Larry lived on the ground. Gravity kept his slender nose, his deep-socketed eyes, his pouchy stomach, and his horseshoe haircut stuck near the surface. He drove semis for a living. Directions—folded road maps, gesturing gas station employees, climbing street numbers—dictated Larry’s existence, but the only direction he ever wanted to go was up and up and up. Larry wanted to fly.
As a kid, Larry lost every balloon his mother bought him. While most kids tie a balloon’s string around their wrist, waiting for the gaseous life to slowly seep out, Larry released his back into the wild the first chance he got. With his hands shielding his eyes like someone frozen mid-salute, he’d watch the rubber float upward, become a speck, then disappear. To Larry, there was something noble in soaring away like that, something freeing, like a bird migrating in the winter.
So, at age ten, he’d had the rest of his life figured out. He’d ascend and stare down at everything. At age eleven, his vision began to blur. At age eleven and a half, an optometrist prescribed him bifocals. And at age twelve, he learned people with poor eyesight couldn’t become pilots.
I met Larry the day he started driving for Hollywood Trucking. Everyone loved him. He was the kind of guy who’d gently grab your elbow when you went to shake his hand. He gave us all nicknames, not in a demeaning way, more in a protective big brother way. There was Bambi, and Chip, and Scout. Mine was Flash due to once jogging to fetch a logbook inside an idling truck. I’m not an athletic guy, but ever since Larry called me that I find myself sometimes looking at my feet like they could outrun anyone.
Even though he’d been driving for at least a decade at that point, I’d been assigned to ride along with Larry during his first week as company policy. On our first haul, we cruised past an airport, a small, one-runway thing where only propeller planes take off and land. Larry spotted a set of wings resting inside an open hanger and started rattling off design specs.
“Dang, that’s a Piper PA-46 Malibu over there,” Larry said, his sunburnt arm resting on the steering wheel. “A single Continental TSIO-520BE, 310 horsepower engine and a 342-pound fuel tank keep that bad boy up. I bet it tops out at 260 miles an hour.”
“Do you know a lot about planes?”
“Let’s just say the Wright brothers are heroes of mine.”
During our third haul, Larry filled me in on his plan to fly. I didn’t have much for friends or family—still don’t—and was living a pretty boring life, so I thought, why not? No one depended on me. If we got caught, we’d be the only ones in trouble. Plus, I understood where Larry was coming from. I mean, don’t we all want to be someone or something different at one point?
I’ve tried remembering what I’d wanted to be, but whenever I look back, a giant wall of truck trailers greets me. Spray painted on the wall is always: “You had your chance.” I’ve forgotten to dream, and now I no longer can.
To get the weather balloons and helium tanks, we forged requisition forms saying Hollywood Trucking needed them for a commercial shoot. You’d be surprised what people will give you if you tell them it’s going to be on television.
We waited for a wind-less day in July to launch. In Larry’s backyard, him sitting in a lawn chair, forty-three weather balloons hovering above him like giant lollipops, a radio clipped to his belt, and a pellet gun lying in his lap in case of an emergency, he told me to cut him loose.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“There comes a time when a man has to get out from behind the wheel,” Larry replied.
With my pocketknife, I sliced the rope keeping Larry tethered to the rest of us, and up he went. He was supposed to rise only a hundred feet or so, but he kept going and going. I shouted at him to use the pellet gun. I don’t know if he dropped it trying to shoot out the balloons or if he intentionally let it fall, but, the next thing I know, the pellet gun crashed into the ground, shattering. Larry drifted away. I gazed into the sky as he became a tiny smudge against the blue and white.
“It’s beautiful up here, Flash. It’s just—” my radio squawked.
That was the last thing Larry said to me.
Today, I cleaned out my garage. Buried under some boxes was one of the weather balloons Larry and I had popped while preparing for his flight. I take it outside and run my fingers over the thin, pink plastic and remember what I’d wanted to be. The urge to climbs trees, to play hide-and-seek, to wonder, bubbles in my brain.
I guess what we leave behind is what we found meaning in when we were alive.
I glance up, but Larry isn’t there. I do feel lighter, though, like my arms are no longer my arms, like my legs are no longer my legs, like my body is no longer my body. My driveway shrinks. The concrete cul-de-sac becomes a geometric vein. My house and my neighbors’ houses transform into miniature, bumpy squares. The air thins. Up and up and up.
I’m coming, buddy. I’m coming.
Will Musgrove is a writer and journalist from Northwest Iowa. He received an MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in trampset, Rejection Letters, Versification, Unstamatic, (mac)ro(mic), Ghost Parachute, Truffle Magazine, Serotonin, Flash Frontier, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter at @Will_Musgrove.