A story by Jim Shepard
I could talk this to death, but it all comes down to this, really: He’s the way he is and I’m the way I am. How much did he get from his father and how much from me? I can’t agonize over that. If your kid’s drowning, you don’t worry about how he got in the water. You start swimming.
I’m a Grumman Industries multirole long-range intercepting ground-supporting F-I4 swing-wing Tomcat with a Phoenix missile system and enough other shit tucked under my wings to obliterate Belgium, and I can outfiy, out-track, outmaneuver, and just plain outshoot any other poor son of a bitch in the sky. I can hit a bogey 100 miles away on the run; I can fire six Phoenix missiles simultaneously and independently track eighteen other targets while I do it. I can fly faster, get higher, and turn quicker than anything else in the air and do it all in the densest countermeasure environments possible. When I come into a room, things stop.
First of all, I’ve had trouble with El for a long time—we had trouble with him as a baby; he used to scream in the crib—but never serious trouble. He quit Little League when he blew a double play-what was he, eight years old?—threw his glove into left field, got up, left second base, and walked home. Which was, by the way, just like him: make an error, go home.
We had a week-long fight to get him to be ringbearer at my sister’s wedding, which almost fell through completely when he realized the girl who would be standing next to him was bigger than he was. Then one of the kids said something about his cassock and that was it—we didn’t find him until after the ceremony, waiting in the car.
In the seventh grade, one of the sisters stood him up and asked him if he was ever, ever, going to learn how to diagram a sentence, and he got his coat and briefcase and walked out, with her still talking. Make an error, go home.
It’s not just a matter of El needing a father, needing the discipline; I know El. I know he took Jeff’s death very hard; I’m tired of being told that. We all did. That was three years ago. He’s a big boy now. He’s fifteen. And discipline didn’t collapse when his father died. The family thought so, though, because for them that was the first sign of trouble, when he wouldn’t go to the funeral.
Still, no matter how much I expected it or dreaded it, I was mad, I was crazy mad, when he wouldn’t come out to St. Michael’s. I dragged him, really dragged him, out to the limousine, him kicking and screaming, me pulling and screaming, and I thought: I’m as crazy as he is, and dropped his legs. In front of the whole street, a final humiliation.
But that was it, really: it was everybody else I was worried about. Either way, he didn’t go, as my mother put it, “to his own father’s,” so word was out: I couldn’t handle El. I just stood there, my mother and Earvin crying, staring at the flower sprays, thinking I was a lousy daughter, a lousy mother, and a lousy family member. And Jeff was dead, which wasn’t possible. Just wasn’t possible.
Earvin was three then. I had a three-year-old who wouldn’t stop crying and a twelve-year-old who didn’t show up.
El never talked about it afterward. I’m sure it still bothers him. In a way he just hurt too much to go. And he hated the rest of the family.
As for this jet stuff, it came from his father. The big new project back then at Grumman was the Tomcat, and Jeff used to come home and tell us all about it and how and why it was going to outperform the other companies’jets. Northrop’s, General Dynamics’; I still remember the names. It was a very big contract, I knew, so I tried to get as excited as he was, and he’d go on and on, he was so happy about what he was doing. El got so excited by it. Jeff insisted that it was the best jet in the world; they were making the best jet in the world. One night it became an absolutely flawless aircraft. No limitations. None? we asked. None.
El had the posters all over his room. There was one over his bed, a top view with the wings swept back and straight out, you know, like Da Vinci’s drawing with the naked guy in the circle, and there was this huge one of the thing flying out of the sun, flying right out of the poster at you, with a giant “TOMCAT” written over it. Jeff let him put one of those in the front hall, too. Used to scare my mother to death.
He wanted the specifications. He wanted the capabilities. He wanted all the numbers, all the graphs and charts. He wanted a model of one, he wanted to see one, he wanted to ride one. Jeff took him to the first trials the Tomcat had—drove the whole way. El came back like he’d seen God.
That was the interest we thought would turn things around for him. It did. The rest of his life dropped away. Sports, the few friends he had left. And we tried not to worry. Engineer, we thought; at the very least, maybe he’ll want to join the Air Force.
Now I can operate my radar, select targets and weapons and go from simple cruise to air-to-air combat to ground support so fast your head’ll swim; my ordnance fires from my stick and my digital com-puter automatically flashes flight, target acquisition, and firing data on the head-up display in the line of sight. For air-to-surface stuff everything’s on the front panels and my radar gives me ranging and ground-mapping. I can put anything on a dime and do it in seconds.
The toughest thing for El was the way Jeff died: he just died, as El put it. He wasn’t hit by a truck, or shot by a burglar; he just died. His father built Tomcats, his father threw a baseball hard enough to make his hand ache for days, and his father just died.
He always had trouble at school. Jeff’s death might’ve made it worse; I don’t know. I don’t think so. He’s not stupid. Everyone keeps telling me that over and over and I keep saying I know, I know. It doesn’t do me any good to know it and it won’t do him any good until he starts to apply it. It would go something like this: Ninety-something on a history quiz, El asks the sister why number whatever is wrong, she tells him, he disagrees. Later I hear it for a week: All history quizzes are stupid. Next time, no studying.
And yet he would agonize over report cards. He knew what they used to mean to Jeff; they used to go over them pretty closely after supper. Jeff congratulating here, asking about a drop there. First report card afterward, El had a string of Unsatisfactorys.
I never had to worry about him getting into drugs, or breaking windows, or stealing. He was never with anybody. I never knew where he was. After that report card, he wasn’t at school, I know that. I worried and worried and argued and pleaded and asked nice and screamed, and the next day he’d leave for school and never get there. I’d take a morning off and take him all the way there and he wouldn’t get there. They would watch him through the first period and he would disappear the second. They would watch him through the second and he would disappear the third. Truant officers came to the house. Nuns called. Neighbors stopped by. I lost my temper with all of them. Sister Eileen finally found him, found out where he was going: the library.
Unsatisfactory? At how many times the speed of sound? At what ceiling? Can an Unsatisfactory deliver a Sidewinder with a blast fragmentation warhead up somebody’s exhaust jets in seconds? Can an Unsatisfactory go off a carrier deck blind and fully loaded in any kind of weather? I left it to a nun and a nun said I was Unsatisfactory, but what kind of helixes can that nun cut into the upper atmosphere, what kind of snap rolls?
I don’t know where he would have been through all of this without Earvin. Thank God for Earvin. No matter what happened to him there was always Earvin to come back to. Earvin to talk to. He got Earvin the swings himself. I didn’t even know he wanted them. After a bath Earvin would pad around in his powderblue pajamas—for no reason; you know little kids—his pajama boots slapping on the kitchen linoleum. Cabinet doors would open and shut, the dog’s dish would scrape around, and El would be up and out of his chair in the den, his finger holding his place in one of Jane’s books of aircraft while he checked on his brother.
I think Earvin got us both over the hump after Jeff died. I needed it as much as El did.
El found me crying one night and just stood there, surprised, before going to his room. He came back and said C’mon, Ma, let’s go out. He took me to a really nice Italian restaurant. We got all dressed up and got a sitter for Earvin and he insisted on paying for everything and on the way home we passed an empty public tennis court and he got a funny look in his eye and said Wait here, and disappeared, and when he came back he had two sets of rental roller skates. I still don’t know where he got them; some place around there must stay open late. You’re crazy, I said, and he said So are you, and we sat down right there on the court and took off our shoes and put the skates on, and went around and around in the dark, his jacket and tie flapping in the wind and the skates making that noisy, rolling sound. God, we laughed. He would do things like that. And he would have that floppy black hair and that silly grin, and you would just want to hug him.
I never did anything like that for him, ever.
Nobody helped him except Earvin.
The day Earvin got sick we both almost went crazy. He paced, he sat, he paced, he sat. I played Pippin on the stereo, and we sat, waiting to hear from the doctor. Earvin had had bad stomach pains that turned into worse stomach pains during the night. We just sat. The guy playing Pippin sang, I’ve got to be someone who lives all of his life in superlatives, and El said, “Good luck,” watching the phone.
When they called back and said they’d have to keep him a few days for observation, they didn’t like the look of things, El took off, and when he came back, well, he was a jet.
I went to some of the first trials and all sorts of generals and foreigners and politicians were there, and this big, flat, gray, twin-engined Tomcat just ripped up the sky over our heads. It just seemed to keep going up, up, its engines tiny little orange-white dots in front of the vapor trails, until it must’ve hit eighty thousand feet easy, and when it snapped over and into its dive it came down on top of us in seconds, andcame over our heads in a roll so fast with the sound following so loud that everybody was ducking, generals and politicians first.
So he’s been gone two days now. We had one talk since; he called, he wanted news of Earvin. I told him to come home and he called me a “bogey.”
My mother’s over, my neighbors are over, my sister’s over. Nobody has any ideas. I have a Dr. Hazlik’s number to call when El comes back. Apparently he meets with groups of kids.
I don’t know if he really believes he’s a jet. He didn’t drink jet fuel or try to take off down the driveway. He acted like a human being while he was here. He just said he was a jet. By way of explaining the noises he was making, the positions he was sitting. I didn’t think he was being funny.
The people at the hospital have been alerted.
I operate constantly now in a dense countermeasure environment. So many things are being thrown up at me that I’m taxing even my own systems; using everything I’ve got just to keep operational. I’m twisting, rolling, spinning, dropping tens of thousands of feet in seconds, climbing back up higher than anything can follow. Surviving is no problem because nothing will bring down a Tomcat. Carrying out operations is.
I’m tired of people. Tired of skin and bones and hair and crying. I’m 61 feet 11 inches long. I’m 16 feet high. I’m 38 feet wide swept, 64 feet unswept. I can go past Mach II and I won’t break down. I can be wingloaded to 40-50 psf and I won’t break down. I can do anything and I won’t break down.
My mother says just relax. My sister says she has called in at work for me. My neighbors have all volunteered to take care of the dog while I visit Earvin. I had to be reminded about the dog. The dog did the reminding; he shit on the rug in the dining room. Earvin did some reminding too; he’s in the hospital.
I don’t know why El’s a jet. How could I know? Maybe he likes it better than being a human being. No, I don’t regret we got him interested in jets. It’s a normal interest. If it wasn’t that, it would be something else.
I’ll wait at the hospital. My mother’ll stay here, with the dog, in case he calls.
I’ve worried and worried and I’m almost all worried out. I think I’d just like something to happen. I don’t know: maybe the nuns are right. Maybe sometimes you just have to have faith.
I’m chasing Earvin down and using everything I’ve got to find him. I cruise down the street and through the front doors evenly, steadily, banking around the corner, sailing down the hallway. I find the roomnumber and taxi into the elevator. The doors open on my mother in a chair in front of his room. All my underwing armament is showing, and as the doors widen completely I go to Mach II, past it, and I’m on her in an instant, my forward surfaces reaching the door as she tries to pull it shut behind her, banking, weaving, twisting, until I pop through and she recoils against the far wall as though we’d collided in our airspace.
I pitch and yawl toward Earvin, in bed, eyes wide, and my mother shouts ‘’El” and grabs for one of my trailing surfaces, tipping me, swinging me, deflecting me off the near wall, a lamp jerking to the floor, but I pull out okay, my airframe intact, strong and undamaged. I’m away from the wall and after Earvin again and she’s right on my tail, arms around my fuselage, and other arms are there too, pulling me down, my engines straining, my flaps giving all the lift they can. I’m too close to use the Phoenix or the Sidewinder; I can’t get my nose around to use my cannon. I surge forward, pitching from side to side as the arms buffet and swing me, and she keeps yelling and I hear her feet pushing, sliding, as Earvin continues to stare, crying now, and suddenly my left wing drops and I slip and roll sharply and go down, slam-ming along to a stop next to the bed, everyone piling up behind and on top of me.
My mother shakes quietly, crying. “El,” she says. Earvin peeks over the bed. I’m spread along the floor, down. I’ve been brought down. My mother slides further up, wrapping herself around me, heaving. A nurse behind her untangles herself. Earvin gets out of bed and crouches near, arms together between his legs. I reach out for Earvin so I can hold them both, and my mother starts to say Oh God and I say “I’m all right.” She looks up and holds me tighter and Earvin slumps to his rear, bewildered, his legs splayed out. “I’m sorry,” I say, and she makes a noise, and we all stay like that, connected. Miraculously, I realize, nothing detonated on impact: my Phoenixes nestle undamaged beneath a splintered, protective wing.
He’s asleep now; he conked out right in my arms, sitting there, and he hasn’t waked up since. I don’t think he slept for three days. Earvin goes up and checks on him now and then, and, according to the latest report I got, he’s on his back, snoring, his arms sometimes at his sides, sometimes straight out, just like the poster over the bed. □