A Visit to the North [1994]

For a few seconds, just before the plane seemed to bobblingly depart from the asphalt runway surface of the earth, we were travelling at a speed exceeding 200 mph, both fearsome and a bit exciting simultaneously . . . was this (Nash wondered) how the astronauts felt leaving earth? They did not have the twin distractions of the verdant earth rolling away, under the plane and his son’s high-pitched chatter, composed mainly of a few disturbing words like crash, dead, fire, God, high, burn and fall. 

His neighboring passengers tried somewhat unvaliantly to smile at his son.

“Gah Daddy look how far up we are, look how far up! Hey Daddy, hey uh Daddy, what would happen if we crashed? Do you think we’re going to crash? I don’t think we are, do you?”

The plane then went into a slight turn — there’s a technical name Nash could not quite bring to mind — yaw? — as he explained that the driver of the plane, the pilot you see, was a good pilot and  . . .

“How do you know we won’t crash?” Blonde mischievous smile.

“It won’t because we’re on it. Planes only crash when other people are on them,” looking up at the grim visage of the man beside his son, who seemed to want to be interested in his Tom Clancy novel.

The air voyage, everyone’s first, was for the funeral of Raiza’s father, a good man named Charles, surprised by death not too long after his retirement from Westinghouse. He wondered how she would accept the news and could not help but be puzzled when she insisted on everyone getting travel haircuts. A sort of shock had overtaken her, clearer after her haircut, which took a bunch of those long curly locks away and left her face unframed, the blue Weimaraner eyes a bit staggered by loss and her strong high cheekbones a bit more Eeyore-ish than usual. Yet she did not talk about it or about him.

Neither did Nash.

She offered him an anti-anxiety pill for the flight but he demurred, wishing to experience it straight. As they were standing at the counter, in one of those blank moments, she said, apropos of everything: “Maybe,” blinking her sky-colored eyes, “when you die your soul flies around or feels like it is flying around for a short time after death…just to get your wings, hmm…?”

His ears popping, Nash glanced across the aisle. His daughter the young introvert was apparently enjoying the whole thing and smiled back at him. Raiza, paler than usual, might be getting ill, but he watched her close her eyes and take several long, slow breaths before opening them to look at him. Nod. Nod back. The funeral task ahead. How do you feel headed home, where you have only rarely visited – and they you – in 17 years, for this sudden death of your father? They would find a time to sit quietly and talk.

A calm arrived after the plane leveled off and the stewardesses brought bits of food, but only tiny bits, as though they were baby birds. Sooner than seemed possible, they were landing in Atlanta and, after yet another anguished outpour of scary words from the boy — variations on yikes! — they disembarked, rode rapid-transit, and caught the longer flight. Neither child seemed near sleep, though Raiza seemed to doze. Nash fretted about the fragile state of being she seemed to be embodying right now. Her mother and sister Sherrill loved her, sure, but they were Pennsylvanians.

As the airport van drove them the last miles, ascending the Allegheny plateau, he remembered — tried to bring to musical mind — an old primitive song called “Stomping Tonight on the Pennsylvania-Alabama Border.” A photograph was taken – and subsequently lost – of the two sleeping kids, their heads facing different directions on the van seat.

kids-pa

Pittsburgh had been almost chilly in the early afternoon. “Yeah,” agreed their driver, Ralph. “Cool front come through yestiddy, doused off that heat we was getting.” How hot was it? “Eighty eight.” That’s not hot. No one spoke. The children looked thoughtfully at each parent, mutely asking Why don’t you talk?  In a downpour they pulled up to an ancient farmhouse that looked like it might have been the place the Hearst heiress was hidden before her capture back in the seventies.

Everyone got settled in, Raiza began talks with her mom and sister, and Nash was left to tell stories to the kids “if they have trouble sleeping.” Nash was deep into his story about Jimmy and Kimmy and Blackie the dog before he noticed the kids were already asleep. He eased away, found the adults in loud discussions in a back room where they were going through “Charley’s junk,” then found his own bed for a night of dreamless sleep.

The kids were just too unruly, too full of energy to be walking back and forth into and out of the church as Charley’s funeral service took place – though there didn’t seem to be much of any service going on, just the dude himself there in his coffin, dead as could be, obviously not alive, almost spotlighted in that unique morticianly way . . . Nash brought them outside the building to where he was sitting with an elderly Pirates fan, discussing baseball, and in lieu of having a real game, which is what they wanted, we had an imaginary game much like the one in Meet John Doe, do you recall, where Walter and Gary are cooped up in the hotel room awaiting news of the scandal.

Val, pretending to throw, fires one in.

“Strike.” Another. “Strike.” Then: “Ball…okay two-and-one count” holding fingers up.

“Sid Bream, yaknow, Atlanta’s great speedster hero, yeah, well – he was traded from Pittsburgh last spring ya know,” says this geezer as Nash pops the glove, catching the imaginary ball (“wide”) from Val. Ryan bats, holding a stick he found in the gutter near the street. Imaginary bases are run, imaginary most miraculous catches are imaginarily made.

The geezer has a pointed noise and a little decal on his lapel reading in bright Corsican colors, “Sons of Italy.”

Nash says, “Is that right? Yeah, Sid’s a real speedster…”

“Did you know Charley?”

“I’m his son-in-law.”

“Ahhhh.”

“Daddy! Watch the game.”

“Okay, okay…”

“Where’s the plate again?”

Nash was sent home early, flying through Cincinnati instead of Atlanta, because he had to be at work on Monday morning. He got the final story from his wife, who spoke, for once, with a bit of reverence. They had put Charley into his expensive mausoleum – or someone would soon – and the family entourage was preparing for another morning van-ride to the Pittsburgh airport. Before breakfast, Raiza said, “right out into the back yard there walks up this giant buck deer…huge…and it stands there for a while and then runs off into the cornfield . . .”

 

© 1994, 2016 Thomas N. Dennis

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