Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Beth Likes Balloons

BY JOHN MARSHALL

Four years ago I threw a perfect bullseye, from regulation distance, and told Beth it was the greatest thing I’d ever done. She ignored my joy out of superiority, the way a snob ignores a housekeeper, having never understood my obsession with the game.
 
I’d found the board, darts, and requisite mounting accoutrements when I moved into the apartment at the beginning of that summer. It was the middle of May and the air carried the bite of mountain spring in Jackson. I arrived at the address off Kelly Street from the east coast in the middle of the night with a duffle and a sleeping bag to get me through the season. My new roommates, shit-faced and shirtless, lovers and alcoholics as they were, answered the door and led me to my small bedroom – in the corner of which sat the darts, board, mount, and screws. It was a curious oddity at first, an almost archetypal relic of the kind of young man who would live in a house like this, but the relationship would eventually change.
 
“I just want to talk about it,” Beth said, and licked shut a cigarette, freshly rolled.
 
“Beth, what the hell?” I asked as I repositioned myself at the throwing line. “You’re gonna smell like shit.”
 
“Fuck you.” She flicked a spent match over the rail of my back porch, where I would set up my board on nice nights. I’d hesitated that particular evening, it had been breezy after dinner, but things had calmed. The summer days were long, and though the moon would peak out from above the Teton Mountains early, it would stay light until after 8 pm, the mountain air fresh and light on the lungs.
 
“Great,” I said and put the darts in my breast pocket. Where I hated Beth’s smoking, she loathed my habit of dipping tobacco. I pulled out a tin of Copenhagen from my jeans and packed about half the can into my bottom lip out of spite, my nicotine addiction notwithstanding. I spat a stream of sweet brown juice onto the deck where it hit with a chilling splat – the sound a giant dead fish, or a dead body for that matter, might make were it dropped from height unto the slate floor of a steamy sauna.
 
“Whatever.” She’d kicked her feet up now, resting them on the only other chair on the porch. “You can lose your jaw if you want, see if I care.”
 
“You smoke!” I had to grab an empty beer bottle to spit into before I could continue, “You’re gonna die.”
 
  “I’d rather be dead than walking around without half my face, you idiot.”
 
I spat into the beer bottle, took my darts out of my pocket and took aim.
 
I spent the majority of my free time as an eighth grader in West Texas lying to my parents about where I was and hanging out with the cholos who would play dice behind the gym, or listen to music in their cars outside the convenience store. They taught me how to smoke cigarettes, drink a beer, roll a joint, take a shot, snort coke off the end of a car key, punch a guy out. Once they even took me over the border to Juarez and bought me a whore, for my 14th birthday, but I couldn’t get it up. Her name was Luz, and she was sweet. She said she would tell the boys I did well. Here’s the point – I drank so much tequila and did so much blow on that birthday that on the way across the border I had a fit of vomiting and a panic attack three feet away from a border patrol agent. My parents were called. Four months later I was in a New Jersey boarding school, a white boy in a sea of white boys, and they didn’t smoke cigarettes or do coke or buy hookers. They dipped, they snorted Vicodin and Ritalin, depending on the occasion, and they didn’t have hookers. They had unmarked CDs full of filth that would get passed around the student body like highly classified intelligence. We dipped Skoal back then, but I was in Jackson now, cowboy country, and them boys chewed Cope – so I did, too.
 
“Of course you’d rather be dead.” I pulled my darts from the board and mentally subtracted the score from 501. I’d just shot a 100, that’s one triple 20, two single 20s. I stood at 401.
 
Exactly,” She pulled hard on her cigarette and smiled for the first time that night. “I want to talk about it.”
 
“You’re a sicko.”
 
“Bullshit. What’s sick is all this,” she gestured out in front of her, towards the snow capped Teton Mountains, as if to gather up the world in one tired, apathetic motion. “All I want to do is something different.”
 
“Lots of people kill themselves, Beth.”
 
“That’s why I like talking about it!” She was giddy now, working on a second cigarette and a new beer. “I need to find it, you know, my way. It’s like a final expression.”
 
“Whatever, bitch.” I smiled and she laughed a little bit.
 
The most valuable bit of real estate on a dartboard is the 20. A dash of red bisects the 20 field in the middle, and a longer dash caps the 20 at the top – these areas are the triple and double 20, respectively. One dart in the triple yields 60 points, in the double, 40. Every number on the board has doubles and triples, but the 20 is special; at sixty points and forty points, they are the richest triple and double in the game. The thing about darts is that it punishes you so severely for your mistakes. The 20, that Beverly Hills or Newport Beach of the board, is bordered by the 1 and the 5, the fields separated only by thin metal wires. If you need to put a dart somewhere in the 20, but miss by a sixteenth of an inch, you’ll have only hit a 5 or 1, miles away from the score you needed, but in terms of how well you threw the dart, you were off by a hair. Thus in the game of 501, the purest of darts games, where a player must subtract his score from 501 after every turn, only finishing once he has made it exactly to zero, not hitting precisely what he requires with his final darts can ruin an entire game. How well you start off or how close you come never matters in darts. It’s a game of precision; you must be acutely aware of what you require, and trust yourself to get it.
 
“It’s all your fault, anyway,” she called to me from the porch. I was in the kitchen getting more beer for us.
 
“That you want to kill yourself?” I put a cold six-pack on the table in front of her, grabbed one for myself and returned to the throwing line.
 
“Oh, sure, you didn’t know?”
 
“Well it makes sense,” I said. “I’m only here for the summer and after you’ve been loved as well and as…skillfully as I’ve been loving you, it probably doesn’t seem like there is a reason to keep on going.”
 
“I meeean,” She liked that phrase, “I mean,” and loved drawing it out like that. She had a light, feminine voice that has given the words a musical, transcendental lilt in my memory, the way the sound of wind chimes can suddenly alert us to forces felt, but not seen. Beth, her voice, the drawn out I mean, still, now four years later, hang on me with the weight of the unresolved – the first line of a Haiku to define that summer that I’ll never finish.

“What?” I laughed and sniffed two beer bottles, investigating which one was for spitting and which one was for drinking. “Gotta admit, Beth – it’s some good lovin’.”
 
“Oh, great lovin’,” she said. “But you know what I mean.”
 
“Yeah, I do,” I said and threw a dart. “And you already know there’s no way I’m letting you up in a balloon just so you can throw yourself out of it.”
 
“It would be great, wouldn’t it?”
 
“Yeah, Beth – real fucking incredible.” I threw my third dart and counted 41, two 20s and a 1. I stood at 360.
 
I met her during my first week in Jackson at the infrequently visited and under-funded local library where she worked. I considered myself something of a scholar at the time, a high thinker with a mind so uniquely sharp that it separated me from all other twenty year-olds on Earth, and so found myself in that library one afternoon looking for Tolstoy, or maybe Dostoevsky. She asked if she could help me, and in the tone of a 20-year-old guy who blamed the system for never recognizing his intellect, and by extension, for his lack of an ivy league enrollment, who had spent the preceding year devouring beat literature and memorizing Howl, I told her I was looking for, The Russians. She pressed for more information, and I elaborated, The Great Russians.
 
Later, standing akimbo between two tall shelves of dusty hardbacks I confessed that I had only ever read The Death of Ivan Illych and Notes From the Underground by these Russian masters, and in a moment treasonous to my young ego and intellectual hubris, admitted that their longer, more famous works intimidated me. Crime and Punishment, she told me, was more accessible, but would give me the meaty challenge I was looking for. I didn’t even crack the book until I had come back east that fall. Yes, I owe the library in Jackson four years worth of late fees by now, but it’s a memento from that summer that I intend to keep. From that day on the summer would become less the summer I spent in Jackson, and more the summer I spent with Beth. She was a curious girl in that she both possessed the quality and evoked it, colored as she was with several strange compulsions like nail biting, hair chewing, and the kind of hard blinking that can give an observer the impression that the blinker wishes to push her eyeballs through the back of her skull. She was smart and lonely, a native in a town of few natives, a bookwormish homebody in a town of cowboys, paragliders, and Olympic skiers. Her face and body were constructed in a pleasing way, but she never felt beautiful, and so seeing her for the first time was akin to seeing a priceless vase in a diner’s slop sink; the inclination is not to admire its beauty, but to take it somewhere safe. She had a brother who had died and a mother who had never recovered. I never heard about her father. She liked cigarettes and beer and watching bad movies just to make fun of them. She had one love, however, an obsession to which all other interests were forever subservient – the contemplation of suicide. I never took it seriously. We would joke about it often, coming up with various and spectacular ways she might end her life. The thing about Beth, though, was that it never felt that she loved the idea of suicide because she wanted to die; it seemed to come from a desire to make an impact, to be heard in some way, however brief or final. She loved me, and I think I loved her, though how’s anyone to know, really – but despite often joking about some physical relationship between us, there never was one. We had kissed once in the beginning of the summer, and settled thereafter into an unspoken understanding that it would not happen again. We would sleep together most nights, but just sleep – she next to me underneath my sleeping bag was a warm and welcome comfort. Sometimes I would wake in the middle of the night to find her clutching me with her body in some way, her leg draped over mine, her hands holding my arm across her chest, her head on my shoulder, the hot breath of sleep on my neck – but I would never tell her about it in the morning.
 
“It would be the most amazing, just totally unbelievable, thing to have happen,” she said, the excitement of her imaginings rousing her from her seat. “I’d probably fall for…two, maybe three seconds? Can you imagine that free fall? The air rushing by you, the mountains going by in a blur – ”
 
“You slamming into the dirt so hard your body breaks up into pieces that pummel into the ground like shrapnel? So they’ll never actually recover your body?” I’d just thrown a 50 – two 20s and a 10. I stood at 310.
 
“Who cares about the body anyway?” She drank her beer. “If I’m dead.”
 
Beth had found not just a companion in me but also a link to a method of suicide that she had been fantasying about for quite some time. I was in Jackson because my uncle owned and operated a hot air balloon company; they would give rides to hoards of tourists every day on four different balloons, reaching altitudes of over one thousand feet at times. They cut a beautiful spectacle from ground or sky – in the air you were a character in some Poppins-esque reality, floating above the earth in a wicker basket, glazed mountains on the horizon, herds of elk and bison beneath you. On the ground those balloons with designs like western landscapes and colorful, geometric patterns hung in the early morning blue like four bits of wonderful candy a child’s arm would never reach. Beth had always been attracted to these balloons, had always considered riding one to peak altitude, taking in the scenery, and then hurling oneself overboard as the most beautiful, unique, and poetic method of suicide. The $400 ticket, she claimed, was all that stood in her way. She asked me often, as I worked for my uncle shuttling passengers from their hotels to the balloon or driving the baskets home in a truck, if I could get her a free ride. Fearing that she might actually follow through on the fantasy I had never taken seriously, I never even asked.
 
“You know this is the part I don’t like,” I said.
 
“What?”
 
“Coming up with wild and funny ways someone might kill themselves can be entertaining,” I said, turning away from the dartboard. “But I hate it when you take it to the point where we are actually discussing your dead body.”
 
“Let me,” she said and took the darts from my hand.
 
I told her exactly how best to throw the darts, but as always, she ignored every one of my suggestions, and the familiar feeling of fury boiled in me when she missed the board three times in a row and wondered aloud what happened.
 
“Why even try” I asked, “if you’re not going to do it right?”
 
“That’s how I throw them,” she said. “I don’t want to throw them your way.”
 
“It’s not my way. It’s the way.”
 
“Well forgive me for trying to be original.” She returned to her drink and her seat, “Everyone always settles for the cliché, I don’t get it.”
 
I told her she could be cliché or not, that either way – the world will have seen her before, and threw my darts.
 
“Holy shit,” I said. “I just threw a 160.”
 
“Is that good?”
 
“A half-inch away from perfect,” I said and retrieved my implements from the board. I had 150 remaining.
 
No one really cares about darts in the U.S. but it’s not that way in England. I watched a lot of professional tournaments on YouTube that summer and was enthralled. Men with beer guts and faces that betrayed the hours spent inside smoky pubs were God Kings, cheered on by crowds of ten thousand drunken fans. The announcers were the best part, calling out in rough cockney accents, “He wants the red bit, the lip-stick – oh! What a dart! And another! That’s two in the bed, Jimbo – now for double top…OH MY GOD!” Those average English Joes the masters of their own fate up on stage, manifesting their destinies with precision and control, letting the future ride on winged metal pins.
 
“That’s all I want,” she said. “To do one thing perfect. I don’t care if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
 
“Then live long and die,” I said.  “Sweet and perfect. Of old age. Lying next to me.”
 
“Oh yeah?” She said, “Lying next to you?”
 
“Why not?” I said. “Or, shit, some other guy if you think you can top me, but you can’t,” I smiled, “I promise.”
 
“I think I’ll sleep at my place tonight.”
 
I ignored her and threw my first dart. 501, as we know, is a game of accuracy, but I threw that first dart without aiming at anything particular and watched it sail right into the bullseye, a score of 50 points. The “outer bull,” worth 25 points, surrounds the bullseye, or bull, so the bull counts as a double. The game must end on a double. If you require 20 points, you must hit the double 10, not a single 20, or you will bust. I required 100 points, and had two darts left to throw. I could have shot a triple 20 and finished on a double 20, but I didn’t feel confident anywhere outside the bullseye in that moment. I saw Beth packing up her purse in the corner of my eye, but ignored it. I took aim, cocked my arm, and hammered a second dart into the bullseye. I was elated, but Beth couldn’t let me focus.
 
“Bye!” She called from inside my apartment.
 
“Wait!” I called. “I’m almost done.”
 
“It’s fine!” She called back in a sweet tone – like it was a gift.
 
I heard the door open and swing closed.
 
James Wade signature model darts. 24 grams, black tungsten barrels, with acrylic shafts and Unicorn brand flights. Two protruded confidently from the bull, the third jostled around my breast pocket while I jogged to the front door and yanked it open. She was already on the sidewalk.
 
“Hey,” I called out from the doorway. “Everything okay?”
 
“It’s fine!” She called back. She kept her feet planted, and swayed from the hips, her palms tuned out with her shoulders in a half shrug and said, “It’s perfect.”
 
“Well suit yourself,” I said. “My air mattress is gonna feel cold.”
 
“I think you can handle it,” She smiled and swayed.
 
“You kidding?” I flexed my right arm and grabbed it with my left hand. “I can handle anything.”
 
“Goodnight, big man.” She waved and I did too.
 
I went back to my porch to get my beer and remembered my game, my incredible game where I was one dart away from closing out 150 points with three bulls, an exhilarating prospect.
 
My first dart found the bull without any aim at all – fate, chance, or muscle memory had simply placed the dart there. I’d hit the bull with my second dart using precise aim, but the conundrum presented by the chasm between the two approaches paralyzed me. Caught between knowing exactly what I needed and being unsure of how to get it, I tried to block out the indecision and cock my arm, but a sudden gust of wind made me reconsider.
 
I brought the board inside where the air was still, but the silence distracted me. I put the board, with the two darts still sticking out of the bullseye like pins in a cushion on the couch and sent Beth a text.
 
Really should’ve stayed, I wrote, roommates are gone – we could’ve watched trashy tv with the sound waaaaay up.
 
I threw my lip out in the toilet and rinsed out my mouth with Jim Beam. My unfinished game mocked me from the couch when I plopped down next to it, but I ignored it – out of fear of failure or rising drunkenness I don’t know – and turned on the television. The World Cup was on that year, and was a reliable source of entertainment at almost any hour of the day.
 
Beth hadn’t answered, which was out of the ordinary, but I told myself I wouldn’t let it bother me. I took long pulls from the bottle of whiskey and thought about the road trip I’d be taking in two weeks back to Virginia and a community college just outside DC. I thought about the little basement apartment in my aunt’s house, and wondered if I’d manage to keep my GPA high enough to earn me a transfer to a real, four-year college. I felt my whole life like I was waiting to be discovered, for some powerful man to hand me the keys to the world and say, “We’ve been waiting for you,” and every day that passed without that happening made my sense of self more panicked. The distance between who I had wanted to be and who I was terrified and shamed me to the point that I could only contemplate it with the help of whiskey and solitude. I thought that maybe that was the attraction between Beth and me – the recognition of another misfit, sure, but it was deeper, because it wasn’t that we didn’t fit in society so much as it was we didn’t fit with our own perceptions of who we were supposed to be. I was supposed to be smart and on my way to success and Beth, I guess, was supposed to be dead. I sailed my dingy timidly in a sea of mediocrity, and Beth’s heart indignantly beat.
 
A gust of wind slammed open the porch door in the morning and woke me up. The bottle of Jim Beam was empty on the floor and my mouth tasted like vomit. I peeled myself off the couch and smiled down at the dartboard sitting next to me. Though unfinished, I was still proud of the previous night’s game. I stood, stretched and crossed the room to close the door. Through strained hungover eyes I looked out to the horizon and screamed. There, over the mountains, I saw three balloons catching the rising sun, beautiful bursts of color in the crystal blue sky that mocked me. I’d overslept and was at least two hours late for work.
 
I ran back inside, falling over myself while I put on my boots, and checked my phone. Ten missed calls from Victor, the crew chief, and a handful of angry voicemails I wouldn’t listen to until later. That much I had expected, but I remembered the message I’d sent Beth the night before and cursed when I saw she hadn’t responded. I wasn’t one to get upset about that kind of thing, but nothing about that morning felt right, and I decided to call her. When it went straight to voicemail I felt the air leave my lungs, something inside me feared the worst, but I was still late for work.
 
“Vic! Vic!” I screamed into the phone while my Landcruiser tore down dirt roads towards the launch site. My right boot, still untied, mashed the gas pedal to the floor.
 
“You messed up,” Victor chuckled on the other end. “They took off thirty minutes ago, you’re uncle’s not – ”
 
“Vic, listen to me,” I said.
 
“Don’t freak out now,” he laughed through a mouthful of tobacco.
 
“Beth,” I said. “Did we load any passengers named Beth?”
 
“Who the fuck is Beth?”
 
I hung up the phone and kept driving.
 
Turned out she wasn’t on any of the balloons that morning, but I still don’t know what ever happened to her. I had the embarrassing realization later that day that I didn’t even know where she lived; she’d always just come to my place. People at the library told me when I asked after her that she had quit the job weeks before. She knew the whole time that was our last night together, I see that now, but I’ll never see just why things had to happen that way. Maybe she didn’t want to spend any more time with a guy whose star shone as dull as mine, but I like to think that she saw things in me that made life seem okay, and that scared her. If that’s the case, she must still think of me sometimes, when she sees the beat up dartboards that hang in the bar of whatever town she ran off to, because if Beth was dead I would know it, and so would the world.

 



John Marshall is a content writer and startup marketer living in Pittsburgh, PA. This is his first piece of published fiction. He tweets at @marshallvariety.