The Temple of Air
by Patricia Ann McNair
When I saw Mom sneak a pack of HiDeeHo cupcakes out from the bottom of the pan cupboard and slip them in the pocket of her sky blue bathrobe, naturally I thought they were for me. It was my birthday after all, we were supposed to do that kind of thing for each other, right? Kind of like how I’d get up every morning and start the kettle for her hot water and lemon. Like how I’d turn the shower on for her 15 minutes before I’d shake her awake so’s the whole bathroom would be steamy hot for her. Little things like that. You know. Like a candle in a cupcake. No big deal. Just enough to show she cared.
I gave her some time to get it together down the hall there in her room, sat on the old blue couch and pretended to read one of the newspapers I’d swiped from school (Mom didn’t believe in reading anymore, it weighed her down). But when nothing happened -- I mean nothing, no singing, no yelling Surprise or any of that -- I decided to go see what was what. And when I got to Mom’s room she was already dressed, her hair still wet and streaming water down the back of her blue cotton turtleneck, and there were no cupcakes to be seen anywhere. Not on her dresser, on her night table, in her hand or anything.
“Morning Mom,” I said, quiet like she likes me to be in the morning (she’s not too good at waking up). “Nice day.” I stood with my back to the doorjamb, hands deep in my pockets. I tried to slide down and shrink up some because Mom was so teeny she always made me feel like some horse or something. Not like I was all that big. Just 5’4” and a bit over 110, pretty much average for 14 (just turned). But Mom was one of those bitty ladies, under 5 feet and featherweight, doll-sized more or less.
“Hi, Baby,” she said, still looking at her own self in the mirror on the back of her closet door, working a big fat-toothed comb through the tangles in her blond hair. (Mine’s dark. Like Dad.) “Water ready, Rennie?” she said, like she always did.
“Yeah.” Like it ever wasn’t.
“Put me some lemon in it, ’kay?” Like it was a special request.
But I didn’t smart off or anything, I never did. I was about as good a kid as you could imagine. It was just easier that way. And I strolled down the hall like everything was normal to the kitchen and poured water into her blue cup with the shining gold letters “T-o-A” on it and tried not to let the lump in my throat that swelled around my wanting to hear something like “Happy Birthday, Baby” -- or whatever -- hurt me. And then it came to me while I was pouring. She probably was setting me up. Right that minute she was probably putting that candle in that silly little sweet-sweet cake and maybe even pulling my present out of someplace at the back of her closet or the bottom of her drawer or wherever she hid things. (I only knew a couple of the places.) So I took my time, squeezed an extra slice of lemon in the mug and another I pushed down onto the cup’s rim like they do in restaurants. I put it all on a plate with a spoon, stomped around extra loud on my way back to her room, gave her time and notice enough to keep the surprise a surprise.
“I’m back,” I said, just before I turned into her room, but she was right where I’d left her, on that metal folding chair that was covered with a couple of pillow cases sewn together to look like some sort of slipcovers (which of course they didn’t) in front of her mirror, still combing and combing through her stupid tangly hair.
“Took you a while,” she said in that way she talked mostly now, sort of dreamy and soft. Like everything that took her attention only took it part way, like something else was going on in her head that didn’t really have anything to do with what she was talking about. You know. Like when you’re talking to someone and they’re eavesdropping on a conversation behind you? They might be answering you, keeping up their part of the conversation and all, but what’s going on between you is not what’s uppermost on their list at that moment.
When I stepped over to the dresser to set the mug down, I guess you’d have to say I still had my hopes up. But next to the dresser there was Mom’s little trash basket she’d got at the Temple, the one the same sky blue as her mug (and chair covers and sheets and blankets and throw rugs and lampshades and pajamas and our couch and and and) and with the same gold “T-o-A” stenciled on its side and inside the thing was some Kleenex and stuff, and underneath that, I could see -- because there really wasn’t much in there, just all jumbled up to sort of look like a lot -- was the empty cupcake holder. Pushed down under the jumble, hidden away, really. Like Mom does when she’s been eating stuff she’s not supposed to -- hiding the evidence. And when I looked at Mom in the mirror, I could see the slightest trace of crumbs on her shirt, that shiny chocolate stuff that crumbles from the HiDeeHos no matter how careful you are to try to keep them from falling apart. And at that moment I was so ticked off and hot it was like steam filled my head. “You got crumbs,” I said and pointed, and she said “What? What?” all shrill like she does whenever you say something like that, something about eating. It’s the only time she ever seems to pay attention to the conversation, and that’s just because she has to be on her guard to get her story straight, that story about not eating anything, nothing, surviving on air -- Air Only -- like they tell you you can at the Temple. But only if you are worthy, truly worthy, like the floaters and the High One himself, Sky (I kid you not, that’s his name, Sky. The High One, Sky). So most times Mom’s pretending to survive just on air, and it’s clear that she is doing that a good bit of the time as skinny as she is and spacey, but then there’s those times she cheats, or Sins as they call it at the Temple. “Forgive us our Sins,” they say, but usually they’re just talking about eating, if you could imagine. Like feeding yourself, taking nourishment could ever, ever, be called a sin.
And then “I’m late!” she says, still shrill and jumps up and brushes a hand over her chest that used to have boobs, not big ones, but something more than that flat plane she’s got now, and grabs her purse up (sky blue vinyl, like some old lady Easter purse) and pushes past me and down the hall. And before I have time to say “Goodbye” or “Sorry” or “Hey, haven’t you forgotten something -- like the day I was born, maybe?” she’s at the door and yelling back “Your father’s here!” And I’m fighting to not cry, it’s just a birthday, for God’s sake, baby birthday shit, and hoping that maybe Dad’s remembered, but knowing that will never happen, it’s like some miracle he’s remembered it’s Saturday, our day, and that he’s remembered his deal with the judge to do something with me, his only kid, his flesh and blood, one day a week, that he’s remembered to come here at all. And I’m hoping as I tie the laces on my Nike Airs that maybe if he doesn’t remember it’s my birthday, I’ll be able to forget too. And maybe then it won’t hurt so bad.
“Where’s your mom off to?” Dad asked when I stepped up into the cab of his jacked-high pickup.
“Church,” I said, mostly because I was still mad and Mom hates it when I call it that. It’s Temple or Service or even Worship.
“Again?” Dad said, and when I looked over in his direction I could see he hadn’t shaved for a few days and his black hair wasn’t combed and judging from his wrinkled up T-shirt and sweats he might have just rolled out of bed and jumped into the truck and come right over out of a dream. He smelled like beer.
We drove for a time, neither of us saying anything. It dawned on me that I was singing in my head: “Happy Birthday to Me, Happy Birthday to Me..." Then Dad said something, but I couldn’t hear.
“Fucking church shit!” he said, and spit out the window. “Your fucking mom and that fucking church shit!”
Well it’s probably clear to you by now that that pretty much sums up how I was feeling right then, too, but you know how it goes. You can say whatever you want to about your family to whoever you want to -- you know, like “My sister is such a bitch” or “My grandfather is a perv” or “My dad is nothing but a drunk” and whoever you are talking to can even nod a little along with you as long as they don’t actually say anything out loud. But no one else, no one else, can talk trash about your folks. Not even your own father.
“Shut up,” I said without thinking. It just slipped out while I was still singing Happy Birthday in my head. I suppose I thought that I’d said it in my head, too, but I didn’t. And as soon as they hit the air in front of me, those words, I imagined myself saying them into a big balloon like they do in comics and imagined myself reaching these hands up from out of my throat (heart hands, maybe, or soul hands) and pulling the string of the balloon back inside, the whole thing deflating its way back into me, and me swallowing it all down to my gut. And that entire little scene had to play out in just a millisecond, because in the next moment Dad’s hand was where the balloon had been in front of my mouth, and was closing in fast and smacking me -- hard -- across the teeth.
“Shut you up,” he hissed, and that worked, because that’s just what I did, I shut up and slid tight against the door and blinked and blinked and blinked the tears back (Baby, Big Birthday Baby) and decided right then I was not going to say another word to anyone all damn day. I ran my tongue over my smarting gums. Shut me up.
Of course, Dad hated that. See, he had that quick temper, but he also had that quick remorse some guys do, you know, a spanking followed by a hug. He needed you to tell him it’s okay, you understood. So he was all soft spoken then as we drove on down the highway past the old logging road that led to the lake, past County Road G and GG.
“It’s just that -- ” he started and put a hand out to my shoulder and I had to hold on tight to the handle of the door to keep from shrugging out from under him, “your mother gets so confused. Well, you know that. And she is so gullible.” And then he chuckled a bit, quiet, like he was remembering some little gullibility of Mom’s from the past.
I didn’t say a word.
“Like remember how she started selling that NewTriVision junk?” And he chuckled again, no doubt thinking about when I was around five and we were still all together in that little house in town (the brown one, all earthtones inside) and Mom had the whole front room stacked with boxes of NewTriVision powdered shakes and NewTriVision lo-cal cookies and NewTriVision tuna foodstuff or whatever it was in those little cans (the three-Tri-staples of the NewTriVision plan). And every night Dad would come home wanting dinner and every night Mom would try to serve him up one of those “NewTri-cious and Delicious Complete Meal Replacement Drinks.” I could still remember how he laughed the first time she tried that, dressed herself up in some white short-shorts and tank top and that white NewTriVision apron with the yellow triangles on it (the one all the Tri-ologists got just for signing up) and sat on Dad’s lap on the brand new brown plaid couch and put the frosty mug of the stuff to his lips. And I can still remember how he pulled his head back, but not until his mustache was frothy with what was supposed to be vanilla shake but looked as fakey yellow as banana bubblegum and, well, not at all appetizing. And when Dad said, “What’s this?” and licked the goop from his mustache and made a horrible tight face but kept his hands on Mom’s tiny little waist and she said “Dinner,” he threw back his head and howled. And it was clear from where I was -- at their feet on the braid rug tracing the yellow letters on the NewTriVision boxes over with a magenta crayon -- that Mom didn’t like that Dad was laughing at her, and she put her head down and her lip out but Dad kissed her neck and pulled her close and said “Sorry Baby. I’m sorry -- it’s just that that’s no meal for a working man is all.” And she tried to tell him it was, “what with all the vitamins and minerals in it that fulfilled a hearty part of one’s suggested daily requirements as determined by highly-trained New-tritionists.” But Dad just laughed low while he went into the kitchen and pulled a Swanson’s from the freezer and cooked it up for himself.
And as the days went on like that, and the boxes stayed in the front room and Mom spent more and more time on the phone “recruiting,” she called it, and Dad started working less and less with the weather turning cold and construction jobs finishing up, and dinner never getting made unless you were willing to try one of those fishy canned things or a shake (personally, I sort of went for the chocolate ones), well, Dad wasn’t laughing so much anymore. And I can still remember when the fights started in the middle of the night, Dad talking low at first and Mom’s voice starting out bright and tight and cheery like it was when she recruited. And then Dad would get mad and loud and yell about money and real work and Mom would babble about the miracle of success and the slow climb up the ladder and Dad would say, “Ladder? What fucking ladder? It’s a pyramid, Maddie, can’t you see? It’s a pyramid game -- only they’re illegal so they’re doing this -- ”and here I’d hear him slap or kick one of the dusty old boxes -- “instead!” “But I’m on top, Ray, don’t you get it?” Mom would say, her voice excited and filled with what I guess now I might call hope. But Dad would come right back with “On top? On top?! There’s only a top when there’s a bottom. You got nothing, Maddie. Nothing. It’s just you. Good old bottomless Maddie.” And sometimes in my bed in my room listening, I’d giggle at that, because Mom was getting so skinny it meant something different to me than what Dad said. “But my prospects, Ray. My prospects,” and usually about this time Mom’s voice would crack a little and go soft and that always quieted Dad down, too, and this quiet talk hurt me more than all the rest of it because it seemed so thick with a sadness even then I guess I knew I’d get to feel soon enough. I was just a kid then, you’ve got to remember. And at this point in the arguments I’d squeeze my whole self into a little ball under my covers and stick my thumb in my mouth and rub my forefinger up and down, up and down the slope of my nose until it went numb. It wasn’t long after that I’d be asleep.
We were getting close to town now, me and Dad, and my mouth didn’t hurt anymore but I still hadn’t said anything since he slapped me, and I could tell from the way he was squinting and working a hand over the leg of his jeans that he was getting sore.
“Remember?” he said again, and of course I did, you know, but I wasn’t talking. I rolled down my window. It was one of those summer-warm days, and the sky had that gold in it that it gets come fall. At the edge of town, the dry, stripped cornfields turned to trees with patches of red and yellow in the leaves. “And remember that -- what was it? -- Glamorous Miss crap that came next? ‘Ray,’ she’d say. ‘You were right about that other stuff,’” and here he was making his voice all high and sing-songy like guys do when they pretend to talk like girls. I hate that voice.
But Dad was right. I even remember Mom saying that, “You were right about that other stuff,” only not in the voice he was faking, but in her bright, tight, hope-filled voice. “This is it, Ray,” she’d say. “This is it, Rennie,” she’d say to me, too. And then she’d practice her pitch on the both of us, sell her way through the Miss Miracle Line. I’d bet she’d’ve been glad to sign us up, me even, a little kid who didn’t have any money but what she gave me, and who was too young to wear the goo Glamorous Miss had her pushing. “Maddie, don’t you see?” Dad would say when she’d start to draw her business plan on the big pad and easel Glam Miss gave to all its Glamourists -- a triangular stack of empty squares where she’d fill in the names of her “downline” as she “engaged” them. “Look, Maddie,” Dad would say and push back his dining room chair knocking over a stack of crates marked GLASS FRAGILE, and Mom would gasp and put a hand over her mouth when Dad grabbed from her the complimentary pointerstick (silvery pink Glamorous Miss in cursive up its shaft) and traced the shape of her plan. “Pyramid, Maddie. PYR-” he ran the pink rubber tip up one side “-A-” then down the other “MID!” he’d swipe the stick across the bottom of the page, ripping it. And there was no telling who would storm out of there first, but soon it would be eight-year-old me by myself at the table wondering if there might still be some of that ice cream Mom had stuffed away in the back of the freezer behind the ice pack and freezer-burned rock solid roaster chicken. Mom had never gone back to real eating after NewTriVision introduced her to her New Thin Self, so there usually wasn’t much in the house besides that. That and Dad’s beer.
Dad was stepping on the brakes now that we’d passed the town limits sign and the SLOW 35 MPH posting. And as we cruised the avenue past the park, I could see the slumped shoulders of the usual kids, and Mary Ann’s dyed orange head, I was pretty sure, and maybe Ricky’s army jacket. But I couldn’t have done anything with them anyway when I was with my Dad, birthday or no. And then we were easing across the intersection of Main and Edison where the Temple was -- just a storefront in a half-block long strip with Phil-Bert’s Ice Cream Shoppe and a dentist office and a daycare -- and we couldn’t help but see Mom’s car out front. The big old Ford Fairmont -- a leftover from who knows when -- boxy and much too blue to go unnoticed next to the dusty pickups and wagons and compacts.
“So now it’s church, huh?” Dad said sort of loud and narrowed his eyes before he pushed hard on the gas so his tires squealed. And he looked at me, raised his eyebrows up like “Well, got some insight here, smart girl?” But like I said, I wasn’t talking. Only now it wasn’t just out of principle, out of sticking to my secret pledge to shut me up. Now it also had to do with what I knew about the Temple of Air -- Mom’s church -- and how it would really tick Dad off to know that this wasn’t at all a different thing from those others (NewTriVision, Glamorous Miss, and the two or three more things Mom tried after he left) but instead it was painfully, horribly, exactly the same.
Like how you had to sell stuff to achieve a Higher Level. And while there was the usual junk -- coffee mugs and T-shirts and bumper stickers (Air Head -- I swear to God -- Aboard) all sky blue and marked with the gold “T-o-A” -- the High One, Sky, wanted more. He had bigger ideas. He figured they could sell everything that had anything even remotely to do with air. So as you’d expect, there was air freshener and balloons and kites and windchimes and airsocks and fans -- even some old-fashioned gliders made out of that wood that’s lighter than a popsicle stick. And then there was the other stuff: blowdriers, vacuum cleaner bags and, no kidding, whoopie cushions. Now to me those last things were a stretch -- and (maybe it’s just me) sort of, well, disrespectful.
“I hear rumors those people are supposed to be able to fly,” Dad said. We were pulling into the PitStop, so I knew he was going for beer and cigarettes, which meant we’d probably go back to his place where he’d smoke and drink and jump from channel to channel with his universal remote control. Some birthday.
I looked at him.
“Hear me?” Dad asked. “I said, I hear rumors they’re supposed to be flying in there.”
Floating, I wanted to tell him, they call it floating. But now I was too deep into this shut-me-up stuff, so I kept it zipped.
“What, you believe this shit?” Of course I didn’t. What’d he think I was, some goof? But I wasn’t talking. And even if I was, I wasn’t sure I’d tell him what I knew. How each member starts on the ground -- earthbound, they call it. And how by selling all that junk and bringing in new members and not eating and probably some other weird this and that, you got a little higher and higher off the ground. Mostly it’s figurative, this off-the-ground thing, but supposedly, those who are truly worthy -- well, like Dad said, there are rumors. But he wasn’t going to hear it from me.
Dad put the truck in park and faced me. I stared at him. “Do you believe this shit? This flying shit?” He waited for me to answer, which, you already know, I wasn’t doing. “Huh? Huh?”
Now I’m not a fool, I knew what was coming. But even if I started talking now, it wouldn’t have made any difference. You know. So why bother? I just grabbed hold of the doorhandle like I did when he took me four-wheeling and held on for the ride. “You believe this shit?” And then it was like an explosion, the cab of the truck filled with his hollering. “Fine. You believe it. You just fucking believe it.” And he balled up his fists on his thighs. “You and your mom. Exactly the same. Fine. How about it? Would you rather be with her right now? Want to be with her at that...that...church?” He started to sputter, and I just kept my grip on the handle and watched his whole body shake. “You want to go with her? Fly around? Do you? Do you?” His face was close to mine now, and the beer smell was right there on his skin, like he was sweating the stuff. His eyes, right up in front of my own, looked electric and shut off at the same time. How did he do that? And then he reached behind me for the handle, slapped my hands off it and pulled it up. “Go. Get the fuck out of here. You want to fly? You fly! Fly away, chicky!” I nearly fell out of the big old truck, but I got a foot down first to right myself. I sure didn’t want anyone to see me on my ass on the cracked cement of the PitStop lot. On my ass on my birthday. And then Dad was squealing tires out of the place, the door hanging open and flapping on the side of the cab until the truck turned hard back onto Main and it slammed itself closed.
He’d be back. I wasn’t worried. He always came back. But this time, I’d be gone.
I somehow ended up at the little brown house. A big hand-lettered sign stuck in the patchy front yard read FOR RENT, and underneath in smaller letters, "furnished," and, "like new." Around back was an alley I used to ride my bike up and down. The earth-colored couch, the one Mom and Dad and I used to sit on to watch Family Ties together stood upended against the garage. The cushions, worn through so the stuffing popped out of their centers, were stacked in a sad little pile. And seeing it all there, our house empty and our furniture garbage (sure it had been three years since we lived there, and we were just renters, but still...) well, it was more than I could take. I put my butt down on that little pile of pillows, sunk close to the ground, and cried. Big Birthday Baby.
Well, you know how it goes. Crying and feeling sorry for yourself only works for a little while, and once I’d had enough of it, I had to figure out the trick of getting home. No way was I going to Dad’s. I liked the idea of him rolling back into the PitStop -- all slow and sorry -- and not finding me there. Maybe going in and asking at the counter, maybe knocking on the ladies room door. And then cruising the avenue, under the speed limit and watchful. Getting scared maybe. Especially when he’d pull into the park -- sure that he’d find me there -- and no one would’ve seen me. That’d teach him.
I decided to go to the Temple and wait for Mom out in the parking lot. It was just a couple of blocks, but I kept to the alleys and sidestreets so there’d be no chance of running into Dad.
“Can you see anything?”
The voice, out of the clear blue like that, made me jump. I whirled around from where I was trying to see through the Temple’s front window.
“Are they flying?”
He was less than a foot from me. I don’t know how he got there without my hearing, but there he was. I knew this guy. Everyone in town did. Well, knew of him, I mean. He was the homeless guy. That’s what we called him. No one I knew knew his real name, and he was the only person who was homeless in town. The Homeless Guy. Only, up close, he didn’t look how you’d expect a homeless guy to look. Sure his hair was long and he had a raggedy beard and jeans and a shirt all worn through in those spots that go first -- knees, elbows, butt -- but from where I stood he looked clean and, well, as far as I could tell, sane. Like he stood up tall and wasn’t talking to himself and wasn’t scratching or squinting or whatever you might expect some crazy homeless guy to be doing.
“Michael,” he said and held out a hand to me. A surprisingly clean hand.
The way I saw it, I had a couple of options here. I could keep on not talking, ignore the guy. But that would be rude, and my mom didn’t raise me to be rude. And I wasn’t mad at this guy -- heck, since I’d sat down and had that cry, I wasn’t really mad much at all anymore. So it didn’t seem quite right to take things out on this Michael. So, “Hi,” I said, taking the second option, the talking one, “I’m Rennie.” But I kept my hands to myself. I figured I was just 14, it was okay if I wasn’t into shaking hands.
“Did you see them fly?” Michael stepped in front of me and put his eye up against the window where I’d been looking through. There was a little space between the blue curtain and the wall inside, but the angle wasn’t right. All you could see was the edge of a blackboard or something. “There’s a better place to watch from,” he said, his head still pressed up against the glass. His words made a circle of steam on it. “Wanna see?”
I really just wanted to go home. But I was pretty much stuck. I wasn’t allowed in the Temple, Mom had made that clear the last time I went with her a couple of months ago and made the mistake of asking if it would be all right to have one of the candy bars she always kept in her purse. You’d think I’d asked for a joint or a gun or something the way the whole “congregation” gasped and tsked. Mom got so red I thought she’d pop. And so here I was stuck outside waiting for her and the Temple was open for another hour. And Mom never, ever left Temple early.
“Sure,” I said to the guy and shrugged just enough to show him how much I didn’t really care. “Let’s see.”
And then the thing is, I was following this guy who didn’t really look crazy like I said, but who I had pretty much come to believe was crazy ever since I first saw him right here, in front of the Temple, sleeping in the doorway some months ago. And even though he didn’t look like what I expected (damn TV shows, give you all sorts of wrong ideas) he still wasn’t anyone I knew or should trust. And at first I had all those thoughts you get, you know, He’s gonna kill me, or He’s gonna rape me, or He’s gonna mug me -- and in that order, starting with the worst and then getting less and less serious. But there was something about this guy. Something quiet. Quiet, but intense. It might have been scary, this way he was, like if you met him in some back alley or someplace dark and deserted maybe. But as we went around the side of the building, past the daycare and behind the place, in all this broad daylight, I wasn’t scared at all after a while. We climbed up onto a crate, then up onto the top of a dumpster, then he reached high and grabbed hold of the wall that edged the roof and used a door frame to step up and over. He held a hand down to me and finally I got the doorframe under my foot and was up and over and onto the roof next to him. Then he turned his back on me and started fast across the roof, the tails of his shirt flapping behind him. I followed, slower though, my hands deep in my pockets.
And you know what? Up high like that, I have to admit, things looked pretty good. The tops of the trees were bright with those leaves turning red, turning yellow and orange. You could see all the way down Main Street to where the highway came in, and the fields beyond town tilted up with the rise of the land. Shimmering, it looked like from up there.
“Here,” Michael said, waving me in. He fell to his knees and pushed his face against the roof. I kneeled next to him. He smelled like the woods around the lake. Like fresh air and damp earth. “Yup,” he said, and moved a little to the side so I could get a look. “There’s old Sky himself.” I was surprised that he knew the High One’s name, but I guess it’s sort of like how I knew he was The Homeless Guy. In a town this small, everyone knew everyone who wasn’t one of the regulars.
I looked through the crack, just a small opening, but big enough to see through with one eye. And the place was exactly as I remembered it, pale blue and empty pretty much, except for a couple of bulletin boards and blue blackboards and the display case where they kept the smaller things they sold. The only thing different was that the chairs were out of the way, folded up and pushed off to the sides, and the floor was covered with mats. Big, lumpy mats, like they had in the wrestling room at school. Blue mats.
I saw my mom. I recognized the top of her head, although I’m not entirely sure how since I don’t know that I ever looked at it before -- but I did. She sat in the middle of the mat, her legs crossed over in that way people do -- swamis and stuff -- the feet on top of the knees. I didn’t know she could do that. And there was Sky, skinny as a reed, in front of her on the mat, sitting the same way. Even from up here I could see how tan he was, especially in his blue robey thing, and I thought like I did whenever I saw him that it was funny how he always looked sort of windswept. His bright blond hair flew back away from his face -- from using the official Temple blowdriers, no doubt. They were knees-to-knees, Mom and Sky, no one else was there. They sat absolutely still.
“Are they flying?” Michael asked. If someone else asked me this question, I’d pretty much have to think they were joking. Flying. Right. But Michael sounded really sincere. Not like he was making fun or anything. Like he really wanted to know. Like it could ever be possible.
“No,” I said, keeping watch. The two beneath me didn’t move. I tilted my head a little so I could use the other eye for a while. But nothing happened. They sat, and I sat watching.
I don’t know how long I had my eye pressed against that crack waiting for something to happen (which never did), but when I sat back up, rolled the kinks out of my neck and looked around, Michael was gone.
Back on solid ground again, I went into Phil-Bert’s. The place was empty except for one of the old twins, Phil, I think, or maybe Bert. And in that place that never changed (tinny door chimes, eight-panel menu board, white plastic tables and chairs, red trim at the tops and bottoms of the bright white walls), I couldn’t help but remember when I was five, the first time we came here, Mom, Dad and me, on my birthday -- back when Mom would still eat in public. “Whatever you want,” Dad had said as he lifted me up so I could see into the big tubs. Twenty-three regular flavors and four monthly specials. Millions of possible combinations. “Whatever I want,” I said to myself after I let go of the memory, and ordered the biggest thing they had: triple banana split, whipped cream, nuts and cherries. Why shouldn’t I?
At the front table by the window, I dug in. When I stopped eating long enough to get a breath, I looked up and there was Michael -- outside looking in. I waved to him, and I guess he took that to mean come on in, because that’s what he did. The chimes banged on the door as he passed through, then he came over and plopped into the little white plastic chair across from me.
“Looks good,” he said, “special treat?”
“Yeah,” I said. I was half-way through the middle scoop (rocky road) and working my way toward the rainbow sherbet. “It’s my birthday,” I said. And it was sort of like letting loose a secret you’ve been dying to tell. Once I said it I was glad I’d said it, but a little, oh, I don’t know -- ashamed, I guess.
“Yeah, well, happy birthday,” Michael said.
“Thanks,” I said, and looked at him. He had an okay face. One of those smooth ones that makes it hard to tell how old a person is, but I figured him for twenty or so. He had bright blue eyes, kind of gold, too, like the autumn sky. Or maybe it was just a reflection. He stared at my banana split, followed the spoon from the banana boat to my mouth and back with those eyes. It got to be kind of hard to keep eating, him watching me like that, so I put the spoon down and tried to come up with something to say. I looked out the window at Mom’s big blue car, then over at the plate glass front of the Temple.
“You know Sky?” I asked.
“Used to,” Michael said. He kept his eyes on the ice cream.
“When was that?”
“Back as kids. Long time ago. But we parted ways.” He scratched a spot on his nose and looked up. “You, uh, gonna finish that?”
Well, I wanted to. Bad. But it didn’t seem quite right then, so I shook my head and pushed the banana boat across the table top toward him. He reached for my spoon and scooped up a mound of the stuff. I watched him for a bit. It was like there was barely time for one spoonful to melt in his mouth before he shoved another one in there.
“Parted ways how?” I asked when he stopped long enough to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. “I mean, besides the obvious.”
“Yeah, you know. The eating. You guys clearly have different ideas about eating.”
“That so?” He closed his mouth around a spoon of rainbow. He went back to work on the banana split without answering my question. I tried again.
“Were you ever a member of the temple?”
Michael just snorted. Green and pink sherbet spotted the edges of his mustache.
“But you know about the floating.”
Michael shrugged and picked up the boat with both hands and licked the inside clean. Then he slid it aside, tilted his head slightly. Behind him I could see Phil working a towel over the counter, cleaning like he always did.
I didn’t say anything for a bit, and neither did Michael. I don’t think he intended to do much talking. So I went on. “Do you know how that floating stuff goes?” Michael shook his head. “I do. I’ve seen it.”
“Yeah. Supposedly Sky is the one who can really float. You know, truly worthy and all. And a couple of the others sort of can.” I figured he must know this, but he let me keep talking. “It’s not floating, though” I said. “It’s jumping.” Michael leaned across the table, watched my mouth as I spoke. I couldn’t help but lean back a bit. “Seriously. They sit like we just saw them sitting,” I pointed my thumb out toward the parking lot, “and then they gather up all this energy, and jump. They keep their legs crossed, so it doesn’t quite look like jumping. But that’s what they’re doing. Only they’re so full of themselves and so dizzy from not eating they think they’re levitating. A few inches off the ground and a couple feet covered. Big whip. You ask me, that’s not floating.”
“What about Sky?” Michael says in a polite way, like he’s taking part in the conversation just to be nice, like maybe I’m not telling him anything he doesn’t already know.
“Same thing. Only he’s really good at it. He rises up pretty high and goes a pretty long way. To me it’s like he’s the champion of the cross-legged long jump. And whenever he does it -- and he rarely does, you know, to keep the mystery going -- everyone starts sighing and gets all quiet. Like they’ve just witnessed the second coming or whatever. Like it’s a Goddamn miracle.”
Michael’s staring hard at me now, his sky eyes locked with mine. I’ve got to look away. “No such thing as a miracle,” I say.
And that’s when I hear the squeal of tires in the parking lot behind us, and I know even before I look that it’s my dad. And when I do look, there’s Mom, too, coming out of the Temple doorway. She sees Dad’s truck first, and I can’t help but notice how she reaches a hand up to her hair and smoothes it down, how she puts her shoulders back and holds her head high -- like she used to when she heard him come into the door of the little brown house: “Honey? I’m home!” And I notice, too, through the dusty windshield of his truck, how Dad smiles first when he sees Mom, and then how he runs a hand over his face and pulls the smile off. And how when Mom sees him do this, she frowns, too. And I know I’ve got to get out there before it really hits the fan, and I jump up quick and hold out a hand to Michael, which he shakes.
“See ya,” I say.
“Yup,” he says.
I dash to the door and pull it open, and here’s where things get weird. The chimes that have been ringing in that place for as long as I can remember sound different then. Brighter and, well, sort of magical.
“Rennie,” Michael says, and I turn to see him stand. Funny thing is, he’s much taller than I remember, his head rising closer and closer to the ceiling. And then his feet are hovering over the tabletop, and I follow the line of his legs up past the holes in the knees of his jeans, let my eyes make their way to his.
“Happy Birthday to you, Rennie,” he says. And I quick look around to see if Phil’s seeing this, too, but his head is down in the freezer case, attending to some cleaning matter. And I look back toward the parking lot to see if maybe Mom and Dad -- but they’re standing face to face and talking, not yelling or anything, just talking. And I look again and Michael’s still up there, floating and floating and floating. He smiles at me, and nods. “There you go,” he says, and then I nod, because the way I see it, that’s pretty much all there is for me to do.
And so I step out onto the sidewalk and start to cross the parking lot toward Mom and Dad and they turn and see me, and they both get that look of relief only parents can have at those times when they know their kid is safe from whatever. And I’m thinking maybe my folks will remember now, maybe we’ll go out and celebrate or something, I mean it is still my birthday, right? But then the look starts to turn a little gray on each of their faces, and I know what to expect next. I glance back over my shoulder and into Phil-Bert’s, and it’s just Phil in there now, clearing the table, throwing away my empty. And then up ahead I see Dad reaching for his belt and Mom’s eyes go blank and spacey.
So that’s when I do it. Float, I mean. I just swallow and swallow and fill up with air and close my eyes and rise. I rise up and out of this here, up and out of this now. I lift and lift, higher and higher, over the tops of their heads, over the tops of the trees starting to die, over the top of the Goddamn Temple of Air. Over and over and over it all. I’m floating, dammit. I’m floating.
©1999 by Patricia Ann McNair