by Ron Gibson, Jr.
‘Men were made to fly,’ my father once told me, reciting what his father had taught him as a boy. ‘Don’t pay any mind to eggheads that say you need hollow bones, overly-developed chest muscles and feathers. That’s nonsense. Those are men that clutch to their mother’s skirts and piss their beds at night. Those are the types that’ll pony up any excuse to never leave their feet. Those types stay married to gravity, while us flying men are free, attached to nothing.’
All that day my father wore a flame-retardant, white jump suit with matching helmet. I waited for my mother to ask why, but every time I looked at her from the backseat she had her face down in her phone. So I asked.
‘I’m an Indy race car driver today, sport,’ was all my father said, none of his words penetrating my mother’s attention.
Miles and miles of newly sprouting fields streamed through the windows as he drove. It was early spring. Clouds built and spilled, dragging veiled curtains across horizons. I conducted raindrop races in my head and bet on the outcomes, only to start another and then another.
‘We better not lose coverage out here,’ my mother said.
‘We won’t. It’s not 1999 for god’s sake.’
My father once told me my grandfather jumped out of airplanes into enemy territory during World War Two. Then, after the Big One ended, my grandfather had said he realized the entire world was one silent war that never ended. That not everyone recognized its casualties. That not everyone could see just how broken people were inside.
‘We’re here, sport,’ my father said, turning down a gravel road, before skidding to a stop in front of a dilapidated farm house.
‘This is where your grandfather grew up.’
My father and I got out, but my mother stayed. She said she would catch up later.
The rain had stopped and the air smelled fresh. Early daffodils lined the drive toward the front doorstep, and I pulled one and held onto it.
‘This house was built over a hundred years ago,’ my father said as he pushed in the weatherworn door that was barely hinged.
He reached down, held my hand and together we stepped into the darkness. The dark smelled weird, and we both waited in silence for our eyes to adjust. When they finally did, we walked about, kicking at debris and rot, having a look around.
Having heard some floorboards creak, my father reassured me, ‘Don’t worry. This house won’t fall down on us. They built houses to stand forever back then.’
Together we made our way to the back of the house, into a tiny room, with an unexposed window allowing in light. My father took off his racing helmet and said, ‘I think this was my father’s room growing up… Your grandfather’s room. It’s hard to remember all these years later. He only brought me here once.’
We looked out the window and my father pointed to a tree, ‘Yes, that’s the tree your grandfather said he used to pole vault over for fun when first learning to fly as a boy. Look how tall it is, now!’
‘And that’s the barn door where he nailed a makeshift bucket lid for a basketball hoop and sliced his finger open on as a boy. At dinner he would sometimes hold out his index finger so I could see the divot still left in it. He said scars never went away.’
My father paused and turned toward the wall, sniffing, his shoulders shaking for a moment. He cleared his throat and wiped his nose, ‘Damn dust. Allergic, you know…’
Outside the dirty window, starlings leapt, flew and settled from branch to budding branch. More rain clouds built in elevation and shifted on the horizon.
‘Dad… Are you leaving?’
My father’s posture stiffened and deflated as if I had shot him.
‘… Remember when you collected caterpillars, and they all looked the same?’
I nodded, not sure why he asked.
‘That was your mother and I. Once we were similar… But remember what happened after your caterpillars spun cocoons?’
I thought. ‘Some became moths and some became butterflies.’
‘Exactly, bud. I don’t know if your mom is the moth or if I’m the butterfly, but we’ve come to realize we’ve always been different. We were just too blind with youth to see it.’
I didn’t know what to say, so I dropped the daffodil on the floor and kept staring until everything in the room was swimming.
My father stared out the window in silence, then resumed in a hollow, resigned way, ‘You’re going to stay with your mother. She thinks it’s best for right now. And I’m too tired to argue with her.’
He stopped himself and turned back toward me.
‘Your mom has been distracted, lately. I know you know. Don’t hold it against her. She’ll be back to normal again once I’m gone. You’ll see.’
He stepped toward me, reached out and softly held my wet face with the flat of his large palm against his upper thigh. The jump suit was a little rough, even though it appeared silky.
‘I want to go, too.’
He crouched down and kissed me. It was awkward, because he never kissed me. ‘I know. And you will. You will always be with me.”
My father’s face turned old and ugly fast, tears escaping tortured canyons. And in that instant it was as if he could see himself through my eyes, because he stood back up, cleared his throat and began to put his helmet on in a businesslike fashion, carefully fastening the chin strap.
He looked at me, his helmet shield flipped up, composed, as if now fully in character, as if having completely abandoned the man I had known as my father, and said, ‘Take care of your mother and don’t forget anything I taught you about flying. Follow the sun. It’s the only thing a flying man is attached to… Except Icarus.’
My grandfather used to tell him that, but my father did not laugh like my grandfather had.
Standing in the bedroom doorway, without turning around, my father’s parting words were, “Stay here and look out the window. Watch the barn opening, just past the tree. Afterward, go back to your mother in the car.’
And then I was alone.
Instead of disobeying and running after, I listened to his fading footsteps before rushing to the dirty window. My face was close to the pane. I could smell mildew. Everything quiet. My breathing the only sound. One breath followed by another. A ghost formed and vanished, formed, vanished.
Then there was my father, pinning back the barn doors, exposing its darkness like a mouthful of rotten teeth. He headed inside and pushed out what appeared to be the cylindrical nozzle of a monstrous firehose into the light. Rain began to tick and streak the window. The gray light darkened, transforming the scene into a 1920s newsreel. My father looked back and gave a theatrical wave as if I were an audience of thousands, as if he had practiced this moment all his life, followed by a jaunty jog back into the darkness.
Again, no sound. No movement. A ghost. Forming, vanishing. Forming, vanishing. Forming…
A terrifying explosion ripped from the barn. The glass pane rattled before me, threatening to shatter. Starlings erupted in all directions, feathered shrapnel disappearing in the ghostly cloudbank forming from the unexpected gut punch. My heart tumbled, lost, in orbital decay. But then, from the fire and smoke, a white bullet ascended into the rainy skies, over the second barn, past the crooked spines of fence posts guarding rusted, barbed-wire boundaries, over the rutted dirt road, past the creek my grandfather pulled bullheads out of on fishing pole as a child. My heart righted itself, soaring right alongside my father. Together, through my vanishing cloudbank, we defied gravity, flying men, attached to nothing, free. This is what my heart continued to see, even as my eyes tracked the beautiful loss of altitude, the flawless swan dive, arms outstretched like wings, descending back into the cradle of the grasslands, his father’s large hands lifting him past the orbiting stars of his baby mobile back into sleep.
Ron Gibson, Jr. has previously appeared in Noble / Gas Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, Maudlin House, The Vignette Review, Ghost City Review, Cease Cows, Spelk Fiction, Ink in Thirds, Gravel Magazine, etc. @sirabsurd