A year ago, a neighborhood child was killed in a horrific accident while engaged in a traditional childhood activity. The child deserves a story, but it is not mine to tell.
What is mine is the single, deflated green balloon I saw in the Taco Bell parking lot a week later. I could dress up this event, but I believe that deflated, discarded balloons are inherently sad: capturing the act of one person devoting a portion of their life to the creation of a joyous moment for another and the passage of that moment to time. A deflated green balloon in a parking lot is, therefore, sad enough for our purposes and we proceed into the store.
We pass over the luxury of choosing to walk into a store to casually glance at the menu: the moments of joy or sadness spurred by the carousel of Big Box meals, which at the time was of no particular importance and has already occupied more time now than it did then, and focus instead on a small table in the back corner of the dining area, with a sign on the front and green balloons taped to it. It has the look of a small, makeshift hiring table, the kind restaurants sometimes used for hiring events in corners such as that one, and my mind – and yours, unless you have successfully observed the tenor of my description – concludes that it was, indeed, a hiring table for an event not-long past. As I have no interest in interviewing for a position at Taco Bell, let alone manufacturing a process by which I can travel backwards in time to attend a hiring event that has passed into memory, I note it in case you have both the desire and creative talents and turn our attention to the screens above the cashier. I order.
The made-to-order meals take longer than may be necessary under optimal conditions, as the limited staff are both engaged in conversations that are more interesting to them than adding copious amounts of “cheese” to cardboard boxes filled with tortillas and tortilla-based products. One is chatting with friends seated 20 feet away about graduation parties and college, one of the few conversations among teenagers that I can understand given how little it has changed in the decades since I was a part of them myself. And the other is admiring an off-shift coworker’s beautiful baby, whose father was actively involved in his child’s life until police arrested him for a drug offense, a crime that they speak of in a manner that would disqualify them as witnesses for his defense. Aware that I am now waiting out at least one of two conversations into which I am too old to listen, I turn my attention back to the table in the corner and bring your attention with me, trusting my instinct that you are also too old for such conversations.
While it may not surprise you to see the hiring table’s sign emblazoned with a large picture of the child whose story is not mine to tell, it is a surprise to me at the moment I am reliving with you. His is a face I saw here and there about our small town, but one I had not expected to see again, lacking the benefit of a narrator’s foreshadowing. And there it was, surrounded by abandoned green balloons of varying sizes consistent with the inconsistency of their production and earnest conversations about life in a quiet corner of a Taco Bell.
My thoughts in that moment are still raw, so I will not serve them to you. But after getting the order, we leave the store, you and I, and, as before, the green balloon rests deflated on the ground. I feel compelled to pick it up as if affording some small courtesy to this object will ease my suffering of this family’s pain, but I cannot touch it. I cannot risk a physical connection – however indirect – to a tragedy that I need to keep surreal.
Sunshine can be followed on Twitter @MikeLuketich.