contest.” His father had to say it fast, because the mayor and his party were already moving toward the next exhibit, greeting people, posing for a photograph. “A great man,” his father told him. “He’s going to be governor someday. The first black governor. Did you see how he kept holding on to me?”

“Yessir.”

“That was the old fraternity one-two, secret whammy. I tell you, Skip, he’s going places and yours truly is going to be on the train. Now we got to check the concessions. C’mon son. No time for skylarking.” The red balloon had disappeared into the blue sky.

A Sky Full of Balloons is just a classic,” the woman is saying.

“Well, thank you,” Hendrick says as he signs the book.

“I must have worn out a half dozen copies with my own children and this one is for my first grandchild. Of course, we love your other books too.”

“That’s very good of you,” he says and returns the book to her. It had been a slow morning in this book store but just as Hendrick was getting a little hungry, a little thirsty, business was picking up. He has noticed several middle aged women, grandmothers seemed to buy a lot of his books, working their way through the Humor and Travel sections of the store toward where he sat at a table piled high with his own titles.

“Do you do many of these?” The customer points to the placard beside him. Over his photograph is a banner of type: MEET STANLEY HENDRICK. “It must be difficult to leave your own family.”

“Actually, I’m alone these days and my son—our son—is off on his own on the West Coast.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman says, though Hendrick is not sure if she expresses sympathy for his domestic condition or regret that she has somehow just contributed to his unorthodox life. “Well, you do beautiful children’s books anyhow,” she says.

“Thank you.” He sees that it is almost noon in this small city where his publisher has put him down briefly to sign books, appear on a local television show, and speak to the students of an Art Institute. It would be not quite nine o’clock in Los Angeles. Tomorrow he will be in St. Louis, where Stan Musial became a legend, and where the difference in time will be an hour less.

“Stan the man,” his father would say, taking his small shoulders in a grip that somehow conferred honor by way of the pain, because of the pain.

“This is your little boy, ?” the woman asked.

“This is my man, Stan,” his father said and Hendrick remembers turning away to better handle the glory. The woman was one of the Dixie Doodles, an all-female barber shop quartet that was to appear later on the wooden stage set up in the middle of the park. The members of the singing group represented the four possible variations of height and weight as their voices registered the several ranges between alto and soprano.

“What’s the matter?” his father asked.

“It’s this darn tie,” she replied. She was already in costume. The Dixie Doodles wore a version of a man’s tuxedo but the bow tie was of red plastic and fastened around the bare neck, and the plump bare neck of the second alto seemed to be bothered.

“Let’s see,” his father said. The smoke of the barbecues hung above the park. By the lake, boys and girls waited for pony rides. “I see the problem,” his father said. The singer had bent her head forward to allow a close inspection of the bow tie’s clasp. “I think I can fix it. Stan, shoot over to the Bingo Hall and tell them the prizes won’t be here until four o’clock. Then meet me at the Texas Red Hots stand. We’ll have one of their Numero Unos. On the house. Wait for me there. Don’t leave. I’ll get there. Now step on it. The bingo people are waiting to hear about the prizes.”

How fast he ran; no one ever knew how fast he could run. Some springy substance was set into the soles of his tennis shoes that day which is unavailable in Korea or Taiwan where sneakers are manufactured now. The Springy Element or the Jump Factor. Hendrick takes out a notebook he always carries to jot down such ideas. Could be a book in this. As he writes in the spiral journal, an image develops and he quickly sketches an old fashioned, high-topped tennis shoe with the wing emblem on the ankle. A second sketch and the wings have come full feathered, like Mercury’s sandals, and the shoe seems ready to fly off the page. Messenger to the gods, Mercury.

Or Hans Brinker and his silver skates. Wasn’t that to do with delivering a message? He couldn’t recall the plot. Young Hans was on a mission of some sort, wasn’t he? The canals had frozen over and the children had slipped off their sabots and donned skates He remembered his mother reading the story to him, resolutely pulling the narrative from the page, word by word, as his father called from the side yard, slapping a baseball into the mitt. Thwack. Thwack.

Why silver skates? Because they were better, elite, faster. The dike had sprung a leak. Step on it, Hans. Skate over to the Bingo Hall and tell them there’s a dike here that’s sprung a leak. The message always got through. The speed of sound meant something then. All the technology since—here’s a whole section in this bookstore on computer literature—and sound still traveled at the same speed. Even slower, maybe slowed down by the technology. Or maybe everything else had started going faster. Phone calls to California, for example, had a way of overlapping themselves as if the sounds walked around the corners of the conversation and he heard his own voice coming back, was made to listen to his own banal language.

“How are things . . . are things?”

A journey through the universe; then, “Fine.”

“Well, what are you . . . what-are-you . . . doing . . . doing?”

Another trip around the cosmos. “I’ve had some offers but nothing . . .nothing firm . . .firm. I have to go . . .to go. . . .”

“Good-bye . . . bye. . . .”

”. . . bye . . . bye. . . .”

A woman has been looking at him from the cookbook section and Hendrick almost motions to her. Would she mind, on her way over, seeing if there is a copy of Hans Brinker and His Silver Skates somewhere in the large children book section around him and bring him a copy? He can’t leave his post and he’s not sure about the story. Maybe Hans was given no such a mission. He ought to check it, but he’s yet been handed another of his own books for a signature, the new one he notes. Two more customers wait their turn, arms holding books with familiar jackets. His colors, his palette as the professor called it when introducing him yesterday, really are unique and all the more apparently so when seen against this background of mass produced mash of distilled tints.

Clearly, the woman in the cookbook section is waiting to speak to him, though she clasps only Betty Crocker to her bosom. An old hand at such encounters, Hendrick identifies her as a curiosa rather than a book buyer; perhaps, someone who has tried to write children’s books herself and has come just to verify her suspicions about him—that he is no different from her, no more talented, and that it is living in New York City and having all those contacts that makes the difference. She looks about his age, maybe older.

“Do you read to your children?” The customer who asks the question blocks his view and her expression is already delighted by the sure knowledge of his answer.

“I used to read to my son, but he’s too big for that now.” A funny picture of his son trying to crawl on his lap like some large hound that still thinks he’s a puppy and Hendrick wants to laugh but, fortunately, the woman persists.

“What does he do?”

“He’s in college.”

The new book would be the reverse of the old idea that the simple, ordinary article—say a pumpkin or a pair of tennis shoes—was intrinsically better because of its ordinariness; that there was something magical in the worn and odorous seams of the old tennis shoes which made the wearer run faster than the new rich kid on the block in his crisp Keds. That sort of pap had pacified the have-nots for centuries, Hendrick thinks, and he had contributed to the propaganda himself. Even if any of it had been true, all of it—along with the speed of sound and other such verities—had been chucked into the wastebasket. Brinker’s skates went faster because they were silver, they were better. That’s why he got the job, that’s all there was to it.

For hadn’t he nan faster than the speed of sound, only for the people at the Bingo Hall to look at him funny? They didn’t seem to much care when the prizes for the games arrived. He was out of breath, the words urgently formed on his lips, and they had only looked at him and turned back to their preparations, setting up table, fixing the wire baskets that would mill the numbers for the afternoon’s games. They wore satin shirts in different pastels that were intensified by the colored gelatins placed over spotlights mounted at different locations. Hendrick remembers those colors to this day; in fact, he could reproduce them in his studio, weak tints made mean by the peculiar light thrown on them.

He had hung around the Bingo Hall for a little bit, then started across the park toward the food concessions and the Texas Red Hot stand. He knew he should take his time, that he had gone too fast before and that he should slow down. No one had realized how fast he could go. Not even his father had known how fast he could run and now he had to kill some time so as to not get to the food booth too early, so as not to hang around there by himself, answering silly questions, alone. So, he had taken the long way around through the antique displays and the canned preserves and then coming to the grade-school science projects which fascinated him though he hoped no one would discover him looking at them. How things worked had always spelled him, and these crude models of cardboard and balsawood seemed to give answers to questions he hadn’t formulated yet, answers that teased him but never satisfied his curiosity.

“What makes balloons go up?” a voice in his lap was to ask.

“Okay, balloons are filled with a gas that is lighter than air—like helium. Hydrogen used to be used but that was too dangerous, it would explode. But helium, it’s named from the sun and it’s safe. So, enclosing a batch of helium inside a balloon sets it apart from the ordinary, heavier air—separates it within the balloon’s skin—so it rises, pushing the balloon up.”

“Get back to the story,” the voice would say.

Hendrick wonders if he should sign the Betty Cracker Cookbook. The lady who has just come before him looks as if she is about to hand it over. Best Wishes from Betty Crocker via George. He has a sudden reference to the old story about H.L. Mencken taking the Gideon Bible in whatever hotel room the Baltimore Sage found himself and autographing the fly leaf, “Good Luck from the author.” Instead he looks up at her with what he feels to be a pleasant expression as she continues to study him as if he were something strange imported to her part of Pennsylvania, a traveling display of moon rocks. She’s about his age, he guesses, though looking a little worn.

“You don’t remember me, I guess,” she finally says.

“No, I’m sorry.” Quickly Hendrick runs a check on her eyes, her nose and mouth and tries to imagine how they might have appeared some years back. Pretty far back, apparently, because nothing about her looks familiar.

“I was Joanne Schneider’s roommate the year you dated her,” she says.

“Oh, yes,” Hendrick replies, trying to remember that year, and then the image of Joanne Schneider takes form. All one spring he had tried to seduce this economics major from Hartford—he thought it was Hartford—but with no success. Then, one afternoon at a deserted beach, as he had trudged back to the car to get them more beer, he heard her cry his name from a distance. He turned. She had removed the top of her swim suit to bare her breasts to him and the sun and the seagulls. Obviously, she had no preference. Then, after letting him see her, after allowing him his portion of this vision, she had pulled on a long sleeved sweat shirt. That was to be the extent of his adventure with Joanne Schneider. “Of course,” he is saying. “I remember you very well.”

“I was Alice Emerson then.”

“yes . . . Emerson.”

“But my married name is Roberts, though that’s my ex-husband who is something of a zero.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Well, that’s the way it goes. You married, did you?” She looks at him closely, perhaps remembering something Joanne Schneider may have told her.

“Yes, but I’m divorced also.” This biography does not surprise her, and she nods, so he finds himself adding, “But my former wife and I seem to have a very good relationship. We have stayed friends.”

“Children?”

“We have a son. He’s in California, in school.” While Hendrick’s attention had been pulled elsewhere, toward making these books piled high around him, putting together these inventions of paper and color that gave no answers and only contribute to falsehoods, the boy in his lap had become bored, impatient with the wordy explanations of phenomena. He had slipped off his lap and gone to California.

“He must be very proud of you,” she is saying. “To have a famous dad like you. All my daughter has to look at is a father who deserted his family to take up with a younger woman.”

Then her face seems to come apart like newsprint in the rain and she weeps uncontrollably, hugging the cookbook to her bosom. A customer behind her makes a quick assessment of them both and then moves away. Hendrick wonders if she might still buy the book, unsigned.

“My daughter is dying of leukemia,” the woman is saying, “and I don’t know where she is.” She holds onto the edge of the table with his books between them. Hendrick leans forward and caps the pen he has been holding in his right hand. “My ex-husband and his wife gave her a new car and a bunch of travelers checks so she’s out there somewhere, just driving around the country. I don’t know where she is.”

“I guess she has lots to think about,” Hendrick says.

“But I don’t know where she is. Oh, well,” she shrugs and corrects herself. “I heard from her last week. She was in Arizona. She called me to say her white cells had gone up only thirty and I got so . . .so. . . .” again her face becomes a gray pudding. She hugs the cookbook and continues. “I got so excited, thinking it had stabilized and then I called her doctor and he said she had meant thirty thousand cells not thirty. So, she’s out there. Camping out. Can you imagine?”?

“I’m sure you’ll hear from her,” Hendrick says. “She must have a lot of things to think out, put into order. She has to come to terms with what’s happening. She probably needs a little solitude.”

“Who needs to be alone.” A quick anger restores her control. She uses a delicate handkerchief with lavender embroidery to wipe around her eyes, her chin. “Of course, we were never close, but I thought that now . . .now that this . . .well, now.”

“Maybe you could leave messages for her?”

“Where can I leave messages for her?” Hendrick did not exactly hear her reply because his own question had started a race through his imagination and he has automatically reached for his notebook and then pulls back. He would have to remember the idea. Hans Blinker as a Western Union boy. They wore brownish green uniforms and pedaled about on bicycles with yellow envelopes that people were always afraid to open. Mother died this morning. Dad passed away last night. Lost the farm. Your services have been terminated. But this time, this story, it would be good news. The bicycle chain had broken and Hans had to run the rest of the way on his silver sneakers. Hans, take this message to Fort Bingo, and if your bicycle breaks down, run the rest of the way.

And he did run eventually until he found himself in the back part of the fair on the edge of the park where the tents and trailers that belonged to the performers had been put up. Here, the aromas of barbecue and cotton candy and soda pop gave away to smells he could not identify save for a greasy quality. An odor of old tires, all the miles they had turned over. Something like the cold cream on his mother’s bureau top. Old laundry. And music from radios, from records on portable players.

The Dixie Doodle trailer was aluminum and had vanilla colored Venetian blinds that made the windows look like the lined tablets he used in school. He could have practiced his penmanship on the parallel lines of those windows, making the exact copies of the Spencerian alphabet which the writing teacher would hold up to the class as an example of how it was to be done, but this time the letters would be poorly made. The paper would not hold still. It kept quivering slightly as the trailer trembled. His tennis shoes pawed at the earth; the mission continued and the messenger, ever mindful of his command, raced on toward the Texas Red Hots stand, hoping to arrive late.

“Actually, I’ve thought of leaving messages with the police,” the former Alice Emerson is saying. “This car they’ve given her is a red Thunderbird with a Wisconsin license plate. There can’t be many of those in Arizona. I thought I’d call the state police and have them track her down.”

“I wouldn’t do that.” Hendrick is looking over her shoulder. A very pretty young woman is standing toward the rear, obviously waiting for him. He recognizes her as one of the students he talked to yesterday, and she has come to take him to lunch and then on to another bookstore. “She’ll find her way back. You must let her find her way back.”

“I suppose I might as well buy one of your books,” the woman says. “I have a grand niece who might like them. Which one do you recommend?” Her expression suggests that none of them would do. “What’s this one about balloons? That’s supposed to be your best, isn’t it?”

“It’s done okay,” he replies, uncapping his pen. Good wishes. Good luck. None of those salutations seemed appropriate. Had they ever been suitable? He always appreciated the endpapers of this book. The round shapes glowed with the colors, pungent like ripe fruit, and he is suddenly very hungry. He signs only his name and the date and—after a little thought—the city where he is. St. Louis, tomorrow.

“I sometimes hear from Joanne. I’ll tell her I saw you.” She has gathered his book up with Betty Crocker’s and leaves. Hendricks is ready to go also and he stands and smiles at the student who quickly approaches. He appreciates her perception of his predicament, her savvy, as she moves smartly in dark blue boots down the aisle toward him, her youthful stride coming between him and the next bright-eyed grandmother.

“Busy morning?” she asks. Her smile suggests a conspiracy between them—book makers versus book buyers. Hendrick estimates the hope and courage in this young face. “What would you like to eat? Sandwich? Pasta? I’ve been given a blank check.”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking about some chili.”

“Chili!” The young woman looks disappointed. Perhaps this has been her one chance not to eat chili. “This town isn’t very big on Mexican food.” Her face tightens up then smooths out. “Okay. I know a place.”

“It needn’t be anything fancy,” he says, following her out of the store. “Just some Texas Red Hots would be fine.”

“All right, I’m supposed to ask what they are. Okay, what are Texas Red Hots?”

“Hotdogs with chili and chopped onion. Sometimes little red peppers. The peppers turn an ordinary Texas Red Hot into a Numero Uno.”

“Numero Uno,” she repeats with a little laugh, surprised, maybe even pleased by this new thing he has shown her. She drives with a skillful daring that has Hendrick casually feel for his seat belt and then decides against it. She wears none. “Am I going too fast?” she asks.

Yes, too fast, he says to himself, because if they get there too early no one will answer the phone in California. It will either be too early or too late, a null point where the circle that defines the right time comes full round on itself; separating all the moments, all the conversations apart from their earthbound moorings, and they become lost.

He had run too fast, so he had wound up at the Texas Red Hot stand before his father. The boy behind the counter didn’t seem much older than he, only the long red and green apron and the white chef’s hat made him seem older. Also, the long handled spatula with which he scraped down the griddle set him apart from every boy, everywhere. Hendrick’s father had said he could have a job like this at next year’s fair, and he had been disappointed that he was still running errands, tagging along to be introduced as a right hand.

Business was slack and the kid in the apron spent a lot of time scraping the griddle, neatly lining up beads of grease into perfect straight furrows and then pushing everything cleanly off into a small trough alongside the iron plate. Hendrick admired the technique, tried to follow the procedure while ostensibly watching the ring toss booth by the pavilion.

More grease must have oozed up through the surface of the iron griddle, because the whole scraping and cosseting of the hot metal had begun again. Sometimes, the boy would strike the edge of the spatula against the stove’s top, smart whacks of metal on metal that made Hendrick envious of their commanding ring. Next year, he could do something like that, stand there all day—he wouldn’t care if he had customers or not—and clean off the griddle. His father would be making the rounds of the festival, maybe with the mayor who had just been elected the first black governor, and they would come by the stand for a couple of Numero Unos and his father would introduce them.

“Why, of course,” the first black governor would say. “I remember Stan. He makes the best Texas Red Hots in the land.”

Then his father did appear but by himself and trotting around the corner of pavilion A, taking small dapper steps as if he were coming in from the infield after making the inning’s final out—a snappy double play that had the crowd on its feet but he would ignore the standing ovation, not out of modesty, but because it was his job to deliver such perfection.

“Been here long?” he asked, a little winded. His face looked pink as if he had shaved since they had last seen each other. “Okay, we’ll have two of your best Red Hots,” he told the kid at the counter. “And make them Numero Unos.”

“What’s that?” the boy asked. “We got nothing like that.”

“Numero Unos? Sure, you do.” His father looked incredulous and stepped closer as if to peer behind the counter. The cook scraped the surface of the griddle, smacked it with the spatula.

“We got Red Hots and we got hamburgers and we got Polish sausage. We got no Numero Uno.”

“Hey, buddy, you know who you’re talking to?” His father gave half a laugh and stuck out his jaw, “I put this whole thing together. I’m the chief here. I run this place. I’m Butch Hendrick. Don’t tell me you have no Numero Unos. Where’s your boss?”

“I am the boss,” the boy replied. Hendrick remembers the kid’s feet, how they went apart and took up a stance behind the ankle length apron. He held the spatula blade down against the hot metal. Across the way on the stage, a magician in clown make-up had begun to do tricks.

“Hey, Skip, don’t wander off. We got to get this straightened out. Okay,” his father turned back to the other boy. “Okay, then, give us a couple of red hots.”

“That’ll be two bucks,” the kid said not making a move. Then it was like the pantomime act earlier that morning, both of them stuck in a pose. If he hadn’t shown up early, none of this would have happened. His father could have worked it out if he hadn’t been there, before he got there.

“Okay, here,” his father finally said.

They had walked toward the magician on the raised stage as they ate the completely wonderful hotdogs with chili, Hendrick leading the way and his father talking. “There’s a lesson in this, Stan. It’s my fault because I wasn’t paying attention and let the ball slip through. Took my eye off the ball. Can you imagine no Numero Unos? Whoever heard of such a thing? But, it’s my fault and it won’t happen again. I can promise you that in capital letters, buddy. Because I’m going to get somewhere. You better believe it and I’m taking you with me, Stan. You and me, buddy—a whamo combo. Death in the infield—five to three. It’s Hendrick to Hendrick.”

The magician had just pulled a long silk scarf from a small tube-like wand and this scarf pulled out another and yet another and all of them the same intense blue as the boots of the student who is driving him to lunch. Though Hendrick couldn’t swear it to be the same color, for this might be just another of those associations he was always making, one more instance of his mixing colors for a particular effect and sometimes, some critics said, only for the effect.

On the other hand, the young woman behind the wheel could have been part of the magician’s act, one of those comely assistants who stand to one side of the magic and, with a flourish, call attention to the incomprehensible. A second skin of black tights limned the slim legs that rose from the blue boots and a loose sort of doublet in brown velvet with full sleeves was fastened high around her throat. Actually, she was more like one of those androgynous players in “Twelfth Night” that pass through different sexual possibilities with a lyrical ease.

“I have to stop at my motel on the way to the restaurant,” Hendrick says suddenly.

“I’m. . . . I’d rather not,” she says and leans over the wheel. Serious driving in progress.

“Is it out of the way?”

“No, it’s . . . not that. I have a boy friend.” She blushes,

“Oh,” Hendrick says after a bit. She wears a wool scarf of sienna and, all at once, he visualizes the care with which she selected it that morning; how she prepared for her assignment. Perhaps, she borrowed the shawl from a roommate. “You have me wrong. I need to make a phone call. That’s all. You can wait for me in the parking lot.”

“You never know what to expect these days,” she says and guides the car into the right lane, rounds a corner. His motel is just ahead.

“I guess not. I’m sorry,” he says though why he apologizes he does not know.

“Who are you calling?” He can tell she’s not so much interested in the answer as that he. has an answer. Smart girl.

“I’ve been trying to get hold of my son, but I haven’t been able to reach him.” Hendrick reads the billboards along the highway. All these advertisements for comfortable nights and colorful food—crooked strings of steamy flavor rise above huge round plates—all these pictorials don’t attract a pilgrim so much as they announce his lack of choice.

Turn in here, the billboards say; it’s all the same, and she does turn into the parking lot of his motel. Though it is not the same in Arizona where a person might still camp out, away from all messages, however delivered, or even in California where the phone continues to ring and ring, unanswered. Hendrick tries the number again. He may have mispunched the long series of digits his particular phone service requires. Down in the parking lot, the young woman waits for him. He watches her through the window. She leans against the car’s right fender, a smoking cigarette in one hand, her elegant booted legs crossed at the ankle. Even more, she resembles a player waiting her cue to go on stage.

How long would she wait, Hendrick wonders? Could he keep her there indefinitely, holding that pose. He pulls the telephone line out from the baseboard, pulls it taut, half expecting to see a vibration along one of the lines on the pole outside by the highway, all those lines going west toward St. Louis and then beyond, across the prairies, then over the mountains and to California and then the vibration coming back again, to hold her there at the end of it, smoking by the car as he is held waiting for a familiar voice in his ear. On silver skates, he thinks, and then thinks he hears a voice.

“Get back to the story. Where did the balloon go?”

The balloon rose higher and higher until it came to a small, soft planet that was gently nosed and nudged round on its axis by all the lost balloons; their forlorn strings, some of them with useless knots still tied at the ends, dangled in space, and all of them released by the sunny carelessness of children who believed they could bring them back if they only reached high enough. That was the fantasy he had autographed all morning, the invention that had given him a little fame, and he was sorry for that.

The burr of the phone signal drills his ear. He hangs up the phone and the line goes slack. The student stamps out her cigarette and makes a slow, graceful pirouette in the parking lot. She turns and turns, as if delighted with her sudden freedom, and Hendrick is a little pleased also as he closes the door and comes down the steps to join her.

“How about those Numero Unos?” she asks.

“How about them,” he says.

He had watched the last balloon rise into the evening sky just as the local symphony orchestra tuned up for the concert that would be the final event of the fair. He had looked up as the violins and horns sounded the natural A together, and the eloquent sound was pulled aloft into the vast silence by a swift rising yellow balloon. Just then he felt his father’s arm go around his shoulders, and Hendrick knew that it did not matter.

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