A Lesson in Flight

Alex McElroy

Dad came upstairs to ask me and Pete if we wanted to build him an airplane. It wasn’t a question. Dad never asked questions, he just made people think that he had. “Which one of you’s gonna clean out the garage?” Pete and me both ran downstairs.

Took us two days to empty the garage. Mom was away that weekend, so Dad had us trash a bunch of her stuff, records mostly, some dresses, photo albums he made us stop looking through. We trashed old toys and board games we didn’t know we had. It was sad seeing them go. We trashed the old push-mower, a couple shovels, a mildewed tent that Pete and me never camped in. When Mom saw the empty garage she threatened to leave. Just a threat.

On Monday we started construction. Tail got built first, with scrapped aluminum and rusty bolts. Then the fuselage, to the cabin, the wings and so on. Dad kept his head in the manual. Shouting instructions while Pete and me did the little we could to help out.

Dad grew old fast that year. His hairline retreated back over his head and the hair he had left turned gray in odd places, over his ears, his eyebrows. He started shaking when he wasn’t drinking. He quit brushing his teeth. Quit holding in farts and quit shaving. There were more important things to do than shave. Like building an airplane. Pete and me didn’t know why the plane was important, just that it was. We imagined Dad flying us to Disney World, or Pete and me parachuting into our soccer games, yanking off the harnesses and scoring a goal. We started skipping school to fix up the plane while Dad was at work. On the days we didn’t play hooky we sprinted home right after the bell. There was a bus, but we got home faster sprinting.

Pete sawed off a chunk of his pinky one day cutting through piping. He was crying and bleeding and yelling when he showed Dad the finger. Dad squeezed the bottom knuckle and led Pete to the kitchen. “Life’s not all about eating flapjacks,” he said, and cauterized the wound on the stove’s front burner. Later, I attached the propeller.

Once we built the whole plane we christened it Pepper, after Dad’s favorite spice. A couple days later a chubby bald man came to inspect it. He knocked on the fuselage with a clipboard. He wrote something down. He spun Pepper’s propeller. Pete and me had greased it something awful and the speed of its spinning could’ve took the man’s hand. He walked to the tail. “This a broomstick?” he asked, examining the speed rudders we’d made. “That’s temporary,” Dad told him. “I got a paycheck coming Thursday.” Pepper failed inspection.

Dad didn’t care. Two weeks later he drove us and the plane to a clearing north of town. A messy gravel path split the clearing. Dad asked who wanted to earn five dollars. Pete and me weeded the path, stomped on the rocks, trying to make it as flat as we could. When Dad said the runway was good we stopped. We lifted him into the cockpit. Once seated, he held out his hand and dropped a ten dollar bill. Pete caught it. Dad put on a pair of aviator sunglasses. “Remember boys,” he said, looking down at us so Pete and me showed in the dark lenses, “a man can learn a lot from the sun.” We smiled, thinking he meant to say, “his sons.” He checked the manual and flipped some switches. The propeller whizzered to life. Pepper lumbered over the gravel until it lifted itself into the air. We jumped up and cheered as we watched it fly higher.

The plane skimmed a stand of pines at the far edge of the clearing. It wobbled, but Dad righted himself and flew on, gaining more height and distance until the plane shrunk to a pinprick. It disappeared. Pete and me sat down next to the truck and waited. Pete touched the nub of his pinky. Then I touched it.


Originally from New Jersey, Alex McElroy currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. His work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Booth, Pinball, and elsewhere.