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The Pilot

Runner-up in Boston Review's Fifth Annual Short Story Contest.

Wade S. Echer

The two remaining engines drown out the noise from the kitchen-the laughing voices, the clank of pots and pans. Dense smoke swirls through the cockpit in gray acrid puffs, coating the windscreen and gauges with an oily film that smears when the pilot wipes them with his gloved hand. What is burning now? Is someone on that? Afternoon sunlight ripples across the surface of the channel; it breaks into rainbows against the fouled instrumentation glass. Is someone on that? The pilot's gloves are wet inside. Yessir! someone answers. Out of the corners of his eyes he sees the frozen, feathered props, their cowlings blasted open and veined with trails of oil and smoke; behind him the sky howls through a jagged hole in the fuselage. He takes one hand from the yoke, flexes the cramp out of it, then the other, muscling the bucking column as the control surfaces flap, shattered by the German pilots. The port aileron vibrates like a tuning fork, and something in the tail sounds as if it may tear loose, though no one has spoken of it. She shudders through brief turbulence, spent casings pacing the floor beneath his feet, trickling down into the nose in a sporadic metal hail. Around him he feels his crew, their hesitant exhalations and silent prayers in perfect union.

Below, the aircraft's shadow skips over the last dark waves of the channel and bursts across green England, the familiar shape fluttering across fields and treetops. In a few elongated minutes the hangars and barracks appear, tin structures agleam with sunlight, separated by a thin strip of black that is for all aboard the sum of their hopes and the focus of their dread. The other planes in his squadron that have returned are arrayed about the field, swarmed about by men and support vehicles, and now the cripples are trailing in to meet their fate. And the radio is crackling and squawking, beckoning, warning that Yes, you've come far, now set her down, one chance.

Now the air rolls out from beneath the wings, the plane settles, the altimeter needle unwinds. Behind him someone curses and sprays a fire extinguisher and the chemical stench burns his eyes and makes his vision watery. But his mouth is a desert; he runs his tongue over his parched lips.

The copilot counts it off: five hundred, four, three . . . his voice unnaturally high.

The landing gear locks into position with a thud.

"Granddad! Gramma says mash the potatoes!" A boy's voice. The screen door slams.

The horizon swells up around them, the edge of the runway in the distance and vehicles flashing by beneath. But she is too slow; she is coming in too slow and she starts to shimmy, and that horrible sound shakes everything, rumbles through his body louder and louder and the electric voice is squawking You're short! You're short! and time gets longer as the wing tips start to seesaw, the plane trying to roll and the pilot trying to push his throttles through the steel that stops them. He sees nothing but earth, the plane rushing ahead; he thinks Touch! Touch! and then impact, the plane bouncing and righting itself and rising up to drop again, landing gear buckling as the aircraft slams a second time against the earth. Then a long long impact and shouts and shrieking metal and the shudder making you sick like you never felt sick before. He pitches forward into darkness.

Then: smoke, dust, a babel of voices through ringing ears. And hands. Not the sight of hands, nor the sight of anything else, but the odd sensation of hands grasping and clutching, pulling, picking him up, lifting him from the seat, from the aircraft, lifting him up into the air. It is the weightless feeling again, but no sickness. A warm garland on his brow and already the roar of another straggler coming in and the blast of air after the sound, blue sky breaking through the smoke and dust.

He grinds out his cigarette and throws it into the wisteria where one of the hens rushes over to investigate. The air is crisp, and in the crisp distance the snarl of chainsaws presages winter. He stands, smooths back his thin silver hair, and walks to the kitchen door; there are potatoes to be mashed.

"Didn't you hear me calling?" his wife demands.

It is Thanksgiving, and the chilly kitchen windows bead with condensation. Soft light falls upon counters heaped high with good things, the scents fattening the air to a thick flavor of its own: turkey and stuffing, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, freshly baked bread-all lined up militarily on the countertops. Through yellowed glass the oven reveals its progeny: rolls rise, the bird simmers, and cherry, pumpkin, and pecan pies smolder lasciviously. The voyeur's tuberous nose and lustful eyes expand across chrome handles like carnival mirrors. Not a bite, and already his trousers feel snug.

He surveys the mountain of cooked and peeled potatoes before him and sets to work, drawing his face back from the rising steam. They smell starchy and dull, wanting gravy. Already he fantasizes about the nap he will take after the meal. Behind him three grandchildren run noisily through the kitchen, threatened by a daughter with a wooden spoon who makes them put on their jackets and go outside to play until dinner is ready. There is laughter and loud crashing and then a door bangs open and closed and they are gone. He watches them run across the yard. The milo is harvested and the trees have shed their foliage, yet still the weather is mild and he likes to sit outside whenever he can, or else doze in his recliner. Winter is the off season, earned by long days of hard work. Winter is contemplative; it is the season to sit back and make your peace with the fading year, to think thoughts endlessly.

He has much to be thankful for. In fact he is surrounded on every side by the things for which he has to be thankful: a strong wife of fifty years, their children, a varying number of in-laws, a gaggle of grandchildren, the house, the farm. Even his old man's paunch is a blessing of sorts, the blessing of surfeit for someone who has tasted the want of things; the young ones do not know it. He had been thinking, as he sat on the steps, of Thanksgiving and the meaning of the word Thanksgiving. To whom should he give thanks? He is not a religious man. He does not disbelieve, but that is all. If God exists and God has done the giving, then he has done so unasked and must not have expected anything in return. He worked, and has paid for what he received. Not a payment actually. A trade. He has traded one life for another-the air for the land-and now here he stands, mashing potatoes, his house and family gathered around. This is simply how, in the end, everything has worked out. As for the price, he is the only one who reckons it much.

A woman will ground you, he knew that. Clip your wings right off and hand them to you. Was that not how it had happened? The potatoes crumble beneath the masher. They married as the war was warming up, and while he trained to fly at bases in Oklahoma and Texas she followed, both of them living like gypsies and seeing each other when they could. While he was overseas she waited for him to return, living in her parents' big limestone house near the Saline River, and when the war ended and he returned she begged him to leave the service, to settle down and farm like both their fathers. He faltered; he had grown to love the service with its order and its airplanes-for in flying he had found the single thing for which he was most suited, had found the church that provided the one sacrament he could receive, the one for which he felt a great hunger and need. There was nothing to replace the feeling of your wheels floating off of the tarmac, aircraft angling up into the sky and climbing away from the earth. And people saw that he had been changed by his time away but could not guess at the reason, and he could not tell them what it was; a quiet man when he went to war, he was more so upon his return. Then she became pregnant with their first child. What kind of a life is this for a baby? she had asked, and he knew that it was none. He gave up his commission and left the Air Corps.

Later he decided to go into business crop dusting with a friend from the Air Corps. They argued but he made her see the sense in it until his friend flew the duster into power lines and burned, and she cried and told him to make a decision: make a decision because she had worried every day for four years, because she had gone to the funerals in Oklahoma and Texas, because she had watched the papers and waited for the knock on the door. And she was not going to worry-could not worry-anymore.

He returned to the fields, and entered into another life of service.

Sometimes a moment came back so sweet and clear. Before going overseas he had been flying a load of navigation cadets on a training mission and they had gotten themselves lost-aimlessly wandering for hours, rustling maps and conferring in hushed tones, desperately trying to work out their position. He knew exactly where they were, and while they fretted over their charts he sat quietly in the cockpit, thinking and admiring the stars. As morning came on they ran into heavy turbulence and the plane started bouncing like a kid shaking a soda pop, sometimes plummeting like a stone, and after a few minutes of rough flying one of the cadets started vomiting. You're going to clean that up, cadet!

Yes sir!

And then the cadet sitting next to him threw up in sympathy, and so on until there were fifteen paste-white recruits vomiting on the floor, walls, and ceiling of his aircraft as it bounced its way back home. He had started laughing-under his breath at first-but could not stop, and at last he and his copilot sat glancing at one another, stricken with laughter.

From the dining room, the screech of chairs being drawn across hardwood. "Raymond Guthrie! Get the leaves out for the table!"

He steals into the living room to sit in his easy chair. A son-in-law sprawls unconscious across the couch, and his youngest grandchild sits cross-legged in the middle of the floor playing a video game. His feet, gnarled by years of walking worked ground, give him pain, and each year he values the recliner more and visits it with greater frequency. His body feels heavy, terrestrial. Joints pop and groan when he sits down; his stomach bulges up to challenge his belt.

The video game bleeps and farts.

"What are you up to?"

"Just playing," the child mutters, neon spaceships reflected in his eyeglasses.

The room is warm and comfortable and he sinks into the chair, hands resting on his belly, the accumulation of his wife's solid cooking and many late-night missions for wedges of his beloved sharp cheddar. The fire crackles, and everything is far away.

There was the hot-shot major-an ace just swaggering back from his tour-flying certification missions for the new pilots before they were sent overseas. The major sat in the co-pilot's seat, frowning, making notes. You call that a loop, Lieutenant? Try a tight one. And then he pulled a loop, the kind that has you squinting down the tunnel, and when he pulled out the major was slumped in his seat like a corpse, mouth open, spittle on his starched collar and never again a word said about certification. There was that time; that was a good one.

In Texas, whenever he had an afternoon to spend as he wished he would check out a little twin engine Beechcraft and shoot landings for hours, just for the hell of it, and the plane was made of paper and floated on the currents like a great bird, drifting, diving-alone all day, the fields beneath laid out like a patchwork quilt.

The family is a flurry of activity around his deliberate form as he makes his way to his seat, his thoughts far away. The younger girls glide past, bearing trays of olives and bread which they clunk onto the table and quickly sit down before they are asked to do anything else, the youngest so small in the big wooden chairs; she cannot fill it up. But the table is arrayed for armies; it is resplendent, its furthermost boundaries squeezed with platters and serving dishes and Protestant, unadorned place settings with mismatched silverware and green plastic tea glasses, everything clean and catching light. A son says grace:

"Our Heavenly Father, we thank you at this time for allowing us to be together again at the holidays, and we thank you for the food we see here before us. . . ."

From his chair at one end of the table he watches, as he always does, to see who is not participating in grace. Twice a year they say grace, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and he likes to catch people cheating. His youngest granddaughter surreptitiously returns a roll to the tray before her, and a second later her mother, without opening her eyes or acknowledging the child, reaches out a praying hand and returns it to the child's plate. Everything is for the children, who make everything complete. Who could imagine the holidays without them? At the far end of the table sits his wife, stern but calm as she listens to the list of everything they are thankful for and the few they would like. She makes amendments when necessary: "Don't forget: enough rain!" she orders, voice flat, eyes shut, hands clenched in a haymaker.

". . . and Father, thank you for all the rain we've received, but we ask that we might have a mild autumn. . . ."

Through the walls the wind moans. Steam rising from the table drifts in the glow of the electric lights. Their bowed heads are gathered in a group about him and he watches their prayer going up to heaven.

Sometimes even the physical sensations came back: the roar of the engines, the deep vibration you felt in the seat of your pants and along the roof of your mouth.

He was flight commander and first plane in his formation the day they ran into flak over Kassel. Almost there . . . the bombardier's tinny voice buzzed through their headsets as the tiny squares drifted into the bombsight cross hairs . . . pass the fruit salad please. They idled in that silent, inactive terror, waiting for the bombardier to release while concussions battered the aircraft. His hands hovered near the yoke, as if to guide its movements by thought alone. Hang on, just a second away. Lot of smoke down there . . . There was an explosion in front of the aircraft. The starboard windscreen exploded back into the cockpit with a rush of air. The copilot clamped his hands over his face, blood pouring between his fingers. Pass the fruit salad! They dropped their bombs and flew home.

"Are you going deaf? Are you going to pass that fruit salad or is it just going to sit there and rot?" his wife says.

Everyone has come to the conclusion that he is going deaf; he hears them talking behind his back. It suits him. He hears what he wants to hear and when he does not want to hear something he stares through people and walls and walks away. He deserves it; another old man's privilege. Still, he does not take it too far. A friend his age had convinced his family that he was losing his hearing and after a few years of people shouting at the top of their lungs he went stone deaf.

There had been times before a mission when he would stand on the tarmac early in the morning and watch the sun rise, his breath condensing against the cold. Would it be the last? he would think, overwhelmed by a feeling that he was caught in a fierce wind which twirled all of creation around, reshaping it at unbelievable speed. His breath would stop short, then return haltingly, making him lightheaded and forcing him to lean against the aircraft's frigid skin to keep his balance. He had not felt that way in a very, very many years. Now change took a glacial pace, and lost balance a reminder to take his heart pills.

Would anyone gorging themselves at this table understand if he said he knew what it felt like when your life became stretched so tight that it sang? Would their skin turn cold if he explained how sometimes the Luftwaffe pilots came so close to killing you that you could reach out and wiggle your fingers through your good fortune? Or how it felt watching an engine burn? Or the feeling deep inside you when you saw those dark shapes spilling out of the sun in waves, far above you? Could words briefly reconstruct the thin young pilot, or would they form a parody-an old man telling war stories. None of it could be put into words. He knew; he had tried. Words turned to lead. People nodded in patronizing agreement; made jokes about feelings that were not humorous. The kids asked if he had ever killed a German.

To risk everything one more time, and fly again. Could you possibly imagine that feeling? Somewhere across the ocean he knew there were pilots of the Reich, fat on Dunkelsbier and Bratwurst, who ached to have a go at it again for no other reason than to stretch out their creaking, comfortable lives.

After eating he wraps himself in a coat and returns to the porch to smoke a cigarette and drink a cup of coffee. The overcast sky is brilliantly white and the air sharp, cool, exciting. Last night it rained again and now a breeze is blowing down from the north, cooling everything off. A card game is starting up at the kitchen table. He can hear them pairing off for a game of pitch. Shortly the door opens and a daughter yells at him to come in and play-but he says no, says he wants to drive out to his fields and check the wheat.

He drives slowly, looking out at the land he has known all his life. A light drizzle begins to fall, and standing water turns the dark asphalt into a band of mirrored sky. The low clouds are jammed together, ill-fitting, and the seams blaze with sunlight, illuminating the landscape in drifting narrow strips. Gradually road becomes runway and the sharp hum of the tires on wet asphalt becomes the roar of giant Wright-Cyclones. The fat diesel engine strains beneath the hood and the air bends around the glass-enclosed smoke, but the pickup is heavy, and the pregnant earth swells up around it, sprouting trees, telephone poles, and fencerows.

Six weeks into basic flight instruction his instructor climbed out of the forward cockpit, leaned into his, said Take her around three times and walked over to the open door of one of the rusted Quonset huts to stand in the shade and watch. He had not expected it, since every cadet was supposed to have eight hours of flight time before they soloed and he had only six, but the flight instructor had ordered him to go and now there he stood on the concrete watching patiently, pointing to the sky and making patronizing circular motions with his finger.

Minus the instructor the little Fairchild shoots up off the runway, weightless, just as he himself seems to be, and the painful baggage of youth-the self-deprecating insecurities, the numberless tiny failures, the corrosive doubting-falls away like paint exposing metal; what is left is confidence-the first fruitful culmination of long discipline and effort. He banks stiffly, cursing the novice hand that lurches the aircraft through a turn. But as the buildings and airstrips shrink and the far horizon comes into view through the vacant forward cockpit he shouts at the top of his lungs, laughing and throwing his hands in the air.

Standing amongst the rain-darkened fields he looks at the lines of freshly sprouted wheat, all about six inches tall and ready to be covered by a blanket of snow for the winter. The memory of that first flight still flutters inside his head like a swallow trapped inside a barn. Bullfrogs croak from the ditch. He takes the glass vial from the rain gauge and holds it up to the sky. The rainwater and a drowned mosquito twirl inside: 75 hundredths. He dumps out the water and turns again to study the plants. They stretch out endlessly in ordered rows. The field swells gently, trailing away into haze in the distance where the massive sky comes down and claims everything. A jet passes overhead and he looks in time to see it dart through a break in the clouds, then disappear. And the mud climbs up the sides of his boots to hold him fast.

The living room is comfortable. He eases the recliner back and clears his throat. After several attempts at turning on the television, he discovers he is holding the remote control backward, and when he succeeds in turning it on the weather report is already over. He closes his eyes.

His wife appears. "Take two cartons of eggs down to Mary Pat's before you fix the knob on the stove and the little ones want to know if you'll take them home later if they stay awhile to play games and glue the handle back on this coffee cup or I'll have to throw it away when you go down in the freezer bring me up some zucchini bread for breakfast in the morning and take the turkey guts out in the alley for the cats are you listening to me Raymond? Raymond!"

"What?" he asks, jerking partially upright in his recliner. He seems startled.

She grits her teeth and casts a punishing glance at Jesus in Heaven on high. "I said you're going deaf. Did you hear me? DEAF!"

He listens to her angry footsteps recede, hears her exclaiming heatedly in the kitchen. Someone says "hearing aid" and then a racket rises up, like hens squabbling over a fat piece of suet, and then it all recedes into the background where it belongs and will stay.

The television burbles. The easy chair does its magic. He looks around at the house which has risen from the ground on the strength of his labors and he is pleased. He feels his family nearby but not actually within sight and smiles. He is thankful, and perhaps it does not matter where your thankfulness is directed, so long as it is in you. It is all good, he thinks. A life which other men should envy. And if, in some forgotten corner of some little used closet his khakis stand at attention, starched, pressed, reeking of moth balls, so be it. And let the clusters and commendations waste away in their dark drawer forever-red, white, patina and rust. There are so many good things here. With his hands clasped around his girth he drifts into sleep.

No stick, no cockpit, no engines, no wings-he stretches out his arms and the compliant sky pulls him up. The clouds dissipate as he rises to meet them and the gray yields to an ever increasing blue as the sweet, rain-cleansed air swells in his chest. Wind creases his face, roars in his ears. Dreamer you are dreaming! says the dreamer's voice, but everything is made complete by the sleeper's artifice: first a few gentle banking turns to get the feel of his weightless body, and then a loop, a tight loop that sets off the old fireworks. Then a snap roll; a dive; inverted loops; barrel rolls; Immelmanns . . .

When he hears, faintly, in the distance, someone calling his name, he makes snoring noises and flies so high he can make out the luminous curvature of the earth.

Originally published in the Summer 1998 issue of Boston Review



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