Vandy takes an orange balloon from the box and blows it up, fastens it with a piece of string he cuts from the big ball of twine he bought along with the balloons for a good price at Wal-Mart. Then he takes and blows up a green one, a blue, a yellow.
From the kitchen he hears Rosie and the girls talking and laughing while they prepare the food. Out on the porch, the grandchildren have gathered. Adults now, cousins catching up on each other’s lives. Nearly the whole family has gathered here to celebrate his eightieth.
A pink balloon, a purple.
“We need eighty,” Rosie had said. “You need help?”
“Nah, I can do it. May take awhile, but I can do it.”
He can do eighty, he thinks, without helium. He’d rather do a thousand, but that would be stretching it. A thousand would be good, though — a thousand bright balloons to celebrate a thousand bright moments in his life. Or maybe three thousand, five thousand, ten thousand? How many memories make up a lifetime?
He blows up a red balloon. For the strawberry short-cake his Mom used to make. A gold balloon for the real adult watch Dad gave him on his fourteenth birthday. A balloon for the day he finally scored a point for the high-school basketball team. Another red one for the day he came back from the War and found Rosie still waiting for him. A balloon for the day he signed his first teaching contract. A pink balloon for the birth of each of his five daughters. A blue balloon for the first grandson. One for each special moment. What a good life it has been.
The room is full of balloons now. Little Manda comes running in wearing a frilly yellow dress for the occasion. He picks out a matching yellow balloon and blows it up for her. She laughs. Finger in mouth, she gazes at all the coloured balloons bobbing around.
There is only one balloon left in the box. A black one. The only black balloon in the whole box. He looks at it, considers.
“Ah, well,” he thinks, “that’s part of it all, too.”
Vandy lifts the black balloon to his mouth and starts to blow. Manda stares, and it looks like her eyes are growing as big as the balloon.
“No, don’t!” she says suddenly and pulls with her little hand at his big one holding the balloon. “That’s not a pretty one.”
The distress in her voice surprises him, and when he sees her eyes start to fill up with tears he’s even more surprised and forgets to stop blowing.
He blows so much air into the black balloon that it bursts. The explosion startles them both.
Then he sees a smile come over Manda’s face, and he feels like his heart is about to burst, too, as she buries her face in his knees.
“I love you, Great-grandpa,” he hears her say.
Robin Vandenberg Herrnfeld grew up in California but has lived in Germany for the last twenty-some years. She studied literature in the US and Germany and started writing short stories around five years ago. Her true-life account of a Neo-Nazi victim was published in 2007.