THE 4th FLIGHT IS FOREVER
[This award-winning short story first appeared in St. Anthony Messenger]
We set our rocket launcher at a conjunction of left and right fields. For just an hour we will own the earth and sky. “We” is another conjunction. Between us there is still the magic of father and son. He is nine, blond and blue-eyed, a crier of delights. I love him profoundly.
“Let’s use the big engine, okay, Dad?” he asks hopefully.
The directions say to use the small engine for the first flight, but he has not yet given up trying to unseat me from my dead-in-the-water resignation to the dictums of life.
A8-3 is the small one. He rummages through the box of chemical propellants like they are candy. I get one last appeal – a peripheral glance – before his elfin hands grip the rocket and small engine like a pair of grenades.
“What about the wadding, Sean?”
I am frustrating him, but he doesn't miss a beat in grabbing up the squares of treated fabric meant to separate the parachute from the burn.
“Better let me help,” I say.
I take the rocket, and he sees reluctantly that the cylinder needed more room.
Why is our endeavor so ponderous? We are confounded by the frailties of cardboard and glue and the vaguely threatening insinuations of directions one through twelve.
“I can put the parachute in!” he affirms. His fingers conspire an unreasonable facsimile.
"Looser,” I say.
Performing sleight-of-hand, I remove the magic. He is hurt, but he blinks it away and replenishes the precious enthusiasm of youth from some resource I will never understand.
“Now the igniter, right, Dad?”
The igniters are as fragile as a child’s self-esteem. This is built-in failure, tacitly sanctioned by the makers of the rocket engines. Inscrutable manufacturers in Taiwan have said in an inscrutable way to fathers everywhere: It is all right to let your sons fail.
“I think the wires came apart, Dad.”
I do the thing myself with a dexterity founded on a thousand ancient failures.
“There,” he says, “we did it,” and looks at me to see if the we will stick.
I make final corrections. The launch button, though, is his.
I smile, prolonging my control over his control. “Now,” I say.
With an exuberant hiss the slender cone leaps into the sky. It is our brief victory, this momentary intrusion into heaven itself. We are aboard. We have slipped the forces that hold us and are truly free.
It is arrested when a gray rag of breath puffs and the parachute blossoms like a magician's bouquet, red and white, proffered gracefully to all the world in a sweeping arc. The scent is flowers of sulfur and essence of nitrate. We have won something. But what? Ten days out of ten we claw desperately toward one another through a maze of conflicting schedules. Now our souls have touched and soared above the earth.
“Now the big engine, right, Dad?”
“We might lose it in the wind.”
Little boys are never lost. Their destination is exploration. A handful of sky still tingles on his fingertips, but A8-3 will keep us together in the universe, and the second rocket goes up with a sigh that is not lost on me.
“That one went even higher!” he shouts. It did not go higher, but he cannot bear to stop our momentum. “I think we’re ready for the big engine now,” he says.
“If we lose it, we’re done flying.”
If. Life is if. I hate the sound of my voice.
Rocket three goes up. He stands with head thrown back in open wonder as before, and crouches suddenly as before, then leaps exultantly as before; but he is only imitating the awe of that first time, as little boys will do to fulfill their father’s expectations. Then he rushes pell-mell to retrieve the rocket. I am as electrified as he, but it is because the excitement on his face is worth my very soul. How many such moments are left in our relationship before I must seal him up forever in a rusting corner of my heart, an elfin face ghosting toward the gray limit of memory?
“O.K., the big engine,” I say.
He returns clutching destiny in his hands. “Don't worry, Dad.” Little Freud. Am I so transparent?
It is not true that what goes up must return. Little boys do not return. Neither do some rockets. Some rockets soar and soar. It is because they reach escape velocity. I, who am a father, all-magical and wise, tremble before the prospect of escape velocity.
Our fourth rocket bounds skyward with a great exhalation. I look for the exclamation point that will burst from its nosecone and return it to earth, but there is none. My son and I are on board: it must return. The seconds accumulate like a silent snow burying a finite season of laughter and sun, and I have a terrible foreboding that I have just witnessed escape velocity, that only one of us was on board, after all.
“Wow! I told you, Dad!”
His voice. Still there.
We search horizon to horizon. I am silent now. He did it his way. He flew the rocket alone, and now we have lost each other.
I have not yet responded to the marvel of his flight. He wants to know. He wants my blessing. And it is then that I know. If I find anything, it will be wreckage, grotesque, broken, crippled. I do not want that. I do not want a rocket that has touched the stars to fall maimed in the gnarled embrace of a paternal tree. I do not want him back. There. The blasphemy. I have said it.
I do not want him back.
What good is a mummified child? What good is a butterfly crucified on cork? Child under glass. There’s the blasphemy.
When I look out again I am radiant. It is the adult version of a child’s attempt to fulfill his father’s expectations. “Fantastic!” I say.
“Fantastic!” he echoes, scampering through the trees.
I hurry after. It is my right to keep him in sight.