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.