The Great Hug
by Donald Barthelme

At the last breakfast after I told her, we had steak and eggs. Bloody Marys. Three pieces of toast. She couldn't cry she tried. Balloon Man came. He photographed the event. He created the Balloon of the Last Breakfast After I Told Her -- a butter- colored balloon. "This is the kind of thing I do so well," he said. Balloon Man is not modest. No one has ever suggested that. "This balloon is going to be extra-famous and acceptable, a documentation of raw human riches, the plain canvas gravy of the thing. The Pin Lady will never be able to bust this balloon, never, not even if she hugs me for a hundred years." We were happy to have pleased him, to have contributed to his career.

The Balloon Man won't sell to kids. Kids will come up to the Balloon Man and say, "Give us a blue balloon, Balloon Man," and the Balloon Man will say, "Get outa here kids, these balloons are adults-only." And the kids will say, "C'mon, Balloon Man, give us a red balloon and a green balloon and a white balloon, we got the money." "Don't want any kid-money," the Balloon Man will say, "kid-money is wet and nasty and makes your hands wet and nasty and then you wipe 'em on your pants and your pants get all wet and nasty and you sit down to eat and the chair gets all wet and nasty, let that man in the brown hat draw near, he wants a balloon." And the kids will say, "Oh please Balloon Man, we want five yellow balloons that never pop, we want to make us a smithereen." "Ain't gonna make no smithereen outa my fine yellow balloons," says the Balloon Man, "your red balloon will pop sooner and your green balloon will pop later but your yellow balloon will never pop no matter how you stomp on it or stick it and besides the Balloon Man don't sell to kids, it's against his principles."

The Balloon Man won't let you take his picture. He has something to hide. He's a superheavy Balloon Man, doesn't want the others to steal his moves. It's all in the gesture -- the precise, reunpremeditated right move.

Balloon Man sells the Balloon of Fatigue and the Bal loon of Ora Pro Nobis and the Rune Balloon and the Balloon of the Last Thing to Do at Night; these are saffron-, cinnamon-, salt-, and celery-colored, respectively. He sells the Balloon of Not Yet and the Balloon of Sometimes. He works the circus, every circus. Some people don't go to the circus and so don't meet the Balloon Man and don't get to buy a balloon. That's sad. Near to most people in any given city at any given time won't be at the circus. That's unfortunate. They don't get to buy a brown, whole-life-long cherishable Sir Isaiah Berlin Balloon. "I don't sell the Balloon Jejune," the Balloon Man will say, "let them other people sell it, let them other people have all that wet and nasty kid-money mitosising in their sock. That a camera you got there mister? Get away." Balloon Man sells the Balloon of Those Things I Should Have Done I Did Not Do, a beige balloon. And the Balloon of the Ballade of the Crazy Junta, crimson of course. Balloon Man stands in a light rain near the popcorn pushing the Balloon of Wish I Was, the Balloon of Busoni Thinking, the Balloon of the Perforated Septum, the Balloon of Not Nice. Which one is my balloon, Balloon Man? Is it the Balloon of the Cartel of Noose Makers? Is it the Balloon of God Knows I Tried?

One day the Balloon Man will meet the Pin Lady. It's in the cards, in the stars, in the entrails of sacred animals. Pin Lady is a woman with pins stuck in her couture, rows of pins and pins not in rows but placed irregularly here a pin there a pin, maybe eight thousand pins stuck in her couture or maybe ten thousand pins or twelve thousand pins. Pin Lady tells the truth. The embrace of Balloon Man and Pin Lady will be something to see. They'll roll down the hill together, someday. Balloon Man's arms will be wrapped around Pin Lady's pins and Pin Lady's embrangle will be wrapped around Balloon Man's balloons -- even the yellow balloons. They'll roll down the hill together. Pin Lady has the Pin of I Violently Desire. She has the Pin of Crossed Fingers Behind My Back, she has the Pin of Soft Talk, she has the Pin of No More and she is rumored to have the Pin of the Dazed Sachem's Last Request She's into puncture. When puncture becomes widely accepted and praised, it will be the women who will have the sole license to perform it, Pin Lady says.

Pin Lady has the Pin of Tomorrow Night -- a wicked pin those who have seen it say. That great hug, when Balloon Man and Pin Lady roll down the hill together, will be frightening. The horses will run away in all directions Ordinary people will cover their heads with shopping bags. I don't want to think about it. You blow up all them balloons yourself, Balloon Man? Or did you have help? Pin Lady, how come you're so apricklededee? Was it something in your childhood?

Balloon Man will lead off with the Balloon of Grace Under Pressure, Do Not Pierce or Incinerate.

Pin Lady will counter with the Pin of Oh My, I Forgot.

Balloon Man will produce the Balloon of Almost Wonderful. Pin Lady will come back with the Pin of They Didn't Like Me Much. Balloon Man will sneak in there with the Balloon of the Last Exit Before the Toll Is Taken. Pin Lady will reply with the Pin of One Never Knows for Sure. Balloon Man will propose the Balloon of Better Days. Pin Lady, the Pin of Whiter Wine.

It's gonna be bad, I don't want to think about it.

Pin Lady tells the truth. Balloon Man doesn't lie, exactly. How can the Quibbling Balloon be called a lie? Pin Lady is more straightforward. Balloon Man is less straightforward. Their stances are semiantireprophetical. They're falling down the hill together, two falls out of three. Pin him, Pin Lady. Expand, Balloon Man. When he created our butter-colored balloon, we felt better. A little better. The event that had happened to us went floating out into the world, was made useful to others. Balloon Man says, "I got here the Balloon of the Last Concert. It's not a bad balloon. Some people won't like it. Some people will like it. I got the Balloon of Too Terrible. Not every balloon can make you happy. Not every balloon can trigger glee. But I insist that these balloons have a right to be heard! Let that man in the black cloak step closer, he wants a balloon.

"The Balloon of Perhaps. My best balloon."

"The Great Hug" is from Amateurs. New York: Farrar, 1976.

Copyright (c) 1996-2004 The Estate of Donald Barthelme, reprinted with permission