The Art of Uncontrolled FlightA Novel
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Kim Ponders
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060786086
In 1972, My father flew cargo planes out of Thailand as part of the operation to withdraw American troops and equipment from Vietnam. He often surprised my mother and me, returning a day or two early, and my mother would stick her sewing needle in the little battle-weary pincushion or drop the laundry basket at her feet and run to the back door as soon as she heard his boots on the stairs. Sometimes he vanished just as suddenly, leaving my mother to pick up the wrinkled laundry or finish hemming my dresses, and leaving me on the back steps with my little bag of survival gear: a compass, a chart, and a mirror. In the evenings, after the Bratsons' backyard next door had gone gray and buggy, and we could no longer see the kickball when Jeffery or Timmy sailed it over the fence, and the windows in the houses along our street grew warm with light, and the air became incensed with grilling hamburger and chicken, I sat on the back porch, watching the leaves rustling in the sudden breeze, fading contemptuously into darkness, and waited for my father to return.
We lived in the Saugausset Highlands in eastern Massachusetts — a suburb with a town common and a tiny red schoolhouse open for tours on the Fourth of July, and a cluster of colonials on narrow, frostbitten roads that led into sloping hills of two-story homes with dark paneled kitchens and big driveways for our bicycles and hockey sticks. Our own driveway was lined with mums and forsythia bushes and all sorts of lilacs that were the envy of the gardening club my mother had culled from the PTA. When my father was between rotations, she hosted dinner parties for the officers of his squadron and their wives, perhaps attempting to generate the relief and euphoria that she felt they had earned. Those evenings brought a mixture of agony and excitement, and I pulled at my mother's hips as though it might bring my father home sooner, might bring the guests and the giddiness. They never brought their children. I was allowed the run and tumble of the party, where it seemed that at the pinnacle of every chattering group, red-faced from drinking and laughing, stood my father.
"The party's an hour away," my mother said on one particular night, trying to cast me off with a glance but softening at the sight of my forehead pressed against the back screen door. "Here. Let me be." She gave me a boiled egg and some tea in her quick one-handed motion, while she seemed to do ten things with the other. She was always short with me at the crucial stages of dinner making. I assumed it was because of the timing of sauces and meats and won-tons frying on the stove. The screen door rolled off my elbow as I turned, balancing the egg and cup. She argued with herself while she cooked, as if negotiating something between the two halves of herself, the one that wanted my father home and the one that didn't. To me, it was a personal language, no more decipherable than the skitters of crickets and the Morse code of the lightning bugs. It began along with the other forest voices at about dusk, while there was still just the two of us at home. I never gave it a thought. All she ever saw from me was impatience; I saved my prettiest smiles for him.
I sat on the top step with my shoulder on the post where a hairline crack had grown every year in the three we'd lived there. It had grown faster than me, splitting the post up the middle, revealing a dark crevasse thick with spider-webs. I peeled my egg and listened to the rising ruckus of the forest and the bugs flying in the electric lamp. As I was thinking of how the long grass near the woods must feel cool at night and be a whole different place than in the afternoons, the furious rumble of an unfamiliar engine pricked my ears, blistering the peaceful air, rolling over the stillness that had been the street. Two white eyes turned into the driveway, tight and low to the ground, with such authority that it could only be my father, home with some strange new animal of a car. Bits of eggshell scattered across my feet as I stood, only half believing the shape in the driveway that gave one final, resolute hum and went silent.
He rose from the driver's side, resting his hand where the top of the windscreen touched the open air.
I ran barefoot down the wooden steps to the cement walkway by the side of the house and leapt over a dwarf lilac onto the grass, and with two steps on the sand and pebbles of the unswept driveway, I was in his arms. He smelled of cigarettes and hard things, lifting me over his head so that he could smile up at me, the deep wrinkles set like scars around his eyes. Then I was swooping down, grounded so quickly that I felt dizzy, gripping the door of the Alfa Romeo, while my father stood, wide and magnanimous, blocking the street and the forsythia bush and everything that wasn't him, wasn't here and now and fresh.
"Take me for a ride!"
Heat rose off the hood. The car was sleek and smooth, valentine red, and the black canvas roof was tucked down behind the seats. I thought it was a gift for me. He was grinning in triumph, maneuvering my bony shoulders in the enormous girth of his hands, when his gaze lifted and his expression, without changing at all, seemed to turn cold with concern or even fear. He patted my shoulders roughly, saying, "Okay, Annie. Enough."
"Tell me," my mother said, poised in a prim, pleated skirt in the middle of the driveway, a towel twisted fiercely in her hands, "tell me the Oldsmobile broke down again and this car is a loaner."