The Pilot watched me through his binoculars, because he watched all of us. Standing in the basket of his hot-air balloon, like the ten other hot-air balloons hovering over different parts of the city.
I imagined his goggles looking out over the city, doubling it. The mechanical lenses whirring, assessing, spotted from the rain hitting the water way down here in the gutters. Down by my feet.
The balloons had tethers to their fenced landings where their replacements slept in bunkers made of shipping containers. In case their fences were breached, in case we in the city tried to cut loose a balloon or climb up to the basket, the tether was guarded by the fiercest of monkeys. Our monkey was black and brown with a red tuft on its middle brow. The monkey read its order from the Pilot’s sign language. It crooked its dark fingers in shapes back. The monkey hung, and leapt, and climbed its thumblike toes up the tether. It rained down its shit on the bunker’s roof. It chittered and laughed at I didn’t know what. We called the monkeys monos. Sometimes the teenagers called them mononucleosis because they were fierce but funny to have.
I was coming from the Veteran’s house, sweaty in the cool rainy air. The Veteran was a local hood for a long time. That’s why we called him the Veteran. He’d given me another hickey while we were having sex me on top, and it stung on my collarbone. I think he liked to mark his territory. I hoped it would make the Jeweler jealous. The Jeweler lived off Hunsaker and Alondra, not far from the riverbed. He was not that old but he had crazy ideas and crazy white hair, so we sometimes called him the Genius, but mainly just the Jeweler. The riverbed had been so long ago built upon and down into, when the droughts got their worst, that really it was our city now. But we didn’t call it the city. We still called the old city the city. That was where the pilots and the officers lived. And we still called the riverbed the riverbed.
I tucked my t-shirt into the sweaty back of my pants and when I tucked it into the front I could smell me and the Veteran laced in the dank air from the gutters. The gutters had rings in them from the rain. From the rain, the riverbed would be rushing. The mountain lions that had long since left the mountains would be drinking with their whiskers in the brown water. The gangplank through the riverbed town ran to the Jeweler’s apartment at its top. Maybe I had wanted the Veteran to give me the hickey. Perhaps I wanted the Jeweler to see it. I walked through an old ranch and petted a shaggy skinny horse swatting the raindrops on its ass with its tail. At the edge of the riverbed, I crossed the gangplank.
Stacked on pilings and older apartments that had crumbled into the riverbed, the apartments were not hard to navigate. They shared a central corridor of apartments whose windows faced each other. The gangplanks between them had been fastened with thick nails and bolts, and with plastic ties too. On the water, some of the boats, old cars repurposed with steel bottoms, tires tied to their sides now like bumpers instead of to drive on, they drove-floated I didn’t know what they called it. They were the dockworkers. So many of the men were the dockworkers. This river led straight to the port. Someone had to work the docks where things were sold and bought. The pilots weren’t going to do it from their balloons and their officers’ zeppelins.
Other than on the gangplanks, outside, the pilots could not see us from their hot-air balloons. They rarely broke in anymore. They only raided when they were certain someone should be punished. How they were ever certain, I didn’t know. There were rumors of spies. In our own midst. I didn’t know who. How could I know who? In our midst. The men didn’t talk to us girls. The women said the men didn’t talk to them either.
On my way to the Jeweler’s I saw the men coming home from work. They brought their boat-cars’ noses up to tires on the docks. They went inside the scaffolded buildings with their roofed bridges. It was easiest to get from one part to the other from inside, short-cut passages. We shared them so the pilots wouldn’t see the blind men instructing the ones with sight what colors to include on their palette. I passed a young man with amputated arms telling a young girl where to fret her guitar for a C. When a pilot burst into a hallway and took hold of the old man teaching the girl to sing scales, I knew he would lose his tongue. He didn’t say anything when he got dragged out by the collar. I wouldn’t say anything either. If it were me. But it would never be me because I’m a girl. Anyway, it’s too much pressure—last words.
I met the Jeweler at his place and before he had me undressed he had a jeweler’s magnifier in his hand. I still had on my bra. It was a pretty bra. He didn’t even look at it. He took the magnifying glass to the hickey on my collarbone. Interesting, he said. I asked, What? Nothing, he said. He crawled under the blanket and I kicked my jeans down and felt him testing the air with his tongue. And then, Ow, I said. What the fuck are you doing down there? He popped his glossy nosed face out from under the blanket and smiled his teeth at me. They were shiny and weird. Like he had in his teeth a very thin layer of plastic. He said, I guess I got excited. He probably wanted to mark his territory too, just like the Veteran. They all liked to do that, it seemed.
I got to work at the officers’ zeppelin like most of the young girls get to at some point. Only the girls and women were allowed to work there. Only the girls and women were allowed to do what we do. That’s why the opera singer lost his tongue. That’s what I’m saying. The pilots are strict on that point. While I was performing, playing a guitar and singing a song, one of the pilots asked for a private show. He didn’t respond the way they usually do. Usually I do a private show, a dance, a song, a painting or sketch, and the pilots smile or clap or carry on. This pilot brought his fist to his lips, his knuckles bruised and cracked from the hours spent clutching the edge of his hot-air balloon’s basket in the sun, and wiped tears from his eyes. He stood, adjusted his high collar, and brought lots of money from his wallet. Here, he said. I knew he meant don’t mention it to anyone. I wouldn’t mention it to anyone. Not that time or the times he returned after that. I hadn’t seen a man cry too often. The Jeweler didn’t cry. Neither did the Veteran.
One night at the dancehall as usual it was just us girls. Just us girls at the dance hall. One friend was drinking a beer. Another was drinking water because she was pregnant. She didn’t know if it would be a boy or girl. She hoped it would be a girl. We danced. The DJ wore a baggy t-shirt. Her hair was colored pretty, but she didn’t brush it. It was tangled. If I had her pretty hair I would brush mine. Mine is thin so I keep it bunched on my head. My Pilot, the one who cried, he called it a crown of hair. I liked that. I bit my lip. A crown of hair. My friend with the beer asked me, Where’d you go just then? I said, Why aren’t either of my boyfriend’s jealous? On the one hand, they’re always giving me these marks, like, you know… But then they’re both just cool with it. I’ll tell you one thing. They’re not going to ruin my pictures at my sister’s wedding with no more marks on my neck.
The friend with the water, she told me both men loved me, but they just didn’t have heart. She told me they were too passionate about revolution to have heart. I said, Yeah. Well. She said those eyes in the sky aren’t ever closing. She said the men should be used to it by now. My other friend, the pregnant one with water, said, Not here. I said, If not here, where? The friend with the beer said, They talk and talk and they don’t do shit. Either man up, or stop complaining, right? The friend with the water took a drink, smacked her lips, and said, She’s drunk. I asked, What does she mean, they talk and talk? The friend with the water said, She’s just drunk.
She was right. She was drunk. Holding her hair over the toilet in the bar bathroom, I asked, What was all that you meant back there? About the men talking? She wretched. I said, Come on. She said, You don’t think it’s just the art they use us for, do you? I said, What do you mean by that? She was drunk. She didn’t know what she meant.
What are you doing in there, baby? he called. Come back to bed. I called back to him that I was taking a shower. I wasn’t, but I cranked the shower for its metered out portion for the day. He would be furious if he knew I used his water and hadn’t really taken a shower. He asked me, Did you really need a shower? I said, I’m on the pot now, okay? Well, he said, Are you coming out soon? I used my girly voice, the one men like: She’s sore tonight. He said, Okay. I’m going to bed then. I didn’t use my girly voice when I said, Jesus. Fine then.
I didn’t really care. In the mirror, I saw the mark on my neck. I turned and tiptoed and saw one on my backside. I raised the meat of me with two fingers. The mark was big and dark. Fuckers.
One day I found the Jeweler’s glass in a cabinet, next to the jewels he sold to officers for their wives. I found chains. I found tools to make delicate carvings. I found a drawer with mouthpieces in it. Shiny, thin, mouthpieces. I studied them in the light of the desklamp. They were etched, with emptinesses in them. I read the emptinesses. I heard the Jeweler rousing in bed and put everything back. I shut drawers. I shut the cabinet. I put back everything but the Jeweler’s magnifying glass. That, I took back into the bathroom, and closed the door, and stood in front of the mirror, with the magnifier raised to my eye to peer at my neck. I used a compact to reflect the image. I had been able to read emptinesses in the mouthpieces. I was able to read somethings on my skin. They spelled out the names of locations I knew along the highways. Intersections.
The first time, I watched through the diamond-shaped eye of a chain-link fence and saw a group of the dockworkers bringing a man to another group of dockworkers. I couldn’t recognize any of the men. I did recognize the uniform on the man they all gathered around. He wore a pilot’s uniform. They killed him with a gun. He was kneeling, then he was on his side. Then there was sawing. Then there was prying, and burning. After, I crawled closer. I saw the two gunshots through the eyes. The chopped hands. The burnt off ears. The fileted lips. It was hard to see that. I sat in my bed hugging my knees, and asked my mama for tea but when she brought the tea I didn’t even want tea.
They started giving us more hours at the zeppelin after that. After that, the officers were stressed. When the officers are stressed they need the girls to perform more. From the zeppelin, the city looks pretty. I can understand why the officers stay in the zeppelin.
After so many performances I am always exhausted. I was rushing home alone after doing a double shift and picking up the dress for my sister’s wedding rehearsal. I was humming to myself one of the songs I performed. Then I heard the sputtering. A pilot above me was tugging on a chain, which lit his goggles up reflecting flames. A monkey climbed up the hot-air balloon’s tether, following the pilot’s sign language commands. The monkey was nearly to the basket when it was thrown free, and made cart wheels until it crashed dead at my feet. I ran a block away. A mountain lion pounced on the monkey, pawed it, sniffed it. The mountain lion didn’t eat the monkey. It went away. And then the balloon’s basket crashed, the pilot’s body folding over its edge. The balloon deflated. I almost ran away then, but instead I ran to the pilot. He was groaning. I waded through the flattened balloon and lifted his head. His face was scratched. His goggles were cracked. I could hear them whirring. It was my Pilot. He said, You. I. Don’t—. He was dazed. I could already hear the doors slamming shut behind the men in the shacks and corridors and apartments. They would do to my Pilot what I’d seen them do to the other. I told the Pilot, We need to hide you. His goggles beeped when he looked around the neighborhood. They’re coming, he said. I’m okay. I can move fine. I said, You’ll come with me. But you’ll have to take out, you know. He told me he wouldn’t be able to see. I told him that was okay.
I took him to the wedding rehearsal. It was in our backyard. Instead of a DJ there was a band of men and women. A one armed man played the xylophone with two mallets between his fingers. A woman sang. A man played the guitar, set flat on the floor, with his feet. Another woman played the drums, and a deaf man played the bass with it held tight against his chest. It was crowded around the table where the food from the bbq was laid out. There was corn, and carne asada, and pollo asada. Beans. Rice. There was everything. I dressed him in some pants and shirts my dad had. They looked too tight but I still told people he was my boyfriend. The music was loud and good. Him and I danced, me and the Pilot. I liked the way he held me. Tight, and maybe it was because he was blind now but whatever. I liked it. I could tell he liked it too. We danced so much he got tired and more sore where he’d been hurt in the crash. There were so many people that the only seat he could find was on the cooler. I brought him a beer and brushed his shaggy hair out of those dark hollow sockets. Then the Veteran showed up, and it was like everyone stopped dancing at once. He grabbed my elbow. Who the fuck is this? he asked. I was red in the face. But it wasn’t because I was embarrassed. I was excited. The Veteran was furious, but stupid. My Pilot was smiling, but it couldn’t last. I sent the Veteran away and me and my Pilot danced more. Of course there was a tarp over the backyard, so the other pilots couldn’t see us dancing. But we danced.
I like to imagine that my Pilot taught me his sign language, strumming the tips of his fingers in the palm of my hand. I wish I could say that I made signs with my hands and monkeys scurried, untied ropes, and signed to me, Goodbye. I want to pretend that all ten other pilots floated their hot-air balloons away, because I once danced to music played by men and women together with nothing coming between them. But that’s a wild story and I’m trying to be real.