Originally published in The Drunken Boat, 2010.
I’m next. The instructor has us jumping from a rusty, desert-infected Cessna that has no engine and an owl nesting in the tail. The four people before me have all landed on the mattress. Tumbleweeds roll by like desert beach balls and bounce off the back of the plane. A government sign is duct-taped to the fuselage. Owl property of Arizona State Wildlife Conservation Unit, removal prohibited.
The mattress is bleached brick-like in the desert sun. It’s been jumped on a few hundred times too many and is covered in owl shit. I wonder if my helmet looks as ridiculous on me as it does on the others. Mary McAdams, forty-eight, housewife from Cleveland, nose like a pigeon. The helmet makes her face look as if it’s caught in a vice.
I lied during the meet-and-greet earlier in the day. Introduced myself and said I do this type of stuff all the time. Made up a story about Everest and a daring cold-weather rescue. Said a few things on how I like to live dangerously, seek out adventure and face life head on—real manly man stuff. A few people even clapped. My kid Ritchie would have been proud.
The other jumpers look like they’re part of a Superhero Conglomerate. Barry Rossmoor, eighty-five, looks like he eats push-ups for breakfast. Michael Johanson, twenty-nine and strapping from Pittsburg. He mentioned something about cages and sharks. Shirley Cross, thirty-three, three marathons and a thing called The Female X-Game Triatha-something. She’d already done two of them this year and it’s only April.
The instructor is a guy called Skinny. He weighs about three hundred pounds and I find it hard to imagine a parachute big enough to hold him. Possibly something from the Space Shuttle, or the kind they pull behind dragsters. Either way, the physics are against him. He is covered in hot sweaty dust and has a beard that requires constant licking to keep the area around his mouth clean. He’s straight out of the Old West, looks like he sleeps on the desert floor with only a blanket for company.
“Okay, Gary. Now remember, relax and think about your training,” says Skinny. “I want a big high arch.”
I step out onto the rusting wheel of the practice-plane, holding fast to the pockmarked wing support. My training? I’m scared. This isn’t even the real thing and I’m already freaked out. Maybe Donna was right. Maybe I’m spineless. A few things pop into my brain in no particular order. Feet out—arms out—look to your left—no, your other left—dangle your feet—tighten your helmet—hold on—don’t hold on—hurry up—slow down.
So I jump.
And I miss the mattress.
Not sure how. I arched. I dangled. In the end, I come up with some story about the owl and how it spooked me. Add something about damn birds and fucking government protection agencies. They seem to buy it. Michael quietly states the obvious, that owls are nocturnal, but no one seems to hear.
After everyone lands on the mattress except me, Skinny marches us into the hangar. Dusty parachute-packs hang from the ceiling on long metal talons that look like meat hooks. Airplane parts are strewn across the hangar floor. Old Barry says something about wanting to do a few bench presses with a couple of pistons, and Shirley laughs as she quietly jogs in place. Skinny gathers us around a table setup in the middle of the hangar. “Ok, so, you’ve all done this before,” he says. “I shouldn’t need to go over very much.”
The waiver and consent form signed before class had clearly stated this jump was solo. Not for first time jumpers. Where it had listed qualifications and minimum jump requirements; I checked the appropriate boxes. Where it talked in complicated terms about Automatic Activation Devices, and Accelerated Freefall Jumpmaster Certification; again, I checked the boxes. Where it asked if I had experience packing my own chute, I circled yes. The sign from the highway had seemed so innocent at the time. Skinny’s High Flyin’ Parachute School—we got the skinny on skydiving.
It had been a long trip to this point. Connecticut, Ohio, Wisconsin, all in two days. After Wisconsin, I skipped over to Montana, sped north and took in the Canadian Rockies. Then, I drove down the coast and headed inland. I stopped only to piss and eat pumpkin seeds. The thought of my wife and Daan Fontaine’s bare ass kept me moving. That’s right, Daan with two A’s and the busiest construction business in Watertown, Connecticut. Big, manly Daan Construction vehicles parked in dozens of driveways like mine throughout the city—the A’s in his logo forming an ingenious house with peaked roofs that suggested two kids and a loving wife tucked neatly inside. Daan was cool and tough. Said things like “I fired his ass,” and “My money’s on the Cowboys by seven points.” I originally hired him to install a kitchen cook-top landing. I should have known better when the project turned into granite countertops and custom overhead lighting.
I thought Donna might be cheating on me, but to see it in action, see it laid out in the whiteness of Daan Fontaine’s ass, was something else entirely. Daan Fontaine? I’d just written the guy a check for new kitchen cabinets and a computer controlled Garbage Disposal System. He’d given me a ride to work that morning.
Daan’s muscled back and the familiar sounds of my wife’s wispy cries struck me dumb and motionless. I stood in the doorway and watched as he grabbed Donna’s heels and pushed them up over her head.
“Fuck me!” Donna yelled. “I’m yours cowboy!”
I’ll be honest. I was a little excited that it was Daan Fontaine. I mean, who wouldn’t want it to be Daan Fontaine? My wife was fucking our high school quarterback, I can’t think of many people from back in the day who wouldn’t be impressed with something like that. Manly Daan they called him, and he once held within him the dreams of every person in Watertown. Such a surprise when he only lasted three days with an outfit down south. The football hopes of a town crushed, the Daan Construction dynasty born.
I could only muster, “Hey, it’s me.” At first, they didn’t hear.
“Cum inside of me, Daan. Fluff my curtains!”
I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by fluff my curtains. From my vantage point they looked like two spiders back-to-back, a position obviously requiring much practice and ingenuity. This wasn’t the first time my wife’s curtains had been fluffed by the likes of Daan Fontaine, of this I was quite sure.
“Hey, it’s me,” I said again.
Daan spun around. His dick popped out, hard and glistening. “Jesus, Gary!” Donna screamed. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“It was a half day,” I said, standing there like a kid asking his parents for a glass of milk. Daan got out of bed and walked calmly around the room collecting his things. “Sorry about this Buddy,” he said on his way out, “we’ll get a brewski.”
I watched as Donna gathered her wrinkled clothes in a heaping handful in front of her breasts. “You should have seen this coming,” she said, and then locked herself in the bathroom. I turned and walked down into the basement, spent the night on the futon we’d once shared in college. I found her the next day in the kitchen and asked if she really wanted me to leave.
So, I left.
I got in my car and started driving. Drove until Ohio, Canada, and California. Drove until Arizona, and a stretch of road off Highway 10 with one lone sign: Skinny’s High Flyin’ Parachute School.
I didn’t think of Ritchie once the entire drive.
Donna always said I needed to be tougher. Rolled her eyes when I suggested that mowing the lawn in my socks seemed pretty tough to me. It always started like that with her and me. “Be a man,” she’d say. I’d try something like archery or butterfly collecting, but it was never enough.
“Are you ever going to take this seriously?” She’d ask.
Skinny fits us with jumpsuits and the proper footwear. I’m the only one who doesn’t have his own Jumping Gloves. I say I left mine in my jump locker back in Connecticut, and Skinny lends me his. Michael asks questions about his chute’s Aspect Ratio and the others seem pleased with Skinny’s answer. I nod my head and make a comment about the color of the chute’s fabric and downplay the fact that Skinny helped me pack it. Old Barry wants to know if he can go first so he can catch footage of everyone else coming down. Skinny says that would be fine.
“Ok, let’s suit up,” Skinny says. Everyone has the chutes on their backs in what feels like seconds. I struggle with the straps, almost pulling the ripcord by accident before Skinny comes to my rescue. I drop a story about this chute being different from my one at home. He nods and mumbles something about Nam.
We form a single line and march out of the hangar. Dust blows across the cracked concrete under our feet. Skinny makes a joke about him jumping too and everyone laughs. It takes me a minute to realize he’s flying the plane. I see it parked in the distance. Once we get close enough, I can tell the plane is barely a plane. Skinny looks more like a plane than this plane, and the thought of him and rest of us fitting inside stops me in my tracks. What the fuck am I thinking? Who am I trying to impress? I say to myself.
God how I’d tried. The constant putdowns, the daily jibes. I thought the addition of children would soften her but when Ritchie came along, she buckled down on me even harder.
“Why don’t you get a real job?” she’d say.
“I have a real job.”
“You’re a Shopping Cart Wrangler, Gary. If it weren’t for my salary and your mother dropping dead last year, we’d be on the street.”
“But I get to spend time with Ritchie.”
“We’ll be lucky if the kid doesn’t end up gay.”
So, I bought Ritchie and I baseball gloves and found a field a few blocks from home where we could throw the ball. “The smack of the ball is hurting my hand,” I told him, after one of his particularly fast zingers.
“I can throw it softer, Dad,” he said.
Ritchie and I enjoyed long walks and building cardboard spaceships. Donna thought the walks were a waste of time and the spaceships made too much of a mess. “Find the boy a hobby Gary,” she said, “and grow some fucking balls.”
Old Barry sees me hesitate on the tarmac and walks back. “Gary, what’s the matter? The sky a little higher here than in Connecticut?” He laughs, and for the first time I can see the age in his face. “Come on, I’ll get great video of you coming down.” I gather myself and press on towards the plane. I follow Barry’s eighty-five-year-old footsteps to the jump door.
Shirley hops in first with Michael close behind. Mary—the only one visibly as nervous as I am—hops in with a confidence that belies her scrunched helmet face. Old Barry does a few chin-ups on the wing support before hoisting himself into the plane. I flop down on the floor, Barry and Michael lift me the rest of the way in. Skinny gets in the cockpit and the plane leans heavily to one side. I think I hear a rivet pop.
“Everyone OK back there?” He says while pulling on his headphones. Mary lets out a Woo Hoo that surprises everyone. Someone says, Fuckin Eh! Let’s go! And Skinny starts the engine. The roar of the prop makes my head rattle inside my helmet. I pull the strap tight and feel my cheeks bulge. Mary throws me thumbs up and I try to return it but the message is lost inside Skinny’s borrowed gloves.
The airplane shakes its way toward the runway, Skinny hits every bump and pothole. I search for something to hold onto and accidentally grab Shirley’s ankle. I don’t turn around and she doesn’t move. I calm myself for a minute with the thought she might have actually enjoyed it. Finally I let go and reach for a strap laid across the floor made for grabbing.
After several more minutes of bumping and bobbing, Skinny turns the plane and faces it down the runway. “Ok, everyone tucked in nice?” he asks. A few people scream yes. I stare straight ahead and watch as Skinny pins the throttle.
The airplane rocks and sways. The tail swerves back and forth. Halfway down the runway, the tail lifts slightly and bounces back to the ground. At three quarters down the runway, the front wheel lifts briefly. At four fifths and not too much fucking room left, the whole machine claws its way into the sky. Skinny turns and smiles at everyone. He yells that I look a little pale.
I start to sweat. My chest pounds underneath my white jumpsuit and my helmet slips down the front of my face. Skinny yells something to the group and the plane hits an air pocket. My stomach smacks the top of my mouth and one of my Jump Gloves slips off and hits the ceiling. Barry picks it up and hands it back to me with a wink. I keep hold of the strap on the floor while I pull the glove back on with my teeth. Skinny yells something again and this time everyone moves towards the door. I’m second to last in line, one in front of Michael.
Barry goes first. Jumps out backwards, already filming. Shirley screams Fuckin Eh and jumps out after him. Mary takes a few seconds, steadies herself, gives one last tug at her helmet and she’s gone.
I pause and wait. I feel Michael pushing me with his eyes. I have a thought. One about me back home in Connecticut, waking up in the middle of the night and watching Donna do that thing to herself I used to call “Mr. Finger”, and feeling disappointed when she tells me to just go back to sleep. And I think about a push. A slight soft push from behind, almost imperceptible, but a push all the same. The floor of the airplane drops away and I’m out, falling.
I see sky, then ground, then sky again. I pull my ripcord hard as I can.
The cold metal handle is loose in my hand.
The thought of a backup chute crosses my mind only briefly. I remember Donna on our wedding night, the kind of soft gentle sex you can wrap a lifetime in. I think of Ritchie’s hand as he holds mine tight during a walk. I dream of cardboard ships and Saturday morning cartoons, and I remember that he needs me. That I can’t leave him with her, that she is a terrible person and I am decent and good and loving.
The ground is running to meet me.