Friday, Feb. 07, 2003, 12:47 AM

Let me tell you about love...

Let me tell you about love...

He once knew a girl who thought she could fly. So she took her Snoopy sheets from her bed, tied them 'round her neck, and dragged them behind her like a cape. She fumbled with the window, got it open, and looked at the gently sloping roof that kept the weather from harming daddy's new car, and afforded her older sister a lovely place to sunbathe nude. On those days when her sister, Tabitha, would glisten with sweat and smell like a coconut, little Tommy Tumulty would be perched at his mother's bedroom window hoping that the bulky outline of his father's binoculars would not be visible through the almost sheer cream curtains. Actually, the naked girl never would have suspected if Tommy didn't pull the curtains aside every time to get a better view. Tabitha just considered it practice for the time when she would be the masturbatory fantasy to so many boys after appearing as a Playmate of the Month.

Stomach pressed against the windowsill, with feet dangling in the air trying to negotiate the distance to the roof, Samantha Shufstahl climbed out of her room, trailing a garland of Snoopys from inside the house. The black asphalt shingles felt warm and inviting beneath her small bare feet. The shingles were almost as dark as the recessed area behind the stairs that descended into the basement, and fueled many nightmares that left her floundering about on the very sheet wrapped around her neck.

Samantha's family lived in a two-story brick Colonial with a garage lodged onto one side like a cancerous growth. Its wood siding was grossly out of place with the brick Colonial; a gaping mouth with a concrete tongue.

Samantha stood on the slope of the roof away from the road. Her window stood open to her left. If she turned around she would just be able to see over the crest of the roof to watch the Tumulty family pulling away from their house in the big blue Lincoln. A wind stirred the trees between the Shufstahl's garage and the Tumulty's house. They were two big oaks with expansive branches good for climbing, that had just enough space between them for Tommy's voyeuristic pursuits. The larger of the two trees had a ladder of boards nailed the length of the trunk that led to the space where the branches blossomed out in every direction like the petals of some great flower. The ladder was all that remained of a treehouse that was perched in the tree, and nest to a flock of boys last summer. The treehouse had been torn down by Tommy's father after Tommy fell from it and broke his arm. Tommy had fallen from one of its windows as Samantha watched from her bedroom. He was leaning out talking to Mitchell Murphy, a lanky red-haired boy who lived in the trailer park a mile away. Mitchell would ride his bike to Tommy's house everyday, just before lunch, and would usually leave before the sun hung like a red globe on the horizon, crying about some injustice Tommy or one of the other boys had performed upon him. As he rode away he would proclaim his hatred for Tommy, and always be back for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the next day at noon.

On this occasion, Tommy was leaning out of the window trying to catch a football thrown by Mitchell. Mitchell didn't have very good aim, and tried several times without coming near the window. Tommy had grown impatient and leaned farther out of the window to arrest this single sided game of catch. He caught it, and teetered on the windowsill briefly before sliding out head first. He fell in a graceful arc, arms flailing in a not so graceful fashion, like a baby bird being pushed from the nest for his crash course on flying. Tommy crashed the course, but held on to the football, and the completed pass left him with a cast from his elbow to wrist for the remainder of the summer. Tommy's dad tore the treehouse down that August, except for the wooden stairs, while Tommy floundered in the inflatable pool in the back yard wearing a Wonder Bread bag over his cast.

Now Tommy sat in the back seat of that Lincoln, staring at the growing patch of skin on the back of his father's head. Although Tommy was only nine, his parents had recently embarked on the adventure of life after fifty. Tommy was an only child. He was an accident, though not an unwelcome one. Tommy's parents had been trying to conceive since marriage--thirty-two years ago--and had been unsuccessful except for one instance that ended at the bottom of a flight of stairs, with his mother, Isabela, during the sixth month of her term. After the miscarriage, Isabela and Ned were told it would be virtually impossible for them to have children.

It was almost ten years ago that they first discussed adoption. Though the idea hung heavy in the air as the only course of action, it remained unspoken as taboo until it had stifled their sex drive, and almost withered their love. By his forty-fourth birthday, Ned's forehead had grown more prominent as his hair melted away from his face. Isabela, born in Spain, her body and voice rich with its heritage, told him in certain accent-laced tones that he was as fit as when she married him, and twice as handsome. It was no lie; Ned worked out, always watching what he ate, and was still striking at forty-four. He had a perpetual tan that accented his black hair and brown eyes, and flaunted his Italian ancestry. He was a big man; shoulders cut from a mountain, arms that were slabs of undulating granite, and hands large enough to encircle Isabela's waist and lift her petite frame like an empty bag in the wind. And that is exactly what he did that night, carrying his wife into the bedroom and making love to her. It was three months later that they were certain of Isabela's pregnancy, and five months after that Tommy was born, premature, but in good health.

Tommy spread himself across the acreage of the Lincoln's back seat watching the world roll away from him through the back window. He watched the world shrink into the frame of the window. Watched idly as his house fell back from one side and the Shufstahl's crept into the vacant space. He saw Samantha on the roof above her garage, and watched her back shrink away and melt into the distance that the wheels piled between them. He watched as everything he knew rolled past.

Tommy knew he would be joining Samantha on that same roof one month from now to watch the fireworks blossom across the land with belated booms. There was no better place to watch the fireworks. You could go into town and stand with the crowds of people shrouded by the smell of charcoal, hotdogs and sweat. You could listen to the exclamations of the parents saturated by alcohol, and the children laugh between sparklers, while you watched the silhouette of a stranger pronounce itself between you and the aerial display. But that left Tommy tired and dizzy with only a vague recollection of colorless people stained red and gold and blue with light.

Tommy preferred sitting on the black shingles of Samantha's garage, still warm from the summer sun, watching the explosions light up the flat Ohio landscape. He liked those tense few moments between the bursts of light and the audible confirmation--the world was suspended in that palpable silence. And the relief when the sound came rolling across the yard, so loud and real that they could feel it in their chests, reassuring them that they would feel something if they tried holding hands. Tommy was certain they would perch on her roof again this year, as certainly as Samantha would insist that the June bugs should be called July bugs this late in the season.

Tommy floated away in velour comfort and the wind picked at the curls around Samantha's neck. Snoopy flew through the folds of her sheet dressed as the WW1 flying ace. Samantha remembered a time when the family would sit on the roof together to watch sunsets or fireworks, and the one time they all watched the smoke rise lazily above the burning city hall. On those days they would bring lawn chairs and set them four wide along the peak of the roof. But Tabitha had gone away to college, her parents were usually busy arguing over something or other, and now it was just Samantha sitting on the roof listening to the den of shouting rise up from below. Their shouts would climb the stairs and slip under the door to her room, cling to her clothes and following her around the house. She felt safe on the roof where the wind helped to carry their voices away like a bird caught in a storm, never to return. Although she knew they had argued until their shouting couldn't stand the sight of them, and both had gone in a flurry of obscenities and slamming doors, she stayed on the roof until the sun slid so low in the sky that she had to wrap the sheet around her body to keep warm.

Tommy liked Sundays, most of the time. It depended on what his grandmother made for the family dinner. Every Sunday the family would drive the three miles to Grandma's house debating over what they thought Grandma would cook up that particular evening. Last year they had all gotten new bikes when the sea of winter snow melted into muddy puddles on the fresh spring grass. They rode the bikes to Grandma's on the first Sunday that the roads were clear of snow, and the spring rain paused to gather itself into clouds again. The cinders were strewn along the road's berm, and crunched under the tires. The last bits of snow peaked out from the shadows, and Grandma's house was an awful lot further away on a bike than in a car, but Tommy liked to feel the distance roll under his wheels and listen to the road hum under the new tires. It made everything real. It hummed and crunched under him, stood solid under his feet when they stopped to rest, and stretched on for miles. The bikes never made that trip again. And now Tommy sat in the back seat of the Lincoln picking out landmarks from that one trip in the fading light.

Tonight's dinner had been pizza; a rarity. Grandma didn't consider pizza to be a real meal, and said she would never serve it on a Sunday, but she had been tending the yard and garden all day, and complained about it being too warm to go turning on the oven. Tommy enjoyed the pizza, but his mind never strayed far from the image of Samantha standing on her roof. That was the other problem with Sundays; Tommy had to do chores around the house and eat at Grandma's, which meant he got to spend very little time with his best friend. Occasionally they would bring Samantha with them, or they would have Grandma over for a cookout on their grill, and he and Samantha would whittle away the afternoon climbing trees and playing in the stream behind their houses, and squander the evening catching lightning bugs. Summer was the only season he had time to be with Samantha on Sundays, and he wasn't going to let the opportunity pass him by.

Before the garage door could close behind the car, Tommy dashed out the back door, informing his parents that he would be in the back yard. His parents had come to understand that the back yard consisted of theirs, the Shufstahl's, the field of goldenrod behind both properties, and the stream that kept the goldenrod from infesting either yard. Tommy could see Samantha standing on the roof, silhouetted against the sunset. Now Tommy could have walked back through his garage and around to the front of Shufstahl's in a matter of seconds, but ritual dictated that he walk the length of his back yard, crawl through the only hole in the bushes large enough not to scrape his arms and legs, and then walk the length of Samantha's yard before talking to her. He noticed, after brushing the dirt from his legs and picking dead bush parts from his hair, that the stream was pregnant with spring rain. Tommy had to hop across the tops of the larger rocks that usually stood on the dry bank, and were used as seats any other time, to get to Samantha's yard without getting wet. Tommy scrambled up the bank a few moments later with twigs in his hair, and his right shoe perspiring water from the seams with ever step.

Samantha had watched her shadow stretch all evening until her head mingled with the dark waters of the stream. It reminded her of the sundial in front of the museum in town. She could stretch her arms out and her shadow could mimic catching a fish as wide as her yard. She watched the head of her shadow disappear in the dark water and noticed Tommy emerging. He walked across the yard, and Samantha noticed how his shadow seemed to stretch from the dark waters behind him. It was like an elastic band, and she was sure he would not make it halfway to her before the tension would snap him back into the waters or beyond. But instead, Tommy stepped into her shadow and walked right up to the patio that the roof overhung enough to let icicles grow in the winter.

"Whatcha doin?"


"Uh oh. You're only doing nothing when something's wrong."

"I didn't ask you to come over."

"Who peed in your Wheaties?"

"Look, you wouldn't understand."

"Samantha, we're best friends."

"I know."

"So what's wrong."

"You wouldn't understand."

"But you just said..."

"Look, you wouldn't understand because your parents never yell at you for just being alive, and you don't get punished for no reason at all, and your parents never ever argue with each other, and they love you!"

"Sam, it's not like that."

"It is like that! It's just like that."


"Go away."

"I'm sorry. Hey, I'll go get my telescope and we'll see if the Huffnagels are burying people in their back yard again. We'll tell our parents we're looking for shooting stars."

"I don't think so"

"Okay, How about I come up and we'll act like we're stuck on the roof and see how many cars stop this time."

"No. And you're not coming up."

"What? Are you going to stand on the roof all night by yourself?"

"No. That would be stupid."

"You've been stupid before. All girls are stupid."

"Tommy, I'm gonna come down and punch you so hard in the mouth you'll have to move your lip to tie your shoes."

"Oh, you're really scaring me, Sam."

"And I'll give you a black eye if you call me Sam again."

"Well come on. I'm waiting."

"No. Just go away."

"If you don't want to stay on the roof, we can play inside."

"I'm not staying outside, and I'm not going inside. I'm leaving."

"Are you gonna run away? That would be cool. Then when they put you on the back of the milk cartons my mom gets, I can tell everyone how you left and tell the reporters that you seemed like such a nice girl--a little strange, but nice. And that we never ever expected you to do something stupid like leaving, even though you've done other stupid things like the time you peed your pants in Mrs. O'Reilly's class..."

"You wouldn't tell them that!"

"Yep, I would. I would even tell them about the time you kissed Henry Hutchens behind the big tree at recess."

"Don't you dare!"

"Yep, that's what I'll tell them, alright."

"Well, it doesn't matter anyway cause I'll be far away."

"Samantha, you can't leave. If you leave then your parents are gonna worry and call the police and then you'll get in trouble."

"They aren't going to catch me."

"Look, Sam, you can't drive and you can't run fast and you can't outrun a police car on my bike that you would have to borrow cause you don't have your own. And I won't let you take my bike cause my parents would kill me."

"I don't need your bike and I'm not running away. I'm flying."

Tommy stops to consider this information carefully. He makes a face while he does this, almost as if he were tasting a new dish for the first time, rolling it over and over in his mouth and trying to decide whether or not he likes it. Tommy shakes his head and looks at the black stain Samantha's small body makes against the red sky.

"I was wrong, I'm gonna tell the reporters that you were crazy."

"You don't believe me?"

"You can't fly. Nobody can fly. If we could fly, we'd have wings. That's what my mom says. She says, 'If man were meant to fly, he would have been given wings.' We don't have wings, and we were given shoes to walk with."

"I can too fly. Everybody can fly, they just forget how. They go to sleep and remember how and then they fly everywhere until they wake up and forget again."

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about flying in dreams."

"That only works in dreams."

"No. Everyone forgets how to do it when they wake up, but I remember."

"I never fly in my dreams."

"Everybody does. You just don't remember."

"Nope. I remember all my dreams, and I never fly."

"Look, everybody flies in their dreams, and everyone can do it when they're awake."

"Okay, smartie. How do you do it then?"

"It's easy, you just lift up one leg and then you lift up the other and then you move like you're swimming. Flying's more like swimming through the air, not zooming around the clouds like everyone thinks, and everyone forgets that."

"If all you have to do is lift up your legs, then why are you on the roof?"

"Well, I'm not very good at swimming, so I figured I'd come up here to get a better start."

"You're crazy! You're gonna fall and crack your head open and your brains are gonna ooze out all over the place."

"I'm not crazy. You're just jealous cause I know how to fly and you don't. You're always jealous of me."

"I won't be jealous when you fall and break your arm like I did. And I'm not gonna get in trouble. You tell your parents this was your idea."

"I'm not going to fall. I'm going to fly far away from my parents and from Ohio and from you. Far away where no one argues and there are no stupid boys who tell you what you can't do."

"You won't do it anyway. You're too scared to try cause you know it won't work and you're just gonna get in trouble when your parents find you on the roof."

"You're terrible, Tommy. I was going to take you with me, but I'm glad I'm leaving now. I'm never going to come back either. I hate it here, and I hate you and I'm flying away forever."

Tommy shrugs. "I'll throw a piece of bacon up to you for breakfast tomorrow."

Tommy turns and makes his way back the length of Samantha's yard. Night has stitched all of the shadows into a blanket that Tommy disappears into quickly. Samantha watches him go and stands proudly on her roof feeling her will recede with Tommy's back. He traverses the stream and Samantha listens to his shoe squish the way alongside the hedge that keeps their yards from spilling into one another.

"It won't be the same without you."

A square of light stumbles into the night when Tommy goes inside, and she watches it slim to nothing as he closes the door behind him, leaving Samantha alone under the night's first stars. The streetlights dot the road with puddles of yellow that the summer moths cast giant shadows against. The trees sigh in the wind and Samantha sits down, sobbing. Her parents are sure to be home soon, and she should heed Tommy's warning unless she wants a butt lashing with the tongue lashing. She is sure she can fly. She flies in her dreams every night. Yes, she had seen Tommy fall. Watched him flail his arms, and watched his shadow dance and run along the ground until they met at the same spot. She has been taught about gravity and the way it tempts apples to fall on the heads of thinking men, but she is certain. Besides that, she has to prove to everyone else, especially Tommy, that it can be done. Samantha stands, allowing the wind the dry her tears in long cold streaks across her face. She lifts her right leg, and thinks about swimming. She tips forward on one leg, her arms reaching out in front of her and pulling the air to her sides, her other leg out behind her for balance. She may appear as an odd weather vane to a passerby--the kind that have pinwheeling limbs like the wings of those wooden ducks that a band of breezes can strike into a chorus of circles.

Samantha closes her eyes and thinks about swimming. With every stroke of her arms, Samantha leans forward a bit more until she is standing on the ball of her left foot, toes bent and struggling to hold on. She is already up and over the trees by the creek running full with the dark waters of summer, when her foot cramps. Samantha pitches forward, her arms go from a subtle pulling to a frantic grabbing, and for a brief instant she is airborne. Her chest collides with the shingles and the grainy surface scratches its memory upon the soft flesh of her stomach as she slides off the roof. Samantha scrambles to grab onto anything, and her hands collide with the metal gutter, stopping her headward motion. When her legs catch up with her shoulders, they slide to the side, unobstructed. Her body slides sideways and her left leg spills over the roof's edge. The heel of her right foot catches on the gutter where she hangs like a banner, swaying in the wind.

The moon slips above the horizon and watches the cars scurry home, carrying people to the safety of their brightly lit houses. It seems that man has forgotten his origins in the dark. Forgotten a time when he lived in caves and shuffled about in the night, sometimes without even the grace of the moon shining down. They run home to watch television and read about a time when men were strong, when they set out to conquer worlds, and when they still knew how to fly. They love, die, cry, and sleep. And once in a while they dream--like Tommy Tumulty, who is standing in a field of goldenrod watching a flock of birds migrating south. He lifts his right leg, then his left. Tommy follows the birds to a better place, and Samantha Shufstahl's right foot slips tenderly from the lip of the gutter.