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Bewildering Stories

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Made It Way Up

part 6: Bernard

by Ian Donnell Arbuckle

Part 5 appears in this issue.


Kelly was watching “The Muppet Movie,” but not even that could get me down. Another launch like this afternoon’s, and I’d feel confident enough to shoot my friend into the stratosphere. He was already confident, but he’d been thinking about it longer than I.

I’m going to go back there some day...

She looked awfully cute with her short legs splayed out around the set and her shoulders hunched and her face way too close to the cathodes. I cleared my throat to see if that would do anything. It didn’t. I left her there. Made myself a cup of cocoa and took it out on the porch.

A bit after he finished whooping over the calculations, Lane had gotten back into Laddy and headed to town. He wanted to take Essa out on their one remaining credit card and I couldn’t talk him from it. Wasn’t twenty yards down the road when the radiator overheated. Jealous of the rockets, I guess. I came out with a gallon of tap water and we got it down.

“You guys doing all right?” I asked him through the cloud of steam.

“She’s just not as keen on sacrifice,” he said. “It’s funny, but when we moved here, she made me think that it was perfect for her. She painted and she cooked and she even tried doing a garden. This was a couple of years before you came up.” He shrugged. “What can you do? Got a dream and a few breaths of time to find it in. We’ll do good.”

“Damn straight,” I said. “Two hundred and twenty-five pounds of good.”

“That’s gonna be enough for me and a few bags of Doritos,” he said. “I may just not come back down.” He got back into the cab and stuttered off down the road. I could hear the suspension rattling over all the little ridges formed by alternate rainfall and sun.

It was still early, so I thought I’d go in and read for a while before dinner. Kelly was still watching Kermit and the gang fight for fame and fortune. Some fight. They walk into the office and, simply by dint of tenacity, they have success dropped on them.

Bad sign. I was arguing with fate over the resolution of a children’s movie.

“Want to turn that off, sweetie?” I asked. “Daddy’s going to read a book.”

“Will you read it to me?” she asked back.

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. It’s your book.” She still hadn’t turned from or turned off the movie. And now the credits were starting and the music was happy and it only took them two hours. Still, I thought, Gonzo never made it back there. Still a bad sign, Bernie.

To compensate, I got Alex Haley’s Roots down from the shelf. It was a copy that had belonged to my dad, back in Virginia. I had picked it out of a box of things mom was getting ready to donate to charity after he died. I didn’t think that charity would want it. Not that it’s a bad book; I’ve got a few fond memories of dad leaning back in his tweed recliner, smoking his pipe and letting the curls sink into Haley’s prose. It was a paperback, and the cover was so torn from use that most of the letters were gone.

“Ale Ha Ro,” I said.

“Not again,” said Kelly, making a face I could see reflected on the screen in the black space around the scrolling names. She stopped the tape anyway and got up.

“Rewind,” I reminded. She bent over to push the button. When she crawled up into my lap and put her head sideways on my chest, I said, “Forget to put your panties on this morning?” She gave me a glare very much like one of her mother’s and explained,

“It’s summer.” She stuck her nose into the breast pocket of my flannel shirt and inhaled. “You smell like smoke,” she said.

I carefully split the book open and started reading out loud, trying to move my mouth as slowly as possible so my tongue would not dry out before she got tired of listening.

I could smell her almost-blonde hair making room for itself in the summer air, thick as it was with the scents of other things more potent, far more beautiful. She got nothing of my pitch black color; everything from her mother.

Patty called again. She was being sick and nice. Nice for her. Telling me that she just wanted to see us and asking, Would you like to meet for dinner some night. I said that would be an awfully expensive dinner. Three hundred miles of dinner. She said we could meet halfway and I said, What, at the summit of Steven’s Pass? Yeah sure. The ski resort’s got great food. I heard her cough a few times, deeply. There had to be someone else in the room with her, because I heard a voice say, That’s all right, but it sure wasn’t hers. Hers doesn’t say things like that. And isn’t male, anyways.

I told her she may as well just send me last month’s check, and the one from two months ago, and we could pretend we had all met for dinner. And if she dips her fingers into cold water and then slaps it on her cheek, it’ll be just as if Kell had given her a kiss. For all she knows.

After Patty, some girl named Claritin rang. Said she was part of some recruiting committee back at Boeing and wanted to know if I’d be willing to come in for an interview. I told her, No, but thanks. Apparently they’ve been doing well for themselves since the Chinese started buying exclusively from the 797 line. That was the last thing I did when I was there. Some piece of the wing that you wouldn’t notice unless it fell off. Let the Chinese have ’em. They’re thinking too laterally and it won’t get them anywhere but here.

“Daddy?” Kelly said. Her little nose was flared. She does that just for fun. Got it from the rabbits we had.

“Yes’m?” I said.

“You stopped reading. Thought you’d gone to sleep. You can’t sleep yet.”

“Why not?”

“It’s too early to go to sleep.”

“Says you, smartie.”

“Says me.”

I read some more, going back a few paragraphs to see if she’d notice. She didn’t, which made me smile. It was nice to hear myself talk about the swaying of a cruel ship and glance outside at the mountains, not cruel, not moving, just heartless and real. It made everything else seem a little less so.

I put one hand to her ear and stroked my thumb along the trails of her hair. She was asleep before Essa and Lane got back.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
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