The Short Story is a Regional Flight
CALEB JOSEPH WARNER
This morning, I had the ambiguous pleasure of taking a regional flight from Pullman-Moscow to Seattle, straight plumb across the state of Washington. I think short stories are regional flights such as these.
The takeoff feels no different from any other length of trip. It could be a 50 hour flight to Xanadu or a 45 minute up-down to SEA-TAC: it is the same same. The quick ascent thrills and you may, even if you are a pro at flying, consider your current relationship with life and death. The preparation is the same, the physical sensation is the same, and the goal is the same—to take to the sky.
The First Portion
You notice how the man’s scalp in front of you quivers. You didn’t know scalps could do that, but they can. Some anonymous artist sketched out the outline of a koala in the dirt on the wheel strut. It is a good koala. The wheels shutter into their beds faster than you thought they would. The velocity kicks up the dust of your life.
You look down and consider the world for its miniature status. You see the cars, toy cars always, and the houses, always where doll’s live. Details takeover after takeoff.
The Next Leg
The next leg of your trip is very much less about detail. The earth below no longer strikes you with its minute charm. It has matured into a broad-shouldered, big-boned thing. There is breadth to it all extending into the hazy horizon. You cannot take it all in. Small windows, jets, wings, heads, and seats all obscure your vision. But you know that the world out there is bigger than all you could ever see and it is the inability to see it all that proves it.
Breadth has its own charm over detail, but that charm does not involve precision. There is nothing precise about our world from a distance. So what then is the purpose of this burgeoning breadth and why should we ever acknowledge it? Is precision and detail, like, everything? I think it’s kind of to show you where you are, really, so that when you land, you know where you’ll have come from.
I hesitate to say it’s boring, but eastern Washington is nothing that might inspire an essay on literary form. The Palouse softens into the obscurity of a muddy desert. It is the kind you see after the tide has rolled back out in such a hurry that it didn’t even bother to pick up the puddles. You half expect some monstrous old woman to step over the mountains with a bucket and warbly rain boots to start looking for clams.
And I maintain that this first part of the short story, after its fiery rocket-like takeoff that feels like a bad idea to our bodies, should be just a touch boring. Not too boring, but boring enough to make you crave the interest and resolution. If there is too much interest in the first part, you spoil the main course. Potatoes do not make the steak dinner, but they do complete it. You know that a descent is inevitable. It could crash and burn thanks to your human error or you could pull it off flawlessly. The first part is nothing in itself but a tease, a flirt, and is best enjoyed the second time around when you know what’s coming next.
The mountains happen and they happen quickly. The sun had only risen twenty minutes ago. It hangs ten feet above the east, but already the mountain peaks are hard at work. They are like farmers in a field, standing over the haze huddled in the furrowed valleys. They diligently cut through the haze with the plows of their parallel shadows.
And underneath the line of workers, I saw the mountains look more ocean than the Pacific Ocean. Because of the angle of the sun, everything but the snowy peaks were pitch black. The mountains really were tossing waves in a storm, the snow the froth of violence.
Like a short story, we had managed to get somewhere in forty minutes. I barely had time to finish my coffee before the flight attendant walked down the galley with her latex gloves.
A regional flight can show you an entire state in under an hour. You will see the vast flat mud desert, rolling hills, mountain ranges, a sound—and the glassy Pacific Ocean behaving better than the crashing, rowdy mountains.
You are always grateful for a safe landing, the reversal of the takeoff, the mirror image. And you remember what the purpose has been all along. The purpose has always been to take to the earth and feel in your bones and your ears that you belong down here on this earth.