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Authors: Jim Shepard

Flights

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Flights

A Novel

Jim Shepard

For Shep, Ida, and Johnny;

and Joseph F.

Children are the eyes and hands of a family.

S. LEONG

I

Labor Day

DAD

Turning Two

A few things to clear up before we get started here: this great worry that everyone has that Biddy will go all to pieces at the drop of a hat does more harm than good. If we keep treating him like a head case we'll turn him into one. He is not one now. He keeps to himself. Big deal. He's quiet. He goes around the house with a long face sometimes. Does that mean we should lock up the sharp objects? He's a kid. Kids do weird things. If he wants to roll dice all night, let him roll dice all night. If he wants to stare out windows, let him stare out windows. Whatever makes him happy. Of course you work with the kid, keep an eye on him, try to keep him on a reasonably even keel. But how much more can you do? And after some of the things Kristi has done, we're going to sit around and worry about Biddy?

On one point his father was pretty well convinced, and not accepting arguments: for a bright kid, Biddy sometimes had the brains of a squirrel.

Two weeks earlier on a vacation in Beaufort, North Carolina, he had stood on a dock overlooking a narrow channel, struggling with a can of tuna fish. There was a thin strip of land called Carrot Island opposite him, and the sun was high and the air clear and the sky blue in the distance. Wavelets lapped at the wood pilings. His parents had decided to have lunch on the dock and his job had been to open the tuna fish. They sat with legs dangling over the water and arranged bread and lettuce and cans of soda on a small blanket. His sister was unwrapping the individually sliced cheese. Golden oil leaked from one of the initial punctures and the can was slippery. A menhaden boat passed by, huge and filthy, easing into the small channel like some sort of visual trick, with its cranes and nets in exotic disarray. The men aboard lounged and slumped motionless, not so much exhausted as dispirited, and the can gave a jerk and ratcheted its bladed open top along his index finger like an application of fire. The can flew from his hand and rattled on the pale wood at his feet, freeing tuna chunks and oil. He screamed, his parents turned, and the blood swelled into the cut the way the ocean swelled into depressions dug in the waterline at the beach. Blood ran down his arm into the crook of his elbow. He gripped his finger as though holding it together and felt dizzy. His parents were around him in a panic. He was laid down and his finger held high above him. The clouds beyond it were edged with liquid white where they faced the sun. His sister had crouched near the tuna, her hair fanning across her cheeks in the breeze, her finger delicately touching the blood rimming the edge of the can.

They'd wrapped his finger in gauze in the emergency room, and after a wait he'd been given a table. He lay back on it and they cleaned his arm and then the doctor arrived. The gauze had been pulled away, separating into stubborn strands dried to the wound that ran along the center of his middle joint and veered across his fingerprint to the nail. The cut was purple, maroon, and brown, a river on a map. They cleaned it. They gave him a shot, the pain jerking his head from the headrest. After a short wait the doctor returned with a tiny needle and began to sew him up. There was no longer any pain but he could feel the needle penetrate and emerge and he had to look away. He could feel the two halves of his skin being pulled together like the sides of a sneaker. His parents talked in low tones with the nurse. Another nurse appeared, looking on. She was blonde and pretty and heavy and wore a St. Christopher medal around her neck. He could make out the stooped man with the child on his shoulders on its face. She had a bag of potato chips upright against her chest and was eating them in small bunches, intent on his finger. They crackled loudly. A yellow piece of chip remained above her upper lip, like an unexplained blemish in a photograph. It surprised him, he remembered, his parents' voices low and dull behind the partition, that she could eat looking into his wound, and that the closing of his finger was so unremarkable to everyone present.

He had not been allowed to go swimming for the rest of the trip, wading carefully into the water with his finger aloft like a boy with a sudden thought in the baking heat. His father had remarked, paddling by, that only he, of everyone his father knew, could incapacitate himself on a can of tuna fish.

He dreamed of the Orioles. Take 'em down, Doug DeCinces told him when he returned to the dugout. He flopped against the wall. His father had mouthed the same words to him from the stands. He shifted on the bench, half a head shorter than the third baseman and fundamentally ashamed he hadn't broken up the double play. The night air was cool and the breeze lifted dust from the on-deck circle, easing it toward the outfield. Rich Dauer was on deck and Guidry on the mound, shaking off the sign with a quick, economical twitch. Biddy could see all of this, could feel it. A few moments earlier, he had slid wide of second base, ducking a throw from the Yankees' Willie Randolph that seemed about to decapitate him. He felt the dust on his hands. He'd gone into his slide too soon, had done nothing to upset Randolph's throw, and had never reached the bag. When he hadn't gotten up immediately, immobilized by the awfulness of his slide, the crowd had roared: it had become evident to even the least perceptive that they had just witnessed one of the worst slides in Yankee Stadium history. He had looked into their faces, into the left-field stands, hearing the derision in their cheers, his toe still pointed at second base, white and implacable and more than a foot away.

You've got to challenge him on those, DeCinces said. Go after him and try and break up that throw. Do something to protect the runner behind you.

Rich Dauer was leaning over his bat in the on-deck circle, rubbing the wood. Beyond him Eddie Murray waited at the plate, bat cocked, legs spread. Guidry went into his stretch.

Biddy was a member of the Baltimore Orioles and yet not a member. He touched the piping on his pants and fingered his stirrup socks for reassurance. He scraped his spikes on the top step of the dugout, grateful for the chance, subdued by the color and grace of the uniforms and athletes around him. He was sitting alongside heroes and wearing colors that had been magic for him from an early age: black, white, and orange on a field of gray. He was down the bench from Jim Palmer and Ken Singleton. They joked nearby and shared a bag of sunflower seeds with him. He was part of an important game between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles in front of tens of thousands of people in Yankee Stadium. It was a successful act of will, just as a successful slide into second, a positive contribution to the team, would have to be. His father was watching. His teammates were expecting him to perform. Eddie Murray lined the ball over first base as he watched, as if providing instruction on the importance of will, and the Orioles were cheering now, encouraged, always optimists, seeing the game about to turn around. DeCinces laughed with them and slapped his oversized limp glove on Biddy's thigh, the big red “R” for Rawlings sticking with Biddy stubbornly as an afterimage.

He sat curled against his father in the den in the dark, the television providing the only light in the room. His mother was out late, visiting one of her sisters, and his father was unhappy about it. Biddy had just showered and was wrapped snugly in his robe, the terrycloth warm and damp. He had his feet tucked between the cushion and the armrest. His head was on a pillow propped against his father's shoulder. They were watching the eleven-thirty movie, and because it was a Saturday he hadn't been sent to bed.

They returned to an aerial shot of a desert, with the wreckage of a plane strewn across a gully of some sort. Some figures were moving around it. Jimmy Stewart stood in the sun, with George Kennedy nearby. They looked terrible. Stewart's cheeks were covered with a white stubble and his lips were cracked. Kennedy looked dazed and grim. They were arguing with Ernest Borgnine, who was sitting against a torn piece of fuselage in the shade. The plane had had a twin boom tail assembly, and one of the booms with its accompanying engine seemed intact. Jimmy Stewart wanted to build an entirely new plane from that, with their help, and try to fly out of the desert. It was all up to a young German engineer with wire-rimmed glasses and filthy blond hair.

“Who's that?” Biddy asked. He could feel the men's suffering and imagined going so long without water.

“Hardy Kruger,” his father said. “I'm trying to watch.”

Hardy Kruger said Stewart's idea was possible, that anything was possible. Stewart, arguing for the attempt, said that Kruger had built planes before.

He built
model
airplanes before, Borgnine raged. He's a
model
airplane builder!

Hardy Kruger shrugged, his glasses dusty in close-up. The principles are the same, he said.

Stewart stood in the sun, wiping his hand on his lower lip, and began to speak so eloquently, as he paced and the sun beat down on the dust around them, that Biddy wanted to help, to search the cellar for tools.

It was impossible. All right, it was impossible. And they had a choice: try the impossible or stay in the desert. And I don't know about you, he said, but I've had enough of the desert. He explained: one choice was doing what you thought you couldn't, the other was giving up. George Kennedy swayed slightly in the heated air behind him. They couldn't do more than was possible, someone said. They'd have to change what was possible, Stewart said.

The group gazed at the wreckage. Biddy shivered under the terrycloth. Where would they get a tail, an undercarriage, the other wing? His father looked on, absorbed.

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