I Told You Not To Fly So High: 2021 ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award winning story

A new story by David Morgan O’Connor

David Morgan O’Connor

David Morgan O’Connor

 

Ike had turned against me since I’d moved in with him and his mom, Kim. I can’t help thinking about that Saturday afternoon more than two years ago when I took Ike up to Minos Mountain to fly his new drone. Ike was far from dumb, but he never listened. I’d asked Kim permission before buying that winged olive branch, that plastic junk-chunk that gave him so much joy, I must admit, making him happy, made me happy, made Kim happy.

Ike spent weeks in the yard practising manoeuvres. Running straight through the house after school, he’d buzz that drone for hours, until the battery died, or Kim called him in for dinner. Ike could “thread the needle” which meant flying the drone in one tree-house window and out the other. Ike could “shoot the scoot” which meant holding the drone above the chimney, and using a mirrored, take videos of Kim and me cooking in the kitchen or necking on the sofa.

On Thursday just before dinner, Pete Snider, the neighbour to the east, pounded on the door yelling that he was gonna ‘shoot that damned peeping-Tom robot’ right into Kingdom-Come if it came over the property line again. Apparently, Ike was “shooting the scoot” every time Pete’s sixteen-year-old daughter was showering. I asked Ike if I could see the photographs, you know just to make sure Pete was legit. Ike said, “The mission was abandoned unsuccessfully. Curtains obstructed completion strategy.”

Where did Ike learn to talk like that? Kim gave him a long speech about privacy and respect that night. I lowered the TV volume to listen. I liked Kim’s bedside manner. Her voice all buttered with hope, oozing unquestioned love warmed the whole house. Kim knew how to press all the right buttons, a real people person.

Before forty, I’d avoided dating single moms. Too complicated, too busy, always expected some sort of preference just because they had a snotty-nosed kid tugging their elbow, like giving birth was a global-human sacrifice and not an act of total self-absorption. Or so I thought before I met them. I didn’t have the patience to play second fiddle, but on our fifth date, parked in her lane, Kim said, “I’ve got a son, but there’s a sofa in the garage, wait there. Let me pay the sitter.” She reached over and took my keys out of the ignition. I followed her heels up the driveway. And well, that garage became our little love-nest for a few months.

That Saturday on the mountain, I kept telling Ike he was flying too high, he was going to lose radio connection, he was getting too close to the air force base, the wind was too strong, and if he got over the peak, which was over 10,000 feet – the toy would be gone for good. Ike could hear me, he said sure, yeah, okay, sure. I felt like a nag but sure enough an eagle swooped full throttle over the ridge and snapped that drone up as easy as a frog zapping a fly. Nature versus nanotechnology. We know who wins. That sharp yellow beak severed the drone blades and the plastic plummeted in three pieces onto the desert floor. Dive-bombing, the eagle grabbed the camera with its talons and re-took flight. As if discovering the drone inedible, the eagle dropped the drone-camera on government land. Another terrific shatter. I must admit the whole aerial-ballet of destruction was beautiful.

Did you see that? Awesome! Ike yelled, his little jaw on the trail.

Ike, I told you not to fly so high. But you did.

Maybe I was the highest flyer ever in the world. Maybe that was the highest drone to ever fly in the world. Maybe.

It’s done now. Busted.

Can we go get it and fix it?

If it didn’t land on the base. It’s trash, Ike. Hope you enjoyed the show.

Gone?

Yep. Pieces.

I don’t believe you.

Ike bolted down the trail in the direction of the air force base fence. The DO NOT ENTER signs threw shade over the desert allowing pink cacti to sprout. I had to run after him, hoping he was smart enough not to climb the electric air force base fence. Ike was a good runner. His father ran marathons. My hiking boots and beer-belly kept me at a trot and the fence was at least a mile away. He stopped at the fence and stood crying.

Come on, let’s go back to the car.

I tried picking him up by the armpits, but he squirmed away.

Fuck you, you ain’t my dad.

Whoa. Watch that tongue. No I’m not, Ike. But you can’t talk to me like that. I spent good money on that drone, and I brought you here. I told you more than once not to fly so high, but you don’t listen.

F*ck-face.

Back to the car, now.

I dragged him to his feet by his wrist.

You can’t touch me, you ain’t my dad.

No, I’m not. We’re just buds. And you got to treat buddies with respect, buddy. Now, come on.

I started walking, after some sulk, Ike followed. Back at the house, I told Kim about the eagle and the drone and Ike’s language. Kim went into Ike’s room. I could hear her voice but not the words. She poured herself a glass of Chardonnay.

Why did you do that? she asked.

What?

Crash the drone?

I wasn’t flying the thing.

That’s not what Ike said.

I told him not to fly so high. Several times, in fact.

That’s not what he said.

What did he say?

He said you were flying recklessly.

Well, who’re you gonna believe?

That’s what he said.

I’m telling you, Kim. Ike was in control. Why would I lie?

Ike’s story’s different.

Who’re you gonna believe?

Him.

Really?

Yep.

A ten-year old kid?

Yep, she said again, downing her wine, if I can’t believe my own flesh and blood, who can I believe?

I left the house. Drove around town, ended up buying six cans of strong IPA and a pack of Camels. I hadn’t smoked in years, but my ogres were screeching. As if pre-programmed, my Tacoma truck found the dirt service road that circumnavigated the air-force base. I parked close to the fence near Ike’s drone and sat on the hood drinking beer. I pissed on the fence to see if it was live, my phone rang, it wasn’t Kim. I acted all fake happy to my cousin in San Diego.

Roland, how’s it going, my man?

Not bad, not bad at all, just out on a boat watching the sunset.

Roland had married into a marina business and was rolling in loot. He surfed every day and managed his wife’s family’s properties. We shot the shit, then he came to his point.

Listen, my right-hand man just quit. Starting some online start-up, database mining for flipping boats, refurbishment and the like, and well, I need a good man I can trust to keep an eye on things, night-watchman-harbour master type thing. A one-bedroom condo overlooking the sea comes with the job, I’ll pay you over the going rate. What do you say, cuz?

I’m listening.

Mostly putting out fires, hanging around, on-call so to speak. Security. Fee collecting. If someone gets stranded, call the Coast Guard or tow them. Repairs, some billing forms to be emailed, keep an eye on the gas pump, keep the boaters happy and safe and well I was thinking of you there out in the desert and well…

I told Roland I needed a few days to think, that I was seeing someone new, and things were going smoothly, but I’d have a think. San Diego, a cushy job, my own pad, California, there was a lot to mull over. I put the phone back in my pocket and climbed the fence. I scooped up the drone pieces. The camera was still intact. When I got back to the house Kim and Ike were asleep. She’d turned out all the lights.

I uploaded the eagle-attack footage onto YouTube. Sweeping views of the Minos Mountains, sunlight slapping the lens, Ike and I – just tiny desert dots, cacti, and glimpses of the eagle’s wing. The camera showed Ike on the controls and that he had seen the bird and wanted to play, understandable for a kid. At nine minutes, the tumbling camera makes a pretty cinematic fall, like a skydiver with no chute. I decided to keep my mouth shut about the video and talk to Ike the next time we were alone, but we fell into awkward silence and only talked when he wanted something. Growing pains, I guess. Within a week the video had over 700,000 views.

I cooled off and forgot and Kim and I were got close again. I started missing her at work, thinking about her on lunch, really seeing her. At times, we felt like a legitimate family. I’d drive Ike to school and feel all the pride of fatherhood without the responsibility. We played a lot of catch. Ike had a good arm. When she was with Ike, I got time to think, tinker. When Ike’s dad came to visit, sure there was tension, but he was alright. Kim and I would go camping or stay in some swank B&B in Santa Fe or Flagstaff. Tour Durango or some other town with expensive restaurants and antique shops, little honeymoons, she christened them.

Then one Saturday morning, I left my wallet on the kitchen table with $320. I knew the exact amount because I was planning to buy Pete Snider’s canoe. After finishing the lawn, I went to get the money and a six-pack out of the fridge, before going over to Pete’s to seal the deal. My wallet was empty. Kim was at Pilates. I knocked on Ike’s door. The Gameboy cranked. I hated what I was thinking.

Hey, Ike, you seen the 320 bucks that was in my wallet?

No.

Open the door. I need to talk to you.

I’m busy.

Open the bloody door. I tried the knob.

Go away.

Ike, bud, I just want to talk.

I never took your fucking money. Ike yelled, his rage, an admission.

Ike, you get ready for a shit storm. When your mom comes home…

Fucking Loser.

Instead of kicking the door down and wringing Ike’s little neck, I went to the computer and printed off my bank statement. No hallucination, I’d withdrawn the exact amount the day before. I cracked a can of beer and sat at the kitchen table looking at the freshly cut lawn. I’d missed a line, gave the impression of a Mohawk. Travis Bickle, in the mirror, you talking to me. YOU talking to me? You TALKING to me? Well, I’m the only one here. Kim got home and I told her. She got Ike to the kitchen table. Opening my fifth beer, Kim poured herself a glass of Chardonnay. Ike stared out the window. None of us wanted to deal with this. Kim was the first to cry, then Ike, who blubbered, No one believes me! No one ever believes me!

That canoe was gonna be for all of us, I said.

I never took your fucking money, Ike yelled.

Watch your tongue, Ike, Kim said.

I walked out the back door to the garage. It took all my restraint not to take the weedwhacker to the sofa. I am the duck’s back.

That next night we ate pizza watching This Boy’s Life with DeNiro and DiCaprio in silence. I paid for the pizza. During a commercial break, Ike said, you missed a line.

What? I asked. He was looking out the window.

The lawn. It’s cut wrong.

Kim stood and walked over and put her hand on Ike’s shoulder. They looked out at the mohawked-grass and burst into giggles. I took the empty pizza box into the garage and jammed it into the already full recycling bin. I slept alone on the sofa in the garage.

When I called Roland and asked if he still needed a right-arm at the marina, I didn’t have a plan. Only said I believed the sea was calling me. He said he could find me a place; the condo was rented but come on out to San Diego. I half-heartedly asked Kim to join but knew she couldn’t take Ike so far from his dad, his school, the soccer team, life.

This isn’t fair, she said.

No, it’s not fair, I said.

I thought we had a good thing going.

We do. It’s an opportunity I can’t refuse. Maybe we can do long distance.

I don’t do distance, she said.

Ike spent the weekend with his father, Kim and I didn’t speak. I loaded my things in the truck and slept on the garage sofa trying not to replay our first few passionate months. That dawn, Kim and I sat at the kitchen table over strong coffee.

So, this is it? she said.

It’s an opportunity.

The words felt hollow.

This isn’t about Ike or me. Or the job, she said. It’s you. You’re too passive to commit to anything. You’re just another Peter Pan and I’m no Tinker Bell. I wish you the best.

You can both come with me. Or come visit. Once I get settled, I’ll call you.

Don’t bother.

Well, I guess that’s me.

I picked up my truck keys and stood.

Aren’t you going to say good-bye to Ike?

I don’t think he’ll care.

I wish you did.

I’ll call.

We never hugged or kissed. Kim didn’t even come to the door and I never looked back. Near Gila Bend, I stopped for tacos and walked around town and into an internet-call-center. The place was full of families crying or laughing into pay phones and kids playing videogames. I emailed Kim the link to the eagle-attack video.

2.7 million views.

The marina and San Diego were easy to adapt to, working by that glistening sea all day puts hope in the mind. I was saving money for nothing specific, but it felt good to watch my account rise without much worry. After six months of solitude and too much drinking, I met Marisol, a young widow from Chiapas. She’d married a Marine from Iowa who caught some friendly fire in Fallujah and returned in an urn. A dead hero is a tough act to follow. But I’m patient. I didn’t push or rush. Just flow.

Last week was the second anniversary of our first date, we drove out to The Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge to camp, not as pretty as the name, good for birding, but not much else. Marisol set up her easel, I rented a bicycle. The Refuge was empty except for this canoe keeping pace with my pedalling, a father and son, the cycle path turned into a floating wood bridge and the canoe came right under and I saw Ike and his dad. Ike was a little man, paddling hard up front. The father had a beer and fishing gear between his legs, more ruddering than pulling. A flock of Towhees started screeching like a car alarm. An orange-beaked oystercatcher dive-bombed. I caught sight of a common kestrel corpse mushed beside the fat front bike tire. I waved to Ike and his father in the canoe, who didn’t see or bother to return my acknowledgement. No fence. No drone. No eagles. But all that worry and confusion and second-fiddle gunk came flooding back. I watched the canoe cross the refuge and re-mounted the bike.

That night, after open-fire cooking, we went savage in the tent. After all the panting and sweating and tenderness stilled the desert, Marisol zipped up our sleeping-bag, put her lips to my ear and sang, Quiero un hijo contigo, estamos perdiendo el tiempo. I wondered if I could ever understand her widow-pain, her leaving her family-and-country-pain, the pain she put into her water-colours. I heard some rustling by the fire pit and went out of the tent into the night. Stars were shooting and the wind was down. Not a yard from the tent-flap, perched on the cooler, a bald eagle stared into the fire embers with a dead rattler dangling from its beak. The stillness was broken by Marisol calling, Is everything okay? With two slow wing flaps, the eagle took flight and with the rattler. I tossed the rock onto the fire and pissed it to smoulder. Back in the sleeping bag, Marisol snuggled onto my chest and asked Que paso?

Wildlife. Mi Cielito Lindo, just some wildlife, I said and kissed the top of her head.

David Morgan O’Connor is a Dublin based author, originally from Canada. He won the 2021 Cúirt New Writing Prize, judged by Colin Barrett, for Antoine Solomon Takes a Job.

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