Flight

“This is how it works,” says my father, squinting as he twirls a long string of elastic rubber around his fingers. Then he lets go, and the elastic unravels instantly, feverishly.

“That’s how it works,” he says.

Coffee House Readings

We’re perched on the curbside with the contents of a model airplane kit splayed before us, all the little metal pieces sparkling, visibly heating in the August sunlight. He reaches for the fuselage—a foot-long wafer of balsa wood decorated in blood-red ink—and holds it up to the sun, squinting again. This casts a certain light on his face that highlights the latticework of wrinkles around the outer corners of his eyes, his cheeks and the bridge of his nose all speckled with sun damage, his irises wan and graying. He is getting old.

He tells me that balsa is the lightest wood in the world, and that it’s perfect for model airplanes, and that he used to experiment with stuff like this all the time when he was a kid. But he never had a kit. He always had to make it from scratch.

I believe him. He’s lived in our hometown of Lewiston, Maine, all his life, living the whole thing from scratch. He met my mother when he was enrolled at the same high school I’d later graduate from, and they settled in a home six miles from it to raise my brother and me. My parents had never found a reason to leave Lewiston because they never felt like they were needed anywhere else. Their cozy hometown with its tree-lined streets, family-owned bakeries, riverside parks and downtown coffee shops became all they’d ever needed out of the world—just a place to linger, bake bread, and gently exist.

And of course, I’d grow to see Lewiston similarly—my family and me and our community: simple beads on a thin snaking thread. But we all knew that I’d have to detach eventually, that there was no practical future for me stretching and yawning in Lewiston’s warm linens. It was a bittersweet realization that came to me that day with my father and the airplane, that struck me suddenly after 18 years of sleepy ignorance; it told me I’d be leaving seven days later for college.

It hits me as I watch my father’s agile fingers apply all the necessary amounts of pressure to the delicate wooden pieces as he assembles the plane. He inserts the tail into its slot and angles it just so, then fits the wings in and affixes a paperclip to each one to add drag. The propeller, in garish blue plastic, looks anachronistic and silly perched on the nose of the classic wooden model. But when my father flicks it with his forefinger, it spins silently and beautifully. He loops the elastic band around the hook in the center of the propeller and stretches it to the hook on the opposite side of the fuselage, and then it’s whole.

And even though I’m existing in real time, I really feel like I’m just hanging there, in suspended animation, as if attached to wires. Things suddenly appear very surreal: the honeyed tarmac of the abandoned parking lot we’re in, my father murmuring as his old hands carefully build the little plane, the slow sporadic traffic that creeps along the road behind us. Inside, I panic: I don’t want the plane to be put together just yet, because once it’s whole, we’ll fly it, and then we’ll leave, and I’ll be forced to grow up.

But then my father stands up and puts his hand over his eyes and looks west at the low sun, and his shadow stretches all the way over to the toes of my sneakers. He has never looked so tall, and in this new light, which drags across him from the front and then tapers off on either side, he looks as if he could be a silhouette of anyone: just this silent figure, testing the direction of the wind, waving me over to him.

I go.

He explains the dynamics: twist the elastic, connect it to the hook in the center of the propeller, and release. Angle your wrist just so, hold the fuselage with these two fingers – no, these two – and let go.

“When?”

“Now!”

The little plane leaves my grasp with a quiet whirr and dashes forward and upward for a second or two, then arcs and dives violently, landing nose-first in the grass next to the lot we’re standing in. My father breaks into a run toward it—as if it’s bleeding to death. But I stay still, scared to find out if it’s already broken. I picture it in pieces on the grass: the wingspan splintered, the innocent flesh-colored wood smeared with dirt. I think to myself, “That plane is not strong enough.”

My father kneels and I can see him pick it up – it’s whole, but the tiny slice of balsa that comprised the tail has fallen out. I walk over and he stands, telling me it’s no big deal and that he can fix it. He runs the tail piece across his tongue. “This will help the pieces bond and stick.” And he wedges it back into its slot. Squinting at it, he adjusts it very slightly with his little finger—just a nudge to the left—and hands the plane to me for another try.

“It’s just going to crash again. I don’t want to break the thing,” I admit to my father’s serious face, watching his eyes drag slowly across the fuselage as he checks closely for any hidden cracks or specks of dirt that could affect the drag.

He looks up at me, shrugging, and says that if it breaks, he can fix it, and wouldn’t I like to see it fly, really fly, before we leave?

I wonder how my father can be so casual about the possibility of disaster, so positive about the possibility of success. I wonder if the plane means anything to him, I wonder how he expects me not to worry about its brittle skeleton and tiny metal pieces. I wonder if, like the plane, he and my mother are going to just release me into adulthood with a fluid flick of their wrists and hope I’ll fare well.

I’m scared. I sit down in the grass and rest my chin on my knees. From where I am I can only see my father from his knees down and the grass bending languidly around the tops of his shoes as he takes slow steps in my direction. My eyelids feel warm and heavy; I blink them gingerly.

“Watch,” I hear him say.

He takes the spine of the plane between his thumb and index finger and turns to face the sun. With his left hand he twists and hooks the elastic motor, and right as the rubber touches the metal, right as the blue spines of the propeller begin to spin into a solid blue disc, he releases the plane. As he does so, his elbow slides forward and his wrist darts backward all in one slick motion, like the predatory snap of a hungry snake.

I watch the flight from the ground. It soars, arcs, and sinks gracefully as if rolling up and down an invisible hill. It lands and slips to a stop, ending with its left wing leaning sleepily into the grass.

“Perfect!” My father shouts, his mouth opening into a brilliant grin as he turns to me and raises triumphant fists into the sky. His eyes catch the sunlight perfectly.

He glows in a way I’ve never seen him glow before. There is a certain sureness, a certain wisdom about him that can only come from the eyes and fingertips of a man who knows exactly how to build things so they work perfectly, and fix them so they can soar again.

>“Now,” he says, his voice light and close, his hand extended to me, “Get up, try again.”

He pulls me up quickly. His strength surprises me and I spring forward, nearly falling before I center myself and my body aligns straight. His hands, his energy, his excitement—they rectify me. I feel my cheeks flush.

As we run toward the plane, my father’s shadow scampers behind us, beside my own. They stretch indeterminately as we move forward.