FOR ME, BUT NEVER MINE
It's been over a year since my Pa flew over the Atlantic in a C-130, and a lil' longer since those towers were toppled by a Boeing 767. Memorizin' plane numbers became important to me after that day, that year. I think time broke after they crashed through those windows. Like, maybe you can collide so hard into the side of a building that the air ripples, pushes a minute hand backwards a bit, and it takes all eternity for some sort of lost time to find itself. It was 8:47AM in New York when metal beams crumpled, glass panes blew into dust, and time echoed. It was 7:47AM in Tennessee, and me and Pa were splitting a cookie dough Pop-Tart. He had just gotten back from Panama, and was makin' plans with me to go to the Memphis county fair that year. Pa always loved riding ferris wheels. He said that seeing the top for a bit, seeing everythin' in a span of seconds, made everything that much sweeter. I wondered if his flight East was just that, just a few second span on the top of a ferris wheel. It'd be hard to tell, time had catchin' up to do.
That's what we were supposed to do when he got back. Catch up, cast a reel 'n net backwards and haul in a load of squirmin' memories that never happened.
It was 3:36PM, Tennessee time, 2003. 4:46 New York time. A day and a half ago a black BMW hummed through the trailer park, like a hunter whistling a gentle tone while stalking deer tracks. It stopped in front of our open door. I was on the carpet with our German shepherd, Trixie, playing tug-o-war with a raggedy piece of cloth. I wanted to see how hard Trixie could pull the cloth until the fabric stretched and snapped. Wanted to see how long microscopic strings could cling to each other.
Through the screen door, I saw two men in badge n' suit uniform step out. They didn't carry no clipboard, didn't have no papers in their hands. Pa told me 'bout these people before, told me that what they say, what they had to do, what had to be spoken. The words couldn't be read, couldn't be phoned. They had to come from flesh n' bone. Birthed. The message they had to deliver had to be as human as possible to make it real. The kinda people that wear those uniforms, and drive around in black BMWs didn't visit houses to drop off letters from fathers in deserts, writing back to let their kids know that everything is fine, and sunsets in Kabul are soft, gentle and beautiful. I know what words they were goin' to say to me. Hearing it would make it real. I could touch those words, feel them like broken bones and flowin' blood. I ran out the backdoor, not thinkin' 'bout Ma. Not thinkin' 'bout the food I shoulda brought. Not thinkin' bout nothin' but how fast I can get the wind to whip round the curves of my ears. If they shouted 'stop,' I outran those words too.
To be honest, I never 'member runnin' that fast in my life. Muscle, hardened into cement over time, weighing down on my ribcage and lockin' my heart in place. The pink rays of the afternoon sun were diced and split by a line of sweetgum tree branches. It was hard to tell if they refracted or splattered on the impact. You can feel your footsteps in your jaws if you pound them hard enough, count your pace with the clack of your teeth. Kinda sounds like a clock. Ticking away a row of crab apple trees, another dried riverbend to hop over. 'You can lose yourself to speed' Pa would say. I believe him, he rode more Blackhawks and jets than I can remember. Somewhere in that hum, in the speed, that's where the lost time is. That's where he can be found.
I leaned my head against a tree. Ear close. Hoping to hear a heartbeat. Hoping to hear something alive in the woods other than myself. I wanted to see mockingbirds flying through the branches, chirping softly to drown out the silence. By the time my heart slowed to the pace of a stopwatch, the sun had slid over the horizon. I could tell cuz the pink light faded into a bruised blue, and shadows stretched like fingertips, intertwining and lacing with each other.
That's when the name call started. "Abe." My name became a word accidentally rollin' on the lips of a night wind breeze. Somethin' that tripped and stumbled down the mountain tops. I knew that they would come with flashlights, with whaling dogs and cacklin' radios. They'd hold me to a chair, they'd look me in the eye, and they'd say those words. They'd make it real, they'd have me say it back so I could know it's real.
The night shouldn'ta come this fast, but time's been broken. I wondered if Pa bein' gone was gonna make it that much more broken. Maybe with it being broken, things could be saved, rearranged. Maybe time didn't break like glass , powdering and stabbing your hands, but like clay? Something that could get remolded, shifted around. Things in the back end could be shuffled to the front. Full circle. I climbed an' ol' dogwood, and stared East towards the stars. I stared towards Virgo, the last immortal on earth. The higher I climbed, the closer I felt to the nameless place my dad inhabited.
The last night we had together, we spent it at the county fair. Pa spent what few tickets he had left to win me a stuffed gorilla. It was the BB shootin' hut, the backboard was as pocked and cratered as the face of the youngin' runnin' it. Pa winked at me, and while handin' the tickets to the kid, picked up the BB gun and shot single-handed all five shots in the center of the bullseye. Each shot was spaced out symmetrically from the other. I told Pa that I was gonna shoot as well as him when I grew up. He tossed the gun at the kid like it was lye, somethin' he didn't want brushed on his kin's skin. He passed me the gorilla, and tied it's lanky arms around my neck like a black fuzzy backpack.
"Nobody says you gotta shoot anythin', sport." He said. He was forcin' a smile. I could tell cuz his muscles played tug-o-war with where his parted lips were to go.
I like the sounds from a fair. Shouts intermixin' with guitar licks from a Lynrd Skynrd cover band. Fold up rollercoasters shuffled and rumbled like a giant clearin' his throat. When the fireworks blew into the night sky, they reminded me of blossoming flowers, of a held breath releasing relief and color into the night sky. A firework flashed a red planet into the night sky, and the light splashin' on Pa's face might as well been blood. His eyes winced tight, no matter how tight they got, he kept them open, and his hand would grip my shoulder a bit tighter. Not enough to be fully noticeable, but I felt a twitch every time a firecracker popped and whizzed through the air. Even with chaos of the crashin' sounds surroundin' us, I could still hear Pa's breathin'. It was always steady, not a steady like it was relaxed, but an exaggerated one. He'd breathe deep, hold it longer than what a normal person would, and breathe out.
"You wanna ride the ferris wheel champ?" he asked me. The wheel was separated from the rest of the fair, the line woulda been too cramped together if it was by all the other rides. It was away from the noise and rumble of the fireworks.
The rollercoaster dipped close to us, veering past our backsides and catching wind and tossin' it into our hair. If clacking bones could string together a throat and roar, it wouldn'ta sounded as loud as that coaster. Pa's hand clamped like a damn claw. I was seven or so, never rode a roller coaster, but all the school kids talked about the bravery it gave you, the freedom you felt before the fall.
"We ain't got enough tickets for both?" I looked at the last two I had. Two is what it took for a single ride. They charged extra two for the rollercoaster cuz younger kids would always pack out the line. The Ferris wheel was more a family line, they kept the tickets one per person.
Pa pointed at the gorilla around my neck. " I just spent the last of them, Abe."
I looked back at the roller coaster. Two tickets in my hand turned into lead, weighing my wrists down. Cultivatin' sweat in the pool of my palm. Back then, in that moment, when dark and light exploded through twang clicks of guitar, in the swirl of noise and crashes, one thing was clear. The eye. Center of it all.
I couldn't shoot like Pa, I couldn't run like him, I couldn't single handedly take a truck door off to fix some wires inside the hinge. The roller coaster rattled a string of thought through my head, I realized that I could fly like him. He'd see me on top, I'd see the horizon and the freedom he saw when going overseas. We could share that tonight. And it only cost two tickets.
I told Pa I had to do it, I wanted him to see me do it. Ride without ever setting my hands down on the safety bars. I love his real smiles cuz they're easy to miss. A white crack forms between his lips, and the faintest glimmer of teeth show.
"I'll watch you, sport." He kissed the top of my head and smacked me hard on the shoulder. I laughed and rubbed at the soreness. While running to be first in line on the next rotation, I turned around and ran backwards to make him promise me that when he comes back next year, same time, 2003, August 16th 9:36pm, TN time, we'd ride the ferris wheel together.
A firework exploded into a Mars mimic over our heads, raining down streamlets of red that painted everything in a bright scarlet, highlighting everything. Pa smiled and winked at me before I hopped in line and thrusted my tickets at the operator.
Pa would jump 1,200 feet into the blue nothingness of the sky. I can't imagine what he musta felt. Wind's gotta feel like water or solid dirt when you whip 120mph through it. Thirty-two feet per second. Pa would have roughly thirty-eight seconds to pull the string, to tether himself back to reality, and let wind's hand put him back on the earth. I've seen Pa do jumps before. I've seen what that life and blood does when it pumps through him. It makes him smile.
I rode that roller coaster last night, from start to finish. I never felt that thrill, the thrill of my father, the excitement of being tossed in the air with no one to catch you but yourself. If I could go back, punch through space time like a stuck gear, push minutes to hours, to days, to months, to only one year, I'd spend that night differently.
Through the rattling of the coaster, through my teeth clacking away the milliseconds to my plunge, I glimpsed my Pa's face. A smile still stuck on his face, his right hand loosely dangling from his pocket, the other slingin' my gorilla like a rucksack over his shoulder. I mouthed at him 'watch me, watch me,' and unhinged the safe bar through pure raw strength, the strength of my father. The crowd gasped wildly and screamed like a wave of ill mothers as they watched a child stand on the rollercoaster, right before the dive, before the fall. I would plummet, but not by the tracks of a coaster. I'd carve my own path through the air. I know they musta been scared, the people in that crowd, but they ain't had nothin' to fear. Pa gave me a thumbs-up, and a nod while stretchin' his arms to heaven. Like a prayer, like a blessin' he told me to jump. He told me to let him catch me. I did.
I remember seein' eagles lock limbs and spin while plungin' down, down, down. They'd spin like the planets and stars. They'd teeter like the Earth. They'd scream into the howlin' winds that scrapes their skin and feathers, and rage at the Earth below, darin' it to catch them, darin' it to reach out.
I wish the night went like that. I wish it ended mid flight with Pa reachin' out to me. Roll dark and credits with his face bein' the last thing I see. But the film reel broke. Cigarette burns blotted out the last of the cellulose. The image projected was broken, and kept projecting. Some where else feels like it should be one word. Somewhereelse. Makes it a place. Gives it a name. I'm sure that in Somehwereelse a kid was caught by his father in a spiritual death defying leap. That an echo on the other side of an uncrossable lake, a crowd gasp and a child was landed in the arms of his father.
* * *
Like a heart gettin' lost and floatin' through ribcages. Like gravity bein' shut off for a millisecond. You can feel your shirt slowly get tugged upward from the peak of your leap, to the start of your fall. In that millisecond, that sparse moment, I knew he was gone. Time caught up, along with gravity's fall. And I did fall.
I slammed through the first top branches of the ol' dogwood tree, knickin' my left elbow on a branch and popping it out of socket. Causin' me to careen back and slam my back into the tree, which bounced me forward and bobbed my forehead into the branch. I can't recall when I fully hit the ground. I was on the ground with a body stuffed full of broken fiberglass, the dizzying echoes of the fall still whisperin' in my bones and muscle.
It was hard standin' up, I couldn't feel my legs until I was fully on them, and then I just wish I never felt them at all. I took off my shirt with my good hand, and tied a it around my arm and neck to keep my hurt arm steady. The pain seemed far away, as if time, for a final gift, carried it elsewhere, so I could be here now. I looked one final time in the night sky, and saw a red blip passin' over the starry black veil. I waved my good hand at it, a 'goodbye' or 'hello,' I couldn't tell.
Pa wouldn't want Ma to be alone now. I limped my way back home, still checkin' in the night sky for that plane to pass by overhead again, even though I knew that moment passed. That time now marched forward with no pauses or lookin' back.
Months from now, I would still dream of the eagle's embrace, of Pa's face catchin' me on a jump I never did. I wonder if somewhere else in another time, I did make that jump, and these are the echoes of a moment that was for me, but never mine.