Through the window Clara could see the men: dark still hats huddled together. The only thing moving was their pipe smoke. It curled in lamp-lit clouds. Then—a whoop!—the clouds blew, the huddle burst, the hats were flying.
Out in the street the gaslights seemed to feel her father’s cheer; on her mother’s face she watched them gutter.
“Look at him.” The woman’s grip was strong as any man’s. “How happy!” But the fingers were bonier, worn to hooks. “Look,” she commanded, “and tell me where he sets his heart.” Then the grip became a shove. Her mother’s fetch your father, and that damn club.
The Society for Aeronautical Enthusiasm. Sometimes, when she was sad, or scared, or simply felt the inexplicable weight of herself, she would intone the strange words like an incantation: Aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical … She said it now … enthusiasm … starting up the station steps … aeronautical … shoe-clacking through the empty lobby … enthusiasm … to the shut door … aeronautical enthusiasm. She knocked.
Inside it was all smoke and suit backs, elbows at her head level, her father bending down, face flush as drunk, but eyes clear, grin pure, whoop a straight shot of glee. He scooped her up.
How long had it been since her father had held her like that?
“Eight hundred and fifty feet!”
Lifted her so high? With each hoist and drop she felt her years shake off, seven, six, five, her brother’s age, Larry in the corner watching, this is what it’s like to be him.
Before her face: a piece of paper, some smiling stranger lifting and lowering it for her to read. At the top, the stationmaster’s name. At the bottom, that of the man her father called their father: Bishop M. Wright.
“The Flyer!” Her father raised her high again. Near the ceiling the air made her eyes water. “The Flyer!” He lifted her into the pipe-smoke clouds.
But she wasn’t, wouldn’t be. The balloon ride he’d won—best guess at time and distance of the first flight—was a prize he unwrapped on the cold walk home: how they would scale the sunset, skim beneath the stars, a Christmas present more miracle than gift. Just not for her. Why? The basket size, the limits on weight. Besides, he said, ascending so high would surely swell that head of yours. He tugged her braid. No doubt big as the balloon itself. Laughed. While around them little Larry ran in circles, whooping.
On Christmas Eve all she wanted was to stay uplate enough to watch them float by above. But if she did, her mother told her, putting her heavy shoulders into the rolling pin, how could Saint Nick bring her her gifts? She spoke in sentences choppy with work: What did Clara think they were doing up there, her father, her brother, in that balloon? Airborne beside the sleigh, pointing out good children’s houses, steering the reindeer toward the right roofs. Why else would they have had to do it on Christmas Eve? The last word pressed out by a hard push. Why else leave their women alone this one night a year she liked to share a little brandy with her husband, squeeze beside him on the chair, sing carols, hear that sweetness in your father’s voice, let her own loose just a little… .
“But what about Larry? He won’t be asleep.”
Her mother set the pin down, crouched: her face suddenly level with her daughter’s, her eyes strangely soft, her brow smooth as the dough she’d rolled, her hand ice cold on Clara’s cheek. From her forearm flour fell like snow. “You know,” she said, “they won’t see anything. Going up at night. Sweetie, out there it’ll just be cold and dark and not one damn thing to see.”
There was the whole world. Edge to edge. Lit by the stark stare of a full Yule Moon. And, out in the white-bright yard, at the verge of the snow-glowing fields, a seven-year-old girl illumined, looking up. Behind her: the sleeping house. Above: the starry sky. In it: nothing moving. She watched until her eyes stung. No tear-drop silhouette slipped across the luminescent globe. Would the men up there have lit a lantern? Would she see its wink? The stars had fled the moon for the rest of the sky, piled so thick upon one another she had no hope of picking out the one she wanted… . But there! Could it move so fast? Careen across like that? Disappear in a blink before… . And she was running, running in the direction the light had shot, running for the place on the horizon where she was sure she’d seen it come to earth.
Sometime in the night her father found her. She woke to his hands unclamping her huddled curl, hauling her up. In his arms she shook so much the stars seemed to rattle. The moon was down. His stumbling, his breath: He was drunk.
“Did you see us?” His quaking grin. “We went right over.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes!” His teeth a pale tremulous strip. “Your brother waved! I showed the house to Saint Nick. His sleigh landed right there!”
“No, it didn’t.”
“You missed it? All that commotion? The hooves on the roof? Us caroling while we circled above? You truly missed it, truly?”
Had she? His breath fluttered against her face, or her face shuddered beneath it. Had she? Inside they waited for her: the presents, lurking beneath the tree, irrefutable.
Papa, what did it look like?
Oh, magnificent! The white balloon, the light of the moon, the stars so close!
No, Papa, what did it look like down here?
Oh, so vast, so small, so strange to think we all live out our lives down there!
The world! Astounding!
What did I look like? Papa, what was it like to look down and see me?
Like this, next Christmas Eve, had he been ballooning again: A small girl sneaking out after supper, out past the last light of the candle-lit windows, beyond the hay barn, the silo, the snow-blown fields, away from the dwindling singing, the laughter—mother, father, brother, home—his eight-year-old daughter disappeared in the blackness beneath the sky. And then: a spark. A golden bloom. Like this, Clara: A little fiery face looking up out of all the darkness of the fields, your little face flickering with the light of the oil lamp you brought, your breath a sunset’s clouds,your eyes two glittering stars.
Aeronautical enthusiasm, aeronautical enthusiasm… .
All the winter of ’05 she chanted it, silently, to herself, a spell to melt the snow, a wish for the rush of spring, and had he looked for her that March, that April, May, on the days when she skipped school, shirked chores, left her brother to play their well-house echo game alone, her mother on her knees wringing out the wash, had he looked her father would have found her here: in the Scotch broom behind the split-rail fence that bordered the cattle paddock they called Huffman Prairie, here, on her belly, behind a scrim of reeds, watching him.
Watching him watch them. Two men in tweed coats and flat caps obsessed with some giant machine. Day after day, they worked on it, trained it like a horse, except—when one at last would mount it, and the other, joined by a helper, would give it a mighty running push—it flew. Its muslin wings stock still, its engine roaring like a mudstuck truck, its driver clinging to the controls, and yet it flew surely as any bird. A bird aloft with a man on its back. Its shadow swept the stampeding cows, the whooping men. Her father, too. (Tell me where he sets his heart.) He seemed to shiver in his clothes. Here, Clara thought. Rose on tiptoe, raised a hand to his eyes. Here.
Sometimes he would join the others running down the field after the roaring bird. Sometimes he would help push it off the earth. If they were far away, she might not manage to tell him from the rest. She might imagine it was him up there guiding that flying machine. How she wanted to ask him! What did it feel like? What would it: That wind in her hair; that sudden lift below her belly? But all June she lay flat on the ground, behind the weeds, keeping quiet.
Until, one day in mid-July, she screamed. How he heard her over the crash, she didn’t know. But when she peeled her palms from her eyes, there was the wreckage slammed against the ground, and two far figures running: one toward the crumpled machine, the other toward her.
“No, no, no, no,” her father said, and, “can’t” and “daughter” and “not how the world works. Don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself? How could you make her do your work, your mother worry, poor sick woman!”
She was? How had Clara not noticed it till now? She would have crouched beside the bed and shut her eyes and said the incantation, but learning what the words meant had leeched the magic from them. Enthusiasm: merely eagerness. Aeronautical: only relevant to things that lifted off the earth, took to the air, soared for the heavens.
This was the last thing her mother said to her, one word: selfish, or selfless. She wasn’t sure. She only knew her mother had turned in bed, clutched her daughter’s face, held her gaze, said the word with such vehemence Clara flinched at the flecks of spit. Her mother’s fingers gripped her skull, eyes bore into hers. But did she mean herself or Clara? Was it an apology or reprimand? Warning or wish?
She was at Huffman Prairie the day her mother died. September, windless. No figures in the field, no Flyer for them to push. She walked out there alone. At the end of the narrow track, a launching dolly lay overturned. Behind it, in the wet green grass, the bleached board looked white as bone. She lay down on it, aligned her spine with the rail. Stared up at the sky. Spread her arms.
That evening, returning to her father’s stricken silence, her brother’s sobs, a home whose walls had become more thin, she would wonder if it was something you could see: the soul ascending. If that day she had simply been watching the wrong place in the firmament.
Fall had come by the time her father brought her back to the field. He told her it was her mother’s dying wish.
“To see the Flyer?” she asked.
“For you to see it,” he said.
Huffman was crowded. Farmers and friends, the entire Society, even the old man her father called their father, came out to watch the flight. That day, the machine made it above the windbreak and kept on, became a hawk, a kite, a sparrow, a speck, was gone. But she could hear the sound somewhere, coming back around, circling her, homing in.
Her father seemed to have forgotten how to steer. She would hear his footscuffs wandering the house, floor to floor, gliding room to room, his tail rudder busted, blown by winds only he could feel. Her brother: a brooding boy, so serious—seven years old and up first to fry the bacon, last in from the barns—so careful cleaning the plow horse’s hooves, so watchful over the hung tobacco for the slightest sign of rot. He spent his eighth birthday on the back of a cart, alone in the cold, forking fresh hay to the shivering Jerseys, worry frozen on his face.
While Clara spent her tenth in her room writing a letter to a woman she’d never met: Dear Mrs. Miller, Can you please describe your ride in the dirigible? How long before you will go up again? And would you consider taking along a girl? I’m still quite small, and very light… . By the time she was a teen, the walls around her were plastered with clippings, posters, photographs: Lieutenant Lahm alighting from his balloon in the field at Fylingdales Moor; the Wright brothers on the racetrack at Le Mans; the note she got back from Hart O. Berg (You never know … I’ll ask Orville … Maybe one day you’ll pilot your own!), the first American woman ever lifted off the earth inside an aeroplane signing her name with an “O” bold as a daredevil’s loop. And the daredevils themselves! Glenn Curtiss of that lush mustache; sly-eyed Arch Hoxsey with his wry smile. Her first pack of cigarettes she purchased solely for the Ralph Johnstone card inside: goggles raised, chin-strap sharpening his jaw, that slight swerve she so loved in the cock of an eyebrow above his steady gaze. At school, the girls talked of which boys they’d like to date. She smoked her Meccas, kept quiet. The boys discussed their options for careers, mocked her when she mentioned Raymonde de Laroche. (Her license! she shouted; That’s France! they jeered.) Why do you even bother? her few friends asked, when, already fourteen, she fought for a seat in the science class. You know this is your last year, anyway.
Still, the day her father sat her down it was a shock. She had tried her best to bring him back, curled beside him on the couch reading aloud the news (Blériot across the English Channel! Latham breaks a thousand meters!), hoping to rekindle the heart her mother had heard in his whoop that long-ago first flight. Hadn’t she brought him into her room to show him each poster she put up—the Los Angeles expo, the Grande Semaine d’Aviation de la Champagne? Hadn’t they gazed together at the mademoiselle in her windblown dress waving at the silhouetted planes, daydreamed of standing beneath a sky aswirl with aviators thick as bees? All spring she’d tutored boys in science class, saved just enough: two tickets to the aero meet in Indianapolis that June!
But here was her father shaking his head. “You’re a woman now,” he told her.
Her brother, across the table: “We need you here.”
“And what,” she demanded, “if I go anyway?” To Indianapolis that June, or back to school that fall, or away forever.
“This isn’t New York,” her brother said.
“This is your home,” her father told her.
“Sis,” Larry reached over, touched her arm, “can’t you see this is your job?”
In the last year, he had become taller than her.
“There isn’t any union,” he said. “You can’t go on strike.”
And, on his lip, she thought she could see a hint of hairs.
When summer came she stole away to Asbury Park. Walked to the train station, bought a seat east, saw the ocean for the first time, the boardwalk, the beach, slept on sand, discovered the affect her shoulders had on men, her smile, snapped up a ride, attained a ticket, was there on the field when Brookins crashed into the crowd, when Prince plummeted 6,000 feet, held her breath with everyone else, praying for his parachute to open (open! open!), felt the spectators’ communal shudder, would sometimes feel it again, back home, alone in the kitchen cracking the back of a bird, or serving a spatchcocked half to her brother, or sewing a split in her father’s yellowed longjohns, or stepping off the train onto the platform of her small Ohio town the day that she returned. But for one August night, at the edge of the Atlantic, looking up, she had been struck by a sudden sureness that it would be all right. The moon. The Milky Way. The Stardust Twins swooping through. That was what the papers called them after that first night flight, Johnstone and Hoxsey circling each other in the lunar glow, their pale-winged biplanes soaring smooth as owls. And her, beneath them, swept by the peace of certainty. Neck stretched back, face flat to the sky, she knew it: She was not meant to be up there; she was meant to be down here, here like a cairn seen from above, a landmark, her.
Let Bessica Raiche climb behind the controls that October.
Let Harriet Quimby claim her license from the Aero Club.
Here is Clara Purdy, standing far out in her father’s field, surrounded by electric lamps. All these months she has collected them, repaired ones given her for free, purchased others with earnings made from sewing piecemeal, stolen the rest from her own home. Here is the cord she’s spliced, snaking away to the windmill her brother installed just this past September. It is November now, cold and clear and night. She stands in the high grass, waiting for wind. Behind her the turbine is still, the generator asleep. Above, the sky is breathtaking. What is the chance someone flies over tonight? What does it matter? For the first time she understands what she felt in August: It doesn’t. The wind will gust, the turbine will whir, the charge will shoot through the cord, the lamps will all light up, and she will know how it would look from high above—the concentric circles, bright bulbs swirling inward to her here at the center—and that will be enough. The dry grassheads stir against her shins. The filaments await the spark. Here it comes.
After the fire, they lived in a fourth-floor flat in Dayton, the three of them cramped close, her father and brother away all day in the old bicycle building, assembling engines for the new Model B. The intricacy of understanding, the advanced industry: The Wrights wouldn’t hire her. Instead, she spent her sixty-hour weeks on the National Cash Register line, setting small round buttons—red number five, red number five, red number five—in their place on the machine. At home, her father ate whatever she cooked in his usual silence. Her brother, chewing, wouldn’t even look her way, ever unforgiving of the conflagration she had caused. That spring, when flames consumed a shirtwaist factory in New York, he slid the Daily News across to her (a hundred and a half dead, jabbing his finger at the newsprint, most of them women)… . Beside it, her eyes took in a different headline: In India, a Sommer biplane had delivered the first air mail. What, she thought, flushed with excitement, would come next? Her father, reading aloud one night, his voice aghast: a ship, an iceberg… . He couldn’t stand it, handed her the paper. She drew in breath. Was it true? Quimby had piloted across the Channel? Alone, a woman! Eight thousand suffragists, her brother announced, slapping the paper, shaking his head, marching on the capital like a bunch of Albanians trying to overthrow the Turks.
Nearly a thousand days went by before the flood of 1913 gave her a whole week off. Alone with herself for the first time in years, she climbed the stairs to the roof, thunked down a satchel bulged with buttons. Every shift she’d swiped one round red number five and now, crouched high above streets deep with water, she lay them out with a typersetter’s care. Above, surveying aeroplanes circled. She wrote them notes in big red letters: Come closer! Lower a rope!
In Austria-Hungary an airship floated, testing photographic tools. An army aviator tried out his loop-de-loops. Biplane, dirigible: ball of fire erupting in the summer sky. A few weeks later Archduke Ferdinand took a bullet to the throat. A month after that, all of Europe was at war. In a few years, her brother, too.
Mid-September, 1918: 2,000 planes aswarm over Saint-Mihiel, blasting thick as scattershot across the sky. It was the biggest air battle the world had ever seen, and the next night, while her new husband finalized what that afternoon had wrought, Clara stared up past the strange shoulders (later, she couldn’t recall if he’d removed his undershirt, if he’d still worn his glasses) at the ceiling of waterstain clouds and watched the dogfight in her mind: a welkin of dark specks swirling, the opposite of stars. If Abner Lowell noticed (later she would know of course he had), he said nothing (of course he wouldn’t), just as the few guests—his family, his friends—had looked at her drained face and silently assumed it must be grief (her fallen brother, her heart-felled dad). A few whispered she must have married out of desperation (her new husband’s bony chest, his paltry schoolteacher’s wage), but they were wrong. Clara had married the man for his location.
“Near Toledo,” he’d told her, shelling a hot peanut, slipping it into her palm. “A little town you wouldn’t know.”
She’d chewed, flashed him a look of try me.
“Maumee,” he’d said.
“On the Maumee River?”
Laughing, he’d coughed out, “You!” It was what he would later say was their first date. “You’ve got to be a bargeman’s daughter!”
Smiling, she’d swallowed, held out her empty hand.
“A little land,” she told him, a few monthslater, after they’d moved up north. “A little place of our own out in the country.”
“But Dear”—he called her Dear and Sweets and Mrs. Lowell—“We have a house already. Right here, right around the corner from the school.”
“Abner,” she said, “I grew up on a farm.”
“But why so far?”
“I want our children—”
“Why pick a place near precisely nothing?”
It was true: the plot she’d found sat equally far from even the tiniest of towns. Grand Rapids, Whitehouse, Waterville. It wasn’t even on the routes between them. But it was beneath the one she wanted, right below the one up there.
Mornings, she made him hot cornmeal muffins, liver and onions the way he loved, helped carry his schoolbooks out to the car, stood in the dirt drive waving. She kept the bills in order, the mousetraps empty, the dust down, herself up, a wife he’d want to come home to, a home he’d be happy to find her in. Except he wouldn’t.
Afternoons, after everything else was done, she’d change into her coveralls, head for the tractor shed. Alone in all the horse-worked county, the Allis-Chalmers had cost her every cent of life savings her father had left, and every day before dusk she would crank its engine over, hitch its thresher on, rumble out into her field. Or, as Abner called it, her canvas. The tractor he called her Big Bad Brush. In the summer, she painted with it, mowed her pictures into high grass. In the fall, she ploughed pen-lines, the overturned topsoil dark as ink. Winter found her bundled in the aviator’s coat and hat her husband gave her, long leather earflaps whipping in the wind while she made her etchings on the earth, her shovel a chisel, snow peeling away like curls of wood. She planted daffodils. Dug up the bulbs each fall, stitched them back into the dirt like needlework, watched her embroidery bloom sun-bright each spring.
From the sky, the airmail pilots watched it, too. Twice a day they flew the route, eastward in morning, westward late afternoon. Perched atop the Allis-Chalmers, or kneeling in the new-turned dirt, or simply standing still in a swirl of snow, she would listen to the hum, scan the sky, smile up, wait for the dip of a wing, the tiny stick arm flung back and forth in a far-off wave. She would watch them dwindle away to Cleveland, morning awhirl in their propeller blades, watch them disappear toward Chicago, sunset on their struts.
And home from his day at the Maumee Secondary School, hunched over the kitchen table doing his preparatory work, her husband would catch a flutter in the corner of his eye, look out the window: his wife in that distant field of daffodils, her breeze-swept hair all auburn fire in the late light, her cap lifted into the last of the sun, waving, waving. She always left his supper warming in the oven. He always let it warm till she was done, would come clomping in, shuck her boots, sit down to eat beside him. Sometimes, he’d go out to her. In winter storms, if visibility was bad, the pilots, searching for landmarks along the route, might fly so low their wheels seemed close enough to grab, the silver belly suddenly there tearing through the all-white sky, the aviator’s face a flash of goggles, the airplane roaring by. He’d stand behind her, arms around her, feel the gust, the rush, the thrumming of the engine in the air.
“What’s it this time?” Abner would ask.
She’d tell him: President Roosevelt on his first flight, Von Richthofen shot down over the Somme, the new airmail stamp. “See there’s the biplane, there’s the ‘24,’ over there the ‘cents.’”
And Abner would gaze at the indecipherable arcs in the grass, the random squiggles in the snow, the mystifying daffodils, and fill his face with what he hoped conveyed belief in her, faith that from above it would all be clear. Until she began digging portraiture in dirt. Eddie Rickenbacker. Bert Acosta. Jack Knight. Airmail pilots that might right then fly over on the Chicago–Cleveland route. “Do you think,” Abner said, his voice very level, his eyes somewhere off in the field, “that they might … I mean, that they really … That they could actually really recognize themselves?”
She meant to nod, but instead found herself starting to shake inside his arms. Against her back, his chest shook too. Their laughter filled the field.
Once, after a fight (Him: Weren’t kids the entire reason they’d moved out there? Her: That’s just the way people without meaning in their lives try to make some. Him: And didn’t she want that, too? Her: What did he think she did all afternoon?), she’d asked him, “Why did you marry me?” Because, he said, he loved her. “What does that mean?” He’d told her then he’d never seen someone so consumed by what most moved them, never been that close to such a burning need, wanted to assuage it or be burned up in it, to feel even a little of it in the warmth of what he felt for her.
Abner was the one who brought her books—Klee, Kandinsky, Mondrian—who suggested they drive four hours to Cleveland just to see a room bedeviled by Kazimir Malevich’s strange bars and slabs. She didn’t understand what stirred behind it, no more than she understood what stirred in her. But dragging the thresher in wild swaths, plowing scattered squares of earth, planting bulbs in shapes that seemed to suggest themselves, she was sure of this: It was a style that far better fit her tools. A tool itself that let her grasp at last at what she had begun to conceive of as a gift. A gift Abner had wrapped for her. The way he wrapped himself around her the night the postal service flew its first transcontinental flight.
That night in February of ’21 the snow spilled down as if to douse their fire. They had lit it in the middle of her field, at dusk, no telling when—or if—the plane would hurtle overhead. All day she’d waited for news, pulled open the Ford’s door to retrieve the evening paper from her husband’s outstretched hand: The last heard from the airmail pilot, he was headed straight into a storm above Cheyenne. Cheyenne to North Platte to Omaha to Iowa City to Chicago to right overhead: At night the only thing to guide him would be a few post-office workers’ flares, nothing to mark the path between but what bonfires a few farmers might keep alight. Abner helped her haul out the half-rotted boards, pour on the gasoline. They brought blankets, a bottle of bootleg, sat close to the fire. All around her: Abner’s enfolding coat, his enveloping arms, the warmth of his breath on her cheek, of his cheek against her ear, of him waiting all the long night with her. Sometime after midnight, they lay down together between the blankets. Sometime before dawn, he fell asleep. Sometime after first light she woke her husband, straddling him with her heat, tenting him with her body, the bottom blanket rough on her knees, the top blanket blocking his view of the sky, her own eyes focused only on his face. “I hear it,” he said. “Darling, I hear it.” She shook her head, rocked on his hips, kissed him quiet.
So why did she still daydream pilots down? That they would see her wave, circle round, land in her field, take her up. In a De Havilland with a scooped-out second seat? Or curled on her knees in the bin behind the engine, the mail hatch sprung? A gloved hand on her cheek (she could smell the leather), the twist of her neck as she turned to see (she could feel her whipping hair) his goggled eyes, his chapped lips, her first kiss at five hundred feet, six, seven, a thousand… . Why, when she first heard of the postal-service beacons—fifty-foot towers erected all across the country, a trail of landlocked lighthouses flashing their specific signal (me, me, me) to pilots plying a sea of stars—did she feel betrayed? They built one five miles away. At night she could see its blinking flare (here, here, here). Why when all those women (only one aviatrix shy of a hundred) came together in Curtiss Field to make their mark in the history of flight did Clara turn with even more determination to her own canvas?
Now, she worked at night. She spent all the allowance Abner gave her on a single headlight for her Big Bad Brush, ate her suppers sitting on the tractor’s seat, stayed out past the last window gone dark in her house. What sent her to the shed to sharpen thresher blades at the news of Earhart’s first Atlantic flight? What about word of the woman’s solo crossing kept Clara up till dawn mapping out her next work of art? Each one, each season, outdid the last, pushed her abilities to new feats of skill, scaled the atmosphere of her imagination. She clipped grass by hand, cut staggered banks in sweeping slopes, accomplished tricks of shading by varying stalk heights. She incorporated color in the spring, in winter watered carefully considered ditches to show the sky fleeting paintings made of glinting ice.
And when, one summer morning in ’37, the kitchen radio reported that the Queen of the Air had gone down over the ocean, was feared drowned, she found she couldn’t breathe. She stood up from the table. The house was empty. The news announcer’s voice seemed to cinch her throat. And, even before she heard the airplane’s purring approach, she was fleeing into the field. Maybe it was her frantic waving, maybe the desperation in her shout: This time the pilot swung around, returned, roared down to her.
A Boeing Monomail, army drab, no room to sit anywhere but in his lap. The leather of his jumpsuit creaked. He had to reach between her legs to take hold of the controls. The noise was deafening, the treeline rushing. The earth dropped.
There was her world: the house, the empty driveway, the field where she did her work. The flesh on the back of her neck urged her look at the sky, the giddy slide of her stomach told her you’re flying. But she couldn’t take her eyes off the small, and smaller, square of landscape that was her canvas below.
At her cheek, the aviator was saying something. His chapped lips brushed her ear. For a second, she pulled her stare away, glanced at him: His goggles were so smeared with engine grease she couldn’t see his eyes, just the rawness of his sunburned nose, the wetness of his grin.
“Take me back,” she said.
“Down?” he shouted.
She shook her head. “Back around, back over, I want to see it again.”
It was the first time that she ever had. Till then, it had all existed solely in her mind. There, there, if she concentrated hard enough she could forget the feeling of his hand creeping across her chest, if she fought the wind in her eyes and focused hard enough, she could imagine that there was nothing around her but air, that she was up there, flying, looking down, alone.
Maybe it was the Depression. Early on she’doffered to plow her canvas under, grow vegetables instead, but Abner insisted. No: Even when parents lost their jobs, students still needed teachers. Though when, that autumn after her first flight, Lucas County consolidated its schools and proved him wrong, her homebound husband spent his days gazing at her field, his nights commenting on her progress, his energy in coming up with ways that he could help—Observe you from the roof, shout when you’re about to lose the line. I know: a business in balloon rides! Listen, I’ll write a letter to LIFE Magazine, to Art News, get you noticed!—his whole self seeming to clutch at her work as if it could become in some way his. Maybe it was the fact that all his attempts to garner her attention finally did. Late in ’41 rumors began to go around: Her flowers sprouted in secret patterns, her tractor furrowed code, Mrs. Lowell was planting messages for Japs. That winter, at Abner’s urging, she undertook a radical revision of her aesthetic. He brought home images of Far Eastern art, read her haikus. And in the fresh snow of the new year’s first storm, he helped her shovel a field full of brushstrokes:
There it was, black shovel lines in white, giant characters carved beneath the January sky. Two days later an army corporal showed up at their door, watched them while, with the Big Bad Brush, Clara plowed their work away. Afterward, Abner admitted it was probably time to stop. He looked so sad, sitting there in his coat, his pants wet to the knees, his head hanging forward, his hands hiding his face. His fingers were all knuckles and loose skin. He was going bald. How had her husband become a man of fifty? How had she become a wife of forty-five?
And maybe it was simply that: so much time together, so many years gone by.
At first, she didn’t think of the separation assomething that might last. Just a few months away from each other, Abner working at his new job in Bowling Green, her in Toledo, working thirty miles from him, doing her part to keep the country stocked in B-17s, apart only until the war was over, maybe a year at most. But it was four. Four years living in her own room in a single-sex boardinghouse, four years in which she found she liked working alongside other women, liked earning enough on her own, liked the feeling of finishing the nose cone of a behemoth bomber, assembling the canopy of something that would one day soar over Hamburg, Dresden, Mainz. She was the oldest woman working at Libbey-Owens-Ford. Gran Gunner the others called her, smoking cigarettes, snapping gum. On their lunchbreaks they laughed about messages for airmen slipped into secret cracks, read aloud the Blade’s dispatches from the fronts, passed around pamphlets by the old Birth Control Federation of America, debated its new milquetoast moniker—Planned Parenthood—and whether General Spaatz was right to bomb Jerry’s oil before his rails, and if it made sense to join a dying Women’s Trade Union League, shared home-canned pickles, packs of cigarettes, wondered what they would do after all this was done.
On Fridays, after work, she would wonder the same. Abner would pull into the Libbey-Owens lot, take her back to a home that, all weekend, they would pretend still felt like theirs. The wall calendar Allis-Chalmers always sent her, now swapped for one his students made. The sink corner that had once held her hand cream, now crowded by his shaving mug. He’d move it over, turn the month. Sometimes by Sunday they could almost feel like them again. Though more and more she worked the weekend shifts—overtime, extra pay, Saturday night out with the girls—Sunday coming every other week, then once a month, then not. On the phone, Abner would speak things he’d never said before—how much he’d wanted children; how he used to lose himself in his guitar; all he’d given up for her, would, still wanted to—as if the distance between them made him brave. But it was just distance. Close was this: the cigarette smoke of the women she worked with, their laughter around card tables at night, her own eyes caught in the curved reflection of a bomber’s canopy, looking back. Sometimes the smile she saw saddened her. Sometimes, wiping a rag at the glass, she tried to see her husband instead. Sometimes she simply stared through herself until she saw the driveway, the house, some new shape coming up in the field.
Weeds, scrub willows, the driveway buriedsomewhere beneath the grass. She stood in the sun, seedheads scratching at her stockings, looking at the house. He’d written her—moved out, a simple flat nearer the school he worked at now, she could stay in the house, or sell it, it’s up to you, he’d transferred the deed to her. But not the car. She’d walked the last two miles. Such flat land: The whole way she’d watched the house grow near, the road to town slip out of sight, its treeline dwindling to distant shakings, far-off Toledo disappearing from her life. The air grew thin. Her stomach dropped. Her juddering heart: She might have been taking off, climbing up, seeing the earth fall away below. Except she wasn’t looking down. Instead, on every side it seemed the world was drawing itself away from her. Once, long ago, in a dim Dayton stairwell, her arms beneath her father’s arms, dragging him down, flight after flight, fast as she could, she had felt it—in his eyes on her, in the thud thud thud of his heels on the steps, in the desperate heartbeats of his departing life—had felt the world withdraw like that. There, on the landing where they’d stopped, he had watched her with such hurt, such hope, so much understanding (selfish? selfless?), such loneliness suddenly inside her.
Standing in the hot sun in front of the abandoned house, she set her suitcase down. Hiked up her skirt. Peeled away her stockings. They ringed her shins like thick black shackles. But God the breeze on her legs felt good.
It gusted all the time. Flat fields like runways for the rushing wind, windbreaks bent by its launch against them, the stolid brick house huddled close to the ground, Clara leaning forward, dress and coat and hair afloat behind her, her whole body seeming about to lift off into the sky. These days no more mail planes flew by. Just clouds and birds and the bellies of DC-4s, their fuselages perforated with passenger windows, their cargo holds carrying the mail alongside luggage now. How high up they flew! How far away they seemed! How fast they grew—Comets and Constellations and Stratocruisers—big as blue whales swimming through the sea above. Sometimes it struck her as strange: the way their shapes—so much larger than the biplanes of before, but so much higher, too—seemed, from below, to stay the same size to her. She hung tobacco in the barn to dry, stuffed advertisers’ envelopes all winter, barely scraped by. Even with the checks Abner still sent her. She knew he couldn’t afford to give so much, knew she should tear them up, just as the one time she’d seen him in Maumee she’d known she should leave him alone. But she had crossed the street to the lunch-counter window, watched his shape stiffen at sensing her, his face furrow with the effort of staring into his shake. She’d turned away, gone farther down the street, glanced back: There on the sidewalk her still-husband stood, his hat pushed up from his eyes as if to keep the brim from blocking even a sliver of her in his sight.
And the next time an envelope came from Abner it contained not just the usual check but a story clipped from LIFE. Is he the greatest living painter in the United States? the caption read. Photographs of splattered paint, scattered color. To Clara they looked like her field when she’d first come home: a bird’s-eye view of what nature could do without her. Sometimes at night lying alone in her bed she could hear the airliners droning overhead. Sometimes, midday, sun-bright rooms would dim for a second, go bright again. Their shadows passed over her there in her field, and she watched them sweep away, disappear, didn’t even look up.
But look down. Out that oval window. There, on the ground—what is that?
“I’d like to buy it,” the gentleman said. He stood on her doorstep, pinstripe pants aflutter in the breeze, voice like the news on CBS. News of a collector out in California who’d sent this man to hunt out art.
She looked past him to the field, the barn, the shadow of the plane. She’d stitched the tar paper together scrap by scrap, covered it with black-painted muslin that wavered, rippled, gave the sense of the shape moving. Though it was nailed down, glued, painted mid-pass atop the barn, the yard, the plowed-under field, its wingspan 900 feet long, its fuselage distorted as a real shadow’s would have been by the slant of the sun. It had taken her three years.
“The barn?” she asked.
“That, too,” he said, in his Edmund Chester voice.
Now Chester was off the radio and everyone was watching television instead and her barn was gone to some hangar outside Los Angeles, and she was in a magazine. Some writer spurred by word of the sale had done some digging, discovered a defense-department file, photographs of her early-forties shovelings, revealed the message she and Abner had sent the Japanese:
Clouds drift back and forth
Over my fields—I wonder:
Can you see them too?
Clara Lowell. There on the page her name seemed like another person’s. She read the story of herself as if from far away, from before she’d taken Abner’s name, a Purdy girl again who might tear out a page, pin it to her bedroom wall. She read it all until, halfway, she hit a thing she’d never heard: soldier, bullet, how her brother had died. Face down in a ditch, it said. Shot from the air by a strafing ace. Her eyes kept moving along the page, her mind making out the words, but she was seeing Larry again: running, running, engulfed by the onrushing shadow of the plane.
And there went her phone again, ringing, ringing. The Garner Agency, the Fineman Gallery, funding from an arts foundation in San Francisco where she spent the first year of the new decade peering down from the Golden Gate or up from a boat beneath it, devising a way to make the bay look as if the shadow of fuselage and wings had been painted on its waves. Across the ocean, over Pyongyang, jet fighters screamed into the sky. She couldn’t hear them. No more than Jackie Cochran, three years later, could have heard the sonic boom she left behind along with all the other aviatrixes still shackled to sound. Clara was in New York City, affixing the faux reflection of an onrushing airliner to the steel and glass of the Empire State—a tragic trompe l’oeil. Haunting, critics called it, heart-stopping. They said her work rang of the grim reaper, contained a sense of the moment made permanent, and yet seemed fleeting, too, as if to offer a possibility of reprieve. And so was also hopeful. And so when, high above the Colorado Plateau a DC-7 struck a Constellation, she was commissioned to commemorate the lost souls, spent the fall of ’57 marking the Grand Canyon with two immense shadows facing each other across the chasm, their shapes distended exactly as the sun had stretched them the morning of that last day.
It would be known as Clara Lowell’s final shadow piece. Even in the moment, hovering above in the helicopter the Park Service pilot flew, she knew it: The silhouettes were old shapes cut from the woman she used to be, not who she had become. Down in the station everyone else had moved on, too. They were crowded ’round a short wave radio, listening to a faint, steady beep. That’s it, one of the rangers said. It must be passing over us right now.
Back in Ohio she stood in the spot where her barn had once been and watched the tiny glint arc along its orbit. She had seen pictures of the Soviet’s sphere. She wondered what, from that height, it could possibly see down here.
Old ovals found in dusty bureau drawers, age-spotted hand-me-downs, rearviews salvaged from crashed cars, cast-off skyscraper panes from construction lots in Cleveland: She collected shards of any size, from all over, carted them back to her small square of earth, slowly, piece by piece, resurfacing her old canvas in glass. Ten entire acres. Half as many years. Hundreds of thousands of seamless fits found from a million broken sides. By the time John Glenn radioed down Oh, that view is tremendous! he might have meant the flash of glinting land she’d covered.
Or the sight of all the others who’d come to help. From the beginning she had watched in wonder—these young seekers fleeing their old lives, stopping by on their way to wherever, stepping out of dusty cars, parking in her driveway for a day, a couple, crashing in her guest room, on her couch, men on motorcycles with their plaid shirts unbuttoned, wind-wild hair, women wearing jeans, scarves in colors more vibrant than anything for miles—but as they crouched by her side, helping find a fit for a piece, holding a glued edge together, she had begun to think of them as somehow akin to her. These kids who were a third her age! Who drove up blaring bands with names like the Del-Tones, the Animals, the Stones. “Can’t you hear my heartbeat?” The girls sang it while they worked. Girls who said things like out there it’s trying to bury us alive, and can’t let it stifle your voice within, who laughed when she insisted she was still married. Well, she said, it’s true I haven’t seen him in, let’s see, oh jeez… . And they told her she couldn’t continue like that, it was a new era—all that matters now is what will make you happy, what’s the point in living if your life isn’t true to you—an age of self-fulfillment, of our own happiness not just pursued but caught, kept, held perpetually near all our hearts. They could have been her children, her grandchildren, but standing amid a group who’d helped her put the last broken piece of glass in place, she felt as if she had at last found her generation, kindred spirits, a moment in time in which she fit.
Only the babies gave her pause. The ones brought into her home on the hips of girls younger than Clara had been when she’d first entered the house herself. In their sounds she would hear her long-gone husband’s late-night voice, his telephone pleas. And, watching the stare the babies settled on their mothers, she would wonder if Abner—another’s husband now?—had felt enlarged by that enamored gaze. She hoped he had. Though whenever an infant was handed to her, she felt the opposite: the child’s need tight as its fist around her finger, squeezing her down to fit its purpose, herself made small as the reflection in its unblinking eyes.
Instead, she kept her sights on the work before her. There, in the field of mirrors, the sun shone up out of a sky in the ground. Clouds crept through the grass along the edge, floated into twin squares of blue, followed themselves. Soon, she knew, a contrail would cut across like a line of chalk. A 727 on its way to Chicago, or coming east, a hundred and more passengers peering out their windows. Staring down at the sky beneath herself, she tried to imagine what they would see.
A blinding glare, according to the FAA. Clear the mirror off the ground: the agency’s order that at last turned Clara Purdy into a household name. The destruction on the evening news, the documentary about the flood of youth answering the artist’s call, the image censored around the world: all that mirror-cleared ground blanketed now by a thousand bodies stripped bare, a ten-acre square of naked flesh flashed upward in a fuck you so communal it seemed to capture the entire decade’s mood. By the sixties’ end she had lit an entire rural county’s roads, spidering bright veins across the nighttime dark; she made a color photograph of one square mile of the Earth, shot from a mile high, then blew it up to actual size, printed it in pieces, put them back together over the spot, so from the air it almost looked like life, but not.
Still, it was her “Long Bright Line” that Clara meant to be her masterpiece. She had convinced the postal service to loan her the antiquated airmail beacons for one night. Coast to coast, every twenty miles, they stood rusting, signals extinguished long ago, last remnants of an idea once pioneering, now obsolete. Until, for sixty seconds on the night of July 20, 1969, she would bring it back to life. All her funding had gone into the purchase and installation of 140 first-order Fresnel lenses, powerful as any lighthouse beam, mounted atop the towers, aimed straight up. The volunteers who manned the stations wanted only to share in what would happen at her signal: Starting in New York the first would flare on, followed by a second to its west, and the one that was next, and the one after, a constellation untangled across the country into a single strand of terrestrial stars, a gleaming necklace laid atop the Earth’s dark breast. Seen only by the moon. And the astronauts on it.
Sometime early that afternoon, the TV would show the lander touch down. Around sunset it would show Armstrong or Aldrin stepping onto the surface. By dark they were supposed to be done. And she would call the beacon in New York and start her signal to them.
But in between the landing and the moon walk, her phone rang instead. She picked it up, heard breathing.
“Wasn’t that incredible?” the voice on the other end said.
Even after all these years she knew him. While he talked all out of breath about the surface of the moon seen coming close, and closer, the shadow of the lander growing (that beep, beep, beep, he said, can you still hear it? and, for some reason, laughed), she slid open the deck doors, let the scent of the ocean in. She stood there trying to smell it, trying not to let him hear her inhale. Her old nose. Her old mind. Him? He must have been approaching eighty. He must have been becoming senile: How else could he have just now asked her to come see him?
“I’m sorry,” she told him.
“Tonight,” he said.
“I live in Los Angeles now.”
“Clara … ”
“I’m busy, Abner.”
“I’m dying,” he said.
Isn’t this something, Cronkite exclaimed.
And it was. It was like nothing she’d ever seen.
From two hundred forty thousand miles out there… .
She sat on the couch, in the salt-sticky breeze, feeling it on the loose skin of her neck, her scalp beneath her thinned-out hair, remembering the scent of peanuts, engine oil, the soft fleece of the aviator cap, the warmth of the earflaps—on winter days his fingers had brushed her chin, buckling the straps, just so she wouldn’t have to shuck her gloves—how he’d gazed up at her astride him that winter night, his face full of bonfire light, the way he’d looked at his new wife in the picture he’d sent so many years ago to share the birth of his first child. A daughter? A son? She sat in the breeze, trying to remember (what do you think I do all afternoon?),listening to Armstrong speak from the moon.
There seems to be no difficulty… . Definitely no trouble… .
Gee, Cronkite said, that’s good news.
And she leaned forward, turned the volume down. She sat in silence, staring. A gray, grainy picture. A pale blur she knew was the shape of a man but might have been anything that moved. The longer she watched, the more strange and beautiful and unworldly, unreachable, it seemed. The longer she looked, the more it broke into its parts—stillness, shadow, something stirring—the more she felt her own shape blurring, too. If anyone had looked away from the TV, glanced up at her window, aglow with the light broadcast off the moon … but who on Earth would?
She was still watching the fuzz of the screen when, a long time later, the broadcast done, the window for her beacons passed, the phone rang again.
“What happened?” The volunteer’s voice came all the way across the country. Some young woman high up in her tower, finger on the switch. “We’re waiting,” the voice said, crackly with distance, beginning to doubt.
In the hospital she meant to tell him it hadn’t been his fault, but stepping into his room, she found herself unable to utter the words work, or self, or matter. Instead, she sat gazing again, this time at her once-husband’s face. Someone had turned his sound off, too. When the nurse told her he could no longer speak, Clara asked what his last words had been. The nurse didn’t know. She wondered: Would they have even been meant for her to hear? She wondered: Would she have even been able to? There was just the beeping of the EKG. The blinking of his eyes. Even when they were open, she could tell they didn’t see her. But she watched them: blink, blink, blink.
Flying home, she could not stop feeling her own lids opening and closing, even as she leaned toward the window, looked down. The lights of Dayton dwindling. The lights of its outskirts spread as far as she could see. Somewhere down there, it struck her, was what used to be her father’s farm. It was smothered by suburbs now, buried beneath the unrelenting burn of each house’s separate star, but once it would have been unlit, all of it, house and barns and trees and field and a little girl looking up, all indistinguishable, dark as sleep. When the moon went behind the clouds, the balloon must have seemed suspended in pure blackness, they must have held the basket tight, peered over its edge, thought how beautiful! So strange, she thought now, what we have done to the surface of the world. She shut her eyes—simply paused her lids, stopped them from opening. And, taking in the emptiness before her, wondered how many seconds of each minute she’d spent like that, how many minutes of each day, how many hours, how many years.