Kevin Adler


Kevin Adler grew up in Auburn, Maine. His fiction has appeared in The Brooklyn Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Confrontation, Badlands, and others. He is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at Georgia State University in Atlanta, a long way from home.

The Place I was Before

Most customers who sign on for flight lessons in the Cesna 150 I call Lucille aren’t looking to learn how to fly. They want to tour the sights, the sights they’ve seen a thousand times before, the landmarks they’ve never left, only from a different angle. They’ll ask to fly over their own house then remark on the peeled shingles, or fly over the high school and lament the good old days. If I’m lucky, they’ll give me a choice and I’ll fly them just outside of town, over Long Lake, and tip a wing. The bedrock bottom glimmers a hundred feet below the surface, clear as glass, and the slow forms of lake sturgeon stalk the floor like shadows of the clouds.

This morning I decide to fly over my own house, so I’m hardly different. Someone had canceled an air taxi to Peaks Island earlier and instead of kicking around the office and flirting with Brenda, our secretary, I take off alone. Two minutes out, I’m buzzing over the roof of my house. It’s a sunny day, only the wisp of a cloud at my wing. My daughter is in the sandbox below and our dog, Jimmy, looks on. Jimmy spies me first. I can’t hear him, but I see the throes of his warning bark, which alerts my daughter—smart girl. She cups her hands into a visor and looks up. Soon enough, Jimmy trots into the cellar bulkheads to tell my wife, Patty, the news. I make another round and blat on the engine so she can hear, but she does she doesn’t come out. Soon, even my daughter gives up and resumes Anthony and Cleopatra, or whatever she’s orchestrating, in the sand. Patty, though—maybe I just caught her at a bad time. I imagine what I’d do if I’d noticed a strange car parked in the drive, how many times I’d fly in circles over the house before whoever was inside showed himself, or whether I’d keep going until the plane’s tank ran dry.

On the flight back I push Lucille high over town. Soon I’m happy and alone and I can land with some swagger. Back at the office I approach Brenda at her desk. There’s nothing between us but teasing. She’s playing solitaire with one hand and twirling a knot in her hair with the other. It’s only the two of us in the office between the ceiling fan’s hum and the rap of a housefly at the window screen.

“I’m starved,” I say. “You want a regular from Sam’s?”

When she orders a sub she saves the pickle for last. Dessert, she calls it. She’s watching her weight. Have to at my age and single, she says. But she’s got a great figure to my eye. Sleek as a missile.

“Your two o’clock called,” she says, business-like. “He’d rather come at one, if that suits you.”

“Suits me fine. So’s that a yes?”

She acts as though she hasn’t heard.
“On lunch?”

“I brought from home.” She tucks a tangle of hair behind her ear and gets back to clicking cards. So I toss my hands up and leave.


I take lunch alone on the deck at Sam’s overlooking the Carrabasset River, thick with the smell of sulfur and whitefish. In the corner, an old couple holds hands over the tablecloth while they eat. When the freckled young waitress arrives, I order a pepperoni pizza, personal size, and a bottled beer. She’s a friend of Brenda’s and she makes a smart face when I order the beer—she’ll call back to the office and tell Brenda about it, I’m sure—but then she comes back with it lickety-split. I tip well when I finish and make my way back to my beautiful bird, by which I mean Lucille—not Brenda.


Because I come back just shy of one, Brenda hands me a frosty look. She’s fluttering around the office, making copies, sending faxes, straightening five-year-old magazines glued together with spilled coffee and donut frosting, all with the hustle of a high school intern. Then I realize it’s for the benefit of the kid sitting by the window, my one o’clock. He’s good-looking, tall enough, and smartly dressed. “You must be the one o’clock,” I say.

“I am,” He stands and shakes my hand. “I’m Jay.”

“This is your first flight lesson, right, Jay?”

Brenda’s looking at us, but I ignore her.

“It is.”

“Well, have a seat,” I tell him. “We’ll do some paperwork. Then we’re up and out.”

I fill out the forms—insurance business and flight information. Brenda’s been on the ball. She has it all laid down and staggered, and the kid has already signed for everything. When I’m finished, I snap the pen to the clipboard. “Ready?”

“Sure,” he says.

“Give our regards to Broadway,” I tell Brenda, but she ignores me. I give the screen door a shove and the kid and I head out to greet the sun.


Once we’re at the plane, I pull the side step down. “All aboard,” I say, and he smiles like a sport.

I settle into the cockpit and explain the gauges—the odometer, altimeter, the protocols and ratios for each. As I’m talking, I notice he’s genuinely interested in what I’m explaining. I continue, speaking up so he can hear me over the engine. He follows my hand, gauge to gauge, as if he’ll have to remember it all once we’re airborne.

“Ever thought you’d be flying a plane?”

“Not since kindergarten.”

“Well, she’s ship-shape. What do you say we aim for the cleavage of those clouds before they start sagging?” That gets a hearty one from him and I begin to think he’s an easy laugh, which is a fine quality by me.

The runway is clear, no surprises. It’s not the kind of town people fly to or from. Sometimes I’ll taxi up and down the jet-black tarmac all day, only Mr. Boston’s coffee brandy for company, and no one to stop me but Brenda, who’ll only call to ask me to run to Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes I want to tell her, if she had any sense she’d invest in her own coffee franchise and run a shop straight from the office, spend all day keeping herself in business, and I hear her say back to me, If you had any sense you’d stop giving me advice and start taking orders, and then I’d grab her two-handed by the waist and pull her in for a quick and hard, black-and-white movie kiss. Then, maybe, we’d clear it from our system.


I let the kid get a good feel for the strip—taxi around, trace a few donuts. I’m in no rush, and before I know it, he’s having a grand time. So am I. He’s an easy pleaser, like I thought.

“She’s no hot rod but she’s not a mule, either,” I tell him. I take the pilot’s yoke and line us up at the end of the runway. Lucille makes the familiar complaints at first, but she gains speed and after a few bounces we’re up and at ‘em before we can say, sayonara.

On the climb, I’m placing bets on where he’ll want to go. He won a free flight lesson, a promo from WBLM—the BLAM!—for calling in with the lyrics to a classic rock song. This was Brenda’s idea. She even chose the song.

“Anywhere special?” I ask.

“What’s that?”

The engine’s working hard and loud. “WHERE TO?”

“Wherever,” he says.

I bank toward the lake. Everyone should have a look at it from above to see what they’re missing, and it’s a clear day for it. I straighten out and crack the side window. This always comes as a surprise to the passengers. I have to assure them we’re not high enough to run out of oxygen. In fact the air is purest at a certain height. An old man a mile upwind might be mowing his lawn and we’ll smell the cut grass like it’s stuck between our toes.

“What was the winning song?” I ask him, rolling the window back up. “What got you here?”

“It’s embarrassing.”

“What is?”

“Hotel California,” he offers shyly. “I had to guess the lyrics that come after the timbale fill.” He drums it on the dash: bum-brrrum-bum-bum.

I queue in: Last thing I remember—I was—running for the door.

“That’s it.”

I’m not disappointed with Brenda’s choice, though I wonder how she decided on it, what she meant by it. For now I’m happy to enjoy the kid’s company and I want keep the ball rolling.

“Since we’re up here, I should teach you something. That way, if I croak, you’ll know how to aim for the runway.”

He smiles kindly. “Could be something to write about for my college apps,” he says. Then he adds, “Actually, I just got an acceptance out of state.”

“Oh, yeah?”


I start him off with the yaw. Monkey stuff. Depress the rudder pedal and the nose follows suit. We do a few circles, clock and counter, and soon he’s asking for more, so I engage the learner’s yoke and let him bank a bit. Not much, just ten degrees at first, enough to get his wings wet. “Keep it up,” I say. “Don’t be bashful.” I nudge the pilot’s yoke secretly on my end, wagering how he’ll react. The plane starts quaking and shaking like a box of puzzle pieces. The clipboard falls from the visor and papers scatter. “Shit!” he says, panic-stricken. “What’d I do?” His face pales and when I can’t keep my laughter in any longer I blurt over the noise, “Use the left rudder! Go on. Straighten the nose!” He does and we pull out splendidly. Now that he’s lightened up and got the taste for it, I explain the physics of it, how she shook like a wet dog because he’d directed her wings one way while the nose was going straight. “The wings will fight the body,” I tell him. “You’ve got to guide them together or you’ll fall out of the sky in bits and pieces.”


We level off with a perimeter around the golf course and after a time I ask if he’s prepared for college.

“Already packed,” he says.

“I never went,” I say, “but my advice is, go as far away as possible and stay there. If I could do it over again—” I stop there, realizing I don’t know what I would do differently. I might have floundered through college and come out unscathed, but there’s a time for everything. “Anyway,” I tell him, “you know what I mean. You got a girlfriend you’re leaving behind?”

“You could say that.” He looks out the window.

“That can complicate things.”


He simmers for a while. Meanwhile we’re circling the golf course. Below, a lone golfer sets his ball on the tee.

“I don’t know,” the kid starts up again, unsure of himself. “Maybe she’s the one I’m supposed to be with.”

“There’s never just one,” I say then stop myself. “Anyway, as far as flying, that’s all I’ve got for the first lesson. Any last requests while we’re up here?”

He thinks about it. “Well. I didn’t plan on coming back for another. I mean, I’m not looking to get my pilot’s license.”

“I figured as much.”

“But I was wondering if the plane does any tricks—something daring, maybe.”

I think about it. “We can’t do flips or rolls, if that’s what you’re thinking.” I’m at a loss for a moment. Then I find the perfect thing. “Tell you what. I think I’ve got something that’ll fit the bill.”

He perks up. “Yeah?”

I wouldn’t consider it with another customer, but he’s a sport and I want to do my part to send him off right.

“You can’t tell a soul. At least not around here.”

“Promise,” he says.

“There’s a challenge, too.” I tell him to put the clipboard back in the glove box and take out a pencil, one that’s not sharpened. “No need to lose an eye in the process.”

“Is this a joke?”

I explain how we’ll start at low altitude and pull up like we’re taking off from the runway. When we’re in the climb, he’ll wedge the pencil between his upper lip and nose, wearing it like a mustache. Once the plane is pitched near vertical, the engine will stall and we’ll go weightless. The stall horn will sound and the pencil will float before his eyes. “Seatbelt secure?” He gives me the thumbs up. Because I’m feeling up for it, I tell him if he catches the pencil in his mouth I’ll give him a twenty when we land.

“All right, it’s a bet,” he says.

“It’s impossible is what it is. It’ll quiver before your eyes like a screwball, then Bam!—out of reach.”

I turn a wide arc and start the descent toward the golf course. We dip low and roar over the old man on the tee. I’ll be sure to hear about that later.

“No hands,” I remind him.

He tucks the pencil in place and his digs his hands under his legs. I give Lucille everything she’s got and we start the climb. I was his age when I made my first full-power stall, all brass and balls. It shook me, but I pulled through.

We climb pretty high before she starts pulling loud. Soon, we slow to a vertical creep. I look at the kid. He’s wild-eyed and about to get just what he ordered.

The engine hiccups and spits, and the propellers come into focus. The last rotation slows to a halt over the dash and we see the cloudless sky beyond. That’s the quietest sound you’ll ever hear. “Whoa,” the kid says, setting the pencil free. The stall horn sounds off and I slam it like an alarm clock. Now we’re weightless and I steal another glance. He’s snapping at the pencil like a teased animal. I have to laugh. The nose dips and the horizon shoots over the dash. We’re looking straight down, heading into the first spin. I see he’s got the pencil in his mouth now—he’s actually caught it—and he’s bracing himself between the door and utility box. Once we launch into the second spin, he chomps the pencil in half, and I have to swat the eraser end from my face.

My first flight instructor told me, never trust your guts unless they’re on the ground. I show the kid how much I’ve learned by keeping my cool and throttling the engine back to life. It rises to a roar and soon we ease out of the spin, smooth as sipping Chablis. After we keel even over the golf course a while, I’m the one who has to tell him to cool down—he’s laughing, swearing, nearly stomping a hole in the floor.


We fly home over Long Lake and I show the kid a clear view to the bottom. “Lake Sturgeon?” he repeats after I explain it to him. “Never heard of them.” He looks politely down, too young to be sobered by the slow grace of their silhouettes. I fly the length of the lake, imagining myself at his age, the impulsive promise of an unwritten life, anxiety skulking deep below. Soon he’ll call his girl and they’ll take that long walk along the path that parallels the lake. He’ll tell her it’s hard to leave but the hard thing’s always the right thing. I imagine she’s smart enough to know better, that it’d be harder for him to stay than to leave, to face the unmovable truth about himself and where he comes from.


When the runway rolls into view, I win his attention back by giving him the learner yoke again. I don’t let him know I’ve disabled it, but guide him through each step of the landing, letting him know what a job he’s doing. Meanwhile, I’m the one setting us down like fine China. On the taxi to the office, he’s beaming, thinking it’s him. “You’re a natural,” I tell him and clap his shoulder. When we get out, I fish a twenty from my pocket. “No way,” he says, swearing it off. I offer my hand instead and he shakes it like I’ve delivered his first born. I tell him if he thinks landing is a thrill to come back next summer and I’ll let him take off.

Inside, Brenda asks me if we had a good time.

“Grand,” I tell her. “Why do you ask?”

She’s had a few phone calls, she says.

“Anything interesting?”
“Your wife called. You need to stop at the grocery store.”

“Duly noted.”

Wednesday night is taco night back at the house. The kids and I load them up with lettuce and tomatoes and hot sauce and let ourselves go. We don’t hold back. I’ll go back for thirds and knock one over the counter for the dog. Later, after I carry my daughter to bed, stuffed, I’ll slip under the covers early with Patty. She’ll be reading.

“Let’s take a camping trip,” I’ll say. “Kids, camper, dog—the whole package.” We haven’t been all summer.

“Okay,” she’ll say. She’ll keep reading to the end of the page before she turns to look at me, and then she’ll motion me in and we’ll end up where we’ve been a thousand times before and I’ll never figure out where I might have gone better.

On my eighteenth birthday my big sister, Kim, gave me a ticket for a flight lesson at the municipal airport. I was thrilled. In the air, I asked the pilot if he’d be willing to scare the hell out of me, a request he obliged with the mid-air stall. Later, I chose to write the story from the pilot’s point of view, thinking it’d be a good way to distance the fictional project from my personal experience. Predictably, the pilot came more and more to express my thirty-four-year-old concerns and obsessions, and, as a result, the story addressed the character’s loss of youth and deepening appreciation for the pleasures of what’s clinically known as 'early middle adulthood.'