“I’m at Ramstein,” Mark said. He sounded tired. It was 9:00 p.m., a late dinner time for me. My microwave hummed and radiated, my frozen spinach soufflé circling round as it cooked.
He was in between time zones, just returning from making drops in Sudan and Ethiopia. It was wicked stuff on the nerves he said. He couldn’t sleep.
“It’s the wee hours of the morning there, isn’t it?” I said.
“That’s why I phoned you,” he said, “so I wouldn’t disturb Heather and the girls.”
Last month, he sent an e-mail. It was the first time I’d heard from him in months. Sometimes, his messages could be like haiku verse. In this one, he described how it felt, flying over Morocco before dawn. He said it was like floating over another planet, looking down through his night goggles at the permutations of sand dunes, isolated patches of flickering lights and withered estuaries bathed in an eerie blue, flowing and repeating their patterns beneath the window of his cockpit.
He loved flying more than anything in this world.
I laughed. “Glad I’m good for something.” I said. “But, it’s nice to hear your voice.”
“How’s that boyfriend of yours?” he said. “What’s his name? Stuart?”
“Oh, alright,” I groaned. “Alright without me, that is.” I removed my dinner, tapped the cellophane cover. “We’re no longer an item these days, I’m afraid. Unless you count us as a negative.”
“Oh,” he said. “Sorry to hear.”
“Don’t be. It is, as any expert would say, for the better.”
“Are you a shattered soul, licking your wounds?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I’m okay. He’s not. I’m the one who did the rejecting this time. End of story. I’ll take my comforting illusions wherever I can find them.”
“Don’t give up,” he said.
“How’s Heather? How are the girls?”
“All okay. But restless. And a little homesick. Bea is starting to pick on Paula, doing that ‘I’m the big sister’ bully routine. Heather referees. I lecture. Then we trade places for a while. I didn’t think it’d be like this having girls. You know. The fighting.”
“Hey, don’t discourage it, short, of course, of their inflicting bodily harm. Girls have to have some muscle these days. Have you looked around lately?”
“Spoken like a true pro,” he said.
“You bet,” I said. I peeled back the cellophane on the plastic dish and a little puff of steam escaped. I poked a finger in the center. Still frozen. I shoved it back into the microwave.
“How’s mom?” he asked.
“Pretty much the same,” I said. “She asks about you. A lot. You know, the absent sibling makes her heart grow fonder. I’m too close, I guess. Like a fly buzzing in her ear. But she’s worked her charms on the staff at the nursing home. She can’t walk on her own.”
“I’ll send her a card,” he said.
“Do,” I said. “Better still, call her.”
He coughed and said something like alright.
“What’s up?” I asked. “Is everything okay with you?”
“Oh sure. You know. Homesick sometimes, I guess. Tired of rules and regs and old planes. This big herk, it’s older than me. I know it like I know my own skin. I couldn’t imagine flying anything else. But we’ve both got the middle age blues. Sometimes it breaks down and leaves my ass exposed four sheets to the wind. Not good. Not in the middle of the damn desert.”
“Of course not,” I said. “Nostalgia only gets you so far.”
He talked about the slick reps from Lockheed already filling commitments for the new models he knows he’ll never see.
“Never trust a salesman,” I said. He went quiet for a moment.
“It’s the children, Monica. You know? It’s these darned kids.”
“You mean the girls? What?”
“No. The kids who come after the loads of rice and flour when we make our drops. They scamper like ants swarming a drop of honey.”
“But that’s good, right? My gosh, that’s a great thing you do.”
“Say it like you mean it, chum. You’re a hero.” I meant it. But something now was different about his voice.
“Is there trouble? Are you in some kind of difficulty?”
“No, nothing like that,” he said. “You know, I butt heads from time to time, but nobody really pays much attention. I suppose that’s a good thing. Otherwise, I might be in trouble.”
“C’mon,” I said. “It’s work. It’s supposed to be a pain. At least you’re getting to fly those big ones. Like you always wanted.”
“It’s still the best part. Just me and a couple of other guys and my big C-130, moaning and groaning its way through the clouds.”
“So what gives?”
“It’s the way they come running after we lift off.”
“I thought you just flew through, and didn’t touch ground.”
“Not always. Not when the big mama starts clunking and making noises. Just last week the generator on our number one engine failed just as we were starting to take off. I had to get up on the wing, remove the damn thing and fly back without it. Next thing you know you’ve got an audience of hungry kids, staring at you. And maybe there’s a militia checking you out too, from farther away. So we have to work fast. We usually bring chocolate to toss their way. Guns in one hand, chocolate in the other these days. The great arsenal.”
The line seemed to grow thin, his voice smaller. And then I saw the two of us as kids ourselves. Me at age eleven. Mark, age eight. Two soup cans rigged up as make believe walkie-talkies. I would hide in the shrubs at the side of our house while Mark would go underneath the large porch in the front. He would whisper “Roger, Roger ten four,” things like that and we’d talk back and forth like the pretend spies we were. He’d make funny crackling sounds come out of his throat to resemble radio static. Sometimes, at the dinner table he’d make a rhythmic drub-drub noise with his lips, imitating a helicopter on take off. He had asthma back then and he’d learned how to make all these sounds because of the way he sometimes couldn’t breathe. His wheezing would get as rough as sandpaper, but he learned how to play with it, like a musician.
“The chocolate sounds like a good idea,” I said, “but the guns don’t.”
“You need both. You just hope the chocolate is enough of a distraction.”
“It sounds tricky.”
“It’s the way they come after you. When I lift the plane into the air it kicks up these dust storms. You know those can be pretty fierce and it knocks them down. They get back up and keep running. They chase us, right on up into the air. What are you supposed to do about a little girl waving her arms and chasing you down?”
“When was this, Mark? What little girl?”
“Oh, Jeez. We were leaving Sudan . I can’t remember how I came to see her. But she was just there, you know? Running alongside us on takeoff, trying to grab onto the wing of the plane before we got out of there.” He kept going on. “Jesus,” he whispered. “It wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t needed to land. Damned engine was making noise. We had to have a look.”
“Mark, maybe you should talk to someone.”
“I’m talking to you.”
“I mean a professional.”
He sighed. “I know the routine, Monica.” He paused. “It’s just… I mean, it’s what I see when I’m trying not to look.”
“This girl, you see. She was there, right under the plane’s left wing, at least I think she was, when she got knocked to the ground by the winds from the dust storm as we were taking off. She got up and started running like crazy. I swear her legs were so skinny I thought she might snap and break. All the other kids were scattering in other directions, but she just kept coming after our plane. What could I do? I started gunning the engine like someone scared shitless. It was pitiful.”
I could feel his voice gathering itself into a tight knot. “And then she just disappeared,” he finally said in a low whisper.
“Disappeared? Like how?”
“Gone. Poof. Like some crazy magic act. I only looked back for a quick second but all I could see was the dust clearing and settling. The girl was nowhere in sight.”
“Oh, Mark. Maybe she just turned around, followed the other kids back?”
“Nathan, he’s my supply guy, he flies with me. He says it was a peripheral vision thing. Kind of a trick of the eye.”
“Maybe he’s right.”
Mark got quiet and I could feel the silence grow. I could feel the feathery, ghostly weight of this girl disappearing and reappearing before slipping away forever.
“Mark, do you remember the turtles?” I asked. I let out a small, nervous chuckle, recalling them myself. He didn’t answer right away, but a few seconds later he laughed, low and soft.
“You wrote a story about slow turtles in the backseat of a fast moving car,” I said. “Remember?”
“Yeah. They were kidnapped turtles. Worth zillions of dollars for some reason I can’t remember. A product of my warped imagination.”
“You were just a kid then. We both were. We worked with anything we could get our hands on. It didn’t take much. You know what I mean?”
“Is this a diversionary tactic?” he said. “This trip down memory lane?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m doing it on purpose. Are you smiling yet?”
He laughed. “Only because it’s not that funny. And you know what else? Bea wants a pet turtle all her own. And her favorite thing when she’s bored is making paper airplanes.”
He’d found two of them under the house the year we’d begun our walkie-talkie spying maneuvers. It was an early December day that he’d brought them in; one in each hand. They were covered with cold wet mud and grass and he put them in the bathtub where he washed them and their shells came out glistening, looking like something old and finely carved. He left a ring of mud in the tub that brought the wrath of our mother down upon him. But with his asthma, he knew how to play to her sympathy like a pro and the next thing I knew, we were both putting the turtles into a cardboard box in the corner of his room, our mother placated, supplying us with an old yellow towel to put in the bottom of the box and helping Mark grate pieces of carrot to feed them. I recalled the rough ugliness of their muddy dung-colored, wrinkled skin sticking out from their shells; their big sad liquid eyes had a gaze of frozen tranquility. We exploited them as our captive pets shamelessly. Placing them side by side on the floor of Mark’s room, we gently poked and prodded them with twigs trying to get them to race. Their fat little legs floundered in the thick pile of the carpet, snagging threads of wool loose, and they would stall and then suddenly retreat, pulling their heads and legs back inside their shells. We would get on our knees, laying our cheeks down sideways on the carpet, attempting to peer inside their shells, able to see only the occasional glistening movement of their dark limbs, a moist flickering light from their eyes, but everything else about them had folded into itself, disappearing into an impenetrable darkness. And there they would sit, like two dark, neat parcels, slumbering. I got some of mother’s nail polish and together Mark and I carefully dabbed pink dots across their rough shells, marking them so we’d always know they were ours. We called them Muck and Pook, summoning the murky depths from where they came beneath our house, wondering how long they knew about us before we knew about them, wondering how they breathed inside their shells, wondering if they dreamed; hoping that their hunger, perhaps, would summon them forth again as creatures with limbs and head. And that we might witness their re-emergence, like alien creatures, before our eyes.
That same winter our father had visited us for the first time in months. Since divorcing our mother, his visits with us were few and far between. He’d usually show up sometimes, though not always, around the holidays. That year he appeared a few days before Christmas with a large plastic bag from the five and dime full of things for Mark and me. Cotton socks and underwear. Head bands, bobby pins and ribbons for my hair, blue jeans and a plaid shirt for Mark. The shirt was too big. The jeans too small. He brought comic books and crayons too. He brought it all with no gift wrapping, the price tags still on. He shoved the bag into the hall closet, shaking an admonishing finger at us while smiling his crooked grin, saying it was ours to raid on Christmas Eve and not a day before.
Our mother, exasperated, asked if he couldn’t have at least had things wrapped. They argued. We stayed in Mark’s room, watching the turtles. He finally retreated there with us and I remember him sitting on the edge of the small twin bed where Mark slept, his hands resting on his knees. He was smoking a cigarette, lightly tapping his fingers together. Mark was explaining to him how he found the turtles and I remember him nodding his head, smiling, lifting the cigarette to his lips. He seemed preoccupied, his mind always elsewhere, always on something, some next thing, he had to get to. Then he took a piece of paper from one of Mark’s spiral notebooks and started folding it. “Watch this here,” he said, cigarette dangling from his lips. Mark grew still with rapt attention. “Make a crease here, fold these down,” he continued. He was making a paper airplane.
I turned my attention away from both of them, peering into the dark shells of the turtles. He sailed the paper airplane across the room. I felt it whoosh overhead and softly hit the wall behind me. “Got that, boy?” he said, and he patted Mark on the head. He tugged at a strand of my hair and winked. “Bye-bye sugar,” he said. He got up and left. A few minutes later we heard the front door slam and Mark leapt up. I went after him as he ran downstairs and out the back door of the kitchen. He crawled under the house and I followed. I was breathing fast and Mark was too. It was cold and dark and we could hear our mother shouting after him. We could see her feet in the driveway, her pink terry-cloth slippers, the flowery hem of her dress, and our father’s grey slacks and scuffed brown loafers. He shouted back, saying something about a lousy holiday. And it would be too, we knew. The view from where we sat was strange, like a cropped photograph. We could see the sidewalk, short tufts of brown grass, the street where cars went by, gleaming chrome and tires. Our breath came out in icy clouds.
He started up the car. Our mother disappeared back into the house. We heard the door slam, the crunch of gravel as he backed out onto the street. Then Mark’s breath started coming out in short gasps. He started clutching handfuls of rocks and dirt, wheezing, his cheeks puffing out like small balloons. I thought I heard him mutter “bastard” as he struggled to breathe. It was freezing. Late afternoon. Cold and gray. I shouted at him to stop. He rushed past me, slipped out from under the porch, running, running, pitching rocks and dirt at the back end of our father’s black Chrysler as it rolled away. I could only see his bare skinny legs, his blue socks bunched low around his ankles, his hard brown shoes. Their laces had nearly come untied. He’d worn shorts that day. A pair of khaki ones that came down to the knees. I remember how raw and cold his skin was; my own face was red, my cheeks frozen by the time we went back inside the house.
The next morning, he got up early and while I was still asleep, he dressed quietly, gathered the turtles in the yellow towel and went to the park where he put them down near the stream and bid them farewell. I was mad at him for doing that and wouldn’t speak to him for days. Christmas finally came. We moved on to other things, and our father came again in spring to visit and then, for a long time, he didn’t come back.
That evening, after our father had gone, Mark went right up to his room, closed the door behind him and locked it. He wouldn’t let me or mother in. I heard him though. I peeked through the keyhole and could see him, only partly, running in circles around his small bedroom. It seemed his arms were flapping up and down as he ran, breathing erratically. I was afraid he might try to fly out the window. He didn’t, of course. He stayed there the whole evening, never coming down for dinner. Later, as I was washing the supper dishes I saw, from the kitchen window, drifts of white paper sailing down, one after the other. He had ripped pages from that same notebook, methodically folding one paper airplane, then another and another until he had dozens of them. Then he opened his bedroom window and sent them forth, one after the other. Out they came, sailing into the treetops, floating in slow spirals to the ground, in the bird bath, in our mother’s bed of yellow day lilies, everywhere. How bright and swift they seemed in the lengthening winter twilight. Our mother let him be and told me to do the same. I thought that it must have gotten quite cold in his room and I remember just hoping his lungs wouldn’t explode.
“You make paper airplanes for Bea?” I said.
“Yeah. Of course. I made the mistake of doing it once for her. Now she wants to do it all the time.”
He paused again. And I was quiet too.
“You ever hear from the old man?” he asked.
“Me? Don’t be silly. He doesn’t call me. But mom says he calls her.”
“I’m not. Though I sometimes wonder if she knows what she’s saying. Her imagination has a tendency to overtake her memory these days. But why him? I can’t imagine.”
He laughed again. “I couldn’t ever imagine why,” he said. “I gotta go. I’m getting the endless pre-dawn yawns.”
“Get some rest,” I said. “Keep in touch.”
“It’s your turn to call next,” he said.
“In six months?”
He laughed. “Yeah. Something like that.”
The line clicked and he was gone. I opened the microwave and took out the soufflé. Peeling back the cellophane, I stirred it with a fork. I took a bite, swallowed a scalding mouthful.
I thought again about the turtles there on the carpet close to Mark’s feet as, angry and wheezing hard, he chucked the white paper airplanes out into the dark tides of that long ago winter evening. I see them with their legs and heads still pulled inside. They must have stayed that way all night, slumbering against the chill of winter air until Mark took them down to the stream the next morning and set them free.
Cool water running beneath those hard shells, their heads popping forth into the sun.
Carmelinda Blagg’s short story “Geographies”, which appeared in the Avatar Review, was selected to be included in the anthology The Best of the Web 2009. She has also published a number of poetry reviews with Poet Lore. She received her MA in writing from John Hopkins University and is presently working on a collection of short stories. She lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where she is a member of the Writer’s Center.
© 2009, Carmelinda Blagg