That Long Evening on Our Balcony

by Nathan Long

Gabriella and I were throwing words off our balcony, watching them spin like maple seedlings or drop like unopened cans of beans, then split apart on the sidewalk. Sometimes a letter separated in midair turning ‘mugs’ into ‘mug’, the s floating freely by itself until it caught on the front side of the word, changing it into ‘smug’ a split second before it landed on the ground and shattered into gibberish.

Two little girls were playing hopscotch nearby and we threw them ‘daffodils’ and ‘candies’. To the man who spit on our hedge, we dropped ‘ink’. The three letters soaked into his hat, and he looked up bewildered.

“I’m no kin of yours,” he said, and we giggled, as we watched the liquid stain his hair. The poor man must have been dyslexic.

Gabriella and I drank gin and tea, a concoction her grandmother passed on to her, her secret recipe for surviving the long hours of afternoon bridge parties. Her grandmother would always bring a flask of gin mixed with a milk which would not curdle no matter what the proof, and claim it was her special creamer.

Here today, we use lowfat milk and only a drab of gin, but it takes to us. We pour ourselves another cup and salute Gabriella’s grandmother, then drop ‘cream’ over our balcony rail and watch the white letters of the word spill over the grasses.

Next, I throw over the word ‘rupture,’ and we laugh as we watch it do just that against the concrete.

The sun slips behind clouds, then buildings, then the immense curvature of the Earth, and all is orange and warm, as if only now to reveal that the sun is truly made of fire. I look at Gabriella and see her nose and cheeks glowing crimson and wonder if it is the sunlight or the tea that makes her shine.

She stands and laughs aloud. Then, without letting me see it, she tosses a word over the balcony she has had hidden in the pocket of her house dress.

“What was it? What was it?” I yell, bending over the rail to read the twirling thing. I should be able to make it out, for as it falls it grows larger and larger, longer and longer, but I can’t. By miracle, before the word lands, it straightens out for a moment, and I manage to read it: “Century” it says, then splinters into a hundred pieces.

“We’ve lost a whole century,” I cry and look up at Gabriella, only to see that she has grown quite old. The tea pot and cups are empty. The flask is dry. Then I feel it in my own bones, a wrinkled, crippling force, like gravity exponentialized.

Gabriella begins to shiver. The sun light is all but gone.

“Come on,” I say to her, “it’s time to go inside.”

Nathan Alling Long has stories and essays published in forty anthologies and literary journals, including Tin House, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, The Sun, and Indiana Review. His work has appeared on NPR and has won him a Truman Capote Fellowship, a Mellon Foundation Fellowship, and a Pushcart nomination. He lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Richard Stockton College of NJ. More information can be found at http://wp.stockton.edu/longn/.

What do words mean to you? What do you see as their power? A word’s meaning, besides its denotation and connotation—the difference between ‘caviar’ and ‘fish eggs’—is shaped, it seems, by our personal experiences. ‘Dog’ feels drastically different, depending on whether you were just bitten by one, hope to be rescued by one, plan on eating one, or just lost the one you cared for for years. Beyond that though, I think we have personal relationship to words that have nothing to do with literal meaning. I savor the way ‘murmur’ rumbles in my mouth, I have a sense of pride at finally being able to properly pronounce the words ‘linoleum’ and ‘litigious’, and I draw anxious around ‘eschew’ and ‘officious,’ both of which I learned during volatile arguments years ago. But these feelings about certain words must shape their meaning as well.

About power: What first comes to mind is that story of two men walking down the street holding hands. A car drives by and the passenger shouts out “Faggots!” to which the men respond, “Really? So are we.” The story always reminds me that the most powerful words can still be altered, redirected—or in post-modern parlance, reclaimed. It reminds me that, ultimately, we can refuse(or maybe the better word is ‘defuse’ ) any emotional message offered to us. Lastly, the story reminds me that perhaps the most powerful force conducted through words is humor. A good pun or play on words disorients us momentarily, reminds us that the language we take so seriously is a made up system, not completely anchored to the real word. Maybe this is the real power of words—that they can mean so much and simultaneously mean nothing.

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