Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Radio Controlled Planes

Sherma watches her father.
“Rafael,” her mother says.
He holds up a hand. He doesn’t have to talk.
He’s tinkering with a wing, so intent he can’t be disturbed. It got bent, last weekend, mangled by a tree when it suddenly lost lift.
“Sherma, don’t bother your father,” her mother says.
Sherma was just looking at his arms. Like banisters, she thinks, meant to hold things up. She admires the way they cradle the broken wooden struts. But she knows not to say anything. The wing, right now, is the only important thing.
Sherma turns and goes into her room. Behind her, she hears her mother: “Rafael.”
Sherma knows, from the safe haven of her bed, that her father has her mother’s head out the window.
He doesn’t say anything.
But Sherma gets the message.
Any time, any place, anyhow, for any reason.
In the morning, her mother has a scarf tied stylishly around her neck. But her eyes give away the lie.

“He threw her in a pond,” Sherma announces to her friend Connie. “Last night.”
Connie shakes her head. “What pond.”
“I dreamed it,” Sherma says. “He threw her in from the third floor and she was floating, head down in the weeds with all her hair spread out. Then he walked away.”

Her mother has fixed dinner but her father wants none of it. He’s standing in the living room sandpapering the epoxy he applied to the wing. There’s white dust sticking to the hair on his arms. He brushes it into a little pile on the coffee table.
“Sherma, be quiet,” her mother says. But the only noise she made was the soft puck of her eyelids as she blinked back tears.
When she was little, Sherma remembers, he wiped her eyes when she cried. She was just a baby, but she can recall his handkerchief, almost as big as her body, and the way it felt against her skin, and his knobby hand moving towards her, smelling slightly of gasoline.

He takes her with him to meet the guys out by Rodman’s Neck, and Sherma sees one plane go out of control. “No no no no,” the guy who owns it shouts. “Sweet mother of God, no.” He jams on the joystick but the plane refuses to respond. It has a mind of its own and just flies away.
Suddenly, he’s running after it, across the parking lot and into the field by the bay. He’s up to his chest in weeds and water before the other men catch him. Silently all the men watch the plane shoot skyward and disappear.
“It’ll keep going till it runs out of gas,” her father tells her.
The men make puddles in the car on the way home. None of them talk.

Sherma dreams that she throws her father’s plane out the window and it hovers in the air, like a hummingbird. Just stays there in the air outside her window and waits for her and her mother to climb in.
Sherma and her mother are in the plane as it breaks free of her father’s control. They soar across the vast blue. Her father is underneath, cursing, and chasing them. She squeezes her mother tight. They fly higher and higher towards the clouds, so high they never have to come down.

Sherma sits at her mother’s feet.
“I want a turn on the dance floor with the most beautiful woman in the room.” Her mother, who loves to dance, shakes her head, so Uncle Nick takes Sherma. Like her father his fingers smell like gasoline.
When the song’s over she steps away without even a thank you. Her father, she sees, is at the bar surveying the scene. Sherma knows he will not ask her mother to dance, even though she wore her green dress, the one that clings to her body without a wrinkle. He sees her looking at him and turns away.

There’s a special landing strip on the deep blue, strong enough to support a plane. It touches down on the rolling surface, settles, and then slowly sinks. But the river is warm.
Sherma feels the pulse of her father’s tears and knows immediately that something dreadful has happened, that instead of taking off, the plane crash landed on the living room floor.
Her father wraps her in a blanket and, cradling her in his arms as gently as he held the broken wing, steps out the window and they drop into the cool night.
Her mother looms out the window and points.
“Go to your father,” she says.
Sherma shakes her head and her mother falls.
Next, her mother pricks her with a safety pin and laughs.

As they drive home, her father and mother don’t talk. Sherma wants to scream, to tell her father to stop. Just stop the car and get out. She wants her father and mother to walk away, hand-in-hand, and in her mind she watches them disappear into the future, where they will be happy, without her.
When they get home, her father scowls and takes up the wing. He needs to attach it to the plane.
“Shhh,” her mother hisses, but Sherma hasn’t said a word all night. Her mother pinches her hard on the leg and she goes to her room.
And, from the darkness under her covers, Sherma rubs her leg and knows what she will do.

Later, after another episode with the window, Sherma hears her father and mother go to bed. She waits for a while, making sure the house is still, then goes to the basement. She pulls out the black plastic bag in which her father keeps his favorite plane. He’s painted it beautifully, with perfect World War I decals and camouflage coloring. She gives the propeller a soft twist, then puts the plane to one side and pulls the bag over her head. It’s dark inside and smells like chemicals. She’s the prize possession now, gone flapping away as her father gives chase into the weeds and emerges covered with slime. Sherma wriggles down to the bottom and breathes in the steamy darkness and shudders as she soars over a bright new world of lipstick lawns and nail polish houses and sunlight glinting off her mother’s man-made gap-toothed smile.

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