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Authors: Melissa DeCarlo

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BOOK: The Art of Crash Landing
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I take a step back. “
Another
appointment?”

“It's nothing.”

“Define
nothing
.”

“Everything is fine,” he says, draping an arm around my shoulders. “Would I lie to you?”

If he thought the truth would hurt me, the answer to that is
yes
.

I glance over again at Min He. She's staring at me, expectantly. This is when a good daughter says she's not leaving, that she'll stay in town and drive him to his appointment tomorrow, she'll sit in
the waiting room, later she'll go with him to talk to the doctor, to get the results. To hear the bad news.

We exchange glances, Min He, Queeg, and I. All of us know the truth of the situation. For all his bluster, Queeg wants me to stay. Maybe he needs me to stay. I feel a thick panic rising in my chest.

I open my car door and climb inside. “So, I'll call tomorrow afternoon.” I pitch my voice to sound breezy, hoping Queeg will play along.

He does. “It's a plan,” he says with a smile. He's always been good at hiding disappointment.

I shut the door and roll down the window. Queeg comes up beside the car and leans over. “Are you going to stop by the beach before you go?”

It's the closest thing to visiting my mother's grave, and he can't help but remind me about that once in a while. Now and then when we're winding up a telephone conversation he'll ask if I've been lately, and I always tell him
yes
, which is never really true. When I go to the beach, I avoid Fort Pickens, instead choosing Casino Beach or Opal Beach. I tell myself it doesn't really matter. It's all the same water.

“Not today,” I tell him. “It's in the wrong direction.”

He nods. For all that he's still sentimental about a woman he divorced years before her death, Queeg is a practical man. He understands an urge to go in the right direction.

“Drive safe, sweetheart,” he says.

I turn the key and after an initial roar the engine settles down to a gentle rumble with only a faint rattling sound. Nothing I'll be able to hear over the radio.

Queeg steps away and Min He comes forward and leans in close to deliver her parting words.

“You are a bad one,” she says in a voice pitched just loud
enough for me to hear over the engine. “You will get what you deserve. Someday . . .” here she pauses, frowning as she struggles with the words. “Someday, your roast chicken will come home.”

When I laugh at her mangling of one of Queeg's favorites, she scowls and straightens up, crossing her arms over her ample chest. The engine noise drowns out her voice, but her lips move in one last “Stupid girl.”

Queeg is grinning. That one, he heard.

I back the car up, turn it around, and am almost to the gate when I look over my shoulder at Queeg standing there, looking frail, his gray sweater blending into the backdrop of the cheerless, sagging trailers. He has an arm around Min He's waist, and I'm glad that he has her, even if it seems to me like she has a pretty wide mean streak.

I tap the horn and stick my arm out the window for one last wave.

“Hurry home,” he calls out.

I accelerate, but slowly, checking my rearview mirror every few seconds. With each glance, Queeg grows smaller, the grip of his love for me less and less painful, until finally I can breathe again. One last glance in the mirror and he is just a speck on the horizon, his hand still raised in a farewell. Or a benediction. I'm not sure which.

CHAPTER 5

A
nything that can go wrong, will go wrong
Queeg likes to say, and he's not even the one trying to drive eight hundred miles in a piece-of-shit 1978 Chevy Malibu. It's around Hammond, Louisiana, that I first notice something is wrong. A faint shudder when I accelerate, a minor lurch, then another. Forty-five minutes later I'm nearing Baton Rouge and the lurching has amplified and my progress down the road is involving a bit more hopping than I would prefer. It's only happening when I speed up or slow down, but that's not helpful in the long run. It's not like I can drive another six hundred miles without stopping even if I could forgo eating and drinking. I don't have a bottomless gas tank or an astronaut diaper.

I pull off the interstate in Merrydale, a suburb of Baton Rouge, which, for the record, seems far too dreary and flat to have inspired its name. My lunch is unexceptional, but eating it averts my stupid empty-stomach nausea. Things are looking up, in fact, until I put the car in drive and find that I've lost my high gear completely.

My new maximum speed without redlining the rpm is thirty miles per hour. The car moves smoothly, if loudly, in this gear, so
I decide to keep driving—not that there are many other choices on a Sunday afternoon with no money in the middle of a state where I don't know a soul. So, emergency flashers blinking away, I crawl along Interstate 10, mile after mile, just me and my piece of shit Malibu with the vinyl trim peeling in so many places that it looks like fur, rust on two fenders, backseat stuffed full of all my worldly possessions. Cars slow as they drive past, the driver and passengers ogling my little redneck melodrama. I give them each the finger—a little cherry to sit atop my white-trash sundae.

I stop a few times for soft drinks, gum, a bathroom. It's an interesting population at small town all-night convenience stores. Lots of tattoos and unwashed hair. Nobody in these sad places gives my car a second glance. These are my people, my mother's people. Not a single one of them looks interested in making lemonade.

As the night grinds on, I come to understand that twenty hours alone in a car gives a person a lot of time to think. I turn the radio off when the static starts and back on when I see a town coming up. I sing along when I know the song, I hum when I don't, and I sigh when every once in a while a song finds a crack and wriggles inside, causing memories to shift and slide. In a rare moment of clarity I see this loss of my high gear for what it is: a pretty damn good metaphor for my life.

When we are young we are limitless. I remember leaning into the wind and feeling as if I could run until the sand turned to water, swim past the horizon, and fly until the blue sky around me filled with stars. There was a time when I believed my whole life stretched before me, rich with promise.

Now?

Not so much.

CHAPTER 6

T
he summer I turned five years old, my mother and I moved into an apartment complex with few children, and I was lonely. Things weren't all that great for my mother either; they'd cut her hours at the Photo Gem and she'd had to take a second job at Woolworth's. During the summer, while she was at work, Mom left me with our downstairs neighbor, Mrs. Klapper. The old woman was nice enough, but deaf as a post and addicted to game shows, so all day long her television played at ear-splitting levels. Mercifully, she took a long nap after lunch, which gave me a chance to watch a few cartoons with the volume down.

Mrs. Klapper had a key to our apartment in case she needed something from up there for me, and I think I wasn't supposed to know that she kept it in a little silver bowl on the mantel. But, like most five-year-olds, I knew a lot of things I wasn't supposed to know.

That summer
Peter Pan
, the Disney version, was rereleased in theaters. We didn't have a lot of extra money, but my mother must have understood how long the days were for me, because the
weekend it opened she called in sick and took me to the Saturday matinee.

I'm not sure if that was the first movie I saw on the big screen, but it's the first one I remember. The sticky floor, the salty popcorn, having to sit on my knees to see over the head in front of me—I remember it all. But mostly I remember wanting to fly.

It felt so obvious to me. With enough fairy dust and lovely thoughts anyone could fly. Lovely thoughts aren't hard to come by when you're five, and in our apartment dust wasn't in short supply. Unfortunately, even after several weeks of lovely thoughts and trying everything from flour to the dust from the windowsill, my feet had never lifted from the olive green carpet.

I started kindergarten that fall and underwent the usual strain of adjusting to school and trying to make friends, but I never gave up on my dream of flying. It wasn't long before Halloween appeared on the horizon, and I had an epiphany. I wasn't Wendy; I was Tinker Bell. What I needed were wings.

Convincing my mother that last year's costume, black leotard and tail with cat ears on a headband, would not work again this year, took all the whining I could muster, which, in all honesty, was a fair amount. I wasn't an easy child. But when you're five and you want to fly, the ends justify the means.

The day before Halloween, my mother brought it home. She pulled the folded package out of her purse, and carefully worked the costume out of the wrapper. Rather than cutting off the tags, she pinned them up inside.

Despite my best efforts to channel only lovely, flight-worthy thoughts, watching my mother's care with the costume brought an unhappy thought to mind. “Did you steal that?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I borrowed it.”

“From who?”

“Whom. Come try it on.”

I stepped into the shiny blue tunic, avoiding the pins. Tinker Bell's dress was green, but I didn't mention that to my mother.

I tried again. “Borrowed from whom?”

“It's a little big,” she said. “But it will have to do.”

“The pins are sticking me.”

She shifted the pinned-up tags until they were less annoying and then slipped the wings on and adjusted their straps.

“There,” she said. “You look like an angel.”

“I'm a fairy,” I said, although in truth the wings were shaped more like an angel's wings than Tinker Bell's.

“Take it off until tomorrow night.” My mother eased me out of the wings and then the dress.

“Can I take it to school tomorrow?”

She shook her head.

“Just the wings?”

“You'll get them dirty,” she said. “It's borrowed, remember? I have to take it back to the store Saturday.”

I think I knew my mother was misusing the word
borrowed
. I was pretty sure that none of the other kids at school were wearing costumes their mothers had borrowed from a store without asking. But I didn't mention it again. I just hugged her tight and promised that I would be extra careful with the costume. And I meant it. Really.

The following afternoon, when the school bus dropped me off I went to Mrs. Klapper's as usual. I let myself in; she always left her door unlocked in the afternoons so that my arrival wouldn't interrupt her nap. That day, however, instead of going to the kitchen to eat the sandwich she had left for me, I reached up and plucked the key to my apartment from the silver bowl, then went back out, quietly shutting the door behind me.

The costume was right where my mother had hung it. Carefully . . . oh so carefully, I put it on. The wings were more difficult
to get into by myself, but not impossible. I was cautious with the fairy dust, talcum powder this time, lightly dusting just a tiny amount on my arms and legs. I put just a little bit in my hair. More would have been better. In the movie, Tinker Bell had sprinkled it liberally over Wendy, John, and Michael, but my costume was borrowed. This would have to do.

The wind was gusty that afternoon, and as I walked out on our balcony, I remember hearing the whisper of dry leaves scraping along the sidewalk below. I swung my legs over the top of the wooden railing and sat cautiously, careful not to get a splinter. I looked at the browning weeds and grass directly beneath me, and then raised my chin to look at the green grass of the gated playground at the nicer apartment complex across the street. A breeze plucked at my wings, and I smiled. And I thought lovely thoughts. And I believed. And I jumped.

It was only a broken arm. It could have been much worse, but my mother had no lovely thoughts that Halloween. She was furious. Furious with Mrs. Klapper, with me, and with Walt Disney as I recall. I missed three days of kindergarten and the teacher had all the kids in my class donate some of their Halloween candy for me. Of course, they just gave up their reject candy, Bit-O-Honey, Sweet Tarts, Almond Joys. But I didn't mind. I would have done the same thing.

When my mother asked me why I had jumped, I told her about the wind and the fairy dust and how green the grass was in the playground across the street. It worked, I told her, for a few seconds I'd been flying. It wasn't until I took my eyes off the distant green grass and looked down at the weeds below me that I started to fall. I still remember how she frowned and shook her head as I talked. After a while, I stopped trying to explain. If she couldn't understand wanting to fly, then I couldn't teach it to her.

There was no more Mrs. Klapper. From then on I stayed
with Mrs. Roberts, and she never took naps and her apartment always smelled like broccoli. The costume was also gone, filthy from the fall and split along one side where the hospital had cut it off. My mother told me not to worry about it, but I did. As far as I know, she never got in trouble for taking the costume, but I understood that it was because of me that her borrowing had turned into stealing. When she told me that she couldn't return the costume, I asked her if we could just wash it and keep it—at least the wings—but she said no and threw it all in the trash.

And when she turned back around and leaned down to speak to me, I can still remember exactly what she said. “There's no such thing as magic,” she told me. “You can
believe
all you want, but it's never going to do you any good. Nobody flies. We only fall.”

I
t's after four a.m. by the time my whining Malibu and I finally reach the Gandy City Limits sign. There's a sad-looking motel with a red “vacancy” light on, but even if I had the money, I wouldn't rent a room to sleep for less than four hours, so I continue following the directions. A few houses start to appear as the state highway gradually turns into a city street. With every block the houses get older and smaller and closer together until eventually they're supplanted by businesses, one of which, thank God, has a sign out front that reads “Barber, Smith & Franklin PLLC.”

I pull in, turn off the car, and get out to stretch. The silence is glorious. The only sound is a faint rustle of wind in the trees, the only light a hazy glow from a moon mostly hidden by fast-moving clouds. I need to sleep, but first I need to pee.

Once my eyes adjust to the darkness I walk along the edge of the parking lot. At the back, next to the rear of the building, there's a break in the pavement, a weedy patch between the parking lot and a privacy fence. I pick my way through some taller brushy
plants and find a reasonably flat spot. I'm not one who normally answers the call of nature in such close proximity to actual nature, but some things simply can't be helped. After another glance up and down the street I drop my pants and squat, only to discover that I've chewed so much gum to stay awake that somehow even my urine smells minty fresh.

Back in the car, I roll the windows wide open and recline my seat as far as it will go. The cool darkness presses on my skin like water, and when I think of Queeg's
bad feeling,
a heaviness that is more than mere exhaustion settles on my chest. Is it the weight of not knowing anything about my mother's past, or the weight of knowing everything about my own? They say you can't take it with you when you go, but we all know that's not entirely true. You can carry your secrets to the grave.

I take a measured breath in and out, and try to relax. Phantom white lane-marker lines flicker behind my eyelids, and I feel a disorienting sense of motion, as if I'm still trying to get someplace, but I can't see where I'm going.

It feels a little like falling.

BOOK: The Art of Crash Landing
5.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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