WHEN FAT MEN FLY Chapter 5 by Peter Nolan Smith

After work on Friday I hitchhiked to the Cape Cod. The first ride was to the Sagamore Bridge and the next one got me to Chatham. It was dark by the time arrived in Truro. Linda was happy to see me. Her daughter was shy at first, but after dinner I won her heart by reading CINDERELLA. She fell asleep on the sofa and I carried her to bed. Linda and I had a glass of wine and watched the stars fill the night sky over the bay. We tried to be quiet in bed.

That weekend the weather was classic summertime for New England. Blue skies flirted with a seasonally warm sea. Gulls glided over salt marshes on zephyr winds. Her daughter loved the omelette I cooked for breakfast. Linda drove us over to Nauset Beach in her Chevy convertible. The water was cold enough to sting your flesh. I draped myself in seaweed and Linda’s daughter laughingly called me the ‘monster’.

That evening we ate lobster on the porch.

Linda made a little more noise in bed.

Sunday afternoon Linda drove me to the Chatham Circle. She kissed me good-bye and her daughter smooched my cheek. Linda’s mother was coming down for the week. I told her that I’d see her in the office work after the 4th. I said nothing about going to New York the following weekend. We never spoke about our past loves. I kissed her through the window and stuck out my thumb. A hippie van heading for Hyannis stopped on the shoulder. Three rides later I was in Boston.

The next five days passed with increasing slowness, especially at work. I arrived on time and punched out at 5pm every night. My father and I met my mother for dinner at Joe Techi’s in the North End on Wednesday evening. We talked politics. Both had voted for Nixon. They were pro-war. We agreed on what to have for dessert, a slice of Boston cream pie each. After dinner I walked them to their Delta 88.

“When are you cutting you hair?” my father asked in front of the Old North Church.

“I’m certainly not getting it cut for your boss.” Everyone in the office hated Mr. Ryan. Linda had mentioned more than once how he kept my father under him to boost his figures. My father was too good a team player to speak up on his own behalf.

“It’s a sin for a man to have such good hair.” My mother toyed with my hair with envy. She visited the beauty shops every Friday afternoon. Her perm was extinct by Monday. I thought that she was more beautiful au natural. I refrained from telling the truth. She loved her bouffant. It was very Jackie Kennedy.

“You look like Beethoven.” My father sported a buzz-cut, although his sideburns were long to show younger people that he was slightly in touch with the times. He loved classic music. Everything else was noise. “An angry Beethoven.”

“I’m not that moody.” I visualized a bust of Beethoven on a piano.

“Teenagers are always moody.” My mother slipped me $20. “Go buy yourself a nice shirt.”

“And have a good weekend.” My father cuffed me a $10. I kissed them both. I had spent most of my 4th of Julys with them; eating hot dogs, swimming at Nantasket Beach, and watching fireworks over Paragon Park. I almost wished that I was a kid again, so they could take me home, instead I waved good-bye and walked over Beacon Hill to Boylston Street. Walker’s Western Store was still open. I bought a Levi jacket and jeans for my trip to New York. I wanted to look good for Sookie. From what everyone had said, she was even prettier than before.

The Friday train to Penn Station was at 5:15. I would have punched out early, except Mr. Ryan had warned the office staff that he expected his staff to remain at their desks until 5pm. He entrusted this edict to my father. Mr. Ryan left at 2 for Cape Ann.

When the clock finally hit five, everyone raced out of the building and I ran across downtown to South Station with a canvas carry-all banging against my back. The line at the ticket booth was too long and I ran to the departure platform. The Amtrak train was even later. The conductor didn’t charge extra for my ticket. He was a hippie too. I bought a beer from the club car and watched Boston disappear from the windows. New York was five hours away.

Upon my arrival at Penn Station I phoned Eddie’s apartment. No one answered the phone. I didn’t know how to reach the East Village by subway, so I exited from the terminal and flagged a Checker on 6th Avenue. The driver was a fellow Teamster. He didn’t turn on the meter. Normally the fare to St. Marks Place was almost $3. I gave him a five.

“You want I should wait?”

“No, everything will be alright.” I raised my eyes to the 3rd floor. The windows were dark. Two sweating junkies were on the stoop. I had to step around them. I pressed the buzzer. No one replied on the intercom. The junkies laughed at my departure. I walked down to the Gem Spa and dropped a dime into the payphone. The ringing only brought on more ringing. I returned to the building. The two junkies had multiplied to four. They eyed my bag. I walked past the stairs and ordered a beer at the Grassroots Bar. One easily became two.

Thirty minutes later I wandered past Eddie’s tenement on the other side of the street. The junkies followed me with their eyes. 1971 was not the Summer of Love and I killed an hour in the St. Mark’s Cinema. A bad copy of EAST RIDER flickered against the torn screen. Someone sat behind me during the acid trip in New Orleans. It was one of the junkies. I exited the theater and climbed the steps to the entrance. A biker in leather was exiting. The junkies rushed the door. I slammed it in their face.

“We’ll get you when you come out.” A rat-faced addict snarled with his nose pressed to the glass.

I climbed the stairs two at a time, praying the door held tight. On the 3rd floor landing I couldn’t hear anything other than my heart beat, then Dave Van Ronk started singing BIRD ON A WIRE. I knocked on the door and several seconds later it opened wide.

“What are you doing here?” Sookie asked with unmasked surprise. She was a little heavier than before, but the extra pounds had vanquished her skeletal visage. The rumors were right. Sookie was beautiful.

“Didn’t Wayne tell you I was coming?” I peeked over her shoulder. Wayne and Marie were on the couch. Eddie was standing by the fish tanks. His skin appeared to have melted from his face and his body flesh sagged from his bones. It was Eddie. He had lost the weight.

“Yes, but he didn’t say anything about when.” Sookie was wearing a powder blue suede vest and no shirt. Her matching skirt was cut short to an inch below her butt. She answered my fantasy with reality until I realized that my arrival was an intrusion.

Flowers were arranged in vases. The walls were painted a gentle rose pink. Curtains covered the windows. Wayne and Marie lounged on a new sofa. Eddie’s old throne was missing from the living room. The apartment was now more than one person’s home.

“C’mon in.” Eddie was embarrassed by my expression.

“It’s better if I go.” I was trespassing on a fairy tale re-enactment of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and my character didn’t exist in the story, except as the village lout.

“You’re here now. Don’t go.” Sookie stepped away from the entrance. The room reeked of marijuana. The phone was off the hook. I put my bag on the floor and Sookie closed the door.

“I can explain everything.” Eddie handed me a joint. It was unlit.

“Don’t.” I had too many questions for which I couldn’t expect an answer, plus I had my own secrets. Sookie lit a match. I inhaled on the joint. The reefer was better than anything we had bought before. “Is there any more of this left?”

“A couple of pounds.” Eddie gestured to the front room. “You can sleep there tonight.”

“No, I’m headed over to Nick’s place in Staten Island.” It was a lie.

“At this hour.” The ex-fat man was more concerned about me than anyone else.

“The ferries run all night long.” I picked up my bag.

“I’m flying tomorrow morning.” Eddie was apologetic without saying he was sorry. “You’re coming to that, aren’t you?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” I looked at Sookie for her invitation. She dropped her eyes. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You really are going to Staten Island?” Sookie went to Eddie.

“Yeah.” I exited from the apartment and walked down the stairs. The junkies waited on the sidewalk. They were in no condition for a fight. They crossed the street and I called Nick from the Gem Spa.

“Eddie’s flying tomorrow.”

“I know. I’m picking up Joleen. You need a ride?”

“Suit yourself. I’ll see you there.”

I hung up angry for having come to New York. I wasn’t needed here, but I wasn’t leaving either until after Eddie’s flight. I went over to the hotel on the corner of St. Marks Place and 3rd Avenue. The manager asked for $15. I paid him with a twenty. The room was small and the walls weren’t thick enough to stop the shouts of the couple next door. The sheets were greasy and the pillows smelled of a thousand unwashed heads. Several people tried the lock during the night. I lay on the floor with my feet pressed against the flimsy door. My head rested on my bag. It was uncomfortable, but I finally fell asleep, despite the arguments echoing from the street.

I woke at dawn. My skin itched from bug bites. The heat of the city had exhausted the air in the room. I checked out of the hotel and walked down St. Marks Place. Bodies lay atop sheets of newspaper. One was a junkie from the previous night. He looked dead.

Eddie’s front window was open and I almost buzzed his apartment, instead I headed around the corner to the B&H Dairy and I ordered a bagel with a chocolate egg cream. Someone had left a New York Times on the counter and I read the sports section. The Red Sox had no chance of winning the World Series this year.

Church bells were tolling out 8 o’clock by my return to Eddie’s building. I was just in time, because Sookie’s LeMans was double-parked on the street. The top was down and Wayne was in the back with Marie. Sookie was riding shotgun with Eddie behind the wheel. They girls were wearing halter-tops and hot pants. It was a new look from England. Someone had told me it was popular with prostitutes.

“Any room for me?” I was the 5th wheel.

“Plenty of room in back.” Eddie opened the trunk and then the side door. I threw in my bag and took my place next to Marie. She smiled ‘good morning’ and Wayne brandished the power fist. Eddie started the engine. The V-6 was tuned to purr. Sookie slipped Joni Mitchell on the 8-track. The first song was THE CIRCLE GAME. I read her choice as a message without deciphering the lyrics in my favor. Eddie made the light at St. Marks and turned south on 2nd Avenue.

The two couples spoke to each other often during the trip along the East River over the Brooklyn Bridge down the BQE under the Verrazano Bridge and looping past Coney Island onto a long parkway leading to the ocean. Their words were dialogues meant for lovers. A maze for me. They tried to engage me in their conversations. It was impossible with the wind whistling in my ears. The morning air was thick with humidity, but I caught the scent of the sea from the passing marshes. A plane was lazily circling in the sky. Eddie slowed down to turn left toward a collection of hangars. Most were crowded with Navy reserve aircraft. As we neared the runway, Eddie looked over his shoulder with a nervous smile. A single-engine airplane was waiting on the tarmac with a glider on its towline.

“You have a good day for it.” I studied at the cloudless sky.

“It’s your dream come true.” Sookie squeezed Eddie’s arm.

“Yeah.” He parked the car in the shade of the hangar and waved to the two men standing by the Cessna. “I never thought this day would come.”

We got out of the car and walked over to the glider. The Preiss RHJ-7 was a sleek two-seater. The pilot explained that Eddie was sitting beside him as a passenger. At no time would his hands touch the controls. The flight pattern was dictated by the proximity of JFK airport. In all Eddie would be air-borne was an hour. He paid the pilots their money and they handed him orange overalls. The size was an XXL. Eddie struggled into the uniform and pulled on a crash helmet. He smiled like he had been born for this moment and walked over us. He was no longer a freak.

“I couldn’t have done this without you.” He kissed Sookie’s cheek.

“Go touch the sky.” Sookie shook him gently with both hands.

Wayne and Marie wished him success and Eddie came over to me.

“Thanks for coming.” His eyes were edged by unfallen tears.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” I gave him a hug. The flesh hung from his bones like his bulk had melted under heat rather than a diet. I guessed he weighed 250. The pilot looked around 180. “How much can this plane carry?”

“It’s not a plane really. It’s a sailplane. It’s supposed to be safe for up to 500 pounds.”

The two men together came to 430. Eddie turned to Sookie. “It’s safe really.”

“We’ll keep our fingers crossed.” Wayne shook his friend’s hand.

Eddie kissed Sookie again and whispered in her ear, then he walked over to the glider. He sat in first and then the pilot took his place behind the controls. The launch pilot shut the cockpit and went to the Cessna. Its engine started with a roar. He let it warm up for a minute and taxied onto the runway with the glider in tow. Marie held onto Sookie. Wayne stood next to me and cleaned his glasses with his shirttail. “Would you do anything like that?”

“No.” Eddie was braver than me and for more than this flight. His life was different from six months ago. Sookie loved him. All I thought about when he said he was going to lose that weight was how he would fit in the glider. The rest of it never crossed my mind.

“I’m scared of heights.”

The Cessna taxied into position with the glider far behind its tail. Its engine surged with power and the plane steadily gathered speed until its wheel lifted off the earth and tugged the sailplane into the air. Sookie and Marie jumped up and down. Eddie’s waved his hand and the girls screamed out his name. He was airborne. Nick’s Mini-Cooper pulled up to the hangar. He was with Jolee. She was letting her hair grow long.

“We miss it?” He was wearing binoculars around his neck. They were German-made.

“Just the take-off.” Wayne pointed to the two specks flying out over the Jamaica Bay. “He’s got an hour up there.”

“Cool.” Nick raised the binoculars to his eyes. “Looks awfully flimsy.”

“Don’t say anything that could jink him.” Wayne had read up on sailplanes. They crashed frequently due to downdrafts during the landing.

“The tow plane released them now.” Nick followed the glider’s slow turn to the right. “I think he’s elevating on a thermal over Riis Park.”

The glider soared in circles until it was small as a bird. Sookie couldn’t take her eyes away from it. Nick handed her the binoculars. Wayne and I walked behind the hangar to smoke a joint.

“You’re not pissed, are you?”

“Pissed for what?” Sookie hadn’t been my girlfriend. She had helped Eddie lose his weight. Eddie was going to deal pot to us again. Linda waited in Boston. “Everything worked out for the better.”

Except I would never sleep with Sookie again.

“That’s a really righteous attitude.” Wayne passed me the joint. “Me, I’d be pissed. Like Eddie said he wasn’t going after Sookie.”

“Maybe I can get him to sell us the pot at a lower price.”

“That’d be good.”

I couldn’t ask for anymore. Wayne stubbed out the joint. We returned to the others.

Sookie followed the glider. It was looping in circles. This trick had to be taking its toll on Eddie’s stomach. They still had another 30 minutes in the air. Sookie handed the binoculars to Wayne. Marie hugged him from behind. Jolee and Nick retreated from the hot sun into the hangar. I put on Ray-Bans, not wanting Sookie to see my eyes.

“Are you okay?” Sookie took out pink-shaded glasses and perched them at the end of her nose. They were more for looks than protection against the sun and complimented the soft satin of her hot pants. “About you and me.”

“You want the truth or a lie?” I wasn’t sure which was which.

“The truth always.” She cocked a hip to the side. Sookie had grown up fast in New York. She was no longer a girl of the suburbs.

“Truth.” I stammered slightly before saying, “I liked you. I liked sleeping with you. I missed you these months. I thought about you a lot. I wish you weren’t with Eddie, but I can see that the two of you are happy together and there’s nothing I can do that will change that other than to make a scene and be an asshole. Is there?”

I had to throw in the last two words just in case.”

“No, I’m happy with Eddie.”

I should have saved my breath.

“Good, I’m glad someone is happy.”

“And you’ll be happy too.” Sookie glanced up in the sky. The glider was getting closer.

“One day soon too.” I didn’t have to hold back with Linda anymore and bent over to kiss Sookie on the cheek. “Good luck.”

Eddie landed ten minutes later. He climbed out of the sailplane and walked over to Sookie. She gave him a kiss on the lips. Neither of them looked at anyone else for several seconds, then Eddie went over to the LeMans and pulled out a paper bag. It held a sandwich. He unwrapped the paper and bit into the bread.

“Diet’s over,” Eddie mumbled through a full mouth.

We drove over to Breezy Point and ate at a fish shack. Eddie had seconds on everything. Sookie didn’t eat anything. Everything was back to normal. I left that evening on the train with two pounds of reefer. Eddie had lowered the price by $10.

It wasn’t much of a discount, considering he had stolen Sookie, but then again it was better than nothing especially in 1971 when even fat men flew fly like an eagle. One day they would walk on the moon. Maybe one day we all would go to the stars and in space everyone weighed nothing. Even fat men.

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