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TAKING TO THE AIR


I keep falling off a cliff while sitting in my reading chair. I turn on the TV and there's another giant upheaval of reality, and off I go into free fall. I'm growing used to seeing my feet dangle over my head as the snow-gray cliffs slide ominously upward as if heaven were building an upside-down skyscraper. I turn on the radio in the morning while sipping my first cup of coffee, and the Roundtable panel on WAMC informs me that Trump couldn't spell coronavirus in a tweet, and then appoints the anti-science fundamentalist Christian Mike Pence to head up his task force on containing the coronavirus. I feel the wind under the sheet, the loss of gravity, the sudden freedom of my head to swivel around on my shoulders. I'm descending again, my parachute refusing to open no matter how hard I tug. The clouds are shriveling above me into shards of glass. The Times is on my monitor later in the morning and I crawl around over the headlines like a snail in some arid patch of scrubland in Chernobyl. Goats are nibbling the grass, and a deer slides past me with a fawn in tow. I am eating dirt from the hard fall I've taken coming down into the winter landscape of Ukraine.

No one prepared me for this. I have been living like a stray bullet much of my life, bouncing off the concrete walls of World War II at birth, hitting my head on the iron girders jutting up out of the Korean Conflict, plunging headlong into the rasping jazz of the Beat era, and coming up for air in front of the huge speakers playing the Beatles. I mean, there's been no peace, but I wasn't thinking that my herky-jerky life had any meaning or purpose; I was just a kid, a pre-Boomer, unlucky enough to be born before the baby boom even got started. I don't have any statistical belonging to a group to give me identity. The hippies were all coming up just behind me; they were kids when I was beginning to think bellbottoms were silly, and my long hair was not styled to represent any strong opinions I had about Vietnam or conservative Republicans. I was just me, and I slid around a dance floor with a girl with no particular enthusiasm for politics. I just wanted to hold someone by the waist and hum to the music.

But now, I am sprawled in my chair, book on the floor, ready to grip the arm rests for another blood-curdling propulsion into space, and a bone-chilling, hair-parting tumble through the hazy ether of a polluted sky. Mick Mulvaney had just said that the coronavirus was a hoax, an urban myth designed to bring down President Trump. Now Trump could be heard speaking alongside some serious CDC scientists denying there was any truth to the rumors that the virus might be spreading around the world. He advised us to buy more stock and the market would calm its jitters and we can all go back to a comfortable daydream that we were living in the 1950s and that nothing had changed since Eisenhower ruled.

I'm getting good at planing the air with my outstretching arms. Birds admire my erratic grace and join me for a few arcs and semi-circles before growing bored with my ineptitude. I call out in a cracked voice that I am going to die, but they eye me with indifference. Behind me, in touching distance, is Rush Limbaugh struggling for breath and pronouncing the future as under total control by a brilliant cast of seers and prophets serving the president. His Medal of Freedom jingles around his neck. He touches it now and then as he falls with me through the snowflakes. He keeps repeating his mantra that the liberals are to blame for everything, and I will live forever if I believe what he tells me. I want to believe; I have lost that will to suspend my skepticism, but now I am reaching out into the cold, ice-needling air to grab at something. But if I do, I will only be shot out of an imaginary canon once more into the stale air still drifting up out of the ruins of the Industrial Age. Arnold Toynbee can't help me, I hear someone say. He's gone. He's no more that the drifting ash of an abandoned smokestack. Henry Ford is laughing to himself in the backseat of an old Tin Lizzy in a junkyard in Queens. Thomas Edison keeps telling strangers not to blame him for what is happening; he only wanted to light up the dull living rooms of middle America and provide a little listening pleasure with his radio. I wish I had known Tom, and could have sat there watching him invent things in his sprawling laboratories.

My mother is in the kitchen frying bacon for my dad. It's Tuesday morning and the voice on the AM radio on top of the fridge has turned to an unintelligible mush as it reports the uplifting medical bulletin that Ike passed a stool at Walter Reed hospital. She laughs. She had become a cynic when she was still in her teens. She would sit at the dinner table and rail at my father for believing in the federal government. He would eat with stoic resolution, and not look up. She would turn to me for approval but I would slink away and go upstairs to read my battered copy of Tarkington's Penrod and Sam. I had no idea I would be embodying my mother's despair when I got older. She hadn't been catapulted out of her sofa at the sound of some voice informing her that the president had just spoken his seventeen-thousandth lie and was leering into the TV camera with a smirk. She would be spared the indignity of being dynamited into the soiled ether over her modest brick row house.

There are over four hundred bills piled up on the desk of Mitch McConnell which he will never bring to the Senate floor for a vote. The Senate is this solemn Taj Mahal of idle thoughts. He creeps around on his expensive loafers and cracks open the door to tell some Democrat that he has no time to see him. He's waiting for Trump's re-election before geeing up the Republican majority to begin work on a 1.8 trillion dollar tax cut package to shrink social security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Until then, the hobo spiders build their elaborate asymmetric webs over his desk lamp. His false teeth are in a glass by the sink, and a picture of Elaine Chao hangs over the copy machine. He studies her portrait and then blows a kiss to her before sitting down again to play solitaire.

I miss my brother and wish he were sitting with me on the side porch so I could grab his hand as we both shot up out of our chairs and headed for the onion-stinking blob of clouds hanging over us. It hasn't rained in a week, and I am tired of turning off the TV in order to remain seated on my bench. If he were here, he might let out a yell and start swimming in the clogged airwaves where all our news was hanging stagnant with mildew and rotting repetition. But he quietly stopped breathing in his hospice bed one early morning and spared himself the terrible fate of hearing a nation bickering and debating, tearing itself to pieces in its war of words.

I am talking to myself again, giving myself a cheering up. I sound like a high school football coach at halftime, with a score of twenty to zero. I keep insisting that there's no excuse to lose as long as there is a moment left on the timer. We're going to win this election, I hear myself say. It's going to go well. I don't care what you think of Bernie, or Warren, or Bloomberg, or Klobuchar. They're all good people, like Biden. But he's going to bust through and his enormous fist will shatter the fears, the panic, the old age that grips us and keeps us gasping in a political coma. Then the TV comes on and I hear that we are now approaching a trillion dollar national debt, and over that strangely unimaginable amount of money comes Trump's voice saying he wants to have a tax cut to get us moving again. He imagines another great day dawning on the horizon as the coronavirus slowly falters and loses its grip on reality.

I am once more air borne, my hair alive with the currents pushing past me. My chair lies far below, a ruin, a relic of some other era when people sat to admire the sun set and didn't worry about what might happen the next moment. I hear someone eating a dish of cottage cheese and some chunks of pineapple as she gazes through a kitchen window down on a world that has vanished forever. There's an old copy of Life magazine on the Formica top, unread. It shows a picture of Doris Day beaming a radiant, worry-free smile. She might be getting ready to dance with Rock Hudson, who is still primping in his trailer. A polished Ford station wagon is parked under the elm tree, and a child is eating a Tootsie roll without a care in the world. Until someone turns on the TV and blows every sitting American out of his chair and joins me in the sky as it starts to snow.

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