In January the first of the planes fell out of the sky. It was a gentle descent, and we watched with about as much concern and mitgefuehl as a crowd of middle-aged sightseers at an aquarium. There was a vague murmur as the mass of metal shone and flashed through a series of acrobatic twists. Only when the plane threatened to kiss the ground did we think to shield the eyes of our children. I couldn’t tear my eyes away. They didn’t know what caused the fall. Most put it down to sheer bad luck. My wife, Lucille, called it a reverse miracle, as if the inclusion of religion might lighten the burden for the rest of us.
It’s cold in Wisconsin most of the time, even in the summer. This particular January, though, was a real record-breaker. The snow piled up to the lintels. We dug tunnels through it like arctic gophers. Icicles caught up with the ground in free fall.
In the fall, our younger daughter Joann had started kindergarten. I didn’t like the teacher much. She kept giving Joann right-handed scissors even though Joann was left-handed. It reminded me too much of those Catholic schools that thought the left hand belonged to the devil. Lucille and I went in for a parent-teacher conference.
It went something like this:
Teacher: Joann is actually doing very well-
Me: I thought as much.
Teacher: Except for one, I hesitate to say problem here, but-
Me: If you give her right-handed scissors you can’t be surprised.
Teacher: It’s a problem.
Me: I’ll say it’s a problem.
Teacher: She won’t speak to blondes.
Teacher: She won’t talk to blondes. She’ll talk to redheads, brunettes, jet black, gray. Even, when Sylvia’s mom dyed her hair blue last week so she could audition for that toothpaste commercial.
Me: Sylvia’s mother dyed her hair blue?
Teacher: Sylvia’s hair, yes.
Lucille: Well, have you tried getting her one on one with a blonde?
Teacher: I’ve done sharing buddies, napping buddies-
Me: Tried giving her the right kind of scissors?
Teacher: I think it might be good if you two would talk to her.
Me: We’ll get right on it. You’ve left us no choice really.
Lucille didn’t talk to me on the ride home.
Our house is set back from the road on a driveway that’s hell to clear in the winter. On top of that we had to start clearing frozen air. The weatherperson said that it was so cold that the molecules of gas were becoming solid. So we got frozen air: air that thickened and dropped to the ground in little invisible hunks.
We sat Joann down in the kitchen, away from the hubbub of the living room. Dover, who was supposed to be pure golden retriever but turned out to be mostly mutt, had gotten into Kathy’s National Geographic collection. She had been saving back issues for four years to create a giant collage made entirely of faces. She wanted to make a face out of faces. What a kid. Now hunks of glossy magazine paper stuck to the floor and sofa, glued by sticky dog slobber. Kathy was inconsolable at the moment so we thought it best to begin with the simpler problem.
“Joann, honey,” Lucille started, “we need to ask you a question.” Lucille always approached things from the side. Never one for a frontal assault. It had taken me several days to realize that she had proposed to me. She still hadn’t quite forgiven me for that.
“It’s about school,” Lucille continued.
“Uh huh,” Joann said. She stuck a finger on the counter-top and pressed down until the fingertip turned white.
“We talked to your teacher,” Lucille said.
Joann nodded understandingly. She tilted her head to one side and then the other. I had to fight the urge to follow her example. What would the world look like from this angle? What about from that? Could things fall upwards if you stood on your head?
“She said you won’t talk to blondes,” Lucille said. “Honey, do you have anything to say about that?”
“What’s a blonde?” Joann asked.
“It’s a person,” Lucille said, “who has light colored hair.”
“Like grandma?” Joann asked.
“No,” Lucille said, “like-” She paused trying to think of famous blondes.
“Like Marilyn Monroe,” I said. Lucille kicked me under the table.
“Like Big Bird,” Lucille said at last.
“Big Bird is a bird,” Joann pointed out.
“Yes,” Lucille said, “but the color of Big Bird’s feathers is the color of blonde hair.”
“Okay,” Joann said.
“So,” Lucille said.
“I like Big Bird,” Joann said.
“Okay,” Lucille said, “what about the kids in your class?”
“They like Big Bird, too,” Joann said.
Kathy came into the kitchen. Her hair clip had slid down the side of her head so that her hair was pulled over to the side. Her face was pale from crying.
“Can we put Dover down?” she asked.
“No, honey,” Lucille said.
“He’s a monster,” Kathy said.
“You call him a monster,” I said, “and then wonder when he becomes one.”
“Bill,” Lucille said, “please be helpful.”
“But look what he did,” Kathy said holding up what was once a special issue on primate evolution. A grinning chimp face peered out between gaping tooth holes.
“Yes,” I said, “our ancestors weep in their shallow graves.”
“Bill,” Lucille said.
“Is Dover a blonde?” Joann asked.
The second plane fell on Presidents’ Day. This one was closer. We could hear the crunch of metal on earth as the cabin folded in on itself. The sirens beat their way through the frozen air for hours; ambulances from Madison and Milwaukee and even for some unknown reason Green Bay.
The kids were in school for this one, but apparently the teachers turned on the news so that they could watch. Kathy came home from school crying. Joann came home with a note that said she was still not talking to blondes and would we please do something about this.
A special investigation was begun. Men and women in suits began to ask questions at the doors. Had we seen any suspicious people in the area? Heard any strange rumors? Did we believe in God as much as our neighbors thought we did?
And we locals did not sit idle. Faced by the seriousness of this local tragedy we came together as a community, bonding in ways mysterious and powerful. I signed up for the Committee to Support the Victims. CSV. I thought if nothing else worked we could perhaps form a counter-culture drugstore. Lucille said this wasn’t a time for jokes. CSV met in the basement of Joann’s teacher’s house. Her husband Mitch, led the meeting from the confines of his rocking chair.
“The primary concern, of course,” Mitch said leaning back in his chair ruminatively, “is how to be prepared for the next event. We need to get ahead of this. Start making pamphlets. Talking with our children. Rallying.” He was a big man with quite a paunch and what was people called “big-hearted”. He was always volunteering for things: chaperone duty, bake sales, coaching Little League. I felt an immediate deference towards him.
“Excuse me.” The man next to me raised a thin hand. He had been here six years. Still an outsider. “What next event? Shouldn’t we look to the survivors and families of these past crashes? Shouldn’t we investigate the cause?”
Mitch rocked forward, asserting his power. “It stands to reason,” he said to the air, “it stands to reason that we want to be proactive in a case such as this. Proactive not reactive.”
“It just seems odd to be doing nothing–” the outsider started.
“Bill.” Mitch barked out my name. “How would you feel about heading up the pamphlet-making portion?”
“Sure, Mitch,” I said. My standard response. “Sure, boss.”
He leaned back in his rocking chair satisfied.
“We don’t even know what caused this,” the outsider mumbled. “What good is a pamphlet?” If it had been the fifties we would have called him a communist, as it was the best we could manage was to deny him cookies at the
Lucille and I didn’t have sex for the month of February. It’s a short month, thankfully. She stayed up knitting blankets for the children of families of the crashes. I stayed up designing pamphlets. I learned Adobe InDesign and Photoshop and then back to Adobe for the Illustrator. I picked a font. Microsoft Himalaya. It seemed to invoke climbing, heights, challenges met. I stared at the computer screen late into the night, letting the light wash over me with its cleansing glow. I crawled into bed long after Lucille had drifted off, and I lay next to her listening to the sound of her breathing. I wondered if I’d be around when the breathing finally ended.
Kathy finished her collage in early March. It was grotesque. A grinning human face made of grinning human faces. It was overall a white face, with bits of color in the cheeks and one Aboriginal in each pupil. It looked to me more like a skull than anything, but of course I played the role of supportive father.
“It’s hideous,” I said.
“Bill,” Lucille said.
“What?” I said. “It is.”
“Thanks, dad,” Kathy said, “I’ll take my critique from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. You can’t even make a stupid handout. ”
It was true that I still had yet to finish even a draft of the pamphlet. Mitch had been calling the house recently especially around dinnertime and sometimes Kathy would answer the phone.
“The next accident could occur at any time,” Mitch said. “We can’t be unprepared.”
“I know, Mitch, I know.”
“I just want to be sure your full effort is in this,” Mitch said.
“Sure, Mitch, sure.”
“We’re all counting on you here,” he said, “I can’t stress the importance of this.”
“I’ll have it done before the next crash,” I said.
“Excellent,” Mitch said. “That’s what I like to hear.”
It got colder throughout March. The snow got so cold that it turned directly to ice. Towers of ice stood on either side of our driveway, threatening to collapse at any second. Driving through them daily was a testament to my faith in modernity. See me, the modern man with my four wheel drive and snow tires, see me unafraid of my impending doom, oblivious to the fate waiting to engulf me.
The frozen air had also started to become a problem. Dogs and even some children were beginning to swallow it. The air cracked under the stress of expanding and broke into little bits just at the correct height and of the correct dimensions to choke small animals.
We talked to Joann’s teacher again to see what measures we could take.
“Don’t let her outside unsupervised,” her teacher said.
“Well, of course,” I said.
“I mean it,” her teacher said, “not even for a minute. The Everson’s Rottweiler escaped for a few seconds yesterday. Dead before the Everson’s even knew he was out.”
“We’re very vigilant,” I said.
“And how are the pamphlets coming?” her teacher asked, as if the two things were related.
“Almost done,” I said. I had chosen a color palette, bright orange and light blue. Calming, but with hints of warning for the observant reader.
“We need to be prepared,” the teacher said. I wondered if I even had the energy to hate her.
The third plane crashed before Lucille and I had had sex again, before the pamphlets were done, before we had a chance to look away. This one came down in the center of town. It crashed into city hall, setting the frigid trees ablaze for a few seconds. The sap had frozen solid, their wood simply fell away in smoldering hunks as though dipped in liquid nitrogen. The mayor was not in his office, but his secretary and two pages were sent to the hospital. All those onboard the airplane perished on impact.
The smoke from the crash wrapped through the air and came down on the school. It surrounded the ice towers at the end of our driveway. It triggered Kathy’s asthma. She stayed up the whole night coughing. Joann sat beside her, stroking her hand. I wondered what she would have done if Kathy were blonde. Lucille just sat watching the two of them. Occasionally she got up and walked downstairs and then came back upstairs a few minutes later driven by the same secret animal impulse that leads moths to the flame and lemmings to the cliff edge.
I drove to the crash site the day after. Most of the CSV were there standing around the yellow-police tape perimeter. They were muttering and nodding their heads, examining the angle of the plane, the vectors and velocities, reenacting the moment of impact with their hands. I walked around to the other side of the square.
The plane was closer to this side, surrounded by cranes and crews of men hacking away at the metal in an effort to clear the area of its existence. This did not happen, they said with their cranes and metal-cutters, their hard-hats and yellow-orange safety jackets. And if I looked away for long enough, I almost believed them.
The bodies were gone, of course, taken to the local mortuary where their families could come collect them. Wives, husbands, children, cousins, from distant places like Maine or Hamburg. From the county over where the accent sounded almost the same. The bodies would be cleaned, restructured, dressed in the right sort of clothing. Perfumed like ancient Egyptians.
Lucille’s father died when she was in grad school. We had just begun dating, it was in the stages before sex was consistent, when we still approached each other hesitantly. The news came in the form of a phone call from Lucille’s mother.
I did what I had to: I held Lucille until my arms fell asleep, I drove her to the airport, I packed her belongings, I answered her phone calls, and when she came back the next semester, I told her I wanted to move in with her. All this time I never saw the corpse. I wasn’t at the funeral. I felt the loss from afar, through the hollowness in Lucille’s voice, the desperation of her hands on my back. Even if I had seen the body I’m not sure I would have felt anything.
I asked a police officer if there was something I could do.
He looked at me with his head cocked to one said. “Who are you?” he asked.
I explained that I was a member of the Committee for the Support of the Victims.
“What’s that?” he asked.
I explained that we were a committee interested in supporting the victims.
“Sure,” he said, “I guess. Donate blankets or food or something? What is there to do? Some of them was kids.”
Not anymore, I thought.
That night I stared at the pamphlet template for a long time. I put in a clip-art picture of a plane. I put in a clip-art picture of a family. I cut out the father and then the child. I put them at either side of the plane. I put little clip-art flames on the wings. I saved it to my desktop and shut off the computer.
I crawled into bed. Lucille was awake next to me. Down the hallway I could hear Kathy wheezing. I put my hand on Lucille’s stomach. It was warm under my icy hands. I leaned over to kiss her. She turned away.
“I’m worried,” she said.
The next day, Kathy’s breathing had not improved, despite the fact that the smoke had blown away towards Minnesota. We took her in to the doctor. Joann came with us, because school had been shut down until the weather improved. Education did not have the same standards as the postal service.
The doctor listened to Kathy’s lung for a long time. He went out of the room. Lucille showed Kathy pictures of faces in the magazine, but Kathy didn’t pay any attention, she simply sat with her bum lungs pumping up and down. Joann kept kicking the legs of the chair. The doctor came back in. He had a thick white mustache smeared across his lip like powdered sugar from a donut. His forehead was creased with concern.
“May I talk to the two of you alone?” he asked.
Lucille looked at me. I looked at her.
“I want to stay,” Kathy said. Joann kicked the chair legs. Lucille nodded once.
“You can tell us all,” I said.
“It seems,” the doctor said, “as far as we can tell, that there is frozen air caught in your daughter’s lungs. Tiny particles have attached to her alveoli. We’ve had a few cases like this.”
“Well,” I said.
“There’s not much we can do,” the doctor said. He ran a hand over his upper lip. I expected sugar to come away on his fingers. “Keep her warm. We’ll give you some herbal remedies that might help alleviate the cough.”
“And?” I asked.
The doctor looked at me. His forehead remained creased. “We’ll keep you updated,” he said.
We set Kathy up in the family room, next to the fireplace. We covered her with blankets and comforters. We gave her a stack of National Geographic. She asked to see Dover, their feud of a few months ago apparently over. Dover leapt up on the sofa with her and wagged his tail like an idiot.
Lucille sat up late pointing out interesting pictures with Joann on her lap. The only time she smiled was when Joann noticed the image of a blonde woman and stroked it with seeming affection.
I went out that night to look at the crash site again. The plane had been mostly cleared away. Only a few folding pieces of iron stuck up out of the ground near the front door of the hall. The holes in the building had been covered with sheets of plastic. I walked around and around the square, forcing my boots through the layers of ice. I looked up at the sky through the cracks of pale cloud cover, barely move against the cold. Between the peaks, for one moment I saw starlight, a single point of light in the velvet. But it was a cold light, and I went home uncomforted.
The doctor called us late the next day. “Your daughter will need to be moved,” he said. “There is a treatment facility. It’s in Fort Worth, Texas, where it’s warm enough to work. Time is of the essence. She has only a day or two at most.”
“Thank you, doctor,” I said.
We sat staring at the computer trying to decide.
“It’ll be less expensive if just I go,” Lucille said.
“No,” I said.
“It will be,” Lucille said. “We’ll save five hundred at the least. And we need someone to stay with Joann.”
“You stay with Joann,” I said.
“Bill,” she said.
“I mean it, Lucille.”
There was a night, when Kathy was very young and Joann had not yet been born. Kathy had gotten the flu, and Lucille stayed up with her all night. Sitting and holding her, rocking her back and forth, stroking her head even as Kathy bawled her lungs out. I had put in earplugs and gone to sleep. I had never been a spectacular father, and knew now that I never would be. There were some times when I could not rise to the occasion, some places where I could not go, but this was not one of them.
We got to the airport two hours early. We drove slowly through the winding Wisconsin roads. Every few miles we saw a car that had slid off the road, and I drove even more carefully after that. Kathy held onto her bag all through security. She let go of it reluctantly when it had to go through the X-ray, and clutched it to her again as soon as she was through. I had only a small suitcase. I rolled it along behind me clacking against my heels.
We sat in the waiting area. I thought about calling Lucille but didn’t. Kathy read her book silently beside me. Sometimes her mouth moved, forming words. I wondered if she was aware that she was doing this. Something in her seriousness reminded me of looking in the mirror for gray hairs.
The flight crew showed up at last. I watched them surreptitiously, looking for signs that things weren’t right. They seemed normal, in a hurry and grouchy. They were wearing dark orange uniforms with light blue highlights.
We boarded the plane. Outside the snow was falling softly. There was little wind. I wondered if they’d cleared the runway of frozen air.
The captain spoke on the intercom. “Have a nice flight,” he said.
“You too,” I said as I always do.
I tightened Kathy’s seatbelt next to me. She looked up at me and smiled. If I could have taken a picture she would have fit perfectly into her own collage, but I couldn’t help seeing the skull beneath her skin.
“We’re gonna make you better,” I said.
“Okay,” she said.
The engines started, and we backed out from the platform. We turned onto the runway. Snow swirled in and out of sight, flickering in its macabre dance. The flight attendants readied for take-off.
We began our run. The wheels jolted on the ground beneath us, I felt the lurch of the plane as it attempted to shake free of its own weight. It surged. It lunged. The engines hit a higher gear. The wings bounced alongside us, like birds hopping up and down in anticipation. We were about to take off, to cut ties with gravity, when it happened.
The sound of propellers hitting ice, a crunching deadening noise. We were sliding then and someone was screaming. The plane was tilting and the world with it. Metal was twisting against metal.
My thoughts did not go to Kathy sitting beside me. Kathy whose lips were moving gently and wordlessly so that I wondered if somehow she had learned how to pray. My thoughts did not go to Joann who would grow up fatherless as well as using the wrong scissors and perhaps forever silently hating the Aryan race. My thoughts did not go to Lucille whose body was more familiar to me than my own. Lucille whose only fault had been loving something incapable of return.
I went back instead to the first winter I could remember. I was eight and living in Monroe. We went out skating on the back pond. I had mittens tucked into my sleeves. My breath hung before me in the air, a dragon in the snow. I skated clumsily, barely able to stay upright even without my older brother pushing me down
I just wanted to skate around the pond one full circle. One single perfect brush with infinity. I focused hard. I put all my thought to it. I skated around and around, each time falling just short of the goal. The afternoon wore on, and I grew tired. The pond refused to yield, eternal in its frigid circularity
The sun began to set, and my brother went inside. It grew colder. Snow got in between my mittens and my coat and bit at my skin. Tears froze in my eyes. I skated and fell, skated and fell.
At last the moon began to rise. Once more, I told myself, once more and it would be over. Once more and the world lifts under me and flies me off and away. I pushed my legs back and back against the clear ice. I made it around half, three quarters, five sixths, I was within sight. My skate caught the back of my heel and I fell.
I landed hard on my back, the breath knocked out of me. Above the sky hung laughing. A single star looked down between the layers of cloud. It was a cold light, a brutal light. It knew me. It knew the ice lodged even then inside, the frigid weight that I was destined to pass on to my children and on and on through the generations. The distance that would define me for the rest of my life. Wisconsin is cold even in the summer. We breathe it in and damn it if we’ll ever breathe it out.
As I waited in the plane for the flames that started in the engine and worked their way back through the cabin, consuming everything in its path, devouring passengers and melting seats, metal and plastic, I felt the ice again in my chest, and knew that even in death there could be no thaw.