quiet nights of quiet stars
Ellis Patterson was sitting three feet behind his grandson – feeling the boy’s movements as he followed through on the controls.
They were flying lazy arcs over the ranch, about 1500 feet over the grass and piñon, and he could hear Jim’s labored breathing over the intercom. He smiled when he remembered teaching James the very same maneuvers – nearly thirty years before – while flying over the Connecticut River towards White River Junction. If anything, he thought, this boy was even better than his son. Fearless, less tentative. Dangerous.
He’d have to temper arrogance, and soon, before the boy got himself in real trouble.
Jimmy broke off and flew towards the escarpment, flew towards the break in the wall. Like he was flying back to the encounter with the cat, and now it was as if he could read his grandson’s mind…
“What’s on your mind, Jim?” he asked.
“Just thinking, Pops. Maybe there are more of ‘em. Maybe she had cubs.”
“Yup. Cats have kittens, bears have cubs.”
“And dogs? They have puppies, right?”
“No…mostly diarrhea, if I recall correctly.”
They both laughed.
“Antelope!” Jimmy cried, and he pushed the nose over and settled into a shallow dive. Ellis poked his head out into the slipstream and saw about a dozen on the prairie, grazing contentedly perhaps a mile ahead, and he marveled at the boy’s eyesight.
“Watch your airspeed, Jim. Throttle back some. They’re not going anywhere.”
Obedient. No question, no doubt, and no hurt pride, just a willingness to listen, and learn. And the boy’s mind didn’t wander off, didn’t fall into daydreaming.
He felt small corrections through the rudder pedals, then a little right stick to correct for the crosswind, then he looked off the right wingtip and saw they were – at most – twenty feet off the ground…and doing at least 120.
And still, the boy’s concentration was rock solid.
He barely caught a glimpse of the startled antelope as they roared past, then Jim had the Waco in an easy climbing turn to the west.
“Think you can find your way back to the strip?”
“Yessir, no problem.”
Dead certain, pure self-confidence. The kid was a natural born pilot.
Now, he knew, came the hard part. He’d have to talk to Elizabeth about all this shit, because she’d have to sign off on his teaching the boy. Because, after all that nonsense back in Vermont, James was still withdrawn. Still fighting his demons. Only now, James was drinking again – and Elizabeth had her hands full – again – with whatever the hell she’d gotten herself into. So he’d have to tread carefully, wouldn’t he…?
“Pops? You with me back there?”
“Yup. So, what do you think? Want me to talk to your mother?”
“I can do it, Pops. I think she’ll just shoot you down, but she’ll listen to me.”
“Let me know. You ready to try landing this thing?”
He was. And he did.
She drove him into town most mornings, drove him to school and dropped him off, then she went to “the office…” – whatever, or wherever, that was. He still let on he had no idea what she did for a living, and he left it at that. He’d talked her into flying; in fact, he found she had been expecting him to ask about it.
Most mornings his father could be found sitting on the porch, staring at the mountains across the valley…a mug of coffee in his cupped hands. But after that he saw something in his father’s being had changed.
Or, life had changed in drastic, important ways, and James Patterson had come undone in the aftermath.
Jim would wake up at five every morning; he would dress and head out to the barn with his grandfather and together they would hay the horses, rake out the stalls, then he’d shower and get ready for school while Pops cooked breakfast. After school, their rituals were as rigid, too: Mom picked him up at 3:15 and some days they stopped off for groceries, but usually she drove straight back to the ranch. Pops would be waiting by the Waco, and within minutes they would have pre-flighted the old girl and started her up. Most days they flew out west, but some afternoons they flew south, to Albuquerque, and they’d land there, sneak in a burger and fries, then head back to the ranch in time for supper.
His father would still be on the porch, still staring at the mountains, as he and Pops walked up to the house, and he’d look at his father, then his grandfather, wondering how two people could possibly be so dissimilar.
Or…maybe they weren’t.
One evening, as they walked up the little hill to the house, he could see a tall glass in his father’s hand, and he could see Pop’s jaw clenching overtime as they walked up the steps to the porch. Then they both saw a pitcher on the table by his father’s side, lemon wedges gathered along the rim.
“Want some tea?” his father asked.
“Sure would,” Pops replied. “How ‘bout you, boy?”
He’d nodded, wondered what the punch line was.
But his father had already poured two glasses.
“I’m headed back to Vermont in the morning,” his father stated – and rather too defiantly, Jim thought.
“Oh?” Pops said, looking over his son in the amber twilight. “Something happen back there?”
“Got a letter from Rebecca. Business is falling apart; that Roscoe fella is robbing the till again. I’ve got to get back and set things right – or we’ll lose it.”
“Maybe it’s time to sell?” Pops sighed, and the change that came over his father was instantaneous – and withering.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You and Elizabeth both. You’d like nothing more than to take away the one thing I have left in this world.”
And Pops had looked at his son for a moment, then he shook his head and walked into the house…
And again, the change that came over his father was instant, and complete. “So, how was flying today?”
And Jim was a little taken aback – because his father never asked about flying.
“Pretty good. We flew up to Los Alamos, worked on crosswind landings.”
“Oh? Good breeze today…bet that was some kind of fun.”
“Your grandfather is a good teacher. One of the best. Listen to him and you’ll do well.”
“How long will you be gone, Dad?”
“I won’t be coming back, son. Too many bad memories here. I need to get away from him, and I think your mother and I need some time apart…to think about…things.”
“Things?” he said, and for the first time in his life, he felt a cold, hollow fear in his gut. “What kind of things, Dad?”
And his father had turned and looked him in the eye: “Sit down, Jim. We need to have a talk.”
He heard a voice, far away, like someone on the shore of a lake, in a distant fog…
Then pressure. Someone pressing on his forehead, almost right between his eyes.
“You can stop that now,” he said. “It hurts.”
“Can you open your eyes, Mr Patterson?”
“Jim,” he said, trying to open his eyes – but they only opened in narrow, slit-like slashes, and his eyes were full of, what? Vaseline. “My name’s Jim. What’s yours?”
“I’m Jill, one of the nurses here in the ICU.”
“Where’s here, and why am I not on my boat?”
“You’re at Virginia Mason, and you were shot.”
“Yes, but you can talk about all that later. Let me get those eyes,” the nurse said, then he felt cool terry-cloth swabbing his eyelids, then his forehead.
“Shot? Where?” he mumbled.
“Once in the arm, three rounds in your legs. The left femoral artery was nicked, so it was kind of touch and go there for a while.”
“What time is it? How long have I been out?” he asked as awareness came back in a flood.
“It’s eight in the morning. They brought you in a little after midnight.”
“There’s a small mob in the waiting room. They claim to be friends of yours, so I assume your son might be out there too.”
“His name is Ted. Has anyone talked to him? And Brigit…Doctor Sullivan. I need to talk to them both.”
“It’ll be a few more minutes. The surgeon will need to okay that.”
He closed his eyes, shook his head. “Yeah…sure.”
“We’ve got Vancomycin running in case that bug in your leg comes back, so if you feel nauseous, let me know.”
“I feel nauseous.”
“Would you like something for it?”
“Coca-Cola works best for me.”
“Seriously. And I know. You’ll have to ask the surgeon first. I know the drill.”
There was a commotion outside the room and a moment later an impossibly young kid in green scrubs walked into the room, followed by – Ted and Brigit.
“Good, you’re awake,” the kid in the green scrubs said. “I’m Doc Stuart, your surgeon…”
“That’s not possible,” Jim said.
“Pardon me?” the kid said.
“You couldn’t possibly be older than twelve. How could you even remotely be qualified to be a surgeon.”
The kid laughed.
“You even laugh like a twelve-year-old.”
“Thanks, I think. Anyway, we’ve repaired your left femoral artery and the other wounds, and we have infectious diseases working on that fungal issue…but right now it looks like you’re out of the woods. It was touch and go there for a while. The paramedics did a great job stabilizing you…”
He listened to the infant, because the more he looked at the kid the more like an infant, maybe a very young Dennis the Menace, he seemed. Then again, Ted looked like he remembered him – ten years ago…
“Something’s wrong,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“Perception. The right side of my face feels…”
And he fell into the light – again.
He was in the barn, raking out the stalls again when he heard something almost like thunder – but this was close. Real close.
He ran out into the little corral off the side of the barn – just in time to see his mother, down on the ground, adjusting the sights on a hideous looking rifle. He watched, curious now, as she chambered another round, and his eyes followed the line of the barrel across the dry creek-bed on the far side of the runway…and he saw several pumpkins set up there…and he put his fingers in his ears just in time…
He felt the concussion in his chest, saw the gout of blossoming flame erupt from the end of the barrel – then one of the pumpkins downrange simply exploded, leaving nothing but a cloud of settling, orange vapor…
“Holy fucking shit!” he cried…
And his mother rolled over, then stood up in a hurried rush. “What are you doing here? I thought you were up flying?”
“No, Pops had to go into town, said he had a doctors appointment. Mom? What are you doing with that thing?”
“Oh? This? It’s a new deer rifle. I’m giving it to your father, for Christmas.”
“Mom? Dad doesn’t like hunting, remember?”
“Well, I thought if maybe he had a nice rifle maybe he’d like to take it up again.”
“Oh. How far away…”
“You know, I’ve done enough today. You ready for dinner?”
“Yeah…soon as I finish up in the barn.”
She looked at her wristwatch, seemed to come to a decision. “What say you and I head into town, go to Bert’s for a cherry-lime-aid.”
Yup, she thought, that still worked. She watched as he went back to the barn – while she cursed herself for not checking the barn first, then she put the new H&K sniper rifle back in its hard case and carried it to the back of the Ford. Pops drove up a few minutes later, just as Jim walked from the barn up the hill to the house.
“You ready to go up for a quick flight,” Pops asked.
“Mom’s taking me to Bert’s. Wanna come with us?”
“You’re welcome to join us, Ellis,” Liz added…but Ellis looked at the expression on her face – kind of a ‘Please, no, don’t come…’ look in her eyes.
“No, you two go on. I’ve got a few things to tend to…”
They drove into the city, turned on Guadalupe and pulled into Bert’s a half hour later. Two huge green-chili cheeseburgers and a double lime-aids later, she came to the point of the exercise. “Your father isn’t doing well,” she said in an unsettling non-sequitur. “I need to go back to Vermont for a while,” she lied, “and check on him. Will it be okay if I leave you here with Pops for a few weeks?”
“What’s wrong with Dad?”
“I’m not sure, but I can’t handle it over the telephone.”
“Do you need me to come with you? Maybe I could help?”
“Not this time, Jim,” she said, almost panicking. “I’ve got to stop off and do a few things for work, too. I need you to stay here with Pops, but if I change my mind, if I think you can help, I’ll call. Okay? Is that a deal?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, clearly dejected.
“What are you and Pops working on now?”
“Oh? Is it hard?”
He shrugged. “Not really.”
“Don’t be mad at me, Jim. Okay?”
“I’m not mad at you, Mom. I just think you’re not telling me the whole truth, and I don’t understand why.”
She nodded, looked away. “Maybe someday I’ll be able to, Jim. Just not now.”
“Who do you work for, Mom?”
She shook her head. “Someday, Jim. I promise.”
He looked at her, looked at this latest deception and knew she’d never talk about this stuff. Neither would his father. “When are you leaving,” he asked.
“In the morning. Early; I’ll be gone before you get up.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and nodded, then looked at a low-rider that had just pulled into the parking lot. Some of the locals, he saw; Native Americans – or “the Natives” – as Pops called them. His mother called them Trouble, yet she was doing her best to ignore them right now. Two more Chevies pulled into the lot, then a dozen Harley-Davidsons – Choppers, she said – as they filed into the lot, parking next to a turquoise and red Impala.
The two groups talked in the lot for a while, then turned and walked for the entry.
“Sit still,” she said quietly, almost under her breath. “Don’t look anyone in the eye, and don’t say a word.”
He saw the riders were wearing identical leather jackets, big “Hell’s Angels” emblems embroidered on their backs, and he had heard of them and suddenly understood the tone in his mother’s voice. Not fear. Not even curiosity. No, her voice was full of malice, like she wanted to pick a fight. He did too, only he didn’t know why.
Other patrons were getting up and walking out to their cars as the bikers walked up to the counter, and soon they were the only people remaining inside. He turned, saw another dozen or so motorcycles pulling into the parking lot, then he felt someone walking up to their booth.
He turned and looked at a burly man standing there, then the man sat down next to his mother.
“How’s it going, Liz?” the biker asked.
“Not bad, Terry. You?”
He reached inside his jacket and handed her a piece of paper.
She took an envelope from her purse and handed it to the biker.
“So. We’re cool?” the biker asked, his voice full of respect.
“Yeah, we’re good. Tell Hank to stay low for a while, and keep out of Texas.”
The biker nodded as he digested that information, then he looked at Jim. “How’s the grub here,” he asked Jim.
“Have you ever had the green-chili burger?”
“No. Any good?”
“Yeah, pretty good.”
The biker nodded and stood, then looked at Elizabeth. “Take care,” he said, then, after a pause: “Watch your six, Liz.” Then the biker walked off to join his compadres and his mother stood, walked from the diner – leaving a million unanswered questions in her wake.
He watched as she as she walked through the gangs waiting to order at the counter; they parted and let her pass – almost like they were afraid of her.
He never asked her about the meeting, or why she’d brought him along, and she never mentioned that afternoon – ever again – but he never forgot how those bikers moved out of her way.
And his mother was as good as her word, too. She was gone before we woke to tackle his chores the next morning.
A few days later he saw something on the evening news, something about a murder in San Antonio, Texas, where a meeting between members of a motorcycle gang – the Banditos – and a suspected Chinese underworld crime boss had been disrupted by an assassin’s bullet. The old Chinaman had been killed as the group walked across a street outside a restaurant called Joe Ts. A rival motorcycle gang was suspected…but for some reason he knew – just knew – his mother had killed the man. He knew, and it didn’t bother him. Not in the least.
His mother returned to the ranch a few days later.
She seemed preoccupied.
With what…she would not say.
He opened his eyes, looked around the room. A nurse was working on a tablet, entering figures on the pad, and he tried to speak – but his mouth didn’t work – and no sounds came from his mouth. He tried to lift his hand but it did not move either, and now real panic broke over him like a hot wave. He tried to clear his throat and he heard a sound this time; the nurse turned to him, saw he was awake and put down the tablet.
“Mr Patterson? I’m Dr Jeffries, from neurology. You’ve had a slight stroke, but we got it fast and I think you’ll be okay in a few hours. Try not to panic right now, okay? That will only make things worse…”
He tried to digest the woman’s words and came up short. ‘
A stroke? And now I can’t talk, or move? I don’t want to go out like this…’
She was watching a bank of monitors, then she injected something into an IV port and he felt himself falling away…
He opened his eyes again, saw Ted and Susan talking with Brigit across the room, and he tried to speak again. “Ted?” he croaked.
“Yup. At least I think so,” he said, looking around the room. “Where am I this time? This room looks different.”
“It is. Some kind of neuro-ICU. You threw a blood clot, went out like a light.”
“All told, three weeks…but it was deliberate this time. They kept you out so you wouldn’t panic, until the vessels in your brain could heal.”
“Yup,” Brigit said, by his side now.
Now he saw she had a cast on her wrist. “What happened to you?” he asked.
“I fell,” she said, smiling, her voice and eyes full of understanding.
“When you were shot, but I’m okay now.”
He didn’t understand those words, not at all. “I was shot?”
Then he thought of his mother…and all her secrets…
He walked around the Waco, checking her struts and aileron straps, tire pressures and fuel tanks, then he climbed up into the cockpit and settled into the seat. He felt Pops climb up behind him and stand beside the little open cockpit; he was looking down at him, and he had a weird expression on his face…and in his eyes…
“Here’s some money, in case you want to get a burger somewhere along the way.”
He looked down, saw a wad of hundred dollar bills and his eyes went wide. “Pops…?”
“Just bring me some change.”
“Yeah. I will.”
“And don’t go to Vegas.”
“You got that sectional folded – like I showed you?”
Then his grandfather put his right hand out and he took it.
“I’m proud of you, boy.”
And then he was gone, walking back up the little hill to the house.
He wiped away a tear then set about waking the old girl, and a minute later he taxied down to the end of the runway…watching temperatures and pressures as he did his run-up.
He looked at the house, saw Pops standing on the porch – another cup of coffee in hand – then he pulled his mind back into the cockpit and concentrated on the job at hand.
Magnetos checked, lights on, power up to 40% and let it settle…work the controls, watch the rudder in the mirrors, check at the ailerons. Throttle back, watch the oil pressure then ease the throttle forward again…hold rudder against the torque…feel the tail lift as speed builds…eyes on the runway now, feeling airspeed build…check the indicator…65 knots…70 now…and a little back-pressure on the stick…feel the wheels leave the ground and tap the brakes…eyes on the horizon for a moment, then check instruments…all registering…climb at 400 feet per minute, 100 knots – keep an eye on the VOR…and he watched as the needle swung and he turned to follow the inbound radial. He looked once again, saw the ranch fading and he smiled.
“It’s wonderful to be alive,” he said to the sky – as the earth fell away.
Then he heard the Morse identifier in his headset. 115.3 – Rattlesnake VOR – and he wished the old Waco had DME then realized he didn’t need it. 110 miles away, doing 120 knots? He’d be there in less than an hour – maybe 53 minutes. The Grand Canyon? Less than 300 miles, and he’d land, get a burger and fill the tanks, then turn around and fly back to the ranch. Then, with these final six hours under his belt, he could get his license…
He pulled his mind back into the cockpit, stopped daydreaming. The Jemez Mountains off to his right peaked at over 11,000 feet; thunderstorms were building behind them…off to the north…and that bothered him…
He saw Farmington ahead, re-centered the needle and chased the radial to the edge of town; when the needle swung he turned to 243 degrees and re-centered the needle, flying away from the VOR now. He set the Tuba City VOR on 2 and kept an eye on his altitude for a minute, trimming pitch and fiddling with the throttle until the Waco settled-in after the turn.
He thought about the past few weeks. About his mother, stating she was going to retire soon, from whatever it was she did. His father was moving to Florida, buying a boat of some kind and telling the world to fuck off. And Pops…just trucking along, still doing his thing. Flying, riding his horses all over the ranch, running the fences, as he called it. He had a couple hundred head of his own now, and he was running them with the transient herds. He’d picked up an adjoining parcel of land, too, and now had 4000 acres.
The temperature dropped suddenly and he looked around, saw a couple of big, new thunderstorms brewing over the Jemez, then the temperature really dropped – like 10, maybe 15 degrees and he checked his drift. Yeah…out of the north. A big frontal passage…and that meant big rain, maybe some snow on the mountains, too…and he scrunched up his mouth as he worked over these new possibilities in his mind – then the Tuba City VOR swung into life.
He nodded his head, turned and looked at the blossoming anvil-headed storm building over Farmington and he guessed the cloud-tops were already at 40,000 feet…the sky beyond the white anvil now a deep slate blue. “Well, at least I won’t need air conditioning…” he sighed.
He passed Tuba City a half hour later, tuned in the Grand Canyon VOR as he watched a line of clouds building off to the north. He figured that line was still in Utah – but closing, fast, on the North Rim – and now he could see lightning under this new advancing wall. He turned, saw the anvil-headed monster – now over the four-corners regions – and he shook his head. That one was pushing in from behind, and this new wall was squeezing from the north – and he had maybe a half hour to go.
“If I can’t make the canyon, I’ll try Flagstaff,” he told the sky, looking at his remaining fuel. He figured he could make Phoenix if he had to, but right now he wanted to get on the ground, get the Waco tied down.
Altitude nine thousand, airspeed 120. Ground elevation increasing, around 7300 before dropping to 6600 at GCN. He flexed his shoulders, eased around in the seat to work out a hotspot on his butt, then yawned, shook his head.
He felt sleepy?
He forced himself to sit up straight, took several deep breaths and shook his head again, this time roughly. He cleared the ridge, saw the airport in the distance and sighed.
Yeah, I’ll just make it.
“Huh?” He heard monitors beeping, saw a nurse in green scrubs…
“You were drifting again. What are you thinking about?”
“Oh, my third cross-country. The time I flew from the ranch out to the Grand Canyon and back. Huge storms building that afternoon, too, so after I got on the ground I called my grandfather. He’d been watching the weather, and man, was he frantic. Anyway, he told me to stay put, stay the night. Hell, I’d just turned sixteen, had never stayed alone anywhere, not once, and there I was…out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by thunderstorms…”
“What did you do?” Susan asked.
“I got a room, down on the south rim; a place called Bright Angel Lodge. Nice view, too. After I got there I went out and stood out on the edge of the rim, looking at all those converging storms…lightning everywhere…and it’s funny, because what I remember most is the color.”
“The color?” Brigit said, puzzled.
“Yeah, the canyon, red walls in dark blue light. Sun peeking through, shooting streams of apricot colored light on the north wall while lightning…”
His eyes drifted…and he was there again…
Standing close to the edge, cold air coming across the canyon, meeting warm air rising out of the depths just beyond his feet, slamming into the sky overhead. The thunder was deafening, lightning flickered everywhere – yet he stood, transfixed – looking into that impossible sky. Not at the sky, but – into – as if there was some kind of secret lost inside all that boiling energy…if only he could get close enough…maybe he could see…
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
The voice startled him, and he turned, saw a woman standing a few feet away – and yet, she seemed to be in a trance, too.
“It is, yes.”
“Are you here with your parents?”
“No. By myself.”
That seemed to break the spell.
“By yourself? How…”
And he told her. About the flight, the weather, all of it, and she looked at him while he spoke, obviously not sure she believed one word coming out of his mouth.
“Are you hungry,” she asked.
He frowned, looked at the words hanging in the air, apparent, as if he was considering the idea of eating, and of hunger in general – and drawing a blank. “I don’t know. Maybe?”
And as she looked at him she tried not to laugh. “You don’t know if you’re hungry?”
“I, well, I just haven’t had time to think about it.”
“Come on. You need food. I can tell just by looking at you.”
There was an ornate dining room not a few steps away, and he could tell she had just come from there – to come out and look at the advancing storm…
“Oh, look, I don’t want to interrupt…”
“You aren’t. I was just about to order,” she said, motioning to a waitress. “Could we have another menu?” she said to the girl.
She sat, motioned for him to sit and he did.
She was, he guessed, thirty, maybe thirty-five years old, and she had bright, inviting eyes – though, he saw, there was a commanding presence there, too. Like she was used to getting her way. Her clothing was immaculate, too, her jewelry almost outlandish, yet her face wasn’t heavily made up. He saw wrinkles under her eyes now, a fringe of gray in her hair, yet somehow she seemed the exact opposite of his mother – and the thought struck him as odd at the time. His mother was, after all, the only woman he had ever known. Teachers had come and gone, classmates too, but his mother had been the one constant in his life.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked after he sat.
“Jim? I’m Sara, with no H.”
He stuck out his right hand. “Pleased to meet you,” he said, grinning.
“Now tell me. All that stuff about airplanes…did you make that up?”
He frowned. “You think I’m lying?”
She shrugged. “You look a little too young to be out here by yourself in an airplane.”
“I’m working on my private pilot’s license. You have to make a couple of long, cross-country flights to qualify. This is my second.”
“Oh? Where was your first?”
“Next? What do you mean?”
“In order to get your license.”
“Oh. I take a written exam, then a check-ride with an FAA examiner.”
“Then I work on my instrument rating.”
He thought for a moment, then said: “It’s when you fly in the clouds for a long time, and can’t see the ground.”
“I see. And…can you see the ground right now?”
She laughed at that. “Well, Jim, I’ve been up in the clouds, in Reno. Spending some time there, on my lawyer’s advice.”
He shrugged. “Okay.”
“I’m getting a divorce, Jim.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I’m not.”
She looked away, rolled his words around in her mind for a minute while her thoughts advanced like a storm all her own…and he watched the turmoil in her eyes, fascinated.
“My husband is a famous man, a singer, a movie star. You know him, too, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, you do. Everyone knows him. He has his own TV show, he’s made a bunch of movies – all that crap,” the woman said, her voice coiled, now full of venom. “And now he has a younger girl, a new version of me, the girl I was years ago. So…I had suddenly become, I think you could say, disposable, and it was more convenient for him to ship me off to a place like Reno.”
He shrugged. “Again, I’m sorry.”
She looked at him and sighed. “Oh, how I’d love to be your age again.” She looked at the storm raging on the other side of the glass and shook her head. “It’s nice to be inside, where it’s warm, isn’t it?”
She wasn’t paying attention to him so he looked at her, looked at the anger playing out on her face, in the movements of her fingers…then she turned back to her menu. “They have huckleberry iced-tea here. Can you imagine such a thing?”
“Aren’t those like blueberries?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, but I feel trying something fresh and new. How about you?”
“Sure,” he said, “that sounds good. The sky is kind of blueberry colored right now,” he added, wary of the changes playing out in her eyes…full of anger one moment, placid, almost serene the next – then, from somewhere else – her eyes were full of tears.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I need to go powder my nose.”
He stood, got her chair and watched her walk off; she had a good figure and dynamite legs, and suddenly he was conscious of her devastating femininity. He sat as the waitress came up to him.
“Do you know her,” the girl asked.
“No, we just met.”
“Well, be careful. She’s been here a few days, staring and crying like this, talking to herself a lot.”
He nodded. “She looks like a bird with a broken wing,” he said, and the girl looked at him, puzzled, then she nodded too – before she walked off.
The woman, Sara, came back to the table a few minutes later – and she noticed the menus were gone.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but they said the kitchen’s about to close. I hope you don’t mind, but I ordered for you.”
She nodded. “Thanks. That was sweet of you.”
“It looks like the storm is going to blow through fast,” he said as he held out her chair.
She looked at him, at this seeming innocence, then she looked at rain pooling on the flagstone terrace…and she seemed to coalesce out there in the water, pooling in the moment, then she sat and watched him while he took his seat again, wondering where he came from, what his parents did…then she pulled back from that precipice. ‘No,’ the voice inside said, ‘don’t go there. Don’t do this…not now…’
They ate French onion soup and Crab Louie, and, for some reason, she wanted pineapple sherbet. “I love Hawaii,” she said as she took a bite.
“Why don’t you go there?”
She seemed to roll that thought over in her mind for a moment, staring at the little silver spoon as she drifted. “That’s something for the living,” she said at last.
“The living?” he asked, then a sudden chill gripped him – as he turned and looked at the rim, and the canyon beyond. “Have you given up? Is that it? Is that why you’re here?”
She seemed defiant then, before she turned in on herself again.
“What did he do to you?”
“I couldn’t even begin to…”
“I’d like you to tell me. All of it, everything you can remember.”
“Why? Why do you want to hear all that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I need to.”
“Here? Or do you want to go to my room?”
“Does your room have a nice view?”
“No, not really.”
“Well,” he said, “mine does. Let’s go there.” He paid the bill and they walked off, the waitress looking at him as they walked off, shaking her head.
“So,” Ted said, “those storms chased you all the way to the Grand Canyon?”
“Yup. There’s nothing like that place when big storms roll in from the north. I was sitting by a fireplace later that afternoon and could see snow falling across the canyon, on the north rim, and it was June. Sitting by a fireplace…in June. I love it out there, ya know…?”
“I think that’s the second time I’ve caught you staring at my legs,” she said, smiling.
He shook himself awake, smiled, then looked at her again. “I’m sorry, but I keep falling off.”
“Yup. I started yawning right after I passed Shiprock. I guess I didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Start a fire, would you?”
There was a little adobe kiva in the corner and he set some piñon on the grate and lighted some kindling; soon he had a little fire blazing away and the burning pine filled the room with subtle textures of western sunsets.
“Take off your clothes and get on the bed, face down.”
But she was already taking off her clothes, folding them neatly and putting them on the dresser. He stood by the fireplace, transfixed, not sure what was happening now…then she walked over to him, ran her fingers through his hair.
“Just relax, Jim.”
He lips were trembling, his eyelids twitched uncontrollably – as she started to unbutton his shirt…
When he was naked she led him to the bed and laid him out, face down, then she put a light blanket over him before she straddled the backs of his thighs. She leaned forward, began massaging his neck and shoulders and a long, low moan passed his lips. He felt himself adrift in a foreign place, someplace new, a place that, somehow, felt right – better than right.
He felt her move up some, felt coarse hair against his skin, and he felt something new, new and unsettling.
“Turn over, Jim,” she sighed.
And then she took him someplace very unexpected…
“It snowed? In June?” Susan said, not believing him for a moment.
He nodded his head. “New Mexico. Arizona. Utah. And Colorado, of course…it can snow there anytime. That afternoon? Well, they call it thunder-snow. A cold front running into all that warm desert air…and man-o-man – did it snow that afternoon.”
“You mentioned a fireplace?” Brigit asked…
She lay beside him – after – looking at his labored breathing, the sweat running off his brow, and she ran her fingers through his hair – still loving every minute of this boy, suddenly in love with the idea of living again…then she saw he was looking into her eyes.
“Feel better now?” he asked.
She nodded once, smiled – then kissed the tip of his nose. “You see into people, don’t you?”
“I don’t know, but I think I see into you.”
“And what do you see?”
“Someone full of love. Someone who needs to love, and to be loved.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think there are some people who don’t know how to love anyone but themselves. Other people are just means to ends, people to be used up and discarded.”
Her eyes narrowed a little. “You do know, don’t you, that you’re not supposed to be this wise? Not at your age…?”
“If you’d lived around my parents, you’d understand.”
“Your parents don’t love you?”
“Oh, no…quite the opposite. They’re just not what I’d call your normal mom and dad, that’s all. And my grandfather has been holding things together for us recently. My parents are having issues.”
“Does he get mean?”
“No, just the opposite…he pulls away from life. I think he pulls away from Mom most of all.”
“Well, I’m not supposed to know, but she works for the FBI, is assigned to some sort of special team.”
“And what does your dad do?”
“He owns a chain of hardware stores, in Vermont.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“So, would you say he feels threatened by your mom?”
“Maybe, but I think it’s more like he doesn’t understand what she’s become. She’s not soft anymore, if you know what I mean. Or… maybe she’s not like what he thought a woman ought to be, and I think that caused him to, well…it’s like his expectations caved-in on everything. I don’t think this is the life he wanted to lead.”
“So, he drinks – because of that?”
“I think so, yes, but I don’t really know where all that stuff comes from.”
“And what do you want to do? Fly?”
“And your grandfather is teaching you – to fly?”
“Yup. He was some kind of Ace in the first war, and he has a bunch of airplanes.”
“A bunch? You mean, more than one?”
“Yeah, he has seven, including the airplane my father flew in the second world war.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And your father still flies?”
“Nope. He refuses to get near airplanes. Any airplane. He won’t even look at the one he flew…something to do with the war.”
“You have the most incredible eyes,” she said, out of the blue. “They’re like an eagle’s.”
He felt himself turning red, then shook his head and shrugged – all at the same time – which made her laugh.
“You don’t handle compliments real well, do you, Jim…?”
“Well, you have the best legs I’ve ever seen.”
She held her right leg up and pointed her toes toward the ceiling. “You think so? Really?”
“I never thought I’d hear another man say something like that to me.”
“Well, I’m not exactly a man, Sara.”
“Oh, yes you are. More than you know.” She looked at him again, this time with something akin to real love in her eyes, then she got up and walked over to the window. “Oh my God!” she cried. “Come here!”
He ran to her side and she pulled him to her side, then she pointed out the window.
The sky was now almost a deep purple, the far rim of the canyon a striated canvas of oranges and reds and apricots, and the sight was so over the top it left him speechless. He put his arm around her then, pulled her close – and they stood there for several minutes, locked inside the moment, mesmerized by the fading sight.
As their day turned to night she turned to him – and she kissed him.
“Would you show me your airplane in the morning?” she asked, and he nodded his head. “And…could I stay with you tonight…?”
“Oh, God yes. I didn’t know how to ask…”
“…what is it, Dad? Why are you smiling like that?”
“I was just thinking of the sunset that night. Matter of fact, I don’t ever think I’ll ever forget that day, or that night.”
“So…you flew back the next morning? To the ranch…?”
They woke at five and she dressed them both, then, hand in hand, they walked down to the rim trail, and out to Plateau Point. The sky was still full of blazing stars, and just the faintest line of deep purple lined the eastern horizon as they picked there way through the piñon. A few hearty photographers were already setting up tripods out here, he saw, with huge cameras poised on massive wooden tripods – so he knew the view must be something else.
“I’ve come out here every morning,” she said. “I wanted to share this with you.”
They came to a low rock wall and she sat, then she pulled him and leaned her face on his shoulder, her chin resting on bare skin, and when he felt her breath on his neck he was enthralled that another human being could make him feel so good inside.
He turned to face her then, and looked her in the eye.
“This has been the best night of my life,” he said, resting his forehead on hers. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much this has meant to me. How much you mean to me.”
He felt her nodding head and she pulled him close, kissed him again – then she broke free and began running – towards the rim.
He caught her within inches of the abyss, and he pulled her back as gently as he could.
“You’re going to drive me to the airport, remember?”
“No, I’ve got to go now. Let me…”
“Alright, but if you go, you have to take me with you…”
Her eyes were unfocused now, drifting into the precipice…and beyond…to the other side. “Take you – with me?”
“Yes, if you’re going there,” he said, pointing to the yawning chasm beyond the rim, “you have to take me with you.”
His words cut through the pain and she came back to him, then she was in his arms, crying uncontrollably.
“I can’t…do that…” she sighed. “I love you too much.”
“Then hang on to me. As tight as you can…and don’t let go.”
“No, not ever.”
He wrapped his arms around her again and they walked back to their rock. Those moments with her the most powerfully unsettling of his life, if only because there is no love like a first love.
“See that triangle in the sky?” he said, pointing to the south.
“Follow my fingers,” he sighed, letting her eyes line up with his hand. “There, see it?”
The bright one on top is Vega, Deneb is the one down a little, and to the left.”
“It’s not as bright?”
“Yup. Altair is the brighter one to the right. That’s my star.”
“Yup. Altair…it means One Who Flies, in Arabic.”
“They seem so quiet up there, so alone.”
He shook his head. “Alone? There are billions upon billions of stars up there. Who could be alone with so much light?”
She drove him to the airport after breakfast, and she was duly impressed when he walked her out to the ramp and gave her the nickel tour of the old Waco.
“So, you really weren’t fooling, were you?”
“No. I really wasn’t.”
“Oh, Captain, my Captain,” she sighed. “I’m not sure how I’ll survive without you.”
“You don’t have to,” he said, wrapping her in his arms again.
“Yes, I do, Jim. I came here to kill myself, but I can’t do that now. I just can’t.”
“Come to Santa Fe. Please. Now. Tonight.”
She shook her head. “You don’t understand, Jim. I’m almost fifty years old, and you have your entire life ahead of you. I can’t take that from you. I’d be no better than my husband if I did, and I hate him for what he did to me. To us, really.”
“Sometimes living well is the best revenge, Sara.”
“How on earth could you possibly know that?”
He shrugged again, then grinned at her. “I wish I could take you with me today. That I could show you what it is I love about flying.”
She pulled him close, held his face in her cupped hands, then she kissed him hard. “You already have, Jim. You already have.” She kissed him again, lightly this time, then held him in her eyes for the longest time before she turned and walked back to the gate in the fence.
He did his walk around, fired up the old girl’s systems, tuned the Tuba City to VOR 1, then taxied out to the end of runway three. He looked at the fence by the terminal as he took off, and he saw her standing there, waving, and he waved with his wings before he turned to the east, heading into another morning.
She walked back to her car, found the envelope he’d left on the dash and opened it. She saw his name and address on the hotel stationary and, at the bottom of the piece of paper, the only three words left in the universe that could have possibly kept her from returning to the rim.
I Love You, he’d written, and yes, she had to admit, she loved him too.
But, she realized, she loved him too much to do this to him.
She folded the letter slowly and put it back in the envelope, started her Lincoln and drove back to the Lodge. Going to the restaurant overlooking the south rim, the same waitress came up to her table after she was seated.
“What could I get you this morning?” the girl asked.
“Iced-tea. Blueberry iced-tea, I think,” she said, smiling…
The girl thought the smile in the woman’s eyes looked different, and she wondered…
An hour later Sara walked to her room, and she called her lawyer in Los Angeles.
“Fred? It’s Sara. Call Frank’s lawyer, tell him I’ll not contest this any further if he’ll let me have the house on Maui, and ten million.”
“You’re sure? I think I can get you twenty, maybe more.”
“The house and ten. I’m packing as we speak, heading for L.A. in a few minutes. I’ll sign as soon as you’ve got everything ready to go.”
He landed three hours later, taxied up to the Waco’s hanger and found Pops standing there, waiting – and still smiling after all these years.
“How’d it go?” his grandfather asked.
“Not bad, Pops. I think I learned a lot.”
Of course, it was the smile that gave him away.
The old man knew a shit eatin’ grin when he saw one.
(C) 2018 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com