“Through the Air” by Thaddeus Rutkowski

A friend of my father’s came to visit. When I saw him, he was sitting in the kitchen with my father. They were drinking beer from mugs and ignoring the black-and-white television, which was playing silently.

“How long did it take you to get here?” my father asked.

“About an hour.”

“How did you do that? It would take me four or five hours,” my father said.

“I flew in a straight line, with my plane,” the friend said. “I landed at the local airport and got a car.”

My father invited me to join them and poured another glass of beer. I sat at the table and took a sip—the liquid was strong and bitter. I set the glass in front of me and looked at it instead of at the men. 

The friend was talking about his aerial art. “My work is an extension of Futurism,” he explained. “The Futurists wanted speed, and they used technology. They found both with airplanes.”

He demonstrated with a fork and an empty beer mug. “I go straight up with the engine on full blast,” he said as lifted his device and made roaring sounds in his throat.

 “Then the engine stalls out.” He turned the fork and mug over and lowered them toward the floor. He rattled the fork inside the mug to approximate a coughing motor. “I restart it before I hit the ground.” 

“How do you show your art?” my father asked.

“I make smoke trails while I fly, and someone on the ground takes photos. I use the photos, along with prints of my wing patterns, to make collages. I write words like ‘Roaaarrr’ over the images.”

When my father’s friend left the room, my father said to me. “I’m no Futurist. The Futurists were namby-pamby. They couldn’t see what was going to happen. Where are they now?” 

He rolled a cigarette, licked the paper and pulled crumbs of tobacco off his lips. “I look to the past; I look for what we’ve lost. No one cares about what I do.”

He brought me to his “studio”—a darkened room of the house—and gestured toward a rusted tricycle on the floor. “See that?” he said.

There were no colors on the warped object, and the surface was uniformly brown. The wheels and pedals were frozen in place.

“I found that in a field,” my father said. “I’m going to make paintings of it, just as soon as I get the time. Now, I have to spend all of my time with you kids. You don’t know what to do with yourselves.”

I went to find my brother and sister so we could do something on our own. We walked out to the yard, followed the edges of the grass, then walked back in. We sat in our rooms.

When my father’s friend offered to take my siblings and me for a ride, we became excited. Our father didn’t like body-tossing rides, so he didn’t go along.

At the airfield, the pilot led me across the tarmac to his plane. “It’s a Citabria,” he said. “That’s ‘Airbatic’ spelled backwards.”

I got into the plane’s back seat. In front of me, the pilot walked to the propeller and grabbed it with both hands. He rotated the blade a couple of times, got into his seat, and adjusted some knobs. He stepped out and swung the propeller again. The engine caught, and the propeller became a blur.

“Do we have parachutes?” I asked over the engine’s sound.

“No,” he shouted. “If anything goes wrong, we’ll buy the farm.”

As we ascended, I could see the landscape dropping away. The horizon remained steady as we climbed. Suddenly, the horizon vanished and I could see only sky. I felt blood rushing to my head.

“Plus three G’s,” the pilot announced.

The horizon came back into view, and the land, with its trees, roads and houses, came toward us.

“Minus two G’s.”
There was silence as the sky and land slid across the plane’s windshield. “The engine stalled,” the pilot announced. 

I didn’t see how he could get out of the plane and restart it by spinning the propeller. He pushed a plunger and flipped a switch, and the engine caught. “I had to prime it,” he said.

I tapped him on the shoulder and shook my head. 

“Had enough?” he said as he leveled the plane. 

We took a straight flight over a lake and town before heading back to the airfield. I felt better—actually, perfect—as soon as my feet touched the ground.

One after the other, my brother and sister went up in the plane. When they returned, they each said they had enjoyed the ride. 

“It was more fun than a carnival,” my sister said.

“I’ll do it again,” my brother said.

At home, I found my father sitting on the rusted tricycle. He had a beer bottle in one hand and a smoldering cigarette in the other. “I can’t get a show,” he said, “because I don’t know the technology.”

“Maybe you could take a course,” I suggested.

“I can’t go to school,” he said. “I have to take care of you.”

He inhaled from the cigarette and drank from the bottle. “I made a mistake,” he said. “I should never have had children.”

After my father’s friend had left, my mother said to me, “I asked him not to come back. He makes your father depressed, and then your father treats all of us badly.”

“Do you think he’ll come back?” I asked.

“He and your father have known each other a long time. You know where they’re from. It’s a little town. You were there once. Do you remember?”

“I remember being somewhere. I don’t remember that town.”

“I hope he doesn’t come back,” she said.

“Can I still be friends with him?”

“Maybe he’ll get in touch with you, years from now.”

My father gave me a model kit—with the pieces, I could make a glider out of balsa wood. The parts for the toy were in a plastic bag. I took the slats out and fitted them together. I slid a flat piece through a slot in the “fuselage” for the wings and pressed strips into slots for the tail fin and tail plane. I clipped a metal weight onto the nose and took the glider to the yard next to the nearby school. I threw the plane flat out in front of me. The glider arced up, then stalled and came straight down, bouncing when it hit the grass. I adjusted the wings and launched the plane again. It flew up in a gentle arc and landed on the roof of the school building.

I had to climb onto an electrical unit next to the building and jump to the lip of the roof. I pulled myself up and swung my legs over. The glider was lying on the gravel that covered the roof. I picked up the tiny aircraft and pitched it from the rim of the roof.

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of seven books, most recently Tricks of Light, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his memoir Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. 

Author photo: Tony Cenicola

Image: “Passing By” by Yousef Abdelmagid

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