I’m not sure why I like it so much, why I’m willing to stand in a sweaty mass of strange elbows and sunscreen until it finally happens. I watch the balloon crew roll out the parachute, slow and careful. They press the edges of the nylon pancake deep into the grass, like they expect it to stay there. Then one of them fires the furnace and gives the flame a few test gasps. Hot grumbles of air fill the little bubbles along the seam and a shape begins to lift-- first just a small, hard curve low and close to the ground. A pile of wrinkled gym shorts becomes a shellacked husk swelling with heat. The canopy is so full it looks ready to split. It rolls upward, finds its northward balance, and lifts off. Like a piece of overripe synthetic fruit ready to drop, all slow and gassy, into the open blue palm of the sky.
Wrapped up as I am in the inflation process, I miss the part when the passengers climb on. At some point, just before basket separates from grass, a bunch of grey hairs who once wrote “hot air balloon ride” on their bucket list have to hunker down and military roll into the departing picnic basket. By the time I notice them, they’re already waving shadows over my head, all their human detail outshone by the raw lisping of fire behind their heads. In a distant flutter of lenses and hands, they are rising away. And here on the ground we are waving back with abandon. “BYE!” a voice, embarrassingly my own, trumpets. “BYE!”
I have no need for shame, since I can’t even hear my own voice over the roar around me. Everyone on this crowded hill has been acting busy, pretending to focus our cameras for the perfect shot, but really, we’ve been waiting all this time just to see them off. Not to ride in the balloon, not to wish we were riding in the balloon, but just to shout goodbye and wave our hands like little children greeting firefighters as they roll by in a scream of red emergency. We’re happy to have our feet on the ground.
The first hot air balloon rose on a tether—a grandiose parlor trick for Louis XVI, with the whole of France as his parlor. The king proposed that prisoners be sent aloft for the second voyage, though in the end, they opted for farm animals. A sheep, rooster, and duck were the first living passengers in a hot air balloon. Imagining that balloon ride (both the proposed one and the actual) is enough to make one wonder about the difference between extravagance and stupidity. Louis XVI sent what he considered expendable lives up, up into the air. He understood that the real position of power was on the ground, watching the gorgeousness of science dance in a taffeta dress.
The shadows in the basket are barely visible, now. I settle back on my heels and allow myself to feel a little superior. A bitch angel, watching impulsive children blow all their money on a bridge to nowhere.
About the Author: Sara Biggs Chaney lives in Vermont and teaches writing at Dartmouth College. Her poems and flash fiction have recently appeared/are forthcoming in Stone Highway Review, Right Hand Pointing, Orange Room Review, Menacing Hedge, Eunoia Review, Crack the Spine, and the Dressing Room Poetry Journal. You can catch up with Sara at sarabiggschaney.blogspot.com