The Helium Balloon Massacre of 1979
Now Tommy is almost forty years old, but everybody still calls him, Tommy, instead of Tom, or Thomas. He orders another Scotch and tells the bartender how everything that went wrong in his life can be traced back to that failed balloon launch in the fall of 1979. “Every damned thing,” he says. “The divorce, all the debt, losing my job, having to move back in with my parents, all of it started on that day.”
“I don’t know, Tommy,” the bartender says, “What do balloons have to do with anything?”
“I’m telling you, Marty, something happened to me that day when I saw all those deflated balloons in that muddy field. It was like my dreams deflated, too.”
“It’s just an excuse, Tommy,” Marty says. “Some stupid balloons can’t be the reason everything went wrong in your life. But what the hell do I know? Here, this one’s on the house.”
Tommy finishes his Scotch and walks down the street. It’s the ugly part of autumn they don’t put on postcards. The sky is the color of cinder blocks, and the wind steals the heat out of his bones. He picks up the pace, and it occurs to him he’s headed toward Saint Greg’s. At least it used to be Saint Greg’s. The city acquired the old school building and all the property from the diocese years ago. They took the big cross down, painted the walls an industrial gray color, and now they use it to store their maintenance equipment.
Tommy walks down into the big field behind the building – the place where all the balloons died. The sapling oak his Kindergarten class planted more than three decades ago lords over him now. He remembers how Karen liked to help Sister Swaboda tend to it long after the rest of the class had lost interest. “You’re gonna grow up to be big and strong,” she would say. “You’ll be friends with all the birds and the squirrels.”
After Tommy’s freshman year at Wisconsin University, he came back home for summer break. Bored out of his mind on a Wednesday night in early June, he paid the five dollar cover at an old haunt to see a local band called The Cow Tippers. Afterward, he stopped at Denny’s for a bite to eat. Halfway through his Grand Slam, somebody slapped him on the back and spilled drunkenly into the unoccupied half of his booth. It was Darren Wojokowski – a marginal acquaintance that went back to the Saint Greg’s days.
“What’s up buddy? How you been? How’re the chicks up in Wisconsin?” Darren asked in rapid-fire succession.
“Pretty good, Darren. What’s been goin’ on with you?”
“Been workin’ at the bowling alley. It sucks, actually.”
“Well, it’s a job, right?” Tommy offered.
“Yeah, whatever. I’m probably gonna go to L.A. in a couple months and see what’s up out there. My cousin said he can get me a sweet gig as a valet at this famous nightclub. Dude, you can make, like, six figures just for parking cars,” Darren explained.
“Hey, I almost forgot. Remember that hot chick, Karen Wetzel, who went to Saint Greg’s with us, then she transferred to that preppy high school?” Darren asked.
“Yeah, I remember Karen,” Tommy said. “What about her?”
“She died in a car wreck a few months ago. Like in April, or March. Her and some of her sorority sisters were driving back from Panama City. That’s where they went for spring break, you know? Anyways, the girl who was driving went off the road, and the car flipped like five times and landed upside down in a lake. Everybody died.”
That’s how Tommy found out about Karen. The news cut through him the way a glacier cuts through the earth: Slow and unyielding, colossal and cold. It had only been about a year since he had taken her to his senior prom. And then they had spent that storybook summer together – that fleeting summer before Tommy had to leave for Wisconsin and Karen was off to Cornell. They tried to stay in touch, but inevitably, drifted apart the way people do. Their letters had grown shorter and less frequent after Karen had made some vague references to a guy she hung out with a lot. They just tapered off to nothing.