Sinking the Eight

By Marc Nieson

It seems your life can be measured.  And I’m not talking about notches in a doorway, candles on a cake, or even that line between dates on your tombstone, but individual moments.  Split seconds, really, that’ll come along quiet and fleeting as heartbeats yet divert your destinations nonetheless.

I imagine on some level I’ve understood this for quite some time.  For years now I’ve been a commercial airline pilot, so you’d think I’d feel like my hands were at some wheel, but believe me, I’m no exception.  Mostly I’m just following reliable flight paths and weather patterns.  Each day I touch down on another identical runway, check into yet another identical hotel room, and come morning start it all over again.  Each day I’m somehow responsible for the lives of hundreds of people, though all of them complete strangers to me.  As I am to them.

A place with palm trees and Mah-jongg, beach balls.  Florida — even the name sounded impossible.

The other day though, I was in Dallas on a stopover and just happened to be standing by the galley when I saw this elderly woman heading down the gangway.  Something seemed remotely familiar about the way she carried herself — a certain slant to her shoulders — much the same as what I remember of my own mother’s silhouette.  I could still picture her in our old kitchen, pacing back and forth, the beige telephone receiver wedged against her collarbone.

“No, no he went along quietly from what they tell me,” I’d heard her say.

She always used to pace when she got tense, and since she was speaking with her mother-in-law, long-distance, she was tense.  You see, the night before my father had been picked up.  In a straightjacket this time, no less.

“Oh, and your super called first thing this morning,” my mother added. “He’s real pissed about the door.”

That had to do with the axes.  They’d found my father locked inside Grandma’s local apartment, so engrossed in calculations he barely looked up from the kitchen table when they came crashing in.  There were dozens of take-out cartons at his feet and a dead Pekinese lying on her living room rug, its stomach distended.  Evidently the smell was what tipped off her neighbors.

I remember the blond streaks in my mother’s hair standing out against her dark bathrobe, that beige phone cord tightening behind her.  Still unseen, I stole away into my father’s study and picked up our other phone extension.

“. . . just have him send a bill and I’ll handle it from down here,” said Grandma.

Leaning back in my father’s chair, I slid open his desk drawer.  Inside lay pristine rows of sharpened pencils and way in the back, his prized slide rule.  I eased it out of its leather case, all shiny and precise.  It moved like oil in my hands, the numbers lining up, shifting through my fingers.  Even though I was 15, I still wasn’t allowed to touch it.

“Look, about your neighbor’s dog,” my mother’s voice hesitated, “I’m sorry… I’ll get your rug cleaned.”

The space on the other end of the phone gradually filled with my grandmother’s breathing, thick with age and cigarettes.  I remember sitting in that study, trying to picture where she was, a place where it was warm in winter.  A place with palm trees and Mah-jongg, beach balls.  Florida — even the name sounded impossible.

“Have you called Disability yet?” Grandma finally asked.

“Yes, weeks ago. This one started back in . . . well, a while ago.”

Then there was another silence.  This one about money.

“All right then, I guess it’s your ball game from here.”

My mother waited.

“Look dear,” said Grandma, “I’m retired. If he’s still in the hospital come April, I’ll surely stop by and visit.”

I had to wait nearly a full minute to hear the second click.  When I arrived back in the kitchen my mother was still standing by the phone, the tips of her fingers blue against that wound line cord.  She looked up at me as if I were a stranger, as if perhaps I’d suddenly stumbled into her dream.

“Bitch,” she said.

It was all she said and I couldn’t blame her.  Yet I couldn’t entirely blame my grandmother either.  This wasn’t the first time they’d put my father away.  Plus, she’d spent nearly forty years with her own loony husband.  I’d never met him, but from what I’d heard he made my father look like a lightweight.  That’s where they figure it all began, though it may go back further.  Just something fathers naturally pass on, like eye color or bad teeth.

My mother still hadn’t moved, the linoleum squares stretching out beneath her slippers to where I stood.  I wished there was something more I could do than just stand there.  Hold her maybe, but that didn’t seem right.  Down in the basement, the boiler kicked in, the walls shivering.

“I gotta go do my route,” I finally said.

My mother stirred. “Huh?”

“My newspapers.”

“Oh, OK. Button up though.”

Outside, it was still dark.  Another couple inches of snow had fallen overnight, adding to drifts that were already knee-high, our whole neighborhood drowning.  That morning, President Johnson’s face was on the front page.  All that loose skin just hanging from his cheeks.  Weighted maybe, by the war.  I leaned over and clipped open a bundle.  Down the block, street lamps cast circles onto the snow.  Each one a perfect moon.

The next afternoon, Mom and I drove out to this new hospital.  Its main gates opened on a long drive flanked by old sycamores.  I counted twelve on my side alone, all naked and in a line.   Brown signs with arrows pointed us toward the parking lots and clinics, everything forthright and clear, even its name: County Psychiatric.  Nothing like the last one my father had stayed at, South Meadows, which sounded more like some petting zoo.  We drove past several men in bright uniforms bent over shovels, clearing paths from one brick building to another.  Everything looking very solid and manicured, like a place where you could regain your bearings.  What I didn’t yet recognize, however, was that those big iron gates and all that acreage were mostly for security.

In the waiting room sat deep wooden chairs with matching tables.  We each chose a magazine from the stack — Mom Good Housekeeping, while mine had a picture of the Apollo rocket ship across its cover.  Like every other boy, I was dreaming of the coming moon shot.  I flipped to the article and had barely started reading when we were interrupted by a sharp rapping.  Across the room a nurse’s lips moved without sound from behind sliding glass.  She pressed a buzzer, and a nearby door swung ajar.

What struck me first was the smell.  Ammonia.  That, and how upstairs all the walls were painted the same pale green.  We had to walk the full length of the hallway before finding my father’s room.  Inside, he was seated at the edge of the bed, his thick legs sticking out from a hospital gown, his gaze following the fall of his arms into his lap.  He seemed broken at the neck.

“For Christ’s sake, just tell him something about your day. You like Algebra don’t you?”

By now, this was an image I’d grown used to, yet somehow it still managed to bother me.  So different from the way other people saw him on the outside — so well-groomed and renowned, envied even.  He was a leading engineer in his field, a man who designed planes for McDonald-Douglas.  A man with stature and waiting research grants, standing offers from universities across the nation, even NASA.  By all accounts he was more than just normal, some even said brilliant.  But then these periods would just come every now and again.  Black holes in his resume.

“Say hello to your father,” said my mother.

She was already seated in the chair beside his bed.  Her “station.”  I stepped forward and took up the weight of his hand to shake.  His fingernails felt long, his palm almost too clammy to grasp.  My mother started speaking then, almost breathlessly — about the weather and the road conditions, Walter Cronkite, Vietnam.  She went on and on, and on.  My father merely stared at his toes.  I stood over by the gated window, trying to notice things that made us different, that could help pull me out of the room.  I’d heard they were trying other therapies on him this time.  Jolting him with electricity.  After some twenty minutes, we were asked to leave.

Outside, distant snow shovels scraped against pavement.  My mother and I walked to our car then drove back out beneath the bare sycamores.  I counted their trunks on the opposite side.  Again, an even dozen.

“You could have said something, you know,” said my mother.

Uh-oh, here it comes, I thought.  It was always like this, at first.  Her having to vent for a while until she’d fall into the rhythm of visits, the exhaustion.  Up ahead a snowplow was plodding along before us.  My mother idled in its wake, bits of salt sprinkling our hood.

“For Christ’s sake, just tell him something about your day. You like Algebra don’t you?”

What could I have said?  That I’d cut out of school after 4th period? Spent the rest of the day at the pool hall, practicing my break.  Time after time the crack and then the balls scattering across the green field.  Aside from my newspaper route, playing pool was the only thing I really cared about.  I’d gotten to where I could drop one off the rack more often than not, but I was still leaving clusters down low, boxing in the cue ball.  I’d gather up the balls and lean back again and again, yet could still hear something wrong in the sound itself.  Something not quite solid yet.

“It’s bad enough I have to hold up his side of the conversation. You could help a little, you know.”

I glanced at her thin fingers curled round the steering wheel, holding on.  I felt for her, really I did, but my father was hardly even at the point where he could stutter yet.  To me, talking just didn’t seem worth the effort.

“Say something, damn it.”

Beneath us I could feel our snow tires, searching for traction.  I quickly gauged her distance from the road’s edge and the plow’s rear up ahead.

“Mom?” I finally said, then waited till she looked my way. “We’re OK here, really, ” and turned on the radio.

Past the next intersection the road widened and we were able to sneak by the plow’s blade.  Patsy Cline was melting from the dashboard, singing about love and dreams.  After a few bars my mother unconsciously hummed along.  Beyond the road’s shoulder, set back into the hills, porch lights were turning on.  Sometimes I caught a glimpse inside the passing window frames.  A color, a curtain, someone reaching for a cupboard.  A whole family, at dinner.

Soon word of my father had gotten around the neighborhood, and weekly tips from my newspaper route were better than usual.  If people wanted to feel sorry for us, who was I not to profit.  Between their pity and my pool hall winnings, I was clearing a solid eighty dollars a week, sometimes as much as a hundred.  At Christmas dinner I slipped an uncle the first of the envelopes, making him promise not to tell my mother whom it was from.  Grocery money, he told her.

Each evening she’d head out to the hospital straight from work, thus sparing me most of the visits.  Some nights I’d come home from the pool hall and fix her a late dinner.  I’d usually try to include something special she liked — a baked potato, Russian dressing for her wedge of lettuce, a slice of lemon in her water.  She’d sit before the placemat, utterly spent, and once or twice even fell asleep mid-bite.  Otherwise, she’d duly offer up his daily progress reports, like news updates from the front.  His “little victories,” as she called them.  Behind her, our countertops overflowed with the fruits of my father’s occupational therapy — wooden napkin holders, macramé, you name it.  As far as I could tell, if that was the best the doctors could come up with, then he could stay home and stare at our walls just as well.

Still, I guess something was different about him this time around — if unsettling.  My mother hadn’t said anything, but I saw it clearly on one weekend visit.  He kept pacing around the dayroom with a cigarette in his hand, hissing orders and slowly herding other patients into a corner without the attendants noticing.  I saw it though, the same way I noticed my mother turn from his dilated eyes.  It was something new, this aggression — maybe from these shock treatments or maybe not, but one thing for sure, it wasn’t stabilizing with medication.  And another thing, my father didn’t smoke.

Soon he began humming to himself, then drawing juice with a straw from one glass and spitting it into another….

On the plus side, with him not home, I could stay out as much as I liked.  I started heading over to the pool hall every afternoon to practice.  Deep down, part of me worried this might suggest some kind of hidden mania in me too, but the more I played, the more in control of the balls I felt.  The secret to the game, I’d realized, lay in using the table itself to work for me.  Its given geometry and physics, that is.  I started bisecting angles to secure my bank shots. Started finessing combinations, too.  Slowly the game was becoming something I could calculate, something whose outcomes I could rely on.  I could look at it all from above, plotting out each and every movement leading up toward the eight ball, the last one you needed to drop in a pocket in order to win.  And I was growing more confident of that last shot than anything.  Sometimes I’d set it up, put the black of the ball and black of the hole in line and close my eyes.  Just push off blindly with my hands, waiting on the sound.  It was that certain.

One night, I came home late with a pocket full of cash to find my mother still awake, folding laundry.  When she spotted me, she folded her own arms before her.

“11:30,” she said. “Don’t you think you’re pushing it? It’s a school night.”

I shrugged.  “I guess. Sorry.”

I poured myself a glass of milk, actually wishing she’d put up more of a stink.  Yell or curse or even ground me, but she just spread out another undershirt onto the kitchen table, the material slowly gaining the size of my father.

“Doesn’t the hospital have a washer-dryer?”

She stared at me, hard.  “It’s the little I can do for him,” she said.

I watched her fold each shirt’s arm loops in on itself.  It made such a neat package — white, with square sure edges.  She piled them one on top of the other.

“I want you to come with me this weekend,” she said.

For the moment I considered it, then drained my glass and set it in the sink.

“Sorry, can’t do. Got a big test to study for,” I lied, already heading for my bedroom.

I plopped onto the bed and started splitting my winnings into two envelopes.  Half for her, and half for me.  Down the hallway, I could hear her footsteps, then the jiggle of my doorknob.

“Open up. Open up this door!”


Her hand released the knob, her slippers shuffling back two steps.

“I’m still your mother, goddamnit! . . . Please?! Please come with me, at least on Sunday?”

Through the door, I could hear my mother’s breath — half-swallowed, like someone standing at the edge of a cliff.  I looked up at the shelves over my desk, at all the model airplanes my father and I had once glued together, piece by piece.  At our pair of Sopwith Camels, still dangling from the ceiling on fishing line.

“OK,” I said. “I’ll come.”

Sundays were family day at the hospital, and recently my father had been transferred to another ward that included off-grounds privileges.  He greeted us at the elevator banks wearing street clothes, then we all got back into the car and drove to the diner out by the highway ramps.  All the visiting families went there for brunch, trudging in like strange tourists among the local churchgoers.  French toast therapy, I called it.

“Isn’t this just great,” said my mother, “the three of us all here together? Eating.”

Her face was bright with makeup, though the rings under her eyes bled through.  My father sat buried in his menu.

“You can have anything you want,” she told him. “Anything but coffee. Doctor’s orders.”

A waitress came, scribbled on her pad then collected our menus.  My mother made small talk, asking questions my father could answer with a simple yes or no, making him feel part of the conversation.  I played my role too, handing him the gift I’d brought — a model kit of the new lunar module.  I figured it was a better project for him to work on than knitting us another toilet paper holder.

All seemed to be going well, until midway through the meal when one of the other patients came walking past our table and grabbed a pancake off my mother’s plate.  He shoved it into his mouth, then started poking at my father with the fork, syrup dripping from his lips.  I started to get up, ready to deck him, but my mother grasped my forearm and the guy quietly ambled off.  Still, my father got all flustered then, his eyes darting.  Soon he began humming to himself, then drawing juice with a straw from one glass and spitting it into another.  When that glass was full he reversed the procedure, never drinking any of it.  I sat there not quite sure whether to laugh or cry.  Beside me, my mother pressed her back against the booth.

Back at the hospital, we walked my father to his new ward.  This one had a larger dayroom with couches and a television on one side, jigsaw puzzles and Ping-Pong on the other.  There was also a decent pool table, which I went over to and shot a couple racks with one of the attendants.  I went easy on him, muffing shots to keep it interesting.  Soon my father came over and stood by the table.  I noticed my mother’s eyes across the room, pleading.

“How about a game,” I asked.

He looked back toward my mother, and gingerly accepted the pool cue from the attendant.  My father stood very still, rolling the stick between his palms, staring at the balls as if trying to remember their colors.  It was like this as far back as I could recall, his process of having to relearn things.  All part of his slow inching back out into the world.  I’d glimpsed my mother carrying in his old textbooks from the car’s back seat earlier.  He was into the studying stage, testing his mind’s waters.  Again.  After struggling to connect with a few balls, he set down the cue and retreated to my mother’s side.  I probably should’ve called him back, but didn’t.  I finished off the rack alone.

Afterwards, out in the parking lot, my mother fumbled with her keys but didn’t reach for the ignition.  We just sat there staring out the windshield.  Overhead hung the moon, visible even in daylight.  I kept thinking that if all went as planned, men would be landing there within a few months time.  Would actually walk on its surface.  Touch its very skin.

My mother sighed. “It didn’t start out this way,” she whispered. “He was so charming, so . . . no, it didn’t start out this way at all.”

That night, I lay awake in bed.  After turning down my radio, I could dimly hear her through the wall that separated our bedrooms.  Her voice, low and off-key, murmuring.  It triggered other hushed voices I’d overheard through that wall.

“But what’s gonna be? What’s gonna be?”

In the middle of the night, my father’s voice shivering like a kite.  Like some distant comet hurtling through the dark, burning itself up bit by bit.

“But what’s gonna be?”

“For the love of God Jim, will you try to sleep. Just try.”

My mother’s voice, answering him.  Always steady and grounding, bringing him back to earth.

But this time, my mother’s murmuring through the wall wasn’t steady or even intelligible, and soon gave way to a slow creaking of the bed.  For a moment I thought my father was back home and that they were making love, but no, he was locked away.  Locked safely behind high gates and barbed wire.  I listened a while longer and finally imagined her rocking herself back and forth, like a baby helplessly trying to comfort itself.

People didn’t eat by sheer coincidence.  The world didn’t stop turning for one man’s madness.

I got out from under my blanket and fetched a creased sheet of loose-leaf from inside my desk.  Recently I’d plotted out my father’s highs and lows from old records dating back from before I was even born.  The resulting graph showed an almost perfect sine curve, dipping above and below the line at fairly regular intervals.  To me the discovery was an important one.  It factored out any question of our being at fault, a point I thought might bring my mother some solace at that moment.  I knocked at her door, and inside found her much as I’d imagined — scooted back against the headboard holding her knees to her chest.  I sat at the edge of her bed and offered her my piece of paper.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Look at the dates.”

I watched her fingers follow the graph as it stretched out into the future, marking the lean and fat years to come.

“Don’t you see,” I said to her, “he’d go up and down with or without you.”

She slapped me then.  Right across the face and it stung like hell, though she was the one who started to cry.  Me, I wasn’t going to lose control of myself for anything.  Looking back now, I realize my graph touched on something else that she herself was only just then coming to decide.

Mid-February brought a sudden thaw.  Puddles of snow gathered along our neighborhood curbsides with nowhere to drain.  A new president had been inaugurated and headlines boasted about the economy.  Almost daily there were thick business circulars to add to my customers’ newspapers, as if I needed any more weight to tote around.  One morning I was duly inserting them when my mother walked into the garage.  She leaned against the door jam.

“It’s been nearly a week,” she said.

She was clasping her coat together at the waist.  We hadn’t spoken since the night of the slap.

“I know,” I said, and waited for her apology.

She took a step forward.  My stack of circulars listed between us.  She scratched her finger across the colored ads and coupons.

“He’s been asking for you,” she said.

Goddamn it, I thought.  Always about him, isn’t it?  I wanted to run past her, to hop on my bike and pedal away, just blast off from the both of them forever.  Something in her gaze held me still, though.

“Will you come?” she said. “He says he wants to play pool with you. Will you come, please?”

It was like her eyes were gasping for breath.

“I’ll come back and pick you up from work,” she offered. “Six o’clock?”

I swallowed.  “OK,” I said.

“Six sharp.”

“OK! OK.”

That afternoon, I went to the library and found a book on billiards that broke down the rails into lengths and widths. It had diagrams with dotted lines and formulas, precise things I thought my father might grab hold of, maybe even appreciate.  Back home, I fixed myself a quick sandwich for dinner and finished the dishes just in time to hear my mother’s car horn.  We were barely at the hospital five minutes before my father broke away from her and headed for the pool table.  I pulled out the book from my coat pocket, its pages all dog-eared and waiting.  I cracked it open and pointed out the first figure to him.

My father pushed aside the book.  “Let’s just play, OK?” he said.

I don’t know if I was more hurt or surprised.  It was the first full sentence I’d heard out of him in months.  He swiftly racked the balls, walked to the other side of the table, and sank a solid-colored ball off the break.

“You’ve been practicing, huh,” I joked.

He looked at me squarely, biting down on the corner of his lip and I realized he’d been doing nothing but that since my last visit. I could see this newfound obsession boiling in his eyes, yet another upon which to hinge his fragile mind.  This offer of a game was just another way to test himself, not unlike his old physics books.  He wasn’t necessarily playing with me, never had.  OK, I thought, you want to play?  Fine.  We’ll play alright.

I watched him approach the next shot.  His bridge had steadied but his stance was still off, leaning in toward the table instead of laying back.  It threw off his perspective a touch, that fraction I knew would matter in the long run.  Still, he cleanly stroked his next shot, the cue ball’s sudden clack drawing the attention of a nearby attendant, who studied the stick in my father’s hand then went back to his crossword.  My father circled the table, all but preening at me.  Inside, I bristled but didn’t take his bait.  Meanwhile, across the room sat my mother, innocently smiling at us.  Her boys, playing.  Her boys forgiving one another.  My father’s run lasted three balls.

As I stood up to take my turn, I whispered, “She’s leaving you, you know,” though I could hardly believe I said it aloud.  At the time it may still well have been the last thing she’d admit.

My father stepped back from the table and looked toward my mother.  He mumbled something but I was too busy to hear, strategically laying out the pockets in my mind.  I took my time, pausing to powder my fingers and gauge my position on the table, determining each point and order of my attack.  Games, just a stupid game of pool I thought, and yet I also knew it’s what was helping put food on our table.  People didn’t eat by sheer coincidence.  The world didn’t stop turning for one man’s madness.  I moved around the table seeing my way clearly from one ball to the next, everything laid out for me straight through to winning.  I dropped four stripes in a row, but then overshot an easy bank.

My father was still standing where I’d left him, staring blankly across the room. He leaned hard against his pool cue and something about the curve of his neck looked familiar.  When he finally turned back toward the table, I could see the deep holes of his eyes.

“Well, go on,” he said, almost begging me to finish him off.

“Nope. It’s your shot.”

He straightened wearily, coming up to the edge of the rail in stages.  Then, as if it were a great weight, he took the chalk up into his palm, working it into the cue’s tip slowly and methodically, blowing on it when he’d finished.  I watched the blue dust drift down onto the few round balls still scattered across the tabletop.  They looked like little planets, out of orbit and thousands of miles apart.  Utterly alone, and mute, and clueless of one another.  And staring out over that green expanse, suddenly all the table’s tiny nicks and craters from dropped balls stood out in relief.  The uneven wear to its rails, a rip near one side pocket, all those slight imperfections that make each table different.  That make, in point of fact, absolute control impossible.

I looked toward my mother, still seated on the couch at the other end of the room, but she was glancing off somewhere else.  Some place, I suddenly realized, that not only didn’t include this ward and my father, but somewhere I wouldn’t figure in either.  When she finally turned our way, I watched another small smile pass her face.  This one, however, was different — already one of remembering.

And I think I can pinpoint that as being the moment — with her across the room, and him trembling over the pool stick, and me somewhere between.  Mind you, nothing momentous in and of itself, but that which eventually grows to be recognized as the quiet turn of consequence.  That split second of apogee, or release.  Meanwhile, the few balls still remaining on the table sat waiting indifferently.  I could have easily said something else to my father then to give me the final edge.  At that point, almost anything would have been enough.  Yet I remained silent.  Believe me, I don’t think it was a question of pity, for I most certainly still wanted to win.  Who doesn’t?  It’s just that suddenly, I wasn’t quite sure which was worse — to be beaten or to be lost.  And so, I didn’t say anything, thinking if by some freak chance he managed to drop the black ball into the hole, then it was his right.  At worst, it could keep him company.

Looking back, I believe at the time we were all expecting something bigger to happen.  All three of us, each in our own way.  Some louder explosion or tumbling down of walls, or maybe even some miraculous last-minute reversal.  Within a month’s time, however, everything we’d all finally admitted to ourselves that day came to pass rather quietly.  My father was discharged from the hospital and came back home, but like I said, he was already long lost to us.  My mother, though I couldn’t bring myself to help or forgive her, silently began packing her things into boxes.  And me, I turned sixteen and could legally drop out of high school, which I promptly did.

In July, a week after my mother backed out of our driveway for the last time, the astronauts finally touched down.  I remember sitting in what remained of our family room, staring at the television set for hours just waiting on that first step.  All of us in the country were, I guess, hoping it would somehow change things back here on earth.  End the war, the riots?  Allow us all to start over fresh?  At one point my father came into the room and stood beside me.  He actually knew some of the engineers working in mission control.  Might’ve even had a chance to sit in one of those seats himself, had things gone differently.

“So, today’s the day,” he said. “Another one for the history books, huh?”

He was squinting at the screen, the moon so bright it made the thin legs of the module shimmer.  I squinted too, taking note of the surrounding lunar surface, all pitted and barren, scarred.  My father made a slight clicking noise with his mouth.

“Pretty amazing, huh?” he said.

I stared on, thinking about all the trials and algorithms that must have gone into coordinating this single footstep this, yes, truly amazing moment at-hand.  All that ambition, and precision, and promise, finally paying off.  I reached up a hand to share it with him, yet found my father had already walked back out of the room.  I barely caught a glimpse of him, disappearing behind the kitchen wall without a sound.

The very next morning, I quit my newspaper route and headed down to the Army recruitment office and lied about who I was — my birth date, my address, you name it.  No one there seemed to mind, though.  At that juncture they just needed bodies.  Then came the Air Force, Vietnam, a marriage, a divorce, any number of things I can now look back on and label as having been marked off by such seemingly surreal yet distinct moments.  In fact, with benefit of hindsight I’ve come to think each of our journeys might just be strange enough for there to be a formula, even for its coincidences.

Take that old woman for example, the one boarding the plane in Dallas.  As she approached, I got a better look at her features and for a split second thought she actually was my mother.  Suddenly there after so many years, not ten feet away from me.  I literally felt my heart gasp.

Of course, though, it wasn’t her.  This woman was still a good bit older than my mother would be.  Plus, she had a man on her arm.  Her trusted husband of many years, I guessed.  He even stepped aside to let her board first, and for a moment she and I shared a smile.  After they made it to their seats, I saw her pull down a pillow from the overhead, then reach for a second.

Later in flight, I kept thinking about this woman, though.  This couple, sitting back there with their heads on those pillows, maybe looking out at the clouds or maybe leaning into one another with clasped palms.  I wondered if they had any children, and if maybe that’s who they were headed to see.  I pictured one, picking them up at the airport in a sedan and driving them home.  A bevy of grandchildren and wine goblets eagerly awaiting their arrival, and then everyone sitting down together to eat.  Maybe even pausing to pray first . . . And then I wondered what she was thinking, this woman.  Wondered if after our shared smile she felt safe knowing I was the pilot.  Wondered how any of them sitting back there could.

As we broke through cloud cover, I looked up from the controls into all that open sky overhead, and how further up you could even glimpse where the atmosphere started to thin into darkness.  So much space, I thought.  So silent and surrounding, erasing any bearings you might hold.  Yet at the same time, I knew there were instruments on the facing panel that could place us, even to the extent of decimal points.  Sometimes while flying I can feel at the very center of such certainty and sometimes I can even close my eyes, because it’s all on autopilot.  In truth, I never actually fly the plane for more than eight minutes each flight, and even then it’s mostly a matter of filling in the blanks, procedure.  But there are moments sometimes when you think, by God, I can take it into my own hands.  Change course, hijack them to some foreign land, or just crash onto a desert island to see who survives, and who doesn’t.

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About Marc Nieson

Marc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School.  His background includes filmmaking, children’s theatre, building construction, and a season with a one-ring circus.  Excerpts from Schoolhouse: A Memoir in 13 Lessons have appeared in Literary Review, Iowa Review, Green Mountains Review, and Chautauqua.  Recent fiction is in Conjunctions, Hawk & Handsaw, the 2011 Wordstock Ten and Stripped anthologies.  His prose has earned two Pushcart Prize nominations and a Raymond Carver Short Story Award. His award-winning feature-length screenplays include Speed of Life, The Dream Catcher and Bottomland.  He serves on the faculty of Chatham University, and is working on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs. Another prize winning story of Nieson's, "The Last Hours of Pompeii," can be read online at Carve Magazine.


  1. Posted December 2012 at 1:11 am | Permalink

    Your story is absolutely beautiful. It is difficult to put into words, to a well versed writer, how deserving your writing is. I just started writing in the last few years and find your work a work of something I would want to follow. Thank you. Well done from a Rookie. And I look forward to seeing your movie, “The Dream Catcher.”

  2. Martha McCarty
    Posted January 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Every now and then I experience author envy, steeped in admiration. I envy and admire the seasoned writers of Iowa Writers Workshop and a writer like Nieson for beauty and mastery of the craft.

  3. Posted January 2014 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Marc Nieson –

    I just had the pleasure of reading your prose from Literal Latte, “Sinking the Eight.” I felt inspired by your ability to bridge the scenes with the space references: the perfect moon, the black holes in his resume, the pool balls like planets, etc. All the best to you –

    Meredith Morckel

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