Maybe True, Mostly Metaphor Part X
We stood there, the three of us, in front of the fully inflated hot air balloon. The name Candlewind wrapped around the lower edge of the light fabric. In the pre-dawn light, you could only really see its beauty when the burner roared to life, giving the balloon a warm glow that illuminated the dark forest all around us—comforting us like a campfire or a cabin lantern after a night lost in the woods.
It was brisk out as well, and each burst of the flame brought a wave of sudden warmth across our faces. Mild though the Seattle weather can be, frost was still settled on the pine needles up here in the mountains. It was late February, and while Winter was still debating whether or not to depart and make room for Spring, my mind was set. I’d be gone before the frost turned to dew.
It had been four months since I was mugged—robbed of the cash that was supposed to take me far from here to continue my pursuit. Money gone, it had been a busy Winter.
I wish I could live like that vandal
Who danced on the flame of a candle;
He travelled the globe, in search for his soul
And storied the world through his rambles.
I kept staring at that poem for days after I’d received it. How that street poet knew was beyond me. He should have ditched his writing career to become a fortune teller. I never saw him a second time at Pike’s Place to ask what made him choose those words.
Nevertheless, I held on to it. I memorized it. I worked the bar by night and set out repairing the Candlewind by day, saving every penny possible. The rhythm of that limerick beat a steady pace in the back of my mind.
Balloon, work the bar, hit the textbooks.
I wish I could live like that vandal.
Repairs, make new drinks, learn to pilot.
Who danced on the flame of a candle.
And so went the next few months. Moog and I would hike out to the hot air balloon, manuals in our left hands, tools in our right, and we’d get to work. Slowly but surely, the frame and basket started to look airworthy. We even installed a few extras to make longer flights more doable. A GPS along with some electronics and batteries to power them were all within our original budget, but thanks to the Pike’s Place thieves, we had to improvise. Instead, we built a small panel with a compass, heading indicator, and protractor. A small clipboard was mounted next to it for charts and maps—all freely available at the library to be copied. I’d be navigating by the stars.
Did I have any idea how to do such a thing? Not a clue. Add another library textbook to the list.
I know what you’re thinking, reader. Is it really possible to become an expert on hot air balloon flying, celestial navigation, weather, and just plain surviving an aerial trip like the one I was planning solely through reading about it?
Are you kidding me? Of course not. You can have all the head knowledge in the world and still not know a thing. Don’t believe me? Read a book about gravity or applied physics and then try to flip an omelette blindfolded.
Go ahead, reader. I’ll wait.
After you’ve finished cleaning up the congealed, yellow mess you just made on your kitchen floor or countertop, we’ll continue the story…
No, all my textbook reading would not prepare me for the real thing. Not by a long shot. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, over the winter months, I was determinedly learning everything I could in between repairing the balloon and tending bar.
Eventually, only a few problems remained. One, I needed to choose a destination. Two, the fabric of the balloon was badly torn in several places. While Moog or myself could mostly sew a button, we didn’t know where to start when it came to fixing the envelope well enough to hold any hot air and replacing it was out of the question financially.
As for the first problem:
“La Paz. I’m going to La Paz. Or thereabouts.” I told Moog and Sondra one night at the bar.
Moog’s face was blank. The name clearly carried no recognition in his mind. Sondra, however, was a little more geographically savvy.
She leaned her head in towards me, eyebrows furrowed, “La Paz…Bolivia?”
“No, La Paz, Mexico. It’s on the Baja Peninsula.”
Moog’s face finally registered recognition, but Sondra’s remained unchanged, “…Why La Paz? Do you know anything about La Paz? Or the Baja Peninsula?”
I shrugged, “I’ll read a—“
“You’ll read another textbook?” Her eyes rolled, “Crack through a few chapters and become an overnight expert? C’mon, you can’t learn everything from stuffy writers and their stuffy guides.”
“For a librarian, you really hate books,” I mumbled.
“I hate boring books!” She threw her arms up. “Life’s too short for bad books! It’s my job as a librarian to save people from that garbage.” She sat back and glared.
Moog jumped in, “But, why La Paz?”
“Weather patterns,” I explained. “The wind currents based on where I was when I lost my balloon, time, and the balloon’s probable altitude. Based on all those things, it should be drifting into La Paz later this Spring.”
“Assuming your balloon is still out there,” Sondra said out the side of her mouth. “Assuming someone didn’t pluck it out of the air. Assuming you actually learned anything about weather from a few books.”
“It’s as good of a place to look as any. And,” I shrugged “I don’t need to know anything about La Paz, really. I don’t plan to stay for long anywhere like I did here. With the Candlewind, I can search from the air. I’ll follow the Pacific Coast south, looking for any signs of the balloon and only set down long enough to resupply. Once I get to La Paz, if I don’t find it, I’ll just follow the same wind currents that my balloon would be taking. I can let nature carry me in the same way that it’s carrying my lost balloon until I catch up to it.”
“And when you do, you’ll already be at the perfect place to celebrate with margaritas on the beach!” Moog was optimistic and grinning.
“Or get shot by drug lords.” Sondra finished and then got up to leave, “Well, you boys have fun planning out this disaster, I’m going skating tomorrow, but I have to fix my pants again.”
Moog and I exchanged a look, “Huh?” Moog asked.
“Fix my pants?” She looked at us as though we’d just told her we didn’t know how to tie our shoes. She sighed, “With patches?”
“Wait, that’s why your pants are all stitched up? From skating?” Moog asked.
“Well, yeah, why else did you guys think all my clothes looked like this?”
Despite her strange clothing choices, Moog and I had never actually questioned it. There were all sorts of odd characters in this town. I just chalked up Sondra’s eccentricities either as a desire to stand out or some odd fashion choice I didn’t understand. Moog, of course, was still too dumbstruck by her to think she was anything less than perfect despite the fact that they spent nearly every day together.
She gave another sigh, annoyed that she’d have to explain and further delay her errand.
“Ok, so, when I was a kid, I wanted to learn how to skateboard, like the boys in my neighborhood. My mom, though, she wouldn’t have any of it. She just kept shoving books in my face and telling me that skating was a boy thing. Besides, I would ruin my skirts and dresses falling down, she would tell me.
“At first, I didn’t really care because, every time I brought it up, she’d give me a new book to distract me. And I liked the books because they were fun and adventurous.” She gave me a cold look, “I still wanted to skate though and, as I got a little older, I got a little rebellious, I guess. I’d sneak out at night, swipe the neighbor kid’s skateboard that he always left outside and roll around the street a little bit.
“The first time, it was the happiest I’d ever been. It was so exciting. Sneaking out and hiding the thing from my mom only made it more fun. Every night, after everyone went to sleep, I’d skate around in my pajamas. The problem, obviously, was that I fell. A lot. There’s no avoiding it when you’re learning and it’s dark out. My PJs were covered in tears and holes in the knees and elbows.
“I tried to hide them from my mom, waking up super early to get ready for school so I’d be clean and changed before she got up. But it only lasted a few days, maybe a week at most. She found all my torn clothes the moment it was time to do the laundry. She knew immediately. I came home from school that day, and when I opened the door to our house she had her sewing machine all set up in the kitchen, my clothes were piled on the table next to it.”
She grinned, “I thought she’d be furious, but my mom was smart. She knew she wasn’t going to stop me from skating if I wanted to do it. So, she made me a deal. I could skate as much as I wanted on two conditions. In order to buy my own skateboard and stop stealing the neighbors, I had to volunteer at the library. She’d give me a dollar for every day I was there since I was too young to actually work. Second, she wouldn’t buy me any new clothes. If I tore something, I had to fix it myself and suffer the teasing from all the other kids about having patches all over my dresses and pants. But, I could skate.”
Sondra gestured to her pants. The left leg had a big square across the thigh. It was a field of blue with little palm trees. The right leg had a zig-zag stitch that wrapped horizontally around the knee, “I’ve been sewing my clothes ever since.”
And that, reader, is how we solved the problem of the Candewind’s torn envelope.
The flame whooshed to life again, and I saw the wild stitches and patches that ran across the glowing fabric. It was retaining its shape well, no obvious tears or punctures. Sondra did a killer job, using both her sewing skills and a mess of special glues and resins. She could patch anything, it seemed. With all its jagged lines and odd shapes, the envelope looked slightly like a treasure map. Very fitting, since I was about to depart on a personal search.
And I would be going alone. I had found ready friends in Moog and Sondra, but their places were here. By my departing, Moog was one step closer to his dream. The conversation with the Boss was surprisingly simple. I told him I was leaving, and I said the Moog was the right person to replace me. I didn’t ask him. I just said it. I told him that Moog was perfect for the job and that the Boss wouldn’t regret putting him in charge. The Boss, still surprised that I was leaving without any explanation, just nodded and agreed. No complaints, no doubts.
Despite the ease of the conversation, I walked out of it feeling ecstatic and alive. I had done something. I had impacted someone’s life, and I did it deliberately. My presence mattered. I wasn’t a bird quietly gliding over the water anymore, on the outside looking in. Nor was I a random disturbance, a chaotic trigger that altered lives without any control like what happened in Omaha to Alice. No, this time I had stepped in and helped someone. I’d helped a friend move forward.
Why had he passed over Moog in the past? Was it bias? Racism? Something else? Did the Boss genuinely think I was a better fit for the job due to legitimate, unknown reasons? I’d never know. Maybe Moog would ask him, but people are strange when it comes to biases and perceptions. Moog knew that and I was slowly learning it.
So Moog would run the bar. Sondra was proud of him. The two were so interesting together. You’d think they have nothing in common. Just totally separate, individual lives until they come together and you think, no, they’re perfect. Like a good book and a smooth drink. Sondra and Moog. The skating librarian and the heartful bar manager.
As close as we all were, they wouldn’t come with me even if I asked. But I knew they’d be here for me if I ever needed them. “In a few years,” I told Moog, “I’ll come back here and we’ll swap stories over some drinks at your new place. You better get to work fixing it up!”
“I’ll fix you up, man, if you keep talking trash about the bar. I already got it looking gorgeous. And I got some nice plans for the place. I’ll be ready for you for sure, man. You just gotta make it back in one piece.” He started counting off on his fingers, “Not gonna have me around bailing you outta fights, giving you a place to stay, finding you a job, helping you run the place when you get promoted over me…”
“I get it, I get it, Moog.” We’d miss each other, but neither of us wanted to admit it. Instead, I filled the silence with one last question.
“Nope.” He grinned, “You’re really bad at this, man. I think you’re running out of countries, actually. Sumatra’s not even a nation.”
I guess Moog would win this game for now. Not that it really mattered to our friendship where he was from.
Maybe I’d visit his home country without even realizing it. Stop in at his parents’ restaurant and share a meal with them.
It was possible. There was a lot to see out there. You remember, reader, at the very beginning of my story to you? When I told you the world was a big, big place? Billions of people, each with their own life story? Maybe with their own balloons they needed to find?
This was the start of that realization for me. This was the day that my search began in earnest.
Next stop, La Paz, Mexico.
I stepped into the basket, conscious of how my heart was behaving. Would it start racing? Would fear grip and paralyze me as my mind jumped back to thoughts of the violent storm that brought me here? Would I be hit with a panic attack like had been happening in the past whenever I thought about getting back into the balloon?
Nothing yet. So far, so good.
I closed the wicker gate behind me. What few belongings I had were stowed neatly away. I had never really grasped how roomy The Candlewind was. I had no idea what Alice’s husband used it for, but it seemed ready—eager even—for travel. Another mystery I’d have to ask her about. She had been increasingly cryptic lately. When I told her about the stolen money, her only message back was:
Did you Get the nOte?
The balloon began to rise. Just a few inches at first. I looked back at Moog and Sondra. We all started laughing and whooping.
It was working! I was rising! All our hard work over the Winter was paying off. They kept cheering as my climb gained speed.
“Read good books, side character!” Sondra shouted.
Moog just smiled, paused for a moment in thought before yelling, “Say hi to my folks in—”
The burner flared to life, drowning him out. Of course. By the time it stopped, I was too high to hear anything so we just kept waving goodbye, none of us wanting to stop. I waved and laughed until tears started to form in my eyes. I’d miss them.
Soon, they were just dots. Ants in a field. I looked around. On the horizon, the sun was just barely starting to peek out over the snow-capped Cascade mountains. Up above the jagged peaks, I could see the soft orange of the sunrise fade into a deep purple where the brightest stars hung on for dear life before being inevitably washed out by the brilliant day ahead. It was beautiful. Not a cloud in sight.
I did a quick self-check. Heart rate? a little elevated. Stressed? Not really. Panic attack? Nope. Maybe I was over the nightmares and paralyzing fear.
The chill breeze was refreshing and invigorating. Time to get to work.
Based on my research, an air current should start pulling me south along the coast all the way to Mexico. To preserve fuel, I could look around for updrafts indicated by circling birds or darker patches of earth that would heat the air above it faster than its lighter surroundings. With luck, I could make it hundreds of miles before needing to refuel. It all depended on the winds.
I thought back to when Sondra and I met. She told me the beauty of hot air balloons was that you had no control over where it took you. Just like in real life, she said. Well, I’d show her.
I reached my planned altitude…
…and began drifting west.
Well, that wasn’t quite right. I was supposed to go south. Mexico was south.
Maybe the current I needed was slightly higher. I turned on the burner to rise a little bit.
I started drifting west even faster.
Maybe the current was below me?
Nope. Descending only brought me westward at what was now a fairly fast clip.
Before I knew it, I was over the water, watching the Seattle coast drift farther and farther away.
Soon, I was drifting over the Pacific Ocean. No land in sight.
Well…at least I wasn’t having a panic attack yet.