Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor pt IV
“Dang man, that’s wild. You think you’ll ever see Alice or your bike again?” Moog asked me.
“I doubt it, I have no idea how I would get ahold of her. Hey, can you show me again how to slice this salmon roll?”
I was in a sushi restaurant, not as a patron, but as an employee. How did I get here?
After my ordeal with the spider, and finding that I was not too injured to move, I explored my surroundings. It appeared that I had crash landed in a forest. The Candlewind was damaged, that much could be seen. Whether or not it could be fixed was beyond me—I knew nothing about hot air balloons.
Hearing cars in the distance, I gathered my things and walked that direction. There was nothing to be done for the balloon. I couldn’t exactly carry it with me. It would have to stay here in the forest, and I wasn’t about to sit out here with it and starve to death.
Luckily, civilization was close by. I stumbled out of the woods and onto the gravel shoulder, next to a big green sign. Looking up, it read, “Seattle: 5 Miles”.
My empty stomach growled, my head still hurt, and my body creaked in pain. There was only one thing I could do, though.
“What kind of motorcycle was it, man? Like, a fast sportbike?” Moog would ask me between orders. He liked asking me questions during our shift. The two of us worked the sushi bar of this Japanese restaurant, slicing up fish and rolling delicate little morsels of food to Seattle denizens excited to try something exotic.
Moog was amazing at sushi—a natural. He worked a knife like a painter with a brush. And, like a painter, Moog produced stunning art. Every plate looked like it belonged in a gallery, and he was teaching me to do the same.
I wandered into Seattle just a few weeks prior—dirty, tired, and hungry.
In other words, I was the same as every young, broke, twenty-something in the city.
Despite my troubled state, I still had a mission to accomplish—there was a balloon that needed finding. None of this—losing my motorcycle, riding a hot air balloon halfway across the country, crashing landing here—was a part of my plan, but to be honest, I didn’t have all that much of a plan to begin with.
My priorities were still mostly the same as in Omaha—food and cash. After gaining some funds, I could continue my search.
I found a public shower to clean up in (Seattle, like many places, has a homelessness problem. But the city has a pretty decent amount of public utilities to help them out), then spent the last of my cash on some clean clothes.
Cleaning up was the easy part. Next, I had to do what everyone else did to survive…
“So you’re telling me you have no references, no resumé, no nothing, and you want to work for me?”
This was my ninth interview. I’d heard this line from employers eight times in the week that I’d been searching for a job. I’d been wandering around downtown—Pike’s Place, Capitol Hill, Queen Anne, every neighborhood that had shops with help wanted signs—of which there weren’t many. I eventually resorted to asking managers cold if they wanted some extra help.
I tried to seek out jobs where I had at least a little bit of experience—things like bike repair (life on my motorcycle taught me a thing or two), or restaurants and bars (the quintessential university job). Unfortunately, practice in riding thunderstorms and crashing hot air balloons was not in demand.
Eight times people had brought up the same thing. No references, no address, no resumé, no proof of experience. Then they left me at the door. I had worked enough uninteresting odd jobs in college to feel that I was qualified for most general work, but without proof, it was all useless.
Now I had just heard it for the ninth time, at this late night sushi bar in Capitol Hill. Each time, the prospective employer seemed to me like a professional boxer, finding the giant gap in my defense and driving that phrase like a knock-out punch straight to my ego. After nine times, I still hadn’t learned how to defend against it.
“Look, it doesn’t have to be big work,” after a week of homelessness, I was getting desperate. “I’ll be a dishwasher, a janitor, whatever you need.”
“Kid, I’m sorry. I have no reason to trust you. You just walk in and you don’t have anything. No papers, no-”
“Wait, papers?” After a week of desperation, I had just remembered something. I reached deep into my backpack, into a pocket I hadn’t touched since I first started out on my motorcycle months ago, and pulled out a folded up, water crusted piece of paper.
It was a normal looking, single page stained yellow from rain and wear. The ink had bled, but it was readable. On it was a funny looking stamp and some words that said something to the effect of, “I know how to think about things, how to stay awake during lectures despite pulling all-nighters, and how to pay unfathomable amounts of money for silly pieces of stamped paper which state that I can do those aforementioned things.”
It was my college degree.
I unfolded it, taking care not to rip the weakened fibers of the paper, and handed it to him, “There’s my papers. There’s my experience.”
He looked at it—the name of the school, my name (matching my drivers license—the only identification I had), and my field of study.
“So,” I said, “That’s proof, right? If I can earn that paper, you can trust me enough to do some odd jobs for cash around here, right?”
He looked at me with surprised eyes. This was it. I knew that degree would serve a useful purpose someday.
I knew I had the job.
How could he turn me away now?
“You can’t work here,” He said flatly, then handed back my sad looking degree.
“You’re overqualified,” he turned back to his computer, waiting for me to leave his office.
“Overqualified? One second, I’m a nobody that you can’t trust. Now, I’m overqualified?!”
He looked back up at me, raised his arms up high, “Kid, what are you even doing here? That degree says you studied Analytical Systems Engineering. I don’t even know what means! You belong at the nerd asylum up the road, not here. Besides, whatever Mount Rainier of debt you got from that thing—you won’t make enough here to pay it off. Get out of here.”
I was about to tell him that my college debt was none of his business, but was interrupted by someone bursting in.
The man’s office door swung open so quickly, I thought a tornado had burst through the building. A gangly twenty-something with big black pools for eyes poked his head in.
“Boss, Joey hasn’t made it in yet today. That’s two days he’s been a no show. The orders are piling up. I can’t make the sushi and run the bar at the same ti—hey, am I interrupting something?” He saw me sitting there in the messy office with his boss. We both looked at the large, sweaty man sitting behind the desk. His lips were pursed and his eyebrows began to furrow as he looked at the two of us.
“Well, sir,” I turned to the kid with his head poking through the door, “sounds like there’s an easy solution to all this. If you need an extra set of hands…” I smiled, then turned back to the boss expectantly.
If his eyes were fire they would have burnt me to a crisp, but, finally, he succumbed with a sigh, “Fine,” He looked at the guy in the doorway. “Moog, teach him what you can about tending bar before the dinner rush.” Then he pointed at me, “If you don’t screw it up tonight, you can stay. We’ll figure out your hours and pay later.”
I thanked him, shook his hand, and got up to leave.
“Hey,” the man spoke as I stepped out the door, “what does Analytical Systems Engineering mean, anyways?”
I shrugged, “It means I can analyze your bar and engineer you some good drinks!” And with that, I got started.
And that’s how I met Moog.
Over the next few days, Moog and I made a good team. Making drinks was easy enough, but the sushi was a major challenge for me. Moog was amazing. Every dish he made was a masterpiece. We worked from six in the evening, right as the dinner rush came, until three in the morning to close up the bar, every Tuesday through Saturday.
It was a good gig. We talked a lot. During our breaks I would tell him the whole story of how I ended up here and he ate up every word of it.
“Dang man, that’s wild.” He would say. Or, “Was Alice pretty? I bet she was pretty, right?”
He seemed about my age, but it was hard to place his nationality. I’d often ask him about his own life, but he was pretty quiet about it. He talked more about his future than his past.
“I wanna be the manager of a joint like this. I can do it, I know it. Have something I can call my own. A spot for the neighborhood where people can meet and have fun.”
It was a nice place as far as late night bars go. It had an upbeat vibe and wasn’t grimy or dirty. Moog made sure of that. He often stayed late to make the place spotless each night.
Now, reader, whenever you meet someone new, you often come across a tricky situation where you want to learn more about them, but you don’t want to be offensive in the questions you ask.
You know the situations I’m talking about. Questions like asking a lady how old she is or querying someone on their national heritage.
There’s a right way to ask it: If you don’t mind me asking, sir, what is your heritage?
And there’s a wrong way to ask it: You don’t look like me…you ain’t from around these parts, huh, bud? Where exactly d’you come from?
One of the worst things you can do in a situation like this is assume or guess something about the person—like looking at a woman and assuming she’s pregnant just because she’s eating pickles dipped in peanut butter and ice cream (you thought I was going to say just because she’s “round”, didn’t you?).
Moog did not look like, nor talk like, me. I didn’t have any issue with that, but I was curious about his background. One night, he was hauling out a garbage bag as we were closing shop and it tore open, spilling a stream of dubious liquid all over the floor. He started swearing in a language I didn’t recognize as I went to get the mop for him. Still muttering to himself in this exotic tongue when I came back, I finally asked him:
“Moog, what are you?”
Ok, that’s definitely not the right way to ask that question, reader. I never said I was perfect.
Moog didn’t mind, though. Instead of being offended, he chuckled. “You mean, where’d I come from, man?”
“Yeah,” I couldn’t look him in the eye after asking, so I focused on picking up the spilled trash while he mopped.
“Take a guess,” was his response. Without seeing his face, I could hear the sinister intent in his voice. He wanted me to guess—to assume. He was laying a trap.
“Uh…hrm…” what answer could I give that wouldn’t offend him or leave me shameful? “Asian?” I unsteadily asked. Best to keep it vague, I thought.
“Asian? That’s like half the globe, man. Gotta do better than that,” he watched me intently, smiling evilly. He was clearly enjoying my discomfort.
I couldn’t think of anything safe to say, so there was an awkward silence where I felt like the trash I was picking up. Finally, Moog laughed.
“It’s ok man, people have just asked me that question so many times, I started to have some fun—messin’ with them by making ‘em guess, ya know? Guess whatever you want. It’s fine. You wouldn’t believe all the weird answers I’ve heard. All over the place. In fact, I started keeping a list ‘cause I wanna see if I can get every country in the world. So go ahead and guess as much as you want. When you get it right, I’ll tell ya.”
He finished mopping and squeezed out the sickly-sweet smelling garbage juice into the mop bucket.
“Japan?” I hazarded my first guess.
“Because I make killer sushi? Nope, try again!” He smiled and rolled the mop bucket out the backdoor to a drain in the alley. He called over his shoulder through the doorway, “And that one’s already on my list, so get more creative!”
Yeah, Moog and I would make a good team.
The first few weeks in Seattle, I was still using public showers. For a place to sleep, I took the bus to the edge of town followed by a short hike in the forest to my crashed hot air balloon. Careful not to damage the canopy any further, I made a makeshift roof out of it and set the basket upright. It was big enough for me to stretch out in, so I wasn’t sleeping on the ground. There was actually a large storage area inside the basket I hadn’t noticed before—a wicker flap in the floor that opened up into a space big enough for a person to squeeze in. I opened it to find some blankets. An unknown gift from Alice.
I felt bad leaving the balloon out here in its damaged state, but coming to it every night felt good. It felt like a home, something I hadn’t really had in months.
Would I be able to fix it up to fly again? Did I want to fly it again? My heart sped up and my chest hurt at the thought of tumbling around helpless in the sky like last time.
One time, I caught my hand uncontrollably shaking as I tried to step into the basket at the end of the day. I couldn’t grab ahold of the railing and my foot simply refused to step in.
What was happening?
I stood there outside the basket that night, wondering why my body denied my orders to get inside the basket so I could sleep. My chest started hurting. My shaking hands were sweating. I closed my eyes and was suddenly back in that storm—only this time, I was tossed out from thousands of feet. I was in freefall, the sinister dark clouds swirling about as the rain pierced my like a thousand stinging hornets and the flashes of lightning left me dazed. I grasped around me for something—anything—to hold on to, but found only emptiness.
I fell towards a cloud and thought, hoped, that it would catch me in a soft embrace—logic completely lost at this point. Instead, I felt a strange nothingness as I hit its surface and kept falling. Entering the bowels of the cloud, I watched helpless as the dark wisps flowed right through my fingers—evil spirits taunting my failure to capture them. I could barely even feel them as they poured over my skin. Icy beads collected on my face, stung my eyes.
Finally, I fell past the cloud and could see the ground below coming, rushing up to meet me—the earth begging me back home to its warm embrace. You wanted something firm? A solidness to hold on to? I’ll give you all that you want and more.You’ll live among the ephemeral clouds of surreality no more, I can guarantee you that. Let me bring you back down to
I slept outside of the basket that night, away from the makeshift ceiling of the canopy.
It was a clear night, so I could see the stars as I lay there on the ground. The world always felt both bigger and smaller whenever I looked at the stars. They reminded me of how much was out there while also connecting me to all that vastness. There are people thousands of miles away looking at these same stars, just like me. In twelve hours, someone on the other side of the planet will be doing the same—connecting all the dots, just like me.
As nice as Seattle was, I still had a search to conduct out there. The world is a big place. This town was just one drop, one star out of millions. There was a lost balloon out there. Lost since my childhood. And I still had to find it somewhere under this night sky.
I had to leave eventually, but I couldn’t even step foot into the hot air balloon—that vehicle of escape.
My best bet was to earn enough money to repair the Candlewind and then continue my journey, but I would have to learn how to fly the thing properly, first. That would take a few months, which meant I had between now and then to figure out what had broken inside me—to overcome whatever was keeping me from stepping back in to that beautiful sky.