We hike, the four of us, down a dark Phoenix street lined with street lamps bending over their own yellow splashes of light as though searching for lost keys. The houses on these streets are unlighted, crumbling with the weight of their secrets. Their yards, reverting to wild, are bare desert clay, impenetrable as concrete. Neglected palm trees troop along the parkway. They rise as shadows, ragged and clumsy with the untrimmed, graying fronds of several past seasons.
We, though, prance in bright anticipation of the Balloon Glow tonight. Thirteen-year-old Tony is the most expressive, all elbows, shoulders, and excited squawks. Walking behind us, he jockeys for a chance to dart around. In another moment he’s out in front by half a block, but then he turns and charges back, scooting past us to the rear again. Walking with him is like fighting our way through a one-man crowd.
We parked at a distance, in a neighborhood of abandoned houses and profit-turning homeless shelters, to avoid the five-dollar parking charges being touted on the dusty vacant lots nearer the center of activity. We’ve arrived early, but already the streets leading downtown are packed with cars. Tomorrow 150 hot-air balloons, gathered from all over the country, will lift off from an airfield on the northwest side of town for two days of balloon races. But tonight, just after sunset, half their number are setting up to glow like whopping-big fireflies on the streets surrounding the civic center. With their baskets tethered to the ground, they will be kept inflated by periodic blasts of flame from their double burners, lighting them from inside and shocking the smug black night with sudden color.
This night is Tony’s. He’s a great fan of light in all its manifestations: lightning of course; and the iridescent green gleam of an Anna’s hummingbird feeding in summer; the occasional brooding halo around the moon; the sunlit dance of dust motes thumped out of the carpet; aurora borealis draping the night sky outside his older brother’s house near Ketchikan. It’s light we’ve come for tonight — Tony, my husband Bob and me, and our 14-year-old daughter Dara. That rush of light in one balloon after another, breaking out each time with the terrifying voice of powerful burners, first here, then there, unpredictable but certain.
The first experience of light I associate with Tony was not so dramatic. It was the easy motion of reflected light, like shallow water. A brook of sunlight and shadows flowing across his crib from outside the window: the branches of a pomegranate bush tossing in the breeze. I stood watching from the doorway of his room, with our friend Carol, who was his foster mother. His concentration on the light was what enchanted me. It was total. He spoke to it, puffing out his lips and opening his eyes wide in his enthusiasm. Nothing else moved; his arms and legs were as still as sleep. His hair was a thick, curly tuft, a dark halo in the tossing sunshine, and his skin, though flaccid like the hide of a shrunken old man, was a rich dusky brown. He was two months old, but the size of a newborn; he’d weighed less than four pounds at birth. Twice already in his brief life his heart had failed, its sluggish operation congested by more fluid volume than it could process. To keep his body fluids to a manageable minimum, he was desiccated by a strict diet calculated to sustain him just above starvation level. He was barely alive, all his hoarded energy focused on conducting this life-affirming relationship with the light. I stepped into his range of vision, spoke to him as invitingly as I knew how, but he never once looked my way.
Reaching the center of activity, we approach a grassy corner lot on which stands a single balloon already inflated, shaped like a pudgy piggy bank, pink, with a silver coin slipping into its slot. The pig wears tennis shoes and the logo of a savings and loan company. A seven-member crew sporting matching T-shirts lolls around the gondola, propping their elbows on its rim and chatting together, occasionally aiming a blast of long-tongued flame into the fat pink canopy above them.
While Bob and Dara approach the balloon, Tony clutches hard at my hand and hangs back, and I wait with him while he accustoms himself to the whoosh of the burners, followed by an abrupt, hissing silence when they shut off. The memory of flashing color stains the silky fabric overhead for a few seconds longer, then the unlit gray mystery of that floating shape reasserts itself, an odd night-cloud suspended just out of reach. We creep closer, coming finally near enough to finger the gondola’s rough woven exterior. The tethering ropes sway, barely containing their impatience. The burners blast again, and Tony stiffens but holds his ground. We’re bathed in a momentary wave of heat, and the sound is a roar like amplified laughter.
For two city blocks surrounding, the streets, barricaded to traffic, fill now with other balloon teams. They arrive in colorful vans, called chase cars. During an unharnessed daytime balloon flight, the driver of the chase car traces the balloon’s progress and, map in hand, rushes after it along the grid of streets, hoping to be there when it lands. Their route, like ours with Tony, is not their own to determine. It lies somewhere in the general direction of the prevailing winds. And though they must continually contend with the plodding perspective of their earth-bound fellow-travelers, still, they continually crane their necks out the windows, searching skyward.
Meanwhile the balloon sails on, unsteerable, at the mercy of the winds. The pilot controls only the altitude, by blasting hot air into the canopy or releasing it through baffles. The skill consists in catching air currents at varying heights, to determine airspeed and direction. Powered aircraft, with their filed flight plans, must always give precedence to these whimsical, wind-borne craft.
Now, from the back doors of their chase cars, men and women unload bundled balloons, gondolas with their bulky burners, giant gasoline-powered floor fans. Initiates into the ritual of inflation, they carefully tug the balloon until it lies fully extended along the street, limp and colorless in the shadowy night. Devotees arrange the fan at the balloon’s open end and endure its high-powered blast while they hold the fabric open. The balloon fills sluggishly, air forcing its way fitfully among the folds. It is still a sad, drooped shape, unable to rouse itself off the pavement. At some magical point the gondola, lying on its side, is wrested into position, replacing the fan. The burners flash into life, and the balloon, startled with instant color, expands to its full size and stirs off the ground. Crew members struggle to heft the gondola upright, keeping pace with the rising form; others tend ropes to steady the top as it settles aloft. For a few triumphant moments a bright new shape dominates the horizon. Then the burners click off, and the balloon stands, silent and dark, until the next time it needs to be charged with heat. A line from a poem by Louise GlÃ¼ck fills my mind: “The context of light is darkness.” The four of us stare intently into the daunting obscurity, anticipating splendor.
Along the railroad tracks a few blocks from our house grows a screen of tall oleander bushes. Tony loves to run beside them, racing rackety freight engines. His dark legs flash and reach, and he covers the ground in a lope that is, for the moment, elan. Joie de vivre. An echo of something — some ease, some escape from the weighty restraints of inertia — that I’ve never experienced but always hoped. For him, mostly, but also for the rest of us.
Finally outpaced, but flushed and glowing anyway with his own private triumph, he turns and walks back to us. The distracted look and loose-jointed awkwardness that are his usual style descend again like the tug of gravity on a satellite dropping back into the atmosphere from outer space.
We watch the balloons rise, one after another, an artificial landscape creating itself in minutes. Most of them are the usual inverted-pear shape, though each is distinctively patterned, many bearing advertising for fast-food chains, insurance companies, clothing brands. Some, like the piggy bank, are efforts at air-sculptures: a rabbit, moving van, wine bottle, a basketball topping a net. The largest, a vastly outsized tennis shoe, takes longest to inflate. As the fan storms, we stand gazing into the balloon’s gaping interior, arched like a cave but as big as our house. When the fully-inflated shoe finally hangs in place above our heads, we stare up in wonder at its tread, the terrible upraised foot of a disembodied giant.
The crowd of spectators has been steadily growing, a cheerful congregation, many of them obviously balloon groupies well versed in the mechanics of lighter-than-air craft. We stand about peering upward, jostling one another amiably. Tony hops from foot to foot, humming and exclaiming over one balloon after another. As the fans blow life into the inert forms, Tony approaches the restless fabric, touches it gingerly with a finger, or in his exuberance wriggles his face into the yielding folds.
“I kissed it!” he shouts to us after one such encounter. “I kissed a dark balloon!”
When six-week-old Tony arrived at Carol’s foster home, he was not expected to live. “Failure to thrive,” Carol told me later, over coffee at her kitchen table. I had heard the term before but, applied now to someone I had just met and liked enormously, it had a strange, sad ring to it. What do we expect of infants, after all? Not any social graces, certainly. No responsibility. Nothing except that they thrive. And Tony was failing at that one expectation. “And he’s blind, they tell me.” She smiled at me over the rim of her coffee cup — her crooked smile, reserved for these vagaries of professional pronouncement. “They gave him pure oxygen, to save his life, and it blinded him, they say. Of course I tell them he sees fine, but. . .you know.”
I nodded, remembering Tony’s communion with the river of light and shadow. Carol’s hand wobbled as she replaced her cup deliberately in its saucer. She was short like me, but with a helmet of straight white hair. Her own health was poor enough, her legs and right arm weakened by childhood polio, her hips arthritic, and her gait unsteady. Still, she cared for as many as three babies at a time, all of them substantially damaged, most by abusive parents. Tony was the exception: his biological mother had never accepted him, abandoning him at birth to his gloomy prognosis.
“Not that he ever looks at me,” Carol went on. “Or at anybody. And he doesn’t want to be held. I can’t brush his hair either; he hates to have his head touched. But he sees all right.”
I murmured something about his vision, his unmistakable delight in what he’d seen, and then we sat on awhile, neither of us speaking.
“The social worker says we can’t save his life,” Carol finally continued. She didn’t look at me, but concentrated on pouring us both another cup of coffee. “‘Don’t even try,’ she told me. ‘His heart will fail again.’ And she said, ‘Let it.’ He’s come here to die.”
I couldn’t answer, and she wouldn’t lift her eyes. She pressed some toast crumbs, left over from a hasty breakfast, into a tidy pile, volcano-shaped. “They don’t know anything,” I finally managed. “What can they know?” But my question hung, as it must, in silence.
On every side now, balloons are rising. Fans bellow and the crowd chatters. We stare up at the nebulous shapes, so close together that they meet overhead, creating a new universe of flickering color. Through the din a familiar yelp catches my ear. The response I’ve learned to make to that brief sound is a sick catch in my stomach and a hasty search for its misplaced source. Sure enough, Tony has become separated from us. Though only a few feet away, he’s surrounded by strangers, and the look in his eyes tells me he’s already disoriented and rapidly losing control. I dodge around the intervening people and grab at his elbow, jerk him back over to where Bob and Dara are still gazing up at the bumping balloons. I shove him between Bob and me.
“I thought you were keeping track of him,” I tell Bob, gasping as if I’ve just run a lap.
“Where was he?”
“Just over there,” I indicate the spot with a wave of my hand. “Going to pieces.”
“Put your hand on my shoulder,” Bob tells Tony and, still shuddering, Tony clutches at the slippery fabric of Bob’s windbreaker. Dara looks back and forth between me and Bob, but a moment later all three of them are engrossed again as the boom of igniting burners transforms one section of the surrounding cloud into stripes of brilliant color. I, though, am ashamed of myself, and stand reimagining my reactions, wishing I hadn’t clutched at Tony so roughly, or spoken so sharply to Bob. I glance at the people next to us, expecting glares of disapprobation, but their attention is fixed on the balloons as though nothing happened. Nothing did, I tell myself. It only threatened: that sweeping, defenseless sense of public humiliation that Tony can instantly invoke in me. My own gruff response seems as senseless as Tony’s fears. In my mind I rehearse a better scenario to use next time: a calm encircling, shepherding him back to us, quiet words to reassure us all, and no attack on Bob.
Tony has never loved a crowd. Fourteen months after we first met, he finally came home to us, our adopted son. Thanks to Carol’s vigilance and her quick, determined action, he’d survived another heart failure as well as a life-threatening strangulated hernia. His lungs, too, had been damaged in his untimely birth. The sound of his breathing — a fair imitation of a semi parked beside us at a stop light — accompanied our waking moments and provided the lulling background for our anxious nights. When his lungs finally improved I would startle awake, alarmed at the silence, and rush to his crib. After his homecoming he soon abandoned his bottle feedings and accepted solid food, alleviating the danger of overtaxing his heart with fluids.
But his emotional control was haywire. Children’s balloons, for instance, caused him to laugh uncontrollably; he had to be rescued from them, carried off into a quiet, isolated room until he could recover himself. At other times his amused outbursts had no apparent object. Even now, our sleep is frequently shattered by Tony’s gusty laughter in the pitch blackness of his bedroom.
Simple upsets were similarly out of bounds. Chief among these was any movement behind his back, which could set him screaming in exaggerated panic. Like an old-time gunfighter anticipating ambush, he was only comfortable with his back to a wall. For two years restaurant meals were impossible, since his position in a highchair made him vulnerable to encroachment. Even when we backed his chair into a corner, or seated him firmly on my lap, his eyes would glaze with terror at the mass of movement around him. If he managed to eat anything at all, he promptly vomited it up. Gradually he learned to tolerate movement by anchoring himself with one hand on either Bob or me, keeping us constantly in his view. And we learned to keep up a stream of reassuring patter, to make frequent eye contact with him, and to remain always where he could see us.
Forgetting those few restrictions is still disastrous. Only a month before, at the library, I’d pointed Tony in the direction of the dinosaur books and wandered with Dara in search of an Italian cookbook. Within moments we heard a disturbance in the center of the library, hasty movements as patrons shoved back their chairs from the study tables. Then Tony’s voice, raised in a tone that was at once frightened and belligerent.
“I’ll shoot,” he shouted. “I’ll shoot.”
I dropped my books and rushed to him. He was circling slowly backwards, staring blankly, both hands held stiff in front of him, forefingers aimed and thumbs cocked. I took him firmly in my arms and walked him directly out the door, where he collapsed, whimpering, against a wall. I sat beside him, speechless, until Bob emerged with Dara in tow to take us home. Only later did I remember I’d heard his warning yelp before his outburst and had failed to respond to it.
Tony, at least, has moved on to undiminished delight in the prismatic light show flaring around us. At last it seems that every balloon is finally inflated, and we take off to stroll the streets, studying each one. Date palms line the parkway on either side, their crowns level with the third-story windows, but the balloons tower above them, shifting slowly in the night breezes. By the time we’ve visited every one, the chase teams are already preparing to deflate them for the night, roll them once again into unassuming bales and pack them off in their vans.
We head reluctantly toward our car, off at a distance down disordered streets. Tony is subdued, shuffling behind us with his mind still soaring in flares of colored light.
“When I grow up,” he calls to us, “I want to be a hot-air balloon.” I’m reminded of Tim, our oldest son, who at age three blurted that he wanted to be a fire truck when he grew up.
“You mean a fireman,” I’d suggested, and he’d stared at me, baffled.
“That’s what I said,” he told me. Temporary verbal confusion. He grew up to understand the difference.
But Tony never will. For him there is no confusion; he means exactly what he said. He’s wishing, visualizing his own ripe maturity as plump and billowy, a shapeless gray mystery suddenly blasted bright with unimagined color. For Tony the present moment, imagined or real, is all that exists.
Time, after all, is a kind of gravity, dependent for its existence on the spin that was put into this universe at its inception. Outside the universe, where Tony takes us flying, time has no meaning. Neither do cause and effect, which are concepts rooted in time, in “first” and “following,” “before” and “after.” No decay. No consequences. No history. No baggage. Everything outside of time exists in a single present moment, where even this disintegrating neighborhood soars in a continual flow of shifting light and shadow. Expanding, stirring, rising.