Knockers Up

By John Timpane

Copyright 2010 by John Timpane

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Knockers-Up “You fix on the tallest thing between you and the target. Say it’s a palm tree twelve feet high. You set yourself at twelve feet, two inches, and you come in off the water, antiradar off, naked as a cheerleader on homecoming night, engines full, the sea right there below you.” The boy he was addressing saw the sea: a blinding, corrugated bronze plate sliding two men’s heights beneath a jet at full roar. “You’re so low you’ll be on top of them before they know it, and you’re hoping to fuck they don’t see you and bomb the shit out of you before you bomb the shit out of them, and when you hit land, it’s bam!, everything changes, seconds to the target, guys yelling in your headphones, foosh, that palm tree, foosh, foosh, more palm trees, your wake is knocking peasants and donkeys over in the fucking road, target, target, dump your load on the fucker and get your ass out of there before you get your ass shot up.” Vern Holleran flushed. Coughing, he seized his inhaler. Five, six shots it must have taken to calm his chest. Both men were breathing hard, hearts beating together. “Can you use language like that in good writing? You know, fuck? Shit? I know with Hemingway or Mickey Spillane, but I’m not them.” “Well,” his teacher said, half his age: “you wouldn’t want to use them in a Freshman Writing paper. They’re a bad thing to rely on.

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There’s other ways. But sometimes they can help you get to the right place. I’d say this is pretty vivid.” “It’s the shove I miss. It’s better than coming. You’re in this tin can with the glide ratio of a brick, getting shoved through space, through the sound barrier, boom boom boom. Your wings help you steer, but that’s about it. They’re pretty vestigial. Only way they get any lift at all is if you shove ’em, you got to have that shove or they’re useless. If you flame out, you drop out of the sky like shit from a cat, so you always sort of know you’re seconds from getting your ass killed, and you’re sitting on thousands of pounds of thrust just fucking shoving you, you are the goddamn king of the world. And you know it. Because you beat out a lot of other poor assholes who couldn’t make the grade, good thing, they’d get their asses burnt to shit in a second if they ever got in the pilot’s seat. This isn’t the volunteer fire department. It takes more than wanting to be a flyboy. You got to have it. And when you get that shove, making it do what you want, damn, and you know it and it’s right and the machine knows it, and most of all your buddies know it. It’s like coming and coming and coming. Of course, that’s just a metaphor because coming’s the best thing I know of.” The teacher laughed. “You get so polite at the end of your rants.” He saw Vern as if a spotlight shone down. Nothing Vern had ever done

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since his flying days, nothing he would ever do again, had been that transfiguring. “God it’s hot in here.” Vern mopped his face. “Magic Lantern?” “Meet you there,” his teacher said. “I’ve got to go by the office.” Still and downbearingly sunny, Buchanan University in mid-July simmered around Ross as he walked. Occasional bicyclists; aromas of dust and camphorous winds through eucalyptus; the skitter of chipmunks and quail. Ross, teaching four sections of Freshman Writing this summer for comic pay, had a leaning tower of 34 papers waiting at home for his critical eye, but he’d rather have a beer and a pizza with Vern at the Magic Lantern. That first Vern paper – imperfect, but what a rush. It had thrust Ross, the usual slim, bespectacled man, into the cockpit of a jet fighter coming in for a night landing on a carrier. “At night the sky is brighter than the ocean, which is more like a blind hole underneath you. Men have been known to suddenly fall out of the sky because they let themselves think about it. You forget to trust your instruments. You mix up above and below. You panic, brainlock, and die. “What you’re looking for is a tiny postage-stamp of light in the middle of nothing.” (Ross: “This is his first paper?”) “Vision does little for you until the very last moment when you’re looking for the Christmas tree. You have to trust your instruments and the guy in the tower. The whole thing’s your own fault: you took off, so you have to

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come down sometime. And if you pull out, even once, all your buddies are going to remind you about it for the rest of your life.” Among the young men and women in Freshman Writing, here was this bluff, barrel-chested man in his late 50s, drink-blown Irish face, reading and writing for life and death. You saw that hunger in what they called “returning students” – folks coming back to school after having had a life. Vern attended class every day in a suit and tie (until Ross begged him to “please stop with the dress-up thing”), cliffhanging on each class discussion, breath held for every answer to every question, wanting to be a part of everything, intimidated by the smart kids, infatuated with that object of worship, the teacher. That’s how much Ross had cared when he’d been in school. How much he still cared. It was why he was becoming a scholar and a teacher. He’d made inquiries with some pals in Admissions and had confirmed it. In Vern Holleran he had the real thing: a gifted career fighter pilot 1944-1970, a long time not to get your ass shot up. Retired in Boise, Vern had come down to spend the summer at Buchanan, taking courses and playing tennis and other games with Buchanan women. His wife, Queen Bitch, a high-ranking stewardess with Delta, was seldom home. “So why sit on your ass or worry what she thinks?” Vern asked.

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Every time Ross ran into Vern on campus, Vern in shorts and tennis shirt, another protégée, comely to the blinding point, next to him, Ross wondered what Queen Bitch would think if she knew. Vern always introduced Ross to the woman of today’s game – “This is Professor Nellis, my English teacher” – and Ross winced twice, once because he was not a professor and once because the woman was seldom impressed. Vern had first seen action in World War II, escorting bomber battalions across the Channel to maul German munitions factories, supply lines, and (Vern did not hesitate to admit it – “you had to bring them to their knees”) just plain towns full of just plain people. Vern tended to volunteer for experimental testing, life-threatening work: “You wanted to be first to ride those babies. Engines and planes were changing so fast, the technology and all, and you wanted to take their cherry.” You also wanted no one to say you hung back. So when some officer came in, said, “We have this new kind of plane and we need pilots,” you volunteered before the man got to pilots. That was how Vern found himself in the first jet squadron. “Fucked me up because I missed the end of the war,” Vern said. “Out in the middle of some desert, nearest whore fifty miles, flying these god-awful tin cans.” There was a lot they didn’t know about jets: the physics of takeoffs or landings, G-forces, or “a little thing called flameout, where

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because of something you did, your engine dies, good luck getting it back, and there you are, with a first-class ticket to a smoking hole in the ground.” “But your work contributed to all the jets that came after,” Ross said. “Yeah, after a bunch of us got our asses killed and no fault of our own. Fucking Air Force.” From that Air Force Vern drew his pension. To that Air Force Vern had been married for 30 years. It was the mate he hated and would never leave. “They lost a lot of guys in the jet tests,” Vern said. “But they don’t show up anyplace special because they had them reclassified as combat-related.” Vern filled Ross’s glass from a pitcher of beer (they’d made it to the Magic Lantern) and helped himself to another slice of pizza. “First time I got in one of those things, it was a damn shame. An altimeter and a stick between your knees. It was almost that bad. Fucking things were flying coffins. When you came back from a test flight, you were supposed to go and talk to the design team, ‘You got to fix this and this,’ but they weren’t pilots, they’d never been real pilots in their damn lives, bunch of pencil-humpers.” They talked for hours in the Magic Lantern, Ross on listening duty. Vern Holleran trying not to go to bed with Vern Holleran’s dreams

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. . . see it all again and again . . . friend after friend get in a fix, lose control, get his ass killed. Vern losing a man he’d loved. Story after story. Regret, anger, and grief flickered across his eyes before the cover-up. Vern’s body, his big hands, his moves and reactions, the chest and shoulders, quick eyes, blown cheeks, old-age knob well under way on the Irish nose, the capacity of that laugh – Ross dilated to receive Vern, saw him as he was, as Vern sucked on his inhaler, smoothed his hair, and looked about for the nearest woman. Vern presented Ross with Vern, Vern’s fears, Holleran’s limits, Vern Holleran’s doubts (“all the shit I’ve done, I almost hope there isn’t a God, but what’s worse is I actually think there is”). Vern trusted him with all that, trusted him to cross boundaries closed to others: the humiliation of one who had lived at strength and certainty and speed, staring at weakness, insecurity, a slowing. His stories, which pitched Ross higher than Everest, and which Ross was able to confirm almost to the word, were less braggadocio than subjection, said not so much “See who I am?” as “See what I was.” Vern, skilled church avoider, even begged Ross to attend with him one Sunday. Ross, who’d just come back from church when the phone rang, went again anyway. Vern, terrified, almost had to be pushed up to communion. On more than one weekend, a desert of an afternoon stretching out before him, Vern called Ross, who had to act as if he

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didn’t see why. Ross drank with Vern despite the 47 papers, always on Ross’s mind, stacked on the TV table at his apartment. There was a job to do: cherish Vern in body and mind and not seem to be doing it. A man afraid of old age, still hoping and acting on the hope he was attractive, haunted by the movie of his nights: the plane wobbling, stalling, tipping over a wing, no parachute, Vern screaming at the asshole to get out, get out, no parachute, poor asshole pinned by the death forces, blacking out into the nightmare, or a worst nightmare of holding on to consciousness, scream of terminal velocity, fire licking your eyes, smoke cutting your throat, to watch the wavering earth, steady, frame, and leap – – “closest I ever came was in one of those first damn jets. Wasn’t flameout. If you died from flameout it was your own damn fault. But this is why, of all the assholes who died, the ones it wasn’t their fault was the boys in those jets. Because they gave them jets that weren’t ready, knowingly, and they didn’t fix what we told them to fix, not until they lost five or six boys, and then, ‘OK, guess you’re right, sorry you’re dead, we’ll take care of your wife and kids.’ ” (What is it Vern gets from me? Ross wondered. Maybe a certain precision and delicacy of attention? A passion for truth and beauty, rootie-toot-tootie? Who knew? But Vern saw him, expanded to take him in, feverish to connect. But why look to an English grad student for approval? Vern liked the differences, “all the stuff you know,” and Ross

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was not secure enough to accept Vern watering at the oasis of Ross’s high standards; youth, wit; considerateness; interest in everything; hunger for books, ideas, and current events; his mystical strain. Whatever Vern saw Ross would try not to betray.) “The closest you came?” “I’d had a pretty good run. Now, this jet was a bitch to handle, they had no idea how to build a jet so you could fly her good, but I was getting the hang of her, making up for her shortcomings, anticipate, holding it all together and smoothing it out so I wasn’t fighting her all the time. Like – ” “I know what it’s like.” Vern grinned. “I was beginning my approach, coming in a straight line, for God’s sake, when my engine started cutting out in this really weird way, on-off, on-off. Next to nothing I could do about it, and I started dropping out of the fucking sky. Gravity is your enemy, and make no mistake, sooner or later you’re going to lose. I’d get the engine back for a second, some lift but not much, and now the flaps get stuck for some reason, and then, bam – nothing, not a single mother-loving thing. I’m just a hurtling can.” Only a couple of hundred feet over the desert floor, with a highway between him and the landing strip. Seconds. The nose pulled down. Vern fought for straight, to hit as flat as he could, nose down, Vern pulling for the horizon, jet falling harder per foot of forward

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motion, harder and harder hit, knocked half out he gazed at the highway he plowed up, bolted the canal, a wing ripped off, hurled him left, his head smashing rightward, other wing sheared off, and the fuselage tumbled, drilled, rolled, cactus sky cactus sky. When they got there they found the fuselage on its side, Vern hanging out the naked cockpit covered in fuel and blood. “I was in la-la land, but I was flying again before sundown.” Both men sweated, hearts synchronizing. Vern’s hands fumbled for the pitcher. “I lived. At least I wasn’t a poor asshole. Plane smashed up, sorry, taxpayer dollars. I had a crick neck, some busted ribs, in fact a broken back, but I wasn’t going to let those sons of bitches see. I refused the stretcher and walked back to base, only a couple hundred yards. Told them I’d be ready for the next run and they better fucking put me on it. Know what? I flew for three days until some shit medic saw my X-rays and grounded me. Women say they have pain? Show me the woman who’s been through what I been through. Women don’t know shit.” Vern’s eyes betrayed him and let a little over the side. He groped in a pocket for his inhaler. “Sons of bitches. Give me a joke plane good for nothing but falling out of the sky. Fuck them. Fucking Air Force. I beat ’em. I beat ’em all, and now they have to pay me to get cold and dead.”

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Ross thought of taking his hand but didn’t. They were decorous with each other, handshakes, pats on the shoulder at first meeting, restraining affection, restraint showing affection. In tutorials, Ross was too much in awe of Vern to see that Vern was in awe of him. One look at his writing and Ross said to himself, “Not much I can show him. He just needs to write more.” But, because you can always improve on a piece of writing, he made some changes. Vern was dumbstruck. “My God,” he said. “How did you do that? I want to know how you did that. Where did you pick that up?” “Don’t know exactly. It’s the kind of thing you get as you do it more. If you do more writing, you’ll get it in no time.” Vern begged Ross for more time outside of class. Fine with Ross: he made grocery money on the side with informal tutoring, and Vern wanted to pay him twice the going rate. They agreed on a project for the summer: eight essays about Vern’s pilot’s life, beginnings of a memoir. That way Vern could work on his writing and tell a story. They met almost every day, Vern bringing his papers like perfumed offerings to an altar. When Ross marked up his papers, Vern took in new vistas, stuff he’d never let himself dream he could do. Ross, in turn, saw Vern could be the better writer, energy and openness Ross could not hope to equal. Ross was a stylist. Vern, if he wanted to work, could be a

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magician, intoxicator, Mesmer. Ross wondered what he could do to make Vern believe. Vietnam: “Over here you heard about SAMs, but they were miserable. Next to useless. We used to play tag with the fucking things. One funny trick you could play was if you saw a SAM coming up, and they left such a fat heat signature you could see them across the continent, you could swing behind your buddy and then pull out, and the SAM’d be locked on your buddy’s heat trail, and he’d have to shake him off. We laughed fit to bust. If you let a SAM bring you down, it was your own damn fault.” And Ross, who would never fly a jet, make a night landing, or bed a Buchanan undergrad, let it all in, the high riding, the wilding, the gambles with control and loss of control. Vern was Irish like Ross and Catholic like Ross, and eventually his talk took a certain turn. “I been wondering lately if there’s a hell. What do you think? I mean, it’s sort of worse if there isn’t one, and I can imagine hell a lot easier than the other. Sometimes it’s hard to see any of it, you know? And then other times it’s as clear as day. Keeps flitting in and out. Sometimes a guy my age gets worried.” They’d had a few beers, but Ross was clear enough to see in Vern’s eyes a host of wakeful nights. “About the people you’ve killed?” “Not the pilots so much, the civilians. The VC and the Chinese were lousy pilots no matter what anybody says, but anybody can get

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lucky and there was a few good ones. And if you’re stupid enough to come up to challenge me, if you’re fixing to blow me out of the sky, then I don’t lose a minute’s sleep over shooting you down. Hell, in Korea for a time they had better planes than us with those MIGs, and we still shot ’em down like turkeys. But I did drop a few payloads where I knew there were women and children, and even if every one of them would stab you soon as look at you, when I saw the fire and smoke rising, I knew I’d blasted a bunch of families to hell. The B-52 boys, they’re way up, so they don’t feel much of a connection to what they wreak down below. But we do. And you know what I worry about most?” “You’ve mentioned what you did on leave.” “Sometimes I can’t believe it was me. Fuck ’em and pay ’em or fuck ’em and don’t pay ’em or fuck ’em and beat ’em up, or be the tenth man in a row, or four in a bed, or whatever so you don’t care.” Vern had once said, “You can’t expect a bunch of guys putting their asses on the line every day to not go a little nuts when we get to town.” They went in groups, three men, five men, joking, boasting, daring. Fatigue, tension, sweet earth kissing their feet until they were drunk. Ross was surprised by a thought: in all the expense of sperm into the convenience women of the world, Vern was really making love to his own buddies, resolute to have a ball, strong, perfect in the jest about the poor assholes, friends who’d gotten their asses shot up, the

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fucking Air Force anyway, this damn war where you killed the enemy’s soldiers and half of China’s and he declared victory and the world believed. “And you know what? They sent me down to China Beach for some R and R, and what should happen to me but I fall for this girl? From Wisconsin, of all places. I didn’t know I had those feelings left. I wouldn’t touch her. I got down there every chance I could because that’s where she was stationed. Carol. She was nice to me. She never saw anything at all. Not a shot fired in anger. And I could only hint at what I was seeing, and she said it was all right. She’s gone, but I’m still here. Here’s her picture.” Ross noted the 1960s hairdo in the crumpled photo from Vern’s wallet. One night, Ross was at his apartment and tossing a salad for one when the phone rang. It took him a few ticks to realize that the Madelyne speaking to him was Queen Bitch. She was calling from San Francisco, stopping overnight before flying off again. “Vern has told me a lot about you,” Madelyne said. “He has only good things to say. I hope you know you’re very important to him. Not a lot has made him happy the last few years. I don’t know what you’ve done, but he worships you.” “I’m just his teacher.”

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“I’m his wife and I’ve heard everything and I’ve heard nothing, if you know what I mean. We talk, sure, we talk, but, well, we’ve been married a long time. You get tired of a person, or really it’s you get used to them. I would listen, but I don’t think he can unburden himself to me any more the way he needs to. So I’m calling to thank you – and because he’s probably said some things about me and I wanted to let you know there’s another side.” “Lately, he’s been worried about hell.” “Maybe he should. He deserves it.” She laughed. “Excuse me?” “No, I don’t mean that. We air hostesses are not supposed to drink on the job, OK?” “Uh, OK.” “But I’ve had a few drinks tonight, here, there, almost without realizing it. You know what that makes me, don’t you? That makes me a drunk. A polite drunk, a drunk so you could hardly tell, but a drunk. If I’m a drunk, Vern’s the reason why.” “Why?” “I’m his wife, that’s why, and no woman on God’s green earth could have been more of what a man wants than I’ve been to Vern. In every way, as a wife, as a business partner, as the mother of his daughter . . . sexually . . .” “Look, you hardly know me – ”

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“Do you realize I am 53 and Vern still has nothing to complain about, if you know what I mean?” “OK.” “I’m in the gym every day, and I hate it. I diet every day, and I hate it, but I do it. Sure, I do it for the job, you have to keep your figure to be a stewardess, in fact, a girl my age needs to look terrific. There’s a hundred girls who think they’re prettier and better, but – ” “But it’s really for Vern.” Ross listened for the fifteen minutes Madelyne had, dazed she laid herself out so quick and raw. Hey, I have a quarter of an hour; let me call this grad student and stand naked in front of him. Ross was used to thinking of himself as awkward with people. Listening-skills-challenged. When people did bring him their sorrows, he could never fix anything. People called him all the time, or came to the office, and gloom descended because he couldn’t think of a way to help. If they had a piece of writing, then he knew what to do. Outside of that, he listened as person after person came by, and he searched for words of advice, the wisdom that would loose the knot, clear the depths, let the sun in, but he seldom found any. Sometimes he just held people. It helped if they held on back. At the end of Madelyne’s first call, he said: “Um, you’re always welcome to call. Some things I can tell you, but others . . . ”

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“So you can’t tell me whether Vern’s sleeping with every girl in town?” “Some things I can tell you, and others . . .” “Never mind. You just told me.” “I certainly did not. I don’t know anything and haven’t asked.” True enough. At some tutorials, Vern came with a glint in his eyes, just dying to tell, and Ross was ruefully glad, but Ross would rather not be told. “Oh, honey, you’re such a throwback,” Madelyne said. She called him from wherever her jets took her. “So loyal. I can tell you’re just a baby, but I like you.” “It would be nice to meet you sometime,” he said. “That’ll happen soon. My vacation’s coming up in a couple of weeks.” Ross studied, tutored, and drank with Vern, graded stacks of papers, and fielded frequent calls from Madelyne, betraying all as seldom as possible. Then came the night at the Magic Lantern when Vern broke two big rules. He arrived with a date, something he’d never done. Terri Liu was a computer programmer at Hewlett-Packard. Her strict red lipstick, the black plummet of her hair, and her competent business suit depressed Ross in his jeans and sneakers.

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Until he told his first joke, and Terri exploded into a laugh like a bus brake, a cross between a snort and a bellow. She nearly fell out of her suit. At one point, still staggering and chuckling, she left for the ladies’ room, and Vern broke a second rule. “That girl has the sweetest pussy I ever ate. She shaves it and likes my finger up her ass while she comes.” “Damn it, Vern.” “Sorry, I can’t help it,” he said. “Had to tell someone. It’s just killing me. I never met anyone like her. You know what they say about us guys in our 50s. Women go for us. It’s a second golden age.” “I’m waiting for my first.” “C’mon, don’t be mad. I had to tell somebody.” “Yeah, but now I know, and that’s a problem.” “Because?” Because now I must lie to your wife was on his lips as he said, “Because it’s just not right.” “Ross, I told you, you need to get yourself laid. You’re not a virgin, are you?” “Not quite.” “How long’s it been?” “Four years.” Vern groaned.

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Now Ross had the image and couldn’t shake it. His face was cradled in Terri Liu. He (just barely) knew how it could be, the unguented, sugared gloving. He and Vern looked at each other, shared a desperate exaltation. Madelyne asked the question direct: “So does Vern have a special girl?” She must have picked up something in my voice, Ross thought. Or maybe the thought has been worrying at her day and night. He told the lie direct. Lately, Vern had been playing tennis only with Terri, Terri by his side, sunny, his hand on her shoulder, a touch of the fatherly. Fewer meetings at the Magic Lantern (Ross caught up with his grading). Terri was spending a lot of time at Vern’s on-campus digs . . . hell, they were living together. One night, Ross had graded only three papers post-Madelyne when who should the phone be but Terri, asking whether she could speak to him? They agreed to meet at Tresidder, a dim, smoky den of burgers unspeakable. Ross bought a burger and sat down at Terri’s table, where the sun was shining. In a gesture that said both friend and help, she rose and kissed his cheek. Contact from her lips whipped straight the whorls in his cerebral cortex.

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They sat and exhaled (well! so!), and burger sank into bun, enough time for Ross to take her all in, and, more dismay, to realize he could fall in love with Terri Liu. She saw it, too. He saw her see. Both put that aside and turned to business. “I wanted to ask you,” she said. “I know it sounds sort of funny because we haven’t really talked before? Not like this? But I value your opinion . . . ” “People shouldn’t do that. Value my opinion.” That unleashed her laugh like a trash truck spilling junk all over the road. Her face turned inside out, passing from porcelain sobriety to marionette on hilarity strings. Back to sobriety: “I wanted to ask you what you thought of me.” Ross wondered: what is with me these days? People coming in so strong, right off the water, brushing my palm trees, knocking over my donkeys. Now laid before me, herself alone, this woman. “What do I think of you?” She nodded. You unman me, that’s what: so far beyond me, scientist with the brain to create new things, woman secure in the male warren of computers. Sweet that you combine conformism with imagination; I like how you work that trick. You are humble and goofy, that’s what I think, no chin-out combativeness. Past the goof, dignity and quiet.

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I love how time and the world lie before you. You could create and run a whole new business, a whole new market. I want you to be president. I stand with you. I commend you and celebrate you. “Uh, you’re great.” “Can’t you tell me something more than that?” “Why would you think you weren’t great?” “God, I’m sleeping with a married man. That’s not me, you know? I don’t do this.” And I hope (Ross thought) you are not Vern’s exotic, Vern’s fetish, Vern’s Asian girl held up to all the Asian warriors he slew, his defiance of convention and death. I don’t think you are: when you two look at each other, my VU meter hits 10. Substance and strength – and a coming mess. “That doesn’t make you a bad person,” Ross said. “I don’t think so, anyway.” “I’m lying to my parents, which I’ve never done in my life? Lying to them? I hardly ever go to my own place, either. Today, I looked in my own refrigerator and saw, like, living things? Like it’s been a while?” Her face was streaked in the sun, but still she let out a laugh, iron pots clattering on terracotta. “Listen,” Ross said, taking her hand so he could get the charge, “I’d never blame anyone for falling in love with Vern.”

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Now Ross kept Terri from Vern and Madelyne, and Madelyne from Vern and Terri. Serving all, he betrayed all. And Vern told him: “It makes you feel infinite, Ross, invincible. Like you could dive into a hail of tracers and clean him out untouched. Like you could bomb and fly through the smoke cleaner than shit. Untouchable. Fucking bulletproof.” And Terri: “You know how wonderful he is.” [Ross: “I do know.”] And Madelyne: “He says I’m just as bad as he is, but for God’s sake it was only the one time and so many years ago Moses was an Egyptian. I did it, I liked it, he knows it, and he’ll never forgive me. I was bad and I had to make my peace, but he takes it as an excuse to go on pussy patrol. Excuse my French.” And Terri: “I think guys have like a thing about performance? I mean, women can be anxious about doing good, too, like on their jobs? Believe me, I have a pretty high-stress job, and I worry about performance all the time. But I think it’s different for guys? As in it’s their whole lives, they’d be nothing if they weren’t good at something?” Ross: “Vern’s had to perform at a ridiculous level his whole life.” Terri: “And he shouldn’t worry about it, but he does? God, I know I shouldn’t tell you this, but I’m lying in ecstasy and he’s begging me to tell him he was all right?”

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Time out for laughter like a dog eating a rug. And Vern: “I worry it’s only physical, but then I think, nah, this is different. She tells me I’ve got her if I want her. What’s a man going to do with a statement like that?” And Madelyne: “He doesn’t know it, but I’m going to give up drinking and I’m going to retire, to be with him. I’ve told him and he doesn’t believe it. Maybe he’s afraid. Or maybe, which is the same thing, I guess, he doesn’t want it.” And Terri: “I mean, we’ve talked about living together? But I tell him it’s only been a few weeks. But it’s so powerful? It’s so good, Ross?” Ross: “He’s so afraid of death.” Terri: “I’m trying to get him past that. I mean, I’m not death. I’m an optimist, and so is he, you know? I believe in life. He does, too.” Ross: “That’s what we love about him, you and I and . . . you and I.” And Vern: “The only time everything is all right is when she’s all around me, Ross. The only time. The only time.” Ross: “Vern, I can’t take your money for all these missed sessions.” Vern: “No, I insist. I wasted a hundred gooks to earn this dough, and your time is money.”

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Ross: “And you’re two papers behind on your project. We need to talk about that.” Vern: “I’m working on it. Really.” Ross: “Vern, it’s so good. Really, it’s good.” And Madelyne: “See you tomorrow at the Magic Lantern, is it? Vern’s inviting his old commanding officer Morton, a horse’s ass, excuse my French, but we’ll make it a party anyway.” A personal record: Ross stayed up all night and graded 49 papers in 37 hours. He passed them all back, conferred with students about the final papers, 80 of them, all avalanching in next Friday. Past that, he could see grading, filing the grade sheets, and a trip down to Los Angeles to his family – but before that, the Magic Lantern. He walked into his open office, where Terri sat. She was wearing a sloppy shirt and jeans for once. But she couldn’t quite dress down – her nails and lips were madder rose. “You know, I’m sorry if I seem insecure to you? But I think we’ve gotten to be friends? I’d like to think if everything were different, we’d still be really close?” Ross parted from her there: if there were no Vern Holleran, we’d never have met, and once Vern goes, I’ll see you no more. But he didn’t say so. “I took the day off,” she said, “so I could run through everything? And I think I’ve made a decision, you know? I have to talk it over with

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Vern before I tell anyone else. But I just want to know: no matter what the decision is . . . Ross, have I disappointed you?” “What do you mean?” “Tell me the thing deepest in your heart.” He did tell her, and she left.

Morton wasn’t so bad. He wore some sort of uniform, even though Vern assured Ross he was retired. Vern and Morton, former underling and commander, circled and harrumphed at first, then, a beer later, they turned to that safest of pastimes, disparaging the dead. “You ever hear from Murphy’s wife?” “Gina?” said Morton. “Oh, sure. Good old cow. They shouldn’t shoot her yet. Can’t say I ever cared much for Murphy, though. Man wouldn’t say shit if it was in his mouth.” “Too bad the poor asshole never learned how to land on a carrier.” “Overshot the deck and got his ass killed. It’s his own damn fault. Wasted a good plane. Gina’s still pieceable, though. I’d take her and a hard roll with butter for breakfast.” “You’d fucking take anything,” Vern said, pausing for an especially pointed sip of beer. “Not my fault if they can’t stay away.”

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“Not at all. Too bad you have that problem. I know you still hear from LouAnne Gore.” “There’s another man who wouldn’t say so much as go to hell and how are you? Would’ve been half a decent pilot, too, if he hadn’t gone and got his ass shot up.” “They never found his plane.” “All I know is he’s still MIA. Fucking Air Force. Every once in a while, they find some poor asshole’s bones. What am I supposed to do, back flips on a Coke bottle? You were almost as good a pilot as Gore. Guess the VC couldn’t shoot straight.” “Fuck you very much. Least you waited a week or so before LouAnne.” “ ‘What kept you?’ I believe she said.” “Morton,” Vern said to Ross, “at least waits until the poor assholes are dead.” “Better than waiting until the wives are dead. Holleran,” Vern said to Ross, “always flew slow so he’d get there when the fighting was over.” Morton, like Vern, was impressed Ross was getting a Ph.D., “the most goddamned useless thing I ever heard,” and he engaged Vern in a poetry-reciting contest. Morton opened with “The Duel” by Robert W. Service (“In Pat Mahoney’s booze bazaar the fun was fast and free, /And Ragtime Billy spanked the baby grand; /While caroling a saucy

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song was Montreal Maree,/With sozzled sourdoughs giving her a hand.”) Vern countered with “High Flight” by Ross Gillespie Magee, Jr. (“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/ And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings”). Thundering now, Morton intoned “Flanders Fields” by Ross McCrae (“In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row”). But Vern won when he began “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, stirring Morton and Ross to join in, reaching a clamorous peak at “I am the captain of my soul.” No you’re not, Ross said to himself, because, as they were congratulating one another, he looked up – and the F-111 of his desire pancake-landed in the desert of his celibacy. This must be Madelyne. She had neglected to tell him she was at 53 the world’s most emphatically feminine woman. As head air hostess, she got to wear a uniform, lucky uniform, to enclose such a body made for Vern Holleran. She couldn’t be that blond, no one could, but she could kiss Vern and make Ross wish he were in Vern’s place. As she kissed her old friend Morton, her middle finger brushed his jaw. Oh, God, he’s the one she slept with – Vern’s sideways glance middrink drove it home. And then she stepped round and slugged Ross with a kiss right on the mouth, all breath and perfume and hot, sweet rouge, making sure he tasted her. She drew back and said, “You’re cute, Ross. Buy me a drink. Rusty nail, double shot.”

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“Maddie,” said Morton, “you’re no Edith Bunker.” Ross could not rise from the table right away, so he got to watch the opening round. No smile faltered; no strategy went unmarked. Ross messed up the order for her drink. So he drank the mistake, got her the rusty nail, and, on bringing it back, received her fingers in his hair. “You mind?” she said. “Long and curly.” Tousle tousle. She kept her fingers there the whole time. An inch below them, Ross was thinking: so she and I and Terri have snagged on his spirit. Or maybe all four of us feed at the same soul. Terri, with the world and time before her, working to ransom Vern’s optimism; me, his teacher; and Madelyne, tired of him and longing to take him back if he’ll have her. People don’t admit to all the roles love plays in their lives. They’ll deny it, paint it over with other names, fend it off as long as they can. Who knows just when the key fits in the lock? You see something; you guess something; something quickens, and all at once you hold someone’s life within you. We pity him (inhaler, fear, tennis); we miss him; we help him; he enlarges our worlds. I’ve fallen for all these people; they’ve brought me more than they intended. Look at Vern, laughing with his wife: he wants, resents, resists, is breathing her in. I can see it. He could also see a trail of sweat down Vern’s cheek. Vern was laughing a little too loud. Uneasy. Anticipating.

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“Got to go to the room of men,” Ross said. “Come back so I can keep playing with you,” Madelyne said. Sweat. Fear in a fearless, fearful man. Ross fought through the smoky dusk of the Magic Lantern, trying to get to the parking lot. What must be the greatest misery of friendship now opened its bomb bay doors and dumped its payload on Ross: the predicament of the friend whose friend has gone wrong. What do you do? Do you stand by and let friend make the cataclysmic mistake? Let friend suffer the instructive consequences – or step in, do something, prevent disaster? Ross heard people say, “You can’t change people. They have to change themselves,” but it sounded (a) cold, and (b) like an excuse to avoid involvement. He couldn’t accept that. What he was to these people and they to him – surely it meant you didn’t just stand by. Or not so surely. He’d been shuffling in the parking lot only a few minutes when in came rolling the convertible Jag of Terri Liu. Sometimes I do guess right, he thought. Terri doesn’t know; Madelyne doesn’t know. Vern forces the crisis. Ross opened the door for her and helped her out. Never in her life, Ross guessed, had Terri looked so good. Despite their talk this afternoon, she smiled as only she could; that little mouth again on his cheek. He stood there for just a tick, uncertain.

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He was aware of something lacking in himself: an inability to say the hard, defining things needed sometimes to make life work. The resolve to be mean for resolution’s sake. Why couldn’t he have said the right thing to Vern early enough? Or to Madelyne? Or to Terri? Always he avoided the tough interview, always in the hope people will be nice and things will be all right. So you let it go and let it go, and things get worse and worse. In a walk that was his longest, he took her toward the fire door, which he knew the Magic Lantern guys propped open, contrary to all municipal codes, when it started getting hot and smoky inside. Terri looped her arm in his. He had no right to trespass near Vern’s choice. Which, after all, would be better? Stay with Terri, where sun was shining, stay jacked and ecstatic as long as you could, go knockers up . . . or return with Madelyne, to face what he really was? Which woman gets to show she can do anything she must? Each was working hard to deliver the same message: it will be all right. Terri was the opposite of death; she said so herself. And Madelyne was no Edith Bunker; she could make a man (her fingers in his hair) know he was alive. But if Vern went with Madelyne (his teacher worried), if he relaxed back into his fate, what of his writing? He had the life, the gift, the language. Would going back to Boise waste the discoveries of the summer? (Vern still owed him two papers.)

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That’s my message, too, Vern: you don’t have to prove yourself any more. You had to in the heat of your flight jacket, voices fighting in your headset, crosstrails, cross-purposes, the sky hiding a fiery speck, your enemy – but you had your eye and your hands, you had your brain, on them you could wager everything, your knack for drawing all down to a bead on your man (“He’s mine”), outthinking him, outflying him – and killing him who would have killed you, for unless you proved yourself you ceased to be, which you could never forget, as you could not forget you were strapped into rocketing tonnage ramming through the midst of nothing, for the fucking Air Force and the United States of America, and when with terrible supremacy you loosed your missiles, he burst into a smudge on the nothing, poor asshole who deserved it, and you ceased to think of him, for if you did it would hurt you like the thought of God. Now, Vern, stand on earth, and while it may never be enough for you, be what you are. Be persuaded you can expand the world for others. Let them love you for the suffering of proving yourself. You are proved; you need not be steel. Ross helped Terri through the blackened door, and, his hands on her shoulders, guided her to a spot in the dark, for a view of Morton, Madelyne, and Vern. Those three were rolling now, as they had through the ’50s and ’60s, Morton drunk and funny, Vern resisting and drawn, Madelyne playing with him, making him laugh, sitting next to him with her hand on his knee. He let her keep it there.

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Ross kept his hands on Terri’s shoulders. How small those shoulders were. They seemed to take on a great weight. She hadn’t moved, only breathed. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Is that her?” They kept watching as the three kept joking. “Has she slept with that other guy or something?” Terri whispered. Attuned as he was, Ross heard her through the clamor. He started to do the strangest thing, fingers and thumbs massaging her shoulders for he didn’t know what reason, circles into her muscles, and she leaned back to receive, maybe, he didn’t know, communication, comfort, apology. In the dark, fixed on Vern and Madelyne, working on Terri, connected to all, he stood in the presence of what was singular and separate in each. All my circles overlapping, he thought, on terms so specific I can taste them. Farewell to you all. Come to think of it (Madelyne reached over Vern to get the ashtray, time-honored gambit; Vern gazed at her from shoulders to hips), Ross had said the hard thing, and to Terri. Back in his office it had just leapt out. He said it because where she was, sun was shining, and time and the world opened before her. Even in this darkness her sunshine fell on him. She’d always have it. It made him glad. It gave him the strength to say what he’d said. He knew her and her future. Once Morton left, Madelyne turned to her husband. She hadn’t let a serious moment pass all night – but now, alone amid all these

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people, noblest restraint Ross had ever seen, she simply looked at Vern, who saw so much he could do nothing but let her look. Vern’s face as he told his stories – close calls, carrier landings, rising balls of flame, beloved man after beloved man falling to darkness, shots fired in fucking anger – had never shown what it showed now. Terror and rage, yes, lusts and hungers, yes, but not this. Childishness, fear, a hint of gratitude, and the beginning – passing over his eyes like a jet shadow over a hillside – of acquiescence. Which wasn’t what Madelyne wanted but what she would take. “I have to let him go,” Terri said. “I have to let him go.” Vern looked over his shoulder. “I’m being missed,” Ross said. “Going to have to go outside and make myself throw up so I have an excuse.” Terri fought down a laugh (good thing: that would have plunged them into a nifty mess). Instead, she took his hand and led him out to the car. He held the door for her. He watched the Jag wheel into the traffic on El Camino Real. The print of a small mouth burned on his face. Then, puritan, he made himself hurl into the Dumpster in the alley. “Don’t know what it was I ate,” he said, back with them, “but whatever it was, I just had Everybody Up and Into the Pool disease.” “Give me that hair,” said Madelyne, digging in.

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He was glad not to be lying. He also was glad, eight days later, to enter a big A across from HOLLERAN, VERN on his grade sheet. Vern’s last paper for class, an account of his parachute training, had made Ross grin and almost never use his pen. “Jumping out of planes is just stupid,” it began. “You’d have to be an idiot to let yourself be placed in that position.” Easily the best paper of the summer. It had Vern’s unconscious knack of moving you into a new world, right down to the conclusion: “Funny thing is, after all that training, I never had to use it. I’m no idiot.” I wouldn’t say you were, Ross thought. Writing is character, the scrimshaw of a life on the ivory of memory. What Ross could never teach, Vern had. Lately, the tennis partner at Vern’s side was Madelyne. Here they were in Ross’s office. Shorts became her. “We’ve been playing house,” she said. “Apartment’s a little small for two people,” Vern said. “Damn girl’s wearing me out.” He sucked on his inhaler. They’d rented a car and would travel Sunday as far south as Big Sur. Would Ross like to come with? Despite the plea in Vern’s eyes, Ross said he needed to get down to L.A. tonight. “Eight hours,” Ross said, “straight down.” One more time: “Vern, listen, just sit down when you get back to Boise and write me those two last papers, will you? I know we’re not

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even to 1950 yet, but it just seems sad to not get to eight like we said. Mail ’em to me. Get the momentum back. If you don’t, I’ll have to ask Madelyne to kick your butt.” “Glad to,” she said. Vern’s gift was a four-pack of Newcastle Brown, Ross’s favored English ale. Madelyne stepped out into the hall, giving Vern what he wanted: a moment alone with Ross, who’d made and (but Vern didn’t know) unmade his summer. “Girl’s got it bad for you,” Ross said, and for a heartbeat he thought he’d said not Girl but I. “You couldn’t tell your family you’ll be down on Monday?” Vern said. Ross shrugged and led Vern out to the hall. Where Madelyne wrapped her sweaty self around Ross and kissed him so he could smell and taste her. A taste still on his lips in the night as he steered his beat-up Valiant south on 101 past Gilmore into the hills. Ghostly live oaks swung through his high-beams, and the broken radio stayed broken. I’m not very good at this, he thought. Other people know how to move on, but I know, I know right now, I’ll never forget them. And I’ll never see them any more. I’ll make sure. Even harder than staying awake all 438 miles to my house. It would be wrong to hold on, wrong to insist, though I still want to be inside them and have them inside me. Kiss

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me, Terri; kiss me, Madelyne; sweet Vern, tell me stories. I’ll never call you. If I see you coming, I’ll walk the other way. Let the letters and the phone calls go. Too much with each was enough with all. Release them to their lives, or else I never loved them. For years and years and years I’ll wonder. And because wonder can hurt, maybe the person I was hardest on was myself. At least they taught me some things, by God: how to be in the sunshine, how to make someone else taste you, how to go full-throttle, defenses off, body to the earth, knockers up.

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