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Gravity, Restraint, and the Reason Icarus Fell

Max E. Keele


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he law of gravity is a fine thing for holding people down," Harris said, "but it just don't apply to me." And the old man believed it, too. Believed with all the conviction of his soul, right up until his very last moment on Earth. I was there. He was staring right through me at the stars when he said that, and man, I almost wanted to see him fly away. But of course, I couldn't quite believe him, and by the time I finally understood, it was too late....

Now don't get me wrong; I'm really not that gullible. I'd been an attendant at the boobyhatch for five years, and from the first I was subjected to a wide variety of delusions. First guy I met there was convinced that the world had ended in 1962. He was arrested for looting a busy convenience store. After him, in no order: the rat man, the sex-alien from Pluto, the woman who had a family of elves living in her underwear, and the poor man who thought that the Cockroach Nation planned to rise against us. In fact, every lunatic I've ever met shared a common problem--solid faith in whatever their twisted minds happened to believe. It didn't take long for me to learn to smile nice and nod my head and make like whatever anybody said was gospel.

Naturally, I treated Harris that way. You know, standard procedure for delusions of all kinds.

It just happened that I was pulling graveyard the night they wheeled old Harris in. He was all wrapped up in a straitjacket and strapped tight to his wheelchair. He smiled loosely and the only part of his face that wasn't wrinkled was his chalky eyes. He seemed peaceful enough, but restraint calms a guy down after a while, and they probably had him doped, too. The cop that brought him in told us that they'd snagged him off the Wright building. He'd been squatting on a gargoyle, chanting and flapping his arms. Said he was hostile and tried to jump. The cop thought it was pretty funny. Cops are like that, generally. Well, anyway, I took hold of one of the old man's elbows and Doug, the fat redhead Okie, took the other. We slung him up onto the bed and peeled off the 'jacket. We tied him down tight, catheterized him, and decided to go for coffee. In all that, Harris had said one thing: "What's the matter, boys, 'fraid I'm gonna fly off?"

Doug and I smiled and nodded and said, "Sure, pops, that's right," and headed for coffee. We joked around and smoked a couple of cigarettes, then went back to work. Doug had to mop the East Wing, I got to disinfect the showers. Slop a little chlorine, hose 'em down, nothing to it.

Graveyard's the quiet shift at the nut farm--all the wild things are doped into comas and the nurses usually lock themselves into the office and read romances. Aside from an occasional late delivery, there just isn't much to do. If I paced myself, I could make the side work last about two hours. That left me with four hours to burn, and two more for breaks. I spent twenty minutes on the showers, killed a few more with a smoke, then went looking for Doug to take another coffee break. He was barely half done, so I tried to think of something else to do. I wandered down to the front office, but the cop was still there, making time with the night nurse, Lucille. Not wanting to disturb Lucille's shot at heavy breathing, I shuffled off back to the ward. All was as well lit and silent as a morgue.

I was about to light up a smoke when I heard this weird sound: a kind of chanting, real soft, and then a sort of a thump. Here's something, I thought, hoping for diversion. The noises came from the room we'd just put old Harris into. I peeked around the door so as not to distract him. He was lying there, all taut and secure, still smiling. He mumbled some stuff that sounded like Latin. After a few minutes, he sighed and closed his eyes. For lack of anything better to do, I went in.

"Hey, pops," I said, "what's going on here? Why aren't we sleeping?"

He turned his head toward me and spat through his smile. "I'm busy, son. Go pester somebody else." His voice was light and airy.

"Busy, huh." I finally lit my smoke. I turned a chair backwards and straddled it. "This ain't busy-time, pops. This is sleepy-time. Whatever you got going can wait 'till morning, don't you think?"

"Maybe." He screwed up his face and looked me in the eye. "You keep a secret?"

"Sure," I said.

"When that idiot flatfoot grabbed me, I was just about ready." His tongue flicked out onto his lip, as if to taste the air for my reaction. "Just about ready to fly away."

"Okay." I smiled and nodded. "Like a bird, right?"

He laughed, but it sounded like a choking crow. "Yep, just like a bird. Might've been to the moon by now."

I suppressed a Bronx cheer. "And what were you using for feathers?"

He snorted through his nose. "Feathers! Who needs feathers? Did feathers help that Greek feller any? Huh? No, I got me something better." He winked. I nodded. "Got me the mystic secret of anti-gravity."

I blew a smoke ring, ground the smoke out against my heel. "Right, pops. The hell you say. Anti-gravity."

His eyes narrowed. "Yep, only word for it. Now I don't blame you for not believing right off, what with all the crazy folks around here, but look, you cut me loose, for just a minute, and I'll give you..." His eyes popped open wide. "...something to believe in."

I shifted my weight, a bit uneasy, and kicked out my legs. "Sorry, man. Can't do that. Rules." I decided that Doug was probably done with the mopping and that our coffee break was past due. I stood up.

"Oh, well," Harris said, "you'll have to untie me sooner or later. I'll be ready."

I beat it out of there, and found Doug sitting in the cafeteria with a hot cup, waiting for me. "Jesus," I said. "Been up talking to that old coot they just brought in. Crazy. Thinks he can fly."

"Probably can." Doug's pretty boring, but at least he was sane.

I bummed a smoke. "Says he's got anti-gravity. Offered to show it to me."

Doug laughed, one syllable. "And you declined?"

"Sure. Hell, I bet he just wanted to get free so he could strangle me." I grabbed my throat with both hands and stuck out my tongue.

"You know," Doug said, "might be kind of funny." He slurped coffee.

I checked out the clock, an institutional wire-caged model that passed the time with an airplane buzz. It wasn't even four yet, but all my chores were done. "Doug, one of us has got to start bringing a bottle, or something. You got anything left to do?"

"Well...." Doug had this habit of stopping in the middle of a sentence to pink lint out of the pocket of his uniform. He rolled the lint into little balls, then laid the balls out in designs. He was making a tiny lint bird. "Thought I'd wander up to the roof and throw pigeon eggs at Lucille's window."

That sounded pretty good to me, so that's what we did. The roof was my favorite place. You couldn't get up there without a key, but I just happened to have one that someone else got blamed for losing. It was dark and quiet up there, except for the pigeons, the wind, and an occasional distant siren. We lobbed eggs for a while and then sat with our backs against cold stone and ivy for a smoke.

Doug sighed a cloud across his belly. "Hey, man," he said, "look at all them stars. And on every one of them there's a planet with a couple of guys sitting on a roof, bored out of their minds."

"Sure." I dipped an old cigarette butt in pigeon crap and started drawing a face on the tarpaper." "You don't believe in that E.T. garbage, do you?"

He looked a little offended. "Why not? It never hurt anybody to believe in things that don't matter. Ever heard of religion?"

I laughed. "Right. But what about people like that old Harris? He thinks he can fly. If he'd've jumped off the Wright building, he'd've come to some grief."

"And maybe he'd be in orbit around Mars by now. Who knows?"

Doug had studied philosophy at Oklahoma State. They taught him not to really believe in anything, except argument. I hear that he's a lot quieter these days, and a lot less cynical, too. But, man, he used to bug me.

"Like hell." I chewed at a hangnail. "He would have dropped like a rock. They would've had to bury him in a mop bucket."

"How do you know that? If he really could fly, but you never saw him do it, you'd still think he was loony. Right?"

"Sure," I said, irritated. "Because he still would be loony. Nobody ignores gravity, not without mechanical help. Can't be done."

"Some Hindu fakirs can levitate..." Doug made a yin-yang of lint. "...and that's a documented fact."

I flipped a hot butt up under an eave; it provoked some frantic flapping and cooing. "They're faking. If we went downstairs and untied the old man, do you really think he'd hop onto the window sill and flap away?"

"That's not what I said. I just said, 'he might'. Anything and everything is possible."

I declared it time for an other coffee break. We wandered downstairs and pulled a couple of cups. I was all clammed up, and Doug was smug like he always was when he got in the last word. The clock buzzed for a while, made a few sharp clicks. Finally, I drained my cup, and set it down hard. "Okay, Doug. Let's go talk to Harris. See if he believes in fakirs." I stood up, half expecting him to give me a finger and start laughing.

"All right," was all he said.

We let ourselves into the old man's room and found him asleep. He woke up when the lights came on.

Harris coughed twice, but it might've been his best excuse for a laugh. "Had to come back and find out, eh, boy?" He winked at me, looked at Doug, and said, "You his bodyguard, or just a witness? Loosen up these belts and you'll witness something." He strained his head forward until the tendons in his neck stood taut.

"Neither," Doug said. "I'm a government agent. NASA sent me to confirm or deny your purported powers of unassisted flight." I stifled a snicker.

"Bull." Harris grinned like a gargoyle. "But if you really want a demonstration, you gotta take me outside. I won't run away. I promise not to run."

Doug grabbed my arm and dragged me out to the hall. "Well?" He had a strange mischievous glint in his eye. "Still want to find out for sure? We'd be in pretty big trouble if he flew off...."

"What? Get serious." I spat on the floor. "We could run him up to the roof, untie him for a minute or two, then put him back to bed. Nobody'd ever know, if you don't tell them. Lucille's probably got her hands full, right now."

"Okay," said Doug. "But we gotta be real careful not to let him jump."

So we wheeled the old buzzard onto the elevator, and trundled him up a few steps, and rolled him out onto the tarpaper roof. The moon was up, and fairly gibbous. Harris had stayed quiet the whole ride, but with the stars above him, he came to life. "Oh, that's it, boys. Yes, yes. You'll see, this time I'm ready. Damned ready, I am."

Doug fired up a smoke. He leaned against a stone parapet. "Don't you need some kind of chant, old man? Ointments? A broom?"

I was sure that would piss the poor old guy off, but he just sighed. "Nope. Finally got that part figured. Least I think so. Haven't really had much chance to try her out, yet."

Doug bent towards me and whispered behind his hand. "You still completely sure he's not going to flutter away? Don't you half expect him to?" He walked back to Harris before I could answer.

"Ready, are you?" Doug stood with both hands on his hips.

"Son, I never been readier."

"Okay, pops." Doug released the two straps holding Harris' chest. Harris just lay there. The other straps fell loose; Doug took one long step back. He placed his bulky self squarely between Harris and roof's edge. "Okay, dad. You're free. Free as a bird."

Old Harris split his face open in a monstrous grin. His eyes, lit white by the moon, glowed like UFOs. "Well, boys, this is it." He stared right up through me, at the stars. "The law of gravity's a fine thing for holding people down, but it just don't apply to me."

My legs felt as if they were growing roots deep into the Earth. It suddenly occurred to me that I didn't expect him to fly, but I sure wanted him to. I wanted him to fly, and I wanted him to teach me. I wanted to soar with the pigeons. Peter Pan, Superman, and me. "Teach me the secret," I tried to say, but my tongue was slower to faith than my soul. All that came out was a frantic, "Wait!" Doug's face burst with triumphant laughter. He clutched at his sides, and every time he looked at me, his face got redder. My face was redder than his. I shuffled my feet, bit my lower lip and looked away.

A cold little breeze climbed my spine and made me look back with a shudder. Doug's victory laugh had frozen onto his face. His eyes widened, filled with moonglow, tracked slowly upwards. The cold breeze entered my bloodstream. I turned to look at Harris, but by God, he was gone. I lifted my gaze, just in time to watch a tiny sheeted figure make a beeline for the stars.

We stood there staring into the empty sky for a long, cold hour. Neither of us said a word, nor heard a single coo, nor noticed the pastel stain of sunrise. I left Doug there. I uprooted my legs. I flew down the stairs, dived into my street clothes, walked away from that place, and never looked back. Lucille tried to give me a hard time at the desk, but I just flipped her the finger and walked on.

Doug sent me a postcard from California some years later, with a soaring condor on the front, and a short message on the back. "Back in school," it said, "studying theology. Would you believe it?"

And me, well, I believe I must be crazy. I joined a Hindu cult for a while and learned to walk barefoot through hot coals. I meditate daily from four to sunrise, and I believe I may have levitated once, just a little. But I still can't fly. Not yet.



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