It was approximately one week after our only daughter, Sonya, returned from her first year at college that we began to suspect something wasn’t right. In the beginning, it was a mystery without any clues. Just quiet. Quiet in the car on the way home from the train station. Quiet in the living room during family reading hours. And whenever or wherever we asked her a question that hinted at deeper issues than “How do you want your eggs?” In other words, what we were dealing with, at first, was a series of non-clues. And my wife and I are not detectives. We are high school science teachers. Our deductive powers have been dulled from years of grading half-empty periodic tables, and staring at botched dissections. So, it took us all of that first week to form our mutual conclusion: the silence was the evidence. Our daughter had come home that summer with no apparent urge to speak to us, and behind this behavior there had to be an explanation.
That was all we knew.
When I look back on it now, I believe we waited too long to confront her. And I’ll go a step further and say that this was, more than likely, my fault. I’ve never been a natural confronter, and at the age of forty-six, any meager skills I had once possessed in this area had long since atrophied. Also, in those first days, I was just so foolishly happy to have my daughter at home. I had missed her. I had missed her more than it seemed other parents missed their children. For others, this inevitable nest-leaving business seemed to come so naturally, but this was not the case for me. On the day we dropped her off at college, I had been the only one in tears.
And now there she was: her reedy frame nestled in the tan corduroy beanbag chair where she had spent most of high school, reading and packing away astonishing amounts of information. She used to sit there for hours, chewing a strand of her dark hair, sipping a tumbler of soda, the little burgs of ice hissing and melting away along with the hours. Just the sight of her back in that spot seemed to switch off my ability to interpret reality.
Also, there were my mosquitoes.
As I mentioned, Marian and I are both educators, and we had that summer off, like we do every year. My wife was employing this time for chortling at daytime talk shows and penning slightly unhinged letters of complaint to the governor about the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools. She had always known how to enjoy her leisure time. I wasn’t so adept at this transition. I was paying attention to mosquito patterns. There had been an outbreak of the West Nile Virus in the northern counties of Iowa, and, almost against my will, I had become temporarily obsessed with it.
So instead of sitting by the pool with an ice-cold beer like most men my age, I was researching and studying our state’s diseased crepuscular feeders in my garage/office. Each day, I followed the Nile’s trail of dead (two birds, and one horse by summer), and the locations of the sickened Iowans who, according to my color-coordinated map pins, were edging closer to our home in Des Moines, county-by-county like infected zombies. It was my own little disaster movie. And I was, of course, the heroic movie biologist, locked in a battle of wits with nature.
It wasn’t until that first Friday night after Sonya was home that I realized my concentration might be needed elsewhere. I was up late studying the case of a dead goose in Pottawattamie County, and I had lost track of time entirely. It was past midnight, and I wandered out of the cold and dank garage and into the moonlight of the front yard. It felt like the first real summer night, and I stood marveling at the trees glowing in the streetlights. All around me I could hear the cicadas like a chorus of dying wind-up toys.
Then I happened to notice that Sonya’s second floor light was on. It struck me then that I had no idea if my daughter had been sleeping since her silent return. So, I went inside the house and promptly scooped a bowl of frozen yogurt. I would come baring gifts, I decided. A frozen present that would say: I only want to speak with you; why not try talking to your funny old man for a change?
I climbed the stairs to her room, thinking about what I would say. But, when I got outside her door, I heard a strange mumbling coming from her bedroom that brought me to a halt. It was a kind of incantation. I thought first about turning back around and eating the yogurt myself. She was probably on the telephone, I thought, and just the fact that she was chatting away was a good sign. But for some reason I did not turn around. And I did not eat the yogurt. Instead, I leaned closer to the door, as close as I could get without touching it. And gradually her grumbling transformed into discernible language.
It would probably help to know here, as a bit of a sidenote, that my daughter was a self-proclaimed atheist by the fifth grade. And not necessarily a respectful one either. But that night, I heard the words so clearly, “…blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
I stayed there for a moment, waiting to see if she was joking.
She was not joking.
It kept going. And I looked down at the yogurt, melting into a pink goo in the bowl. Without making a sound, I walked back downstairs and dumped the liquid in the sink where it coated the porcelain in a rosy-hued slime. I just stood and watched the melted pink ice cream running down the drain until there was nothing left behind.
The next morning, Sonya’s grades from college showed up. Two C’s. Two D’s. I didn’t discuss them with my daughter. I did not show them to my wife. I just put them in the trash, right on top of the previous night’s pasta. Face down. I’m not sure why, but that’s what I did; I deposited her grades in the marinara. But that night, I did not go to my garage/office to work on my mosquitoes. Instead I sat down at the kitchen table with my wife and told her that we needed a plan.
“Okay,” Marian said, her thin lips hovering over a full glass of rosé. “What kind of brilliant scheme do you have in mind?”
She became a different person in the summer. She cut her hair short with bangs hovering just above her brow. And she became more sarcastic. Loose of tongue. In truth, I found it all a little sexy.
“Hot air balloons,” I said.
She sipped at her wine. “The balloon races?” she said. “That’s what you’ve got?”
“We haven’t done that since she was a kid,” she said.
“We need a car trip,” I said. “It’s the only way.”
Marian scowled at me. I could see her mouth already forming a barb, something gently stinging.
“I heard her praying,” I said.
“Our daughter,” I said. “I heard her saying a prayer.”
She took a long contemplative sip of her wine, rolling it around in her mouth like she was at a tasting. For a moment, I thought she was going to spit it out. I could already see the fine mist spraying over the table. Instead, she swallowed and took a breath.
“Okay,” she said. “The balloon races then.”
* * *
Two days later, Sonya was trapped. That’s the only way I can think to phrase it. I had convinced her to attend the Balloon Classic by appealing to her deepest wells of nostalgia. Yet, on some level, she must have known it was a ploy. Car trips were, historically, the only thing that could get us talking when the family entered a stretch of isolating self-absorption. Still, we piled into the Subaru, my daughter included. We wore an herbal brand of bug-spray that I’d created myself in the garage. The smell of my herb-slathered family hung heavy in the air. Pennyroyal oil, lemon, and a secret ingredient that I wouldn’t reveal.
“Wolf urine,” speculated Marian.
I looked to the backseat to see if this had gotten a rise out of Sonya. Nothing doing. She just sat back there, her soft face pressed against an A.C.-cooled window and her skinny knees jammed against the front seat. In front, a perspiring water bottle sat in my cup-holder for her to drink because she still got carsick on occasion and water helped.
I looked at her in the rearview, and something obvious occurred to me. Sonya had become very pretty in the last year. Somehow I hadn’t noticed at Christmas. Had it even happened by then? She had always been thin, but now she was graceful. She had always had bright blue-green eyes like her mother’s, but now they seemed to flash whenever she blinked. Her dark brown hair had always been nice, but now it fell against her chin in such a delicate way. I looked at my own reflection in the mirror. How had this happened?
Marian pinched my leg, and my eyes snapped back to the country highway. We were wasting time. Indianola, home to the Balloon event, was just a short drive away — only about a half hour without traffic — and the first five minutes were already gone.
“Sonya,” said Marian, “how did your O-Chem class turn out in the end? Was that hot shot from MIT worth a damn or what?”
There was a long pause, during which I could hear the smooth drone of the tires on the highway.
“It was fine,” Sonya finally said.
A lie. She had received a “D.” I looked back in the rearview again and noticed that she was wearing headphones. The white wires disappeared into her dark hair like circuits leading directly to her skull. My wife gave me a look, and I could read it perfectly through her sunglasses: your turn.
“So, do you think the Kermit balloon will be in one piece this year?” I asked.
I left the half-smile frozen on my face. The Kermit balloon was a long-running joke from when Sonya was a kid. Every year something bad seemed to happen to it. It deflated mid-rise. The basket came partially detached. Two years ago it had gone off course during the race and landed in a tree near the Governor’s lawn in Des Moines. Sonya and I used to make bets on what would happen to it from year to year, and whether or not its pilot would survive. One year we had the balloon flying too close to the sun, and Kermit’s head bursting into flames like the Hindenburg. Another year we predicted an emergency landing in the Polar Bear Habitat at the zoo.
“I don’t know, Dad,” said Sonya. “Should we really be laughing at somebody’s potential tragedy like that?”
Her answer paralyzed me. But, I nearly heard the snap of Marian’s neck as she turned and stared directly at her daughter.
“Yes,” she said. “We should be laughing. Because it’s funny and… what the hell is around your neck!”
I turned to find Marian staring open-mouthed.
“Nothing,” mumbled Sonya.
I looked in the mirror and saw her tuck something into the collar of her t-shirt.
“No, wait. What was that? Are you wearing a cross?”
My wife said the last word the way a nun might say penis. Sonya looked out the window, her face beginning to redden. The color started in her neck and worked its way through her cheeks.
“Look,” she snapped. “It’s none of your business, so just drop it!”
“Right,” said Marian. “I’ll just drop it. It’s none of my business that my daughter’s been brainwashed. That shouldn’t bother me at all.”
“C’mon, you two,” I said.
With each sentence they spoke, I could feel my whole body clenching.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, as usual,” said Sonia to her mother, speaking through clamped teeth. “So just turn around and leave me alone.”
Marian let out a long breath. When she spoke next it was deceptively calm.
“Fine. But just answer one question. Are you wearing a little gold cross around your neck like a Jesus freak or aren’t you?”
Sonia looked at her for a moment then she turned up the volume on her headphones until even I could hear the pounding of a drum kit inside her ears. Her face was so red now it was almost aglow, and she was slowly twisting the bottom of her t-shirt into a ball. Next to me, Marian closed her eyes and turned-up the air-conditioner to high so it was blowing a gale right into her face. I looked at the speedometer and noticed I was going seventy-five miles an hour.
When we arrived in Indianola, I navigated the silent Subaru through the calm of the small town neighborhoods. It seemed like everyone in this town had just had a child. On both sides of the street there were little bikes abandoned on verdant lawns and half-filled kiddie pools with water rippling in the breeze. I eventually pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Balloon Classic, paying a bearded man four dollars for the privilege. My passengers looked out the window with identical pissed-off looks on their faces. From off in the distance, the sound of watered-down classic rock thumped from a bad P.A. system. The smell of fried dough and hot grease wafted ever-so-slightly in the evening breeze. I felt my pulse slow just a little.
I parked the car, and popped open the trunk. I removed our tatty quilt and the picnic basket that Marian had given me for our tenth anniversary. Inside this worn basket was our dinner: cold chicken, coleslaw, fruit, oatmeal cookies. I had prepared it with the care I reserved only for lab days at the high school. I had hand-picked those items as a kind of compound of edible normalcy. It was an antidote. A delicious vaccine against family unrest. I thought about these food items and I nearly began to grow misty-eyed. If we could just make it to the blanket to eat chicken then everything would be fine. I was sure of it.
“Jesus, Howard,” said my wife, “Could you be more distracted?”
I stood frozen, gripping my basket. Sonya was still inside the car. We both stared at her until she finally opened the car door and emerged. She walked ahead of us, swishing in a pair of denim shorts, quickly leaving us behind. Marian, undeterred, stalked off toward her, gaining ground. She cupped her hands around her mouth like a makeshift megaphone.
“Hey!” she said, right on Sonya’s heels. “Not so fast! I want to know right now. When did this conversion occur? What the hell were they teaching you at that school, anyway?”
Sonya shook her head, either incredulous or furious; I couldn’t tell.
“Okay, so it wasn’t a class,” Marian said. “Then what did it? Was it some kind of a cult? Are you married to the Prophet now?”
Sonya stopped, and removed an earphone from her ear.
“Listen!” she yelled. “It’s perfectly normal. It’s just the Campus Christian Fellowship. There are two-hundred members…”
“The Campus what?” Marian interrupted. “The what? I’m not hearing this. I can’t…”
She clamped her hands over her ears, and held them fast. We were all drawing closer to the crest of the hill now, where people from all over the state had spread their blankets and removed their two-liters of soda, their miniature grills. Frisbees quivered through the air before finding an outstretched palm. It was all a giant checkerboard of happy families. And beyond the crowd, dotting the small valley beneath, was a rainbow of hot air balloons in various states of inflation, flames igniting in cobalt bursts against the flushing sky. It was such a simple scientific principle at work — hot air is lighter than cool air — I couldn’t help smiling.
“Look,” I said.
Surprisingly, the ladies complied. But when they glanced, unimpressed, toward the spectacle, I saw it anew through their eyes. It was a field of limp balloons: corporate mascots, out-of-date cartoon animals, inflatable advertisements. It did not have the effect I’d intended. Marian turned back around first.
“There’s a boy involved in this, isn’t there?” she asked.
Sonia turned and started walking in the opposite direction.
“Look at the balloons,” I tried again.
“Shut up, Howard,” my wife said.
We both watched as Sonia speed-walked off toward a stage where a group of pot-bellied men my age were actively mangling an old Rolling Stones song so badly that I couldn’t recognize it. I felt the picnic basket drop from my grip. It hit the ground and spilled its contents. A chicken leg bounced directly onto Marian’s shoe. She looked down at it. Then back up at me.
“That’s what you’ve got to say about all this?” she asked, “Look at the balloons?”
“You don’t have to be so aggressive with her.”
“Aggressive. Howard, she’s… aw fuck it. I’m getting a corn dog. Find me when you return to Earth.”
Then my wife, too, walked away from me. I listened to the crowd around me, and the terrible music. “Wild Horses.” That was the song. Wild Horses…couldn’t drag me away. I picked up the chicken leg. It was covered in dirt and tan blades of grass. The men on the stage swayed around, swiveling their hips in a distressing manner. I watched them barely bring the song in for a landing to a random smattering of drunken applause. I cleaned up the basket’s contents and walked down toward the valley of balloons, alone.
* * *
It felt like hours had passed by the time I found a spot among the families. They were all stitched together at the foot of the hill, each blanket connecting with the next in a long chain of healthy Midwestern DNA. I stepped over the flailing limbs of toddlers, the opened Jumbo bags of potato chips, eventually locating a square of grass right next to the Porta-Potties. The slamming doors of the blue plastic bathrooms mixed with the sibilance of burning propane, echoing in my ears. And the smell was awful. I sat down anyway, determined to watch the lift-off by myself.
We had come to this event since Sonya was a baby. Even when she was in high school I could usually get her to enjoy herself. She was on the state champion Quiz Bowl team — a science-question specialist — and every time we came, I’d make her tell me something new about the history of ballooning. Once, only a year ago, she told me about the French scientist, Pilatre De Rozier, who launched a balloon with a sheep, a duck, and a rooster aboard in 1783. The first manned flight came soon after this, and the lore says that the farmers who watched the balloon land in their field thought that demons were descending from the heavens. They thought the Gods were punishing them, and they attacked the pilots with pitchforks.
Sonya and I were never good at small talk, but we could trade facts all day. It would drive Marian crazy. Now on my old blanket, I reached into the basket for a fresh piece of chicken. I would sit here and wait for my family to return to me, I decided. They would seek me out when they were ready. Then they would sit around me and eat from my carefully-packed basket. I would coax a fact or two from Sonya, and all would be well. I took a bite of cold chicken and looked up, finally, at the balloon directly in front of me. Somehow, I had managed to overlook it with my eyes locked on all the crawling blanket-children underfoot. But there it was before me: a pale and weathered Kermit the Frog staring right back at me.
Up close, it looked like the face of vengeful beast. Its ravaged mug had been patched together nearly beyond recognition after years of near-tragic mishaps. Now it was more Frankenstein monster than Muppet, surging with horrible life each time its diminutive pilot fired up the burner. I stared into its mammoth face for nearly a minute, wholly entranced. The expression on Kermit’s face seemed to transform with every blast of propane until it finally held tight. The sagging nylon brow, the twisted puppet mouth, the bulging eyes, they all combined to form a look of profound disapproval.
I nearly choked on a tiny chicken bone as I brought myself to my feet. I could see the concerned glances of the surrounding families while I struggled to get away from the balloon, hacking into my hands. Somehow, I made it over the trail of quilts and back into the fringes of the crowd, still clutching a greasy chicken breast in my hand. I left the rest of my provisions behind. I didn’t look back. I could still feel the cold stare of the balloon. Somehow it knew.
I had recently been a churchgoer, too.
I had never told anyone in my family, but when Sonya first left for college, I had started going to a devotional study group at the Lutheran Church down the street. I made excuses on Wednesday nights, told Marian I was working with the PTA, going to a high school basketball game, anything that allowed me to make it out of the house. Then I would drive to the modest church down the street, and listen to the weeknight Bible Study for senior citizens.
I wasn’t technically a senior, or a Christian, but I looked the part with my salt-and pepper beard, receding hairline, and patient look of a teacher. I never spoke at the meetings. I just listened to the elderly women talk about their lives, and ask the group to pray for their various ailments and those of their friends. Their gaseous husbands often slept, legs splayed in folding chairs off to the side, only waking up for shortbread cookies and decaf at the end of each meeting.
Really, there wasn’t much talk of spiritual issues. Any study questions raised by the group leader quickly dissolved into personal anecdotes with no discernible point. Talk of grandchildren. Pregnancies. Deaths. Grandchildren again. But there was one part, near the end, where everyone stood up and held hands and we all spoke about spreading our love and strength around the group. I held the fragile arthritic hands of he old ladies and tried to feel their love and support moving through me. And surprisingly enough, I felt something warm, and maybe even a little transcendent in those moments. Einstein believed in God, I reasoned. Not a personal God. Not a Lutheran God. But one who revealed himself in “the lawful harmony of the world.” Which sounded like what I had with the old women of Grace Lutheran for just a moment there on Wednesday nights, in a room that smelled like over-steeped tea and Windex.
It didn’t occur to me that I might be depressed until one of the ladies mentioned it one night. She was giving me a hug at the end of the meeting, patting me on the back, when she just stared at me a moment. I thought I saw a cataract swimming in her right eye as it poured over me.
“What’s your name again?” she asked me, blinking like a child.
“Howard,” I said.
“Howard, yes,” she said, “You look glum. Are you glum?”
“Oh, I’m just a little tired,” I said.
But I wasn’t. The truth was that I had plenty of energy. But the only place I felt calm was in that room with the stoic elderly. I couldn’t reason it out. But that was how it was. Until only weeks before Sonya returned, and the group disbanded for the summer, I had been clandestinely Lutheran.
I don’t really handle big crowds well. I never have. And all of the noises and smells were finally starting to get to me. So, after a bit more wandering, I sidled up to the window of a garishly lit food hut, advertising lemonade and cheese curds. Something cold. That’s all I needed. I looked at the menu, a sorry board of misspellings and abbreviations and was surprised to hear myself order a beer. As soon as the word was out of my mouth, an under-aged girl with a face red from the heat of the deep fryer poured a glass of foam for me. I hadn’t ordered a beer in years.
The girl slapped down the plastic cup and peered at me from under her visor. I wondered for a moment if she was a high school friend of Sonya’s.
“Mr. Sandmire!” she shouted, visibly startling me.
I looked at her a second time. She was not a friend of Sonya’s. Her name was Cassie Drake, and she was a sophomore who had barely passed my Life Science course. A small biography began to form. Cassie was on the dance team. Always had a boyfriend. And had once gotten in trouble for proudly displaying a paw print on her spandexed bottom at a pep assembly. I put five ones down on the counter.
“Hello, Miss Drake,” I said.
She took my crumpled dollars and smoothed them out.
“Are you here by yourself, Mr. Sandmire?” she asked.
She was leaning on the small counter now, a look of depthless boredom on her face. Her bra strap was visible on her tan shoulder. She made no move to cover it.
“No,” I said, and looked around behind me. “Well… I. Yes, actually I think so.”
Cassie turned and stuffed my bills in a cash box.
“Well, are you or aren’t you?” she said, slamming the metal lid.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I picked up my beer and took a long drink. Despite the generous helping of foam, it tasted pretty good. Ice cold. Sharp.
“To be honest with you, Cassie,” I said, “I think I’ve been abandoned.”
Her thin plucked eyebrows shot up. “No way! By who, Mr. S?”
“Oh,” I said, stifling a small belch. “My family.”
I took another drink of beer, and looked to see if there was a line forming behind me. There was not. It was just me and Cassie Drake. All alone. She wiped a bead of sweat from her temple and adjusted her visor. I could tell she was a little unnerved by the direction of this conversation.
“Can I ask you something, Cassie?” I said.
She cocked her head to the side, and it occurred to me that she probably thought I was going to hit on her. It had likely been happening all night.
“It’s just something about… parents,” I said quickly.
“Parents,” she repeated.
The word didn’t seem to taste good in her mouth. It was probably her parents who owned this place, putting her to work on a Saturday night.
“Yes,” I said, “Just one quick thing.”
She seemed to think this over a moment.
“Okay,” she said. “One thing.”
“Great,” I said, “Here it is. Here’s the thing. I want to know… if you never tell your parents anything because they’re wrong about everything, or because you’re afraid of breaking their hearts?”
Oddly enough, Cassie Drake did not seem surprised by this question. She adjusted her visor again and inched her shirt over her bra strap.
“Shit,” she said. “That’s a tough one, Mr. S.”
She looked out into the row of other food huts, her eyes glazed. I was about to walk away when Cassie turned back to me.
“Both,” she said.
“I think it’s a little of both,” she said, “But mostly it’s because they never ask.”
I stared at her.
I finished my beer in two long swallows and chucked the cup in a trash barrel. Inside the stand, Cassie was already busy tossing dripping objects into the sizzling fryer, but she looked up to give me a last wave. I looked back down the hill toward my old encampment, and saw that the balloons were on the verge of rising.
Most of them were fully inflated now, bulging over their little baskets of people, bright nylon billowing in the breeze. Manic crews held onto the wicker baskets, keeping the balloons from going up prematurely. I’ll be honest; it looked thrilling. Everyone holding tight, waiting for the right moment to let go. Then the pilots would drift into the air, following the currents. There was virtually no way to steer a balloon, I had read once. Just an intuition about currents at different altitudes. I could almost imagine the feeling, meandering through the sky, not knowing exactly where you would land, just knowing that you would, somehow.
I slapped at an itch on my arm, and looked down to find a tiny mosquito snagged in the tiny black hairs of my wrist. There was a spot of bright red blood at the point of impact, and I could still make out the proboscis. Only the females had them. This one had already sucked my blood, and who knew what else had occurred in the process. She could have easily transmitted any disease she carried. I felt a little light-headed suddenly, and I walked over to a thick maple to slump against it.
All it took was one bite from an infected mosquito, and you were doomed. Encephalitis. The dreaded West Nile. It began with neck stiffness. Then suddenly, you were in a stupor. From there it was Disorientation, Coma, Tremors, and Paralysis in that order. I closed my eyes and inched myself down the tree trunk to a sitting position. I could feel sweat starting to form above my lip and on my forehead. I breathed deeply, and let out a long exhalation. I could still see the dead goose from Pottawattamie.
I imagined myself dying here at the Indianola Balloon Races. The bad photo of me from the faculty section of the yearbook would be in the paper by tomorrow, the one where I have a rogue eyebrow hair twice the length of the others. I imagined Sonya looking at the grainy photo, then later that night, looking into my casket. What would she think about me?
I opened my eyes and saw Sonya.
It was not part of my paranoid hallucination. She was real, just in the distance, near the parking lot. She was sitting on a wooden fence near a row of mini-vans parked on chalk-white gravel. Her hair was hanging in her eyes, but I could tell it was her. She was looking down at something. I managed to push myself off the ground and walk toward her on shaky legs. I threaded through the remaining idlers, passing the stage on my way. The band was taking a break, and there was no music. Just the men, smoking and flirting with a few tipsy fans. I kept walking toward my daughter until I got close enough to see what she was looking at. It was a half-eaten funnel cake, resting in some mud-slicked grass.
Her eyes peered at me through her hair, registering my presence, and then moved to look back down at the slab of deep-fried dough, covered in powdered sugar and dirt.
“Is that your dinner down there?” I asked.
She nodded gravely.
“Was,” she said.
Slowly, as if I were approaching a rare bird, I walked over to the fence and sat down beside Sonya. Not too close. She didn’t move.
“My repellant didn’t work,” I said, pointing to my reddening mosquito bite.
She actually pushed the hair out of her eyes to examine it, and it was then I could tell she had been crying. There was a salted tear line still visible on her right cheek. Her eyes were still pink.
“What was the secret ingredient, anyway?” she asked.
“In the repellent?
“Garlic,” I said. “Five cloves.”
She smiled briefly, a sort of quarter-smile.
“No wonder it reeks,” she said, “They’re not vampires, you know.”
The sky was getting a little darker, highlighting the flashes of flame at the bottom of the hill. We didn’t have a clear view from the fence, but the very tops of the balloons illuminated like Japanese lanterns with each blast. I could still feel a little of the beer, but it took me three tries before I was able to open my mouth and speak.
“I think I might be a Lutheran,” I said, a quaver in my voice I couldn’t control. “Don’t tell your mother.”
“What?” she said.
“I’ve been going to the place down the road,” I said, “Grace Lutheran. It’s possible I’m one of them now. I just thought you should know that given your…”
“Dad…” she said.
“Just wait a second,” I said, and she quieted. “I just want to say that I can identify with what you’re going through. But I don’t have any answers either. And I think that’s okay.”
“Mom was right,” she muttered.
“What?” I asked.
“Mom,” she said, “She was right.”
“I don’t understand.”
“There was a boy involved,” she said.
We were quiet a moment after that. Then Sonya stood up from the fence and picked her funnel cake up off the ground. She walked over to a trash barrel and tossed the disc of dough inside. It thumped into the plastic bag and stirred up a few lazing bees. I watched her slumped posture as she stood a moment by the can. Then she turned and walked back to me, keeping a distance.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “You became religious…”
“For a guy,” she said and laughed.
But it was not a happy laugh. It was the same laugh that her mother made when conservative politicians came on TV talking about the holes in the theory of evolution. I recognized it as the laugh of momentary hopelessness. It took all my self-control not to ask a hundred questions then. But I was quiet.
“I met him a few weeks in,” she said, “His roommate was a smoker and he was always out in the hall, right by my room.”
She sat down on the fence again, looking down.
“We talked a few times, and eventually I started to do my work out there too. He was nice. Funny. I was a little surprised the first time he asked me to go to service with him. It came out of nowhere.”
“But you went.”
She sighed. “I was kind of lonely,” she said.
I felt a pressure in my head, and my throat tightened. I could see her suddenly, alone in her dorm. Sitting in dark room, pouring over her books. Just waiting for someone to knock on her door.
“Did you even like him?” I said.
“I did,” she said. “Things changed.”
She adjusted her weight on the fence.
“Things changed after we had sex.”
After she spoke I tried to think of something to say. Nothing came to me.
“He wasn’t supposed to do that until he was married. He took a vow when he was twelve or something. Anyway, he didn’t deal with it well. And when my period was late, he blamed the whole thing on me. Called me… names.”
“Wait,” I said. “Slow down.”
But she didn’t.
“Then he tried to get his group to stage some kind of intervention. He wanted me to be born-again with him. I had to call security. It was a mess.”
“But what happened with the…”
I couldn’t even say it.
“A false alarm,” said Sonya.
I heard the sound of a sniffle, and assumed that it was coming from Sonya. But it wasn’t. The sound came from behind us where Marian was standing with a half-eaten corndog in her hand. Her eyes were bright red. She was looking at Sonya. Who knows how long she had been standing there. Long enough, clearly, to have picked up on the important parts. She walked forward, and put her arm around Sonya’s thin shoulders.
“I don’t understand,” Marian said, “Why are you still wearing that thing?”
Sonya looked down at her tiny little cross.
“Because screw him,” she said. “That’s why.”
Ahead of us, the balloons were cresting the hill now, just beginning to take to the air. The band started up again with an out-of-tune rendition of something patriotic. A wail of feedback escaped one of the amps. The sun was half-set now and the sky was a clash of pink and blue. A red balloon rose above the tree-line. Sonya got off the fence and started walking.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
Her voice, when it came, was barely louder than a whisper.
“Let’s go closer,” she said.
I looked at Marian. She was still holding the corndog at her side.
“Follow me,” I said. “I’ve already got a spot.”
And then I led my family back through the crowds, back through the smells of grease and beer and sweat and grill smoke. Back through the chorus of “Proud To Be An American.” And back down a hill of blanketed Iowans. A few sparklers sizzled to life on the way, wildly shedding their sparks above the hands of wonderstruck toddlers. I walked ahead with Sonya and Marian behind me. They were silent this time.
I finally spotted the row of Porta-Potties ahead of us and I walked by them to find our quilt and basket still there, undisturbed. We were surrounded by other spectators, and had to find a path between them in the dying light. We angled our way through and settled into the small piece of real estate I had earlier abandoned. Mosquitoes swarmed around us undeterred by my homemade elixir. But I didn’t swat at them. I let them be.
Only seconds after we sat down, the Kermit balloon, now fully inflated, skipped off the ground and lurched woozily into the air. We followed the green monstrosity with our eyes, craning our necks as it rose higher, tempting fate as it did every year. Gradually, it grew further away, drifting on a discovered gust until it was joined by all the rest of the mascots and sponsors. One by one, they took flight, following the wind just like the others, until all that was left was an empty field. All of us, looking up, trying to see some color before it disappeared from view.