Two Pieces
creative nonfiction by Joanna Grisham

Love Story, a first memory 

The sun burns hot in the early morning, rising over the hills, extinguishing shadows, forcing cattle to crowd the small ponds in the fields surrounding our house. It stretches in white slices across our front lawn, warms the grass, sizzles the patio, reaches bright fingers through the windows, warms my face, wakes me up, alone in my older sister’s bed. I expect the smell of bacon and coffee, the sound of my father mowing the lawn, cartoons on the TV, the rumbling of the washing machine. But the house is quiet, still.

I climb down from the four-post bed, the curtains drawn throughout the house. I wonder if I am dreaming some kind of hell as I search each room. My brother’s bed, empty. My parents have disappeared. My sister has deserted me. There are no kitchen sounds, no Looney Tunes, no small motors running in the background. 

I follow a thin strip of sunlight down the hallway, into the garage, out the door, down the path in the yard that leads to the driveway, toward the shadows where the sun has not yet visited this early. But I never make it to the shadows. I stand alone in a bright spot at the top of the hill, where I learn I’m not in a dream. I see my sister and brother pull at my father, who hunches over my mother, her legs curled to her chest like a little girl. The car door is open – it dings and pings, while birds chirp and sing their Saturday morning songs. Beer spills from a white can, crushed beneath the front tire. My father holds a rock the size of a basketball over my mother’s head, says she has broken his heart, says he will crush her skull. 

I have never thought about my mother’s skull. I know only of black and white cardboard skeletons and sweet candy hearts. I don’t know people are made of bones and organs and blood, and broken bones are the easiest of those to heal. 

My mother hugs her knees, stares at the ground. I wonder what her skull will look like without a smooth, tan face or chestnut hair falling around her shoulders. My father raises the rock, higher and higher. He brings it down hard, stopping just before he crushes her. He cries out, asks her why? My mother never looks up. She never even flinches. My sister spots me, standing on the hilltop, waiting for the bones and blood. She calls my name. My father sees me, drops the rock, and walks away cursing my mother, my siblings, my God. My brother falls to his knees beside my mother. My sister scoops me up, carries me toward the house, where the sun beams high over the rooftop, now, still warming and sizzling and scorching. 

As I’m carried away, I can’t take my eyes off my mother, sitting on the gravel, the sun edging its way toward her, ready to warm her bare arms or burn her alive. 


The Hot Air Balloon 

It was my father who spotted the hot air balloon, or maybe he heard it first, roaring long and loud, bright red ball hovering above our house like a UFO, shadowing the front yard, where our dogs howled. It was headed for the defunct boating lock at the end of our road.

“It’s too windy,” my father said, as my mother and I piled into the car beside him. He was almost giddy with the prospect of seeing the balloon up close. “Bastard must not be from around here or he’d know not to take that thing out today.” He shook his head. “Rich people.”

We waited beside the river and watched the balloon slowly descend onto the same field we crossed to go fishing off the lock’s wall. I followed my father through the tall grass. I don’t remember if my mother followed, too, or if she stayed beside the car, afraid my father would mistake her kindness toward a stranger for flirtation. 

“Hey, buddy,” my father hollered, adjusting his baseball cap. The balloon was impossibly loud. I covered my ears with my hands. “Had to come check it out. We don’t see this kind of shit every day.” My father laughed. The man laughed too and shrugged.

“I didn’t realize it was so windy.” He gestured widely. “I’m new to all this. Just got it a month ago. First time taking it out. I should have told my wife to follow me in the car, huh?”

My father nodded. They introduced themselves. I could tell by the man’s accent that he was indeed not from Tennessee. While they talked, I stood beside my father, running my hand over the balloon’s woven basket, tracing the crosshatching with my fingers, wondering how a basket could be trusted to hold someone so high in the sky without breaking.

“Say, can my kid get in there for a minute?” my father asked. “Would that be alright?”

“Sure!” The man said. 

I didn’t want to get inside the basket; I was terrified. But my father handed me off to the strange man who set me down beside him. I couldn’t see out, could no longer see the sun shining on the river, the trees swaying along the bank. I could only see the cavernous red mouth above me, could only hear the deafening burner with its steady chuuurrrrr, could barely glimpse my father’s head just outside the basket. 

“How old are you?” the man asked.

“Seven.” I held up seven fingers in case he didn’t hear me.

“What do you think?” he asked me. “You want to ride in one of these when you get a little older?”

I stared into the throat of the balloon, fire-filled and angry like some gorgeous dragon waiting to set me afire or suck me into its belly. I shook my head no. The man laughed. 

My father asked a series of questions about how the balloon worked, but the conversation was too technical for me to follow. I worried my father would get distracted, as he sometimes did when gripped by curiosity, and forget to take me back with him. I feared I might billow away, forever floating among the clouds with the strange man in the loud balloon.

“You want to get in, too?” the man asked my father. 

“That’s okay,” he said, almost bashfully. “I just wanted my kid to be able to say she’s been in one. It’s a once in a lifetime deal for people like us.” 

My father lifted me back to the field, and my mother was nearby. She took my hand and led me to the car.

I don’t remember much else about the day. It was Sunday and springtime, close to sunset. It was blue and beautiful and then windy and gray. By evening, I’m sure my father’s breath smelled of vodka and cigarettes. My parents probably argued until one of them retreated to the smoke-filled basement. I must have told the other kids at school about the balloon the next day. I don’t remember any of that though. I’d forgotten the day completely until I saw a picture of a hot air balloon in one of my daughter’s books, and, by then, it was too late to ask my father why he didn’t climb into the basket with me. 

Joanna Grisham (most folx call her Joey) grew up in Tennessee, where she spent a lot of time playing with imaginary friends. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Georgia College. She was named a finalist for the 2021-2022 Very Short Fiction Contest at the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival and a finalist for the 2021 Ember Chasm Review Flash Fiction Contest. Her work has appeared in Gleam, The Emerson Review, On the Run, The Write Launch, Construction Literary Magazine, and other places. Her first chapbook of poems, Phantoms, is forthcoming in 2023 from Finishing Line Press. She lives in Tennessee with her wife and daughter and still spends a lot of time playing make believe.