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The Ones Who Came after the Ones Who Could Fly
Thomas Hopkins


My father, like every man of his generation in our country, never quite got over the loss of flight. When I visit him at his nursing home now, down in the temperate coastal lowlands, his nostalgia is inescapable. After a pleasant supper in the dining room—his home has an excellent cook—his mind drifts from the questions he knows to ask: my wife’s health, his grandchildren’s schooling. His pauses grow longer, his stares at his plate sadder, until he looks up with a smile, mimicking badly the onset of a new thought. I brace myself. His voice takes on the forced casual tone of a closeted fetishist. He says to me: “Say, why not wheel me out onto the porch to get a look at that sky?”

The first years after the men could no longer fly were not insufferable. I was just a boy in those days; I myself have only the vaguest memories of flying men. I remember my handsome young father soaring into the sky from our front porch on his way to work. I recall him and his friends competing on the beach with elaborate, twisting, daredevil dives into the sea, their wives cheering them on from their blankets. But I know these early impressions might not be original, but rather my mother’s stories, repeated to me so often, I’ve taken them on as my own. Similarly, I don’t remember the day the flying stopped—the bodies plunging to the ground, the pathetic sight of men launching into bellyflops, over and over again, unbelieving. Whatever actual memory I might have once had has long since been subsumed by the endless rehashings and wild speculations that have filled our culture ever since: the solar-flare hypothesis, the passing comet school, the church of vengeful gods.

The day the men fell came as spontaneously and unpredictably as the day flight began. The gift was one generation long, then vanished. The men protested acquiescence. It’s fine, they claimed, we don’t miss it. But after years back on the ground, their stoicism finally gave way to the fierce, impotent, agonizing longing of old men.

My father never cries when he looks at the clouds, but in the rheum of his eyes, the droop of his inelastic skin, I sense an ocean of inarticulable loss. He raises a hesitant hand from his armrest. He broadly sweeps his fingers through space, a conductor missing an orchestra. Is he testing the air? Hoping his arm might take off this one time, dragging his broken body with it, airborne once more, up from this mere earth?

“We would … ” he starts. “We—it was just, the feeling of it.” His hand crashes back down, dismayed with itself. His fingers entwine the spokes of his wheel.

“The wind,” he says, still staring at the sky. “It didn’t want to let you go.”

I take the handles of his chair. “Watch your fingers, Pop,” I say.