Jan/Feb 2022  •   Fiction


by J Eric Miller

Artwork by Dale Bridges

Artwork by Dale Bridges

He had it all: large tanks, a rubber mask on a hose like at the dentist's, crackers, small cylinders he called whippits you could pinprick open so the glorious stuff would pour into a balloon, from which we could inhale it. All these accouterments and nearly everything constituting his life were kept in an out of service ice-cream truck. He had it fixed up all right, with a mattress and all, the bulk of his things in plastic tubs, some kind of organization, his life built around the simple pursuit of getting high. He'd drive this ice-cream truck to a different location every night and park and sleep there. Nobody would mess with it. He'd pull it up in front of restaurant suppliers and go right in. Because the gas was used in some way or another in the frozen treat business, people wouldn't even ask him why he wanted it.

I met him when he was being scolded by a pregnant woman. Her voice was heavy with frustrated certainty. It was as if she had been entrusted with one of the prime secrets of the universe, and none of the rest of us had done much more than be born ourselves. She was angry at him for eating fruit from the display. She went on about germs and societal expectation and the like, while he smiled lightly and popped grapes into his mouth. The woman's voice went higher and higher, the words coming more and more quickly. I was worried she would demand my opinion on the matter, but I couldn't quite squeeze past them. Finally, he said, "Lady, you're a gas." Then he put his hand flat with the fingers spread out not quite touching her belly. He said, "Wow! It's like a big old balloon is going to lift you up by your sundress and float you away."

When she'd retreated, he said to me, "Hey, man, what do you think of euphoria?"

"Isn't that a town in Wyoming?" I was trying to be funny.

"No, baby," he said. "It's the thing you feel when you're almost finished drowning."

If he needed money, he'd pull up outside a bar or a club with a bouquet of balloons and sell them for ten bucks each; buyers would fill their mouths, their lungs, like kids with helium, changing their inner worlds for roughly the same amount of time you can hold your breath. He lived on free samples, YMCA showers, the kindness of certain women, luck, loopholes. I'd ride around with him. We would park somewhere and drink the stuff into our heads while the world went on around us, ducks on the water, geese on the grass, the old men on the park benches, the joggers moving by. We might courier packets of documents from one place to another, consume gas station food, buy lottery tickets. I admired his commitment.

My degree wasn't that old, and I had my first job counseling people addicted to bad choices. It was part time, but it kept my PO happy. I really did believe I'd embarked upon something substantial, was beginning to move into the shape of the rest of my life, which only when I soberly considered it could cause me a sense of despair. But by then I knew a life had to have some kind of design or you couldn't live it, and I believed I wanted to live. Maybe I was drawn to the gas because you could inhale it on the way to a drug test and they wouldn't find it in your blood or your pee. You were high, high, high, and then you were not, no residue at all, no hangover, just a longing to float away again. It was as clean and simple and magical as blowing soap bubbles.

He was social and would share his gas with people he liked. Sometimes, he'd tell the story of the one dramatic thing he said he'd ever done, which happened when he ran away from home as a teenager. Though I never told him, elements of this story felt common with elements of my own history. His home was stable enough, but he'd been inspired by various fictions to search for a better world, or at least, a better way to live in the world as it was. Eventually, quickly, in fact, he'd run out of money and found himself, midmorning, in a small town on the plains, with a BB gun shoved down the sleeve of a jean jacket, standing outside of a liquor store, frozen, having lost his nerve. But then the proprietor looked up from a newspaper spread on the counter and yelled, "Don't even think about it." And then, my friend said, he lost what he thought was himself and found some other self. Maybe that's what he had intended all along. Maybe he had gone on this journey just to put his body in a place and see what it would do. Maybe he wanted to know if the world could work like a movie or a book, and if in such a key moment the protagonist would rise up out of him or not. He swung open the door, marched in, and demanded money. The man stuffed bills into a paper bag. Then my friend ran out, leapt into his truck, re-crossed the railroad tracks, and pulled back into the flow of traffic on the freeway. He had seen no train and heard no siren. He counted the money, $125 in five and ten dollar bills, out in his lap, while the sun poured in like honey through the side window. By that afternoon, the elation had worn away. The realization the entire experience had been accomplished on luck settled over him. He knew if he did not want to die performing some crime, he'd have to accept that first high of that first armed encounter as as good as it was going to get.

He came back down to earth, returned to his hometown, and went on with his life. This is where the general similarities in our stories diverged. Maybe I liked to hear him tell this story because it gave me some kind of other ending to my own journey, although, I would think, where then would I be now, or would I be at all? I'd run off with my high school English teacher who didn't know she was taking a boy. For that matter, I did not know she hadn't really grown up herself. None of that seemed to matter. We thought in the way young and lonely people think that we'd fallen in love. Every mile we made was a tangle we couldn't undo, and the trouble we found was enough to ensure neither of us could go home again.

Eventually, my friend had discovered gas when they pulled his wisdom teeth, and he fell in love with it. Sometimes, we'd visit the apartment of a woman and of a child I suppose he had made with that woman. They would go into another room and put the child down to bed together, and then they'd come out and we'd suck the gas from a whipped cream dispenser. Your personality just went second by second. It was like watching somebody peel away layers of your skin to reveal your soul. What you found in there was so pure, it could be in anybody. You were beyond your opinions, cares, concerns. You didn't have the kind of taste that made you want one thing or another. I could love anybody. I loved him. I loved her. I loved the child in the next room.

I even loved myself.

There is no better way to live than when the details do not matter. But then what the world was would come back. You would remember your name. You would remember exactly where you were, city and state, and why. Generally speaking, you'd know where the earth was in its long history. You'd know that that was his woman, enough of his, at least, so that you would never touch her, even though you recognized in her a beauty nobody else would ever see completely. They did not argue, but he could only be around her once or twice a month or so, and he always wanted to go before it seemed she wanted him to, or before I myself felt ready to leave.

These were happy, lonely times. I felt blessed in many ways, finding him, finding this fairy-tale gas. I couldn't believe everybody else wasn't living on the stuff. I guess I was in and out of his company for four or five months. Then something happened. He was gone. I found the truck, but there was no answer to my knocking. You could look in the windows, but the curtain was across the little doorway to the back. I'd circle around the truck, touching it with a finger or two, looking at the apartments and storefronts all around, the people walking by. I could imagine the canisters. If you pushed your ear against the side of the truck, you could hear the gas in there breathing. I didn't long for it the way one might long for some other drug, like it was a lover you just had to get at one more time. It was more than that. You wanted it all and forever.

I figured he'd been hit by a bus or stabbed by a mugger, or he'd fallen in with the people he'd told me about, who did not treat the gas safely, who would frostbite their larynxes, get blown up puncturing cylinders, drift away alone with a mask on and an open valve and so would never have to come back. The truck was there for days and days, accruing warnings and then tickets and then notices, and then it was gone. I never found out what happened. Later, I'd think to think that he might have simply had enough and dropped from one way of being into another.

I went searching for his woman, but all those apartment buildings looked the same, and all the people did, too. She'd probably have blended back in. It didn't matter. I couldn't take his place. There was no such thing, anyway; he was just a wisp, a made-up thing. We all were. I felt all used up. Down about the loss of him, the disconnection from the gas, the way my job just kept going and going, rent bills getting paid, groceries getting bought, repetitions building themselves into my life, there settled on me this heavy fear that this was all I had lived for. I couldn't have told you honestly that I believed other things were coming, that my road continued, but I couldn't see how it would end, either. I was miserable and afraid for a long time.

Years later, when I thought I had my feet under me again, I'd know a woman who took me for a hot air balloon date. We had met in a bar, the way people do, and began going to bed regularly. Eventually, she said, "Tomorrow, at six in the morning..." or something like that. And she meant it. We drove out on the plains before the foothills, and they put us in the basket. Then they blew fire up into the balloon so it unwithered and became a giant, upside down, rainbow-colored teardrop. At first, it felt not so much like we were going up as that the earth was abandoning us. But then you had the sense of lift. Soon, we were bobbing along under the clouds and over the trees. Boat rides, airplane trips, nothing replicated that particular feeling of floating. You could kiss her mouth up there and nobody would ever kiss you like that again. The air was so clean, you felt just by taking it in you'd cleared all the foul things that had collected in your mouth, your throat, your guts. I became happy, so happy I wanted to be able to sing, I wanted to sing a happy song and leave it in the world, so happy that if people thought the song was all I was, that would be all right.

By now, I've known users of everything. I have known heroin people, so in love with that method of blinking out and so used to the loveliness of that deep sleep, it was perfectly acceptable that one day it would kill them and they wouldn't even know about it. It was an ugly way to live, but a beautiful way to die. I've known alcoholics and huffers, snow monsters and acid philosophers. I suppose at the end, it is always an act of self-erasure. I suppose how you feel about it just depends on how hung up you are being who you think you are.

We drank champagne in the basket of the balloon. It came down. The pilot wore a cowboy hat, a middle-aged man with weary eyes, like we all get. A van and a truck had followed along, keeping in touch by radio transmitters, because there was not a lot of precision to such travel, and we might light in any variety of places. We watched as they pushed the air out of the balloon and loaded it and the basket into the truck. We'd all ride back in the van to that place from which we had ascended. There, we'd get in our earthbound vehicles and drive home along roads connected to all other roads. Maybe we'd all want to do it again. I didn't know how much the experience cost, or how the woman had discovered its possibility, none of the details at all. They say this thing or that thing isn't natural, but I suppose everything is made up of the very things that make up the earth, a few simple compounds and chemicals and elements and the like, blown together in some event nobody will ever be able to explain. The miracle is not that the earth provides for us. It is that we developed in such a way to make so much out of what the earth provides.

The pilot, the man in the cowboy hat, he must have gone home that night, too. Maybe he slept beside a woman, or maybe he slept alone. He'd wake up tomorrow and do it again, with a new set of people, whose feet had never left the ground in anything like that way before. He was doing the work of angels. As for me, I don't know why I didn't stick with that woman, or why she didn't stick with me. Drifting was so much easier than any other thing, the specifics of it became forgettable. But I remember liking her. She took me on that balloon ride. Maybe if we'd stayed together, she would have done other miraculous things with me. Maybe we'd have done stuff like that frequently, and then maybe I'd take it all for granted, the way you do every time you are born.