A Realistic Airplane

Some tragedies are too much for one child to bear.


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Felix drew a picture of an airplane on the back of a yellow envelope marked “Final Notification.” He sketched the cockpit while his grandma wheezed on the other end of the phone. It was the first aviation drawing he’d created in his nine years of life where he’d gotten the angle right so that the wings didn’t look like disproportional stubs. He was nearing mastery, and he felt the chill of brilliance sneaking through his fingers and up into his throat. He would have told his grandma if the phone speaker hadn’t been so full of gasping, choke, and then thunk. Felix dotted a few last rivets on the airplane’s shell. It was a P-66 Vanguard fighter plane, an old one, a beauty, like the one he’d seen in the book at school called Wings of War.

He handed the phone to his dad when his grandma stopped talking. He wasn’t sure she was dead, but he had an idea, a picture in his head — charred bodies strewn in ditches in black-and-white photos, like the photographs in the book at school called Victory at Great Expense. He decided he might draw a corpse someday, since the airplane had turned out so well. He pushed the envelope on which he’d drawn the plane toward his dad, who was shouting into the receiver. His dad slammed down the phone, picked it back up, and punched the numbers 9-1-1. Felix knew those numbers were for emergencies only. He’d learned that in a booklet at school featuring a husky dog wearing a beret that shook his paw remonstratively at a pack of snickering wolves. The booklet was called Crying Wolf and Real Emergencies. Felix avoided dialing numbers as much as possible for this very reason. He feared his fingers might slip and accidentally dial 9-1-1, and then he’d go to jail and never own a husky.

His dad shouted into the phone. His fingers tightened around the envelope featuring Felix’s excellently drawn airplane, crinkling the nose and whirring propeller. His dad didn’t look at it, but when he finally did, Felix knew he’d be impressed, would forget all about Mrs. Murdock’s Social Butterflies Bar Graph that had shown up in the mailbox last week along with a batch of red and yellow envelopes stamped “Notice.” On the graph, all the kids in Felix’s class were represented by pastel rectangles. But Felix was crimson. He didn’t like the color that was like the envelopes his dad swore at and were too dark to draw on. He didn’t like that his rectangle was the stubbiest. He wasn’t stupid because he could read everything and he remembered everything and he finished his Mad Minute Math problems either first or second after Wilson Betts. And he didn’t like the way Mrs. Murdock described him: Felix keeps to himself, sometimes hides his head in his flip-top desk, where he stashes half-eaten tuna sandwiches. The other kids hold their noses and call him Fishy Felix. His dad had pulled the note away before he could read the rest. But he’d only hid his head in his flip-top desk four times. And he hid tuna sandwiches because he might get hungry between lunch and the end of school. It was a matter of saving, like his dad said. When you have enough saved, nothing can hurt you.

They’d beat the ambulance to Grandma’s, Felix’s dad bet. Felix was already wearing his coat because it was October and his dad saved by keeping the heat off. The TV screen turned to snow and fizz last month, and last week the lights stopped, even his nightlight shaped like a princess. He hated that princess, wished she was a P-66 bomber, but he missed her pink light. Maybe the princess looked like his mom. Maybe his mom was nothing like that. He’d grown out of imagining his mom as a princess or astronaut or professional wrestler. Grown out of that like his dad had grown out of his job at Burger King. His dad could do better than a hairnet and minimum wage and he had to. Felix agreed completely with the concept of unrecognized potential. Felix would fix airplanes, like his dad who fixed cars, who’d fixed their Cutlass’ shot starter three days ago. Without his skill, the car wouldn’t have started up so beautifully, his dad said, so that they could rush to Grandma’s house and help. Helping family was most important.

“I love your grandma, Felix. You can tell by the way I’m crying. See.” His dad took a hand from the steering wheel, wiped his cheek, and then brushed a wet warmth against Felix’s hand. “It’s okay for a guy to cry sometimes. Remember how to be sad. Whatever happens with Grandma is okay. It’s okay to feel any way you want.”

Felix dried his wet hand inside his pocket. He wanted to tell his dad how he’d figured out that crying didn’t fix anything. That might make his dad feel better to know it didn’t help to feel bad. But he also knew how much he hated when teachers told him how he should feel. So Felix concentrated, closed his eyes and traced lines against his eyelids. The corpse drawing was shaping perfectly in his mind. He just needed some blank paper to draw on.

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