After 23 years at the Department of Agriculture, Jack Rago was shoved into a 12th floor office, its ash-streaked window overlooking the Anacostia River. The day was a sunless, raw September morning, late storms predicted. Drumming an anniversary letter opener in tandem to Jefferson Airplane playing over the radio’s earplug, Jack scowled at an old Shirley Povich sports column. Povich had foretold the ’71 Washington Senators — despite all of owner Bob Short’s hyperbole — would sweep the AL East’s cellar again. Oh sure, Jack mused, Hondo’s war club had walloped dizzying home runs, but the sucker trade for Denny McLain had poisoned Ted Williams’ clubhouse. On the fifth jangle, sighing, Jack snagged the telephone.
"Yeah, Butler here," twanged an older man’s greeting. "20 or 25-year shingles . . . which do you want, bud?"
"Beats me. Any appreciable cost difference?" inquired Jack.
"25-year shingles run you 5% more." A silent pause lagged between them.
"Jeez. Do you stock a cheaper grade? One carrying a 5 or 10-year warranty?" wondered Jack.
Butler breathed harder, his annoyance anything but subtle. "Umm, nope," he grunted.
"No, huh. Fine, nail on the 20-year shingles," Jack ordered before hanging up.
Centering his nameplate, Jack started to dial the house about stopping off to buy a pizza for dinner. What day was it, he thought? Thursday, right. His mother was haunting the Senior Citizens Center. What if she had left the hi-fi blaring again? Would he stumble in on Frank Sinatra’s "Let’s Swing Among the Stars"? Living with his mother irked Jack more than he realized until after his last girlfriend, a married stenographer lodging at The Watergate, had dumped him. She had kept taunting him as "a mama’s boy." Rummaging through his brown tweed jacket, Jack fingered the AARP matchbook scribbled with a psychiatrist’s name and number. Tamping the tobacco, he fired up a lighter to the pipe. Retching, Margie Henderson – freshly divorced but hardly available — across the narrow hall clanged her door shut. She had taken an instant dislike to Jack, what left him puzzled and dispirited.
While lukewarm air streamed out the ceiling register, Jack daydreamed. The green metal desktop annealed into an emerald shield. Fidgeting, he next cracked the window, scrunched his nose at snorting D.C.’s smog, and latched it shut. A mud dauber flittered to its flaky pods. From his yearlong bout with encephalitis, Jack’s ears hissed. Underneath a Slinky stowed in the middle drawer, he riffled through The Pioneers of Aviation: The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, a text he’d pilfered on a mental health day from Tavener’s Book Shop. Then heel-tapped Florshiems clicking over linoleum alerted him to a dinosaur’s approach. Pushing the drawer back, he popped out the earplug to stash with the pipe behind the manual Hermes typewriter.
In poked a bald, oblong head. "You delivered your tables to Pubs?" creaked his director.
"I was just on my way," Jack replied. "And, uh, Boss I’d sure love to cut out early today."
"No sweat, babe. Long as your garbage is in." Whistling, his director waddled across the hall.
"Take your scabby paws off me," Margie shrieked a few moments later. An object was thrown.
Grinning, Jack sidled past his desk, flung the manila folders into Pubs’ In-Tray, and grabbed the service elevator. At the 6th floor, he kicked the brass doors in rage because his pipe still lay smoldering upstairs. At the bottom, he stomped out. Flooring the VW’s gas, he clipped the side mirror on a parking garage pylon.
* * *
The snub-nosed .38 Iver Johnson eight-shot revolver, Model 67SA, was a virtual steal for $31.95 with Virginia sales tax at Ed’s Hunt & Bait Shop. Palming the pocket-style stocks, Jack hefted its forbidden 25-oz. weight. It had been a smart while since he had last held one.
"No frills or fancies — the I-J is a solid handgun," Ed, a retired Marine sergeant, rattled on. "Because you’re a first-timer, Mac, I’ll kick in a box of shells for free."
"Sure as Hell sports a sweet, snug grip," Jack mumbled half to himself.
Nodding, Ed sorted the bills, crisp as kale, into the register’s trays, his whiskey gut nudging it to. "Yep, she’s a real beaut. I pack two under my mattress. Best goddamn sleeping pills in the world." Colorless eyes narrowing, he sized up Jack pocketing the I-J in his ill-fitting brown tweed jacket.
"After a recent rash of break-ins, I sleep safer owning my own juice," explained Jack.
"Can’t have enough, the way the world is" repeated Ed. "Come again. We keep Sunday hours."
* * *
Hunkered inside the battered VW bug puttering along Little River Turnpike, Jack debated about whether to drive by Long Branch Park, his favorite thinking place. The sun, beaming through the windshield to blind his eyes, persuaded him to do so. Besides, he had lots boiling on his mind.
The Long Branch Park boundary hugged a manmade streambed featuring steep, pebbly embankments and a path grooved by the foot traffic of flower-power kids pursuing their psychedelic trips and love-ins. Slowing, Jack bumped to the curbstone before engaging the emergency brake. From the cranked down window, he listened — no Bacchanalian squeals. Right now, he enjoyed a pristine wood all to himself. Punching open the glove compartment, he rattled the mayo jar filled with Valium pills, their blue, white, pink centers notched a "V" for Victory. No matter if the Victory felt hollow. The irony not lost on him; Jack quashed the temptation to swallow a few.
Jack’s Hush Puppies scuffled over fallen acorns and soppy leaves. A filmy cobweb slathered across the bridge of his nose while deer flies dive-bombed his ears. Behind a redwood board fence visible through the foliage, a Pekinese yapped. At the granite slab by a persimmon tree profuse with fruit, Jack doffed his jacket and hitched his pants legs to squat. Producing the I-J, he pondered its uses. Ward off cat burglars. Neutralize noisy mutts. His mother would cop a conniption if she ever found it concealed, say, deep down in the ragbag. A mama’s boy? What was up with that? The stinging barb depressed him.
Jack twirled the I-J’s fluted cylinder, squinted down its iron sights, clicked its polished trigger. The backstrap tasted of salt and gun oil. The hammer’s action was a hair clunky. The pea-sized bore glowered back. Ed’s box of shells waited in the VW. Out here, who would hear it?
Alerted by a yelp, then the carnal sounds of flesh whapping against flesh, Jack, staying low, lumbered to a hollow gum trunk where he knelt, straining to peer down into a ravine. A hippie couple — half-stoned and stark naked — was romping beside a ferny spring. Pinioned by the shaggy satyr, the girl’s legs wriggled upward; her daisy-chained feet tangoed on the sky. Jack gawked at the peepshow, struggled to recall his most recent tango which soured this cheap thrill, and — at almost the precise moment the satyr spotted him through the tangle of trees — beat tracks out of there.
"Hey, you creepy son-of-a-bitch," the indignant girl hollered from behind.
* * *
"I can’t abide them goddamn peckerwoods another afternoon," Mrs. Rago was grousing, woefully gnarled over from decades battling the ravages of osteoarthritis. She slouched in the director’s chair, clipping Oil of Olay coupons from last year’s issues of McCall’s, Redbook, and Glamour.
"Lord above Mama, give it a rest, please." Jack wearily exhaled.
"Why a new roof?" she cackled. "What the Hell was so wrong with the old?"
"Cause the shingles were split and buckled." Jack turned up the television’s volume on The Red Skelton Show, this week’s guests: slapstick-crazy Soupy Sales and ukulele-plucking Tiny Tim.
"Hells Bells, take a real long look at me, son." Mrs. Rago rapped her quad cane across his knees. "Damn right, I’m all split and buckled. You be plucking a wild hair soon to replace me, too?"
Squirming to re-cross his legs, Jack changed the topic. "Did you clean today?" he quizzed her.
She snapped: "You bet your sweet bippy I did. I run that Electrolux daily, even on Sunday."
"Hmmm. You must’ve missed the dead flies I pretty near stepped on in the bathroom."
"What, again?" Mrs. Rago fussed. Tottering straight to the kitchen, she snatched the Dust-Buster from atop of the Norge. Blitzing into the small bathroom, groaning, she did a half curtsy from the waist, grasped the edge of the clawfoot bathtub, and sort of waved the whirring Dust-Buster inches above the black tile floor. Unclasping the bin to shake its vile contents into the commode, she flushed twice.
Once Mrs. Rago limped back, Jack had switched off the television and was poring over The Pioneers of Aviation: The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk that she had bought him for birthday number 56.
"You hungry?" she gruffly asked. "I fixed us a mess of fresh clabber and turnip greens." Hunching around, she hiked up her bra strap as Jack spoke.
"Nope. I had a swell luncheon at The Ebbet’s Grill," he lied, certain she could tell.
"If those peckerwoods aren’t gone by tomorrow," she asserted, "I’ll sic Sheriff Knox on them."
"Shush. Don’t get your rollers in a pinch." Jack, grimacing, peeked up for a second.
"Huh? Don’t you disrespect me," she clucked at him. "See to it they’re gone. That’s all I ask."
"Love you right back," Jack called after her quad cane tapping down the hallway to the master bedroom. Without any reply, she slammed the door shut.
The clicking warble of katydids and crickets driven indoors by nippy evenings serenaded Jack, reminding him of Robert Francis’ arboreal lyrics, steamy apple cider parties, Halloween candy corn, and, of course, riotous meadows of goldenrod burning their emphatic yellows. An autumnal breeze, an early harbinger of winter, skittered high and forlorn among the loblolly pines.
Unaccountably, head sagging to his chest, Jack succumbed to yet another weepy fit. Perhaps the killing frost directly on the way dislodged a fright in him to confront his own mortality. The specter, early retirement that his director had again raised, nettled him. If the worst came to the worst, at least he took a small comfort to leave his mother a weather tight roof.
* * *
Below in the basement, beyond his mother’s prying inquisitions, among his late dad’s crates and barrels crammed with telephone company gadgetry, Jack had assembled a replica of the Wright Brothers’ 1903 biplane. Coasting down the banister on his rump, he next toggled on the halogen bulbs arrayed to bathe the biplane in its most flattering light. With boyish glee, for months, he had hand sanded the fir and ash to construct its delicate ribs and pasted on lightweight muslin scissored from ladies chemises to swaddle its fuselage.
An aviation buff, Jack knew by heart the specs of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s deeds. At 10:35 a.m. on December 17, 1903, the two deacon’s sons in coats and ties revved up the 605-pound biplane on the desolate, hurricane-marred berms of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The four-cylinder, 12-hp engine chugging on "65 test" fuel lifted to zip 120 feet through air for 12 seconds. Man was never the same again.
Nestling his tragic bones into the Barcalounger, Jack flinched when the cranky oil furnace flashed on. That his own biplane might never leave the runway didn’t vex him. To erect a model true to scale did. Kicking off his shoes, he stretched flat out and shut his eyes to relax a bit.
It occurred to Jack how the wind had shifted around; a mystical zephyr shuffled him back in time. He found himself yawning into a goatskin glove; his high-laced brogans trudged over sand, coarse and red.
An intense, spare chap costumed in a leather jacket and a brace of aviator goggles was handing the oilcan to Jack, his calipers pointing to a chain-driven propeller. It was one of two mounted on the biplane’s rear frame. Sand riddled them and Arctic gusts sprayed off the cold, chocolate Atlantic Ocean.
"Did you bring the clock?" A second fellow, younger still, helped to tug up Jack’s starched collar.
Dazed, Jack shrugged his shoulders. Saucer-eyed fishermen were huddled around the obstreperous engine screeching murder, chains clattering, propellers churring. Both chains, owing to their reckless velocity, suddenly rended apart to flail about whiplike. The engine stalled.
The two young chaps the others called Orville and Wilbur claimed they deserved one last shot at putting air under their wings. Jack agreed. A Belgian photographer planted the tripod to his boxy camera.
Before conceding defeat, however, they darned the slack chains, topped off the 1-gallon fuel tank, and, working together, muscled the biplane up to the crest of a wind-scoured dune.
Orville flipped the Indian head penny; Jack would go first, strapped flat as a clam in the biplane.
"Remove the chocks, stand free!" hollered Jack above the pervasive din, his aviator goggles affixed.
The fishermen raced behind, waggling their straw hats. Surviving an initial rickety shudder, Jack by pure dumb luck managed to lift. The biplane lurched from the beachhead, only to level off at perhaps six or so feet. Its fragile wings felt oppressed as if a giant thumb were bearing him down.
Jack wanted further instructions from the Wright brothers before he crashed. Twisting his head around, he shouted back at the others. They stood too far away. Banking to begin executing a right turn, the IJ still wedged in his waistband worked itself free and tumbled below.
As if rid of an enormous weight, the biplane swooped up to sail aloft, then maintained a bright altitude. This new sensation of fabled bird-flight, gliding high over slate roofs and office buildings, was something Jack could at last wrap his heart and soul around.
Copyright © Edward Lynskey 2001
Ed Lynskey’s short fiction has or will appear in such online venues as Orchard Press Mysteries, Plots With Guns, 3 AM, SHOTS, Heist Magazine, The Murder Hole, and Judas. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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