Pushcart XL: Josh Weil, “Long Bright Line” from VQR #90.3

VQR Art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

VQR Art by Stephanie Shieldhouse

The Society for Aeronautical Enthusiasm. Sometimes, when she was sad, or scared, or simply felt the inexplicable weight of herself, she would intone the strange words like an incantation: Aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical … She said it now … enthusiasm … starting up the station steps … aeronautical … shoe-clacking through the empty lobby … enthusiasm … to the shut door … aeronautical enthusiasm. She knocked.
Inside it was all smoke and suit backs, elbows at her head level, her father bending down, face flush as drunk, but eyes clear, grin pure, whoop a straight shot of glee. He scooped her up.
“Fifty-nine seconds!”
How long had it been since her father had held her like that?
“Eight hundred and fifty feet!”
Lifted her so high? With each hoist and drop she felt her years shake off, seven, six, five, her brother’s age, Larry in the corner watching, this is what it’s like to be him.
Before her face: a piece of paper, some smiling stranger lifting and lowering it for her to read. At the top, the stationmaster’s name. At the bottom, that of the man her father called their father: Bishop M. Wright.
“The Flyer!” Her father raised her high again. Near the ceiling the air made her eyes water. “The Flyer!” He lifted her into the pipe-smoke clouds.
But she wasn’t, wouldn’t be. The balloon ride he’d won—best guess at time and distance of the first flight—was a prize he unwrapped on the cold walk home: how they would scale the sunset, skim beneath the stars, a Christmas present more miracle than gift. Just not for her. Why? The basket size, the limits on weight. Besides, he said, ascending so high would surely swell that head of yours. He tugged her braid. No doubt big as the balloon itself. Laughed. While around them little Larry ran in circles, whooping.

~~ Complete story available online at VQR.

We live in a time when we believe you can have anything you want, if you work hard enough. It’s a lie, of course, but we repeat it over and over until we believe it, bolstered by those rare tales of those who have persevered through the impossible, the Rudy Ruettigers who played football at Notre Dame, the Jamaican bobsled team, the Forrest Gumps who changed the course of history … oh, wait, that one was fiction. Sometimes it’s hard to keep them apart.

It’s true, Clara probably could have become a flyer. But after her mother died, her family needed her, and though her love for flight never subsided, she made her peace with her place on the ground:

When summer came she stole away to Asbury Park. Walked to the train station, bought a seat east, saw the ocean for the first time, the boardwalk, the beach, slept on sand, discovered the affect her shoulders had on men, her smile, snapped up a ride, attained a ticket, was there on the field when Brookins crashed into the crowd, when Prince plummeted 6,000 feet, held her breath with everyone else, praying for his parachute to open (open! open!), felt the spectators’ communal shudder, would sometimes feel it again, back home, alone in the kitchen cracking the back of a bird, or serving a spatchcocked half to her brother, or sewing a split in her father’s yellowed longjohns, or stepping off the train onto the platform of her small Ohio town the day that she returned. But for one August night, at the edge of the Atlantic, looking up, she had been struck by a sudden sureness that it would be all right. The moon. The Milky Way. The Stardust Twins swooping through. That was what the papers called them after that first night flight, Johnstone and Hoxsey circling each other in the lunar glow, their pale-winged biplanes soaring smooth as owls. And her, beneath them, swept by the peace of certainty. Neck stretched back, face flat to the sky, she knew it: She was not meant to be up there; she was meant to be down here, here like a cairn seen from above, a landmark, her.

Then she worked the hell out of her cairndom, accidentally becoming a world-famous artist by using her own point of view and creating designs only fully visible from 1000, 5000, 10000 feet.

The art Clara creates sounds wonderful in concept (it’s very hard for me to visualize most of it): shadows of planes, as they would appear had an actual plane been flying overhead, reaching across the ground; mirrors creating the long bright line of the title by reflection of the sun, only visible from an altitude until the FAA forces its dismantling; a Japanese haiku in the snow, obliterated by the Army for fear it might be some kind of signal to the enemy. She marries a man “for his location”; the reason that location is desirable to her is one of the many tiny and delightful surprises sprinkled through the story; there’s often a delicious, desire-multiplying delay between the raising of a question in the reader’s mind, and the understanding of the answer. Her journey as an artist changes over time, as does aviation, and the story follows her through the decades.

I’ll be honest: I missed a lot of the details, and thus a lot of the impact, simply because, like my difficulty visualizing the art, I found the prose style very hard to read. Fortunately, it’s available online (link above) so while I regret what I’ve missed, it’s lost only to me. And perhaps only temporarily; I can always try again.

Five years ago, I read a story by Josh Weil in One Story, a tale that completely charmed me. It was in some ways similar to this one: set a century back in a rural place, the plot revolving around a piece of technology (an electric light) that captured a woman’s imagination. Because I enjoyed that story so much, I tried to read his The New Valley, a trio of novellas, but they didn’t work for me. Sometimes it’s like that: I’m captivated by a story, but it’s idiosyncratic. It’s why I have yet to find a “favorite author”. But so what, I’ll approach the fictional world one work at a time. Accepting where you’re meant to be doesn’t have to be a defeat. It can also be freedom.

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