“The Red Balloon” by Dylan Fremont (2016)

“I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible….except by getting off his back.”

Leo Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do

I

RANDOLPH ORNETTE COLEMAN AWOKE ONE NIGHT in a sweat only to find a red balloon suspended at his bedside watching him sleep. It was the middle of July and the heat was sweltering. The air-conditioning unit in the living room was pulling the labor of twenty electric floor fans, but still the chilled air couldn’t brush past the bedroom’s threshold. Between him lay Precious, the two-year old baby that kicked and pawed him in her sleep, and on the other side of the queen bed lay Denisha, who was pregnant in her third-trimester with their second child. All the swiveling fan on the dresser could accomplish was cool the sweat on Randolph’s body when it swept in his direction, only for it to boil a second later, causing him to twitch uncomfortably on the firm mattress, until the next cool burst kissed his body and everything was alright again.

He was a cargo driver and had been replaying the day’s events in his mind while trying to sleep, where he had lost time and along what routes, which retail stores kept him waiting at the dock because the receiver was on break or unavailable at that moment. He chafed over every detail, how he could minimize his time in traffic, unload the dunnage and have it received in no time, double back to the warehouse, pick up another trailer, race across the various terminals on the grid, meet or exceed his daily quota, get home in time for some fried chicken with Denisha and Precious, quench his thirst with a fifth of Wild Turkey, watch some late-night TV, crash, maybe sleep, then wake up and do the whole thing over again, but better.

Randolph lifted his head from the marshmallow pillow and it clung to the sweat of his scalp for an instant. He hoisted himself on two elbows and his back was like grilled cheese on the damp sheets. The mattress sunk a little from Randolph’s beetling body and Precious slid that much closer. Her body was like a little furnace working overdrive in the night and the heat made Randolph restless. When would she able to sleep on her own? Randolph thought. He hadn’t made love to his wife in over a month and she didn’t seem to particularly mind, her face placid like a moonlit lake in the night, but he didn’t want to hold that fact against her. She was pregnant again, and pregnant wasn’t especially attractive to Randolph, besides it did make the sex burdensome, feeling more like a chore than anything else, but still Randolph felt the pangs of desire, further, it had turned him into a bundle of nerves lately, unsteady foot on the pedals during the day, tossing and turning in bed at night.

The red balloon with the silver ribbon floated at his bedside and it scared the hell out of Randolph. His heart was beating uncontrollably. It was creepy in an uncanny way, how a coat rack bedecked with hats and gloves and jackets might be mistaken for a burglar in the middle of the night. He reached up and lightly punched the balloon away and it bobbed to the other side of the cramped bedroom, the silver ribbon dangling like an umbilical. Hot holy hell, he thought and almost spoke the words aloud. He brushed the sweat from his forehead away with the back of his palm and the perspiration fell like a sheet over Precious’ naked leg, nearly startling her from her deep sleep, which Randolph did not want for anything. He patted her dry with the linen that was draped at the foot of the bed and she settled back into her rhythmic breathing before long. He reached over to the bedside stand and lifted the glass, careful not to drop it, and took a swig of water. Had the liquid been any warmer it would have been tea. He lifted himself against the headboard and sat up for a few minutes staring at the red balloon that was mostly blanketed by shadow in the dim recesses, but he could still make out its puffed shape in the dark.

It began to languidly bob its way back to the side of the bed, to its original post, and again, for some inexplicable reason, Randolph grew frightened. Perhaps it reminded him of his youth, when he’d wake during the middle of the night in his dark cramped room, and every stuffed animal and toy soldier lining his shelves had a grotesque elongated shadow under the moonlight, a spook that revealed the true nature of his cherished possessions. He’d pull the blankets over his eyes and cocoon himself in the linen until he fell asleep; he’d handle his toys apprehensively during the daytime, fearing the vibes during the moonlit evening changeover. The words of his pastor came to mind: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. Randolph refused to duck under the covers. It’s just a stupid balloon, he thought. And he decided he’d pop it in the morning after all, even though Precious seemed to be endlessly amused by it.

The red balloon had swept its way into the apartment one windy day, in through the open balcony door, and had remained with the Colemans ever since. Mysteriously, the balloon had not deflated at all in the forty days of its occupancy. Randolph figured it must have been made out of some special material, probably Mylar or something, and didn’t balloons filled with natural air last longer? It oscillated around the house harmlessly and had become part of the surroundings before long. Precious would tug at the silver cord periodically and the balloon would weave and wobble for a few seconds afterwards, otherwise it would drift like a regular balloon. But now, Randolph thought, the balloon floated with meaning, or maybe he’d fallen prey to his childhood inclinations again. He fell asleep against the headboard wondering all these fanciful things and awoke to a stiff neck and sore back that weren’t fanciful at all.

II

All day he struggled with his deliveries. The traffic was synched tight. He made some poor choices on the road that exacerbated the gridlock. And then he caught some bad luck at his early drop off points, landing behind some trucks and falling into a lengthy queue, or he’d pull in just as the receiver went for a coffee break, which delayed him further. All day he was stewing in the cab of his truck. The air-conditioning hardly held the fire of the sun at bay and beneath the windshield he felt like an ant burning below a magnifying glass. He looked for some classic music on the radio to momentarily forget his troubles, some Jazz or Motown funk to transport him from his broiling surroundings, but all he managed to dial into was the electronic dance music all the kids were into nowadays, songs populated mostly by drum machines, synthesized baselines, and processed alien-sounding vocals. Bad luck all round, he thought. He was restless in the driver’s seat of the truck, restless when his navy t-shirt stuck to his back, restless when his feet microwaved in his boots, and he tried not to make any mistakes, every turn of the wheel, every acceleration on the pedal, counted towards his final goal, which was doing his damned best to get back to the Denisha and Precious.

He tried not to let his mind wander to bills or groceries, what are we going to have for dinner anyway? Denisha had been so absent minded lately. She was spending way too much on groceries, not budgeting correctly, complaining that the allowance he gave her was meager, the money was never enough. He took to planning their meals for the week himself while he drove around town making deliveries. Scribbling down recipes and ingredients in his notebook during pauses in traffic. He was visiting grocery stores during the day anyways. He could look for food specials while his truck was being unloaded, killing two birds with one stone. Admittedly, he wasn’t much of a cook, but he scrapped together what recipes he could, golden relics from his mother’s southern-fried pantry, or from the many food programs on television.

It drove him nuts that he packed his lunch everyday, or that he’d skip breakfast in order to save some money, while Denisha would take daily walks around the neighborhood with Precious, and eat at any of the nearby food establishments without giving a second thought towards the finances. They had many arguments over this. Randolph tried to lay down the law, making it clear that she was spending money imprudently, showing her the arithmetic and hard-earned budget he’d worked out in his notebook. What it is, he said to her, is unfair. She said, to hell with your notebook if it means I need to live like a prisoner in my own home. He had to relent because he hated to see her upset. He was afraid of harming the child in her belly and then being blamed for whatever went wrong the remainder of his life. As of late, Randolph was taking to skipping breakfast and lunch to meet the needs of his weekly budget.

He worked ten to twelve hours day, six days out of the week. He rested on the seventh and went to church with his family. After church, they’d usually go out for lunch at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, but lately they’d taken to skipping the starters to save a little money, the fried okra, the fried green tomatoes, the fried pickles, were now reminders of a happier, carefree time. If he could find any time for himself in the afternoon, he’d pick up his tenor sax and play some blues scales to the best of his abilities. He was named after a Jazz master but he never showed a similar talent himself. His mother had saved money for years and had bought the sax for Randolph on his fourteenth birthday. He had lessons and was part of the school band. His mother was so proud of him during his recitals. He was now thirty-four and the silvery sax was nearly twenty years old and in dire need of servicing. Most of the corks and felts and pads needed replacing. “Susie Silver” just didn’t sound like she used to, but Randolph didn’t have the cash flow for the necessary repairs. He strung together a series of notes and melodies from memory, and these snatches of harmony, as bad as they sounded to the neighbors, would ward off the dread of returning to the wheel as the placid Sunday hours ticked away.

It was the same routine every day except for Sundays. He’d wake up at four in the morning and be on the road by five. He’d pick up his first load between five-thirty and six, drive all day until five in the evening, and hopefully arrive at home by six for dinner. Sometimes dinner would be waiting for him on the table, or if Denisha had had a bad day, he’d have to help prepare dinner too. After eating, he’d clear the table and wash the dishes by hand, while Denisha gave Precious a bath, or else she’d do laundry, or straighten out the apartment, making beds, putting toys away, vacuuming. Sometimes, when time permitted, Randolph would pull himself together, and the Colemans would go for a stroll around the block, maybe get an ice pop from the corner store, watch the local high school baseball team practice on the diamond. Most of the times, Randolph would simply drink a hard shot of whisky or two and pass out on the couch, or they’d watch television until bedtime, which was usually around ten in the evening.

The same daily events swept Randolph along with only some minor variation in the details. He was still young enough to remember a different way of life, and at times he dreamed he was still young, even though he was by no means old. That was as close as Randolph came to a confession of defeat. He fought to improve his life in small increments. His mother had raised him singlehanded, sacrificing everything along the way to make sure Randolph was happy and strong. His mother was dead now, a casualty to stomach cancer, but her spirit lived on through him. My momma didn’t raise no quitter, he often told himself. She had named him after Ornette Coleman and had very high hopes for him. He tried his hand at college, mechanical engineering, and did fairly well at first, but dropped out in his third year after his mother had succumbed to the cancer. He felt there was little point in carrying on his education without her.

He bounced around from job to job in his twenties, repaying his student loan, drifting aimlessly, until he met Denisha, a friend of a friend, and she inspired him to pull his socks up in a way he hadn’t since his mother had departed. After a couple of years of dating, they had a modest marriage in a Presbyterian church, and had moved in together. Randolph was embarrassed that trucking was the best he could do for his family, but he thought maybe, if he could put a little aside, just maybe, he might be able to resume his schooling part-time and continue in his quest to be an engineer. He loved Denisha deeply and felt Precious was a gift beyond reckoning. So he would endure the dreaded cycle and look forward to the small pleasures life afforded him along the way. He played the lottery weekly and prayed his big break would come soon.

Tonight was leftover night. There was Cajun gumbo in the fridge. A bowl of spicy stewed shrimp over rice can’t be that bad, he thought. Although he would have killed for some smoked BBQ brisket and creamy slaw, or even Jambalaya, with chicken, Andouille sausage, and ham. His mouth watered at the prospect. He’d eaten nothing all day and was falling prey to hunger’s mirages. He unlocked the front door, hung up his ball hat, bent to untie his laces, and removed his safety boots by stepping on the back of the shoe, so stubbornly when he met resistance that he unglued the heel. Fuck’s sake, he said, and Denisha overheard him, shouting back reprovingly, Randolph! What’s wrong with you! He ignored her comment and walked into the kitchen to get some food and drink. The dinner table was not set. This fact, coupled with safety boot incident from a moment earlier, would have led him straight to the bottle for a stiff shot had the bottle not been sitting empty on the bookshelf.

Randolph removed the Tupperware with the Cajun Gumbo from the refrigerator and stuck it into the microwave for only two minutes because he liked to eat his foods half-cold. This habit was owed to a childhood predilection for rushing leftover food through the reheating stage in the oven. In the age of microwave ovens that heated food nearly instantly, waiting for warm food was a thing of the past, but technology was always racing to catch up to the whims of its patrons, even ones that were difficult to classify. He pulled a bag of frozen peach slices out of freezer, which were something of a delicacy in the Coleman household, and began to devour them, bit by frozen bit, cleansing his palette in preparation for the spicy Cajun. Denisha walked into the kitchen holding the baby against her hip with one hand and hoisting a transparent bag full of soiled baby diapers in the other. What are you doing? she asked. Eating some peaches, he replied. You know those are the baby’s peaches for when she’s teething? she said with a disgusted look congealing over her face. There’s enough to go around, he said, looking down at the peach half-moon in his hands that was encrusted with frost and feeling like a terrible father.

The microwave sounded and Randolph liberated the Gumbo with all its oniony and peppery goodness from its plastic container. He went to town on the shrimp and sausage and the Denisha gave him grief for being selfish and eating alone. And because he forgot to buy her the panty liners that she so frivolously wore, justifying the habit by saying that it somehow kept her privates cleaner, and in turn it was safer for their unborn baby. Randolph researched panty liners on Google and nowhere did it say they were meant to be used to daily to keep clean. He read that they were generally used for the absorbance of daily vaginal discharge, light menstrual flow, tampon and menstrual cup backup, spotting, post-intercourse discharge, and urinary incontinence. He didn’t want to probe too deeply into her feminine routines and ruffle her feathers, but he still conveniently forgot to purchase the panty liners because he was two days away from getting paid. He’d already met the weekly expenditure budget and loathed exceeding it. He made his bed on the couch that night and found the red balloon at his side before long. He wasn’t frightened by its appearance this time. In fact, he welcomed the balloon’s familiar presence to help take the sting out of his exile from the bedroom.

He tossed and turned on the couch, unable to find relief from the heat while he lay over the stiff cushions. It was stifling in the room. Even with the air conditioner running at fill blast, he could feel the humidity on the other side of the wall, picking and picking. The red balloon dawdled at his side unaffected by the heat and Randolph was envious of its Mylar skin and ethereal substance. The thought of hovering over the city’s airless skyline gave him a measure of comfort; being weightless, more air than body, was an idea that would have tranquilized him to sleep, if it weren’t for the constant jockeying in his mind. The traffic of the city was a riddle he couldn’t solve. He felt that if he could navigate better behind the wheel, he’d get out from under the grid permanently; if he could conquer that component of the job, he’d be ready for something else, something better even. The names of highways and streets scrolled through his mind. He laid out the major checkpoints and turned the wheel down one street and then another, chasing the perfect route through the grid. Jefferson, Colfax, Polk, then Calhoun, he mumbled aloud, in order to cement his itinerary for the first drop of his day, but he could barely hear his voice over the noise of the air conditioning unit.

Jefferson, Wheeler, Morton, and then Calhoun, he heard over the thrum in the living room, but his lips did not move. Randolph hadn’t thought of that sequence before, but now that he was presented with the option, it made total sense to him, of course, Wheeler to Morton, why didn’t I think of that? The red balloon drifted at the side of the couch and Randolph stared at it intently. He wanted to know more. Stevenson, Hobart, Fairbanks, Sherman. He plotted the checkpoints in his head and the lights intersecting the grid went green. Dawes, Coolidge, Garner, Wallace, Mondale. Everything seemed to click into place. The grid was lit. He could see a clear pathway to every checkpoint. A clear pathway home. His job made more sense to him now. There was an exit from the grid. He’d get home sooner every day. Spend more time with the family. Maybe help more around the house. Denisha would have the baby before long. And they’d be happy again. Tomorrow he’d put his secret knowledge to the test.

III

The next day Randolph finished his regular route at three-thirty-five in the afternoon, which was ninety minutes better than usual. He was home forty-five minutes later and Denisha thought he had been canned when she saw him home so early. He reassured her things were fine. He was so enthusiastic and confident about the future that he even suggested they go out for dinner at Gus’s World Famous. Denisha thought he was going crazy. Gus’s? On a weekday? She asked. Let’s live a little, he replied. Denisha didn’t wait for Randolph to ask a second time. She got herself and Precious quickly dressed and they went out to eat. Randolph ordered two beers for himself right off the bat and Denisha ordered appetizers for them to share: fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and fried pickles They took a substantial hit on the bill. Randolph usually scoured the tab line by line for any discrepancies, but this time he settled up without much ado, even leaving a fair tip on the table.

The Colemans went for a walk through the park afterwards. There was a cool breeze stemming from the adjacent forest that took the char out of the smoldering sun. They had bought some ice cream from Diablo’s that was melting down the cone as fast as they could lap it up. Precious made googly eyes with every lick of the Tutti Frutti and Randolph and Denisha laughed and snapped photos of every cute moment on their cellular phones. They held hands the entire way and locked lips every so often. Randolph tossed his half-eaten sugar cone to a stray dog whose fur was grey and patchy. He then climbed a short tree on a dare from Denisha, who mocked his old age at every step and grunt, but she still looked on proudly. He tore a few verdant leafs from a high branch, folded them down the middle, and languidly sailed them down to her, before leaping from the trunk himself like an athletic sixteen-year old. When they got home, they put Precious to bed and excitedly made love in the living room. It had been so long since they’d lain together that they’d forgotten how right it felt when they did. He felt uneasy about getting aggressive with her in her pregnant state, but she assured him it was okay. I like it that way sometimes, she said. So he pulled her hair and slapped her backside until she climaxed. Afterwards Randolph slept better than he had in weeks. He wrapped his feet up in Denisha’s and rubbed them until he fell asleep.

It went this way for about a week. Randolph got home early every day and did things with the family and everybody seemed happier as a result. But happy came at a cost. The fried chicken and ice cream, and other curios aside, took a bite out of Randolph’s savings, and now he began to fret and was eager to recoup the loss before the next baby was born. The following week, Randolph decided to pick up another trailer instead of leaving early. So he went back to leaving work at five and getting home in time for dinner; this time, with an extra hundred dollars in his pocket per week. Denisha couldn’t care if it was one hundred or four hundred; she liked having Randolph home early and seeing the tranquil change in his temperament. It meant more to her than the things money could buy. But still, somebody had to think of the future whilst fortifying the present.

The new baby was going to need a great many things. If it were a boy, Precious’s leftover clothes wouldn’t do. Denisha had wanted to move to a three-bedroom apartment to accommodate for the new baby, but that wasn’t going to happen. Randolph couldn’t afford the cost of a three bedroom. The two-bedroom they had now was price locked at an affordable rate. The second they left, the property owners would jack up the price by at least two hundred dollars. It would be tough to find a three-bedroom apartment in the city for anything less than three hundred more per month than he was paying now. The extra trailer per day he was picking up now could pay the difference. But the way Randolph saw it, why not tough it out for a few more years and save that money instead for a down payment on a house, or failing that, on a new car at least. His rusted jalopy was on its last legs and was going to need replacing sooner than later. But it was the accumulation of all the little things that was driving him crazy.

Denisha was constantly bugging him about buying new things. She wanted a new stroller for the baby, even though they had a perfectly good stroller already. A second car seat, which in all likelihood was completely necessary, but every mention of buying something new just peeved Randolph right out of the gate. Bottles, bibs, sippy cups, swaddling blankets, there was no end in sight. Working later nights also meant Randolph was back on the couch again. He was too tired to argue about how the extra money would help them down the road. Denisha had been suffering from cramps the last few days and was extra cranky, so it made more sense to let her win the argument and give her space. She was going to see a doctor the very next day and Randolph needed to take the morning off to drive her. It was going to cost him his morning’s wages.

Randolph lay on the couch staring at the popcorn ceiling and listening to the oppressive drone of the air conditioner. He’d heard that people often meditated in situations like this. But he had no idea what that even meant, let alone what he should do. The red balloon wandered closer to the edge of the couch and wavered there. Randolph thought it looked a little deflated from when he’d paid attention to it last. He reached over and touched the silver ribbon, smoothing its ripples between his fingers; he pulled the balloon lower to the ground and then peered into its hollows. The kitchen light had remained lit to make midnight snacks for Denisha a less perilous endeavor. It also made it harder for him to sleep in the living room, but, as Denisha often reminded him, not everything was about him now that she was pregnant with his child. He looked shadowy in the fishbowl reflection from the balloon. The glint in his eye was the only living thing in his expression. He lay back on the couch and stretched out as far as he could. He had to bend his legs in one direction or another to fit in the slim cosset of the leather.

He was, more or less, a superstitious man and played the same six numbers on the lottery weekly: the birthdays of his mother, Denisha and Precious. Those six numbers had yielded a top prize of thirty-two dollars over the last two years. Nothing to write home about considering it cost him ten dollars to participate in the weekly draw. To say he played the lottery desperately would be an understatement. He might as well have been marooned on a desert island, with the lottery ticket being his only message in a bottle. Every Friday he shut his eyes and held his breath when they read the numbers. He prayed for the right numbers to be drawn. When that failed, he tried to will the numbers into effect. Denisha often thought Randolph would have an aneurism when he attempted to influence the draw from the couch. He tried everything but to change the numbers he selected. For some reason, he refused to accept that the birthdays of the most important people in his life shouldn’t also be the winning numbers on at least one jackpot.

Two, Three, Five. In the static of the air-conditioner he felt there was a voice he was decoding. Eight, Thirteen, Twenty-One. He stood from the couch and pushed the red balloon aside and it made a squeaky protestation. He looked for a pen and paper and quickly jotted the number sequence down. Two, Three, Five, Eight, Thirteen, Twenty-One. He was certain these were the numbers he overheard. There was no doubt in his mind that these were the numbers he had been waiting for these last two years. He wasn’t going to go to sleep. He couldn’t risk it. There were convenience stores open twenty-four hours. He would leave and find one now. Late hour be damned, he thought. He had to make his luck concrete somehow, before the sun rose and vanquished his winning numbers.

Randolph quickly threw on some dirty clothes from the hamper and a baseball cap and exited the apartment as silently as he could. He found a convenience store, “Bob’s Milk”, open twenty-four hours, not six blocks from his home, and he picked up a few things from the grocery shelves to dispel any suspicions. Sliced bread, beef jerky, milk, candy for Precious, and Denisha’s damned panty liners, which were double the price at Bob’s, but also the perfect alibi in case she caught him sneaking back upstairs. Randolph nodded to the cash attendant and they shared some brief midnight courtesies. When the clerk finished cashing out the items Randolph had selected, he asked, Will there be anything else? This was the keyword. Randolph slyly handed the attendant the numbers he had scribbled down earlier and said, UltraMega, please. The attendant read the numbers and languidly punched them into the lottery unit and out swooped a ticket with Randolph’s lucky numbers. Here you are, sir. Maybe a millionaire in the evening, the attendant said. This made Randolph smile from ear to ear.

All day next day Randolph couldn’t stop yawning. At the doctor’s office he could hardly stay awake despite having two coffees for breakfast. There were man-eating daggers in Denisha’s eyes when she managed to catch his attention. After a fairly long wait, the Colemans were called into the office and the doctor examined Denisha. He decided to send her for blood work and an ultrasound to investigate for signs of malpresentation. Randolph had no idea what the diagnosis meant and couldn’t follow the conversation’s trail at all. He was a babe in the wilderness. In the hallway, Denisha looked afraid and reached out to Randolph for reassurance. Everything will be fine, he said. Where’s the blood lab? she asked nervously. Randolph shrugged his shoulders. Can’t you do anything for me? she said and pushed his hand away from the small of her back. She walked further ahead in the bright and sanitized hall with Precious in her arms. Randolph put his hand down the pocket of his pants, feeling for the crumpled up lottery ticket, and it felt like the white sands of the Maldives.

The results came back and everything seemed to be fine. There was no reason to suspect that her pain and cramping signified anything out of the ordinary. The Colemans went home from the doctor’s in the late afternoon and Randolph was exhausted for not having slept at all the previous night. He lay on the bed for a quick nap and thirty-minutes later he was awoken by Precious who was wailing in the living room. Randolph elbowed the red balloon to one side and found Precious sitting on the floor with a pile of her stuffed animals, crying at the top of her lungs. Where’s mommy? he asked Precious, who wasn’t able to talk just yet, but seemed to understand him more and more lately. Denisha? he shouted. Denisha? She was nowhere to be found in the apartment. It would have been hard to miss her with her abounding bump. Randolph began to worry and yelled for her even louder. He was about to leave the apartment in search, when he remembered Precious, who was still sitting on the floor but no longer crying. He lifted her up and took his keys from the kitchen table and then left the apartment.

Randolph found Denisha on the floor in the laundry room. He put Precious down and rushed to her. She was lying on her side as the washing machines rumbled away like miniature tractors. He lifted her head in his lap and tried to rouse her by shaking and talking to her. Her skin color was paler than usual and she felt cool to the touch, which was strange considering the room was hotter than a boiler. Denisha baby, he said. Wake up. She came to within a few seconds and reached down to make sure her baby was still with her. Randolph, she said. What happened? I don’t know baby, he replied. Let me get you upstairs and we’ll sort things out. She was very unstable on her feet. Randolph had to steady her while carrying Precious in his arms. Once in the apartment, Denisha lay on the bed and Randolph sat beside her. She explained that she had felt really hot and dizzy and had just loaded the washing machine with their laundry and that was the last thing she remembered. We should probably go the hospital, she said.

Randolph would have agreed with Denisha normally, but the lottery result was going to be announced shortly, and he felt this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that he had to devoutly supervise the selection of the numbers as if it were a sacred ritual. It was still a few hours away, but hospital care being what it was these days, it was all but guaranteed they wouldn’t be home before midnight, and there was no way he was going to watch the UltraMega from an errant television in the hospital waiting room. So he talked her out of it, insisting that she just needed bed rest, and she stubbornly agreed. Even though his tank was drained, Randolph graciously prepared dinner and played with Precious while Denisha rested. He even went downstairs to collect the wet laundry and then flung it piece by piece into one of the free dryers as if he were Brian Blades making jump shots, or maybe some other basketball legend from the past, Lebron James perhaps, or Michael Jordan.

The Colemans sat around the dinner table eating baked macaroni and cheese, with fried English banger sausages and creamed kale. This was Randolph’s specialty. Denisha was still out of it and barely ate her dinner. Precious was in her high chair playing with the creamed kale by slapping her plastic spoon against it. This irritated Randolph, as the kale splashed all over, but he couldn’t be bothered to discipline Precious himself, and Denisha was in another world altogether. He pulled the crumpled lottery ticket from his pocket and set it on the table. The draw was only an hour away. The Crayola sun was setting outside in the brightest tangerine colors he’d ever seen, melting down the sky blue sky like hot atomic wax. Everything he was doing, everything that was happening around him, Denisha drifting on one elbow, the bursting kale, the atomic tangerine sun, the illuminated numbers on the table, was imbued with a special significance, and occurring with such a crystalline precision that Randolph felt this was his night. Like Brian Blades, he couldn’t miss.

After Randolph had washed up and put the dishes away, sprayed the kitchen table with disenfectant, picked up the laundry from downstairs, that somebody conveniently had dumped on the floor because he was presumably late in picking up his load, he put Precious to bed and sang her a lullaby. Denisha was sprawled out on the couch and snoring away. Poor girl, Randolph thought. He was on the verge of crashing hard himself. But the draw was mere moments away. He turned the television set on. Some sitcom was just now ending. He hated sitcoms. He found them artificial and bereft of real life struggles. He liked sports and late night talk shows. Those were legitimate distractions from reality, he believed. Not some soft-boiled imitation. The lottery program begun. Bold letters on the screen in cobalt blue: UltraMega Ok! They wasted no time. The show lasted a few minutes sandwiched between programs, only long enough for the white balls to roll down the gutter in order to be selected. Randolph held the ticket with both hands. He raised the volume on the television, causing Denisha to stir. What time is it baby? she asked. He had closed his eyes and was ignoring everything but the television announcement. The red balloon hovered nearby.

The first ball escaped the masses and rolled down the narrow chute. One! the televised audience roared. Strike one, Randolph thought, and it pained him, but he did not lose faith. The next ball trickled away from kith and kin towards its destiny and Randolph could feel its descent every step of the way. Two! the audience exploded, but Randolph knew the result even before the choral eruption. Thirteen fell after five, and eight after thirteen. Randolph had captured four numbers. His winnings were probably into the thousands already. The next ball would decide everything. Scary how a little plastic ball can keep a man from what’s his, Randolph thought. He hadn’t opened his eyes once or moved at all. Denisha too hadn’t stirred since the program began. If Randolph were listening, he’d hear her soundly snoring again, despite the clamor from the television set. He was so fixated on his numbers, that time and space could have been obliterated all around him and he would have been none the wiser. The final ball began its fateful decline. He felt the declension like the plunge of a syringe into his veins. In his blood he felt the vast networking of numbers, each one fighting to get out of the tank, to express itself, each one dying to be the One. Or the three rather. Three! the audience thundered. Randolph opened his eyes wide and looked at the brazen numbers on the screen. There was no need to match them to the ticket. He already knew in his blood what they were. Randolph shook Denisha’s leg over and over until she awoke. What is it, Randolph? she asked sharply. We rich baby, he said.

IV

The entire way to the lottery headquarters, Randolph thought of his mother, wondering what would she think of his pyrrhic victory? Would she be proud of him? He thought of doing things with his money that would make her proud. He didn’t know how much he’d won yet. The lottery agents would tell him shortly. His mind didn’t land on any specific figure because he didn’t want to jinx it. He called in sick to work for the first time in two years. His manager was in disbelief and asked him if he were sure. I’ve never been surer, Randolph replied. He considered returning to school to resume his engineering degree, but this idea made him nervous now that it was an actual possibility. He was so far removed from academics and so immersed in regular workday life that he found the concept somewhat impractical. So what then? His palms were sweating. It was especially humid. His shirt clung to his back and he hated the feeling.

The safest place he could think of keeping the lottery ticket was in the pocket of his pants and he could feel it was getting moist. Was it possible the numbers or barcode at the front of the ticket could be erased from his sweat? He wasn’t prepared to take that chance. He removed the crumpled ticket from his pocket by awkwardly adjusting his posture in the drivers seat and steadying the wheel with one hand. Everybody is driving stupid today, he thought. He turned the music on the radio down and then off. He needed to focus on the road. No funny business. He made up his mind. As soon as they cashed him out at the lottery headquarters, or wrote a check, or whatever is was they did, he’d take his winnings and head straight to a music shop and buy the most expensive saxophone they had. There was no way he’d find a Grafton model like Ornette Coleman used to play. But a nice top end Selmer tenor would do the job. And he’d commit to playing every day. No excuses.

At the lottery headquarters he was led from the front desk to a smaller interior office with carpeted floors and a print on the wall of an Edenic seaside resort with the word “Imagine” overlaid in bold capital letters. It was there he met with a lottery agent who proceeded to task him with a series of questions. Would he like to remain anonymous? This question puzzled Randolph. Would a gold medalist in the Olympics like his victory to remain anonymous? I want everyone to know, he told the agent. Would he like the money all at once or paid out in the form of an annuity? Randolph felt like the agent was trying to swindle him out of his winnings. There was mention of taxation purposes and then Randolph felt the government was part of the conspiracy also. He was asked to sign his ticket and to this request he obliged. Was offered financial advice services, an overture he politely declined. Do you have any further questions? Mr. Coleman, the agent said. How much did I win? Randolph replied.

The lottery ticket was worth $427,190. After taxes, Randolph was directly deposited $258,919. He felt like he had lost a limb. He was $258,919 richer than he was yesterday, but he felt like he was $168,271 poorer for some reason. He gave the lottery agent one heck of a time dismissing him. Randolph haggled for his taxed income harder than he’d ever fought for anything. The agent advised that the annuity option would greatly diminish the taxable amount on his winnings; Randolph looked at him through a blank and squinty-eyed expression. All this double-dealing financial talk left Randolph dumbfounded and afterwards he was happy to escape with any money at all. He felt like he was stumbling through a dream. So unprepared he was for these hard financial decisions. He wished he had somebody wiser with him. $258,919 is nothing to sneeze at Randolph Ornette Coleman, he said to himself, imagining his mother uttering those words in her best Sunday dress.

He fulfilled his promise from earlier and visited a music shop but he didn’t buy the most expensive saxophone after all. The Selmer Jubilee Tenor with black lacquer and related accessories set him back almost ten-thousand dollars after taxes. The salesman inquired if Randolph wanted to try the sax before he purchased it, a proposition he politely declined at the risk of embarrassing himself, it had been so long since he had played last, let alone played competently enough for an audience outside of his home. I’m very familiar with this instrument, he said. Right on, the salesman answered. Denisha would probably murder him for the acquisition but he had already planned how he would silence her: purchases for the house and baby worth an equal amount, maybe five-thousand or so would be sufficient, and then he crushed the receipt for the sax in his fist and tossed it onto the first garbage can he crossed on his way to his parked vehicle.

By the time Randolph got home in the afternoon, his winnings of $258,919 had shrunk to $208,648. He had stopped by a used car lot dealer and traded his beat-up old truck for a new Ford F-Series. The trade in was only worth $1200. The car salesman had only accepted the trade in as a gesture of good faith to lure Randolph, having smelled a sure thing the second Randolph opened his mouth. The remaining $35,252 he had to pony up from his account. The salesman hid enough bullshit fees in the final sale to compensate for the dud trade-in. And so Randolph luxuriated in his new car smell all the way home, barring one quick pit stop at the mall to pick up the diamond engagement ring for Denisha he could never afford. Just under five-thousand it cost him for a sparkling full-carat platinum solitaire. This was the man Randolph always envisioned himself being and he reveled in the newfound experience. He was wheeling-and-dealing like some uptown hotshot and no longer counting his pennies like some blue-collar deadbeat. He also picked up a little something for Precious from the toy store, nothing too flamboyant, it was only a large $200 plastic ivory pony with ultra pink hair, which apparently every kid wanted, but very few could afford, or so the saleswoman furtively confided to Randolph. He knew Precious would love it. If Randolph was ever this happy before, he could not remember when, or where, or why.

When he finally arrived home, he asked Denisha to come downstairs and she knew from his tone alone that he’d been up to no good. She knew his predilection for being showy when the opportunity afforded itself, which was rarer and rarer these days, but when they were in their twenties, and it was just the two of them, Randolph could showboat with the best of them, which is why she endured the rainy patches in their relationship afterwards, and also how. When she exited the building and saw the robust cobalt Ford rumbling in the driveway, she knew it was Randolph, and for a moment, she forgot her worries, her lightheadedness, the pain in her stomach, and the fear that something was wrong with the baby. For a minute, and maybe even a bit longer, Randolph was the cavalier every woman should be visited by at least once in a lifetime. He honked his horn three times and hopped out of the cab of the truck and dashed towards Denisha and Precious. He fell on one knee on the grass before Denisha and pulled out the little black box that contained the diamond. Have you gone crazy, Randolph, she said. Crazy for you baby! he replied, and, inexplicably, there were tears in his eyes. Will you marry me? Randolph felt vindicated after these long and painful years. He knew he was better than his circumstances and the lottery had proved it. I’ll always marry your poor ass, she said. I ain’t po’ no more baby, he said, and flashed a grin so bright it could have blinded a hummingbird out of the sky.

They dined like kings and queens that night at an upscale restaurant Denisha had been dying to visit. They ate lobster and king crab legs and gave no thought to the bill. This is how life should be lived, thought Randolph. For a moment he felt guilty for throwing those less fortunate under the bus. He remembered his pastor’s words, Better to live humbly with the poor than to share plunder with the proud, and those words might as well have been swords thrust into his heart. Yet the image of Denisha gazing proudly at her finger every few minutes provided ointment for the deepest of wounds. He still had to visit the ivory pony on Precious. They had plans to make for the future when they got home. And there was still dessert to look forward to. Randolph flipped open the dessert menu and landed on the baked Alaska for $22. A pretty penny for a sweet, to be sure, but, on this day, Randolph didn’t just want to live a little, he wanted to live more than the next guy.

When the Colemans returned home, full and sweet, Randolph and Denisha lay on their bed and mapped out what they were going to do with the money they had won. Precious sat in the living room within earshot to play with her newfound pony. She stroked the pony’s pink nylon hair and giggled in ways that would have brought a druid to his knees. Randolph and Denisha wanted to put a down payment on a home, of course. And Randolph wanted to invest in a truck in order to go into business for himself. He could lease a Peterbilt highway truck and trailer for a small down payment and become his own operator. Denisha was skeptical of this plan but liked the idea of Randolph being his own boss. She began to stroke his cock and he covered their bodies with a blanket. The diamond ring on her hand excited him more than any metal had a right to. You like that baby, she said. I love it, he replied. You need it bad, baby? she asked. I do, he responded. My big boy did so good today, so good, she moaned in his ear, and then he climaxed.

V

When Randolph was younger he had obtained a digital copy of an old old movie from the 1970s called “Last Tango in Paris.” He didn’t like or necessarily understand the film, but the X-rating it had received at the time made it appealing to Randolph, who didn’t really go for the XXX porn that was everywhere, instead opting for something classier, preferably with a vintage hue. He had described the film to his friends “as a bunch of white people getting raped on the floor, but with subtitles.” What had captured his imagination, and which is why he returned to the film over and over, was a scene in the film where Marlon Brando looks through a window at an apartment across the street, where a black man is playing sax and there’s a black woman kneeling in front of him sewing a button onto his pants. Randolph rewound the scene over and over and would masturbate to its contents inestimable times. There was something about spying on them that really turned him on. The black woman with her afro tearing at the thread of the man’s button with her teeth, it sent shivers down his back. He always dreamed of reenacting this scene one day, but he never had the gall to ask Denisha. He never felt he was good enough at the sax to even broach the subject. He lacked the confidence in his playing. But now, with his brand new sax and a bank account full of money, he felt like he could finally ask for a blowjob while playing his black-lacquered Selmer. But there was one last obstacle.

The bedroom was broiling like always. Tomorrow he would buy one of those portable air conditioning units. There were going to moving soon, still a few hundred bucks wouldn’t kill him until they settled on a house. Denisha and Precious were fast asleep. The things that troubled him normally did not trouble him now. He was awake but he was not anxious. He felt he had a firm grasp on life for the first time. The fan propelled the red balloon along the foot of the bed and Randolph was glad at its appearance. It looked shabby now. It had lost its bright red sheen and was deflated by several degrees. He felt pity for the red balloon. His believed his good luck could be attributed to its appearance that fateful day on his balcony. It was one of the family now. Almost like a dog or an antique piece of furniture that been passed down several generations, bearing the oily handprint of his granddad, and his granddad before him, and so forth. There was comfort to be found in gossamery companionship of the paterfamilias. People on farms knew this fact, which is why they passed down everything of value to each other. Maybe the red balloon was the well-traveled legacy of the Coleman clan come to fruition? When it was late, Randolph’s sleepless mind would become as quixotic as the next guy’s. But he’d never remember his “visions” come morning.

He lay in bed feeling unsatisfied. He felt there was one more thing that was still eluding him. He wanted to be able to play the saxophone like a master, like the musical genius responsible for his namesake. He wanted to sound like Ornette Coleman on the sax. And he wanted a blowjob right after. The getting had been good as of late, but this time he was asking. He didn’t care if it was God or the red balloon or a genie out of Denisha’s ass that would answer his plea, he only knew that he wanted and that he wanted bad. The red balloon had made its way to the side of the bed and Randolph held onto its silver ribbon in a gesture of affection. You have to ask this time, it said. I have no problem with that, Randolph whispered. Then stroke my ribbon and ask me, it said. I want to play sax like jazz master Ornette Coleman, he whispered. Yes, Randolph. And then the balloon popped, startling Precious awake. Denisha awoke a moment later. What’s going on Randolph, she warily asked, still half asleep. Go back to sleep, he said, and soothed Precious by rubbing her back. I can’t, Randolph, the bed is all wet, she said, feeling the firm mattress around her in the dark.

 

Dylan Fremont is a writer and the stories he tells are about escape. His alias is Dylan Fremont. He uses an alias in order to impersonate himself so that he may commit fraud. Fraud is the tool he uses to enter deathtraps and then escape. In a different time, during an age of magic perhaps, he may have been an escapologist like Nicholas Owen, who escaped his torturers in 1606 and remained aloof until sometime in the 20th Century. He says, “the one-world-system is a deathtrap; but there has only ever been one world system and it is called capitalism.” His ongoing writing project entitled “Graceland” may be found at http://www.dylanfremont.com and “The Red Balloon” is an integral part of that collection.