Cornmeal laminating our tongues, we snake the streets aimlessly, but with a vague feeling for the Zócalo. It hides its skewed quadrilateral just out of sight, guarded by row after row of apartment, bank, food stall, market, stacks of carpeted speakers, their black and red wires massing for some kind of tangled revolution. On one street corner, a tight unit of white people. We hear their teenage English on the hot wind, too loud, oblivious. Various accents—East Coast, Midwestern, Southern… Their chaperone, a middle-aged woman with a Bostonian bent, bears the thick-necked, thick glasses, stiff perm of their church group leader. Her forehead is pursed, placid but purposeful. Clearly, she feels there are people here in need of saving.

One boy with oversized teeth and pimples on his ears spanks the ass of a willowy girl in black stretch pants. She turns, raven-haired and red-faced to him, as he high-fives another boy with a side-turned ball cap. In her look is patience, pity. She shakes her head and says, “Stop,” meaning, You’re lucky I don’t take your balls, buck-tooth. Another girl, hay-bale blonde, shows her something on her cell phone. A photograph. I’m guessing it’s of the man before us, rolling along the vaulted arcade across the street. Both girls giggle, then turn away from him, possibly ashamed, but too young to admit it. They cross the street, and we cross too, but we keep our distance. We don’t want to be too near these other Americans. As nucleus, as core, Mexico City is leagues ahead of Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

When we step before the arcade on the other side, the sky goes glassy as bath tile, and the beggars jockey for space and attention. This arched passageway seems shadowless, holds more light than the sky itself, sponging the sun. The man, the one who the girls likely photographed can’t be dated. He seems to have side-stepped definition-by-age in that way that people with missing limbs often do. When there’s less of the actual body, there’s less to determine age by. A lack of evidence. He is without arms or legs, perched on a palate of wood with crooked wheels and somehow propels himself along the arcade with his stomach muscles and the remains of his pelvis. The buck-toothed boy looks at him, then immediately turns away. He does no imitation, no virginal air-humping, and I am happy for this. The palate of wood is decorated with a few odd coins, almost enough, I hope, for one tamale. Happy…

Two women who look far too old to be the mothers of infants, parade with their babies, holding them out to the passers-by, imploring looks burned into their faces. They do this for a few minutes, then, as if their shifts are over, their faces melt into smiles as they approach each other, swap stories, regain a measure of youth. When this brief break is over, they age their faces again, sadden their eyes, lift the wriggling children, wrapped in pink scarves.

One of the church group boys spits to the stone and I know he means nothing by it; he’s used to spitting on sidewalks and lawns; to him, it’s habit, reflex, but the people here take notice, scowl as he passes, his in-process backbones poking from his jersey, a grounded bird, amputated wings. A man in a rickety wheelchair, the seat constructed from an onion sack, clasps his hands in prayer or deference as we pass. He is legless, but has flipper-like feet at the bottom of his torso, the toes fused, the nails haphazard like a handful of coins tossed into cement and left to dry where they stuck. He is smiling, graying stubble surrounding his mouth, a patron saint of manners. Hands still clasped, he nods to us and utters the most optimistic “buenos tardes.”

Bells are ringing in the distance, penetrating the city with some ancient music, Mexico City giving itself over to all reverberation and gong. Even the pollution seems to get along with the sky, agreeing to elicit this palest of blues, some estranged dropout cousin to some brighter ocean. A hunched old man in a torn navy windbreaker holds a shaking hand to us as if caught in the sound-wake of the bells. I think of my aunt with Parkinson’s, of everybody’s aunt with Parkinson’s, as his fingers dance and his torn windbreaker voice manages, “por un taquito, por un taquito.”

The entire world is this small rolled-up tortilla, deep-fried in bell-music and the grease of beautiful dirty sky. Of ancient excavations and cathedrals that had to see blood before they saw worship. But as if to rail against it, to assert some stubborn human force, surely destined to fail, but packed with electricity, so many men playing so many accordions, so many upturned hats not yet full of paper, violins and saxophones and guitars beating back the invisible bells, the stupid nervous double-dog-dared hands of all buck-toothed white boys with the most melodic of the world’s Fuck Yous, holding the fort so the captain can emerge from his sentries. And here he is: just a teenage boy himself, standing behind a pot-bellied beast of an instrument—wide as a park bench, the sickly premature offspring of piano and violin, and he’s cranking the shit out of it, eliciting the most pathetic circus music, one of miserable underfed elephants, their ivory dying and sloughing into the ring, just out of sight of the audience, deep into their popcorn, these elephants who the ringmaster loves, his only real friends… Drawn closer, we can see, printed on the front of the instrument in gold lettering, the words, Harmonichord and Berlin.

It’s the sort of instrument that should require at least two people to operate, to make this kind of sound, but the boy is doing it without sweating. How it got here from Germany… The pigeons are log-rolling overhead, preparing for back-flips over the chimneys and spires, rolling their throats like mantra. The flies are closer to us, circling our scalps as if runways, places to rest. To them, I whisper, “Medieval,” “Organistrum,” “conquest.” Louisa mutters something in her first-language about love and learning. I feel I am learning to do both, to open up, to ornament my vocabulary with Sí, Sí,, Sí, but it’ll take some time. We wipe our faces with our shirt sleeves. A small girl blows soap bubbles at us through a blue plastic wand. She wears no shoes. Walks the arcade stones in white cotton socks. Her mother, younger than we are, touches Louisa’s hand, says, in barely-accented English, “Don’t be sad.” In our chests, the elephants stand on their hind legs, perform their best trick. In this, what can do but age, look like our parents? I pull a handful of coins from my pants pocket, not sure yet what to do with them. I am learning, but it will take some time. So much to clap for.

 

99 Red Balloons

By Erika Rae

Memoir

I had that dream again last night, the one where I’m floating on my back and looking up at the sky. Surrounding me is the weight of saturated white linen. It tickles my arms and the tops of my thighs as I breathe. The border of the halo of water around my face sparkles as it creeps. There are no clouds—only the intensity of an indifferent sun. The sky at the edges is so blue it produces an ache in a place inside of me that I can only describe as my soul.

I am waiting for something.

Once in a zoo in Copenhagen, I stood before a massive elephant locked behind giant iron bars. His trunk and legs were worn from a rhythmic and persistent rubbing against his cage. He was an old elephant, with long wiry hairs poking through his thick gray skin in a pattern that challenged any claim to divine design, or at least to a divine lack of humor. In the cell next to his, a baby elephant had recently been born and shadowed her mother as the crowds of people watched and pointed. The baby nervously looked from face to face, trying to understand this new life of hers as her mother tried to herd her baby back away from the bars. After a while, I turned back to the old elephant, methodically rubbing at his confines, and tried to meet his eye. But he would not see me. He had stopped looking.

Soon after, I returned to Vienna where we were living for a brief period of our lives. My sister-in-law lives there half of the year and took me out one night. In the dark, we walked past the looming Stefansdom and through the JudenPlatz, the old Jewish section of the city before 65,000 of its inhabitants were slaughtered by Nazi soldiers. We ended up in a small pub where we sang karaoke on the bar with a houseful of Austrians. Neunundneunzig Luftballons. Together we sent 99 red balloons into the sky over Jewish Vienna. And then we went home.

In the place between waking and sleeping, there is a separate existence as illusive as it is real. The moon overhead illuminates the mesh network within and pulls at the tide of unformed dreams lapping at the banks of the mind. Memories of a kind.

On my back, weightless in the water, I am aware of an encroaching cloud of red. It billows around me and I cry out as I am forced upright. Looking into the depths, I see it rising then, its bluish skin covered in white patches. I reach for him against the current and lift him to my breast.

Against the blue screen with my newborn pressed to me, I watch the elephant trapped in its corner of the sky as 99 red balloons drift past in the wind.

There is no point to this. The point is that I’m getting sick. I just noticed it an hour ago. Suddenly I am blowing my nose. Out of nowhere. And now feeling a little wonky. So I took some vitamin C and ate about 14 pounds of sautéed spinach and now I am sitting here waiting to die. If the pig flu gets me tell them I was an okay guy. Kind of quiet and not very good at tennis, but basically decent.