Authors: Susan Neville
Tags: #Short Stories (Single Author), #Fiction, #General
The Invention of Flight
THE FLANNERY O'CONNOR AWARD FOR SHORT FICTION
Stories by Susan Neville
Paperback edition published in 2010 by
The University of Georgia Press
Athens, Georgia 30602
Â© 1984 by Susan Neville
All rights reserved
Set in Linotron 202 Baskerville
Printed digitally in the United States of America
The Library of Congress has cataloged the hardcover edition of this book as follows:
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Neville, Susan, 1951-
The invention of flight : stories / by Susan
109 p.; 23 cm.
PS3564.E852515 1984 813â².54âdc19 83-24142
ISBN 0-8203-0706-8 (alk. paper)
Paperback ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-3705-0
British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data available
The author and the publisher gratefully acknowledge the following publications in which stories from this collection first appeared: “Johnny Appleseed,”
Apalachee Quarterly, Pushcart Prize IV
; “Banquet,” “Rondo,”
; “Rain Forest,”
; “Second Coming,”
; “The Beekeeper,”
A Shout in the Street
ISBN for This digital edition: 978-0-8203-3756-2
The Invention of Flight
Lorrine's house in mid-summer. Kitchen full of plastic bags filled with bleached towels, dampening. The hiss of the iron. The outside softened through the gray grid of screens. Her husband's father lying in the yard in a hammock drinking gin and tonics, an old salt feeling in the gentle rocking the roll of the ocean, surrounded by the blue air, a yellow glass beading on a wrought-iron table, arbors of purple clematis and a hedge of white hydrangeas. The town itself surrounded by green rippling corn, by sloping rolls of hay like praying horses.
“Lorrine, more gin.” She puts down the iron, reaches up behind jars of tomatoes for a new bottle, and takes it out to him. The bottle is full but the seal is broken from the watering down, every two bottles really one, every two drinks really one, and then he falls asleep after a few sips and she pours the rest into the hedge and later, when he wakes up, he says, “The old sailor really tied one on, Reeny,” and she says yes, the old sailor really tied one on. He takes the bottle from her, pours some into the glass, mixes it with tonic, says, “You're a blessing to an old man, Reeny,” and lies back into the hammock, rearranges the pillow beneath his head. His lips move out to meet the glass. He takes a drink and then
rests it on his stomach which is round but hard for a man his age. His face looks healthy, tanned. A sun-bleached mustache rests, a pale scar above his lip. But his legs are too white, shrunken, and it's with difficulty that he walks from his room at the back of the house in the morning to his hammock and the return trip at night.
He smiles and Lorrine tenses slightly, realizes too late that his real purpose for getting her out here is that he's full of conversation, and she knows that she will listen too long, barely able to follow it because of his age, because she has never been to any of the places that he talks about nor seen any of the things he has seen and because, even after years in this country, his accent is still thick. A week ago he had spent a half an hour saying tshashoo, tshashoo, tshashoo and she had thought he was talking about sneezes until she realized he wanted a certain kind of nut. “I dinna learn from books,” he says, moving the glass in circles on his stomach. “I saw the fish born in river and go fifty miles away but ever year they come hop hop hop back to where they born.” He pauses, then goes into a long story, something about Finland and ropes, then without transition starts a childhood story about Denmark, about walking miles through snow to see the
, about his father taking him to see their cow slaughtered for the meat, a bloodstained broom and oil drums the things he remembers. Lorrine asks polite questions, has never been able to figure out how not to do that or how to get away from the rambling comfortably. She remembers her husband before he died had been able to just sit back in his own chair, close his eyes, and nod as if he were listening, a transistor radio that his
father couldn't hear bulging in his shirt pocket like cigarettes, broadcasting a game from St. Louis.
The phone rings and she moves toward the door, says, “It's the phone, Papa,” and he says, “I don wanna be a preacher, I don wanna preach. But some day, fifty years, they will be starving, the people starve. The fish, they not as fat as they used to be.” Lorrine nods, smiles, opens the screen door, and shuts it behind her.
She picks up the phone, says, “No,” and hangs up, an irritation but she's thankful for it, hears him call, “Lorrine,” and she goes to the door. “Who was it?” he says, and he smiles at her, lifts his head from the pillow, wants her to come back outside. “Wrong number, Papa.” She turns back into the kitchen, says, “I'll be out later with some lunch.” She takes a linen towel out of the bag and presses the iron to it. She thinks of the old man in the back yard, no relation to her really, not by blood or even country, but so helpless and so many years left in him. In June a cottonwood tree two blocks away had made drifts of white seeds at the side of her house and he had thought it a late snow, had asked her to bring him a sweater with the temperature nearing ninety. But he knows several languages, has fought in wars and seen death, his life more important than hers surely. She seldom goes to church, is not one to believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, but she does believe that God is love, literally, or, to be more exact, that love is God, or at least the evidence, and she is sure that she feels some love for him and that keeps things in balance. She picks up one of his cotton shirts. There is a large spot on the front that did not come out in the wash. She will let it dry completely and next winter she will wet it
again and put it out on the line and the freezing, somehow, will take away the stain. This is one of the things that she knows and forgets that she knows. She forgets these things, then remembers them at odd times, remembers that feeding ground glass or oyster shells to chickens will strengthen the eggs or that rusty nails in the ground will turn hydrangeas blue, forgets them and remembers them with surprise, with a feeling of this is me, this is what I know. She forgets these things because her thoughts are filled with sea stories, with the sound of the old man's voice which she hears all day and as she falls asleep until it seems sometimes that he has drawn the ocean around them and the yard is water, the cornfields water, the heat bending the air is water and at night the trees sound like waves and her bed rocks.
The kitchen gets too warm and she opens a window and hears him begin to talk to her through the screen. She touches the warm towels in neat stacks and the shelf of cool blue canning jars. “In Jamaica,” he says, “the banana drop the pits before it die. Then a little tree. I ask where this come from, they say the banana tree know it going to die.” She irons a crease on a pair of faded pants. The hot iron on the fabric smells like salt.
At night he sits in the room where the television is, where Lorrine and her husband spent their evenings, and he turns on the picture but no sound. The picture he uses as the other half of a conversation. He sees a shark on the screen and says, “Sharks. Now you in my subject,” and he begins a long story about a shark. There is a rope tied to Matt Dillon's saddle and he says, “Ropes. Everything ropes. Climb ropes to get on ship, rope nets, ropes all on the deck, sleep on a bed of
ropes.” Lorrine goes in and out of the room, gives him small glasses of cherry wine from Denmark, brings him corn chips, turns back the covers on his bed, amazed sometimes at how she had spent all of her life first outside of this town and then in it. Some nights she tries to bring up her own subjects, to have a conversation, and he does try to listen, but something she says always reminds him of something and he interrupts her excitedly and begins talking again and continues for hours. But some nights she loves the skin on his face, which is like paper or a fine soap. Some nights she loves the skin on his face and his resemblance to her husband and even some of his stories, and other nights she sits by herself in the dark in the living room, her legs covered with an afghan, the sound of his voice roaring like the inside of a shell.
When their Social Security checks come on the same day, he sends her to the store for honey. He puts thick spoonfuls of it on the yeast biscuits that she makes twice a week, lets it drip and coat his fingers like glass, leave sticky dark spots on his clothes. He smiles like a baby when he eats, purses his mouth like a kiss to blow away flies. She eats some of the honey herself, but it is too thin, not as thick and dark as the sourwood honey her grandfather's bees had made in North Carolina or even the clover honey her father's bees had made. (His hat was covered with a net that reached down to his waist, his pants tied tight around the ankles. In swarming season, if a queen would leave and take the rest of the bees, he could find the tree where they rested on a branch, hanging together as thick and dark and long as an
Amish beard, and he could cut off the branch and take the swarm back to a new hive and none of them would sting him. “Bees are the gentlest creatures,” he would say. “They don't know anger.”)
She sees that there is going to be an auction of the estate of a man that she knew had kept bees and she makes sure the old man has plenty of ice and that it's not going to rain and she calls up her friend Eva whose husband had just retired. Eva picks her up and they drive out to the country. They ride almost as high above the road in Eva's old Studebaker as if they're on a tractor. She looks at the soft faded cotton of her dress and of Eva's dress. There is a faint pleasant odor of bleach. “Do you remember back when flour sacks were printed with pretty designs, the dresses we had from them?” Eva nods, pulls some hair away from her glasses, says, “I'm glad to get away from the house,” and Lorrine says, “So am I. It's so pretty today,” and Eva says, “It is,” and Lorrine thinks at last, a conversation.
Eva tells Lorrine about her husband, about his boredom at being retired, and how she tries to get him interested in things but he seems to be giving up, looks older each day. Lorrine tells Eva about the old man, his nonstop talking, and they both tell stories of aunts taking care of sick uncles, mothers watching after grandmothers, mothers dressing feebleminded children until one of them dies, heroines to both of them, greater than anything that happens in war, heroines to them but crazy too in some way, and Eva gets bold and says, “A perfectly strong woman giving up her life for a child that will never be any good, what's the sense in that?” Lorrine says, “You're right, what's the sense?” She asks
if Eva remembers Jim Harmon, the friend of both their families when they were young, who had left his wife and children in the middle of the winter and never sent any money, all of them too sick with the flu to get to another farm to get help and one of the children close to death before a neighbor stopped by to get some eggs because her hen had stopped laying. And the mother had gotten well and taken care of the farm and the children, wearing herself out in later years, but there was no question of who was good there and who wasn't. Eva looks pious, says, “The good Lord made that hen stop laying.” Lorrine doesn't say anything, has grown up in a town where people claim the Lord sells their house when they're ready to move, that He makes the shopkeepers downtown have a sale on their size on the exact day they go through a pair of shoes. Lorrine has never had much patience with that kind of thinking, always remembers someone down the street who has cancer, so why is God worrying about someone's picnic or a pair of shoes.