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The Balloonists

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Poetry. "Eula Biss writes in spare brushstrokes that evoke an emotional universe, by turns funny, scary, dreamlike, haunting. These prose poems are shards of gleaming observation, fragments of intimacy and illusion. Here we find our families and ourselves, our words and our silences"-Martin Espada. "With deceptively quiet, unflinching compassion, Eula Biss records the perceptual wedges that cleave the self from its origins. The family history refracted here is mutable, notable, more gravid than grave. THE ...
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The Balloonists

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Overview


Poetry. "Eula Biss writes in spare brushstrokes that evoke an emotional universe, by turns funny, scary, dreamlike, haunting. These prose poems are shards of gleaming observation, fragments of intimacy and illusion. Here we find our families and ourselves, our words and our silences"-Martin Espada. "With deceptively quiet, unflinching compassion, Eula Biss records the perceptual wedges that cleave the self from its origins. The family history refracted here is mutable, notable, more gravid than grave. THE BALLOONISTS holds a fresh line on confession, biography, and the formal uses of information in poetry"-Rebecca Wolff.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781931236072
  • Publisher: Hanging Loose Press
  • Publication date: 2/1/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 72
  • Sales rank: 993,960
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 8.46 (h) x 0.24 (d)

Meet the Author


Eula Biss holds a BA in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She is currently an Artist in Residence at Northwestern University, where she teaches nonfiction writing, and she is a founding editor of Essay Press, a new press dedicated to innovative nonfiction. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction and the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Nonfiction as well as in The Believer, Gulf Coast, Columbia, Ninth Letter, the North American Review, the Bellingham Review, the Seneca Review, and Harper's.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


My father told us stories every night about strange little animals that came out in the dark. When my father was away, my mother read us fairy tales that always ended in marriage. Sometimes, when I missed my father, I slept under my bed in mourning and the mice crawled all around me.

* * *

I stand at the window of a bridal shop where huge dresses hang ghostly in the dark. At the back is a collection of veils like a row of sleeping jellyfish. One whole wall of the shop is a mass of white cloth. The wedding dresses are enormous. They are twice as big as me, and bigger than any woman on the street.

* * *

This is the year that everyone is trying to fly around the world in a balloon. I don't know why.

* * *

I wonder what my generation will do with what we know of marriage.
I think of a married person as a kind of specialist. It's tempting to have faith in specialists—to assume that barbers know the essential properties of hair and have studied it so thoroughly they can predict exactly how it will fall. But not all barbers are experts or artists or scientists of hair. More often they are just people, not particularly interested in hair, who somehow ended up working with it. One hairdresser mentioned to me, while he cut my hair, that he was considering turning the salon into a burger joint. He wouldn't mind flipping burgers, he said, he just wanted to be doing something with his hands. It's possible, Isuppose, that all those married couples are just people, not especially interested in intimacy, who somehow ended up married.


* * *

I think it started with model airplanes, the little paper ones. Dad would make complicated adjustments to the wings, the tail, the nose.... He would explain everything he was doing while we tried to make grass whistle between our thumbs. Then we would shoot the planes, with rubber bands, off the top of the hill we lived on. If it was a good flight Dad would yell and jump and race after it, and if it crashed he would pick it up and bend the wings a little more.

Then he built a bigger plane, a remote controlled plane. Its wings were as wide as my arm span, and in the first seconds of its first flight it crashed into messy splinters.

* * *

I bring home the newspaper for the photos of disasters. Flat, anonymous flood plains are scattered across my floor. Mashed cars with no caption are crumpled in the drawer with my clothes. I tack the thin dribble of wrecked train cars to my wall.

* * *

I am beginning to discover everything that I will never be able to do. I realize today, for example, that I will never be a firefighter. I saw an advertisement for firefighters, "no experience necessary," and imagined myself in front of a wall of flame. I would want to watch it burn.

* * *

The caption under the picture of the surprised looking little girl reads, "Murder suspect Sylvia Cruz." The article says, "A death that occurs in arson, even if that fire was not intended to cause death, is a homicide."

* * *

I can't forget the man on the beach. His tattoo said, "Forgive me Mom."

There are some words that seem to well up from inside me without reason. I will be walking along an empty hallway, leaning against the wall of an elevator, looking at the ceiling of my apartment when I find myself saying, "sorry." But I am not saying it to anyone else, it is only for the sound of the word, the feel of it.

* * *

All four of us pronounce the word 'sorry' the same way, but different from our parents. Different from anyone that lives around us. There is no explaining it.

* * *

In my dream we are all waiting for my sister. The sails on the boat are stretching out over the lake, huge and full. She comes late. What's wrong? She's gotten married accidentally. God, Mavis, how could that happen? Dad is angry, we are all crying. I wake up afraid that she will be taken and folded up in a closet like clean linen.

* * *

Walking home with four bags of groceries I fell on the asphalt. Apples bounced out of the bags, bruising. When it was dark and the groceries were all put away, I undressed to find that my knees were split open and my legs were crusted with dried blood. I hadn't felt anything.

* * *

The cuts were closed by the time I slept in his bed for the first time. He ran his finger along my side, gently, over my hip. My knees stung, my wrists hurt, my head was pounding, and everything tickled.

* * *

I am in the car. Peaches floating in a mason jar. The slant of the early sun is sharp. The glass of the window is too thin and through it everything looks jagged. A lone pumpkin sits on the highway. Behind it a smokestack rises gracefully, thin and burnt. We are at a stoplight and tape from a cassette is glistening and twisting on the road. Sinking and blowing and catching under tires without a sound.

I feel his hand, through a red glove, on my leg. There are boats out there under covers, all different colors.

* * *

My father built a canoe with his father. It was like a wingless airplane made of wood. He started making another one by himself that sat for years, a skeleton on braces, in various stages of incompletion. "When I finish my canoe" was the beginning of so many of my father's sentences. He talked about the boats he would build the way some people talk about the money they will make. As if it were all he needed.

* * *

I was crying, or trying to cry, sitting on a folding metal chair in the first row. Grandma, behind me, was definitely crying. What Dad didn't know is that while he was saying his vows we were watching a cloud of black smoke rising in the window behind him. It hung there like a sleeping whale. Did he notice the smell of burning rubber as we got into the car to leave? All his little girls dressed in white and his fidgety son, twisting our heads to see the smoke hanging over the Colonie town dump. I think I remember him saying that the problem with a tire fire is that it can smolder for years, burning quietly but uncontrollably.

* * *

My father holds the tips of his fingers together to show the shape of the boat he wants to build. He will use two types of wood, for their strength, and because a light color will be beautiful against rose. It will be outfitted in brass and the sails will cut across each other like wings opening.

* * *

I have almost no memory of my mother from the time before the divorce. It is as if she did not exist until I was nine. I remember that we used to climb on Dad and ask over and over, "Where's Mom? Where's Mommy?" And he used to say, "Down a hole."

* * *

The couple on the train are young. She is wearing high heels and he has on a suit. She is staring straight ahead, and he is staring at the dark window where he probably sees his own reflection. She absently touches her index finger to his, over and over.

* * *

I fall asleep fast and wake up without a sense of time, knowing only that I feel his fingers around my waist, his mouth on my stomach. I ask him what he has been doing while I slept. "I've been kissing your belly."

* * *

I watched him play across a crowded concert hall with a high ceiling. I was late, so I sat in the aisle, directly in front of him. He bent into the drums and looked straight at me. I stared back and blushed. He winced, I was riveted, captivated, possessed.

Later, he asked if I had been there.

* * *

In the subway I see a couple dancing salsa for money. He is spinning her in a red blur. I worry about how close her head is coming to the wall, but she is loose and unconcerned. Her hair is flying and her skirt is coming up. She pays no attention. He stops spinning her and I am amazed at how close they dance, how her feet seem attached to his at the toes. His face is ecstatic, sweat-beaded, eyes turned upwards. He must be in love. But there is something strange about the woman, I realize, something strange about the way she's moving. They turn and I see that her face is plastic, her arms are tied around his neck, her feet are attached to his at the toes, her legs are foam. He controls her movements with his hands inside her hips. His eyes are closed.

* * *

I think I remember the sound of my mother typing in the basement. But this is only because I know there was a typewriter down there. I don't know how much she used it. She was almost always home, but if she wasn't typing and she wasn't in the garden and she wasn't putting bread in the oven, what was she doing?

* * *

I'm standing right in front, watching the drummer, as if by studying him I could learn some secret about all drummers. This man's hair is gray and he holds the sticks effortlessly. He is barely touching them, they just happen to be inside his hands. A squished-face man steps in front of me and yells to the drummer, "Hey Ronny." No response. He sees me notice him and says, "See, me and my man Ron go way back, and that man loves him some music. Loves that music. He gonna marry him some music he love it so bad."

* * *

My father played the trumpet every evening. He played taps out across the river. He played his banjo even though we always tried to pluck on the strings while he held it. He sang. Even after the divorce, he sang every time we were in a boat.

* * *

A man is hurrying down the street with a little girl hanging on his hand. She is dragging, tripping a little and he looks down as if he has just noticed her, saying, "I'm sorry sweetheart," and lifting her to his shoulders.

* * *

"How is your father?" my grandmother asks. "You know, I loved Roger and now I feel as if he has died. I haven't talked to him in years....

"Your mom had to leave him or she wouldn't have survived. I'm not sure why. When I think of her with that garden, and you four kids, and that old man in the extra room who was always sick.... You know, she used to tear down parts of that house and put them back together herself."

* * *

"There are so many different kinds of wrecking bars in use that it would be difficult to present them all. The wrecking bar is called by different names. The crowbar is also called a pinch bar. A wrecking bar with a slightly bent chisel point on one end and a hook with claws on it is also called a gooseneck bar and, frequently, a ripping bar."

Carpenter's Tools, H. H. Siegele

* * *

I like to think that the house was hollower after my mother left, but it just sounded that way because of the piano. Dad bought a pea-green piano and took it apart, scraped the paint piece by piece, sanded it, stained it, varnished it layer by layer, and then put it back together several times until it worked.

* * *

We wake up to the sound of the neighbor singing, "The thrill is gone ..." The air is cool and the shade is glowing. His hand is cupped over the back of my neck. My face is against his chest, my leg is thrown over his stomach. I fall asleep and when I wake up again we are holding each other's faces, noses touching.

* * *

One pedal on the piano squeaks.

* * *

My father learned to sail from reading books. He studied diagrams of the wind, alone in the evenings after my mother left. I lay in bed listening to the pages turn in the kitchen.

* * *

I am staring at the map, the wide winding patterns, the tangle, the mess. He understands it. He wonders about breaks and pauses in the vibration patterns on the water. I wonder about the pipes and rivets rusted into the walls of the canal. The mossy spigots, the empty mechanisms, the lock grown over with blackberries.

* * *

"Sandy was a horrible woman," my mother tells me, "but Ed loved her, and when she married him something about her changed. Maybe it was the security, or the love, but she softened. They had a little plane, one of those frail, noisy ones, and they used to go flying together all the time. Then Ed crashed it and died. That really destroyed Sandy, she was intolerable after that."

* * *

My Dad has always been waiting for a day with the right wind.

The kites he liked had two or three strings, stunt kites that would spin and swirl. We would go to the top of every hill around and it was always raining or very cold. The four of us would huddle together, fighting a little, while Dad assembled the kite and laid out the strings and ran crazily until it finally took off. There would be a staccato series of nose-dives, but he didn't give up easy.

* * *

There are so many things that make me sad. Kite strings, oatmeal, the white walls and the fan rushing, the tan plastic blinds, my dream about climbing on houses like these and breaking them.

* * *

Carrying the kite that had hung on his wall for a year, we walked back to the elementary school where I had been in sixth grade when he was in fifth. The playground equipment was not where it used to be. The kite went up easily. I was singing, "You look like rain ..." We took turns letting out string, it had a powerful pull, the weight of the wind was strange to hold. The kite was the size of a bird dipping down. We let out another spool of string. It was the size of a blinking airplane in the dusk. We let out a third spool. All that string was hanging in the air, softly suspended. We imagined that pulling the string made the kite move minutes later. He put his arms around my stomach and the last of the string zipped off the spool. I watched the end float lightly up into the air. It dissolved as he ran after it. Three spools of string and a kite swallowed into the evening. He stood in the middle of the field. "You lost my kite!"

* * *


A friend of mine served jury duty on a traffic violation case in which a young man had rear-ended an elderly woman who was driving the speed limit. The woman was very sweet and timid—her hands shook. What made the case difficult was the man's defense. He admitted that he hadn't been paying attention to the speed limit. "I was rushing home to see my beautiful wife." He had been out of town and hadn't seen her for days. He had been speeding. He was a handsome young man with a beautiful wife. The jury found him not guilty.


* * *

When I was six a boy named Brent asked me to marry him. He was my babysitter's son. His brother listened to The Chipmunks' Christmas Album while we dug pennies out of the soft moldy couch where he would lie on top of me with sticky lips against my ear saying, "Let's make love."

* * *

I used to put on a skirt to work in the restaurant where the waiter, Jimmy, would slip up behind me and slide a jar of sugar packets into my hand. A sudden cool weight in my palm. The bartender brought me a cherry on a toothpick, wrapped in a napkin. Later he brought me two, and I had to touch his hand to take them. Juan, the busboy, smiled a strange, soft smile and whispered, "Como estas?" The man in the first seat of the bus just hissed, a low hiss.

* * *

The supermarket is too bright, and the ceiling is too high. I'm watching the man in front of me in line. He turns his head to glance back at me every few seconds and I look away. He has brownish stains at the corners of his mouth. He is rubbing his thumb over his other thumbnail, nervously. His fingers are stained.

* * *

My father was coming home from a trip and I wanted to get the polish off my nails. I didn't know yet how to get it off and I couldn't wait, so I stood over the sink carefully scraping it away with my jackknife.

* * *

He likes to stretch out his hands in mine so that I can see the red marks between his fingers, where he holds the sticks, and the knobs of calluses where he has no feeling. I am always aware of his hands. They are long and knuckled, with the smoothest brown skin. They smell like soap. "I'm afraid something will happen to my hands," he says, "I need my hands."

* * *

The way he touches an instrument, a mixing bowl, the doorknob, is so gentle. He is someone who believes he can break things, or he believes that anything can hurt him.

* * *

When he was eight he kept a diary pressed under his mattress. He carefully wrote believable details in it each day. Details like, "Mom made cookies," "The dog next door bit the boy that lives there," "I fell off my bike." What he wrote had the same texture as his life, but it was never true. That way, if someone came into his room, lifted the mattress, and opened the book, they still wouldn't know anything about him. Eventually, not even that was enough. He took the notebook into the woods and burned it, leaving the wire spiral to rust.

* * *

The wind is blowing through my apartment and I hear geese, I think, and maybe thunder. Now the wind is still and I hear a hubcap fall off a car.

* * *

He thinks I don't pay attention. He has been talking and I have been silently naming the scents of everything we are crushing under our feet as we walk.

* * *

He used to have headaches that made him vomit. Nothing would make them go away. His doctor made him hold a thermometer and concentrate on raising his body temperature one degree at a time. His headaches were worse when his mother was in the room.

* * *

We undress in the little room which the heater is just beginning to warm. Bugs are coming alive. He is under the blankets and there are three wasps on the ceiling. He says he can't sleep knowing they are there. In my underwear, I roll up a magazine and stand on a chair to hit the wasps.

* * *

I was drinking tea with his mother while he cut ice off the roof with a shovel. He hurt himself, somehow, and came in the door suddenly, furious, splattering snow all over the room. He sat on the couch and stared straight ahead, just breathing. His mother and I stopped talking, kept drinking our tea.

* * *

He grew up on short streets that ended in yield signs or dead ends. Lighters were fascinating. Sometimes his older brother made fires in the back yard.

* * *

He wanted to change his image. He was only ten but he had been depressed and his mother was worried. She took him shopping for new clothes and told him he could get anything he wanted. He picked neon colors, diagonal stripes and all the patterns that made his eyes hurt. He was very shy and he looked completely absurd. This is what he wanted. He says that after he got his new clothes it was easier for him to go to school.

* * *

In his room the shades are pulled down so the windows glow pearly like projections on blank screens. The springs of a folded bed, the sharp cymbals of his drum set, the mallets and bars of the vibraphone all make a sharp nest around his bed. His blankets smell of dust and sweat. There is a mat of sheet music, books, and underwear on the floor. It is sprinkled with sand spilled from the jar that John West brought back from Bermuda in third grade.

He touches my hair and says, "If we were my parents, we would be getting married now, do you know that?"

* * *

"Sonata," he says, "means 'sounding together.' It is an argument in which one theme is presented in opposition to another and they struggle until one wins, in the resolution. It is a beautiful form, it has endured into this century."

* * *

I'm trying to explain something to him and he cuts off my last word to say, "Let's go in." So I slam the car door and he sighs. Sitting at the bar in the diner, with our legs dangling off the stools, we can't look at each other and we can't look at the truckers, the teenagers in booths, or up at the waitress. His cup of coffee sits in front of him and he can't pick it up. I finger my place mat and can't say anything. I move to get up, but he catches my arm, still not looking at me, and says, "We came all the way here, now let's enjoy it."

* * *

There is a woman who has a little table full of alarm clocks in front of the building where I work. She stands there with a vacant face while people walk by and one of the alarms goes off endlessly.

* * *

"Never marry a musician on New Year's Eve," is his mother's advice to me. "You'll always spend your anniversary alone." I can hardly hear her over the music. Her husband and her son are on stage, and we are standing awkwardly in a room full of glittery people. We stand there until midnight, after the countdown, when we go up to the stage to get our kisses and come back to stand by the dessert table. "You should have seen Charlie," she says to me, leaning over and pointing to her husband, conspiratorial, giggling a little. "That woman in the tiny little gold dress came over and asked to borrow a chair, she leaned down and his mouth just fell open. He sat there and stared at her until he realized what was going on and said 'Oh, yeah, yeah, sure'."

* * *

On my way down the fire escape in the rain I see a boy flop down on his bed. Through the curtains I see only his stomach and arms, which are still for a second until his hand reaches for his guitar, drawing it over his chest.

* * *

My grandmother signs the letter with both their names. In it she admits that she doesn't know if her husband is happy.

* * *

I come home to an empty house and fill the sink with water. The pigeons above the window are clucking. I let the dishes slip under the bubbles and I close my eyes. I listen to the perfect, whole, round sounds of glass against porcelain under water.

* * *

He hears his mother and his sister-in-law talk about how lonely it is to be married to a musician, how many nights they spend alone. He wonders if I would be unhappy. I don't say anything. I like to spend my nights alone.

* * *


"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," writes Joan Didion, with a certain skepticism. We also live by the stories we tell. It is enough for the end of a fairy tale to read simply, "... then they were married." I suspect my father, among others, of marrying in order to locate himself within this kind of easy fairy tale. I do not doubt that he loved my mother, but I do know that he deliberately looked for a wife. My father has told me more than once that although he doesn't think his parents did everything right, he hasn't had much else to model the shape of his life after.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from The Balloonists by Eula Biss. Copyright © 2002 by Eula Biss. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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