Abby Walthausen: Seasonal Rush

The year I had Novi felt like it must have been the first year when all the women in Los Angeles adopted Christian Science attitudes toward birthing. Not Scientology, mind you—I had spent years getting the two cults or sects or whatever confused. But the one that now was creeping into the thought of dabbling Buddhists, well-educated ethical humanists, and atheists with children who attend Unitarian churches. The one that found divine beauty in kids with scarlet fever and otherwise eradicated diseases. Every other pregnant woman I encountered whispered and spit about interventions, and all of them had a birth-plan. My grandma would have said they were looking the gift horse of western medicine in the mouth, yanking on those perfectly good teeth without even a squirt of novocaine.

It had not been this way with my first baby five years back, but this year the mothers were so fervent in their beliefs that I almost expected someone to inform me (it was approaching Christmas) that the Virgin Mary needed no epidural. I was surprised the Christian right wasn’t already on that. Who knew, maybe that subculture existed somewhere, someone for every dogma, for every scrap of literal thinking.

I had come to think on these birthing arguments because of two strange, magical gifts that were given to me on yesterday evening’s bus ride. Not material gifts, but surprise encounters that have helped me reframe these hectic days, in this hectic season.

The first was an unusual compliment to the baby—an older woman with a small wheeled satchel of groceries had touched the baby’s head and, beaming, proclaimed it the beautiful round head of a “surgery baby.” She made cutting motions up and down her abdomen, so I knew I’d understood properly. I flushed and nodded.

A simple compliment from an old grandmother dragging a bag the shape of a vacuum cleaner might not seem like magic, but to me it was. I basked in this perspective of someone who didn’t see unnatural gore when she thought of the caesarean, but saw magic instead—a chick hatching perfect from an egg, Athena springing perfect from the head of Zeus. A perfect globe to hold a smooth young brain.

So the baby and I floated off the bus and into the preschool, collected the elder, his backpack and all the other things—the insulated lunchbox, the fluffy nap mat, the thermos—that did not fit inside the miniature school bag.

On the return bus of course, the woman who’d complimented Novi was not there, but sitting in what would have been the same seat was an old man who gazed at the crowd of faces with the same interest and approval the old woman had. Both surveyed the dazed and busy-minded riders as if their own brood. He was probably about her age, though it was hard to tell because his skin seemed older but his frame seemed younger, more spry. On his head he wore a green knit cap that seemed to have grown from among the tufts of white hair on his head like a mound of moss. He found our faces, one after the other.

“Hello young fellow,” he said to Remy, who buried his head in my chest, something he’d not done for some time (months? years?). “I wonder if you like airplanes?”

Remy raised his head and nodded gravely. It was true; he did like airplanes.

“Well, young fellow, you’re looking at a guy who used to work for Lockheed, the number one draftsman out in the Long Beach facility. Do you know about Lockheed?”

Remy shook his head.

“Well, Lockheed built planes and I drew them. I drew ‘em whole and I drew ‘em took apart. I had to draw every little piece that goes inside an airplane, and boy did I have to check ‘em twice. That’s how the guys out on the floor building the planes knew how to put ’em together.”

“Did you draw the wheels on the plane?”

“You bet I drew the wheels on the plane. And the wings too, don’t forget the wings, and all 38 different parts that the wings get made out of!”

“There are flaps that go up on the wings of a plane,” Remy said. I’m surprised he remembers that—when we flew three months ago he did fixate on those flaps, but it was just for an hour’s trip up to the Bay.

“Indeed, young fellow, they’re called ailerons. Can you cay AY-ER-ONS?” He turned to me. “A handsome boy you’ve got there,” and he had the look that he was about to change the topic of conversation, change the addressee, tell me about his own grandkids. Instead, he turned back to Remy and settled in. “You know, I wasn’t a draftsman, quite. I took the plans the drafters fussed over and I read all the pieces and I put the plane together in my mind for the guys on the assembly line to know what they were working towards, for the buyers to know exactly what they were placing their orders for. Those draftsman at the company sometimes acted like I was just a doodler, or a police sketch artist coming up with wild guesses. It’s true, looking at these diagrams of part after part and how it all went together, that took lots of imagination. But it didn’t take fancy, mind you. I had to look at the evidence there in front of me and to be totally exact, no monkeying with the outcomes.  Messing around with the outcomes, that didn’t start until Ines came around.”

This time he raised his eyes to me, but he leaned in towards Remy still, who did not budge. “I met her through my cousin, at a big old beer bash he threw just at the start of the school year, around homecoming time. Of course, I wasn’t still a kid—I was just back from the war and already had my position at Lockheed, but our family was tight, younger cousins, older cousins, everyone, so we still knew what was happening at the high school, of course we did! We went to all the games!”

What could beer bashes and romance possibly mean to my four-year-old? Something unexpected, because he sat unsquirming, transfixed. At his preschool, the teachers talked a lot about “full body listening,” and here it was. An immersion in something just above my boy’s head. He had the expression of a fish, eyes wide, mouth a single gill. He does love airplanes; this was what waiting for airplanes looks like.

“And Ines—she was in the last year of high school and hot damn she was a pretty one. Her hair was black and tumbled down all the way to the waist except for the little tiny wispy bits that curled up around her forehead when she was hot. It was unusual, hair like that, because in those days all the fashions for the girls were to keep the hair up above the shoulders and to tamp down those wispy bits with hairspray or, as I liked to call it, jet fuel. But Ines puffed up the top the way the other girls did and she kept the rest, all that was running down her back, tied at her neck with a little ribbon bow. I’ve seen Sophia Loren in the movies put her hair that way, but I think Ines pulled it off even better.

“So I was head-over-heels for Ines from when I first saw her, and I was out to the drive-in with her some nights and other nights we were way downtown on Olvera Street and I bought her taquitos. When we walked along those cobbles, she watched for bits of grass growing out and when we walked over dirt, she always looked as though she was tracing out shapes or pictures with her little toes. But she was graceful as all get-go and never hunched and never stopped gliding along. We didn’t say much, just held hands and walked and ate. Then as the days got shorter that fall, which was a-okay for necking in some privacy, it also made our time together feel short. She was in that last year of school, so most nights of the week I couldn’t even keep her out too late. And I had to have my wits about me for the job.

“So she started coming right from the school over to the office and she’d sit by my desk while I worked and she’d sigh and trace little arcs along the floor with the toe of her shoe and I started to like this almost as much as going out walking with her. I worked fast and I worked my best with her over my shoulder and when the rest of the guys packed it in for the night, we’d have a little time to ourselves and we’d neck and then I’d work and my desk lamp would glow brighter than ever. And sometimes I’d hand her a piece of paper and she’d draw perfect figure eights and fill them with the tiniest little leaves the pen could make, or my name done in thorns, a big bramble of thorns like you might see on some tough guy’s motorcycle, but prettier and more delicate.

“And one night we were back and forth between necking and drawing. I was inking out the lines for one great big fighter jet, all-weather, and she was making a red jungle across the paper with her arm wrapped around my head, fingers stroking my temple. Then she was crawling into my lap, and when I squeezed her in a little bit tighter I slopped some ink right over my drawing. Oh, it was a lot of work to go to waste, and I jumped up to blot it and Ines said ‘Don’t! Look, the ink made a heart,’ and sure enough it had. ‘Let me have this one,’ she said, and back to work I went, making this drawing personalized just for her. I smoothed out the edges of the heart and next to it I lettered our initials, ‘I & N,’ in big wispy letters to follow the the curve of the plane’s big silver body. I did a pale pink wash along the wings to give them the look that they were reflecting one of those beautiful sunsets, one of those cotton candy sunsets we loved to watch together but hadn’t in so many weeks because of the short days and the rainy season and all this work setting in. She held my head and kissed my ears as I worked and when I was done, I folded a big sheet of newsprint around the drawing and delivered her home with it.

“The next day I didn’t have much on my mind but picking up the pace on the re-do for the drawings I’d botched and counting the hours until Ines showed up again for another one of our afternoons together, her desk-side, that whiled away into evening with her moving little by little closer until she was nearly desk-top tucked between my lap and that burning midnight oil.

“But as the morning was wearing on and I was hard at work, news came in from the floor of vandalism. It seemed impossible, the guys cried, that such elaborate mischief could have happened in just a few quiet hours. A whole plane had been repainted, tricked out for lovers and—most impossible to conceive—the paint had dried and cured too.

“Well, I went out with all the other guys to have a look and there, all along the side of the plane were my letters, the great black heart, the pink wings.”

“So someone painted the same thing on the plane?” said Remy, who had been listening with rapt attention.

“The thing is, I didn’t—and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it there. I would have thought it was Ines if I hadn’t dropped her off at her house my own self. I just didn’t know. Back to my desk I went, but I could barely work I was so amazed by what had happened and so eager to show the miracle to Ines.

“She arrived at the usual time, and I think she could sense my agitation before I was able to tell her a thing, because she sat touching my hand even when the other guys were still around and I didn’t argue. I hunkered down and worked while she sat and watched and doodled alongside of me.

“When the last of the other department guys were gone, I took Ines’s hand and led her across the lot to the darkened shop floor. And there it was, still pink along the wing tops, but somehow, along the body, it was not what it was before. Only the black heart and the letter S still remained—the rest of the plane looked as it should, with the finishes indicated by the blueprint, by the designers and the engineers.

“Ines nodded as I explained to her the changes, how it had looked before, and in her silence I thought for a moment that she didn’t believe me; but she took my hand and led me back to my desk. She sat me down and stood behind me and said: ‘Take that pencil, something you can erase, and write my name again.’

“The experiment was just as she had expected. On the shop floor again we found the plane with a faint grey etching of her name curving along the domed metal. Back again we went to erase it.

“After I erased it we went again to check our work and it was still there. I gasped, but for Ines it was simple. ‘I wasn’t touching you.’ And this time she caressed my shoulders while I erased and once again the experiment was just as she expected.

“‘We’ll make more subtle changes,’ she said as she unpacked the sandwiches she’d brought us. She’d started doing that ever since we’d stopped going to the drive-ins, and tonight she’d brought beef cutlets, breaded, fried on beautiful white rolls—milanesa de res. We ate and we planned our edits to this plane. I’d keep on working on this new draft until the obvious was erased again, but what small tweaks could I make, ones that I could dedicate to Ines but might go undetected?

“A floury crumb of roll dropped onto the sheet—‘Let’s not do a grease spot,’ she joked as she flicked it from the paper. We did rivets in the palest pink, and along the wheels of the plane I wrote ‘Ines’ to make an endless loop in tire rubber.

“I told her that when the plane landed on a natural runway, it would stamp her name again and again, and no one would ever notice.

“It was delicate work, hard to see on the paper, but whenever we checked our work, all that we’d telegraphed the plane had received.

“I was a little surprised that none of the guys had put together the plane with me and Ines, but I’d gotten used to the idea, rationalized that I’d barely introduced her to anyone. And she didn’t look like some hoodlum toughie and neither did I, and no one should think about us. So I was already used to the idea that no one noticed the coincidence when Manny on the floor asked me about it. We’d known each other from school, and we’d been at the same party where Ines and I had met.

“He wasn’t trying to out me at lunch hour, he just leaned in real close and said ‘Nabor, did you do it?’ I should have kept a secret, I suppose, but I’m a pretty honest guy, so I said ‘yes and no,’ which was the most truthful version of events I could think of. We sat down at the end of a mostly empty table, and I told him all about it. His eyes got wide. So did mine, to be honest, because I was still amazed at how it happened.”

Nabor, whose name I now knew, was silent for a moment and the baby startled. It surprised me because I’d been assuming for some time now that the baby was asleep, but instead he also had been quietly absorbed by Nabor’s tale, or his face at least. He started fussing as if rooting for more story the way he roots for the breast.

“Ok, little guy,” Nabor said to the baby. “Looks like you’re chomping at the bit to know how me and Ines put these unusual powers to work?”

“Yes!” Remy shouted.

“A wonderful story,” I said, “but our stop’s in just a minute.”

“Mine too,” he said and began again. “So for the next week, Ines and I, we were in our own world. All my drafting work for the company I worked doubly hard on in the day so that at night Ines and I could work on whatever our hearts desired. We brought a card table into the hangar and set it up just like my desk.

“We changed the wings of the plane to bird’s wings, we painted planes like rainbows, we sketched  the windows like great emeralds faceted and green along the sides of the planes.

“I never saw the transformations happen—it was impossible to draw and to look at once, but whenever we moved our eyes back down to the paper or to each other or even blinked them, the changes I’d drawn appeared before us on the plane. And if Ines was not touching me when I drew, not a thing would happen. That was the rule of our magic.

“And before it was time each night for me to take Ines home, we held hands and erased together all the changes we’d made until the old workhorses of planes stared back at us again, but when we had a plane that was terribly special and the drawing was precious to us, I would start again on a fresh paper and when the real plane was corrected, I would wrap up the fantasy in sheets of newsprint and drive it home with Ines.

“We had ideas enough to go on like this forever, but then after a few weeks like that Manny interrupted us at work.

“‘Nabor,’ he said, ‘You know how the holiday rush is on? We have projects to finish up on the quick—two more weeks til Christmas and I could really use some help. Here’s the story—the new Starfire needs a few parts re-tooled and they’re not going to be ready until the 24th. Then we’ll be busy with assembly hell through all the days off. Maybe you can go into the blueprints and redraw a few things for me?’”

Now we really were at our stop. “Amazing,” I said “and with that Christmas miracle, we’re going to have to say goodbye and thank you so much—you’ve made a long bus ride fly by!”

I dragged Remy towards the stairs, but he tripped along backwards. At Nabor, he yelped “It’s like Santa’s workshop, how you got the planes ready for Christmas!”

“So you really think Manny’s plan just worked like that?” He wagged his finger, following us off the bus. “I suppose I will have to finish the story so you don’t walk away with the wrong impression, so you know that my magic with Ines was a thing between lovers, not to be tangled with.”

And reader, I invited him home, and I let this frail stranger hold Remy’s hand and his backpack as we crossed the two dark streets to our apartment. The motion lights on the side walkway came on as they always do, but that night they were jarring to me, as though they jerked awake to deter me from boundaries I was crossing, as though I was the prowler.

Nabor hung Remy’s backpack just on the hook where it went—uncanny for him to have more expertise-about-the-house than Remy’s father—and I offered him a seat at the kitchen table and a glass of water. I poured another glass to water the Christmas tree and plugged it in. I realized the house did not smell very nice. Nabor carried with him the must of residually damp flocked bus seats, and it blended as the fairy lights warmed the piney tree branches and again filled the house with the bright smell that accompanies in my mind the color sap green. It was a different smell than the pine smells of the best candles, because it evokes both a forest and a tangle of sheets that the dryer did not dry. I should make him tea too, I thought, but had to change the baby, so without asking I put a carton of eggnog and a bottle of brandy out on the table.

He kept talking to Remy when I left the room—it was all technical stuff, about Manny’s lengthy list of work orders, all that he gleefully pushed off his plate in the lead-up to the holidays. I glazed over hearing the heaps of terminology, and in a sense Remy did too. But where I would have expected him to change the subject now, or walk away to find his toys, or start nagging for dinner, instead he was reaching for the spell still, trying for those highs of a few minutes before. For the name of every widget he didn’t recognize, he asked, “What did it look like, what did it do?” And it went on like that until I reappeared with a clean baby and got down more glasses and a spoon to stir up the eggnog that Nabor had not yet touched. “And what did it look like and what was it for?”

And then, after all the restless focus, a return: “But why did you have to erase all the fancy planes? And why did you stop making them?” asked Remy.

“Because no one needed them, not the commercial airlines, not the military. But if you just give me a piece of paper, I’ll draw them all for you—I remember each and every design Ines and I did together, right down to the last bolt.” I laid a sheet of printer paper in front of Nabor. “Grid, please if you have it, dear—” and after fumbling around in the cabinet, I produced that too.

Remy fanned out a pile of colored pencils on the table to Nabor’s left, but he reached into his pocket for an old fashioned mechanical pencil, the type where long, thick leads are screwed into a small vice. He began with a pale outline, two long ovals crossed near their centers. Novi watched from her highchair—somehow she didn’t notice that its tray was empty of food or drink. Remy perched on another chair to watch the plane develop, but I wanted to hear the story, I wanted to hear about when he became the company hero, or didn’t. I wanted to hear about Ines and her powers.

Then, as though he was reading my mind, there was a glow near Nabor. I knew immediately that it was Ines, in a color like a plastic ceiling star as she faded in and out. Her hair hung past her bottom. I could not see her face, but from the back she was childish. When her flickering had stabilized, she put two fingers on Nabor’s temple, as though checking his heart rate, and we all waited.

Then the drawing began in earnest. Nabor hunched over and the details appeared like a steady growth across the outline. I was surprised to see him work that way, creeping mechanically across the paper, as though he were rubbing them through the paper like a scratch off lotto ticket. His careful work had spread over the plane and he finally lifted his head. Black and white feathers like the wings.

“Young fellow, go look at the tree,” he said and from the tree Remy yelled back, “the plane with the seagulls wings is here!” and he pulled the most perfectly wrought tin toy from the branches.

“Stay there,” said Nabor. He hunched over a fresh paper to work, and in another few minutes Remy yelped and from the tree he plucked a flaming pink plane with windows the shape of hearts and the name Ines spelled along each wing.

Plane after plane—I watched with awe, but the reliability of the miracle made me antsy as it went on and on. Was it just a new form of that common Christmas anxiety that parents in this day and age suffer—the fear of too many toys to store? Or maybe a version of that ominous knowledge that Santa will fall from the garden any year now, and that it is high time to protect against the pile-on of miracles.  I couldn’t tell if the children could see or sense Ines; nothing seemed to have registered with them. But the bounty at the Christmas tree was so jarring. Remy had carried his sister to the floor to watch him line them up, to point out each one’s details. I needed to ground the planes, to bring our attentions to earth.

“Nabor, you know the mechanism that triggers the light in my fridge is broken?” I addressed the question to Ines, and like the worst version of a green flash—one that implies nausea fits rather than the tropics—she was gone.

He turned around. “The refrigerator? Sure I can come back with my toolbox later.”

“But I meant for you and Ines to work your magic on it.”

“Dear, it is so sweet that you remember my story—would you like to hear the rest or should I save it for another time?”

I couldn’t answer. The kids were now asleep by their piles of planes, still more toy planes dangling from the tree branches above their heads. Nabor bent to catch my eye, which was fixed on the air behind his back, the space Ines had occupied this last hour. “My, you’re as tired as those young ones on the floor over there. I’ll take my leave and come back to have a look at the fridge another day.”

“No, the story. I did want to hear the rest of the story if you don’t mind finishing it now,” I said, sitting back down at the table, this time straight across from Nabor.

“Well there’s not a whole lot more to it after Manny came and asked for the parts fixes. That part came off well—we fine-tuned the things that needed fine-tuning, saved the guys out on the floor loads and loads of work. But the first one we sat down to do, with Ines by my side holding my hand . . . it was just as usual but I felt her hand shaking. It was strange to work with Manny there, all full of business, telling me what to tweak on the paper and it wasn’t until I was all finished with the drawing and Manny had run back into the shop with the part to see about its fit that I looked up and saw the tears streaming down Ines’s face. She wasn’t red from crying, but she had a rosy glow from the way her tears and her wet skin caught the reflections from the desk. I let go of her hand and her nails chattered against the surface of the table.

“She told me it wasn’t the plan and at first I thought she meant that something had gone wrong with the picture. ‘It was supposed to be our idea,’ and then I thought maybe she was upset to work with Manny in the room, to set aside our fantasies. And then she said ‘Did you even feel it? My hand was off you for half the time.’ She was halfway out the door when she called back, crying this time, as though I’d hit her ‘You didn’t notice and the planes didn’t notice.’

“It took me days of calling her on the phone, of leaving work early to knock on her door, of worrying over her to figure out what was so wrong. She was pregnant, she told me, and was sure I’d drawn the child there inside of her.

“In another week, just the week before Christmas, her sister moved to Texas. Not the rolling hills part, but a dusty old desert part that is more or less like LA with no irrigation. Ines went along with her. That hadn’t been the plan, but she went anyway. I wrote and wrote. I never heard from Ines but eventually her sister responded to say that Ines was not well and would be better off without my letters. No mention of the baby, but I’m sure that if the baby had come, it would have made her well again.

“The job got mighty hard to do after that. First of all, there were all the memories of Ines wrapped up in that desk. And then there was the other difference to get over—the difference between working away at any idea I could think of, ideas that had never been thought before—and then back to normal, just doing the work right and handing in a faithful render.”

I nodded. I don’t think a baby would have made Ines well. I didn’t have all the information I needed, but my gut told me that was just a throwaway truism that men of the mid-century might spout. But my gut also told me there had been no baby, that all the loss she’d felt that night was the loss of control, the end of a lovely flight as co-pilot.

My kids had slept through dinner, and without them to cook for, once I’d let Nabor out and hauled them into bed, I skipped the meal too and lay on the couch with a glass of wine to chase my eggnog. I stared at the Christmas tree, at the planes beneath it, and the way they caught the light and lost the details even from my short distance. I’d tried to send Nabor home with at least a few of them—he’d made too many—but he wouldn’t have it, so I sent him home with a tin full of coffee cake instead. I was relieved that he didn’t mention the fridge—I didn’t want to see him again soon, maybe not at all after this strange afternoon, this strange evening. I’d like to say it was about protecting the kids from all this—from this confusion, from this illusion or whatever it was. But it was me—I was stumped and unable to ask—how is it all done?

It was five the next morning when I woke up starving and went to the fridge for a few scoops of yoghurt, a slice of cheese, something. I opened the door and the mechanism still did not engage. I didn’t expect it to, but of course here I was imagining a version of events now where it just would. And now with my plate of cheese I sat down and imagined that these magicians just had it backwards, and that the food inside, behind the closed door was glowing and shivering to itself, in total secret, in total light.

I think I had wanted Nabor to tell me he quit the job. To leave Ines alone, but also to quit the job. Instead, what he’d told me was this:

“You know, dear, it was never the same, doing the planes after Ines left. But still, I was a company man. I stayed and worked there until I retired. One day I was a young man with a beautiful gal, next thing you know, I’m an old kook. But by the end, last birthday I celebrated at the company, they had one big shindig. There were, jeez, I don’t know, maybe 200 names on the birth certificate that they gave me!”

In the moment I had been about to correct him, but sure enough, isn’t each birthday card, especially after a certain number, a checkpoint, more of a certificate requiring people to sign off and say yes, it is truth that so-and-so lives here in this magical time, in this magical place?

For more on Abby Walthausen, please see our Authors page.