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Authors: Ethan Canin

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BOOK: Emperor of the Air
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I went downstairs and told my father I was ready to catch her. He looked at me, rolled the chewing gum in his cheek. “I’ll be damned.”

“My life is making sense,” I said.

When I unloaded potato chips that night I laid the bags in the aluminum racks as if I were putting children to sleep in their beds. Dust had gathered under the lip of the vegetable bins, so I swept and mopped there and ran a wet cloth over the stalls. My father slapped me on the back a couple of times. In school once I had looked through a microscope at the tip of my own finger, and now as I looked around the store everything seemed to have been magnified in the same way. I saw cracks in the linoleum floor, speckles of color in the walls.

This kept up for a couple of days, and all the time I waited for the woman to come in. After a while it was more than just waiting; I looked forward to the day when she would return. In my eyes she would find nothing but resolve. How bright the store seemed to me then when I swept, how velvety the skins of the melons beneath the sprayer bottle. When I went up to the roof I scrubbed the star with the wet cloth and came back down. I didn’t stare into the clouds and I didn’t think about the woman except with the thought of catching her. I described her perfectly for the guard. Her gray eyes. Her plaid dress.

After I started working like this my mother began to go to the back room in the afternoons and listen to music. When I swept the rear I heard the melodies of operas. They came from behind the stockroom door while I waited for the woman to return, and when my mother came out she had a look about her of disappointment. Her skin was pale and smooth, as if the blood had run to deeper parts.

“Dade,” she said one afternoon as I stacked tomatoes in a pyramid, “it’s easy to lose your dreams.”

“I’m just stacking tomatoes.”

She went back to the register. I went back to stacking, and my father, who’d been patting me on the back, winking at me from behind the butcher counter, came over and helped me.

“I notice your mother’s been talking to you.”

“A little.”

We finished the tomatoes and moved on to the lettuce.

“Look,” he said, “it’s better to do what you have to do, so I wouldn’t spend your time worrying frontwards and backwards about everything. Your life’s not so long as you think it’s going to be.”

We stood there rolling heads of butterball lettuce up the shallow incline of the display cart. Next to me he smelled like Aqua Velva.

“The lettuce is looking good,” I said.

Then I went up to the front of the store. “I’m not sure what my dreams are,” I said to my mother. “And I’m never going to discover anything. All I’ve ever done on the roof is look at the clouds.”

Then the door opened and the woman came in. I was standing in front of the counter, hands in my pockets, my mother’s eyes watering over, the guard looking out the window at a couple of girls, everything revolving around the point of calm that, in retrospect, precedes surprises. I’d been waiting for her for a week, and now she came in. I realized I never expected her. She stood looking at me, and for a few moments I looked back. Then she realized what I was up to. She turned around to leave, and when her back was to me I stepped over and grabbed her.

I’ve never liked fishing much, even though I used to go with my father, because the moment a fish jumps on my line a tree’s length away in the water I feel as if I’ve suddenly lost something. I’m always disappointed and sad, but now as I held the woman beneath the shoulder I felt none of this disappointment. I felt strong and good. She was thin, and I could make out the bones and tendons in her arm. As I led her back toward the stockroom, through the bread aisle, then the potato chips that were puffed and stacked like a row of pillows, I heard my mother begin to weep behind the register. Then my father came up behind me. I didn’t turn around, but I knew he was there and I knew the deliberately calm way he was walking. “I’ll be back as soon as I dust the melons,” he said.

I held the woman tightly under her arm but despite this she moved in a light way, and suddenly, as we paused before the stockroom door, I felt as if I were leading her onto the dance floor. This flushed me with remorse. Don’t spend your whole life looking backwards and forwards, I said to myself. Know what you want. I pushed the door open and we went in. The room was dark. It smelled of my whole life. I turned on the light and sat her down in the straight-back chair, then crossed the room and stood against the door. I had spoken to many children as they sat in this chair. I had frightened them, collected the candy they had tried to hide between the cushions, presented it to my father when he came in. Now I looked at the blue card,
do you know what you have done?
it said.
DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS TO STEAL
? I tried to think of what to say to the woman. She sat trembling slightly. I approached the chair and stood in front of her. She looked up at me. Her hair was gray around the roots.

“Do you want to go out the back?” I said.

She stood up and I took the key from under the silver samovar. My father would be there in a moment, so after I let her out I took my coat from the hook and followed. The evening was misty. She crossed the lot, and I hurried and came up next to her. We walked fast and stayed behind cars, and when we had gone a distance I turned and looked back. The stockroom door was closed. On the roof the star cast a pale light that whitened the aluminum-sided eaves.

It seemed we would be capable of a great communication now, but as we walked I realized I didn’t know what to say to her. We went down the street without talking. The traffic was light, evening was approaching, and as we passed below some trees the streetlights suddenly came on. This moment has always amazed me. I knew the woman had seen it too, but it is always a disappointment to mention a thing like this. The streets and buildings took on their night shapes. Still we didn’t say anything to each other. We kept walking beneath the pale violet of the lamps, and after a few more blocks I just stopped at one corner. She went on, crossed the street, and I lost sight of her.

I stood there until the world had rotated fully into the night, and for a while I tried to make myself aware of the spinning of the earth. Then I walked back toward the store. When they slept that night, my mother would dream of discovery and my father would dream of low-grade crooks. When I thought of this and the woman I was sad. It seemed you could never really know another person. I felt alone in the world, in the way that makes me aware of sound and temperature, as if I had just left a movie theater and stepped into an alley where a light rain was falling, and the wind was cool, and, from somewhere, other people’s voices could be heard.

About the Author

E
THAN
C
ANIN
wrote
Emperor of the Air
while a student at Harvard Medical School. He is the author of three other books:
Blue River, The Palace Thief,
and most recently
For Kings and Planets
. He lives in Iowa City and San Francisco.

BOOK: Emperor of the Air
9.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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