We discovered the airplane the summer after the Polio had swept through town and left Skeeter Fitch with his paralyzed left leg strapped into a steel brace. On that June morning, Moe—who was called that because his mother cut his black hair in a bowl-cut like Moe Howard, one of the Three Stooges—led us down the dirt road behind our neighborhood, thick woods on one side and barbed-wire fence on the other.
Moe carried a whacking stick, which was just what it sounds like: a long heavy stick he used to whack against trees, fence posts, and other kids who got in his way.
His sidekick, Skeeter, gimped along behind. Skeeter was pale and already filthy, as usual, from rolling on the ground to get away from Moe’s whacking stick. Behind him walked Barry Raines—we called him Brains because he was already taking algebra in some sort of brainiac class at Central High School, even though he was only in eighth grade, like the rest of us.
Except my little brother, Robbie the Runt. Robbie the Runt was a puny little puke of a kid, my parents’ darling, who always got to tag along even though he was three years younger than me. Robbie wasn’t a bad kid—didn’t say much, did what he was told, never complained. He was just there—permanently, eternally there. Wherever I went, I would turn around and bump into the kid and he would give me his goofy grin and just stand there, getting in my way. Robbie the Runt was a smart kid, always reading biographies of George Washington and President Eisenhower and the Wright brothers and about how the Constitution was made. But try to show him how to patch a bicycle tire and he’d look at you like you just landed from Mars.
At the supper table, our dad would always get Robbie to show off what he was reading. Then he would shoot his cuffs—he always wore his office clothes to the supper table—and say to me, “And what are you reading, Marshall?” And he would look at me without blinking through his horn-rimmed glasses and steeple his clean fingers and I would feel about two inches tall. I didn’t read books. Books were hard for me. The letters danced out of reach and the sentences didn’t make a lot of sense unless I went really slow, and then I got bored and started to look out the window or whatever.
But give me a tool, something with weight that you could hold in your hand, a mechanical connection, something that bolted on or screwed in or turned a crank, and I could get lost for hours. I’d rebuilt our lawn mower twice and even tuned the engine in the Buick when Dad was out of town on business and he never noticed.
I had built a whole squadron of airplane models that hung on wires in the bedroom I shared with Robbie the Runt—not the easy plastic models but wooden models that came as blueprints and sheets of balsa wood and linen, and you had to cut the struts and frames and stretch the linen over the wings and fuselage and dope it to make it tight, attach little wires to the ailerons so they moved up and down and to the tail rudder so it cocked left or right. I bought them at the Western Auto with money I saved from my paper route. Mr. Rutledge, the manager, would order them for me special.
At night, lying in bed and listening to my parents argue downstairs, I’d stare up at the airplanes and watch them spin slowly in the breeze sifting in from the open window. The streetlight cast their shadows against the far wall, and I’d imagine flying—soaring and diving and looping all over the sky, my fist curled around the joystick, the wind flying past my face, my brother and all his stupid books far below in a miniature world that didn’t matter. I’d fall asleep watching the shadows dance across the wall. It was beautiful to see and lifted my heart on bad nights when I lay awake fearing that I would never amount to anything, which was a lot of nights. I miss them even now.
So at the supper table, I would just grin stupidly and say to my dad, “Well, the new Archie comic book is a real hoot.” And get sent my room—again—where I could work on my Sopwith Camel or Gypsy Moth.
Beyond the barbed-wire fence lay old man Saylor’s farm. He never raised anything but a few milk cows and horses, who had the run of the pastures and the creek. The pastures were all overgrown with burrs and blackberry bushes, and wherever an oak tree grew the space around it was an island of high, dense bramble thicket, ideal for a fort. Our fort in the woods had been bulldozed over during the winter to make room for more cheapo houses in a new subdivision. Now all the woods was surveyed and marked off with stakes, and by the end of the summer it would all be gone. So we were roaming farther afield, daring for the first time to venture across the barbed wire into unknown territory.
You could see out across the pasture to the creek, the sun already high enough to make us squint. Beyond the creek lay more pastures, more fences. On the rusty barbed wire hung a sign hand-painted in red letters on gray barnwood:
Trespassers wil be persecuted to the fool extend of the LAW
by 2 mongrel DOGS and a 12-gage SHOTGUN
what hain’t loded with sofer cushins
“That don’t mean nothing,” Moe said. “Them dogs been dead for fifty years.” Moe was a raw-boned kid with a head that was too big, his mop of black hair always flopping in his face so that he was constantly slicking it back with his left hand. He’d already done a stint in juvie for breaking into houses, and it was a sure bet he was going back someday soon. His father was a drinker and used to disappear for days on end and sometimes come home in a police car, and none of the grownups ever talked about it—except that Moe was one of the boys we were not allowed to play with.
But old man Saylor had a reputation for being eccentric and mean, and just maybe he had new mongrel dogs. Maybe he replaced the old mongrel dogs every couple of years, like some people replaced their old cars. Once when I was coming back from fishing the creek farther up the dirt road, I had caught a glimpse of one big yellow dog loping along the pasture near the house, and of old Mr. Saylor himself standing on the porch calling his yellow dog home. He was a tall, bony man dressed all in dungarees, with thick white hair and beard, like an Old Testament prophet. In those days the only men in our neighborhood who wore beards were the hobos who wandered in from the B&O railroad tracks. Old Mr. Saylor looked my way and shaded his eyes with a hand, like he was scouting, and I ran all the way home.
Skeeter unlaced the leather straps from his leg brace, stripped it off from his dungarees, and stuffed it behind a bush, the way he always did, so he wouldn’t get it all muddy—or else his old man would whip him with his army belt—then slipped between two strands of wire.
Careful to avoid the cow flop, we humped through the brown grass, already greening up, smelling the humid June air buzzing with flies and sweet with honeysuckle, scratched our way through brambles and crossed the creek on stepping-stones into the pasture farthest from old man Saylor’s house. Beyond this field there was one last fence and a long drop into an abandoned borrow pit, a big sandy-clay hole in the earth where dump trucks used to haul out gravel and sand when they built our subdivision. But they didn’t go there anymore, hadn’t for a long time.
The wind suddenly kicked up out of nowhere—sluicing through a kind of natural funnel between two forested hills over the borrow pit and right into our faces. The grass rustled and hissed, and suddenly the whole pasture seemed to be alive and cooler. The wind lifted my black and orange Orioles cap right off my head and I had to chase it down as it cartwheeled through the high grass.
We crawled on hands and knees through a thicket island into the middle of an open space and inside the shady cave made by a rotten pasture oak and all the brambles, and when we stood up and brushed the grass and leaves off our dungarees and T-shirts, we were staring at a dilapidated barn roofed in rusty tin. There it stood, totally invisible from outside the thicket. We pushed through the double front door and saw it had through-and-through double doors, so you could drive equipment in and out without backing up. The back double doors were closed and locked by a heavy wooden bar.
And smack in the center of the dirt floor stood an old airplane—or what was left of one. A fuselage and wings without an engine, a glider. Just a big box kite really, the wings faded yellow fabric over wooden frames, the ghost of a bright idea, lying there in a shed overgrown with sumac and nettles.
“Too cool!” said Moe, and we swarmed over the glider. On the lower wing was a cradle for a pilot to lie in while flying it. “Out of the clear blue Western sky comes Sky King!” Moe yelled and sprawled onto it and the struts in the wing crunched under his weight.
Brains said, “Get off—you’re too heavy! Jeez, what a fat load.”
Moe got to his feet. His eyes shone with that look a boy’s eyes get when his little brain is hatching a dangerous and stupid idea. He turned to Skeeter. “You thinking what I’m thinking?”
Skeeter grinned. He was always missing teeth. He began flapping his arms. “Wild blue yonder, man,” he said.
The glider was in bad shape, the canvas wings moldy, torn in patches. A couple of struts were warped and some of the braces were cracked. But the shape of the thing was there, a beautifully efficient machine for soaring through the air. I recognized it. I had one just like it hanging from the ceiling of my room: a 1912 Sparrowhawk glider. Two wings, a thin blade of a frame reaching back to a tail section with swallowtail winglets and a curved vertical stabilizer. The little history card that had come with the model kit claimed that the Sparrowhawk had once held the world glider record, soaring for more than an hour off some mountain peak out West. The curved skids on its undercarriage were propped on a kind of wheeled bogie on narrow rusty tracks that disappeared at the back door of the shed—what we now saw was really a hangar.
We had all heard tales of old man Saylor, how he had made his fortune inventing gadgets for the Army, how he used to fly a private plane right off his pasture. How his only son, Cal Junior, was killed in the Big War, when his B-17 was shot down over Germany, and the old man never went off the place again but holed up in the house with his dogs. He built a cabin on the property for his son’s pregnant wife, who died in childbirth, and one night he burned down the cabin on purpose. His twenty-year-old granddaughter, Penny, had just got married last year. It was in the paper. They had the wedding right on the farm and none of us knew anybody who was invited.
But I had never heard about any gliders.
The rusty track, like a miniature railroad, ran to the back doors. On an instinct, I removed the wooden bolt from the back doors and flung one of them open. The breeze rushed in and quivered the wings of the glider. From the open door, I could look down the sloping swale of pasture to a small rise, then a dip to the fence, the point where it dropped off into the borrow pit, and a few hundred yards beyond the pit, I could see green grass. I said, “Looks like he launched it from right back here, into the wind.”
We kicked around in the high grass and discovered the rest of the overgrown steel track that ran down the slope. I walked slowly down the slope and stood at the barbed-wire fence, where a double gate had been fixed at the end of the track and was locked by a rusty chain and padlock, looking out across the borrow pit to the other side. The pit had been carved right out of the pasture, and it lay before me like an open wound—sides scraped and scarred, a hundred feet below, the red clay glistening with pools of stagnant oily water, looking like everything that was missing from my life. The wind was steady on my face. That was why he had launched it from here: the wind. You need wind to generate airspeed over the wings and lift the glider.
The rails ran for maybe a hundred feet to the edge of the pit, about as far as I could throw a baseball.
Moe ran to the fence, jumping up and down with glee, Skeeter and Robbie the Runt close behind. “Jesus H. Christ!” he shouted. “This is going to be the best!”
“That crate ain’t in no shape to fly,” I reminded him. “It’s all rotten.”
Moe grabbed me by the collar of my polo shirt. “Don’t you want to do something great? I mean something really great? That they’d remember forever and tell stories about? Man, oh man! Jesus H. Christ, Marsh, it doesn’t get any cooler than this!”
I said, “It’s all busted up.”
Moe stood toe-to-toe with me, so close I could smell him, sour and rank. “You’re scared. That’s what it is.”
“I ain’t scared.”
“Look at us, Marsh. Take a good look.” He spun slowly around, flapping his arms at the woods, the pasture, the sky. “Where are we going? You think I’m going anywhere?”
“High school,” I said.
Moe snorted. “Yeah, Central High. Home of the losers. You, me, and the gimp here.”
“Brains will do OK.”
“Right. If his old man don’t get transferred again.” Brains had been to four schools in four years. My parents said his dad didn’t get transferred—he just couldn’t hold a job.
“Only one thing an airplane is good for,” Skeeter said.
Robbie the Runt tugged at my wrist. I turned and looked into his squinty eyes. He said quietly, “You can fix it.” His nose was running snot.
“Wipe your nose, Runt.”
He stared at me earnestly, swiped a bare hand across his nose, the little Orioles cap he wore in imitation of mine askew on his crew cut. “You can make it fly.”
I shook him off my arm. “You’re dreaming, Runt. It ain’t a model.” But I could already see it in my mind’s eye: the restored glider, wings bright yellow, holding the sunlight as it slipped down the slope on a greased track, then swept through the open gate and lifted into the sky. I watched it soar across the ugly chasm of the borrow pit, a quick shadow darkening the glassy clay pools far below, then skidding down gently into the high grass on the other side.
And that settled it. A bunch of restless boys with all summer on their hands who don’t mind stealing lumber and canvas and paint can fix up anything.
What we didn’t worry about:
It never occurred to us that the Sparrowhawk didn’t belong to us, that we would essentially be stealing it. All of us except Robbie the Runt were already experienced thieves—money from our moms’ pocketbooks, penknives from the Western Auto, Christmas ornaments off lawns.
We didn’t worry about old man Saylor catching us and turning us in to the cops. Nobody had been in that barn in years and years, and from the cover of that thicket surrounding the front of the hangar, we could spot anybody coming literally a mile away.
And we never really considered the possibility that the Sparrowhawk glider wouldn’t fly but instead pitch into the borrow pit and cartwheel into pieces at the bottom. Not out loud, anyways.
But that’s all I thought about.
Skeeter was a great scrounge, and he turned up with two old Boy Scout tents and his mother’s sewing box, to fix the damaged wings. My job was supervising the rebuild. Moe and I stole framing lumber from one of the house-building sites, a few sticks at a time so it wouldn’t be noticed, working at night and dragging the heavy pieces down to the pasture in the dark so we could retrieve them in the morning and haul them the rest of the way with the others helping. Moe stole a can of yellow highway marker paint from his father’s truck.
I cut apart the tents and stitched new patches over the frames. It wasn’t easy—the fabric was stiff and the needles kept breaking off. My hands were all cut and raw from the stitching. And before we could even do that, we had to shave down two-by-fours using handsaws and planes, shaping the pieces to match the ones we were replacing. Then we rabbetted joints and screwed them together, hoping they would hold. The new wings took three whole gallons of paint thinner, the closest we had to dope. Moe came up with a spool of baling wire so we could re-rig the wing and tail supports.
I took the model from our bedroom out to the hangar and kept it there so I could compare it to the full-sized glider and make sure we were doing it right.
One night Dad came into our room to say good night and noticed the empty wire. “Where’s the yellow one?”
“I traded it for a catcher’s mitt,” I lied, hoping he wouldn’t ask to see the mitt.
He said, “I just hope you’re not hanging out with that Moe Gargan character. I hear he’s been caught stealing again. I don’t want you winding up on the police blotter.”
I had no idea what the police blotter was, but that was my father’s favorite warning. I guessed it was some big book at the police station which listed which boys weren’t ever going to amount to anything. You’d go looking for a job ten years from now, and the guy would say, “Can’t hire you, son—your name’s on the police blotter.” Boys whose names were on the police blotter were doomed to sorry, broken lives. Like Moe and Skeeter. And probably me, too. Just a matter of time.
We worked every day, all day, taking time out to wolf down peanut butter sandwiches and cokes for lunch, then starting right back in.
Robbie the Runt and Skeeter acted as lookouts. Moe cleared the track and greased it with two cans of Crisco he stole from the A&P, then cut the chain off the fence gate using bolt cutters he borrowed from his father’s workshop.
Brains did the math: what our takeoff speed had to be, how far the Sparrowhawk would glide on a certain wind velocity, how far it would drop. He set up an anemometer, which he had stolen from the high-school physics lab, to measure the wind velocity. Skeeter contributed a windsock made from one of his mother’s nylon stockings and Moe hung it on an aluminum clothes pole liberated from somebody’s backyard, mounted against one of the fence posts at the edge of the borrow pit.
After a few days of calculating, Brains announced, “I don’t know if it will make it across.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Moe asked him.
“What I said, butt-face.”
Moe smacked him on the head, the way he was always doing to Skeeter. He didn’t do it to me, because I was almost as big as Moe.
“Cut it out!” Brains said. “Look.” He held out a notebook full of equations. Moe and I studied it, like we knew what it said, but for all we knew it could have been a Chinese crossword puzzle. “You don’t get it, do you?”
We just stared at him.
“You’re too heavy.”
“Who is?” Moe demanded.
“You are. And you, too, Marshall. And Skeeter. And me, for that matter. The payload has got to be seventy pounds, max. Sixty would be better.”
Robbie the Runt, as usual, poked his nose in where it didn’t belong. “I’ll do it,” he said brightly. “I can fly. Marsh can show me how.” He was grinning like a moron. “Can’t you, Marsh?”
They all looked at me. For once he was right. For once, a runt was exactly what we needed. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure, Runt.”
There are moments in a boy’s life when time stalls and he stands exactly on the verge of who he was and who he is going to be. The light is perfect, a shaft beamed right down from heaven, and even if he is in a crowd, he stands alone. It’s as if a chasm has opened up before him, narrow enough to step across, if he chooses to, and if he is sure-footed. But the chasm is also deep enough to swallow him forever if he stumbles. And if he does not step, the chasm grows wider and wider, till he can no longer step across. All that matters from now on will happen on the other side of that chasm, and he will lose his chance to be part of it.
It is a moment when he must depend wholly on his instincts, his intuition, that little voice inside that will, with the right word, make him a saint or a criminal. He must step across to the rest of his life.
In such a moment I saw Penny Saylor stepping out of the shadows and into the waning sunlight of the summer pasture. I had stayed behind when the other boys went home. For once Robbie the Runt was nowhere around. He’d had to go to the dentist that afternoon to get braces put on his teeth.
She didn’t see me at first. She was wearing cutoff shorts and a white blouse and her head was bowed so that her red hair fell around her face, hiding her eyes. She walked slowly through the high grass straight toward the hangar and stopped when she saw me at the edge of the thicket.
“I thought I saw somebody out here the other day,” she said without looking up.
“We don’t mean no harm,” I said.
“You found the old hangar,” she said and kept walking past me through the new entrance we had hacked out of the thicket till she stood inside the hangar. The Sparrowhawk gleamed like a yellow jewel. She laid a hand on one wing, as if feeling for a pulse. “This thing’s been out here since before I was even born. My grandfather always meant to try to fly it someday.”
“I bet he flew it plenty.”
She turned. “No, his boy died. My father. In the war. He stopped coming out here then.” She walked to the far door and unlatched it, swung it open. “That awful pit wasn’t even here then. It was just sloping pastureland all the way across.” She swept her hand toward the pit and for a moment I saw what she was seeing.
I wondered whether she would tell the old man, spoil everything. From where we were standing, the rails were plain to see and the nylon windsock fluttered in a fitful breeze.
“Tell you the truth? I think he was glad to have an excuse not to fly it. I think it scared him. I think you’d have to be crazy to try to fly a kite like this.”
“I bet it would work,” I said, but all at once my heart didn’t believe it anymore. All this time, I’d been operating under the assumption that we would only be trying to do what had already been done. But he had never flown across any borrow pit. Never flown at all.
Silence hung in the air like mist. You could touch it and feel it clammy on your skin. Then she looked at me. “You know what I just found out?” she said, looking weirdly distracted and calm.
“My husband Bill. He’s dead. His car crashed up in Pennsylvania.”
I looked her full in the face and saw then that her green eyes were swollen red, that she must have been wandering around the pasture for hours. I had no idea what to say, so I took her hand in mine and kissed it. She hugged my arm to her breast and cried a little, and I was so close, her soft red hair brushed my face. I’d never been this close to any woman except my mother, and it felt so good I trembled.
“It’s this farm,” she said. “Everything dies here.”
The way she said it chilled me to the bone, but I had no idea what to say back.
She turned abruptly and touched the wing of the glider. “I’m glad you painted it,” she said. “It looks beautiful. It doesn’t look dead anymore.” Then she leaned my way and kissed me quickly on the cheek. “Be a good boy,” she said, “and walk me back to the creek.”
Two days later, on a cloudy Saturday, I watched a procession of cars rumble down the dirt lane to the Saylor farm. The funeral reception. The cars came and went in a pall of July dust and when they were gone I slipped into the pasture and made my way out to the hangar just to make sure everything was still there. Inside the hangar, in the dusty light, I listened to the first rain splatter against the tin roof. It was oddly comforting. I carefully climbed onto the pilot’s cradle and closed my eyes, swaying my body left and right to turn the rudder, hearing it swish behind me, tensioning the levers that controlled the wires and moved the ailerons, the way I had coached Robbie. I imagined Penny watching us fly, her red hair unfurled like a banner in the breeze, her face lighting up with wonder at what we were doing.
But I couldn’t hold the daydream. The rain drummed hard on the roof now, and my stomach was all knotted with a terrible conviction. Tomorrow afternoon, we were going to launch my little brother over the side of a cliff and watch him smash to pieces. And that would be the end of the world.
The next day was brilliant and breezy, with high cumulus clouds scudding in from the west. Robbie the Runt set himself in the cradle as he had practiced, grinning though his silver braces. Moe, Brains, and I took up our positions behind each wing and the tail and gently pushed the glider out of the barn into the light.
“You count us down, Robbie,” I said.
“Roger,” he said. I heard him take an exaggerated deep breath and start the countdown at ten. “Three, two, one—blastoff!” he squealed.
We shoved hard, walked, then ran, still pushing, Robbie prone across the wing. The glider slid down the greased rails, picking up speed. At the edge of the meadow we let go and staggered to a halt on the lip of the borrow pit and the plane kept going. We had done it, launched the beautiful Sparrowhawk into the sky, right off the rim of the borrow pit.
I watched the ground slip out from underneath Robbie and he was alone in the empty air, frozen, hands gripping the control wires.
Then the glider stalled and dipped toward the faraway bottom of the pit and the bottom dropped out of my heart. I caught a breathless glimpse of what it would be like to be free of childhood—the thrill of it, and the terror. I could not have said it in those words then, but that does not make it untrue. Most things that mattered then were far beyond my ability to put into sentences.
Robbie lost his hold, or maybe let go on purpose, and he tumbled out of the sky to the muddy-clay flank of the borrow pit and slid all the way to the bottom before he stopped. The yellow Sparrowhawk spun gracelessly in slow agonizing motion into the muddy pool at the bottom and splintered into junk. Robbie lay near it, slathered in mud. His high-top sneakers had come off. He wasn’t moving, and I saw death in his form, and I could not breathe—my whole chest had been sucked empty—then suddenly he twisted and scrabbled to his feet, dancing around in the mud, clapping his hands together and yelling at the sky like a crazy boy. He was all scratched up, filthy as a stray dog, but I never saw him so happy in his life.
Moe was right. It was the greatest thing we ever did. There was no keeping it a secret.
I spent the summer grounded, allowed out of the yard only to deliver my paper route. In a few months, my parents sent me to Catholic high school up in the city, to learn some discipline, they said. What I learned instead—at long last—was the mystery of books, how to spin thoughts into sentences and not feel so alone in this world. That turned out to be the happy accident of my life, the one thing I never expected. Moe and Skeeter went to Central High and we lost track of each other. Brains’s dad got transferred again and he left town forever.
The smashed-up Sparrowhawk rotted away at the bottom of the borrow pit, stabbed and broken in the oily water.
The day after the crash, a Wedgewood-blue Ford pickup truck pulled up in front of our house. We were all seated at the supper table, and I could see through the dining room window two figures coming slowly up the front walk. When the doorbell rang, I sprang up and ran to open it. Penny Saylor stood there in a bottle-green dress, her red hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face radiant with grief. Behind her stood a gaunt, bearded man. Her grandfather, old Mr. Saylor. He pointed to me and said abruptly, “This the one?”
Penny shook her head.
“Ah,” he said, pointing a stiff yellow finger at me. “Then you’re a little shit.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, the most honest admission of my life. “That would be me.”
He stared at me a moment longer and wrinkled his nose, as if I were some disgusting creature he had discovered by accident in his barn. “Just don’t grow up to be a bigger shit.”
Penny pointed behind me to Robbie the Runt, who as always was suddenly jostling at my elbow. My father stood in his suit and tie, a dinner napkin still pinned to his collar. “What’s this all about?” He was rattled, caught off-guard, and for an instant I wondered if old man Saylor was going to sock him for letting his wild boys destroy his beautiful 1912 Sparrowhawk glider airplane.
Mr. Saylor ignored him and reached out a hand to Robbie, drew him outside. “So you’re the one,” he said softly and bent down closer to him. “You’re the ace.” He shook his hand theatrically and placed something in it, then he turned without another word and walked back to his truck. Penny glanced back over her shoulder and smiled—at either Robbie or me, I couldn’t be sure.
Later that night, when we were tucked into our narrow beds on opposite sides of our room, with the lights out and the streetlight glancing off the ceiling in a little triangle, Dad came into our bedroom without knocking and threw all the airplane models out the window into the trash can. One by one, he snatched them off their wires and sailed them into the dark, and I think he enjoyed doing it. It was awful to watch. I lay on my bed and stared at nothing and didn’t say anything but just listened. You could hear each one splintering as it hit the steel rim of the trash can. He said not a word, but I could hear him choking on his anger, breathing in heavy chuffs.
And that splintering sound is the same sound I always hear whenever somebody’s dream gets busted.
After he was gone, Robbie called softly, “Marsh?”
“I can’t help it if I like reading books. I don’t mean to, you know. Show off.”
“It’s all right,” I told him. “You learn a lot. You know a lot.”
“I don’t know anything. Don’t know as much now as I knew yesterday.”
“Don’t talk stupid.”
It was a hot, humid night, and we lay on our beds uncovered, sweating on the sheets. Those sticky nights always seemed to last forever. Far off, a train rumbled by on the B&O track and let loose a horn blast at the crossing in town.
“Marsh? I’ve got to tell you something.”
“It’s OK, Robbie. Whatever it is.”
“Tonight? It wasn’t the first time I ever saw Penny Saylor.”
“What?” I was up on my elbow staring across the dim light filtered by the wavy curtains. Overhead, the empty wires swayed silently, released from the weight of the airplanes they had once held. The dancing wires made it seem like the ghosts of the airplanes were still dangling there in the breeze.
“I came looking for you that day. When she was crying. I heard you talking to her.”
So I told him my secret. “Old man Saylor never flew that glider. You were the first.”
“I know, Marsh.”
“You don’t get it.”
“Just ’cause you think it was a certain way doesn’t make it so.”
What could I say to the kid? I had pushed him down that track, launched him toward a big hole in the ground. If I was really honest with myself, I knew that glider would never get off the ground. I knew what I was doing to him. Some part of me, the part that inspired such black anger in my father, wanted to watch it happen—the joyful calamity of it, the greatness of the awful thing. I was pretty low-down, all right.
Robbie said, “I was pretty sure, you know, if anybody could. I was pretty sure you could make it fly.”
“Well, if it didn’t, the joke would be on you. You’d be on the police blotter forever.”
That sent us both into fits of laughing. Jeez, what a dumb puke. What a stupid runt of a kid brother. We were all on the police blotter forever, now.
All the laughter ran out of us after a while, and I was remembering Penny and how I had walked her to the creek that awful day. What I was seeing on her face was more than plain sorrow. It was the loss of hope. The future taken from her. And for just a few minutes, as I held her hand and guided her along the little path and watched her feet stumble because she was crying too hard to see where she was stepping, I was bigger and stronger and better and older than I would be for many years to come, and at least I could hold onto that to balance out the other.
Then I remembered. “What did he give you? Mr. Saylor?” I looked across to his bed and he held something up. The streetlight glinted off a little pair of silver wings.
“The real deal,” Robbie said, and flipped them across the room. I caught them and was surprised at the solid weight of them in my hand. I tossed them back to Robbie and heard his hand slap around them.
Robbie was a doer after all. He read books not because he wanted to know about Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, but because he wanted to be Teddy Roosevelt, to charge up San Juan Hill. I was the one who watched and never did anything. What did I ever do? The biggest model I ever built nose-dived into the clay pit.
Wreckage, that was all I had ever made. Me. Just a little shit who was probably going to grow up to be a bigger shit. Old Mr. Saylor’s fierce blue eyes held the truth. I kept seeing him, hearing him say it over and over.
Then after a little while I was crying. Robbie said, “You OK, Marsh?”
“Shut up,” I said.
“He didn’t get one of them.”
“What are you talking about?”
Robbie giggled, whispered, “The Sparrowhawk. The model. It’s still out there in the hangar.”
The wires overhead fluttered with their phantom wings. “Go to sleep, Ace.”