In her haunting debut novel, Flight, Ginger Strand creates an unforgettable portrait of a midwestern family navigating an indelibly changed world. Will Gruen loves to fly. As a Michigan farm boy, he longed to clear a furrow through sky, not land. Since then, he has pursued speed and forward motion, from his Air Force service in Vietnam to his thirty years as a commercial pilot for TWA. His passion for flight is matched only by his love for the family farm he considers his personal refuge. But in the aftermath of September 11, Will's world implodes. As he nears mandatory retirement, his beloved airline has collapsed. His wife is turning his farm into a bed-and-breakfast. His older daughter has chosen an open marriage, and her sister has fled seven hundred miles away to New York. Now, with the wedding of their younger daughter approaching, the Gruen family is coming home. Over three emotional days, the past collides with the present, secrets are revealed, new ties are made and old ones broken as each of the Gruens stands at the brink of taking a step that could not only change the path of one life but could alter the family's course. Deftly entwining the voices of Will and his colorful family, Strand creates a dazzling, multilayered chronicle of ordinary Americans in an era of sweeping hange and of people with only love to keep them aloft in an uncertain world.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Ginger Strand was raised in Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Her fiction and essays have appeared in many places, including The Believer, The Iowa Review, The Gettysburg Review, and The Carolina Quarterly. She has been awarded fiction residencies by Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Sewanee Writers' Conference. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One The thing to understand about airplanes, Will always says, is that they want to fly. Diving, rolling, breaking to bits, plummeting to earth -- those are things you have to make them do. When the girls were little, he would tell them to put their hands out the car windows and let them glide on the solid cushion of air. Now angle it up, he would say, and they would shriek with delight as their hands rose smoothly toward the sky. Margaret always rode behind the passenger seat. She had figured out that you see more from there, without the freeway median blocking your view. Also, being closer to the billboards gave her an advantage in the alphabet game. Leanne never seemed to mind.
A tiny raindrop lands on Will's face, sharp and precise as a pinprick. He looks down, surprised back into the present. The driveway asphalt twinkles up at him. What was he doing? More and more, he's developed the old person's habit of getting overtaken by his thoughts, contemplation swallowing his intentions until he stops, unsure how to move forward. Almost sixty. Almost entirely used up, at least as far as the FAA's concerned. He blinks. There's a large black emptiness in the center of his field of vision. It's from staring up, not at the sun, hidden behind a white scrim of clouds, but at the white sky. An airplane passing overhead, that was what made him stop and think about flying. Leanne is flying home today, arriving in Grand Rapids this morning, three days before her wedding. Absently, he wonders if the rain will slow things down at the airport. There's no reason it should, but like all small airports, Grand Rapids is hard to predict. Sometimes they keep it together, but a little weather candrive the tower wonky.
The spring rain is lasting so long this year. Usually by June in Michigan, you can count on the days being mostly sunny. The strawberries will suffer for it this year. They like a burst of sun at the last minute.
Actually, it's Margaret he's worried about. Leanne will be fine, gliding in on Continental, subject to minor delays perhaps, but safe. At least as long as nothing unnatural happens -- he veers away from even thinking about that. Margaret and David are the ones to fear for, driving up from Evanston, where they both teach. That could be ugly if it starts raining hard. The Dan Ryan, slick with oil and water, crowded with speeding Chicago drivers. Or that section of I-94 near Gary, Indiana, where all the trucks seem to converge. Even when traffic thins out around Michigan City, it's still a fast road, given to construction barricades and narrow shoulders, tractor trailers jackknifing and minivans charging down on you from the right. He knows it well, knows every mile of it like a well-used garment. He's worn that highway like a coat for over thirty years, since he moved the family to Ryville, Michigan, and took on the two-and-a-half-hour commute to O'Hare. It's the bald midwesternness of I-94 that causes problems. The road is straight and flat and not as crowded as highways in the East or California, so people think there's nothing to fear. They put their feet on the gas and drive flat out, their thoughts elsewhere, eyes fixed and numb, like people awake but dreaming.
Will doesn't fly out of O'Hare anymore, but when he did, he would check the highway on the approach. From the east, the approach to O'Hare sweeps over southern Michigan, following the path of I-94, the only major east-west road in the lower third of the state. It was easy to tick off Michigan's cities, each clustered around an I-94 interchange. First was Detroit, stuck to the eastern edge of the state as if trying to escape. An old pilot's trick question: If you take off from Detroit and fly due south, what's the first foreign country you pass over? The girls always loved the answer: Canada.
Over the years, Detroit has spread west, toward Ann Arbor, planted at the intersection of U.S. 23. After Ann Arbor, fields take over, then there's Jackson, hanging by the thread of U.S. 127. Then more fields until I-69 marks Battle Creek, where you sometimes see the flash of a fighter jet streaking toward the Air National Guard base. In another twenty miles, as regular as county lines, another freeway, U.S. 131, with Kalamazoo tumbling outward around it. Due north of Kalamazoo you can see Grand Rapids, and due west you can see the lake. Somewhere in that quadrant, too small to be seen from the air, is Ryville, the town where Will grew up, the town where he's standing now.
Whenever a plane passes overhead, Will imagines the view from above, just as when he flies over Michigan, he imagines being on the ground looking up. Flying over Michigan is both familiar and strange, like looking at a well-known face upside down. He sees the puzzle pieces of farms below and imagines himself down there, the huffing of the tractor, the smell of stirred-up earth. When he was young, he wanted to avoid that. That's why he enlisted in the Air Force, working the motor pool and taking night classes until he finally made it to flight school at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio. He lived in a cardboard duplex ten miles from the Mexican border, and every morning he burned a supersonic trail over the bleak expanse of western Texas. Even if he could see the ground, he didn't look. He'd put over a thousand miles between him and any ground that could call him back.
The wind picks up with a heavy sigh, like a horse standing bored in the barn. The whiteness is darkening to gray. There's a brief splatter of tiny raindrops on the top of his head, where his hair has thinned enough to be considered no longer there. He walks to the end of the driveway and looks down the road, aware of a fearful sensation that seems out of proportion. It's only a county road, but cars travel fast on it. They lost two cats and a horse to that road, and the people down the street lost a child. He remembers being sad for them at the time, but it felt distant, someone else's sorrow. Now his heart tightens with anxiety at the thought. Every year his heart, old fool, pounds harder for the past's close calls. Danger seems closer to him now than it did then, as if every time it missed him, it took another step in his direction.
Still, he has to cross the road. Their mailbox, like all the others on the rural route, is on the other side of the road, so the mailman can pass by once. That's why he's out here, to get the mail. That and to get out of the house. He glances back over his shoulder. In the flat, fading light, the house windows look dark, as if brimming with the energy that pushed him outside. Carol is in there, eddying through each room in a last-minute surge of nervous preparation.
Today is Wednesday, a day set aside for the girls' arrivals, one with her husband and son, one with her husband-to-be. Tomorrow is slated for preparations and Friday is the wedding rehearsal. Bucking tradition, there won't be a rehearsal dinner, but a cocktail reception for family and close friends in their home. He supposes that's what's got Carol all worked up, the thought of forty people milling around, all of them needing drinks and elegant little snacks. Carol likes to do things right. He used to love that about her. When he was in flight school, he was proud to bring his fellow pilots home, pleased when she cooked Easter dinner for his family. But lately, there's been something desperate about it. She'll be sweating every last detail until the party is over, and then she'll be worrying for weeks about the little problems, going over it all in her mind. Even when everything's perfect, she seems discontent. But maybe she's always been that way. Maybe he's only noticing it now.
A truck whizzes by, a piece of farm equipment rattling in the bed, and then from the other direction, a single blue minivan. The truck driver raises his hand in a slight wave, not because he knows Will but because that's what people do in the country. The minivan driver is a woman, and she doesn't even look at Will. Her van is new and boxy, a strange, almost aqua, color. Will makes her to be someone from the new high-end suburb growing west of town, on the edge of the state forest. The houses are big, all variations on the same theme, a young architect's supposedly creative reinterpretation of the midwestern farmhouse, rife with gables and peaks and trim. Their lawns are studies in contrast: rich green expanses of unrolled sod punctuated by scrubby trees from the local nursery, some still sporting orange tags with their name and price.
Everything is changing, even here. He's seen it in nearly thirty years of flying over the country. In the seventies, at night, you would go for hours without seeing a single city, only scattered individual lights. Now every town has sprawled outward, and every part of the country, even the desert west of the Rockies, is carpeted with tiny pricks of light. Throughout the Plains states, the lights follow the dark line of the freeways, just as they must have once followed the great rivers.
"The Great Trajectory," he murmurs. It's the title of a book he's reading. The author, an anthropologist at a university out west, argues that the progress of all human civilizations mirrors the course of a single human life. The first phase is simple needs fulfillment. Then there's a steep learning curve, leading to greater self-awareness and socialization. An era of increasing achievement follows, which the author calls "the Ambition Years." Then comes the decline: first a slowdown in accomplishments, then the tailing off of ambition itself. Decadence: an era marked by physical decline. In people it's an aging body, in cultures a depletion of the natural resources that made them successful. After that it's just a matter of time until the end.
Will likes the theory. The author argues that Western civilization is solidly into its decadence, and that makes sense to him. There are accounts of all sorts of ancient civilizations -- the Romans, but also the Mayans, the Taino, the Babylonians -- and the story is always the same. It reminds him of the biographies he used to love reading: Andrew Jackson, FDR, Patton. There was always a fresh one under the tree at Christmas, but after a while, he couldn't read them anymore. You always knew how the story would end.
With the road finally free of traffic, Will walks across to the mailbox. It's an extralarge metal one from Farm and Fleet, big enough that it won't overflow, even when they go away for a few days. Over the years it has proved roomy enough for Christmas cards and tax forms, for Margaret's college catalogs, for the design magazines Carol ordered when she was planning to start an interior-decorating business, for the continuing-education bulletins she got when she thought she'd go back to school and become a teacher. Carol and her projects, his sister Janice always said, shaking her head.
The mailbox door opens with a metallic squawk, revealing a modest bundle of mail, still rubber-banded together. The girls haven't lived at home for fifteen years, and Will and Carol don't get as much mail. Today's small group of letters is protectively encircled by a shrink-wrapped magazine. Will looks at that first, because it's bound to be for Carol. Olde Country Inns. The cover shows a picture of the deck of a large white farmhouse. A wicker and glass table is set for brunch, everything in shades of blue. He looks back at his house. This is Carol's project now: she announced it last week at dinner. She wants to turn the farm into a bed-and-breakfast.
"You mean have strangers come and stay in our home?" Will asked.
"For a price," she said.
"But why would they want to stay here?" he continued, pressing it.
She gave him an inscrutable look. "For the wholesome country atmosphere, of course," she said, her voice level enough that he could hear her sarcasm but couldn't call her on it. "For the spiritual rejuvenation of a return to simpler times."
Two of the letters are wedding-related: something from the caterer and something from the church. Bills, no doubt. Will has shelled out hundreds of dollars in deposits already, and he knows it will tally up to thousands before it's over. He shuffles those to the bottom of the stack and looks at the rest. Another bill, this one from the phone company. A quarterly report from his pension plan, now worth one quarter of what he had expected, since TWA went bankrupt and got absorbed into American. A credit-card offer. And there, at the bottom of the stack, the letter he's been waiting for without really thinking about it, the real reason he came out to get the mail so soon after hearing the gravelly roar of the mailman pulling off the shoulder, why for over a week now he has beaten Carol to the mailbox every day. The return address is embossed with the aqua logo, a wispy bird drawn in one stroke like a Chinese character. Next to it is the name: Cathay Pacific Airways.
So it's really happening. A couple months ago he ran into Harris Grolier, a fellow captain from TWA. The flak over American's acquisition was in the process of dying down, and while no one's worst fears were fulfilled, no one was exactly thrilled either. Even with reasonable seniority and a better salary, few TWA pilots were happy about flying for American. How do you shed thirty years of loyalty to one company and put on your competitor's uniform just like that?
"There's always the Far East trick," Harris said to Will. "I hear Cathay's hiring."
The Far East trick is what some guys do after retiring. The U.S. and Europe have mandatory retirement at sixty. Far Eastern airlines don't. Everyone knows guys who went to Japan Airlines or Cathay Pacific and flew well into their seventies, starting out in freight and then moving into passenger service. As long as you pass the physicals, you can stay in the sky.
Will sent an application to Cathay. His sixtieth birthday is coming up in July. All his life he has planned to retire when his time came, settle into the farm and do what he moved back there to do. In retirement, he can be a real farmer, full time. Now, with commercial planes being used as weapons, he should be eager to turn in his wings. But for some reason, the thought terrifies him. He tries to imagine his life without flying, but he can't. He can see himself driving to Farm and Fleet, fixing the door on the barn, walking the fence line, seeding the western field with George's John Deere. But he can't see himself doing all those things knowing he's never going to fly an airplane again.
Ever since he was twelve years old, he wanted to fly. It came to him in a moment, when he was plowing his father's field, his skinny boy arms still having to crank double time to turn the tractor's large steering wheel. He looked up and saw a plane, a Gooney Bird or a Constellation, buzzing its tinny path to Midway, and he wanted so much to be up there, cleaving a furrow through the sky, that something in him slammed shut and he knew he was gone. He knew right then that he would put tractor and field and farm behind him and learn to fly.
He opens the letter and flits his eyes over it -- Asia Pacific freight routes, standard benefits package, transfer to passenger fleet -- and it's almost like takeoff, something you know is going to happen but still sucks the stomach out of you when it actually does. He went to work right out of the Air Force, straight from Vietnam. What will it be like to go back to the Far East as a pilot, even on commercial jets? He could find himself flying into Bangkok again, or Saigon, or even Hanoi. He imagines the lush green jungle, the neat geometry of rice paddies, the long low plateau just north of Hanoi they called Thud Ridge because so many F-105s went down there. His buddy Rogoff's plane -- what's left of it -- is on that ridge. Rusting on the damp Hanoi ground. The great trajectory. A tight hard knot seems to be resting not in his stomach but lower down in his gut. He needs to go to the bathroom.
He turns and faces his house again, waiting for a chocolate brown SUV to pass before he ambles back across the road. He folds the Cathay Pacific letter in half and shoves it into the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt. He hasn't made a decision yet. But Carol doesn't even know he's thinking about it.
The concrete walk up to the front door is lined with flower beds. Most farmhouses don't have a front walk, but Carol had insisted.
"We're not farmers," she said when they first moved in, "so there's no reason to pretend to be." She was using the tone that meant the subject was closed, so Will had kept silent. In fact, as the son of a farmer and the owner of a farm, he qualified for the label. But he didn't say that. If we're not pretending to be farmers, he thought, what are we pretending to be? He didn't say that either -- it would have started a fight. Those were the early days, when Margaret was three and Leanne just a baby. They avoided fighting then, much as they do now. It was the middle years that were full of battles, shouting, nights spent stewing in anger, whole days without speaking.
He puts the mail down on the front porch and goes back to the flower beds, where he noticed a few weeds. If Carol sees them, she'll ask him to pull them. She's determined to have everything perfect when people come over for the dinner. Kneeling down on the sidewalk, he feels a lightening in his heart, an automatic satisfaction triggered by the action of doing something that will make Carol happy.
The weeds are reedy and green. They look healthier than the delicate pansies and nasturtiums Carol has laid out with obvious care. Somehow the sight of the flowers, bravely trying to live up to an ideal of luxuriant beauty, makes his heart ache. For all her efforts, Carol never seems to get it exactly right. And yet what she wants is simple: beauty, elegance, control. He grabs a weed by the base and yanks.
He works methodically, rolling the idea of Cathay Pacific over in his mind, thumbing the possibility like a pebble. According to Harris, freight pilots are based in the U.S., New York or Chicago. So that won't be a big change. But when you switch over to passenger service, you have to be based in Hong Kong. He could leave George in charge of the farm, as he always has when going away on trips. He and Carol can have the excitement of living somewhere exotic for four or five years while he finishes up his flying career. It won't be such a long time, really. He isn't going to do it forever, just long enough for him to wrap up his flying years with grace and a sense of completion, not the abrupt disappointment of seeing the airline he worked for all his life simply fold up and disappear like a bad restaurant. Not the ignominy of turning sixty and being officially declared unfit by the FAA.
"How would you like to live in Hong Kong for a couple of years?" he imagines himself saying. Carol should be thrilled. She has never loved the farm -- in fact, she's spent much of her life regretting their move from the nice Chicago suburb where she started her career as an airline pilot's wife in 1968. She has often pointed out how much the girls would benefit from a year or two abroad. The girls are no longer an issue, but living abroad is still a glamorous prospect. They'll live in one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, socialize with other pilots and their wives. The food's supposed to be good. And the shopping -- that alone should make her want to go.
He's plucking the last few weeds from the main bed when he notices a sparkle on the back of his hand. He stops and sits back on his heels, examining it. Veins cross his hand like highways, curving up over the hill of his bones. Around them blooms a dark mottled colony of age spots. Now there are lighter spots among them, shimmery teardrops of rain. He looks up, and another one hits him in the eye. It's only a splattering, but he can see from the gray banks of cloud that real rain is on its way. They're the clouds that look like a solid thing from above, a fuzzy wool blanket some giant has thrown over the earth. He stands up, bones aching from just five minutes of crouching. Turning to the west, he squints toward the lake. It's thirty miles away, but from the air he could see it, could determine whether or not Margaret and David will be starting out their drive in the rain, or whether they'll have clear going for fifty miles. Once they get to this side of the lake, they'll be in it.
Drive safe, he thinks, sending the thought out along this road, along the county road through the state forest and down the long gray tunnel of I-94. He thinks of his daughter and son-in-law in the front seat, his grandson on his booster in the back. He's four, but they make boosters for bigger kids, too, now. When Will was young, they just put the kids in the car and called it safe. These days it seems parents have to contemplate danger lurking whichever way they turn.
He goes toward the ditch and tosses the weeds into the brackish water that has pooled there since the thaw. Then he goes back to the porch and picks up the bundle of mail. He puts his hand against his sweatshirt pocket, and there's a slight crackle. As if in answer, a quick flash of lightning is followed by a low growl of thunder. The wind picks up quickly, then stops. The world stands still, expectant. Will is moving toward the front door, mail in one hand, the other reaching for the knob, as the clouds seem to break apart and a curtain of rain drops down.
There's a service plaza coming up, Margaret knows it. She remembers it as a childhood landmark, her father driving them home from O'Hare after a flight from San Francisco or Phoenix or Fort Lauderdale, some trip he thought might be fun for the family. It's not an exit -- she doesn't want to risk an exit, which might cause confusion about getting back on the highway, might involve her in stoplights and left turns and merges, any of which could spoil her forward momentum -- but a freestanding service plaza, with gas stations on both sides of the highway and a restaurant perched on the overpass above the traffic. It's somewhere just east of the city, because when they drove to Chicago, the sight of that plaza was always a sign that they were nearing O'Hare. Once they drove by it after a tornado, and every window of the restaurant was blown out. Long blue curtains trailed out the windows, swaying like the leaves of an underwater plant. Margaret was surprised when they next passed to see it put back together, lights bright, people inside eating chicken nuggets or french fries while traffic zoomed by underneath. Quick restoration was unusual for Chicago, a city not gifted in the art of renewal. Margaret always envisions it as entropic, an explosion moving outward as the center goes from bad to worse. She used to love its urban shabbiness, because it was so far from the rural shabbiness that surrounded her childhood, in spite of her mother's vigilance. Now she can't help but see Chicago's decrepitude as something darker, a metaphor for all the winding-downs she's living through -- of empire, of prosperity, of youth and expectation and love.
Love. Love is what got her here.
"Don't do this, Margaret." It didn't sound like him, her husband of seven years. It was his voice hollowed out, as if a knife had scraped it clean of something that wasn't essential to him, perhaps, but was essential to her loving him.
Margaret looks in the rearview mirror. Trevor has his head resting against the backseat, turned to the side so he can stare out the window. His eyes don't seem to be following anything; he'll probably be asleep soon, she thinks, glancing ahead to where a rickety little delivery truck is valiantly trying to overtake an eighteen-wheeler. David and Goliath, she thinks, and the cold stab of fear hits her stomach again with the name. David.
She's going to need gas. If she and David had driven to Michigan together, as planned, they would have brought what has always been considered "their" car, a reasonably new Toyota Corolla with gray upholstery and a CD player and air-conditioning. Instead she is driving "her" car, a powder blue Volkswagen Rabbit that has somehow survived, through underuse and sheer doggedness, since her grad-school days in Irvine. She hadn't considered what she was doing, but when she picked up her suitcase -- packed since yesterday, before the fight began -- and took Trevor's hand, the keys she lifted out of the Mexican ceramic bowl by the front door were not the Corolla's but the Rabbit's. Her car. It was what she said when she left the message for Vasant. I'm taking my car and driving to Michigan.
"I don't care about some stupid wedding," David had said. "This is about our life together. You'll stay until we've sorted this out." It's ludicrous, really. She bites her lip, remembering. How did they end up arguing that way, she and David, like some couple on Jerry Springer? How did her perfectly rational, well educated husband, the likely next chair of physics at Northwestern (and what could be more rational, more dedicated to the steady, dispassionate, judicious pursuit of solutions than physics?), how could this man have such words in his mouth? But even worse than what he said was what he did when she quietly moved toward the door. He stepped between it and her. It was deliberate and immediate, and at that moment it seemed that some completely different consciousness was ruling the father of her child. His hands were clenched at his sides. He wasn't going to let her leave. For the first time since she met him in college, she felt afraid of him. Not afraid that he might hurt her -- that seemed likely, but not the real tragedy. The real thing to fear was what would happen after that. How much things would change. How unfixable it would all be then.
Up until now she has felt jittery and wired, as if something in her was goading her to push things to a breaking point and then make a run for it. All of a sudden, the sheer awfulness of it all sweeps over her, and her eyes fog up with tears. Sniffing hard, she wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. She can't risk crying on the Dan Ryan at sixty-five miles an hour. She glances in the rearview mirror again and is dismayed to see Trevor's eyes on her, fixed and wide.
"Go to sleep, sweetie," she tells him. "It's going to be a long drive." To her relief, her voice sounds normal, and Trevor lets out a little sigh, a habit of his that makes him seem, for an instant, more like fifty than pushing five.
They might have survived all of it -- David's girlfriends, Vasant, the awkwardness, the anger -- their marriage was based on rational principles, after all -- but the phone call shattered it. And there's no taking it back.
The worst part of it, the thing she keeps mentally replaying with a frantic, nauseated feeling of regret, is the laugh. It was right after she hung up the phone. David was sitting on the deacon's bench in their entryway, looking at her, eyes wide, as if seeing her for the very first time. She could see he was still in the process of realizing that she was capable of what she had just done. Suddenly, seeing it from his eyes, she realized what she had done, realized that her act of pure and simple desperation was in fact a brilliant first move in a battle that had just commenced. And then she laughed.
It wasn't humor, it wasn't even triumph; it was a desperate hysterical impulse, because it seemed the whole world had turned upside down and the only person who might understand exactly how crazy everything had become was David, sitting there staring at her. Her laugh released him from his stillness, and for a moment she thought he might laugh with her, the two of them might crack up and forget the whole thing, might reverse course and go back to where they were before, turning the awful night and more awful morning into a funny story to tell good friends at dinner parties, after a bottle or two of wine. The night David tried to be a tough guy. The night Margaret called the cops to arrest me. For an instant, things hung in the balance as their eyes met and her laugh hung in the air.
"Well then," he said, and looked away. And that was it. She couldn't take back the phone call, and worse, she couldn't take back the laugh. She felt frozen, immobilized against the telephone table, as her husband stood up slowly. His moves were casual but deliberate, as if calculated to prove how far he was from requiring legal restraint. The thing that had scared her, made her pick up the phone and dial, wasn't gone but had retreated to somewhere further down inside him.
"I'm not going to wait around to be arrested," he said, and as if something in him suddenly jerked into gear, he moved, quick and agile, to the foyer. Before anything more could transpire between them, he opened the door and left.
A semi towing two containers roars by her, and Margaret realizes that she has been stuck behind a slow car, a large Galaxy that looks like a relic from the sixties. She's edging left to pass it when she sees up ahead, like a beacon, the service plaza she's been waiting for, crouching over the highway. Relief washes over her, and she slows down to move right instead. At least she won't run out of gas.
It's been so long since she drove the Rabbit that she has forgotten which side the gas tank is on. She gets it wrong the first time, pulls forward, backs into another spot, finds herself too far away, pulls forward again to back in closer to the pump. Her hands are shaking on the wheel. Calm down, she tells herself.
Trevor's eyes are half shut, so she leaves him in the car as she uses her Amex card in the automated gas pump. The sight of the card causes another icy lump to form in her stomach. Will he cancel all her plastic? Can he do that? She makes a mental note to call American Express tomorrow. Somehow this makes her feel better. Everything has changed now; they're playing a whole new game, with new rules, but at least there are rules. As soon as she has a chance, she will sit down and think through every single thing he might do, and try to formulate a plan.
And then there's Vasant. She won't allow herself to think of him, his thick eyelashes, his graceful hands. She holds that thought in reserve, a treat she's saving for herself, the way when she was writing her thesis, she used to buy a beautiful piece of fruit and save it for when she had completed a section.
The wind has picked up, and she breathes deeply. There's the smell of gasoline and something fried coming from the restaurant area, but there's still a fresh smell in the wind -- perhaps the rain, or perhaps something coming off the lake. It's a warm June wind, not yet the hot, fetid current of summer in the city. She finishes filling the gas tank and starts to get back into the car, but then on second thought, gets the squeegee from its tub of gray blue water and does her windows. Something about the methodical motion calms her down: wet the window, scrape the wetness off with the rubber edge, wipe the tool with a paper towel, do it again. The front window is quite dirty, and cleaning it off is so satisfying that she does the sides, even though they're not that dirty, and then the back window, which has sticky brown marks on it from leaves falling on the car. She and David have a parking lot attached to their apartment building, but they get only one covered space. That was always reserved for the Corolla, so Margaret's car has been sitting out in the weather for months without being driven. It's a wonder she even got it started. She stops to experience a satisfying feeling of gratitude toward the Rabbit.
Perhaps this is what her life will be from now on, a series of small graces, now that she's awake to the world again. Vasant did that, she thinks with a small, shuddery thrill. She looks around the service plaza, and suddenly the living, breathing, sensory fullness of the place overwhelms her, as in movies where a video simulation gives way to reality. She breathes in the oily gas-station fumes, and the wind picks up a strand of her hair as gently as a lover would. The orange red of the neon sign, 24 hours, the iridescent black of oily spots on the cement, the bottle green of a beater car full of teenage boys pulling up to the next bank of pumps: all of these impressions triple, quadruple in intensity, and her capacity to receive them seems to yawn wide as well. She puts one hand on the car to steady herself. She feels disoriented, as if she were in an airplane and a trapdoor in the floor fell open, plunging her into limitless emptiness. It's a rush of terror and exhilaration: she's no longer going where she was once going, but who knew about this? Who could have imagined the boundlessness of the space that existed outside that tiny moving tube? Who could have imagined the thrill of falling from it?
There's a burst of music, a last gasp of sonic self-assertion as the teenage boys in the beater turn off their engine, and the extraordinary feeling vanishes. A couple of them glance Margaret's way as they pile out of their car, and her neck prickles with a sense of potential danger. Quickly, but with a studied attempt to look calm, she moves back to the driver's side and gets in her car. She locks the doors before starting it.
A sign directs her to the freeway entrance, with arrows pointing to westward and eastward ramps. The possibility flashes up: she could go back. She could turn around and drive straight back to Evanston, and maybe she would get back to the apartment before David returned, maybe he would never have to know that she climbed into her car and drove away from their marriage. Maybe she would even get there before the police did, and she could explain to them, No, no, I'm so sorry, it was all a big mistake. Yes, I called, but it was just a misunderstanding, everything's fine now.
She points her car east, toward Michigan.
Somewhere around Michigan City, she notices in the rearview mirror that Trevor has fallen asleep. She drives steadily, four miles above the speed limit, so she'll get only a warning if stopped. When she sees the large blue Welcome to Michigan sign, she presses her lips together in a thin line. In the midst of everything, she can't help noting the irony of what she's doing, the ridiculousness of fleeing to Michigan when she has spent the last fifteen years of her life -- at least fifteen -- trying to put Michigan and everything it stands for behind her. What was the University of Chicago, what was Irvine -- what was David, with his Westport family and his cultured upbringing and his nontraditional ideas about marriage -- if not a wholehearted rebuke to the flat, rural landscapes, the solid midwestern values, the low expectations that proclaim themselves from every shabby farmhouse, every blue Harvestore silo, in this state?
A few miles inside the Michigan border, she drives smack into what feels like a wall of rain: the silence is wiped out by the tinny roar of water banging onto her car. As if in answer, her eyes fill with tears, and this time she lets them fall, silently, so she won't wake Trevor. She drives and weeps, windshield wipers on high, gas-tank needle still close to F. The pathetic fallacy, she thinks, the notion that the weather can represent interior states. But as her strange exhilaration drains away, she knows that it's not really sadness that makes her cry. She's crying because she's turned a corner that was not on her carefully mapped life plan. She's crying because she's on her way, alone, to celebrate her sister's wedding, an event that has been in her plans for months, but not like this. She's crying because she's Margaret and she has just passed Benton Harbor, which means she has only sixty more miles to cry before she'll stop, wipe her eyes, practice some of the deep ashtanga breathing she has learned in yoga, and pull herself together to face her family as the ambitious, confident, self-sufficient woman they all know her to be.
The doves are okay.
The vacuum cleaner growls along. Carol's back is showing the first signs of getting sore, but she keeps going, putting her full wrist, arm, and shoulder into each stroke across the living room carpet. She'll be doing this even more regularly once she has the bed-and-breakfast up and running. The vacuum hums going out, haws coming back in. Its baleens sift through the deep pile of the fawn carpet she fell in love with at Carpet World. When she's done with the living room, she'll move on to the dining room. Back and forth, thrust and parry. Not. One. Speck. Of. Dirt. Will. Remain.
The doves are okay.
She's been saying it all morning, a kind of mantra. She pictures them in their wooden cage in the garage, turning in futile circles or huddled bleakly, in the corner. Every now and then a soft trilling, like a fairy princess gargling, comes from one of them, it's never clear which.
But they're alive. At that thought, she redoubles her vacuuming efforts, throwing her lower back into it, as if nothing but an impeccable living room carpet can possibly testify to her gratitude for the lives of two small grayish birds. Sparks of pain crackle up the ladder of her spine, but she ignores them.
"Why are you so worried about it?" Will said at breakfast. "It's not like there's any shortage of poultry in these parts." He'd already proposed that Leanne's guests might appreciate it more if she bought a couple of turkeys to release and let everyone bring their rifles. That's Will's sense of humor, hiding his deep-down inability to understand. Leanne wants one still, beautiful moment at her wedding -- she and Kit will release the doves after the kiss -- and Will has never been one for still moments, beautiful or otherwise. Life for him is a highway: the faster you move forward, the more you'll see along the way. After thirty-six years, Carol understands that much about him, has learned to accept it and even sometimes laugh at it. Still, she can't help but chafe against his continued desire to bait her, even when the second-to-last full day for preparations is upon them. The wedding is Saturday. The girls are coming today with Kit and David, Trevor must be lapped with grandmotherly attention, Kit's mother comes on Friday, and somehow Carol must be ready to host forty people for cocktails on Friday night ("Let's skip that whole dull rehearsal-dinner thing," Leanne said on the phone) when the Harding's in Ryville has never stocked an artichoke, let alone fresh shrimp. Can't Will see that she's stressed and try to be nice? Instead, he's been mocking her practically since the moment she awoke this morning with an icy hand squeezing her heart, convinced that something was drastically wrong.
Years of experience have taught Carol that leaping out of bed and trying to check on everything is inevitably counterproductive. She has taught herself to lie still and clear her mind, not addressing the fear but not banishing it, either, just allowing it to float in like fog. She stares right into it, and eventually, as happens when you stare into fog, something will glide into view -- usually the thing that generated the anxiety. Then she can get up and address it calmly.
As a mother, Carol always prided herself on her intuition. "I've got eyes in the back of my head," she would tell the girls, and for years they believed her. Fights were nipped in the bud before they began, guilty silences always led to a shout: "What's going on in there?" Even Will was impressed by how quickly Carol could burrow to the heart of a lie. But all of those things come with mothering's territory, if you just pay attention. The only thing Carol considers unusual is her talent for predicting disaster.
So this morning, when anxiety struck, she lay very still and looked at the ceiling until the image came to her: the doves. It wasn't clear what had happened to them, but something was wrong. Immediately, her brain raced through scenarios: poisoned feed, lethal stray wires, foxes burrowing into the garage. She stood up and threw on a robe, trying not to wake Will. He lifted his head as she moved toward the hall.
"Nothing. I'm just checking on those doves." She slipped out before he could say more.
Her heart pounded as she pattered down the staircase and to the door. The garage was gloomy and still. She moved toward the cage and heard a rustle of distress at her approach. She could see two soft gray lumps in the dim light, but she couldn't tell if anything was wrong. She went back and turned on the light. There was a small cooing sound, as if the birds recognized the light as a sign to wake up. Returning, she stared at them. They were both hunkered down, feathers fluffed around them like quilts. They regarded her steadily with beadlike black eyes. She willed them to get up and walk around, do something to prove their well-being, but they didn't move. Finally, she unhitched the cage door and stuck a hand in, fluttering it clumsily toward them. They both rustled to their feet, eyes fixed on the hand, and scuttled back. Perfectly fine. When she pulled her hand out, they looked at her with obvious reproach.
Now, finished vacuuming the living room, she is tempted to check on them again, but she has gone into the garage four times already this morning, and if Will comes in from the mailbox and finds her there again, she'll never hear the end of it. She decides to focus on the problem of Doug.
Already she can hear her own voice, defensive but unconvincing. She can imagine the look of absolute horror Margaret will give her when she finds out what Carol did. Margaret has always been good at killer expressions.
He seemed so genuinely pleased for Leanne, Carol hears herself saying. It just slipped out before I thought about it. It's all true. She considers adding how nice he looked, there in Harding's, his cart full of frozen dinners and granola bars and instant vitamin shakes. Shopping for his mother, he explained. Mrs. Johannsen had a hard time getting around these days. Doug's devotion to his mother was widely accepted in town as the reason he had never married, and he had smiled such a fond smile when he spoke of her that Carol's heart melted. The fact that he was a pig farmer's son who had dated Margaret slipped her mind, and all she saw was a fine young man -- nice broad shoulders, too -- who remained, in his thirties, an attentive and loving son.
No, strike that. Margaret would be angry at her for singing Doug's praises in front of David. In fact, Carol has no idea whether David even knows about Doug. Presumably, a woman who teaches history at one of the nation's very best universities -- She could be teaching in the Ivy League, Carol always tells people, but she wanted to stay close to home -- doesn't go around bragging about the Future Farmers of America she dated in high school. Carol makes a mental note to herself to speak only of "your old friend Doug."
There's even some hope that Margaret's reticence to admit her connection to Doug might save Carol from her daughter's scorn. After all, who could possibly get upset about her mother inviting a childhood friend to her sister's pre-wedding cocktail party? In fact -- and here Carol recognizes the flash of maternal insight that is the only thing preventing worldwide familial discord -- Carol can simply pretend to have forgotten that Doug and Margaret were ever romantically involved. After all, they were just kids. It wasn't as if it was some big passionate love affair. (A little voice in Carol's head pipes in that her own dislike for Doug always suggested the opposite -- that he was actually a threat even then, and ever since, she has secretly suspected him of never getting over Margaret. Decisively, she squelches it.) As long as Carol refuses to acknowledge that there might be a problem, Margaret can't create one without explaining exactly why she doesn't want Doug there.
How did it come to this? Carol wonders as she winds up the vacuum-cleaner cord. Margaret was always determined, always focused on the next thing, while Leanne was Carol's baby, clingy and content. But Carol always encouraged Margaret, always appreciated her drive. She nurtured ambition in both her girls, pushing them to use first-rate manners, to succeed in school, in short, to rise above the place where they were raised. And Leanne, her baby, was the one who rebelled, running off to New York, while Margaret achieved everything Carol hoped she would: college, graduate school, an impressive career, a brilliant and cultured husband, a lovely son. Now, with everything Carol has ever dreamed for her, Margaret seems to have forgotten who helped her find those dreams in the first place, who encouraged her to think big and promised her she could do or be whatever she wanted. She comes home and looks around with disdain, and Carol is the one who's terrorized. "Mom, how can you stand those curtains?" Margaret will say, or "Really, Mom, you ought to be eating better," or "What do you mean you told Brenda Moran I'd be in town?"
It's always been easier to be close to Leanne. Even after her decision not to go to college, a decision that still makes Carol's throat feel dry and tight, as if she's choking. Even after Leanne moved to New York and lived God knows what kind of life for several years after high school, working in some awful bar. By the time of Margaret's wedding, Leanne was drinking so much she appeared to be slightly waterlogged. Although this was something Carol never could have imagined for either of her girls, she felt like she could talk to Leanne. After Margaret's wedding, Carol flew to New York and stayed there a month and talked to her. Through sheer persistence -- simply refusing to pack up and leave -- she found a way to help. Now Leanne lives in Cold Spring, an hour north of the city, in an adorable small house she bought with her own money once her store -- specialty high-end crafts -- became successful. Though Carol still thinks Leanne could have been anything -- a doctor, a lawyer, an architect -- she has to admit that Leanne's life suits her. It ought to -- it cost Carol fifteen thousand dollars.
The front door opens, and Carol hears a strange clattering that she recognizes, after a few seconds, as heavy rain. Okay, so it's raining. The wedding is three days away. Saturday's sure to be gorgeous. June weather is reliable; that's why it's traditional to have weddings then. She glances at the clock. They need to go to the airport to meet Leanne and Kit, and she wanted to stop at Meijer in Grand Rapids on the way, to pick up some items the Ryville Harding's won't have. She also needs to grab a few sundries -- shampoos, fancy soaps, hand creams -- to stock the guest bedroom. Kit's mother flies in on Friday morning from Atlanta, and after many phone calls with Leanne, Carol has prevailed on the woman to stay with them.
"Tell her it will be good practice for me," Carol kept saying, "for running my bed-and-breakfast." Kit's mother had been concerned about Carol having too many people in the house, but Carol told Leanne to explain to her about rambling midwestern farmhouses. With the attic Will fixed up on a whim, the house has five bedrooms.
In the end, Bernice Lewiston was prevailed upon to stay with her son's future in-laws. This will give a Carol a chance to try out her hostessing ideas, and it will be a lot easier, because the closest motels are in Kalamazoo, over thirty miles away. That's another reason her B&B will be a success.
Her stomach flutters happily as she thinks about the project. Will doesn't know it yet, but she's already scheduled and paid for an ad to run in one of the special advertising sections of the Chicago Tribune. It's not a glossy ad, just a small one-eighth page of text, but she worked long and hard on the copy, getting every word just right. It will appear in a few weeks, at the end of June, just as people in the city will be in the mood for weekend getaways. Carol is sure she can have everything ready by then. This is one project that's really going to happen.
Leanne's wedding is really going to happen, too, and Carol needs to make sure she's thought of everything. She sits down at the kitchen table and contemplates her shopping list. Shrimp. Cocktail sauce. (Margaret will disapprove -- she would make her own.) Cherry tomatoes for the vegetable tray. Olives from the deli section. ("Canned olives?" Margaret yelped on a visit last summer. "You guys are still eating canned olives?") Sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese for a recipe Carol tore out of a magazine. Some nice crackers. Everything else, she should be able to get in Ryville.
Water runs upstairs, and then she hears the thud of Will's feet coming down. She looks around for her purse. Once he's ready to go, he can't stand waiting for anyone else to get ready. When the girls were little, Carol was always scooping them up and rushing to the car, shoes untied and jackets unbuttoned, hair ribbons clutched in their hands. If she grabs everything now, she might have time to dash out to the garage and check the doves one more time.
"Okay!" Will booms, bursting into the kitchen like an event. "Time to go to the airport!"
Planes always wait to take off at Newark for at least half an hour. Leanne would have preferred to fly out of the Westchester County airport, or even La Guardia, but the only direct flight to Grand Rapids leaves from Newark. Kit didn't mind having to come down. He works in the city, as a video production editor, so the Metro-North trip from Cold Spring to Grand Central is no big deal for him. Leanne proposed taking the Carey bus from there, but Kit pointed out that with luggage it would be a huge hassle, and a cab wasn't that expensive.
"Besides, you only get married once," he said, "at least to each other." His voice was level, but he raised an eyebrow in his arch way, and Leanne, as always, had to laugh. Kit's dry wit puts people at ease, rather than making them feel left out. It's what makes his real work -- documentaries -- so good.
They stood on line for forty minutes before having to remove their shoes and jackets for the amped-up security screening. Kit was sent back to empty his pockets a second time, because on the first he had forgotten to remove his BlackBerry and the metal detector pinged him. Leanne was carrying the box containing her wedding dress, and the security screeners watched it glide through their machine without so much as a smile. It's all grave intensity now, the fun and excitement of travel forgotten.
Kit steered Leanne to a coffee bar for double lattes. "Don't you feel safer now?" he asked her, only half in jest. He held his hand out to her, palm up, his habit whenever he asked a question. As if waiting to take hold of the answer, cradle it like a small bird.
Now they are sitting on the tarmac, inching forward every few moments, in an excruciating waiting game that seems designed to mimic their earlier slow progress through security. Leanne twists in her seat and sighs. All of this would be fine -- nothing has gone badly, really -- if only she had done what she has been promising herself to do for weeks, what she swore to do last night. If only she had told Kit.
With the trip in motion, telling him will be even more complicated, because what if it changes everything? Before this moment, they could at least have canceled their trip if he freaked out, avoided the embarrassment of arriving in Michigan and then not getting married. She will have to tell him on the plane and hope for the best, breaking the news that his intended wife is a drunk -- a reformed one but a drunk nonetheless. That's putting it melodramatically, of course, and she despises melodrama, which is perhaps why she has avoided speaking of it all this time.
The right moment to bring it up just never seemed to come. She couldn't tell him right off, when they met in a Cold Spring café a year and a half ago, or when they went on their first date, or even their second. It was too early then, and then suddenly it was too late. By the time he moved in with her six months later, he had asked her so many questions -- he was inquisitive, after all -- and they had talked about so many things, it seemed like he must know everything about her. When he proposed marriage on a hike up Storm King Mountain, Leanne looked down on Cold Spring, its steepled church and clapboard houses nestled between hills and river like a model of a town, and thought, What is there to tell? It's not important.
But it is important, and as they have thundered down the track toward the wedding, she has felt guilty and anxious, as if she was purposefully deceiving Kit. Because her past has an effect on their future together. On Mexico. Kit has received a grant to go to Mexico City and make a documentary about street kids, and he wants Leanne to go with him. But she can't. Somehow she knows that if she ends up in Mexico City, her carefully cultivated life of restraint and respectability will fall apart, and Kit will see her for what she really is: a lost cause.
The engines wind up and the plane bounces twice before moving forward ten feet. Once they get to Michigan, it will be impossible to talk. Leanne leans back and stares at the window across the aisle. Her heart clamps down on a cold, dull sensation: regret. What led her to say yes to this? She has never had a strong desire to be married. In truth, the thought alarms her. Kit is great, and they really enjoy being together, but a husband? She looks at his arm, taking up all of the armrest. He has a mole on his wrist, and she never noticed before that it has three or four very light hairs growing out of it. She stares at them, outlined in the glow of his reading light. There are probably a million things like that she doesn't know. She has no idea what's going on in his head, whether he has secrets, too. Suddenly, the whole idea of marriage seems ludicrous, just a way of pretending to be together when people are actually alone.
The arm moves from the armrest, and Kit's hand drops onto her leg. His fingers burrow toward her inner thigh.
"We're going to have a good time," he says. Leanne looks up at his face. It's a young, open face, but little knowing crinkles radiate out from his eyes. He has blond hair. Of the Gruens, only Trevor, Margaret's little boy, is blond, and his hair will no doubt darken to the family's signature brown.
"A good time getting married?" she says. "It seems like a big hassle to me."
"Being married," he says. "Although that might be a hassle sometimes, too."
Leanne puts her head back against the seat and closes her eyes. He wants to be married to her when he doesn't even know her, just as he's sure he can make his documentary when he hasn't met any of the subjects yet. His Spanish is great, and he's been to Mexico City before, but still. Part of her can't help but suspect his certainty, his ability to be so positive about things, like Margaret, or their father. It's not Leanne's nature. Maybe she and Kit are a bad match.
It's nice with her eyes closed. She doesn't have to look out the window at the New York skyline minus the Towers, a sight that, almost a year later, still makes her stomach lurch with shock. She concentrates on how good it feels to do nothing. The last few days have been a frenzy of annoying preparations, with multiple phone calls to Michigan to confirm details with her mother. The country club is booked, the caterers confirmed, last-minute changes to the luncheon menu have been approved, the photographer and church have received their deposits. It's a June wedding, but not a traditional one. She wanted something simple and short, even declining to have a wedding party: Margaret will stand up with Leanne, and her cousin Eddie will stand up for Kit, who has no male relatives of his own.
The plane inches forward. She can't talk to Kit while the plane is on the ground, she decides, because if something happens and they don't take off, it will seem as though fate has ordered them not to marry. And all of a sudden she does want to marry him. She wants to tell him everything and, in telling it, have it disappear, so he can understand why she can't come to Mexico, and then they can go forward from there. She'll tell him when they're in the air. She has always liked being in airplanes. They're a place where time has stopped, where you're not home nor yet away, but suspended, you and the small world around you. It's the closest thing there is to being nowhere.
"We should have gone by Greyhound," Kit murmurs next to her. "At least then we'd be in the bus lane."
Leanne wakes up when someone screams. Her head has been leaning sideways, and her neck is so sore she holds it still, avoiding any quick movement. As she reaches a hand up to massage it slowly back into place, the plane pitches violently to the left and snaps her upright.
She leans out into the aisle. Everyone else in the cabin looks frozen, some sleeping or feigning sleep, others simply holding still. The only movement is the synchronous bobbing of heads as the plane commences a strange, shuddery wobbling. There's another stomach-churning jolt, and Leanne turns to Kit. He has his hands clenched together in front of his stomach and is holding himself in an oddly tight way. His face is pale, but he smiles at her. Her heart jumps with concern, and in that moment, it's clear to her that she loves him. She reaches a hand out and touches her fingertips to his balled fists. Because of the plane's wobble, they tap up and down on the back of his hand, as if she's trying to wake him up.
"What's going on?" she whispers.
"Turbulence," he says. She notices that his knuckles are stretched thin and white with tension.
It takes him a moment to reply. "Bad turbulence," he says. He takes a deep breath, and Leanne realizes that his tight posture and pale countenance are the result not of fear but of nausea. She leans forward and paws through her seat-back magazine compartment. There's an in-flight magazine, an in-flight catalog, an in-flight entertainment guide, and a couple of crumpled napkins. Don't airlines provide airsickness bags anymore? Or were they somehow a security problem, too?
"I'll be okay," Kit says, his voice slightly strained. He watches her with a worried expression, as if afraid she will produce what she's searching for and that will push him over the edge. "I almost never get motion-sick."
"I heard it helps if you use the pressure points on your wrists." Leanne holds out a forearm and encircles one wrist with her other hand, pressing her thumb down where it's supposed to help.
Kit looks as amused as a nauseated man possibly can. "My God, why didn't I think of that," he says.
The plane drops what feels like fifty feet. The falling sensation is scary, but there's a deep throb of pleasure in it, too. Leanne thinks of her father. He fell from the sky once, when his fighter jet was shot down in Vietnam and he parachuted into the ocean. Was there a thrill in the long ride down? It's funny, she has never heard him talk about it. Somehow the subject of the war was one they all left alone, even though it was always there, a shadow in the background.
The plane shakes and accelerates, and the overhead compartments creak. One of them has a rattling door that looks like it might give way at any moment. Leanne looks out the window. The sky is white, giving no clue about why the air should be so choppy. The plane seems to be descending, but there's no ground visible beneath them, just shreds of white on top of thick white soup. She tries Kit's approach, pressing her body back into her seat. When she was small, airplanes seemed so big. Of course, they really were more spacious then, before the airlines started cramming in as many bodies as they could. Things were more elegant, too. Leanne remembers dressing up to fly. When she was three, the family took their first trip abroad, to London. Carol bought Leanne and Margaret matching fur hats and muffs. They took a 747, and the upstairs was a piano bar. At dinnertime, an attendant came to their seats and carved a chateaubriand.
The plane drops again, and Leanne reflexively grips her armrests. It would have been easier to die in those days, she thinks. You'd have gone out in a blaze of glamour, like Princess Diana in the backseat of the speeding limo. Now it would be like falling off a cliff in a Greyhound bus. Leanne imagines the plane ripping apart, crammed overhead compartments disgorging their cargo, passengers melding with their downsized economy seats. Pretzel bags, plastic cups, and fanny packs would fuel the fireball.
This is always how it is in the air. Part of her believes with all her heart that these are her last moments on earth. What else is there to believe, thousands of feet in the air, powerless inside a small metal tube, tossed and jolted around like so much baggage? Every bump, every jerk, is like a message from the higher power of nature: You do not matter. You are insignificant in the greater course of things.
And yet another part of her cannot believe that anything could possibly happen to her here. Not because of the statistical safety of airline travel, not because, as her father always told them, more people die of bee stings than plane crashes, but because this is not her life. The airplane is nowhere, merely a conduit from one part of her life to another. Cold Spring, her store, her East Coast friends: all these dwindled in significance the moment the plane rumbled into the air and turned them into tiny toylike objects. At the same time, the realities of Michigan -- her family, the home she grew up in -- exist only as ghosts, stored in her memory.
This nowhere enfolds her, above and outside her real life, which will restart when she lands in Michigan with her fiance, greets her parents, drives to Ryville, and, two days later, walks down an improvised aisle outdoors at the Green Lake Country Club to become a married person. That is her real life, opening before her like a brightly lit corridor. Even the dark spots are already visible: Margaret will inevitably find fault with some aspect of Leanne's dress; her cousin Eddie will find the most inopportune moment to call her by her old nickname, Pester; some simmering tension between her parents will make everyone uncomfortable. These things seem so certain that there's something exhilarating, almost glorious, in the idea that they might not occur.
And so she sits, suspended between two certainties: the certainty of her imminent annihilation and the certainty of the life mapped out for her. She shifts in her seat.
"Kit," she says, "I have to tell you something."
There's a short silence before Kit's hand finds hers. "Can it wait?" he says, his voice tight. "I'm just holding it together here."
Kit closes his eyes. His fingers work their way between her own.
"Yowza!" It's not the same person who screamed before but someone in front of them. The yelp follows a loud thud that sounds like some part of the aircraft being wrenched off. Immediately everything feels different. There's a noisy drag on the plane, as if the thing hanging off is disrupting its aerodynamics, and at the same time there's a strong surge coming from the left, like a crosswind. The nose points steeply down, and Leanne concentrates on how the curtain between first class and coach falls forward, marking their angle of descent. It holds steady at about 18 degrees.
At her side, Kit has gone limp, eyes closed, breath measured. Leanne lets go of his hand to grip her armrests. She's still staring at the curtain when the impact comes. There's a smack, a screeching of tires, and a roaring of engines, and everyone in the airplane seems to tense, as if pressing the brakes themselves. Then it's over. They're on the runway, slowing down. A single apple rolls down the aisle, and with it the old beliefs, the old certainties and expectations, come crowding back into place.
The plane slows to normal speed and turns a corner at the end of the runway as if nothing unusual has occurred. The low gray terminal can be seen outside the left windows. A collective sigh of relief breaks the spell. A few people in the rear clap. Outside, a dark curtain of rain drums on the wings.
"Ladies and gentlemen," comes the captain's voice. "Welcome to Grand Rapids."
Copyright © 2005 by Ginger Strand
What People are Saying About This
Strand's impressive first novel explores the tangled complexities of modern American family life, unflinchingly portraying the longstanding jealousies, grudges, misunderstandings, and love that shape family dynamics. At the center of the story are Will and Carol Gruen, a couple about to celebrate the marriage of their youngest daughter, Leanne. Ironically, their oldest daughter, Margaret, arrives without her husband, and as the story progresses we learn that Margaret and her husband have had an ugly fight that may well end their marriage. As the narrative unwinds over the course of three days and following four intertwined story lines, each family member must revisit old wounds, confront personal mistakes, and move forward bravely into an unsure and unknowable future. Although the novel ends somberly, each character has achieved a hard-won measure of perspective and clarity.
powerfully engaging novel is enthusiastically recommended for all
Manchester Community Coll., CT
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Flight is a great read. It¿s great because it doesn¿t try too hard. There is none of the first novelist¿s mistake of adding superfluous detail to bring false life to the setting. The novel¿s richly developed characters, Will, a retired pilot with an eye to the future, his wife and daughters, are revealed in their exceptional ordinariness through the details of their approaches, attitudes and activities surrounding the wedding of one daughter. The Midwest also comes to life in this book. For me, a New Yorker born and bred, the details of the party preparations of this Midwestern family were fascinating in their differences from how we do things in New York. Another key ¿character¿ in the book is September 11. Each of the characters has experienced this day and processed it into his or her life, as we all have. It is a shared formative experience and gives us something else in common with these intelligent, passionate and ordinary people.
This is one of those novels that puts across so much about human life so effortlessly that one cannot put it down. While the setting couldn't be more ordinary -- a midwestern family gathering for a wedding -- how deeply Strand gets it is utterly compelling.
I picked up an advance review copy and ended up staying up until three in the morning just devouring this book. I loved, loved, loved this novel. Richly atmospheric, this is a book about a family at the crossroads--specifically the three extraordinary women swirling around Will, a retired pilot grounded on a farm, who now aches to take flight again. His daughter Margaret wrestles with her earthquaking marriage; daughter Leanne heads towards a marriage she may not want, and his wife Carol grapples with her own 'ways of going without a path.' So gorgeously written, the pages seem to be breathing. This is a first work of a major, major talent.