up, up, and away
Frankie wanted to fly, wanted to fly so badly that he could taste it. It was the only thing he wanted to do. He thought about it all the time; during class when he was supposed to be paying attention, during dinner when he was supposed to be eating, and in the shower, when he was supposed to be washing his hair. Frankie’s blank stare into space soon became his trademark look and occurred so frequently that Mr. and Mrs. Frankie’s parents became very concerned that their child might be otherwise damaged in the head. They took him to several doctors, who, despite commenting on Frankie’s obsession with flying, found nothing mentally wrong with the boy.
His parents did the best they could for a child who was going through a rough time in his life, tried to supplement his inability to fly with posters and toys and planes that hung from the ceiling and flew circles around his bedroom. They had a hard time deciding what the best course of action was, whether to bombard their son with images of the very thing he desired or to shield him from the reality that other things in the world could very much fly. Back and forth they went, sometimes arguing well into the night. Frankie would wake up one morning to find all his toys gone and his walls bare. A few days later, it would all magically reappear.
Though he was old enough to recognize that his parents were fighting all the time and that a divorce might be on the horizon or even worse that they were going absolutely insane trying to figure out what to do with him, Frankie didn’t seem to care at all. There was only one thing he cared about and that was flying and that was why he woke up every morning so he could think about it and plan how he would eventually get to fly. It got to the point where Frankie was borrowing three or four books from the library every day. The History of Flight, The Spirit of St. Louis, and Flying for Dummies.
Every day, studying. Every day, trying to find a cure for his affliction. But there was nothing in the books, nothing he could really use or even understand. Books on planes were very technical, had a lot of blue and white drawings that he didn’t understand and numbers that meant nothing to him. A propeller looked like an engine looked like a jet. It was all the same. Finally, Frankie decided he was going to have to get the goose straight from the hen’s mouth if he was ever going to learn.
On a breezy Saturday morning, Frankie woke up and snuck past his parents’ bedroom and then tiptoed around his father sleeping on the couch and out the back door and down the street. His destination was six houses down, where his friend Epson lived, because Epson’s father was a pilot for Southwest and if anyone was going to know how to fly it was someone who flew the big jumbo cargo planes for a living. He knocked on the door and Epson answered and Frankie demanded to see his father and Epson said, “Yeah, whatever” and let him in and there was Epson’s dad, dressed in his pilot’s uniform, sitting at the table, drinking a cup of coffee.
He told Epson’s father, whose name was Mr. Epson, that he wanted to know how planes could fly when they’re so big and so heavy and carrying all those cars and trucks around inside of them. Mr. Epson took a long drink of his coffee and seemed to go to another place as if he had never thought about the exact mechanics of flight, but eventually he came down out of the clouds to deliver his summary.
“It’s complicated,” he said, returning to his newspaper.
When Frankie didn’t leave and when Mr. Epson remembered Mrs. Epson talking about the strange little boy from down the street who had a fascination with flying and whose parents were on the verge of divorce because of all the money and attention they were having to spend on him, he cleared his throat and made a second attempt.
“Alright,” he said, looking around to make sure no one was watching, “I’ll tell you the secret to flight.”
Frankie stepped closer to Mr. Epson, so that he only had to whisper.
“The big planes, the ones you see up in the sky, what do you notice about them?”
“They’re going fast,” continued Mr. Epson. “That’s the key, you have to run really fast.”
“That’s all?” asked Frankie.
“Of course not. Planes also roar. Can you roar?”
Frankie nodded and then roared.
“Not like a lion, like a plane.”
Frankie tried again, sounded a little more like an engine. This made Mr. Epson wave his hands wildly around in the air.
“No, no, son! Not in here! I can’t have you flying around my house this early! Mrs. Epson would kill me! You go on outside and give it a shot. Remember, you have to roar really loudly.”
Frankie smiled, said thanks, and ran out of the house. As he sprinted down the driveway, he extended his arms out to the side like wings and spread his fingers because he had read something about flaps in one of his countless books. He didn’t really understand what they were for or why they were used but the term stuck in his mind because they were part of a plane and called flaps even though they didn’t flap at all. He banked at the end of the driveway and rolled gently into the middle of the street.
His feet fell like jackhammers on the pavement, pushing his body faster and faster down the empty block. When he felt he was going fast enough, Frankie opened his mouth and began to roar. He wasn’t doing it consciously, but the sound that came from his mouth was a mixture of excitement and years of disappointment and anger and rage and all the emotion he had been keeping locked up because he couldn’t fly. The roar echoed down the street. His eyes began to water. But he did not fly.
All along the street, concerned neighbors looked out their windows at little Frankie running down the street, screaming his head off.
Frankie didn’t understand. He wanted it so badly. Wasn’t that enough? Exhausted, he stopped at the end of his street, panting, bending at the waist. When he got enough energy back, he straightened and turned his head to the sky and asked why. For what possible reason? Frankie’s mom and dad and even the psychiatrist and the nice man at the church had told Frankie that God had a plan for everyone, but he couldn’t figure out how the plan to keep Frankie grounded benefited anyone.
Dejected, he returned home, found his mom and dad sitting together at the table, neither touching their breakfast. When he walked in, Mr. Frankie asked if that had been him screaming just a minute ago. Frankie nodded and told him that he was trying to fly, that Mr. Epson down the street told him the secret to flying was running fast and roaring really loud. His parents shared a look and both shook their heads.
Frankie’s dad was desperate to cheer up his child, so much so that without consulting with Mrs. Frankie, he loaded all of them up in the family station wagon and set out down the road to the city coliseum. Frankie didn’t know where they were going and his dad wouldn’t say, but it wasn’t long before a large circle grew out of the horizon. It was flanked by two medium-size roller coasters. But beyond that, Frankie saw something that made his heart race. He knew exactly what it was, had seen pictures of it in his books.
They were going to the carnival. It took an eternity to get near the coliseum, even longer to park, and to Frankie, all of creation and entropy could have taken place in the period it took for them to walk from their car to the towering apparatus on the far end of the grounds. It was called, cleverly, The Giant Swing and was in every way an accurate representation of its label. Frankie watched as a group of three swung in the breeze, falling from, and rising to, impossible heights. Their screams faded and echoed and he couldn’t believe how happy they sounded.
Right then he knew that he must ride the swing, that he must experience first hand the sensation of flying. Frankie caught a bit of luck with the line and found himself only four people deep. Mr. and Mrs. Frankie refused to go on the ride, so the operator strapped Frankie in by himself, told him to hang on but not to worry, there would be no way he could fall out. Frankie said he didn’t care, just take him to the top. The operator shrugged and connected the tow cable. The harness held Frankie face-down and as he was pulled backwards, angled him more and more to the ground, until he was almost completely upside down.
Frankie took in the world from the height of his arc as blood rushed into his head. His parents were far below, smiling and waving at him. Time slowed down and everything moved in slow motion, until there was the tiniest click from behind and suddenly the world was jolted into fast forward. He had no words to describe the feeling; the wind rushing over his face, the bottom dropping out of his stomach, the weightlessness at every apogee. He was so happy that he began to cry. And the crying upset his mother and caused the operator to flash a look of concern when he unstrapped Frankie.
It wasn’t until he said, “That was awesome” that his parents relaxed. They took him home after that, stopping to get some Dairy Queen on the way. Frankie said nothing, silenced by his experience, so in love with the memory of what had just happened. He thought about it for the rest of the day, dreamt about it that night, and the next morning, woke up believing that if he couldn’t fly, if he couldn’t have the sensation every day of his life, then maybe, just maybe, his life wasn’t worth living.
Sunday morning, Frankie again left the house early, made his way two streets over to an abandoned saw mill on the edge of the neighborhood; a looming echo of a time lost to Frankie. To him it was just an empty building, a place where he played with Epson and Tyco on cool summer nights. He climbed through the deteriorating equipment, past the shadowy rooms of gray dust, until once again he was in sunlight, walking across the pebbled rooftop of the mill, five stories from the ground.
In the center of the roof, he once again looked up into the sky and implored God to give him the necessary skills to take flight. He made his request, chose his words carefully, and waited a good hour for God to respond. When the hour was up, Frankie extended his arms to the side and began to flap. Harder and harder, sometimes striking himself on the thighs. But he didn’t move, never got an inch off the ground. Where there should have been disappointment, there was anger. Frankie shot a disapproving look at the sky and then walked quickly to the edge of the roof.
With his toes hanging over the edge, Frankie closed his eyes and began to flap his arms again. Over and over, for the longest time. And the more he didn’t budge from his perch, the more he began to cry, wondering why it wasn’t working, knowing that he had already resolved to jump from the ledge. It was the only way to force himself to learn. And if he didn’t, then he wouldn’t have to live with the failure.
Frankie opened his eyes to take one last look at the world and was surprised to see several people standing in the street, watching him. They were shouting and waving down the street to someone. Frankie recognized Mr. Epson down there, walking quickly towards the building. Then he saw his dad, running frantically, faster than Frankie had ever seen him move. He knew his dad was coming to stop him, probably Mr. Epson too, who had already removed his shirt.
More of his foot edged over the side and Frankie lost his balance momentarily. Below, his father was pulling off his own shirt. It was now or never.
Frankie gave one last flap of his arms and stepped off the roof. He kept his eyes open the entire time, not wanting to miss the moment that he learned to fly. Below, he could see Mr. Epson and his father at the same time, both men running towards him, both men extending their wings behind them, beginning to flap.
He heard the sound, even as the wind rushed by his ears. The sound of wings flapping, the sound of men flying. Then he closed his eyes and listened, convinced he was making the soothing music, wanting to shut out all things around him just so he could listen to it.
Mr. Epson was the closest, but he couldn’t fly fast enough to catch Frankie before he landed on an awning hanging off a second floor window. His body fell hard and didn’t bounce or roll but merely stopped dead with one arm hanging off the side of the metal sheet. The fragile awning bent under Frankie’s weight, but managed to hold. Mr. Epson flapped his wings, hovering a few feet away from Frankie. When Mr. Frankie arrived, he hovered for a moment as well, looking at his son, at the way his head had impacted the awning, at the way he wasn’t moving or breathing.
With Mr. Epson’s help, he carried his son down to the ground and waited for the ambulance that they could hear whining in the distance. Mr. Frankie held his son in his arms like a sleeping child who needed to be carried up to bed.
Mrs. Frankie looked into her husband’s eyes as she placed her hand on Frankie’s back, rubbing the two little bumps just inside his shoulder blades. How unfair it all was, she thought. Unfair that they should lose a child at such a young age.
Unfair that their son should be born without wings.