We paint smiley faces on the balloons so he knows we love him and everything’s okay. We tie the strings in bowline knots so they won’t get loose and mess everything up. We wheel him out of the room, and we think he smiles when the morning light falls on his face, and that makes us all smile, too.
Nobody talks about the smell, because it would be rude, and it’s not like nobody’s noticed, anyway. Old folks just smell that way sometimes. Let it go. Fight through it. Go pay your respects already. How many times do I have to tell you kids anyway.
Dad fits his favorite ball cap on the old man’s noggin, makes sure it’s snug. Red Sox, of course. He kisses him on his cold, papery cheeks, whispers things nobody else will ever know into his tufty, spotty old ears, then he starts to cry a little bit. Mom wraps her free arm around him and kisses him and tells him that it’s okay. These things happen. A couple seconds later, she’s crying, too.
Overhead, it’s a great big beautiful tomorrow, cast in stripes of blues and whites and golden yellows. Younger cousin Jeff sets up his little tribute fleet of Estes Rockets, all in a row. He tells us that he’s rigged the engines to flare off in Grampaw’s favorite colors, whatever they were. He says there’s a sequence to them, and nobody understands how they work well enough to say different, so everyone else just smiles and nods and thanks him. You’re a good boy, Jeffy. Good boy, Jeffy.
The old man’s eyes are foggy emeralds set in clotted milk, turned dully toward the big sky. Everybody holds a balloon, each with a different smile on it. Everybody did one. Mine’s a clown with big teeth and beady little eyes and puffy cheeks and everyone’s jealous because they just drew three boring old lines on theirs. Dad says it’s not a competition and I have to remember that. I know it. I do, honest. Sorry, everyone.
We’re all tears and smiles, now. We make a circle around him and hold hands and look at each other, and we’re not sure who starts the singing first, but everybody joins in. Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Everybody knows the words, and even though it starts off quiet and slow, we’re all clapping and stomping and hooting and hollering.
We tell ourselves he would have liked it.
Then, it’s time.
We all count down from ten. On one, we all let go.
The balloon strings all go taut at the same time and grampaw lifts off, hanging by his ankles and his wrists. He twists and sags in the wind and his tongue lolls out of his mouth, blue and gray and rotting. The balloons all rise together, grinning at the gorgeousness of creation that surrounds them like the beautiful idiots that they are.
We all clap and cheer and watch him disappear into the sun. We’ve been waiting weeks for this. Ever since he died. When he dips in front of a cloudbank, Dad starts handing out the rifles. We check the bolts and the sights, then nock the stocks into our shoulders and raise them to the sky. We count down again and then Dad shouts something that gets lost in the black drown of gunfire so it doesn’t matter anyway.
Through the scope, I can see the bullets chew the old man apart, spilling pieces of him across the neighborhood in wet sheets. They rain down on schools, churches, families, dogs, cats, old couples, cars, sidewalks, windows, roofs, backyards. He soaks them all, a gray storm of parts and chunks, and the smell dyes the air all around us, bright and vinegar-sharp.
Now everyone can have some of what we had.
Now everyone can have him in their lives.
We love you, Grampaw whatever your name was. You were almost as good as the real thing.
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