The Next Flight

Jeffery Renard Allen

Flash Fridays

He mounts the shaking platform, lays the weight of his fingers on the delicate wings. No more Red-eye. No more stand-by or baggage or weight restrictions. From now on he will go wherever he wants whenever he wants and take along whatever he wishes to, one carry-on bag or ten, one suitcase or a thousand. And he will remain airborne to his long heart’s content. For his best ideas come to him 40,000 feet above ground while strapped in an aisle seat with a cup of coffee steaming up from the slim rectangle of his tray table and strings of cloud framed in a little square of window. Frequent flyer. Always on the go.

When he was seven years old, his grandmother told him the story of the Flying Africans, the earliest known Transatlantic Flight, causing him to understand aerodynamics as a thing to live by. He began to thread his way through passages of Leonardo, Newton, and Liang, mull over the treatises of Cayley, Francesco Lana de Terzi, and Werner von Braun, review and improve the schematics of the Montgolfier and Wright Brothers, Zeppelin, and Langley, putting their thoughts into his own language, a tireless record stretching across several decades and filling twenty notebooks the size of folios.

Heading out into the world, he examined firsthand ancient instrument panels unearthed in the jungles of Peru, surveyed pre-colonial airfields in the Congo, and catalogued magical carpets on three continents. Gazed through the slot of his diver’s helmet (his own personal pressurized cockpit) into inky ocean depths to chart the crash sites of downed fighter jets.

Many such exploratory missions, necessary groundwork for the numerous vehicles he has engineered over the years: a kite sliced from linoleum, a mobile pieced together from flypaper and Popsicle sticks, a crude dirigible ballasted from condoms (latex more preferable than rubber), a helicopter spun from wire and string, a glider constructed of mangrove, bamboo, and banana leaf (an object lesson in objects), and his singular achievement, a prototype for a single-person flying apparatus.

Bearing his history, he checks his gauges, adjusts his belts and straps, and takes to the sky, already thinking ahead to his next flight in a craft indistinguishable from air, made of air itself.

Born and raised in Chicago, Jeffery Renard Allen is a Professor of English at Queens College of the City University of New York and an instructor in the graduate Writing Program at The New School and the low residency MFA writing program at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Allen is the author of five books, most recently the novel Song of the Shank (Graywolf Press, 2104), which is loosely based on the life of Thomas Greene Wiggins, Blind Tom, a nineteenth century African American piano virtuoso and composer who performed under the stage name Blind Tom and who was the first African American to perform at The White House. The novel was featured as the front-page review of both The New York Times Book Review and The San Francisco Chronicle. Allen is the author of two other works of fiction, the celebrated novel Rails Under My Back (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000), which won The Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize for Fiction, and the short story collection Holding Pattern (Graywolf Press, 2008), which won The Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. As well, he has published two volumes of poetry Harbors and Spirits (Moyer Bell, 1999) and Stellar Places (Moyer Bell 2007). And his work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Bomb, The Chicago Tribune, StoryQuarterly, Callaloo, Ploughshares, Writer’s Digest, Black Renaissance Noire, Poets & Writers, Triquarterly, Kweli Journal, St. Petersburg Review, Buzzfeed, and The Nervous Breakdown. Allen has received numerous accolades and awards, including a fellowship at The Dorothy L. and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and a grant in Innovative Literature from Creative Capital. He is represented by Jodi Solomon Speakers bureau and the Cynthia Cannell Literary Agency.