In the mid morning against the cathedral wall, under the shade of the giant Indian laurel tree on the zocolo of Oaxaca City stand a row of men selling brilliantly colored balloons. Ten men, a thousand balloons between them stand at attention, spines straight with the aid of helium contained in the balloons that pull skyward like a tethered draft horse. The morning is fresh and the streets freshly swept.
Grandfather takes his grandson for a walk along the zocolo, meandering through the crowds and vendors; they take their time. Grandfather buys a newspaper. They sit at an outdoor café. Grandfather orders café con leche and a juice for his grandson. Grandfather reads his paper as grandson walks his fingers along the table jumping the silverware and sliding them across the plate. He makes the sounds of a laser and a bomb as his fingers dodge and jump unseen foes. Grandfather lowers the paper and looks at the boy. “Mijo, tomas tu jugo.” He returns to his paper. Grandfather sips his coffee.
The table next to them is filled with tourists. They have spread maps across the table and are planning their day. It is early yet they have already ordered another round of beers. The boy sips his juice and listens to the strange language they speak and begins kicking his legs under the table. A woman approaches the table of tourists, she is compressed by time, she is the size of a young girl, her long grey hair is woven into braids with ribbons, a bright woven shawl is across her shoulders, she is selling hand carved wooden book marks and spoons. The tourists do not look at her. “No gracias.” One says. She lingers for a while at the table. No one looks up. The tourists stare intently at their maps. She walks away.
Another woman, smaller and older than the first, bent over as if carrying a heavy load approaches the table of tourists. She is not selling anything, but holds out her hand. She is begging. The boy notices her hands; they are as brown as grandfather’s coffee and freckled. Her knuckles are knotted, her fingers twisted. The boy looks at her face; it is covered in freckles, her eyes yellow, and her nose broad, ear lobes long and rubbery. He loses interest in his juice. The tourists do not look at her. She approaches the table with the boy and grandfather, hand extended. Grandfather puts his paper down. “Buenos dia, abuela.” He says to her. “Buenos” she returns. Grandfather reaches into his pocket and retrieves a five peso coin and gives it to her. “Gracias.” She says. The boy looks at the table of tourist. One of the women at the table smiles at him. The boy looks away.
Grandfather and grandson walk past the men selling balloons. The boy slows his pace and looks up into the canopy of balloons, his mouth open, and his eyes wide. “Sponge Bob.” He says to grandfather pointing into the mass of balloons. Although the boy has never seen the cartoon he knows Sponge Bob and loves him. Grandfather looks up into the balloons. “Azure por favor.” He says to the man selling balloons. The man hands the boy the balloon and grandfather pays him.
The boy handles the balloon with great caution. It is so full with helium that there are no wrinkles in the seams. The boy is scared of the balloon. It may pop. He carefully taps the balloon. The sound is sharp and wonderful. His grandfather ties the string to his wrist. The boy releases the balloon and it races to the end of its tether. The boy feels more secure knowing if the balloon popped now at least it would be away from him. He picks up his pace and continues to walk along side his grandfather, his eyes moving from the balloon to his feet and back again.
Grandfather watches the boy and smiles. He is amazed at how much joy a five peso balloon can bring a child. He remembers when the boy came over to his apartment with shoes that lit up when he walked. The boy had him turn off all the lights. He danced for hours. When it was time for a nap the boy asked if he could sleep in his shoes. Grandfather smiled and obliged.
They return to grandfather’s apartment. The boy stays in the parlor chasing his balloon as grandfather prepares lunch. In the kitchen he unwraps the corn tortillas and puts them in a pan with oil. He covers the soft tortillas with a enfrijoladas sauce and tops it with queso blanco and thinly sliced onions. In heavy bottomed glasses he pours tea made from hibiscus flowers and sugar. The boy comes into the kitchen and asks grandfather if he would tie the balloon to the back of his chair. Grandfather obliges.
The phone rings and grandfather goes into his room to retrieve it. The boy unties the balloon and notices there are wrinkles in the seams and when he taps the balloon it is no longer a sharp sound but a deeper thud. The boy takes the balloon into the parlor and lets it free. The balloon drifts up to the high ceiling. The boy jumps for the string but it is just out of his reach. He climbs on the credenza to get a better vantage point. He still cannot get the balloon so he crawls down and gets a broom from the kitchen. He returns to the parlor again climbs on the credenza and smacks the balloon with the broom handle.
Grandfather hangs up the phone and is distraught with the stress of bills. He walks into the parlor and sees the boy climbing on the furniture and scolds him sharply. Abashed the boy climbs down from the credenza and looks longingly up at the balloon. Grandfather returns to his room and to his bills. Grandfather sighs. He listens for sounds of the boy playing with the balloon but hears nothing. Grandfather smiles to himself and walks into the parlor. The boy is sitting cross legged under the balloon staring at it. The balloon is no longer stuck fast to the ceiling but drifts a few inches below it. Grandfather reaches up and grabs the string and returns the balloon to the boy. The boy hugs the balloon and feels it give under his embrace. He reaches to hug grandfather but the old man has turned away.
The boy taps the balloon and it is soft. The boy stands on the string and begins punching the balloon. The balloon gives under each blow and returns slowly for more.
By evening the balloon is shriveled and weakened, floating a few feet off the ground.
Grandfather naps after his mezcal. The boy tosses his stuffed monkey into the air chasing it through the jungles of his imagination.
In the evening on the zocolo where the men stood selling balloons now stand carts selling hamburgers, tacos and tamales late into the night.