Bruce learned he could fly when he scared his family with his first lift-off at his second birthday party. General excitement and amazement, with shadows of fears, greeted his brief zooms over the picnic table, tomato plants, and aging white back yard fence.
He didn’t remember the flight. He remembered Granny McCune taking him by the hand and speaking to him. No words were recalled but her face, white and softly folded, small — one of the reasons he enjoyed her so much was her small stature, like an flowery elf, he’d decided, something he’d never shared with anyone — remained sharply focused in his mind.
Flying, itself, though, he forgot all about that. He was a little boy in America, he was growing, going to school and learning a lot. Nobody else flew and no one encouraged him to fly, so he forgot. Granny McCune, may she rest in peace, died when he was five. He didn’t know why. Then, there’s a memory gap, it seemed like, between her death and funeral when he was five, until he was living in Chicago when he was eight.
Even as an adult, he didn’t understand why they were living in Chicago. They were staying with aunts and uncles but he didn’t know why. By then, he had a little sister, as he always called her, instead of younger sister, to go along with his big, older sister. He was the only boy and a middle child. Dad was away often. He didn’t know what his Dad did then.
While in Chicago, he shared a bedroom with a cousin, Clarence, who was fourteen. The room was small, and he slept on a little cot beside Clarence’s twin bed. Keeping his curiosity to himself, he wondered where Clarence’s other twin bed was, because, he figured, if it was a twin, there must be two, right? Yes, that’s what he thought.
Clarence was a big baseball fan, a big fan. Wearing a Cubs hat and a pitcher’s mitt and holding a baseball, he listened to the games on a large Philco transistor radio in his room whenever he could. He wanted to be a major league pitcher, like Don Cardwell, who’d just pitched a no-hitter for the Cubs, but even then, while pitching for a Little League team (who were unfortunately, the Pirates), he knew he didn’t have it. He tried, and was better than most, but something inside him told him that he couldn’t do it, he told his little nephew without rancor or sadness, but rather the casual, matter-of-fact peculiarity with which the family processed victories, defeats, deaths, weddings and holidays.
Being an older American male and encouraged by his Mom, and Bruce’s mother, his Aunt Linda (who, shockingly, Clarence found attractive, which disturbed him because she was Mom’s sister), Clarence became a mentor to his little cousin, teaching him to play catch. Bruce showed a remarkable natural ability for catching the ball. Throwing was another matter, but throw that ball anywhere and he’d race and jump for it.
Naturally, doing one running and jumping effort, Bruce took off.
He’d not really noticed that he’d done it. To him, it was about getting the ball. Clarence would have put it down to an amazing jump, except Bruce continued hovering, pleased with his catch and then focusing on throwing the ball accurately to Clarence.
Catching the ball, Clarence watched Bruce land and then walked to him. “How’d you do that?”
Not understanding the object of the question, Bruce shrugged. “I don’t know.” It was his stock answer. Other children wanted to know how he remembered things so easily and effortlessly. He didn’t know and didn’t want to explain. He felt the same about whatever it was that Clarence was asking him about.
“Do you know what you just did?” Clarence asked.
Certainly, Bruce understood what he’d just did, he caught the ball. That seemed so obvious, he shrugged. He was beginning to wonder if he was in trouble.
Looking around the yard like he was worried about a wild animal getting him — something Bruce understood because his Mom always warned him to be careful, “And don’t let the wild animals get you,” — Clarence said, “We’d better go inside.”
Clearly, he’d done something wrong. Bruce said. “Can’t we catch a little longer?” Why couldn’t that be done? Only darkness, the threat of wild animals, and an adult’s summons or admonition curtailed his activities. This seemed very arbitrary of Clarence, a word Bruce had just learned. He hoped he was using it correctly.
“No, I’m just thirsty,” Clarence said vaguely in what Bruce recognized was a lie. However, if Clarence was going to lie, that’s the way it was going to be, because Clarence was older than him. So, shrug, oh, well.
That night, there was an intense meeting in the dining room involving Clarence and all the adults. After that, Bruce’s Mom and Aunt Jean sat Bruce down and sat opposite him in a way that told him, This Is Serious. “Honey,” his Mom said, touching his cheek in the manner that she did, which irritated him. Pulling back and grimacing, he pushed her hand away and said, “Stop it. You’re always touching me.”
Aunt Jean and his Mom looked at each other. “He doesn’t like being touched,” his Mom said. Aunt Jean nodded. His Mom explained to Bruce, with interruptions and assistance from his Aunt Jean, that he should not fly, because others couldn’t fly, and that would scare them. He didn’t understand why they’d be scared of that, because he wouldn’t do anything to anyone, and pestered her about that point with impatient questions, until she finally said, “I know, I know, Bruce. Just promise me that you’ll never fly again, okay?”
“I promise,” Bruce answered. He wasn’t happy. In bed later, he thought it all over. He understood he’d flown without trying. That’s why Clarence stopped playing catch, he figured. Clarence did have a look on his face. He didn’t look afraid, but that must have been it. He thought he’d apologize to Clarence the next day but a family emergency interrupted.
It took some time for him to understand what had happened, years, really, but his Dad had been killed in a car accident in Indianapolis. His flight and his cousin’s reaction fused with his promise to his Mom, and his Dad’s death into a defining core of his future behavior.
For a long time, Bruce didn’t fly. He didn’t tell anyone he could fly. He went to college, met girls, had sex, was drunk a few times, and sick sometimes, and smoked joints five or six times, but he never told anyone he could fly, and he never flew. He pursued a normal, flightless life of graduating college, finding employment, marrying, becoming a father, divorcing, marrying again, divorcing again, and settling into ruts that dissatisfied him more and more as he aged. He thought life would have been different than it was, and it disappointed him that it wasn’t.
It was at a party one evening when this reached a natural point. Fifty-two years old, he was the oldest person at the party by a few years. He thought the others, his co-workers, had invited him because they were being polite. It was a tight group of people, and even if he thought little of the others’ intelligence and talents, he liked them as individuals. The party sounded fun, too, and he was in a funk, as he noted to himself, an abysmal black mood that he didn’t think was ever going to end. He’d endured other funks but this one seemed worse. He was thinking about going to a therapist about it, although, he tacitly informed himself, his problem was that he didn’t feel like he fit, and he felt lonely. He didn’t believe anyone particularly cared about him, not even his children, sisters or Mom. So he had no outlets for his complaints. That’s why he needed a therapist, just to have someone to talk to about what bothered him.
The party wasn’t working out. Held at Michele’s house on the coast, he was a little jealous of everyone else. They seemed happier, more satisfied and better engaged. They laughed a lot. As they did, he slipped to the edges. Drink didn’t entice him. He thought that if he left, nobody would notice, so he tested that theory by slipping out.
A misty sea breeze regaled him outside. He heard the ocean but didn’t see it. Sunset was imminent, so he walked down a street in the beach’s general direction. Seeing a sign marked, “Beaches”, he followed a trail through some grass into a sharper, damper sea breeze. The trail went up, away from the beach, which disappointed him. He thought he’d walk along the beach at sunset, but after a while, he found himself on a bluff. Tule fog dominated the ocean’s horizon. The sun was just eating into it.
His ongoing internal treatise about who he was, what he wanted, and why he was dissatisfied, was resumed, and then he remembered how he’d flown. The memory burped up out of the nothing of thought in such stark clarity that he was certain he was thinking of a book he’d read, or a movie that he’d seen. But then, with still introspection, he recalled his flight when he was eight years old and his promise to his mother not to fly. He took out his cell phone with a thought that maybe he should call Mom and ask him if he was remembering that right, or not. But then, he thought, why hadn’t it been mentioned all these years? Also, he remembered it with more intimate details that whispered, “It’s true,” to him. And although he loved his Mom, she really was about herself, her health, and the grandchildren and great-grandchildren these days. She rarely actually asked him, “How are you?”
Instead he thought, why? I will just fly. Others were on the beach and the bluff, but he didn’t care. So, as the tule fog swallowed the setting sun’s dulling tangerine presence, he stepped forward, off the ground and into flight.
Others always argued about what was seen and what had happened. He would not know that. Flying felt so beautiful and natural that he immediately felt released. The sun’s last rays were warmer, and the breeze was less. Without thinking much about it, he kicked off his shoes and let them plummet to the ground. The rest of his clothes followed, piece by piece, even his cargo shorts with his wallet, and his boxer shorts, until all that he wore were his expensive sunglasses. So attired, he rose into the sky above the tule fog, into the space where the sun was still over the horizon, and continued flying toward it. Small craft were underneath. Swooping and laughing, he waved to their occupants, pleased with their reactions.
Why hadn’t he flown all these years, he asked himself. He’d been missing out an a powerful element of himself.
He continued on, climbing higher, until his sunglasses slipped off his face and he rose into the ether like a happy, unencumbered two-year old, leaving behind a huge mystery about what had happened to him. His BMW was still at Michele’s house, and they had the reports of what others had seen. There was one video of the flying man incident on someone’s cell phone but everyone thought that was faked. His shoes washed up on shore at different locations and were collected as unremarkable trash, as was his other clothing, and his wallet was found years later, hundreds of miles north of where he’d disappeared. Some claimed that was evidence that he’d been alive, hiding under a different name.
Only his mother, on hearing the news that her son was gone, understood, and accepted.