FICTION

His Feet on the Ground

HAL G. EVARTS December 1 1946
FICTION

His Feet on the Ground

HAL G. EVARTS December 1 1946

His Feet on the Ground

HAL G. EVARTS

HE WALKED away from the plane slowly, almost reluctantly, across the concrete hangar floor toward the office, knowing the same deep satisfaction that marked the end of every flight. The smells of grease and gasoline and of cooling metal were familiar companionable smells, as much a part of it as the first glimpse of the dusty field and the orange checkerboard roofs when he circled for a landing. A Piper trainer coughed

on the strip outside, skimming down the runway, and he paused and followed the wings until they lost themselves against the brassy afternoon sun. It was good to be back.

The mechanic grinned as he passed, and said, “Hiya, Mr. Blackburn. Have a nice trip?” He nodded and said, “Good trip, thanks, Eddie.” That, too. was part of it, the little ritual of greeting, meaningless in itself, but he was conscious in an indefinable but positive way of some thread of continuity between himself and his work and what was past. It was good to be back, because tomorrow

or the next day he would be gone again, and the pattern of the airport heightened for him this quality of movement and his sense of freedom to go where and whenever he pleased.

Through an open window he could see a segment of the parking lot in front, and his wife standing beside the convertible. When she honked the horn he returned her wave with a stir of guilt, realizing that his first concern had been not for her, but for the plane, and that he had not thought of her at all for some time. But then, he told himself, she was a flier’s wife and she understood. She accepted their

separations now as she had accepted the longer ones before, and he felt quietly grateful and touched that she was waiting to meet him.

“I’ll be out in a minute,” he called, and smiled to himself in anticipation, recalling the surprise he had planned. As he pushed through the doorway the picture of her lingered warm and clear in his mind, like a well-remembered landscape, somehow complete and right and altogether necessary. That she was there, that she was there always, was the best of each return.

Walt Conger, the manager, shoved aside a pile of Icgbooks and said, “Well, well, if it isn’t the Lochinvar of the airways. How was it this time?” He swung one leg over the edge of the desk. The office was like all the offices of all the small-town airports everywhere, lined with photographs of trophy racers and combat pals and stacks of ayiation magazines, drab and cluttered with the daily routine. “Okay,” he said. “We had smooth weather all the way in.”

Walt said, “You look tired, Phil. Too much night Me?”

He grinned. He didn’t play around and he wasn’t tired. He was keyed up, a little tight possibly after 10 hours straight behind the stick, but a night’s sleep would take care of that. “Never felt better,” he said. “You still have that box I asked you to keep?”

“In the safe,” Walt said. He relit his pipe and eyed Phil steadily across the flame of the match. “Marcus wants to buy your ship.”

“I just finished paying off,” Phil said. “She’s not for sale.”

Walt nodded. “But you know Marcus. He has business interests all over the country. When he goes somewhere he’s in a hurry.”

Phil’s mouth set in a stubborn line. They had thrashed this out before, and he felt the discontent seeping into him and spoiling the friendly casual banter that went with Walt and getting home. “There’s no use discussing it again. You know how I feel.”

“I know. I used to feel the same way.” Walt leaned back in his swivel chair and blew a curl of smoke toward the ceiling. He said good-naturedly, “The reason I brought it up is that I have to renew my lease next week. I thought maybe you were ready to come in with me.”

Phil stared out the window. A wind sock hung limp from its standard, and the common sounds of the place drifted in to him with flat monotony. He had driven himself for months to buy and fix up the four-place cabin coupé. If he sold it now and bought in with Walt, his job would be to instruct. With 39 combat missions to his credit he would be teaching kids and old ladies how to wing over.

“It’s no gold mine,” Walt went on. “Nothing spectacular, but we can build up a solid little business. Besides students there’s rental space and equipment sales and what local charter hauls we pick up.”

Phil grunted. “Thanks. But I’m not cut out for that.” He stood up impatiently, anxious to get away and meet his wife.

“You can’t be a one-man airline forever,” Walt told him. He knelt beside the desk and twirled the dial on an old-fashioned iron safe. “You’re no spring chicken.”

He watched the wrinkles on the back of Walt’s neck. He and Walt had flown Mosquitoes in the same Air Force, but already he had come to think of Walt as middle-aged. “Some of the best transport pilots are nearly 40,” he said.

Walt straightened with a small package wrapped in plain brown paper and balanced it in his palm.

A iew maybe. But they have copilots and crews and the best equipment money can buy. You have a sweet fast little ship, but that’s all you have got. One of these days you’ll burn something out.”

Phil jammed the package in his coat pocket. He had intended to unwrap it for Walt’s approval, but now he was irritated; irritated with Walt and with himself for letting things drift into the same dead end. “At least I get some fun out of my job,” he said sharply.

You talk like a man with a guilty conscience,”

Walt said. Someone shouted his name and insistent voices buzzed beyond the door. He glanced at his watch. “Gotte class. Give my love to Ronnie.” Phil watched him go, laughing and joking with a group of teen-age girls and women in slacks, and he shook his head. Running an airport might be all right for Walt Conger, but not for him. When he got too old to fly he’d quit for good. He’d never hang around the fringes like a race horse turned out to pasture.

HE WALKED toward the car with long brisk strides, his eyes fixed on Ronnie. She stood outlined against the field, a tall slender brunette in sweater and tweed skirt, and he thought approvingly that she belonged in that setting. She ran to him and he swung her off the ground and gave her a long kiss, surprised that her lips were trembling.

"Pull your head out of the clouds," she said. But how could he when his heart was up there too?

Then she backed away and said breathlessly, “Whew! Where did you learn the strangler technique?”

“From a judo artist,” he said. “Guaranteed to work.” He laughed with her, sharing the pleasure and fullness in him that took the place of words, because being together was in itself enough for them both.

“You’re late,” she said. “One hour and 13 minutes and 22 seconds late.”

“A little engine trouble,” he said. “Nothing serious. You didn’t worry, did you?”

Ronnie lowered her eyes. “No,” she said slowly. “No, I don’t worry. Why should I?”

He helped her into the coupé and eased behind the wheel and pulled away toward town. He drove rapidly, enjoying the speed and the surge of power under the hood, listening to Ronnie’s bright gay chatter beside him. It was as though he had never been away—easy and comfortable, just as he wanted it to be, and he let the mood wash over him and erase the annoyance of his conversation with Walt. That was a nice thing about Ronnie; she could pick up the loose ends where they had left off, go forward in the same effortless groove till next time.

“Do you want to swing by the house now,” she was saying, “or wait and see it tomorrow?”

“House?” he said absently, turning toward her. Her profile rode forward against the windshield, clean and delicate as a line engraving, and her grey eyes met and held his an instant.

“What house?”

“I might have known you were still off in the wild blue yonder,” she said.

“As a matter of fact,” Phil told her,

“I was thinking about you.”

“Well, that’s something,” she said.

“But this bungalow will be up for sale soon. Didn’t you get my letter in Montreal?”

“Sure, I remember.” He didn’t remember any mention of a bungalow, and he said cautiously, “But what’s V.

wrong with the apartment?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all. But I thought we might like to own a place for a change.”

His grip tightened on the wheel. They were rolling through the outskirts down

a residential avenue lined with elm trees, and the lawns made a solid carpet of green on either side. “We don’t want to tie ourselves down just yet,” he said. “We have plenty of t ime.”

Ronnie smiled at him brightly. “Sometimes I think I married a 12-cylinder engine,” she said.

He chuckled and pat ted her hand appreciatively. He could count on her to see his viewpoint. She was calm and levelheaded, free of unpredictable emotional kinks. She was the kind of a wife a flier needed.

He stopped in front of the duplex and (hey walked upstairs into the cool dim living room. She raised the Venetian blinds, letting the sun shaft through while he stood in the centre of the carpet, blinking at the bowl of Iceland poppies on the table and the evening paper set out beside his favorite armchair, and he said, rather apologetically, “1 miss this place when I’m gone.”

Ronnie dropped her hand to his arm. “Phil, you’ll be here a while this time?”

“Don’t have a thing lined up,” he told her. “Probably nobody will call for a week.” Fingering the package in his pocket, he debated when to give it to her. It was a design of his own, something he’d had made to order, and he wanted the time and the place to be right. Tonight, he decided, and went on into the bathroom.

He relaxed under a long hot shower, soaking the tautness out of his body, and turned on the cold spray. Rubbed down and dressed again in sport jacket and flannels, he noticed that she had unpacked his pigskin bag and put it away in the closet out of sight. The gesture reminded him of their early married days, the precious overnights and week-end leaves together, when they had lived from hour to hour with a lift and excitement that was somehow lacking now. And while he did not regret the passing of that time, he still thought of it occasionally with a kind of nostalgia, as one might salute a departed comrade.

Impulsively he called to Ronnie in the kitchenette, “Where do you want to go tonight?”

She looked up from the stove. “Go? You just got back.”

“We could have dinner downtown, and take in a show. I thought maybe you’d like to get away.” “That’s funny,” she said. Her face was blank. “I thought maybe you’d like to stay home.”

He shrugged. He hesitated a moment, and then walked over to the couch and sat down uneasily. For some reason his suggestion had been wrong, but it was unlike Ronnie to be so emphatic, and when she came in to join him he said, “Tell me about yourself. What’ve you been doing?”

“What have I been doing?” She stared at him. “Phil, do you feel all right?” Continued on page 28

Continued from page 11

“Certainly I feel all right,” he said stiffly.

“Walt thinks you’re working too hard.”

“We’ll leave Walt and my health out of this,” he snorted. “I just asked a simple question.”

She raised her eyes. “You never asked me before, that’s all. Why, I keep house and do the marketing. One afternoon a week I play bridge. And if I feel strenuous I take a golf lesson at the club. Sounds dull, doesn’t it?” she added quietly.

He frowned and walked across the room for an ash tray. The same faint doubt that had touched him earlier returned, persistent and disturbing. It was not what she had implied or even what she left unsaid that puzzled him, but for the first time he had the sensation of being judged in some subtle and provocative way. “You’re restless,” he told her. “You’ve been cooped up in one place too long.”

“Go on,” she said, “I’m listening.”

He looked down at her. “How about making the next hop with me?” he said abruptly.

Ronnie raised her eyebrows. “Why the change of heart? You’ve never let me get near a plane, not even for a joy ride.”

“I know,” he said. He had always discouraged her for the good and simple reason that she had no business in the air. Flying, his kind of flying, was a man’s work, and Ins wife had no place in it. “I know, but the change might do you good.”

She gave him an unenthusiastic look. “That’s thoughtful. That’s sweet of you. But I don’t think I’d care for it very much.”

“Sure you would,” he said without conviction. “You don’t know, because you’ve never been up.”

Ronnie smiled up at him, a slow pensive smile that was almost sardonic. “I like flying men,” she said. “Flying men and clinging women.” She rose then, crisply, as if in decision, and smoothed her skirt. “Dinner’s ready.”

HE SAT at the table facing her uncomfortably, going through the surface motions of eating. Ronnie had prepared all his favorite dishes, and he assured himself that this evening was like all the evenings that had gone before. Neither of them had changed since the last time; they were the same two rational people living in adult harmony. But now there was a definite wariness and tension between them, a kind of polite tension, which he could not account for. Because he was not in the habit of analyzing himself or his feelings this thought kept bothering him, and when the phone rang he stood up in relief.

Ronnie’s fork stopped in mid-air. “If anybody wants to know,” she said, “we’re out of town.”

He crossed to the stand in the hall quickly and lifted the receiver. It was Walt. “Sorry to break in on your home life,” Walt said, “but Marcus just called me.”

Phil set his shoulders, the exasperation rising in him. “I told you before,” he said crossly. “It’s no deal.”

“This is something else,” Walt said. He sounded, agreeable and unperturbed, and Phil could visualize him sprawled in his swivel chair, holding the phone in one hand and filling out logbooks with the other, as solid and complacent as a worn shoe. “Marcus wants you to fly him to Winnipeg.”

“Winnipeg? But that’s half across the country.”

“That’s right,” Walt said. “He

expects to be gone two weeks anyway.”

Phil glanced over his shoulder. Ronnie was sitting as he had left her, her napkin clutched in a wad on her lap and her eyes fixed on him with a curious faraway intensity. More quietly he said, “I can’t get away for a few days yet.”

Walt’s voice was an amiable jeer. “I understand, chum. But it has to be tomorrow noon or else. He has a reservation on the next day’s main liner, and his business won’t wait. If you take him, you can name your own price.”

“Look, Walt,” he said, “I don’t see how I can.”

“That’s what you want me to tell Marcus?”

Phil wiped the drops of moisture from the inside of the mouthpiece with his finger. It was so still in the apartment he could hear Walt’s breathing at the other end of the wire. “No,” he sighed. “Tell him I’ll be ready tomorrow noon.”

When he returned to the table Ronnie’s face was expressionless, neither critical nor sympathetic, and he dabbled with a pool of ice cream on his plate, avoiding her eyes. After a moment he realized that her silence was deliberate and a flush crept up the back of his neck. “I’d turn him down,” he said defensively, “but it means too much money.”

She stacked the dishes and carried them into the sink without answering. He watched her back through the door and then he walked up behind her and laid the package beside the dishpan. This was not the time, he knew, but he hoped obscurely that in some way it might help cover his inadequacy to explain. “I’m sorry,” he said awkwardly. “Next time we’ll take a real vacation.”

Ronnie’s eyes were thoughtful as she snipped the string and slipped off the outer wrappings. She unfolded the tissue paper and opened a jeweller’s box. A clip in the shape of aviator’s wings, outlined in red, white and blue chip diamonds and tiny rubies and sapphires, sparkled against the velvet cushion. She held it up to the light, her mouth open in astonishment as bits of iridescent fire flashed back and forth across the walls.

“It’s gorgeous, Phil,” she said finally. She gave him a long level glance. “It’s like you, isn’t it?”

Carefully she replaced the clip in the box and closed the lid. Phil took a deep breath. He said, “If you don’t like it—”

“But I do like it.” She shook some soap chips into the pan and filled it with hot water from the tap. “It must have been very expensive.”

The way she said it made the clip sound cheap and tawdry. She slid the engagement ring from her finger and tested the suds. “You can’t afford to stay home once with your wife,” she said, “but you can afford a diamond clip.”

Phil shoved his hands in his pockets. They had argued before, but never about his flying dates, and he stood there angry and bitter that she should make an issue of this one. “Oh!” he said. “So that’s it.”

“That’s it,” Ronnie said quietly. “Why kid ourselves any longer?” She dried her hands on her apron and turned around to face him. “We don’t have a home. We don’t even have a marriage. We have a hotel room where you can spend the night if you happen to be passing through.”

“I’m glad to know how you feel,” he said with sarcasm. His own feeling too, the one that had haunted him all afternoon, he could define now. It was a cornered, trapped feeling, of hands Continued on page 31

Continued from page 28 reaching out and binding him to one job and one place. And he saw, suddenly, that she had never really understood, that what she wanted and what he wanted were two entirely different things. They were like strangers with all pretense of similarity stripped away. He said, “But you might have told me sooner.”

“I tried to tell you,” she said, and her voice was even and unhurried. “I tried, but you never listened.”

Phil eyed her in silence, holding his temper. All the homely sounds of the neighborhood—a dog barking, children, a radio—seemed to fill and overflow the kitchenette. And it struck him as odd how unrelated and foreign these things were to himself and to his interests. That it should be so was too bad, perhaps, but he could not see that he was to blame.

Ronnie said, “It wasn’t so hard at first. You were gone overnight with tourists on short trips. Then the trips got longer, and you were off a week and 10 days at a time. Now, as far as I’m concerned, you might as well be back in the Air Force.”

“You’re not being fair,” he said. “Flying people wherever they want to go is my business.”

“It’s not your business. It’s your mental condition, your delusion of grandeur. I kept telling myself that you’d recover, but the symptoms are getting worse instead of better.”

Phil swallowed uncertainly. In the back of his mind, he supposed, he had always known that Ronnie disliked and even hated his flying and the risk connected with it, and he wondered how he could have mistaken her outward calm for anything like resignation. About the only reality they had in common was the memory of a war. “What did you expect me to do?” he demanded.

Ronnie went on as though she hadn’t heard. “I made allowances for the way you felt. You were a glamour boy, and it was fun for a while. But the reconversion is over. It’s time to settle down and pull your head out of the clouds.” “Settle down?” he snapped. “Like Walt, I suppose. To a regular job from nine to six with Sundays off for good behavior. Is that your idea of the way to live?”

Ronnie’s eyes flashed. “Yes! Mine and a few hundred thousand other wives. Only you’re too selfish and self-centred to see it!”

She stepped past him, her heels tapping on the linoleum, and the bedroom door clicked behind her with finality. Phil leaned against the sink, regarding the pile of unwashed dishes. The music of the nightcamein to him again, modulated and yet depressing as a cry. He swore and banged the window shut.

WHEN he opened his eyes next morning the clock on the bedside table said 10.30. The other twin bed was unmade and the house was still. He peered at himself in the bathroom mirror with distaste and sloshed cold water over his face. Stalking down the hall he found Ronnie’s note pinned to the jeweller’s box with theclip: “Am taking my lesson. Have fun in Winnipeg.”

He unpinned the paper and crumpled it into a ball and threw it at the fireplace. For an instant he thought wildly of calling her at the country club; instead he phoned for a cab to take him to the airport. That, he told himself, was that. She hadn’t even waited long enough to say good-by.

Hurrying across the hangar a few minutes later he noted with glum satisfaction that the office was empty. He slid onto a stool in the mess shack

beside Eddie and ordered coffee. Eddie left off kidding the waitress behind the counter. “Gee, Mr. Blackburn,” he said with envy, “you’re leavin’ already. You sure do get around.”

“Yeah,” Phil said. “It’s a greal life.”

Up to a certain point he admitted that Ronnie was right. He had taken her for granted, and he had stepped on her pride, but what she demanded of him because of that was too much. Nobody, not even his wife, had the right to ground him. He peered out the window sourly as a Cub floated in for a landing. The wheels bounced in a smooth three-pointer and the ship taxied leisurely toward the dismount line and glided to a stop.

He dropped a dime beside his cup and walked out. Walt and a tall brunette in a leather jacket had 1 climbed out of the trainer and were coming toward him. Before he could escape Walt called, “How was that one for a beginner?”

Phil halted in his tracks and rubbed a hand across his eyes. Her walk and the swing of her body had seemed familiar, hut now that he recognized her he was speechless from the unexpected jolt of it. He watched them approach in a daze, flexing and unflexing his fingers at his sides.

They stopped and Walt gave her a broad wink. “Looks like the old man caught up with you,” Walt told her.

Phil looked from one to the other in growing impotence and rage, and then he found his voice. “You!” he shouted. “You’re taking a golf lesson!”

“No, dear,” Ronnie said. “I’m taking a flying lesson. And Walt says I show promise.”

Walt beamed. “Honey, you’ll be flying rings around that bird-brain husband of yours before long.”

Phil took a grip on himself. This was all very clever and amusing, hut it left him with a shaken empty feeling that was sudden as it was novel. In a gritty voice he said, “How long’s this been going on?”

“Last few months. Whenever you’re out she piles up a few more hours,” Walt said cheerfully. He gave her head a pat. “Don’t forget—be here tomorrow, same time, to take your license. Well, see you all later.”

Phil glared at his retreating back and swung around on Ronnie. Her face was pale and a lock of dark hair hung over her forehead tipsily, but she met his eyes with defiance. “License!” he fumed. “You’re not getting your license tomorrow or any other day!” Ronnie put out a hand to steady herself. “If you don’t mind,” she said coldly, “I’m going to sit down.”

He stamped into the office behind her. She filled a paper cup with water from the cooler and took a gulp and then sank into the chair and closed her eyes. Phil eyed her in a brooding silence, drumming his fingers on the desk top as long as he could stand it. “You won’t go up with me,” he growled, “but you will with anybody else. I don’t get it.”

Ronnie’s lids fluttered. “No, I don’t suppose you do,” she said.

“I thought I could trust you. But as soon as my back is turned you sneak out here and fly. Of all the crazy stunts—”

Ronnie glanced at him from under her lashes. “I thought you’d be pleased.”

“Pleased?” All the cross purposes of the past few minutes seemed to focus before his inner vision then in one sharp ¡ image. He had been afraid; afraid for ; Ronnie, and now he was mad and ¡ relieved at the same time. “You never | thought any such thing,” he said. “You knew it would upset me. All the time I’m gone I’ll be worried sick. Worried •

whether you’re cracking up or overshooting the field or hanging upside down from a telegraph pole. Well, you’re not going up any more. I won’t have it. You’re acting like a spoiled child. An obstinate, unreasonable child—”

He heard his voice going on and on, angry and aggrieved, but his mind held back from what he was saying, and it came to him that the words sounded strangely familiar and identical, as though he had repeated them all before, not once but many times. He caught Ronnie’s eye and came to a confused halt.

“Anything might happen to you,” he finished lamely. “How do you suppose I feel about that?”

“Phil—” She had been listening with solemn attention, and now she sat up straight and there was a quirk around her mouth. “—Why, Phil, I believe you really mean it.”

“Of course I mean it,” he said indignantly. He watched her, trying to be outraged, but the feeling had ebbed away. He couldn’t say any more. He looked into her face, able to see them both with perspective again, and his throat caught in a tight knot. Ronnie belonged in a house on a quiet street, raising a family and cooking for a man who came home seven nights a week. She was just like any woman, and he didn’t want her otherwise.

“Ronnie.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I wasn’t talking about you just now,” he said slowly. “It seems I was talking about a fool by the name of Phil Blackburn.”

Ronnie’s eyes were frankly amused, but in a tolerant, not I-told-you-so way, and the color had returned to her cheeks. “I’m sorry if I gave you a shock,” she said, “but if you can see how I feel too—”

“I must have been blind not to see it a long time ago. But when you stepped out of that plane—something hit me. Thinking of you that way made me go limp all over.” He grinned selfconsciously. “I guess you gave me some of my own medicine.”

“Not medicine,” she murmured.

“Sauce, dear. They call it sauce for the gander.”

They both started at the sound of squealing tires outside in the parking lot. A sedan stopped and a man carrying a brief case hopped out. Ronnie’s face was grave again. “You’d better hurry,” she said. “Here comes Marcus.”

Phil put a hand under her elbow and they walked out into the hangar. His plane was silhouetted against the field, black and sleek with latent power. The propeller blades glinted in the sun like beckoning arms, and he stood there a minute considering a little regretfully, watching Eddie refuel. Then he let out a breath and felt himself go relaxed. “How would you like to help me manage an airport?” he said quietly.

Ronnie opened her mouth, but just then Eddie broke in. “Why, hullo there, Mrs. Blackburn,” he called. He unscrewed the nozzle on the gas hose and grinned. “Haven’t seen you

around the field in a coon’s age.”

Ronnie lowered her head and her ears went pink. Phil gave her a startled, half-incredulous look and then he chuckled in sudden comprehension. Ronnie had never been in the air before that morning; the flight she had engineered was for his special benefit.

She said guiltily, “I’m a shameless liar. But don’t blame Walt. It was all my idea.”

Phil laughed. “I don’t blame anybody but myself. At least you were willing to try.”

Her eyes came up to him bright and pleading. “I thought I’d be scared,” she said, “but it was wonderful. The longer we waited up there for you to arrive the more I liked it. In fact I think I will try for a license.”

Phil reached in his pocket. He knew what he wanted, still, but he wanted Ronnie’s happiness more. That was the important, the vital thing. He picked the diamond clip from the box and pinned it on her blouse. “From now on you take your flying lessons from me,” he said. He lifted her chin and kissed her. “You’ve earned your wings already.” ★