Dick thought it was the perfect way to fly.
He needed a custom-made basket, of course — but Mexican basket weavers were readily available, so that was no problem. He ordered a snappy green willow model, oblong, to suit his four legs and the wide hips he’d inherited from his mother.
The salesman assured him that the green willow was both fashionable and fire-resistant. It came with a DBPF of 90, so it wouldn’t burn, as long as it wasn’t subjected to dragon’s breath for more than 90 minutes.
Which was good, since Dick was a dragon.
The balloon came all the way from China, hand-stitched by tiny children with tiny hands on a tiny silkworm farm. The salesman was very careful to explain that it was, in fact, a farm, and not a factory. He assured Dick that the little seamstress girls were locally sourced, and that they were taught to read and spell and count as they stitched, and that they were fed well and had regular 15-minute breaks, morning and night, to play outside.
Dick didn’t particularly care about that. He was a dragon, after all, and he knew that if those tiny children ever had the bad fortune to cross his path, all their tiny stitches and tiny spelling and tiny mathematical abilities would be meaningless, because they would be in his belly.
Dick just nodded and wrote a check.
The day the hot air balloon finally arrived, along with the green willow basket, was the happiest day of Dick’s life.
“Let’s fire it up and go for a spin!” the salesman exclaimed, because salesmen always exclaim everything. It’s how they close the deal.
Dick lumbered into the basket. One side was cut low to accommodate his dragon physiology. The salesman followed him in and latched a safety rope across the opening.
He showed Dick where to blow to inflate the balloon. Ironically, it was basically the same process Dick had been using to start his car for the last three months, ever since the DUI. Dragon Under the Influence. It was such a crock, that charge, kind of like Driving While Black, because there’s no way Dick could stop being a dragon just to please the police. Seriously. And all the methane on his breath? That was a byproduct of a dragon’s natural fermenting gas bladder, not a sign of intoxication.
Still, with the right nutrition, Dick had been able to find a car with a breathalyzer ignition that he could manipulate just enough to get to work and back.
But now that he had a hot-air balloon, the sky was literally the limit. Dick could fly to work, and the beach, and the roller-skating rink, whenever he wanted, under his own power — and without reporting to his parole officer, or his insurance agent, or the traffic cops that he knew had been stalking him during rush hour.
Now that Dick had a hot-air balloon, he was as free as a bird.
The red balloon inflated beautifully. The little Chinese girls had incorporated a stunning, large-scale rendition of Dick’s own personal logo on the side, and it looked impressive as it filled out and wrapped around the balloon. Dick had sketched the design himself; it was a cross between the tattoo on Mike Tyson’s face and the male-female astrological glyph favored by the artist formerly known as Prince.
Dick looked at it and remembered how much he liked the song Purple Rain.
It really took no more than three brief puffs of dragon’s breath for the balloon to reach its full height, and the basket began to lift off the ground, like a swan ascending from a cool blue lagoon into the celestial vault of heaven.
Dick looked down at the ground and remembered how much he liked Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins in “Blue Lagoon.” Already this balloon was proving to be worth every penny he’d paid for it, if only for the happy memories it stirred up from his subconscious.
“Here,” the salesman said, interrupting Dick’s reverie. “To steer, you just look at the clouds and adjust your altitude. Add a little hot air to reach that bank of clouds up there.”
Dick complied — Puff! — and the balloon magically rose and began to move east.
“Give the balloon a minute to cool down,” the salesman said, “and you’ll sink a bit and move south.”
Dick was already getting the hang of it.
He decided to go even higher. The salesman looked a little alarmed.
“You know, the air is a lot thinner up here, so it’s harder to breathe.”
“Not for me,” Dick laughed, and he sent the balloon soaring far, far above the clouds, into a brilliant blue sky.
The salesman, who was a good 50 pounds overweight, began to perspire. He sat down on the floor of the green willow basket and closed his eyes, struggling for breath.
Dick blew more hot air into the balloon.
The salesman passed out.
Dick didn’t care. He was loving his newfound freedom. His heart was soaring even higher than the balloon.
But as they rose, ever higher, ever faster, toward a bright and unforgiving sun, the tiny stitches on the left side of Dick’s personal crest began to unravel.
He could hear them giving way, making the tiniest pin-pricking sound. Pop. Pop. Pop.
Try as he might, he couldn’t keep the balloon inflated, even with multiple breaths.
The balloon collapsed all around the basket, covering Dick and the dead salesman like the crust of a fallen souffle.
They began to plummet toward earth.
Dick roared and reared his head back and shook the silk fabric free from his shoulders.
That’s when he remembered he had wings.
So, all in all, not a bad day.