What better way to deal with the absurdity and certainty of mortality than to cry and laugh with your best friends? Here is an exclusive excerpt from the novel Laughing in the Dark by Susan Swartz:
As Franny drove north on the freeway, she saw three hot air balloons suspended in the late summer sky, their circus colors playing against the brown hills. She waved and shouted out, “Hello, up there.” How delicious to float high above your everyday world. But then, of course, you could fall out of the balloon’s basket. Or what if you decided to jump?
She raked her hand through her chopped red hair and took a big breath. Franny was terrified of high places. She’d peered inside the basket of a hot air balloon that was sitting on the ground at a fair, thinking that maybe if the basket came up high enough on her chest she might give it a try. She could always crouch down and peek over the edge. Maybe if she were with someone who would hold her in his strong, hairy arms she could stand up straight and bravely look out and ooh and aah. But there weren’t any strong hairy prospects. Besides, she knew the real dread was that rather than accidentally tumbling out of the balloon’s basket she might feel moved to leap out.
It was a spooky notion but she’d tried it out on others she knew who were afraid of high places and they agreed. The fear was not so much that you would clumsily trip when you got to the rim of the Grand Canyon or that you would suddenly blow a tire on the cliff side of Big Sur. Those would be accidents. The fear was that you’d have this compulsion to take a header.
Just thinking about it now made her hands start to sweat, but her mind kept going on. If she knew her life was going to soon be over, say if she had some unfixable disease but not so bad that she couldn’t still get in and out of a balloon basket, maybe then she might book herself a ride. Then, if she ended up taking a swan dive over the Russian River, she could tell herself on the way down that she was going to die anyway and hers would make an interesting obituary. One way to get her name in print.
“Oh, shut up, Franny,” she told herself, turning up the radio, and looking at her frowning face in the rearview mirror. She should be thinking happy thoughts. Her horoscope was working and she had three days off with her best friends. They would be sleeping on solid ground. She’d be as close to the earth as possible.
The morning was already warm and she could see last night’s lopsided moon fading in the western sky. Another good omen. Tonight, if the fog stayed away, there would be a full moon over their tent. Easier to see when you got up in the middle of the night to pee and worried about stepping on soft, wiggling creatures.
She turned off the freeway and into the Dry Creek Valley, onto a winding road that would take her up into the hills and then down to Lake Sonoma. These fields, once decorated with prune orchards, were now mostly all grape vines. A glamorous upgrade for the region leading to its growing fame as Wine Country. New vineyards seemed to be filling every bare spot of the valley, but the plain hills that stood behind them were constant. Summer hills, dry as toast. No, no, how about cracked and gnarly as a baked potato.
Franny liked to challenge her writing students to come up with a metaphor for the changing Sonoma landscape with each season. “Soft and round like a teddy bear’s belly,” a back-to-school middle-aged mother had come up with to describe the summer hills, challenged last semester by a skinny big-eyed punk, who had shown little promise until writing, “Scruffy and tobacco-colored like a sweater from the Goodwill.”
Tobacco in the summer and Irish green in the winter, the Sonoma hills were round and full, like a large-flanked woman lying on her side. That was Franny’s personal favorite. Mature and female, like us, Franny thought and smiled. An astrologer friend claimed that from a certain vantage point looking down on its hills and valleys, the terrain of Sonoma County formed the shape of a uterus. If Franny ever got up in a balloon she would check to see if the astrologer was having a feminist fantasy or actually knew what she was talking about.
Suddenly there was the turnoff to Lake Sonoma and the marina. On weekends there would be a line of RVs to wait behind but today, in the middle of the week, Franny saw a straight shot down the last hill to the teal-colored water, glistening and waiting. The marina was lined with moored boats but all was quiet on the lake. And no sign of Jude’s red Honda in the parking lot. This was surprising. Jude, who Franny thought looked like the brainy writer Margaret Atwood, with her intense eyes and frizzy grey hair, was always the first to arrive whenever they met. It seemed to be a point of pride with Jude, her punctuality. She would go on about, “I’m always on time. Can’t stand to be late.”
But, aha, today Franny was first. She drove straight down to the empty dock to unload her gear so she’d be ready when Anna, the other in their threesome, arrived with the boat. She hauled out a cooler, sleeping bag, pillow, two grocery bags and duffel. Jude was bringing her big tent for all of them. Franny laughed at her pile of indulgent excess, dug into her cooler for a diet Coke and ripped open a bag of onion flavored sun chips. Her favorite vacation junk food.