The night I returned from Las Vegas I had a dream about flying. I woke up from it sad (it was like that). It took me a while to fall back to sleep and while lying there I remembered the dream over and over. The next day I wrote it all down. I tried not to add to it, but dreams are difficult to tell. It feels like they happen all at once, and then your sleeping mind slowly unravels them, editing and embellishing where necessary as it tells the dream to the rest of your mind.
Most people are here to read about flying, but there’s only a little flying in this. As Nell said, “Well, it’s sort of depressing and since it’s a dream it’s not really a short story in the usual sense.” Exactly. But I like having somewhere to paste it in.
December 9 2006
The autumn air is sharp, sneaking in the open window and over the radiator. My chair invades the rectangle of sun allowed by the French doors, their gauze curtains pulled aside. Through my slippers I feel the warmth, the radiant heat of the rays absorbed by the dark fabrics on my feet and legs. This is luxury.
My hands dart in and out of the sun. My knuckles don’t hurt in the morning anymore. That’s luxury too. I bought new knuckles. I flex my hands. Silicon, plastic and stainless steel slide across one another, where my arthritic bones once scraped across one another. You can buy peace from that sort of pain now. My knees are no longer my own, but they don’t wake me in the night, either. I enjoy the sun as it steps slowly along the ribs of the sisal carpet.
My morning muffin is a recent memory, the tart blueberries and crunchy sweet crust over the top. I know lunch will be one of a dozen meals I’ve made it clear I like. This is the comfort that money can buy at the end. They know to let me be alone between breakfast and lunch. No one will disturb my contemplation of the sun’s increasing distance from us, the sharp edge of the shadow across the room and the soft edge of the treetops across the field. Unless.
I hear her laugh first, down the hall, then his calm, smiling voice. I had put this possibility out of mind so that I didn’t spend the day anticipating and hoping. He has the day nurse, Rosio, laughing. She won’t even smile at me, not since she understood my contempt for her religion. Here I am, making friends to the very end. She has those special crepe sole nurse shoes and I can’t hear her walking down the hall, but my son has never been light on his feet and I both feel and hear him coming.
“Hey, Dad, how’re tricks?” even with the sun filling the room, Rudy’s presence is what lights it up. As I try to move my arms the right way to give him a hug he is already enveloping me in his strong arms, leaning down from six feet as Rosio watches from the door. Then she is gone and Rudy is sitting with me, perched on the ottoman. I ask after Paula and the girls. “They’re doing great. Katie and Cynthia are so excited about the holidays that Paula can barely get them out the door to the school bus in the morning.” A little pause. “They missed you at Thanksgiving.”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t. I can’t any more.” I feel my left hand picking at the corduroy of my pants, a rodent I cannot control.
Rudy rubs my other arm and holds my hand for a moment. When did his hand get so large and mine so small? “I know, Dad. And we all miss Mom.” I can’t say anything now, because miss isn’t the right word and I can’t talk for a few moments anyway. It’s been two years and my heart is cleaved, permanently torn and ragged. Each breath fills my lungs with a liquid dread that I am here for one more minute, one more hour without her.
My anger at being abandoned has poisoned the world for me, as I knew it would, and all the Rosio’s of the world suffer the barbs of my dissolution, my discontent with the world. In my youth, before I found my wife, the barbs were sharper with the cynicism of a twenty-something. Now they are rusted with the disgust of someone sixty years older, but I suspect they are no less pleasant. When my grandfather was in his last three years, at about the same age, he lashed out at his private nurses with his cane. I have managed to resist physical violence, but have isolated myself as effectively.
Two years is enough. Now I just want to feel the cool November air mingle with the dry heat of the radiator. I want to hear that the grandchildren are doing well, that they remember their grandmother. I cannot listen to another conversation about the neighbor who let the firewood get wet, or the car dealership that wouldn’t fix the navigation system. Everything is trivial and I want to blot it all out so I can just remember the golden years of my (relative) youth, the days when my love kept pulling me through my days, unhindered by the hypocrisy and horror of most of the world. I need, as my younger son used to say, “my alone time.”
Two beautiful boys, who both found their own happiness and full lives with families of their own. A few buildings, a few movies, a couple of hours of entertainment for the masses, these all seem like enough to have done, enough to have been a part of. I look to the bookshelf, where my younger son looks back from his photograph, his arm around his wife, his own two boys clutching at her skirt with their own versions of his smile.
“Mr. Thacher? That will be fine,” Rosio is at the door, but just as quickly she’s gone. She was talking to my son; for me she would have waited for an acknowledgment. I take a deep breath and try to take a few steps away from the black hole that I slide toward too often now. I’m a little less shaky when I look up.
“I asked them if it was okay if I took you out for a bit, Dad. Would that be okay? Or I can just stay here with you.” I push down on the arms of the chair, leaning comically forward to teeter totter upright. Rudy is behind me with an arm before I am fully standing.
“Let’s get out of here.”
It wasn’t hard to get to the parking lot and into Rudy’s car. He presses a button or two and, sotto voce, makes his wishes known. His left hand cradles a leather stick on his door, and we glide onto the country road outside the home. His right stays on the car seat between us, occasionally, so naturally, finding its way to my shoulder or to pat my own hand.
As the car hums and the fields blur past Rudy tells me news of his brother Dexter. The same news is folded in a letter in my pocket, since Dexter sent it in one of his usual chatty emails. I don’t interrupt, though, because the happy details and only light travails are soothing to hear again. I know the typhoon missed Hong Kong, that the boys’ garden survived the bruising rain, that Dexter and June have planned to return for the New Year and that work is better than he expected. His life runs as smoothly as this car, selecting the perfect line through every curve and absorbing the bumps with exquisitely-tuned suspension, just as I knew it would even when he was seven years old.
We turn off the road and it seems at first like just another field, but I know it is not. Rudy slows as we angle into a gravel lot. The long landing strip is ahead, and a few brightly colored planes squat tied down in the grass nearby. Steering carefully around one of those large-plank, white horse fences, we park just behind the bright yellow tail dragger. N751KC makes me smile, because he named his plane the same way I had named my first plane when he was just nine: the ages and initials of his children when he first bought it. Katie is almost old enough to start lessons now.
He’s out of the car and helping me out my door. I lean heavily on his arm because the dried grass is tall and my new knees do nothing to improve my footing and balance. It’s only a short bit that is treacherous, because closer to the planes they keep the field clipped.
Rudy has already been here this morning; the plane is uncovered and the tie-down ropes are neatly coiled. It’s a gorgeous little craft, a bright yellow Piper Cub. It is a replica of a plane first made way back in 1938. Rudy is smarter than I was and admits that the flying is just for fun. The Cub meanders through the sky at eighty miles per hour. It just carries two people, one in front of the other. As Rudy said the first time he took me up in it, “It’s not going to go very far and it’s going to take a while to get there.” It is a sturdy little craft, though, and it has a parachute for the whole plane, for those times when all seems lost.
He steps forward and opens the door for me. “You’re okay in front, right? This isn’t really a day to solo.” I laugh, and what I meant to be a sharp bark of a laugh comes out as the whimper of a wounded pup. I know where the grab handles are, because Rudy has taken me up so often in the past two years. Since he got the plane, in fact, I have been the most frequent passenger. His girls liked it for the novelty at first, but that wore off and neither of them had a love of flight. I pull myself up into the seat, which is easier than letting myself down into a chair. I fumble with the straps but Rudy’s hands pat and click and tug: I’m secured by the four point harness. He hands me the headphones.
With the door closed the little cockpit warms again, all the sun pouring through the Plexiglas. My flannel jacket is plenty to keep the cold off me. Rudy has removed the wheel chocks and has climbed in behind me. I feel switches clicking through my seat back, as he runs through a pre-flight. I hear his muffled call, “Clear!” out the small window. The propeller swings, something whines, and the engine coughs. It doesn’t roar to life, it just starts to purr, the way automobile engines do. My headphones crackle; the avionics are alive.
Kerosene fills my senses for a moment, before Rudy opens the throttle to get us rolling on the grass. The engine buzzes high-pitch and the carbon fiber propeller cuts through the air with less noise than anything I flew at Rudy’s age. We bump and trundle along the meadow-like strip, turn around at the end and Rudy’s steady voice is in my headset. “Manchester traffic, seven five one kilo charlie is taking one five for a straight out departure. Manchester traffic.”
A tail dragger airplane sits on two wheels under the wings (the mains) and a small wheel on the tail. With the nose pointing at the sky, the view, while taxiing, is limited. As Rudy pushes the throttle open behind me, and the Cub starts down the runway, the moving air lifts the tail, and I can see the long grass strip ahead of us. We rumble and bump and on one of the bumps we jump into the air. We continue down the runway, just a foot off the ground, while the plane builds up speed. At the end Rudy pulls back and we soar up into the sky. I am free.
It is like this every time, and I blink tears out of my eyes. My hands twist together in my lap, searching for the control stick that I usually held, but today I am a passenger. I am sitting in the front of a roller coaster, heading straight up into the blue.
Somehow, without gravity pinning me to the earth, I can breath again. The cockpit still smells faintly of kerosene, but mostly it smells of the sun-baked leather seat and dust from sitting un-flown for a few weeks. I watch the airspeed decay, since we are in such a steep climb. We are nearly vertical now, and Rudy lets the speed drop to zero, kicking in a little rudder as we reach the apogee, and we drop to the right, falling over our own wing and spinning gently back toward the field. We level out, for a few moments flitting through the sky faster than the engine could ever pull us. Up again into a steep turn, rolling to the left this time and sliding down through thousands of feet before leveling again. We follow the valley north along the Equinox ridge. Somewhere up there, a lifetime ago, I tromped through December snow on cross country skis, all of thirteen when I climbed to the top of the mountain with my parents and their friends.
Here in the sky the good things return. Rudy spirals a tight descent over the pond where I ice skated, and later taught my sons to ice skate. We skim low, less than a thousand feet, over houses and fields, spaces broken by stands of pines. We fly over the house I designed for Rudy and his family and pull straight up, spinning our wings. I close my eyes and I know just where we are over the plan of his house. I know how the walk curves gently from the driveway to the front porch. Inside that curve is a wall of the kitchen and wraps into the fireplace in the dining room. We are heading up into the sky over the very center of that arc, drifting a little east of it. I picture the gutter detail along the eaves and how it runs to the chimney that I drew so long ago. My memory is no longer perfect, and I can’t see how I finished the concrete wall in the garden by the back terrace. Was it split wood on the form where it faced the house, or away from the house? The drawing and images of the construction are blurred with uncertainty in my mind, muddied by the debate with my studio partner at the time.
Pushing the nose over, Rudy follows the hill down toward the railroad line. We flash over the Equinox Hotel, more than a hundred years old now, and sled down the golf course a few thousand feet above it. I see the small rise where I played with my brother and sister. I know the route we took on our skis, dragging our sleds, that night in the moonlight.
All the details. On the ground they weigh on me. It is a trial just to sit still, when they rise up out of me, choking and smothering me with their insistence at being remembered. So few are helpful. So few have answers. There is so little hierarchy, what may happen to turn over in my mind as I sip the curry chicken soup at the home. They don’t comfort me, they just exhaust me. I don’t want to remember the drops of iodine floating in the baby oil, the tanning solution my mother used over half a century ago. Now it is like a grain of sand, another spec of grit on the sandpaper that is pulled over my brain each day. The sound of my father’s wedding band tapping on the hard plastic steering wheel of our 1969 Pontiac station wagon is just another note in a cacophony, joining with the rattle of my wife typing on her laptop and the particular cry Rudy had when he was a hungry infant. It is all just a ringing in my ears.
I had hope that I would be one of the senile old men. My grandfather was, but when he was eighty-one he fell out of a tree he was pruning. I never drank, maybe that was my mistake. I never receded into the comfortable haze of confusion and mixed memories that my grandfather allowed to envelope him during those last years, a fog he stirred with his cane as he swung to hit the shins of his nurses. No such luck for me.
The ground drops away a little more sharply and Rudy pushes the nose over a little more. We don’t float out of our seats, but there’s a sensation of the top of a roller coaster ride for a moment. I remember trips on the west coast, flying out over the Santa Monica Bay toward Catalina with Rudy when he was ten and I was the age he is now. His voice, without the timbre but with the same smile in it, would be in my headphones, “Dive bomb, Dad! Dive bomb!”
I reach into the pocket of my jacket and take out the capsule that my nephew Jasper, a doctor, sent to me. It’s metal, a dull grey gun metal. I slip it into my mouth. I only have two metal fillings left (the others have been replaced with carbon fiber: luxury), but they tingle a little at the other metal entering my mouth.
I am suspended in the sky inside a capsule of metal, and suspended inside me is a capsule of metal, and suspended inside the capsule is the end of me.
Jasper explained on the phone that the capsule is metal so that it has to be bitten into. It cannot get onto your hands or dissolve in a drink. If I swallow it, I will just have a tense day’s wait for it to pass and I’ll have to start again. I tuck it into my cheek. “How will you get me out of the plane?” I ask my headset.
“Don’t worry, Dad, it’s all taken care of.” I nod, a little sad I can’t twist in my seat to see him. I know the sight of his face would calm me, even more than being in the air does. I reach across my chest with my right hand and put it on my left shoulder. He reaches forward and pats it, and then holds it. I know it’s awkward, that he has to lean forward in his seat and can’t really hold the control stick properly like that. I slide my hand out from under his and pat his a few times. I grab the exposed metal rod that is the structure of the plane, visible inside this replica, retro cockpit. He squeezes my shoulder and goes back to flying.
There’s no plan.
We’ve been climbing slowly and steadily, so now I can see the ski trails down Stratton, white with the manmade snow. We turn slowly through the sky and I can see Bromley, closer and with recognizable figures moving down the trails.
I bite the capsule and crush the metallic skin. My fillings buzz. The gel inside is sweet and thick. I swallow it. I’ve already said my goodbyes to both of my sons and their families. In the past few weeks I’ve visited, spoken to, or written everyone that matters to me and is still alive. It was a surprisingly long list. With most of them I talked about how glad I was to have lived long enough that it was possible to exit with dignity, a fairly recent development for our society. I’ve said my goodbye, but I raise my hand and wave anyway.
Rudy’s voice is warm in my headset, “You were a great father. You were both great parents and even better grandparents. You’ll be missed and remembered.” One more memory leaps like a fish on the hook from my flooding mind. Rudy, nine years old, sitting on the edge of the porch at the Lake as I use tweezers to pull three or four splinters from his foot. The pain must have been terrible as I had to dig a couple of them out, but Rudy was a tiny stoic. As I cleaned out the wounds with the white cream and bandaged his foot Rudy leaned forward and put his head next to mine, his arm over my shoulder onto my back, which he patted. “You’re a great dad to have. I always love you.”
I rest my head on the door frame on the right side. A warmth moves up my legs from my feet. I imagine that’s the opiate and I try to remember whether Jasper had explained all the parts of the pill. It’s hard to put one thought after the other. It feels like someone has come by and pulled a fire-warmed quilt up to my chin, tucking it around my calves and elbows, making sure my hat is snug over my ears. “I love you, Dad.”
We’ve turned all the way around. The engine’s power is pulled way back and the plane is gliding back down the valley. I can see the town of Pawlet off to the right and we are hanging on a wind, sliding off the updrafts when Rudy’s hand lets the control stick forward a bit here and there. We are a slowly falling leaf, yellow in the blue sky over the rolling hills dotted with the red and grey trees of late fall. I close my eyes.