[This is part of a recently completed book titled “1313 Amber Road.” You can find the link to it in the long fiction section of Schreiben Depot.]
Whenever his mother left house, the room felt different—lighter, almost. Ryan felt like he had to suck in his chest and sit upright when she walked by; once that front door closed, though, he could breathe again. The freedom only lasted for so long. Ever since the accident, she rarely left him unsupervised for over an hour, as if he would burn down the house in her absence.
Seconds before shutting the door, his mom looked back at Ryan.
“I’m off to get dinner. What would you like?”
He shrugged. “Pasta, maybe?”
“How about chicken?”
“Chicken sounds fine,” he said in a monotone. That was her cue to exit.
Ryan reached for his backpack, a blue-brown bag that his mother sometimes used for grocery shopping. Maybe it was ironic, but he seemed to get more homework done the further away she was.
Fumbling for his assignments, he heard a car door slam shut. Had she forgotten her wallet? He saw someone walking up to the front steps, skewed to a blur by grease on the window. The door opened to reveal a tall, sweat-drenched figure wearing all blue.
“Hey, son.” His father took off his cap and hung it on a wooden post by the door. “Have a good day at school?”
“Yeah—I guess so. Why are you home so early?”
More often than not, he was asleep before his dad made it back. It was a shock to see him home before the sun set.
“Electricity went out at the shop. Windy as a hurricane out there. A tree fell on one of the power lines.”
Ryan nodded and looked back at his school work. He deciphered a few choice assignments from the notes he had scrawled to himself: Chapter 9 vocab. Revisions to The Russian Connection Essay. Presentation on Inelastic and Elastic motion. He poked at each word with the tip of his pencil.
“What is it?” His dad asked, hanging a dusty jacket on top of his hat. His ritual was the same each evening: first the cap came off, then the jacket, then the shoes. In the morning, at 9:15 sharp, he would put each on in the opposite order. Ryan only knew because his mom loved to complain about it.
“At least take your shoes off first,” she said one night during dinner.
“But then my cap would still be on,” Dad replied, winking at his son as he spoke.
Ryan pushed the folders to the side of the table. “It’s nothing,” he muttered. “Just a lot of work.”
“You think you know work.” His dad laughed and kicked off his shoes. “You don’t know work until it’s on your hand, radiator grease and all.”
When he was younger, Ryan loved to run down the stairs at the first sound of his father. “Show me your hands,” he would say, “show me your hands!” He always complied, showing him the lines of oil and dirt that coated his soft, wrinkled palms. Ryan used to brag his friends about his dad, though the day eventually came when having a mechanic for a father was no longer admirable.
Ryan looked up at the ceiling. “But this is different. This is work that I don’t actually want to do.”
His dad walked over in his socks and sat down. “Let’s see. physics—oh, goodness, that looks complicated. They teach you this stuff in high school?”
“That’s the easy stuff.” Ryan wanted to laugh, but the pile of worksheets in front of him had a dampening effect. “I still have to revise my essay, word-by-word. Ms. Burr’s taking off for every single grammatical error. Some kid printed his out on scratch paper and she gave him a C.”
“That does sound harsh,” his dad said, massaging his feet.
“Then I have a test to study for—no, two tests. French and history, and Mr. Hamilton’s much stingier than my English teacher is. Don’t even ask me about math homework.” He felt the urge to pound his head into the table, but he had a big enough headache as it were.
The low rumble of an approaching plane amplified into a deep, throbbing sound that cut into his stomach. Both minds tuned to their favorite channel.
“What would you say? DC-10?”
“Where are you getting that from? MD-10. It’s a freighter. You can see it in the wingtips.”
“Could be an old 727. Look at the S-bend inlet for the 2nd engine.”
By then, the plane was out of sight, yet both father and son were still watching.
“I used to work on airplanes, you know.” His dad put a foot out on the table.
“What?” Ryan asked before he could even comprehend what his father had said. “You never told me that.”
“Back when I was just starting out. True North Airways. They had a hangar leased at Albeit International and stuffed it with their older models. I worked with the landing gear team. We’d prop up the front side of the plane, a worker would climb in the cockpit, and the front gear would extend and retract, extend and retract.” He swung his arms in and out in a jerking motion. “The most complicated accordion you’d ever see, but it played beautiful music.”
“They hired you right out of high school?”
His dad shrugged. “Sure. I wasn’t doing anything technical; just bolt checks, nut checks, things you’d perform on the family station wagon. I learned a lot from the others, though. They called me Mudslide.”
Ryan laughed. “What?”
“From all the sweat. By noon, I would be dripping like a pipe, and the stuff would soak through my shirt and turn brown from the grease.”
People remembered the oddest things about their first jobs.
“And what’s funny,” he said, crossing his arms, “is that I haven’t visited the place since. I left in ’89 for a better-paying place; trust me, I wanted to stay around those aluminum birds until I died, but you can’t do maintenance on an empty stomach.” He looked at Ryan with more color than usual in his face. “Do you think they’d remember me? If I just showed up in front of the hangar and said hello?”
Ryan still couldn’t believe how close his father had been to those planes. He became lightheaded just watching them over at Albeit International, but his dad had seen them—touched them.
His father stood up slowly, as if the weight of the memories were pressing down on him. “You know what? I may as well drive over, see if the name Mudslide still rings a bell with them.”
He trailed off at his dad’s excited nodding.
“Sure, sure.” He took the hat off the rack, then the jacket. “We should have done this a while ago.”
Looking at the car, no one would guess that his father was a mechanic. Drops of oil trailed the vehicle wherever it went. The steering wheel was missing a chunk of plastic, meaning it bent a little on tight turns. The car had no fuel tank cap, no windshield wipers, no airbags. Its defining feature was the “sunroof,” a hole that his dad had carved out and fixed plywood to. Ryan’s mother begged his father to toss the vehicle for scrap “before it kills you.” He would nod, pretending to listen, but it remained in their driveway—makeshift sunroof and all.
The engine coughed as he shifted up.
“Beautiful day,” he said.
Ryan looked out the window and shrugged. Overcast skies like this made plane-spotting especially fun; there was no telling where the jets would pop out of the clouds.
“You know, even if you didn’t want to come along, I would have made you. It won’t do you any good to stare at homework sheets for five hours a night. Your eyes will turn to dust.” He drummed his finger on the wheel, causing it to honk by accident.
“I don’t know. I mean, this year is practically life or death. My GPA could ruin my chances at—”
“Stop.” He held out one hand and changed lanes with the other. “That’s your mother talking, not you. Teenagers shouldn’t be the ones saying that kind of stuff.”
A business jet cut through the sky above.
“I just don’t have the grades I need.”
“A lot of kids in this country would chop off a finger to get the grades you have. You’re just repeating what your mother says.” He put his hand on the window and forced it down; the handle had broken off some time ago. “She thinks that you only need grades and scores, grades and scores. That’s what she had going for her.” He stomped on the brakes, skidding to a halt in front of a station wagon. Neither had noticed the red light in front of them.
“You know,” he continued, “I saw your mother’s application to that McQuay scholarship. The one she tried to get in her senior year, some 30 years ago.”
“You did? How did you even find it?”
“She showed it to me. The thing was two decades old by then.” He looked at Ryan as he spoke, driving out of the corner of his eye. “She had everything that she wants you to have: a spotless GPA, SAT scores a shade off perfect and the hardest classes the school offered.” He made a cutting motion with his hand. “And that was it. She left the extracurricular activities section blank, the community service section blank—even the household income part blank, which would probably have earned the scholarship for her.”
By now, Ryan could smell the kerosene in the air. Red-striped airplane tails poked over a concrete barrier to his right; to the left stood five or six hangars. They looked a little like teepees with the tops cut off.
“This service taxiway used to have the worst potholes in it,” his dad said. “When Albeit’s airport started up, the maintenance ways supported little planes—mostly single-engines. It grew so rapidly that they never had the time to work over the road. We even had a few jets get stuck in the asphalt.” His father looked at the newly paved road with a sober expression.
With no better place to park, he drove off into the mud and pulled up alongside the building. The ground made sucking noises with every footstep.
From a distance, the hangar looked rather small; now, it towered above them. The main entrance, meant for planes taller than most buildings in Albeit, looked ready to swallow them whole.
“It’s like walking through time,” his dad remarked as they entered. A few dozen steel ribs held up the ceiling; veins of cable and piping dotted the walls. Two fans above them inhaled air from outside and swirled it into the room.
“Shame there aren’t any planes around,” his dad said. “Usually, they could fit four or five in at once.”
“No workers, either.” Ryan figured he would hear his own echo, but the hangar was too large; his words simply disappeared. Their shadows leapt out forty, perhaps fifty yards in front of them. forty,
Ryan wanted to laugh. Here he was, standing with his dad in a hangar with no one else around. His father noticed his grin and snickered himself.
“Come on,” he said, pointing to the door. “We may as well go back. Your mom probably thinks you got abducted.”
They caught the tail end of rush hour on the way home. Inch by inch, it seemed, they stuttered their way over the bridge separating Albeit from the neighboring towns.
“You had said something about Mom’s application.”
He smiled. “You’re curious, aren’t you?” He slid the car into the leftmost lane, barely missing a red pickup truck in front of them. “You know, all this time, I doubt she knows why she wasn’t accepted. Well, here’s a little secret: colleges and scholarship programs back then didn’t want numbers. They wanted people.” He kicked the accelerator at the sound of a honk. “But all they saw were scores and percentiles with the name ‘Adrienne Trotz’ next to them. They never saw your mother herself. And I hate to say this, but Adrienne was so focused on raising her numbers that there wasn’t much else to see.”
It wasn’t like his dad to touch on her college applications. When he did, he usually stepped lightly, tiptoeing around the edges of the subject.
“Now, your mother works her heart out for you; you know that. She intends well. But it concerns me to see her pulling you away from plane spotting and sitting you in front of the table.”
“I would do my homework anyway,” he said.
“I don’t doubt that.” Most of the traffic had diverted into exits. They were one of the few exurb-headed cars on the highway. “I just don’t want her taking your identity away from you.”
Without looking, he changed into the right lane and charged down the curving onramp. Ryan had to hold onto the door handle to avoid falling to the side.
He knew his father as a mechanic, and a mechanic alone. Dad wasn’t the type to do crossword puzzles in front of a roaring fire, or debate politics into the evening hours. He fixed cars; that was how Ryan knew him. Was that why this lecture sounded so odd? Was that why these words stuck when his mother’s advice glanced off him?
He looked back from the window. “Yeah?”
“I love your mother. She’s a beautiful, brilliant woman, and I’m both proud and humbled to call her my wife. But sometimes, I don’t know if she understands—and I’m not saying I understand,” his father said, “but if you ever feel like you’re fighting through school alone, talk to me. Okay?”
He pulled into the driveway. Outside stood his mother, arms crossed, with a slight frown on her face.
“Okay,” Ryan said.