‘Wings So Foreign’, Frank Ray Ard

Illustrations © 2009 Arianna Ciula

 [ Wings, © 2009 Arianna Ciula ] The echo pains your ears. The shower from the faucet fills a sink full of dishes in the far end of the kitchen in the diner where you work on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The sound, the err of the spigot, the quivering whine of copper pipes behind sheetrock, the gulp of steady stream bubbling into the sink, rings in your ears. It is morning, nine a.m. Outside, diesel engines rumble, buses passing through Tuckerville on their way to Reno. You hear car horns, small but piercing. People are shouting, but they are some distance from you, beyond the empty dining room, outside on the street. Engines race to knocking vibration. The sounds murmur off the long, tall walls of the dining area as they funnel into the tiny kitchen. It's just you and the cacophony. It's you in the empty restaurant, alone with the unrequited echoes.

The front door is open but the restaurant is closed. The closed sign was hanging when you came this morning, and the front door was swinging free on its hinges. You propped the door open with a stool because the remnants of salted vegetables from last night's dinner rush cured and left the place smelling acrid. Acrid but indistinct. Not the smell of a certain vegetable, but a combination of Italian staples—red onions, tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, spinach. Angelo doesn't clean at night before closing up. It's midnight by the time the locals are finished dining, and dish-washing is your job anyway.

On your work days you let yourself in the back door, where the lock is always easily pried open, because Angelo doesn't want you coming in the front. On Tuesdays and Thursdays another kid from the streets, one you've seen roaming near your alleyway haunts, takes your place. That boy is your mirror opposite: short black hair, emaciated thin, lanky, tanned like an Indian, and nervously smiling while avoiding eye contact. Angelo doesn't pay either of you, not in money. You are fourteen. That would be illegal. But you eat well three days out of the week for your work. That's three days you don't have to eat from the dumpsters back on 7th Avenue where Angelo dumps the trash twice a week. Tuesdays and Thursdays, lucky for you.

The sink is full. You turn the water off. The room goes dark and still for a moment. You hear nothing but whispers in that brief flash; the whispers are overshadowed, then, by yells, whistles, and sirens that become more frequent. It is a dull, gray dark inside. You reach for the light switch, flip it up and down, then again, but nothing happens. The electricity has been turned off. You submerge your hands in the steaming water, feeling for plates and watching for stray knives. The Nevada heat is intolerable; the steam makes you sweat. You are alone and it's hot and dark and the diner should be open but it's closed and rush hour traffic is lasting a long time today and it's just you.

No customers have come by for breakfast like usual, but the tide of people down Main Street has been constant all morning. With no one coming for breakfast the whole dining room smells stale. Angelo hasn't shown up. Angelo has never not shown up. Angelo's has been his for twenty years. His car wasn't parked out front at the broken freebie parking meter this morning. There was no chore list for you. Washing the dishes is all you have to do. So you scrub amid the screaming and yelling. With all the police and ambulances pushing through the dense line of cars. With all the burnt gasoline fumes sneaking through the door. With the water scalding your hands and nothing to think about except that it's just you.

You flip on the radio. It doesn't power on. You find two D cell batteries in the everything drawer beside the sink and fumble them into the back sockets with wet, soaped hands. The jabberwockey named Bill Evans of Brash Bill for Your Morning Fill will keep you company. No tunes, just talk. The single speaker's going batty. It crackles, spurts, and then it's on louder than it should be. You turn it down. You can barely hear it over the splash of the dishwater.

Bill Evans doesn't sound like Bill Evans. He sounds distant, like a manic heretic. "In the sky! It's in the sky! Something in the sky!" And he's talking in diphthongs. "A foible. A human foible. A foible, foible, foible. The pentagon is telling you that this will be fine, fine, fine. They lie. This is the hand of God telling us to look behind." Bill Evans jokes about religion, but this isn't his normal wacky self.

The speaker cracks and Bill Evans fades out while you dip an aluminum skillet up and down then rinse it. Bill Evans startles you as you hang the skillet on the pot hook over the stove.

"The thing has broken through! It's broken through the sky," he says. Bill Evans sounds like he just shit his pants. He huffs and his voice distorts into the microphone. "Don't lure it! Don't leer! Get the hell out of here! Listen to what I'm telling you. Don't look at the sky! Run and hide!"

You finish the dishes and lock up. You watch the cars bumpered in their masses and the people buzzing past. Angelo is probably halfway to Vegas with a suitcase strapped to his yellow Nova.

We're at the municipal park tonight and it's eight p.m. and I'm eleven years old. The wind carries ice and compared with how hot is was earlier in the day—99.8 degrees—it's hard to believe the temperature could plummet so fast. I have on a windbreaker, though Dad told me I would need something thicker. I didn't think we'd be out for long so I didn't listen. We're in the park and it's really late and there's no one around. Some of the park lights are blown, so the path is hard to see in patches. I walk carefully because I know there could be big sandstone rocks in the pathway. The suburb kids sometimes place them, just for spite, in lines across the gravel pathway so that adults will trip when they're walking with their lovers after dusk.

Mom's in the car. She told Dad to hurry and she wouldn't come because it was too cold and it was something we should do ourselves. We walk away, Dad's hands in his khaki pants, mine in my blue jeans. Mom's tiny image, curled in the car seat in her wool coat, drops out of view as we round the bend.

The seesaws come into view. They're toppled over as if an immense weight has broken through the clouds and fallen on top of them.

"Here is as good a place as any, boy," Dad says. He pulls his hat bill down until it shadows his eyes. He puts his hands on my shoulders and bends down to my level. "Your mother isn't happy. I think you know that. It's my job to make her happy and to do what is best for this family."

I start to swing my arms. I'm getting bored with Dad's talk and the park is all mine. I want Dad to let go so I can run around and get lost in the playground mulch.

"You're a smart boy, Daniel." Dad zips my windbreaker all the way up to my chin. "So you will understand when I say that your mother and I need a break. It's up to you. You'll find your way."

I look up at Dad but I can't say anything. I don't really understand what is going on.

"Don't follow me." Dad hands me a note written on lined notebook paper torn with the frayed ends hanging helpless. I read it after he stands up and walks away. It says:

good bye, daniel. we will miss you alot. things will be brighter some day. find your wings.

When I make it home the next morning all of the furniture has been moved out. The house is empty and it echoes. I sleep there for two nights before I move on.

The sky burns red ambiance. You can't see anyone's face clearly. You see them, their form, their features, averages of one another, a sifting array of faces, one and another onward. The clouds are cardinal. People run past you and you move opposite them. You look ahead at Melbourne Hill. Beyond it the light glows, hallows, with pressure. Your shoes touch the pavement one step out of sync with everyone else. When you glance at their eyes they reflect the sky like watercolored globes. You walk through them but do not touch them.

The manic people are loud. Their voices ping as one collective sound that hushes when the sky flashes and clouds are torn. Their sound, the sound of human lungs heaving as they run, echoes along with your subconscious intertwined whispers. The whispers are the far-off, trace voice of your mother and father; they are your wings; they have kept you moving for some time though you were tired and hurting and it was just you.

There are people here, but it's just you. Just you and your breath moving through.

The sky is on fire and the air smells like chemicals and car exhaust and burning paper and plastic. You move ahead. Where the pavement crumples away, overtaken by sand at the base of the hill, five college-aged kids have parked their car with the doors open. One of them, a guy in a sweat-stained white t-shirt, pours gasoline into the gas tank from a rusty can with a cigarette balanced in his mouth. The four girls lie in the sand with their arms stretched wide, making sand angels. The tallest girl looks up with sky-blue eyes as you stand overhead. She's wearing a terracotta colored spaghetti-strapped top. She isn't wearing any shoes and she has pretty feet but a wicked smile. The four roll to their feet, run, and hop in the air, flapping their arms like wildfowl. The angels they create have elongated, magisterial heads.

The town's commotion occludes you. The shifting sirens, the moving bodies, the glinting, fuming cars. The sun scalds you. The whole world feels radiated and you sweat beads. You don't walk Main Street often. Alleys are your home; they are shaded by the brick building sides, and no one really wants to see you out in open view anyway. But today you walk Main Street in full view in your dirty torn jeans and your tennis shoes that are faded and too small. You walk with your hair matted and frayed and oiled with sweat. You walk with a bruised face and dirty palms toward the waiting light.


"Abortion?" I ask. "What is that?"

Dad looks down at me. He's leaning against Mom's BMW five speed. We are in the garage. The washing machine pipe burst the day before. The slab floor is still damp and cold to my bare feet and it's dank smelling, like soured laundry. I'm ten years old and I feel like such a kid for asking Dad what it means, and even when he explains I don't really get how it works.

"Well, boy, it's when you have a child you can't really keep. When a woman, like your mother, is pregnant and the parents can't deal with the burden. The costs. The lack of private time. Whatever. They can't feed the child. Something like that."

I bob up and down because the floor pin-needles my feet. My soles are wet and sticky. "Is Mom having a baby?"

"No, son." Dad moves over to the wood shelving and pulls down a green bag of dog food and slaps it on the floor. The setting sunlight peaking over the treetops slips in the open garage door and shadows him. His long, unworldly shadow casts over me. He whips Mom's keys in the air, catches them with his right hand, and opens the driver's door. "No, nothing like that, thank God. What I'm saying is: Could you deal with that? You know, abortion. What would that be like for you?"

There's no one around. The neighborhood kids all went inside to eat dinner and no one is out playing. The light is getting faint, the sun dropping low. The BMW's fuel injectors burn gasoline as Dad cranks up the car; I smell it, sweet, heavy chemicals burning. I'm standing just beyond the reach of the car door. Dad is my height, sitting in the car seat, but he looks very different from me.

I don't know what to say, so I say, "Do you abortion by giving the baby away? Like getting rid of stuff at a yard sale."

"Something like that, yes," Dad says. "Normally they break the baby's neck. But we aren't talking about normal abortion, really. More like giving back. Aborting what's been given to us."

"I guess it's be okay to give it back. But, Mom isn't having a baby."

"We have one already," Dad says, nodding his pointed finger at my chest. "And I really want to know how you'd deal with it, the giving back. If your mother and I decided to abort, well, you know." Dad puts the car in reverse and inches it back. He talks to me as he's rolling out. "So tell you what, you stay here and we'll do an experiment for both of us. We'll see what you are, what you're made of. Your mother and I and you. We need to know if you can find your wings. What will this abortion be like for you?" Dad's voice sounds low and distant as the car exits the garage. "Pretend you're in a lost place on a different world."

Dad shuts the garage door. It's just me. It's pitch black in there and cold after dark. The door to the house is locked from the other side. I pry on the knob for a while, but it doesn't open. I don't knock. I find a piece of rug and roll up in it for the night. I need to know how long I can last.

The answer is five days.

The town behind you dies away and it's just you on the hillside. Vibrations tremble the sand. You hear very few sounds: the last chattering of people, the last car engines reeling out of earshot. You stare up at the disk. The metal burns hot through the ozone. Steel-gray smoke and umber clouds curl away like wings.

I'm thirteen and it's just me. I walk past the schoolyard and feel very foreign. The kids play behind black metal bars with orbs on the tips. I run my fingers along the fence rods. They are there and I am here and I am not part of them. The gate is open ahead, but they will be there and I will be here. It is misty and overcast and the bars are slick with pellets of rainwater. The kids, their shapes blurred by the vapor, look different today more than any other day, and they have always looked different from me.

The girls dress in green and blue plaid skirts with white tops that turn orange from the dirt of the playground. The boys wear blue khakis like Dad wore and the same orange-tinted shirts. They play games on the playground like kickball and jump rope. They swing on the monkey bars and bounce high in the air on the seesaws.

I don't try to go inside. The kids will throw gravel rocks at me and I don't want them to notice me. One time, on my way to Angelo's, they threw rocks at me from the open gate and I picked up a stick and slung it at them. It hit a girl in the head and gashed the skin right over her eye. Blood trickled down her face. It was peculiar to see her face soaked in vermilion, her freckled forehead swelled and bistered. She cried and a boy threw a really big rock and bruised my jaw. I didn't mean for anyone to get bloody. I am not them and they are not me.

 [ No wings, © 2009 Arianna Ciula ] I walk past and the kids run to me, crowd around me, and hit me with rocks until I cry. The bell rings. They run away. I am bleeding and I feel like an alien in my own skin.

You write with your finger in the sand:

Hello Mom and Dad. I've missed you a lot. It is very bright. I found my wings.

The disk looms over you, out of reach but so close you feel the hot exterior redden your skin. The sun beats down on you. You are sweating. The disk floats in the air, hovering there. You are motionless and it moves in minutia. Sand grazes your neck, your arms, and your back as the wind whips and curls your shirt. You hear nothing from the ghost town behind you—no cars, no people, no sirens, no fires snapping, no feet clicking on pavement. There is no one left. It's just you.

It's just you and the disk. You hear only its electric hum. It emits a resonant shrill that carries across the landscape, bouncing from the empty town as a halo of light from a mirror. The piercing sound echoes in your ears. The disk is so close and it is your visible world. Smoke clouds rise and separate into the heat-distorted desert air like the wings of a red feathered swan. You stretch your arms wide. You are a bird, glowing and alive.

© 2009 Frank Ray Ard

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