Age of Iron
Winner, 2004 STYLE Fiction Prize
I read the other day that when strong emotion accompanies new knowledge, the knowledge becomes unforgettable, embeds itself physically somehow, as if the heat of feeling brands the information on the brain, white-hot in the circuits of the cells.
But I know it’s not like that; I know such knowledge burns the wires out. It is the old knowledge, what you were before the fire of feeling, that stays with you in all its terrible detail, calm, ordinary, beautiful, ineluctable. An old joke, a dance-step, a vivid dream, a lie.
Dad was packing for his interview and Mary Beth was pirouetting. I was eleven, so she was nine, half as old as she is now. “Mary Beth, I have a question,” Dad said, clearing his throat elaborately, as always when he prepared to pull your leg.
“Yes, Dad?” she said, twirling slower so she could see him. Even though it was barely September, she was already practicing. It was a girl thing, Dad and I agreed.
“Well,” he said, and cleared his throat again, “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t understand what, Daddy?”
“You’re already a nut,” he said, “and already kind of cracked. So why would you want to have anything to do with a nutcracker?”
“Feeble, Dad, feeble,” my little sister said, and I groaned to show I agreed. Daddy smiled, snapped his suitcase shut, then fished in his pockets for the key. He had the only key, although none of us knew that.
We tried to get the suitcase open later, after his trip was over and his key got lost, but we never found another. Mother turned the house inside out, but finally we just levered the locks open with a crowbar. It was an old suitcase anyhow. It had been through the wars, Daddy said so, too, even before that.
At the baggage claim, he’d always send Mary Beth and me to find it, stand there with his arm around Mother and say, “You know which one to look for, kids. The one that’s been to Hell and back, that’s mine.” It was all scraped and scratched, one of the wheels fell off sometimes, always at bad times when Dad was running for a gate or in the men’s room or trying to get through revolving doors, funny stories for him to tell us when he got back home.
He hadn’t used his suitcase since the old job, the lost job, the spring before, and when he took it out the door this time, the wheel fell off and the strap unhooked besides, so he had to chase it down the driveway a half-dozen steps, pretending to rescue it just in time. Mother laughed and said he needed a new one. Now they were made of ballistic nylon and had keyless locks.
“I don’t need to go ballistic,” he said, smiling. “This old beat-up one’s good company.” He said it reminded him of himself, took a lickin’ and kept on tickin’, old job, new job, no job. He said his suitcase was his alter ego, and she said she hoped he came back with good news, so we could get him a new alter ego.
“Don’t worry, I will,” he said, slamming the tailgate and coming back to Mary Beth and me to say goodbye. He gave us each a loud smackeroo and a breathtaking hug, told Mary Beth he hoped the ballet teacher didn’t notice she was already cracked, and told me one of those tired old jokes he always told before his trips.
“Knock, knock,” he said.
“Knock, knock,” he said, and we went through it all again, three more times at least, even with a plane to catch. The last time, when I asked “Who’s there?” he said, “Orange.”
“Orange you glad I didn’t say apple again?” the punchline at last, and he laughed like he’d never told it before. Which made me laugh, too.
“You think you’re so funny,” I said to him then.
“Yep. I do,” he said.
“Well, that one’s sad, buddy. You need some new jokes. So sad.”
“Sad? No, glad: orange you glad I didn’t say apple again?” he said back, and we laughed some more and he kissed me goodbye another time. The kissing was embarrassing, just like the knock-knock jokes, but it was nice, too; I was young enough so he could still kiss me goodbye. Then Mother beeped and Dad saluted and jumped in.
The night his plane came back, we were at the airport way too early. He’d called to say he got the job. Mother stopped off to buy balloons and confetti, a bit of welcoming festivity, she said. Always much too punctual, she’d misjudged how long arranging the festivity would take, so we had over an hour to kill.
We waited around, or rather Mary Beth pirouetted around and I pretended we didn’t know her and read or talked to Mother to pass the time. I got up now and then to wander.
The terminal had been remodeled since last spring, enlarged and opened up. Fluorescent light fell stark on new uncomfortable purplish chairs and matching mauve heavy-duty stainproof carpet. Big windows looked out on the runways in the dark.
From time to time Mother or I stared out, gazing idly, looking for something to look at, the same way Mary Beth twirled idly in the corner, looking for something to do.
Or I walked around the cave of the terminal and saw everyone else wrapped in that same strange suspended accompanied solitude, that airport waitingness, a hundred of us waiting for whatever was supposed to happen to hurry up and happen so we could all go home.
Most of the time we waited, planes came and went, a loop of lights, a winged chain suspended above the earth and anchored at just one point, touchdown or takeoff, the ending or opening step through time and space.
Blue lights lit the runways, a beautiful color, I remember thinking, and red lit the buildings and lightpoles on the roads around the airport, hot red that warned the planes this was not the place, cool welcoming blue that brought them home and saw them off.
I’d never noticed that before, the way the planes made a procession, the way the people meeting them thought only of one plane landing tonight, but the pilots and crew and controllers and workers on the ground and in those baggage-wagons on the apron knew the truth, understood there is a long line stretching from morning to midnight, and when the last one landed, when whatever was supposed to happen happened, then they, too, could all go home.
Later, when it was over, the wait seemed so stately and serene, almost pleasant, really. I go back there to that terminal sometimes in my mind, back all those years to the last time I was bored and unconcerned, the last time I didn’t have to pay attention to myself or anything else. First we were waiting for Daddy. Then they told us there was a delay, twenty or thirty minutes. Then the delay was over. Then we were waiting for word.
I walked around some more, but Mary Beth stopped dancing. The airport was old inside its tricked-up skin. A brass plaque on the wall said it had started off as a military field back in the days of the Army Air Corps; the wing we were in was once the old aerodrome, whatever that meant. Was that the word we were waiting for, aerodrome? I knew it wasn’t; I was just trying to distract myself. A bad joke, the kind of joke Daddy might make.
When word finally came, they herded us all into a little room, and it was too many words. Short bad wrong words. Clipped. Sheared. Down. Missed. Hit. Words that made the time before and after them feel like an epoch, an age. Words that took just a few seconds to say, flashy separate seconds that burned new knowledge indelibly into us, seconds in which, as Mother said later, in an old-fashioned and unfamiliar phrase, the iron entered our souls.
Because if it hit, then it hit the ground, and if so, the good and beautiful word survivors, or even the barely bearable words, not known how many, could change, change much too quickly. The word survivors could crash into the other, the terrible, the exploding word. The word no.
That night, even before those words, crowded in that terminal room with all the other families, Mother and Mary Beth and I looked like total fools, ridiculous with these stupid-ass balloons, fat pillowy Mylar hearts floating through the air, “Congratulations!” spelled out across them in big loopy Day-Glo letters.
When they let us out of the room, those balloons bobbed back up—of course we weren’t thinking about them—and led the reporter right to Mother, made her ask Mother those things she never should have asked and Mother never should have answered. We saw it, then we saw it all again on TV when we got home.
“Because it was good news,” Mother said, smiling into the cameras and the mikes, those damn balloons flying and bouncing behind her like the news was still good now. “He has a job.”
Mother was pale in the lights. She stared at the reporter as if she couldn’t quite place her, as if the two of them, the reporter and Mother, have met in some foreign country and are speaking its language, a language Mother hasn’t studied very well, something new Mother knows but hasn’t really practiced yet.
“Come on!” I shouted, and we pulled her away. Mary Beth and I didn’t have to discuss it, we just knew what to do. Outside were more crews and cameras and mikes, but they didn’t recognize us, we hadn’t been on TV yet. We came through the doors with our heads up and walked briskly past. Then we made a break for the short-term lot.
We still had those loony balloons, clutched tight so they couldn’t escape. Mary Beth held hers and Dad’s, and as we got close to the parking-lot, she grabbed Mother’s and mine.
Then my sister stood still in the dark for a minute, breathing heavily from our little sprint, the four stupid hearts in her fist shining like ghosts and straining at their ribbons. We couldn’t see her face.
“This one’s for Daddy,” she said in a harsh voice, and let the first one go. The three of us watched it sail into the sky and disappear directly into darkness. “And these are ours,” she said.
Then she jumped on one, then the next, the next. Each heart burst with a sound like a shot, the sound of a crowbar popping a lock. They lay there on the asphalt, flat, silvery, shredded; torn fuselage, dead festivity. Litter that Mother reached down to pick up and throw away.
“Leave them,” Mary Beth said. Her voice was still the same, a hard dark voice I’d never heard before, the iron entering in. Then we got into the car and headed for home and waited for Daddy to come back.
Weeks later, his suitcase arrived, hand-delivered to our house. I was the one who thought of the crowbar. Inside, undamaged, everything we’d watched him pack, clothes, papers, shaving kit, and three things more: a video of “The Nutcracker,” a book called 1001 Knock-Knock Jokes, and a little package of confetti, a bit of festivity because the news was good.
We kept on waiting even after his suitcase got home, even after Mary Beth got into “The Nutcracker.”