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Story by James Hanley (Read author interview) June 15, 2007

The instructor shouted over the noise, “Take over the controls,” but kept his feet on the rudders while Keith grabbed the wheel and hesitantly turned to bring the plane to a straight path. As he grew at ease with the plane’s direction, a gust of wind kicked the left wing; the plane lifted slightly and turned to an angle with the ground. Keith’s face reddened. He twisted the wheel, and the plane’s right wing rose past horizontal and Keith felt his body leaning in the opposite direction.

“Don’t overcompensate,” the instructor warned. In the following lessons, Keith became more comfortable with the controls once airborne but struggled with maneuvering the plane in a rectangular pattern of landing and taking off: touch and go, his instructor called it. To pay for his lessons, Keith took a job as a teller in the local savings bank.

On overcast days, Keith lifted the nose of the aircraft to ascend to the tantalizing clouds that seemed to move away from him as if in a game of chase. The instructor grabbed the wheel and gruffly said, “This is not a goddamn F-16; go on an airliner if you want to fly that high.”

On the following weekend a fast-moving front pushed a row of clouds across the startled New England sky. Granite cumuli lingered and shook off ice droplets and chilling rain. Keith had booked several hours of flying time for Saturday.

The instructor watched Keith complete his pre-check and sat passively as his student flew the plane to the edge of nearby golf course, circled and turned back to the airfield.

After landing and taxiing to the hangar area, the instructor stepped out and said to Keith, “You take it up by yourself.” The air was still but low strata moved across the sky. Keith flew level until the airport was well behind him and the buildings on the edge of the city were thin columns of concrete. Lifting the nose of the aircraft, Keith climbed at an angle sufficient to avoid stalling, ascending until the gauges shook and the sunlight was filtered through the gauze edge of clouds. The instructor waved uselessly from the ground.

Keith climbed higher until into the womb of the thick cloud and surrounded by the battering moisture, he felt elated. Within a few minutes, however, the plane’s wings no longer shuddered, the plane’s propeller blew a path through the tattered cloud and the sun punched through. Patches of ground showed below. The defeated clouds spit him out like a Jonah, and Keith pushed down on the yoke.

The small airport runway appeared like a cut path in a cluttered field. The wheels of the airplane struck the runway concrete hard, bounced, then settled into a slow roll until stopping at the runaway edge. The instructor ran to the plane and slapped Keith on the back. But Keith, mourning the loss of reverence, didn’t hear him.

About the Author

James Hanley has been a Human Resources professional for 30 years and began writing fiction several years ago. He’s had works published in professional journals but fiction is his real pleasure. He’s had stories published in literary and mystery magazines (e.g. South Dakota Review, Futures).

This story appeared in Issue Seventeen of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventeen

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