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Fiction #259
(published December 29, 2005)
Flight of Fancy
by Kenneth Darling
I can fly. I can't fly like Superman but I can fly all the same. It's ugly — you wouldn't want to see it. It's a convulsion, an abomination, really. In fact, my wife left me the day I showed her. My Mom hasn't called since the day she heard about it.

I used to daydream about flying. Who hasn't? Flying always seemed a useful and menacing talent. I'd imagine starting high, beyond sight, pointing my fist toward the downtown, lunchtime crowd, and following its lead earthward. Some sidewalk café patron might notice, or perhaps a traffic cop, and they would raise an alarm and point at me rigidly on course at a frightening speed. I'd come down true, halving the neighboring skyscrapers, rushing close enough to savor everyone's expressions. I'd relish the moment of transition, their faces morphing from horror to wonder, when they each realized that I was not falling; I was flying. Then I'd pull up, be gone, laughing. Anyway, that was the fantasy.

Oddly, after I'd retired the skateboard, finished high school, cut my hair, the fantasy persisted - not frequently, but at times. I recall my first dishwashing job. I'd think about flying then. It went like this. I'd untie the apron strings from my waist and turn the stained fabric so it became a cape draped over my back. I'd jump into the air and drift toward the ventilation duct below which George would be sweating and shivering while he grilled. I'd say, hey, and laugh.

One night, my last night, the kitchen was wild — Mothers' Day, I think. I was behind. I was wet. George couldn't stop swearing at the waitresses and me. He pushed me aside more than once to wash his own pots. I wouldn't have had time for them. The bartender yelled at me for mugs from his side of the pass-through. I had a set in the sanitizer. I threw the handle and hoisted the caddy of mugs. They were hot (I was used to that). They were heavy. A caddy of beer mugs weighs more than anything you're likely to pull from a sanitizer. I crossed the kitchen as quickly as I could, caddy anchored against my hip, and I slipped and fell. I held onto the plastic caddy but each of the mugs launched from their slots and shattered on the tile floor. George was up to his elbows in grill flame and didn't say a word; the bartender hadn't heard the calamity from his station. That would have been a fine night to fly home. I walked instead, right then and there.

When my dignity returned, I took a job at a supermarket stocking the shelves overnight. Have you used a price gun? Have you heard it? clack: clack: clack: clack. And, again — a primitive beat-box. clack. Then, I'd think about flying. In this case, hovering below the ceiling, watching Mike, making sure he wasn't napping in a hamper of empty cardboard boxes. If he was I'd say, hey, wake up, and laugh, and drift toward the bakery.

I didn't keep the job long. This was the problem that night. In the stock room, I loaded my trolley with dozens of cases of maple syrup. I stacked them as high as my head and seven deep. It took some effort to get the wheels turning. I persisted in pushing and built up a little speed. Once I had momentum, the truck required more guidance than strength; it rolled nicely. I pushed past the meat cooler, the deli, and spotted the cereal aisle. Intending to maintain the impetus I'd worked hard to create, I turned the corner at once. Midway through the maneuver, I saw the topmost boxes lean outward. Then, the entire tower leaned, so slowly. Before I straightened the truck, gravity betrayed me and all of the towers of syrup smashed and bled brown goo onto the floor. I unsnapped my apron, pulled it over my head, and draped it on the trolley. If I could have flown through the automatic doors, I would have.

The flying fantasy was intermittent, useful in its distraction, and impossible to realize. Still, it persisted through college, a stint in the armed services, the dawn of my career; I thought about it on my wedding night. And, it's true; I've admitted that. It's true and it's ugly. I was at work when I learned that I could fly.

My boss called me. "The network is down again. No one can get on the internet."

I went to the data center and everyone there watched me cross the floor. I zigzagged between the aisles of racked computer equipment to avoid scrutiny and made for the heart of the matter, the core router. An amber light pulsed. There was life. I took a tiny screwdriver from my pocket and inserted it into the pinpoint reset switch. I pushed. The button jammed. I pushed again and I heard the plastic switch snap in half. The amber light died. Before I walked away I pushed again and again, jiggled the screwdriver blindly, even shook the steel box. In the end though, I walked away.

I didn't go home. In my office building, on the twenty-third floor, there is a roof deck with picnic tables and potted shrubs. I went there. I leaned over the ledge and looked at the street and thought about what to do (not suicide), go home, or go back to the data center and try again. In earlier times, the decision would have been automatic.

I hoisted myself onto the ledge, my back to space. Out of habit my thoughts of work turned to thoughts of flight, perhaps inspired by a seagull floating near the top of the tower, sleeping in the updraft. This would be the last time I indulged in the flying fantasy.

It was as if I called it. The seagull stiffened its wings and, from ten stories above, dived directly at me. I didn't realize its intention at first. It aimed to defend the deck, the ledge; this might have been where it nested. I expected a violent impact as it drew near and instinctively raised my hands in defense and turned away to protect my face. The bird struck my chest anyway and I flailed. The violence caused me to lose my balance and I fell backward, slowly, like cases of maple syrup, into space.

The fall was over rather quickly - mere seconds, but I perceived it in freeze-frame instances: the sidewalk, the roof of a Cadillac, the bird escaping skyward, my boss through the window, the sidewalk nearer, almost done now.

I don't know why I did it. Had I considered the ignominy, I probably wouldn't have, but I possessed a sense that I might slow my descent somehow. I started my legs in a running motion as quickly as I could. I thrust my arms into and away from my chest as if treading water. It worked. I'd slowed. I altered my leg motion into that of bicycle pedaling, I thrust my hips convulsively and rolled my head in circles atop my shoulders. My fall was ended. I hovered two feet above the sidewalk, my body a contradictory spasm. Exhausted, I ceased, and fell. I threw up behind the Cadillac and went home.

I was joyful on the way home, giddy; I might have flown from the train station if not for the spectacle. My wife didn't share my sentiment. She sat on the couch with arms and legs crossed, chin on her chest; she was a weary and compact bundle of loathing. She said, "Your office called looking for you. Did you walk away? Did you quit again?" She stood; she didn't require a response.

"Honey," I said, "I can fly!" I'm sure she'd never seen me smile so genuinely. "I can fly!"

"I can't believe you did it again. I'm leaving." She pushed me aside and collected her purse and car keys from the kitchen.

"No, honey, you don't understand. I can fly!"

She paused and looked at me and I'd never seen her so cross. "Good for you. I hear the airlines offer a nice pension plan. Update your resume." She circled the table and made for the door.

"No, you don't understand. Look!" She did and I hopped aloft and began my furious gyration, all of it: head, arms, hips, legs. "I can fly!"

She looked me up and she looked me down. "No, you can't." She left.

I flew to the window. I watched her get into the car, back out of the drive, and that was that. "Don't go," I whispered as the car receded, "I almost died today."

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