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I am a man of my failures. I don’t mind saying it. I didn’t mind, when the rivet gun stopped echoing, saying it to Lane. He gave me this look, more You’re a man? than What failures?
Then he went back to work, pounding metal into metal with a sound like teacher’s fist through the chalkboard. Before long it was, Do you know what Essa said and we knocked off for the funny little squares of bread with too much peanut butter that Kell made for us.
Kinda watched Lane as he ate, slopping down the thick sandwiches with a mug of milk. He told me once that when he was a kid he forgot how to swallow. Anything he tried to put down got stuck halfway in his craw. Grilled cheese sandwiches were the worst, he said. All those slimy strings crowded against the wall of his esophagus, stretching, he felt, straight down into his lungs. So now he can’t have a meal without something to drink with.
Kell was hanging on my elbow, digging her fingers through my denim.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Nothing.” She loosened up a click or two. “What do you want for dinner, daddy?”
I laughed and switched off an impulse to tug her onto my lap. She was getting too heavy for that.
“I think I’ll take care of it, sweetie.”
She gave me both eyes loaded with buck shot.
“Sweetie is a candy.” Her voice carried the tone of, If anyone should know that, Dad, it’s you, and, What’s your problem. Are you going deaf again. She has such a deep voice for a little girl. I kissed her, caught her thin brown hairs between my lips.
“All right then. Smartie. You take a bath today?”
“You use soap?”
“Nope.” She grinned at me, gap-toothed and perfect. She’s gonna write songs when she grows up. She’s gonna grow a garden to keep her busy while she’s waiting for her inspiration, while the soil is loose. I don’t make these things up. She heard me listening to Nick Drake as he sang about things he knew and she told me right then what she was gonna do when she grew up.
I almost believed her. Then she kept going. Turns out, she was gonna do quite a few things when she grew up. It was a few things, actually. She got it down to two, despite my laughing. Thought I was laughing with her. But she got it down to two. She’s gonna write songs or she’s gonna draw comic books. So I bought her some coloring books the next time I was down in Tonasket. Got her a Kermit on the Moon and an old sun bleached My Little Pony. She colored all the ponies green.
Gives her something to do until I buy her a piano, which should be any decade now. Lane caught me looking at a Yamaha flyer one morning.
“They don’t sell liquid oxygen,” he said.
“I know. I’m looking for something for Kelly.”
“Her birthday’s coming up already? Man, that kid grows like a weed.”
“I do not!” she yelled from the living room. My kid’s got the most sensitive ears. Lane gave me a cup of coffee from my own machine and kicked at my boots under the table.
“Cuhmon, man. We’re getting there.”
With a piano, you can make, from a few small sounds, a sort of pillar. You can keep building on it until you make it too high up to breathe from. Try to make it as high as God, because try as He might, He can’t bring down music. It’s His own invention, but if He doesn’t like it: tough.
He, or his buddies, also made fire. Can’t forget fire. And I wonder if God really does work through people, through our leaders and our feeders and our administrative bull hogs. Because if He does, then He’s trying to take fire away from us. I don’t think there’s anybody here who wants that. Nah. I don’t think there’s anybody here who notices.
I followed Lane out to the barn. It’s funny how a smell will only trigger memory when you smell it. A picture hangs itself inside your brain and you can think you’re looking at it every day, but a smell can’t be revisited like that. I have to open the doors, have to smell the old hay before I remember splinters and diesel smoke, wide roads of corn and wheat and speckled animals. A lot happens in a life to bury childhood. Growing up is like a slowed down avalanche that you can breathe through.
It felt good. I ain’t a quick moving guy; I’m stuck in time. I’m only one place any second. And when I’m back there with my simple dirty growing up and my nights with a flashlight reading my daddy’s old Heinleins under the covers, I don’t even want to be anywhere else.
Lane and I did rock paper scissors for the arc-welder and he won with rock crushes scissors. He grinned at me to tell me something was wrong between him and Essa again. It happens. Stuck the grin behind the blacker cup of the face plate and lit up the welder without waiting for me to turn away.
I took the rivet gun and went to work permanent marrying metal to metal, making the shell. My first sketches, the ones of the morning after Lane and I had our talk, always looked a bit like the paintings on the front of old editions of The Stars My Destination or The Rolling Stones. The old impractical designs that look as though they ought to soar just sitting still. Kelly liked them, but she was only two or three then and liked anything I touched. I put them up on my fridge with little magnets in the shapes of colored letters. The H held up a profile. From the P dangled an overhead view with the long sweeping dorsal fin chasing the hull down into Buck Rogers territory.
Lane had laughed and really meant it. And Essa, well, she has those eyes of hers. Vanity eyes, mood eyes, whatever. She’s never let me in on the secret. They were smooth brown, then, almost plastic. I still don’t know what that meant.
A hiss, pop, “Shit,” from Lane. I shielded my eyes and looked over. The welder was out. I almost said, Ran out of gas? but stopped myself before I looked stupid in front of him.
“Generator died again,” he said. “When are you going to get something, you know, reliable?”
“When Patty wins her next case. She promises.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll take care of it.” He slipped out into the afternoon. Kell would be yelling at the TV, telling it to come back on over and over until she gave up and started inventing dialogue for the dim grey reflections on its face. Did you hear what the refrigerator said? No, no, I didn’t. What did the refrigerator said?
He said that no one could survive without him.
He’s full of it. Meat and mustard and peanut butter. She does little voices for each one and there’s just something about listening to her try to be deep and scary. It rattles her tiny teeth and puts a giggle in her eye. Reminds me of Patty’s own set of voices. One for cute, one for serious, one for distance. Moving her thin mouth like a ventriloquist.
Lane came back on the sound of generator hum. We worked the rest of the afternoon not really talking. Won’t be long now until we can start on the innards, on the propulsion. We’ve got a good system worked out with the models. Should be able to carry that over to something larger. The launch site is rotted with old eggs that fell out of the payload bays when we were testing. It’s kind of funny, the rockets making fun of us. Just takes time, then we can thumb our noses back at Earth along with them.
When it started getting dark, Lane took off the mask and blinked his gummy eyes. He clapped me on the shoulder and announced he couldn’t see a thing. We sat on the dirt floor, a lantern hanging unlit from one of the rafters, until his night vision showed up. He said a couple things like, Full shift tomorrow, and other stuff about work that I didn’t really care about. Then he limped on home.
I shut the barn door behind myself, rested my palms just on the tips of the rough wood slivers and watched the sun fall off. There are a million, billion stars; I just want one.
Proceed to part 2.
Copyright © 2004 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
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