Fiction

A Father, a Flight, and a Love Unforgotten

By Nolan Janssens

     As the engine gurgles grow louder, Ron’s memories gush into the present. He can smell his son’s floral, sweet hair from when he used to rinse it in the bathtub. He can hear his wife’s heaving laughter from when his son took a shit in the tub. The past floods his thoughts, but as quickly as they appear, they drain from his mind with the sound of a choking engine.

      Ron has the lives of two other soldiers in his hands—he has to land the Consolidated PBY-5A Canso seaplane. Ron looks back at the other soldiers. The bones in his fingers nearly burst from his skin as he clenches the yoke. Disoriented, he notices one of the soldiers in the back—he feels as though it could be his son. The Battle of The Atlantic has been going on for three years, and Ron wants to know what his son looks like. He can’t.

     The present consumes him. He knows that German soldiers could spot his plane from the U-boats if he decides to make an emergency water landing. If the winds from the west stay strong, they should carry the aircraft to a safe landing in Cape Farwell, Greenland.  If the winds weaken, they’ll plummet and crash into an iceberg, or they’ll land next to a U-boat full of German soldiers. The iceberg would be the better option.

     Ron notices the frost forming on the plane window; the magnified snowflakes reveal their unique, individual mystery. Ron wants to appreciate the frost formation’s beauty, but there’s no time. He looks at the plane’s compass—the coordinates are off. Ron fervently hits the compass, knowing it will do nothing, but at least it feels good to get angry at something. 

     “Are you sure you’re okay?” Ron hears the young soldier in the back say. 

     “Do you need me to take over?” Asks Ron’s co-pilot. His voice is usually calming, but not today. Am I okay? Need me to take over? What the hell are these soldiers saying? thought Ron. 

     “We’re going to take an emergency landing in—” Ron trails off.

     “I would feel more comfortable if I were to land,” says the co-pilot.

     “To hell with that. This plane, my Canso, is a second child to me, and you’re not ready to take on that sort of responsibility. Look at you—both of you—neither are in uniform. You look like your damn mothers dressed you. Is that a fucking Christmas sweater?”

     “It is,” says the co-pilot.

     “And you, boy. A blazer. Do you realize who we’re fighting here? You look just like your mother—”

     Ron trails off. He looks outside. The clouds are clearing. They’ll be able to spot the plane; they’ll shoot us down, thinks Ron. The rays of sun break through; daylight reveals itself. Two mountains show off their majestic snowcapped peaks as Ron flies between them. He looks at his hand on the control wheel, and then at the co-pilot.

     “Let me keep flying.” 

      Ron looks back at the young man in the back and winks. 

     “I can do this, son.”  

* * *

    After I walk out of the movie theatre, happy to have felt so much about something I wasn’t a part of, I realize I promised to make Anna, my daughter, dinner tonight. Or did I promise to bring my dad dinner tonight? No, definitely my daughter. I speed home, and when I arrive, I see my dog—my daughter’s dog—Champ, scratching at the doorway. He needs a walk; dinner can wait. I see Joan, a lovely elderly woman, walking her daily loop around the neighbourhood. I start to tell her about the movie I just saw; she loves good movies.

     “So yeah, frogs fall from that sky, but don’t worry, I don’t think that ruins the ending. But yeah, what was that all about? Probably some ode to some religious thing. Or maybe they just thought it looked cool. I don’t know. You should see Tom Cruise’s character though. Hell of a man. Anyway, how are you doing, Joan? How’s the hip?” I say to my neighbour after Champ just tried to hump the hell out of Joan’s leg. 

     “Oh, it’s still bothering me. Getting worse.”

     “Surgery date?”

     “You know how it is.”

     “Once I finally got my knee fixed, I mess it up again doing squats.”

     “You’re not one of the gym guys, Forest.”

     I laugh and wonder what actually triggered my leg. 

     “Have you talked to Beth—” 

     “Who?”

     “Beth, from two doors down. She’s not doing too well, either.”

     “Oh no, I haven’t heard.”

     “And Bunny too. Well, not Bunny. Her grandson, twenty-years-old, needs surgery for an ACL tear. Soccer player. Not professional or anything though.” 

     “Oh… and how’s your father.” 

     “Not better.” I look around as though I have somewhere to be, and then remember I do have somewhere to be. “I gotta get going, Joan. See you tomorrow.”

     “Bye, Forest.” 

     I stop and say hello to a few more of the neighbors before I finish walking Champ. I cut through Miss Tilt’s yard. Champ loves pissing on her flowers. Her hydrangeas are usually where he takes a shit. Her yard leads to a little pathway along a pond with a cute, simple wooden bridge I walk across the days I’m not working—which seems to be a lot lately—and then there’s my home, or my wife’s house as she likes to call it. 

     When I walk into my home, I can hear Christina Aguilera resonating through the house. I follow the sound upstairs towards my daughter’s room. I fucking love Christina. I knock on her door—no answer. I knock again, and still no answer. She must be dancing. Like daughter like father, right? I burst into the room, busting a mean shopping cart move. She screams and jumps into her bed, wrapping a blanket around herself. She was dancing, but not entirely clothed. 

     “Get out of here!”

     “Sorry, princess. Grandpa never hears me knock and I’m used to—”

     “Get. The. Fuck. Out.”

     I walk out from her room and slam the door shut. I want to tell her to not talk to me like that. My dad would have busted out the good ol’ stick and gave my ass a whooping if I cursed the way my daughter does. I see her baby picture on the wall where she’s adorned in twenties flapper-inspired fashion. My wife loves that sort of thing. I decide to go downstairs to make dinner. I start by cutting some onions for my famous triple meat bolognese sauce, and I turn on the news. I don’t want to listen to my thoughts. They’re too loud. 

     My daughter comes downstairs when I call her for dinner. We sit across from one another at the table, and she refuses to acknowledge my presence. 

     “Why are you staring at me?”

     “You know that scene where frogs fall out the sky? It’s crazy. Tom Cruise though. His performance is—” Forest kisses his fingers, signalling perfection. 

     “What are you talking about?” 

     “I thought you said Tom Cruise was a hottie. Directors love working with him. And the frog scene. You’ve seen it right? You know what else, Joan hasn’t had her surgery. Lost her father young too. You know, also makes me think of the scene before the frogs.”

     “Can you just not talk for like one minute.”  

     “I think it’s one of the better movies of the year. Sad at times—”

     “Dad.”

     “Yeah?”

     “The care home called.”

     “Oh yeah, there’s a caregiver in this movie. Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Man, that guy. One of the greatest. I hope he never dies—”

     “Can you stop!”

     “Fucking rude. All I want to do is have a conversation with you.” 

      “Call the fucking care home back.”

     My daughter leaves without finishing her food. I miss the way she used to laugh with tomato and bits of meat smeared across her face. I want to see that smile.

       I jump up, hit my knee on the table, and as I swing my arm in frustration, I accidentally swipe her plate onto the ground.  I want to apologize to her; I want to listen, but I don’t know how, and there it is—the door slams, and she’s gone. Triple meat sauce everywhere. At least Champ is happy about my mess. Wayne calls as I’m cleaning. It’s as though he senses something is wrong. We’ve always had a clairvoyant element to our friendship ever since we did Peruvian Torch Cactus together. 

     “Bella Coola fly-fishing trip,” is the first thing he says.

     “I don’t have time for your fantasies right now, Wayne.”

     “No, listen. I’m serious.”

     “I don’t have time to go to the Bella Coola.”

     “I bought a plane.”

     “You bought a plane?”

     “Yes, I bought a fucking plane, man. And you’re coming with me this weekend.”

     “I can’t. I need to go visit my father.” 

     “Bring him. I haven’t seen Ron in ages.”

     “Thanks, but—I gotta get going, brother.” 

     “Offer still stands.” 

* * *

     I walk into the care home as though it’s my new office. Everyone here knows me, but not everyone here remembers me. The stench of antiseptics, antibacterial sprays, and anti-everything-alive abuses the nostrils. Phillis, the ol’ broad, is playing cards with John and Lucas. They seem concentrated, but I doubt they have any idea what’s going on. Carolyn is standing at the window petting her taxidermic cat—she’s crossing over into the later stages of dementia.  Carolyn, not the cat. Vascular dementia I believe. She used to be an incredible hockey player. 

     “Forest,” says nurse Anne as she approaches me from behind.

     I turn around and say, “Where’s Ron?” 

     At that moment, the bathroom door opens, and Ron walks out with Suzanne and Lily, two ladies in their late seventies with even fewer inhibitions than my father. Sometimes Suzanne and Lily are beautiful, especially Lily when she remembers how to curl her hair and avoids excess make-up. Today was not one of those days. Lily’s lipstick is all over Ron and Suzanne, but they don’t seem to mind.

     “The cholinesterase inhibitors aren’t working anymore, Forest.”

     “What does that mean?”

     “At some point, they just don’t have the same effect. The effects of sundowning are getting worse—”

     “Speak English,” I say too abruptly. “Sorry. You know me. I don’t usually… Sometimes I just say things like that guy in—”

     “It’s okay. Your father’s symptoms are worsening. In this stage, we can switch him over to Namenda which will reduce some of the symptoms, but it’s important to anticipate his needs to limit his aggression.”

     “Limit aggression,” says my father as he approaches Anne and me with Lily in his arms. Suzanne has already gotten distracted. She screams the name, Gordon. A caregiver quickly guides Suzanne to the hallway, towards the private rooms. Some of the other residences seem totally unaffected by her while others look scared. “Who the hell says I’m aggressive?” my father continues. 

     “I’m going to check on Dorthy,” says Lily.

     “Who’s Dorthy?” asks my father.

     “Who’s who?” says Lily as she detaches herself from my father’s arm. 

     “I need to get the hell out of here,” says my father.

     “That’s a great idea,” says Anne, looking at me. “Forest, are you free today?”

     “No, um—”

     “Who the hell is this guy? I don’t want to go out with him.” 

     My insides rise to my throat. The moment freezes. I’ve gotten used to him forgetting my name, but this is…

     “I’m your son, dad,” I manage to say. 

     “Shut up!” yells my father. 

     “It’s 1999, dad.”

     “It’s not, shit face.” 

     “He’s distressed. Sometimes we have to go with it,” whispers Anne in my ear. “This young man is a good friend of mine. He’d love to take you out.” 

     “I’m not sure today—”

     Anne shoots me a look I usually receive from my wife. 

     “Tomorrow. I’d love to take you out tomorrow…sir.” 

     My father looks at me, and I’m searching for the glimmer in his eye that tells me he knows who I am. I can be an optimist. 

     “Alright, there better be some women wherever we’re going,” says my father. “I gotta clean up the ol’ snake. Not sure what’s going on down there.” 

     My father walks away, and I want to collapse into Anne’s arms. I want to feel the warmth of another human being. I want to tell her my secrets, my pains. 

     I tell her about the new movie I watched with Tom Cruise.

* * *

     My father and I sit in Denny’s, a place we frequented when I was a kid. It smells and looks just as always—cheap. 

      It’s noon, and aside from the couple hungover high school kids wearing ridiculous visor-caps, the place may as well be the Bingo Hall. 

     “Why the hell did you bring me here?”

     “We used to go here all the time when I was a kid. You remember when I chugged maple syrup here? You know, maple syrup is said to—”

     “I remember.”

     “Really?”

     “No. Let’s go look at some titties.” 

     A paper plane soars through the air and lands on our table. 

     “Sorry dawg,” says a teenager with a visor cap.

     My father smiles, grabs the plane, and throws it back towards the group of youngsters. His eyes don’t leave the soaring plane until it lands perfectly on their table. 

     “That’s something I want to do before I die.”

     “What?” I ask. 

     “I want to fly again,” he says with the pleading eyes he had often used on my mother. The only difference is this time his breath doesn’t smell like booze. 

     I’m unsure if he truly remembers that I’m his son. Then he reaches across the table, puts his hand on mine and squeezes it. I can feel the same strength and affection that I felt as a child. I think about all the things this man has done for me. I remember the camping trips where he showed me how to make a fire when most of the wood was wet, the day he taught me how to tie a tie, the time he broke a young man’s arm for giving me my first line of blow, the day he first held his grand-daughter, my daughter—the memories happen all at once.

     I know what I need to do.

* * *

     My father and I meet Wayne at his little cabin on a lake just north of Abbotsford, British Columbia. After a hot coffee to counteract the near-freezing weather, we make our way to the plane at the end of the dock. The plane looks a bit rundown from the outside, but knowing Wayne, the engine is in tiptop condition. My father doesn’t seem to remember Wayne, but they joke about sexual encounters and communists just as always. 

    Wayne lets my father sit in the pilot seat while the plane still rests in the water, and he even goes so far as to allow my father to turn on the engine and bring the plane into the direction for take-off.  My father tells him how much he loves Canso seaplanes. Ron doesn’t have the heart to tell him it’s a 1975 Cessna 185 Amphibian. 

     “How does it feel old man?” Wayne asks.

     My father doesn’t respond, but instead lowers the plane flaps and lifts the rudders. 

     “What are you doing, Ron?” Wayne asks. 

     Before Wayne can say anything else, my father pulls the yoke all the way back. The propellers spin and the plane accelerates.

     “Dad, stop—”

     “Shit on a stick!” yells Wayne.

     My father applies the takeoff power, and before we can say or do anything else, the nose of the plane lifts into the air, and we’re pushed back in our seats. I’m screaming, Wayne’s screaming, and I can’t seem to open my eyes. The plane finally levels out, and I have no idea how much time has gone by. I look out the window; I can barely see the land below us through the fog. 

     Wayne takes a deep breath in, exhales, and says, “That’s a better takeoff than I’ve ever done with this plane.” 

    My father doesn’t seem to hear Wayne. Instead, he seems to be listening to the engine. He looks worried, and I’m unsure why. Suddenly, he starts hitting the compass.

      “Are you sure you’re okay?” I ask my father.

     He doesn’t answer. Sweat leaks from his forehead. 

      “Do you need me to take over?” Wayne asks. 

      “We’re going to take an emergency landing in—” My father trails off. 

     “I would feel more comfortable if I were to land,” says Wayne.

     “To hell with that. This plane, my Canso, is a second child to me, and you’re not ready to take on that sort of responsibility. Look at you—both of you—neither are in uniform. You look like your damn mothers dressed you. Is that a fucking Christmas sweater?”

     “It is,” says the co-pilot.

     “And you, boy. A blazer. Do you realize who we’re fighting here? You look just like your mother—”

     My father looks out the window, and I follow his gaze. The fog is clearing now that we’ve passed the lake and made it further north. The sun shines and day becomes bright. He turns to face Wayne, and he studies him.

     “Let me keep flying.”

     I can tell he remembers Wayne because he’s staring at his forehead, and then he turns to wink at me, trying to hold back his laughter. We used always to make fun of Wayne’s giant ugly forehead.

     “I can do this, son. Let me fly a bit longer and the alien sitting next to me will land it.”

     Wayne touches his forehead, self-conscious as always, but decides to laugh it off. 

     The clouds clear, and so do our worries. And after thirty minutes of enjoying each other’s company in silence, Wayne asks, “seen any good movies lately?” 

     “Nope.

Categories: Fiction

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