When it rains on Saturdays, we can’t fly the TVs. That’s what my customers have taken to calling it: flying. They’re out there now, sitting in their cars, watching rain streak the windshield, hoping it will end so we can fly. They’ll sit there all afternoon while the rain comes down. They’ll sit until dark comes and lightning moves in and thunder rattles the sky.
We fly TVs often. TVs and old computers. Lots of furniture, like glass tables that explode when they land. From 300 yards away, you can see shards of glass like water. The people gathered cheer, and it is this that brings them back, that keeps them waiting until night falls and they have to go home.
We’ve flown other, stranger things. Last year, when we first started, we flew a man’s armoire. His wife had brought it after she found out he’d been sleeping with a 22-year-old cashier for Drugs & Co. She never smiled as the armoire left the ground. Halfway through its flight, the doors opened and clothes came falling out, blazers and silk shirts drifting slowly to earth. When the last one landed, she reached into her purse and brought out two crisp twenties and a ten, handed them to me, and walked away. You’d be amazed how much people will pay you to destroy things they no longer want or need or simply can’t bear to have around. The judge knew this already, but it took me some time to figure it out.
Besides furniture and old computers, we’ve flown bicycles and mopeds, musical instruments, aquariums, exercise equipment, washers and dryers and microwaves, and once an entire set of china, complete with initials. The couple who had brought it in was getting divorced, and the china had been a wedding present. They watched as the catapult the judge and I built launched it skyward, watched it shatter, bits of fine china flying everywhere, the sound like distant wind chimes, then turned and walked away from each other.
We won’t fly anything that’s alive, although people have tried. VD—that’s James Vernon, but everyone calls him VD—brought his dog, Backfat, and tried to get us to throw him. Backfat is old, 15 or 16 at least, and his muzzle is gray. His bones creak when he walks. VD wanted to put him out of his misery. Even without the judge shaking his head, calmly telling VD to take him to Doc Red and have him put down the right way, I couldn’t have done it.
All this was the judge’s idea, just like it was his idea, in a way, how I could get Julie back. The judge is always coming up with something like this, though flying is the greatest invention he’s yet uncovered. His theory is that people would rather see a thing destroyed than let someone else have it. That’s one of his theories, anyway. Even for around here, the judge is seen as a strange character, though when speaking of the judge, people use the word eccentric rather than strange. He always wears gray suits and a gray felt hat. He is missing part of one jaw. It simply isn’t there. The skin is smooth, just a little scar tissue. His eyes are so blue they look gray.
Another of his theories is that to see something destroyed in a spectacular way gives people a feeling of accomplishment, and when he first told me this theory I wondered if I was somehow trying to destroy Julie. I could feel her flying away even then. The judge told me that was nonsense, but I saw the way he looked at me, as if he did think I was trying to destroy something.
It took us months to build the catapult. The judge is still clear-headed, but he’s pushing 90 and wasn’t much help other than the design. He’d seen it in a book once and drew his plans from memory. Maybe that’s why the judge came up with the idea in the first place, because unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t need to keep things around.
We started it in November and were done by March, just when the weather was turning warm and the trees were beginning to bloom. The judge went down to Mama’s Cafe and told the old men drinking coffee to come out one cool Saturday afternoon. The word spread from there. At noon there were over a hundred people milling about. Doc Red was there, and the Mist sisters, who are young and beautiful and look like movie stars, and Sheriff Barnham and Cheese Wilson and Steve Alvarez, whom everyone calls Ponch. VD and Backfat were there, and Junior Ellis, and most of the high school, boys who had fallen in love with the Mist sisters long ago and still followed them around, and girls who wanted to be like them. I loaded an old Magnavox TV into the sling and cranked it back. When the judge gave the nod I hit the lever and the arm shot forward and the TV almost disappeared into the sky. Everyone heard Cheese say, “My words fly up; my thoughts remain below.” There was a collective intake of breath as it flew, and then a cheer as it landed in a spray of glass and wood and old vacuum tubes, and I knew the judge had found something people wanted.
After the TV we threw a chair and a couch and a box of old records, and late in the afternoon the judge told everyone that we’d be flying every Saturday. It was near dark when they finally started leaving. Cheese honked his horn once, yelling that sorrow is sweet in parting. The Mist sisters went next, driving their vintage red Karmann Ghia convertible. The Mist sisters have long blond hair and green eyes and most Saturday nights they circle town with the wind in their hair, reminding everyone in town what it’s like to be young.
After the Mist sisters everyone else left. Sheriff Barnham turned his blue lights and siren on, even though we all knew he didn’t have an emergency. Doc Red was last. He had a dog cage in the back of his truck, and I wondered if he brought it in case VD changed his mind and wanted Backfat put down. Doc Red is the closest thing we have to a veterinarian, though his degree is in psychology. Most people think he is the nicest man in town, but I no longer agree with them.
When everyone had left we stood looking at the catapult. It gleamed in the last rays of the sun. Julie was still with us then, and while the judge and I ran our hands over the wood, she stood with one eyebrow raised, looking us over.
“People are always throwing things away,” she said, but it didn’t occur to me until months later, when she had moved into Doc Red’s house and was already showing, that she might have been talking about something other than furniture. She stood with one leg behind the other. The blue earth turned and the first stars spun overhead.
“The great tragedy of our lives is that we don’t know how to live them,” said the judge, who’d seen our trouble coming.
Sunday mornings, after the flying, the judge and I walk down to the landing pit to see what we can find. We won’t find much this week since we didn’t fly anything, but it’s a ritual, and the judge and I do it anyway. Our houses live on the hill above the field where we built the catapult, and when we meet on the road we can see it sitting down there. Sometimes, when I’ve had too much to drink and am walking around the house aimlessly, I get the feeling it is waiting for me, that it wants me to come down the hill, and some nights when I am lying in bed, not sure whether I am asleep or awake, I wonder what it would be like to strap myself in and fly over the town.
Next to the catapult is the little house and the little shed that holds the tools we need. The little house has a fireplace and two cots and a desk and a table, and some nights the judge and I sit in the little house and drink too much. When we walk back up the hill late at night to our real houses it seems as if we are returning from a trip through time.
Three miles away, across the fields, on top of the distant hills, the Human Development Center shines bone-white. In the early 1900s it was built as a home for tuberculosis patients, but since TB was virtually wiped out in the ’60s, it now houses a few hundred developmentally disabled residents. Most of the buildings aren’t used and people from town sometimes stay in the empty rooms. They check themselves in to get away from everything for a few days or a few weeks. It’s quieter there, and time moves at a different pace, and the rest seems to strengthen them. Doc Red runs the whole place, and even though the state might frown on the practice, he allows it. Everyone in town says Doc Red is just trying to help. The Mist sisters’ mother checks herself in every few years or so because her husband won’t come home from his business trips, and Cheese Wilson has been known to spend a few weeks there, resting and reading up on his quotes. Sheriff Barnham drives there every Sunday afternoon and does not leave until nightfall.
When the judge and I reach the landing pit, the judge sifts through the junk. We take the old TVs and computers and strip them of metals so they don’t contaminate the groundwater. We salvage what we can, which makes me wonder if Julie and I have anything left to salvage.
Most Sundays we see Dogman on his way back to the Human Development Center. Ten years ago he was a permanent resident there, but now he is allowed to come and go. He always has four or five dogs with him, strays he has taken in who wait for him and follow him everywhere. Some days Backfat is with him. VD says Backfat loves Dogman, but so does everyone else, even if what they call love is really pity. All weekend Dogman wanders town, picking up cans along the side of the road. On Sunday mornings he returns to the Center, crossing the judge’s fields near the landing pit. He never speaks, even though I call to him every Sunday. Most people in town have forgotten his name.
The rest of the residents of the Center, the ones born developmentally disabled, aren’t allowed to come and go. The place looks like a college, tall white buildings rising among a forest of pine. But the windows of the buildings are wired over, and the doors are all padlocked. Occasionally, though, one of the residents will escape. There is a sign just outside the gates that says for motorists not to pick up hitchhikers, but some people do anyway, and every once in awhile one of the residents will make it all the way to town. They are always quickly caught. Sheriff Barnham will get a phone call and drive out and pick them up. For all his bulk and permanent scowl, the sheriff is kind and gentle with the residents. He helps them into the back of his car and drives them up the hill.
Julie used to work at the Center. But she quit not long after she found out she was pregnant. She said it was too hard. She came home crying. She would lie in bed and stare at the wall for hours, her body turned away from me. I stood beside her, my hands opening and closing. Nothing I said would help, so I stopped saying anything. When the judge and I began building the catapult, she stopped staring at the wall and started staring out the window, watching it take shape. When it was finished she asked me what it was.
This is the plan to get Julie back: we will build another catapult, one so big it will fly a car. The local news will have to cover it, and after the inaugural flight they will interview me. On live TV I will ask Julie to come back. I will forgive her for leaving me. I will forgive her anything at this point.
Already we have the frame, steel posts as tall as telephone poles. They have rusted slightly, as steel will when not protected, and they gleam red as blood in the last light. The judge ordered them even before I told him my plan. The judge almost always knows what people need.
For a brief time in the early seventies, after TB had been mostly eradicated, the Center was empty. Its buildings hung silent as the fireflies that drifted among the pines. Local people said there were ghosts in the buildings, that any place where so many had suffered and died carried scars in the walls.
Before she started working at the Center, Julie used to think about kids. I don’t know what happened to her when she worked there, because she won’t tell me. When I call her late at night Doc Red answers, and when I don’t speak I imagine he is gripping the phone tightly in his big red hands.
“Just leave her alone for a while,” he says into the phone. His voice sounds tired. Doc Red doesn’t live far from me, so Julie did not have far to go when she left. The night I went after her, Doc Red met me in the yard. He kept telling me to go home, to give her some time. Doc Red is old enough to be her father and I knew she wasn’t sleeping with him, but when he put one of his big hands on my shoulder like we were friends, I shrugged it off. I admit I was drunk, but I just wanted to talk to her. I wanted to tell her about the fireflies at night, the way they light among the pine trees. I wanted to tell her how you could chase one, only seeing it every few seconds when it showed itself in the dark, and that if you kept on going, eventually you could get close enough to touch it. I kept saying that, over and over, until Doc Red slapped me. I swear I saw stars, or little birds, like in cartoons. Julie was standing barefoot in the yard with her arms crossed over her stomach, crying and telling me to just leave her alone, it hurt too much to think about it. When Sheriff Barnham pulled up, his blue lights bounced off the walls of the houses and I could see people looking out their windows. I sat in the car watching the Sheriff talk to Doc Red. They kept looking at me. When the sheriff drove me home, he said “Boy, you about a stupid sonofabitch.”
The judge has more parts on the way. We’ll need help putting everything together, so he plans to hire Ponch and rent a backhoe and a forklift and whatever else we might need. Some nights the judge and I sit in the little house after flying all day and the judge draws up plans in his notebook and then erases them. He says he is working out how strong everything needs to be. He has the car in mind, too—he wants to throw the Mist sisters’ Karmann Ghia. He says it is the only car worthy of being thrown. I told him any old junker would do, but he shook his head and looked disappointed in me.
The judge owns most of the land around here. He is the richest man in town and he could run for mayor if he wanted. He lost his jaw in the war. He has his old uniforms in a closet in his house, and maps of Europe in ’43 and ’44, but he says he is too old for politics. He doesn’t even watch the news any longer. The Magnavox we threw that first time was his, and he has not replaced it. He says with a town like ours, he has no need to watch shows about other places.
While the judge works on the plans, I try not to think about Julie or my child growing inside her. The moon has set low behind the Center. It looks close enough to touch. I see Dogman crossing the pasture, wading the stream in the moonlight, his dogs close on his heels. They nip and snap at one another until he yells at them. Backfat is not with them. Perhaps he is too old now. Earlier we threw an old toilet Ponch had brought out, and it exploded in a spray of porcelain. I thought I saw Julie in Doc Red’s truck, but I wasn’t sure. For the longest time we only made love at dusk. Julie told me there was a better chance of her getting pregnant then. When we finished, she lay on her back and raised her legs in the air, trying to keep everything inside her. After she started working at the Center we didn’t make love at all, or if we did she would pull away from me when I was close. The judge has written all this down in his notebook, which he carries in his back pocket. He says it makes sense to him but will not explain.
When the new parts arrive, we start to work. The days stretch out longer. Saturdays we fly things. People drive in now from little towns all around. They bring ice chests full of beer and charcoal grills and Backfat sits up in the seat of VD’s truck and people bring him food.
By the time the frame is completed Julie is showing. She walks bent backwards. Sometimes I see Doc Red with his hand in the middle of her back, helping her. The judge is negotiating the purchase of the Mist twins’ Karmann Ghia, but it is hard work. He cannot get their father, Riddell, to understand why the judge wants it. Riddell is in Boston or New York, on the subway talking on a cell phone, and I can hear him shouting, “You want it for what?” The Mist mother has checked herself into the Center once again and we cannot reach her by phone. Doc Red says to give her some time.
Ponch on the backhoe hoists heavy pipes while I weld them in place. We fly on through June. Julie grows big as a house. I see her sitting in Doc Red’s truck all the time now, watching me from behind dark windows. In the mornings I see Doc Red’s truck driving up the hill to the Center. Sometimes, when I am in a foul mood, I wish for his truck to slide off the road and tumble down the hill. I still don’t understand why she left, but the judge says there are lots of things I don’t understand.
When June becomes unbearable, we start flying at night. Fireflies hit across the fields. We put fireworks in the webbing of couches and stuff them in TV frames. When they fly, they leave trails of sparks and the crowd goes “ooh” and “aah.” Children’s faces light up in green and orange, eyes like lollipops, the ones that are different colors and seem to swirl. After the flying I see the sheriff’s car drive up the hill to the Center. “You don’t ever stop loving someone,” he said once, “no matter what.”
Junior Ellis brings watermelons from his garden one Saturday evening and breaks them over his knee and hands out pieces. The children have juice running down their chins. Backfat eats watermelon from VD’s hand. The Mist sisters wear white dresses and are surrounded by boys. The watermelons we don’t eat we fly. Later that night, raccoons get into the landing pit. From the little house we can see their eyes shining in the darkness. Deer come down from the stream to lick the watermelon seeds. In the morning when the judge and I walk down there, turtles crawl slowly through the rinds. Dogman crosses and recrosses the stream, goes up and down the hill, in and out of the Center gates. The dogs circle him like electrons. He never waves back at me.
By late June we have everything ready but the car. The judge starts talking about a Fourth of July flying. Cheese Wilson is speechless for once. VD buys a gun but won’t use it. The judge calls Riddell day after day but gets no answer. We cannot chase the Mist twins down to talk to them. They are endlessly circling the town with boys in the car, heads thrown back and screaming at the stars. They let the boys drive and they sit up on the rim of the trunk since the car has no back seats. Their long hair flies in the wind and they toss their heads side to side. Some people think they will slide off and go tumbling down the street, but others believe God would not let the Mist sisters end that way.
Sunday afternoon the judge and I drive up the hill to the Center to see Mrs. Mist. The June heat sits among the pines, rises from the asphalt road. Doc Red meets us at the door to the Slab. He shakes the judge’s hand, then pats me on the arm. He starts to say something, but I shoulder past him. The hallways echo as we walk. Doc Red takes the stairs two at a time. He looks back to see if I’m coming. He has been whispering to the judge and both of them look at me. There is gray in Doc Red’s hair and I wonder if they will call him Doc Gray soon. The judge and Doc Red go in Mrs. Mist’s room.
I stand in the hall, thinking about how Julie only worked here a few months. She says the cries got to her, the way they lingered in the walls. It got to where you always heard them, she told me, but I hear nothing now. I walk down the halls, listening, until I hear a faint cry. The rumors whisper Dogman cannot be kept from leaving, so Doc Red simply allows him to go. The rumors say the sheriff has been driving up here on Sunday afternoons for as long as Dogman has been alive. The rumors say there are children here.
I am standing in the hall thinking of rumors when Doc Red sneaks up and grabs me by the arm. He pulls me hard down the hallway. My shoes squeak on the tile floor. We turn a corner and Doc Red kicks open a door and shoves me away from him. He says, “There,” and we are standing in front of wired glass. Through the glass are two babies, weeks old. Both of them are hooked to breathing machines that go up and down. A nurse moves among them. Doc Red says, “We give classes on the use of contraceptives, but sometimes the residents here forget.” His voice is not unkind. He puts his big red hand on my shoulder. “This is where she worked,” he says. The nurse picks up one of the infants. It is red, eyes unopened, wrapped in a blue blanket, one small fist stuck out. It yawns and stretches its arm. “The children born here often have defects,” he says. “Many times they don’t survive. You understand now? She’s terrified.”
It rains most of the day on the Fourth and the dry and cracked ground cannot hold the water and muddy streams run everywhere. People keep calling to ask if the big fly is still on, and the judge gets tired of answering so we take the phone off the hook. Earlier in the day the judge gave me his notebook and told me to read it. By the time the rain stopped in the afternoon many things were made clear and the judge said I was the keeper of history now.
They start coming at dusk. Doc Red parks in the mud that is already steaming in the late heat and walks around and helps Julie out. Her hair has grown longer and she is wearing a white dress with pearl buttons and lace at the throat and in the last light she shines like glass. Ponch drives in on the backhoe. The sheriff turns on his blue lights and they spin above us. Backfat howls from VD’s truck until VD lets him out. The judge has washed the Karmann Ghia and when the news van shows up he tells the Mist sisters to stand in front of it. The Mist sisters look like movie stars. They balance on the balls of their feet like ballerinas. The high school boys hover around them like ghosts knowing they are soon to be left behind.
Cheese Wilson says, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” It is the longest speech anyone can remember Cheese ever giving. When Ponch starts the forklift, the news van turns the cameras on. They swing over the crowd, and they all raise their arms and cheer. The town sits silent behind us. A few faint screams come down the hill from the Human Development Center. Julie has moved closer to me, her bare feet squelching mud between her toes. Ponch picks up the Karmann Ghia with the forklift and places it in the bucket. We can see the red eyes of deer in the fields. There is a faint wreath of light behind the hills in the west.
In the darkness no one except Backfat sees Dogman crossing the field. While Ponch is adjusting the catapult, Backfat lurches from VD’s arms and shoots off into the gathering night. Ponch has stuck sparklers and streamers all over the car and bottle rockets whirl and explode over our heads. The Mist sisters twirl as one and the high school boys hurt deep inside. VD grabs at Backfat, but he is gone. Ponch hits the lever and the catapult roars and buckles and snaps and the Karmann Ghia lifts off. It trails sparks like rockets to distant places, worlds without grief or heartache or pain, where the great tragedy of life is only that there are not enough people to share it with.
Sometime during the flight, Julie takes my hand. She leans her head on my shoulder. She smells like snow in sunlight, like trees in November. The Karmann Ghia flies like the wind. It floats like the moon. The cameraman follows it with his camera. The Karmann Ghia lands in a crunch of metal and the ground shakes and it is only after the cheering has stopped that we hear the howl of the dogs down at the landing pit.
Doc Red is running, and the sheriff right behind. Sparks fall slowly to the ground. The sheriff’s flashlight jerks this way and that until it finds Dogman on the ground, Dogman unharmed but reaching for Backfat, whose back legs and spine have been crushed by the Karmann Ghia. His howls circle us until Dogman and the Mist sisters and all of us are howling. Ponch brings the forklift and raises the car, and Doc Red takes Backfat and carries him away, still howling, the howls trailing off as Doc Red puts Backfat in the dog cage and drives off. The sheriff sits beside Dogman in the mud, his arm thrown around him. Dogman’s shoulders are rising and falling and he is gasping for air. The dogs sniff experimentally at him, wondering what to do. In the darkness you can’t tell how much alike the sheriff and Dogman look. After a while the sheriff gets Dogman in his car and drives him back up the hill. There are lights on in the Slab and I wonder what Doc Red is doing up there.
After everyone has left, Julie and I walk the judge home. He stands on the porch and presses the heels of both hands hard against his eye sockets. Later in the night I stand at the window and stare down the hill at the catapults gleaming in the moonlight. The clouds have cleared and the night is bright. I go out on the porch and read the judge’s notebook. I read a story where Cheese Wilson says, “I am northern as the constant stars,” and, “Lord, what mortals these fools be.” I read about the Mist sisters circling the world in an airplane made of light and fire, and I read about the sheriff’s son, Dogman, whose real name is Ben, which means “son of my right hand” in Hebrew. I read about Roman catapults slinging fire as they conquer the world. I see Doc Red sitting staring at nothing, his hands bloody from a dog that drug its hind legs behind it, looking for a place to die. I read about the judge at the Battle of the Bulge, then walking through the fires of Dresden, and I see the Star of Bethlehem in July. I see the ghost of Backfat howling at the moon and chasing the red eyes of deer through the judge’s pastures and the sheriff walking through the halls of the Slab to visit Dogman, who leans in close and calls him Father. I see the pictures of a thousand TVs wink out forever in one moment and the ghosts of all the movies and TV shows ever made hovering in the fields outside my house. When I go back inside I see Julie breathing evenly, her body turned toward me. The judge’s words burn like fire. They streak like stars plummeting to earth.