“She hates my hair, she hates my clothes, she hates my friends. She hates the things that interest me, the books I read. She even hates the look on my face.”
She was smoking very quickly, half the cigarette already sucked down. In truth she could count on two hands the number of times she’d smoked in the past, each instance producing exactly the dizzying, borderline nauseating spin she felt now. She tapped the ash on the upper edge of the window.
“My mother called me a whore. She called me a slut. Not my father, my mother. Aren’t those ugly words?”
He shifted a little, tilted toward his own window and blew smoke.
“I mean, I assume you know why I’m here.”
“Yup. I sure do.”
“She grabbed me by the hair, and she literally dragged me to the car so a doctor could examine me.”
He looked over, took in her blonde crop. “You’ve barely got any hair to pull, miss.”
“Trust me, there’s enough.”
A coyote carrying a chicken crossed the road in front of them, out of the bar ditch and then a smooth streak across the gravel to the weeds on the other side, and gone.
“Sneaky bastard,” Roy muttered, although he seemed somehow half pleased at the same time, or maybe half amused. He made a quick veer across the center line and back, as though to run down the sneaky coyote’s very memory. Annelise swayed with the veer and smirked again in spite of herself.
“Ugly words, sure enough,” he told her.
“Right? I don’t feel like either of those things. I don’t think those things even exist, except in the minds of people who need to believe in . . . believe in . . .”
Now her head really did spin. “Right,” she said, and reached out her hand and dropped her cigarette to the roadway. “I was going to say rules.”
“Fair bit of overlap, in my experience.”
She tilted her head to the seatback and shut her eyes against the green fog in her mind, and the thought struck her and just popped right off her tongue. “If you’re born to fail, how can you be punished for a foregone conclusion?”
He didn’t seem to have an answer.
She opened her eyes again, took in the layer of dust on the ceiling. “As if it is some huge failure to act like a human. Even with that view of the world, though, where humans are born sinners, doesn’t the one thing just cancel the other out?”
He chewed on this, or appeared to. Finally he said something.
“Failure gets to looking downright epidemic, is the trouble. Look at that place, right out across the sage—that’s a bust homestead. Door hanging, paper flapping.” He shook his head. “I was only born in ’86 myself, and nowhere near here, but things have been a last-ditch gamble for most in this country since way back then, at least.
“That’s the winter killed all the cows, you know. Or likely you don’t, but there’s old-timers around can tell you. Dead cattle stacked in the coulees, way the dern slaughtered buffalo must’ve been five years before. Slaughtered Injuns, for that.
“No end to the troubles ever since, either. Drouth, winds to beat all, Mormon crickets chawing the wheat crop like some Egyptian Bible plague. Damn Spanish flu dropping people from here to Christmas—1918, that one.” He was shaking his head now, shaking and driving. “You see enough failure, you start to see it as the way of things. And I guess it does start to look like a dern curse, if you let it. And so I guess you start to tell yourself about heaven, and how on earth you might figure a way to get there.”
The road made a bend, and as he steered around to the west, she caught a silver splinter in the last angle of the sun, lost it in a gauze of cloud, and then watched the speck of an airplane emerge. One of the ships looking for the holdup men maybe, but by sheer suggestion, she thought of Amelia’s new aluminum Lockheed. That silver-foil flash.
She said, “I don’t think humans are born failures. I think we’re born animals. The thing that sets us apart is, we can make things that are otherwise necessary into things that are also beautiful. Like . . . I don’t know, oysters Rockefeller. Or the Gamble House. It’s the opposite of gauche, actually.”
He’d kept his eyes on the curve in the road. “I expect you already know this, but you need to brace yourself, miss. You’re about to go back in time a bit.”
When the first edition of the Flying and Glider Manual was published three years ago, it was inspired by the belief that thousands of young men throughout the country were intensely eager to own and fly their own airplanes.
—“Introducing the 1932 Flying and Glider Manual”
He came off the highway and took the first left he could to avoid Main, skulking along by the moon’s big blare, the idle tuned low as he dared. He turned east again and passed Cy Gleason’s side street, cautioned a glance and couldn’t make out either the constable’s blue Ford or the new county cruiser. He drove to the smithy at the end of the block.
The bulb above the office door put out its usual weak haze, and the porch light on the bungalow next door had been switched on as well, but Pop’s REO did not appear to be around. Huck cut the motor and coasted to a stop, nose-in to the sliding shop door. He heard the low babble of the Zenith from inside, which Pop turned on at night for the cat.
He felt like a famine victim out of the Old Testament and knew he should rustle some grub in the house. Instead he let himself into the office. Lindy the cat called to him in the dark, then jumped down from the shelf above the desk and into the wan glow around the radio. Amos ’n’ Andy. Huck hit the overheads and tsked at the cat and went into the shop.
The ship, or what existed of it, rested on sawhorses in the fabrication bay in the back of the smithy. He’d built the frame for each side flat on the floor over the winter, first chalking out the patterns for longerons and struts and then driving nails to a half depth around the scribed lines to function as a jig. The plans called for spruce, which he and Pop cut in the Bull Mountains in the fall and milled to spec over at the lumberyard across town. Huck bundled and strapped the sticks tight and let them cure for a seemingly interminable month while he read and reread and reread yet again the 1932 Flying and Glider Manual.
He ran the projector and swept stray popcorn in the movie house when he stayed in town. He socked his pay away in an Arbuckles’ can and stashed the can in the smithy.
Over Christmas holiday he popped the straps on his fir sticks and bent a lower longeron around the arc of nails in the floor. He laid the longeron’s upper mate into place and fit a row of struts between the two, then mitered diagonal bracing into each bay. He let the seat bracing into what would become the cockpit, fore and aft, and cut gusset plates out of eight-inch plywood. He checked and double-checked, and when he was sure he had his ducks in a row, he mixed a batch of casein glue and fused it all together with plates and glue and brads.