where the writers are
The Kroger Chronicles, No. 10: Lighter than air
Imagine this, loose on the ceiling, looking over all.

At least once a week, a man or woman comes into the floral department, eyes burning with that blue flame of fear: kid’s birthday party in an hour with 12 friends, got the cake, candles, streamers, but no balloons, can’t have a party without balloons, been searching everywhere, Party City, Party Town, Party Subdivision, no luck, and so, (merciful God), “Do you have any helium?”

The world suffers from a commercial shortage in the second-most abundant element in the observable universe. The United States has been dumping the Bush Dome Federal Helium Reserve since 1996, glutting the market, depressing the price and dissuading gas drillers from capturing helium. Scientists say posterity will curse the waste of this precious resource on party balloons.

With its purchasing muscle, Kroger not only has helium, it runs a fun little monopoly on helium. In the department, we watch the tank gauge closely, but we’ve never run out, and we still give away Kroger balloons to little ones, who usually set them free later in the rafters over the dairy case. Deep in the Ohio winter, I remind buyers that they will experience science when they take the balloons outside, and they shrink in the cold.

People do not flinch at $1.50 for one 11-inch latex balloon and $2.99 (to start) for foil balloons; they buy them by the dozen for a child’s party and a business opening and an open house, a 5K race, a high school dance, a sales meeting. They take them to the cemetery and release them. Last night, a father held his daughter, four months old, as he bought a heart-shaped “It’s a Girl” balloon. I blew it up, and she watched it dance on air, smiing that smile without price.

Addendum, The Juggernaut: In total sales, the floral department ended last week 12th of the 115 Krogers in the area. My personal reward was to pull a muscle in my back, which has put an amusing hitch in my git-along. To prepare last night for the arrival of a truck, I cleared out the last of the Valentine’s Day roses, and I got stuck by a thorn. Which was a happy thing.