"This story responds to another work of art on a couple levels. There is the obvious textual (and eponymous) reference to the song 'I'm Gonna Fly' by the great Lee Hazlewood. I like that song so much, I put it right there in the story. But there is another thing going on with this story. I wrote 'I'm Gonna Fly' at the SappyFest 'Wish You Were Here' artist residency a few years back. I was there to work on a children’s novel called The Boy Who Could Fly. At the end of the residency, we were to present what we'd been working on. I had a feeling that all those sophisticated artist-types wouldn’t be interested in hearing me read from my children's book, so I quickly wrote a story (for an adult audience) that imagined the life of one of the characters from my novel 50 or so years into the future. In 'I'm Gonna Fly,' Constantine tells the story of the boy who could fly and recounts an incident mentioned in passing in my novel."
He said his name was Constantine. He was quick to point out that it wasn’t his real name. His real name, he wouldn’t tell me. He said he was in some kind of witness protection program, although not the witness protection program. I’m not quite sure what he meant by that distinction, but I thought it was important to mention here.
He sat down next to me at the bar and said, “Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you a story about the boy who could fly.”
“The boy who could fly?” I asked.
“That’s right. You’ve heard of him?”
I shook my head from side to side.
“A drink will fix that,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. Why not?
I asked the bartender to give Constantine a drink. Constantine raised two fingers and the bartender returned and placed two pints in front of him. Constantine took a sip from one of the glasses and nodded at the bartender.
“Put on that Lee Hazlewood song I like so much.”
The bartender wordlessly obliged, fading out the song that was playing and starting a new one.
Constantine drummed his fingers on the bar for a little while. I thought maybe he’d forgotten about me, about telling me the story of the boy who could fly. But then, without looking over at me, he began talking.
“It takes a lot of effort and concentration to fly,” he said, “but once you’re in the air, it’s pretty easy. You just have to make sure that you don’t soar too high. And you have to keep your arms out and sort of use them to propel yourself forward once in a while or you’ll start falling. The boy who could fly used to get butterflies in his stomach because he was actually a little bit afraid of heights.
“That’s not a problem for him anymore,” he continued. “He can get a few feet off the ground at most these days. He didn’t know when he was a kid that it’d wear off, that a day would come when he wouldn’t be able to fly anymore. He thought it’d last forever. But it doesn’t. Nothing does.”
Constantine gave me a long sad look before continuing.
“That spring the boy who could fly lost the spelling bee. That’s when things really went to shit for him. And the word he misspelled? Egregious. That he lost over that word... You know what that is?”
He turned to look at me.
“It’s egregious,” I said.
“No,” he said. “It’s a goddamn travesty. The thing is, he knew how to spell egregious. The boy who could fly was not an idiot. But he lost. And then it was one thing after another. He had to run away from home. His parents, God bless them, they were hopeless.”
Constantine got quiet looking at himself in the mirror behind the bar. He was older than me, by a good ten or fifteen years. That would put him at about fifty-five or sixty. Other than that, well, he had me promise that if I ever told this story I wouldn’t describe his physical appearance.
“The moment he lost the spelling bee,” Constantine continued, “the boy who could fly got kind of agitated and, well, he lifted off the stage and flew around the room in a rage. He’d never done that before. Not in front of anyone. No one knew he could fly. Not even his parents.”
“This flying....” I said. “You mean it, like, metaphorically, right?”
“No,” he said, and then continued: “The people in the auditorium were terrified. They thought he was the devil. Or possessed by the devil. I mean, there was a kid flying around the room like a goddamn bird trapped inside a house. That’s bad luck, by the way. Means someone’s going to die.”
He paused here and emptied one of his two pints.
“And so there he was,” Constantine continued, “brushing up against the ceiling, circling over their heads. It was a sight. It was a scene to be sure. The boy who could fly found an open door and flew out of there as fast as he could. He flew all the way home. But instead of going in the front door, he flew up onto the roof, curled up and fell asleep there like a dog.”
“Like a dog that can fly,” I said.
Constantine looked at me.
“How much cash do you have on you?” he asked.
“About forty-five dollars,” I said. “Why?”
He continued his story.
“The next morning, the sound of angry shouting awoke the boy who could fly. He’d forgotten for a moment that he’d fallen asleep on the roof, that he’d flown in front of all of those people like that. He peeked over the edge of the roof and saw a crowd of people in the yard, in his yard. They were like angry villagers with pitchforks. His father was out there and they were yelling at him. His father was saying, He’s not here. He didn’t come home last night. His father’s voice sounded weak with worry. Pretty soon a news truck pulled up, and then another. And then, like a funeral procession coming down his street: a long line of big black cars approached the house. They all stopped in unison, the doors opened and dozens of men in suits got out. Serious, official looking men. Some of them with guns. The boy who could fly crawled to the other side of the roof and then flew low to the ground until he was out of sight. Then he just kept flying.”
“What about his parents?” I asked.
“It was a long time before he saw them again.”
“Where did he go?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Constantine said. “Nice watch.”
“It was a gift,” I said.
We both admired my watch for a minute.
“Listen,” I said. “How is it the boy could fly? What’s the trick?”
“Oh,” he said. “So you want the origin story?”
He said this like I’d ordered a dish that wasn’t on the menu.
“I’m just curious,” I said. “It’s a pretty... fantastic story.”
“That it is. That. It. Is.”
He was quiet for a moment. Then he finished his drink and looked at me.
“The origin story will cost you another pint.”
“Fine,” I said.
Before I could raise my hand to get the bartender’s attention, he was back placing another
pint in front of Constantine. He was obviously familiar with the story.
Constantine lifted the glass to his lips and tilted his head back. He drank half the contents of his glass in one gulp.
“There’s no trick,” he said, placing the glass back down on the bar. “It was just something he could do.”
He took another drink from his glass.
“Well, could his parents fly? Was it... genetic?”
He laughed without smiling.
“No, his parents couldn’t fly. He was just born that way.”
“That’s it? That’s the origin story?”
His eyes were closed while he spoke, one hand on his glass.
“Well, there was his grandfather. A sailor in the Second World War. One day his ship was out sweeping for German subs between Greenland and Iceland. Pretty routine. They didn’t see much action. A storm swept in quickly, this was October, storm season. Big storm. Even for the North Atlantic where storms are pretty common. Next thing he knows, he’s waking up alone on an island in the middle of the ocean.”
With his eyes still closed, Constantine took another drink from his glass. He placed the glass back down and wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt.
“Long story short,” he said, “the sailor makes a deal with this witch to get off the island. She grants him the ability to fly. The details are a little vague.”
“A witch? Does she just wave a wand or...”
“Like I said, the details are a little vague.”
“That’s... a good story.”
“You bet it is,” Constantine said, and smiled for the first time since sitting down beside me.
He pointed at my watch.
“I like your watch,” he said. “Tell you what, for forty-five dollars and that watch, I’ll let you in on a little secret.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “You’re the boy who could fly?”
“Yeah,” Constantine said, “and I can prove it. I’ll fly for you.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I’m good.”
“Oh come on,” he said. “You’re never going to meet someone like me ever again. You can tell your grandkids about me.”
“Forty-five dollars?” I asked.
“And the watch.”
“And you’ll fly?”
“I promise you won’t be disappointed.”
I thought about it for a minute. The guy probably didn’t have a job or a pension. And this was probably how he made a living. “Okay,” I said. “Why not?”
He reached out his hand, palm up.
“Not until I see you fly.”
He looked around the bar.
“Come on,” he whispered. “Not in here. Obviously.”
On his way to the door, Constantine stopped at a table where a young couple were sitting close together. The guy had his hand on the woman’s thigh. He was saying something to her. They couldn’t have been more than twenty, twenty-one.
“Good evening, love-birds,” Constantine said. He did a little curtsy as he spoke. “It’s a beautiful evening for young love.”
They looked at him and then they looked at me. I just shrugged.
I followed Constantine outside, along the building, and to the parking lot behind the bar.
He walked over to a parked car and, with no small amount of effort, he hoisted himself up onto the hood. The car was dusty; he left footprints on the hood. He stepped over to the edge of the driver’s side fender and said, “Money and watch, please.”
I held both in my outstretched right hand.
“Drum roll, please.”
I attempted a drum roll on the side of the car with my free hand.
Constantine stepped off the hood. First his right foot, followed by his left. And then he hovered there a moment. Just like that. Before too long, like a helium balloon the morning after a party, he descended slowly until he was about 8 or 9 inches off the ground—still hovering.
“Used to be able to soar,” he said. “I could touch the clouds if I wanted to. Not anymore. This is it.”
He gestured with his hands. He was now maybe five or six inches off the ground. He reached out for the money and the watch. I pulled my hand back a little.
“You said fly.”
He rolled his eyes.
“This is it. If you’re not impressed by this, then I don’t know what else to say.”
I let him take the money and watch from my hand.
And then gently, slowly, his feet touched the ground. He turned and walked back to the bar without a word.
It was like discovering a new colour: I didn’t have the vocabulary for what I had just witnessed, for what he had done. I walked over to the car, looked at his footprints on the hood And on the fender. I traced my finger through the dust.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.”
I touched my wrist where my watch had been. Then I walked back into the bar. Constantine was sitting at the table with the young couple from earlier. He didn’t look up when I walked in, didn’t look my way.
I could hear him talking to the couple: “It takes a lot of effort and concentration to fly,
he was saying, but once you’re in the air, it’s pretty easy.”