Gabrielle Hovendon


Gabrielle Hovendon is an MFA student at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches creative writing and composition. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in more than a dozen publications, including WhiskeyPaper, Necessary Fiction, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, and apt. She is currently at work on a novel about the lives of two nineteenth-century mathematicians.

From the Airplane, From the Water Tower

The plane is two and a half feet long and three feet wide, fully functional. It has no motor, no remote controls, and no landing gear. Its empennage is a perfect balance between fin and tailplane. It weighs 490 grams, less than a paperback book, a bottle of water, a family of field mice.

The plane is silver and white, the colors of the Spirit of St. Louis during its May 1927 flight, and lettered with a delicate JL, the script more intricately painted than the makeup the other girls apply in the locker room before school. There is a single gumdrop-sized spot of blood on the corner of the wing where a splinter of balsa shoved itself under Rachel’s fingernail. It costs two hundred dollars and takes three weeks to build.

She shapes wood to make the formers, longerons, spars, and ribs. She skins and dopes it with tissue paper, microfilm being too expensive, and she winds rubber in a loop around its propeller. Books about Reynolds numbers and airfoil litter the floor in her grandfather’s living room. When it finally takes flight, it will glide through the air slower than a person walking.

As she builds the plane, she dreams about skydiving. She dreams about the sensation of jumping off high rocks into water, of driving fast over sudden hills, of closing her eyes and going limp on roller coasters. She dreams about Janna Landolfi, and then she doesn’t need to dream anymore.

We grew not to mind the plummeting feeling in our stomachs. We learned to ignore the open hatch, the harnesses on our backs, the pitch of the plane against the sky. Our knees buckled on impact, our joints compressing to concrete, and we learned that landing was like jumping out a second-story window. It was 1943. We applied Vaseline to our faces so the wind wouldn’t chap our skin.

Rachel launches the model airplane from the roof of the gymnasium. Mr. Zimmerman, the physics teacher, has lent her the keys and now stands in the parking lot, arms folded against his chest, waiting for her to launch it. It is a perfect September day, sunny and warm, and Rachel faces into the breeze, waiting. Any minute now, Janna will be jogging by, maybe adjusting her sweatband, maybe scanning the sky. Janna, who trains every day for her cross country meets. Janna, who helps the girl in the wheelchair use the elevator between classes. Janna, who laughs at every joke like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard, and who has no idea that Rachel exists.

Mr. Zimmerman is calling something to her from the parking lot, probably telling her to hurry up, but Rachel waits to launch the plane until she sees Janna appear around the curve of the music wing. Javelin-like, she throws it straight into the air and it immediately catches a cross-breeze, the wings rolling and yawing, the weak updraft fading, the nose turning towards the ground. She sees Janna jogging across the other side of the parking lot, not once looking up, and in front of her the plane is angling downward, accelerating out of the air, and then everything is falling out of the sky and her teacher is throwing up his hands and the plane’s wing is smashing to toothpicks on the asphalt, part of it sliding under the algebra teacher’s car, and even with Mr. Zimmerman’s help it will take weeks for her to rebuild and still she doesn’t give a shit, because she knows there is a mathematical constant for love and it is far, far stronger than the laws of gravity or magnetics.

We enlisted the day we turned eighteen. In the training camp at Fort Benning, the commanders had us packing and repacking parachutes on the ground of an abandoned brickyard for a week straight. We slept like stones and dreamed of drowning in dark canvas. On our first flight up, the sergeant told us to think of it as taking a step. That’s all it really is, he said. Right foot, left foot, empty space. Gravity will do the rest.

The year Rachel’s parents died, her grandfather bought her her first model airplane kit. It was the injection-molded polystyrene kind, basically a box of cheap interlocking white plastic. It was a glider, and he helped her build it and launch it from the roof of their garage on Pearl Street. The weather had been cloudy all that day, and rain dissolved the glue midflight so that the plane crumbled in the air like a bad magic trick.

That was 1980. She was six years old, and her grandfather had wanted her not to be afraid of flight. What he hadn’t expected was that she would become fascinated by it, that she would spend the next ten years constructing elaborate plans to become a stunt flyer or a fighter jet pilot, to compete in legendary international model airplane competitions: a blimp hangar in Nantes, the atrium of a five-star Singapore hotel, a decommissioned salt mine in Romania.

Now he tells her nearly once a month that she doesn’t want that kind of life, a girl like her stuck in a cockpit for eight hours a day, but she only rolls her eyes and tells him he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. What he really means is, you don’t want to find something that you love so much you can’t afford to lose it, but she doesn’t know that.

They’ve never gotten along well, and now that she’s in high school she hates more than ever the habits that define their life together: the old-fashioned sandwiches of spam on white bread, onions fried in margarine, long shreds of corned beef and slimy tongues of cabbage that he packs in her lunch every morning; the boxes of #2 pencils, perfectly sharpened and replaced in the box, that he leaves in her backpack every September; the college brochures that he displays neatly on the kitchen table before breakfast.

Most of all, she hates that he knows everything without being told. Every day, she goes straight up to her room after school and works on her airplanes until dinner. If she can’t see him, she doesn’t have to know there’s pity in his eyes.

Paratrooper was an ugly word. Parachutist was better, the sound mimicking the swish of air around our bodies. We dropped from planes, seeding the air above Arnhem, Oosterbeek, Wolfheze, Driel. We drifted like dandelion puffs, like maple whirlybirds. The Loire Valley. Operation Market Garden. We were not beautiful. We fell like jellyfish. We fell from the clouds like ugly angels.

In gym class, Rachel claims to have her period again so she can sit on the bleachers and not play. Last week, the field hockey team stripped down to their underwear and cornered her in the locker room, pressing up against the wall and demanding if she liked it. How’s that, dyke? they shouted. She’s a junior in high school, and next year she’ll be applying to every aviation and aeronautics program she can find, getting the hell out via two-point-five tons of metal and engines.

From the bleachers she watches Janna watching the boys in their gym class, the perfect sweaty machines of their bodies, their chests not too hairy, their stomachs lacking the accreted fat that will sneak up on them halfway through their twenties, their every part more perfect than it has ever been or will be again, their every seamless movements a testament to the unbreakable perpetual motion machine of adolescence.

Today Rachel tries the familiar experiment: be interested in these bodies. Remember that funny thing Luke said yesterday? See Cam running through his lines for the school play? Look how James hits the free throw every single time, how he’s first in their class, how he wants to be a doctor. Don’t look at Erica, lifting her arms above her head and stretching just… so… slowly. Don’t think about how Lindsay giggled and shrieked when she let the tarantula wander all up and down her shoulders in biology class last week. Don’t think about the way Sarah smells like ripe peaches.

She fails at this, just as she fails at not watching Janna out of the corner of her eye in the locker room, the perfect compression of her breasts in her sports bra, the lime green shock of her panties. Things she doesn’t want to know and can’t stop picturing. But because she’s sitting on the bleachers, she gets to see Luke walking up to Janna, gets to see him shift his weight and drop the basketball he’s carrying, then turn bright red and mumble something that makes Janna blush and nod and that, later that day, will reveal itself to be an invitation to the homecoming dance.

Rachel has seen planes gain altitude, stall, and crash more times than she can count, but she’s never known what that felt like until now.

After a while, we got so we could tell a newcomer by the way he stayed silent all the way up. Twelve hundred feet in the back of a C-47 cargo plane, the air thin and sharp as glass around us. Some of us screamed on our first jumps, though none of us ever admitted to it. 120 mph: the terminal velocity of a human falling on his stomach.

The rumors glide down the halls at school, smooth and steady, walking pace. Luke and Janna were on the homecoming court. They were renting a limo to take them to the dance. They were talking about being boyfriend and girlfriend.

All day, Rachel feels the need for action. She skips her after-school meeting with Mr. Zimmerman, who thinks that if she switches to basswood and Japanese tissue she can qualify for a statewide competition, and drives out to the amusement park in Sandona to ride roller coasters by herself. Every time a ride approaches a drop, she grips the safety bar so tightly her knuckles ache: not fear, but longing.

By the time she gets home, it’s almost dark. She takes the old pair of clippers from the cabinet above the bathroom sink and brings them to the living room.

“Cut my hair,” she announces, holding out the clippers.

Her grandfather puts down his newspaper.

“Just like yours,” she adds. “Please?”

“What happened?” he asks, but she doesn’t say anything, just stands there on the braided rug holding up the clippers, until he stands up and brings her to the kitchen and lays out a towel and washes her hair. When she lifts her dripping head from the sink, she knows he can see she’s crying.

Her grandfather doesn’t ask questions, just does what she tells him to, a clean military buzz all over. When he’s finished, she leaves him to sweep up the curls of hair and goes to the bathroom to look in the mirror.

“How do you like it?” he calls.

She says nothing, and the silence seeps through the air and into her skin. She walks back to the kitchen.

“Can I graduate early?” she asks.

Faster than the roller coasters in Sandona, that’s how fast her grandfather’s face drops. He slams the lid on the trashcan, on the perfect inches of hair covering this morning’s eggshells and coffee grounds.

“Why can’t you just be content?” he asks, and she has no answer.

By the end of the war, we knew our parachutes better than our own skin. The dirty khaki of the harness, the light green of the canopy. The inky blue stamps, AN-6513 1A, T5 42-40. The metal carabiners, the ripcord pins, the suspension lines. The mandatory first aid kit strapped to the shoulder strap – one bandage, one tourniquet, one morphine syrette – and the eight-page manual titled Emergency Uses of the Parachute. In case one of us fell out of the plane, we joked.

She hates the new plane. She hates the shape of its nose and the size of its wings and just every last inch of it. The Japanese tissue that Mr. Zimmerman recommended is impossible to use; it stretches and tears and makes the glue clump together in clear plastic turds. She brings it to the garage to stuff it in the trash, but when she’s face to face with the rotting banana peels and meat wrappers she can’t quite bring herself to destroy it.

Instead, she brings the plane up to the attic, planning to jettison it and then look into the cost of skydiving lessons. Her bare scalp itches. She’s sick of model airplanes, sick of everything fake and scaled down and half-assed. She wants to fly a real plane. She wants to drop out of school. She wants to drop out of something high up in the clouds.

Walking through the attic, she hits her head on a low beam and drops the plane. A wing snaps off with the clean-sounding crack of a corncob and she kicks at the nearest thing she can find. Her foot hits something heavy, and she drags away a pile of old blankets and sheets to find her grandfather’s old combat gear embalmed in a greasy layer of cobwebs and dust. She uncovers a helmet, a metal canteen, a pair of boots that flakes leather from the sides, and a fat canvas sack. She remembers how her grandfather came to her classroom in fourth grade and gave a talk about the war, how afterwards her teacher had stood up and clapped with tears in her eyes.

Her eye returns to the canvas sack. A parachute.

Always that tiny prickle of fear. If someone packed it wrong. If someone sabotaged it. The girls in the nylon factories, their thin pale fingers and their bare legs, they were the ones we thought about the most. Working double shifts, distracted by word from the front, by no word from the front: we wanted to blame them, and not our buddies, if something went wrong. We had all heard of soldiers opening their parachutes too soon, soldiers getting their lines tangled around another parachute, around their own legs, around the tail of the airplane. We had heard of necks snapped in midair by the whiplash of an improperly opened chute. In the end it came down to a few dozen yards of fabric and a radical suspension of doubt.

Rachel does the calculations. For the parachute to generate sufficient drag and slow her fall, she’ll have to jump from a height of sixty feet, minimum. There are only a few buildings in town that meet the requirements: a bank branch, a Presbyterian church, the government office building, and an aggressively dismal low-income nursing home that looks like a giant dirty domino.

One of her teachers anonymously requests that the guidance counselor make an appointment with her, and she gets called into his office after lunch one Friday. The official report says that she’s been inattentive in class, but the guidance counselor seems more concerned about her social life. Rachel bets that it’s Mr. Zimmerman who filed the request. She invents Friday night parties and movie theater dates to answer the counselor’s transparent questions and then steers the conversation toward college. She leaves his office with a packet of ROTC fliers in her arms.

That weekend she settles on the water tower: its big rusting head, its spindly little legs, the zigzag girders and the anemic blue of it against the sky. Her grandfather was one of the men who had built the water tower after the war, all the former soldiers restless and needing to work themselves into a state of physical pain every single day, into a kind of stunned motionlessness. When they pass it in the car on the way to the grocery store, he reminds her how many of the other builders he knew. Fifty pounds of shrapnel between all of us, he tells her every time.

She checks and rechecks her numbers. She consults no one. She hesitates.

There was one water landing, unintentional and unplanned. The marsh came out of nowhere, like slamming into a wall of glass. I was sure my legs were broken, but somehow I kicked back up to the surface. A month later, several men in our brigade were hit by cannonballs while we drifted down over the flat gray fields of Eindhoven. One pierced the center of a man’s parachute so that from above it looked like a bloody, unblinking eye. Sometimes we had to leave the canopies where we landed, tangled and deflated, like torn hair and molted skins. Years later we learned that farmers in France had begun to plow them up, and I imagined the dull green blooming out of the dirt like a horrible forgotten creeper vine, mandrake, monster.

On the Wednesday before homecoming, Rachel learns that Luke and Janna are officially dating. The news reaches her in the cafeteria, where three girls are discussing their dresses, their dinner reservations, and the states of their parents’ liquor cabinets. Rachel feels something cold slither down her spine, something that has nothing to do with the canned peaches she’s just swallowed.

She gets a hall pass from the lunch monitor and instead of going to the bathroom finds Janna’s locker on the third floor, tears a page from her history binder, and writes Janna a note.

Go outside and watch the water tower at four o’clock this Friday. She wants to add, this is how you make me feel, like something in free-fall, but lunch is almost over and she can’t find the right words. She signs it, Your Secret Admirer.

We were some of the first to see what the Earth looked like from above. Lindbergh and the Wrights were too busy not crashing their planes to watch the patchwork of farms, the furrows and the rivers and the munitions factories. Ditto for Amelia. The infantry all assumed that that was the best part, the view. They were wrong. The best part was the day we leaned out over the matchstick roads and canals and understood this: You fell because you had to. You jumped so you had a choice.

She’s surprised how easy it is to hop the fence around the water tower, how easy it is to approach the ladder and begin to climb. It’s another sunny afternoon, but she can sense something cold and flat in the air, something of winter, and the painted metal under her hands doesn’t hold the heat the way it would in midsummer. Her grandfather’s parachute is surprisingly heavy, tight across her chest and bulky where it’s buckled between her legs. She’s wearing her favorite pair of jeans, her tennis shoes with the mismatched laces, and the Nirvana hoodie that, once, made Janna stop her after Spanish class and ask where she got it.

Ten rungs up, her legs go limp with fear and her hands start to sweat and shake. Adrenaline ricochets through her stomach. Her entire body feels like a human-shaped puddle of water. She reminds herself that she’s done her research, that there’s no reason why this shouldn’t work. She reminds herself that this is what she wants, needs.

She keeps climbing. Left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot, like someone encountering a ladder for the first time. With the parachute on her back she feels like a beetle. Twenty rungs. Thirty. Slowly, slowly.

Once we landed, the choices bifurcated. We set foot on the ground and all the possible paths came rushing up at us like mist out of a field. To marry our high school sweethearts, to get a job at the air brake factory, to raise our orphaned granddaughters, to try and fail to forget the war. We wanted to live in the air forever. We wanted to be immortalized in flight. We were spoiled for life on the ground, we were ageless and arrogant, we never thought about landing. From the airplane, there was only one direction to go.

Rachel shuffles up to the edge of the platform. The tips of her shoes brush empty space. She can see so many things from here: the dusty brick L of the high school, the gas station by her house, a scatterplot of church steeples, a patch of forest with the tips of the leaves just beginning to turn, a slow fire catching in the treetops, and Janna’s house, pale blue with a gray roof, and a bald patch of dirt in the backyard.

After forty years, certain facts remained incontrovertible. The sky through the hatch. Sixty million dead. The sensation of falling through open air. 120 mph: the terminal velocity of a human falling on her stomach.

And finally there are things Rachel can’t see, things like the parachute’s nylon thread, soft and rotting in its seams from forty years in storage, and the ripcord and the way its measured unlooping contains all the quiet ritual of a prayer. Things like whether Janna is at her window or on her porch or in her room squinting up at the water tower, or whether she’s already left her house for the hair salon, whether she even found the note shoved through the slats in her locker door, and what she will look like in five years and, when it comes down to it, what Rachel will look like in five minutes. She can’t see what her grandfather is doing at the moment, whether he is driving past the water tower to get orange juice and razors, whether he will have noticed her getting on her bike with the parachute and if he will ground her into her thirties or just until her college graduation. She still can’t see how terminal velocities apply to her, since lately she’s accelerating through her life at unsustainable speeds, and from here she can’t see a single plane in the sky. Lastly, primarily, what she can’t see above all else is whether the ripcord will work and the seams will hold, whether they will slow her fall, whether they will complicate her with wind and flight and drift her into a new, luminous state of being.

The inspiration for this story was twofold: obsession and family history. Living in Bowling Green, Ohio—a very flat part of the country—I’ve found that many of my short stories have become preoccupied with literal and figurative flight. There’s a particular blue water tower in town that draws the eye upward and that inspired the final action in this piece.

The story was also inspired by my grandfather, who was a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. I don’t know much about his experiences in the war, and I have a similarly hard time imagining what it must feel like to jump out of a plane, so it felt natural to merge these unknowable situations into a single story about falling into unknown territories.