We’re at the Sunset Drive-In, about to watch a plane disappear, and we don’t even know it. Not yet. It’s 1994. Angels in the Outfield has ended, the credits finally dropping robotically through the bottom of the California evening. Automobile bumpers tilt toward the screen while cartoon soda cans and snack boxes sing, “Let’s all go to the lobby to get ourselves a treat!” Some couples share a smoke on the hood and wait for the second film. Some reposition their pillows in the beds of their pickups. My mom and I sink into the front bench of our Silver Bullet station wagon, a bucket of buttered popcorn between us, my friend Gavin pulling apart his sour licorice sticks in the back seat, the metal speaker dangling from the half-open driver’s side window. In the first film, true as any other baseball fan, one boy begged God for a better-handed ballclub. Then, as if by magic, invisible angels arrived, tugging the gloves of center fielders toward game-sealing snags, toward winning seasons. Everybody got what they wanted.
I’m eleven and flying myself into a pair of invisible wings while sipping my small Dr. Pepper through a chewed straw, flying my parents into making more money. I want the new Reebok Pumps every kid but me at San Benito Elementary is playing basketball in this year, so I can fly further than all of them. I want fame. I want a brand-new pair of socks every morning for the rest of my life.
For the next film, we wait.
Somewhere else, on the other side of San Luis Obispo, I imagine, at the same time, four people I’ll never know pile into a single-engine Cessna headed for Salt Lake City: two brothers, a flight instructor, and the younger brother’s girlfriend. Maybe one of them tells a joke about blackbirds. Maybe the couple teeters at the lip of true love. At eleven, I believe that at any moment if I stop believing in the wonder of love or flight, all the lover’s planes in the world will fall, the sky will sink into the asphalt, and everybody will blame me.
Then, we don’t look anywhere but at the screen as the second film begins to fill our windshields with New York City: Nicolas Cage as a cop, Rosie Perez as his wife. Cage whacks the lottery for the big, stinky win, and the million-dollar Nicolas Cage, himself, with his face the size of the junked Camry in my grandmother’s backyard, yes, a giant Nicolas Cage in the movie It Could Happen To You is telling me that I can be rich if I think I deserve it. I almost believe it; only, in my small-town family of truckers and mechanics and veterans, there are no six-figure incomes. Our grandparents die in their late fifties of cancer and heart disease. Everyone we know drinks too many tall cans of beer, and only my mother will tell me when our house is empty before bedtime that all of us are getting exactly what we deserve. Then, she’ll pray for us by name.
Somewhere else, though, a possibility. A plane mumbles across the runway and flips the switches for liftoff. The four of them wait. Always, this uncomfortable silence before we leave the earth, the young boyfriend pushing his fingertip a half-inch deeper into his girlfriend’s thigh, beneath the grumbling propellers, does he, too, I wonder, ask a question of God? Does he know, then, that given the choice, he’d rather die himself than lose his brother, and can his girlfriend hear him? Someone slips a stick of mint gum into their mouth, but who? The confusion of flight patterns and dreams seems to spin out before me like a million threads of green floss. If a death I’ve never seen is taking off in my imagination, does it even exist?
Do we just wait for it?
I mean, a death? I mean, a thought? I mean, a plane? I mean, a God? I can’t untangle all of the strings, but anytime anyone goes down in the future, anytime something in the dark cuts a life apart with scissors, I will always return to this night in 1994 at the Sunset Drive-In, to this bench seat with my mother, to these bewilderments, to this dark question mark above this asphalt parking lot tonight. Maybe my mother and I and the world must keep believing in God and flight. Maybe we are those people who need belief to stay alive.
We wait, and forty-five minutes into the second film, it happens. Perez and Cage get petty, their marriage exploding and bleeding out. A new love interest is introduced, but she’s not rich. I’m still, somehow, geeked on the possibilities, so delicious, of Hollywood hope, of stinky riches. The popcorn in the bowl feeds itself to my left hand. I believe I can be a professional basketball player like Magic Johnson and that my mother and father will never die. I believe I’ll buy them a plane, build the wings out of hard-won cash, then fly to Jupiter and start a glorious country of golden airports with my friends. God filled the boy’s hands in the first film with whatever he wanted, so what will he give me for all of this salted and buttered faith?
Gavin yawns wide-mouthed in the backseat. My mother feathers up the dial on the speaker. A single-engine Cessna with four people inside dives down, then, out of the actual sky. It exists, briefly, with a shrug of its tiny wings. It barely whiffs the top of the screen. For the length of a car window, yes, as a real thing, it exists. And I become the boy who can’t keep it here.
The small plane kabooms into the power lines, then, to our left, which had seemed, only two scenes before, invisible in the night. It explodes neon. Like green lightning. Like volcanoes of electric lights. Like four ideas that will never land. Like people. Like God. Like four actual people. Like a naive belief. Like the screen and the whole city going dark. Like the death of love or some possibility I had been keeping all to myself.
People like us never get enough, and then we die.
Or we survive as just another insignificant someone in a crowd death has passed over, and then we’re left to consider, for a whole life, all we aren’t.
All the doors on all the automobiles rush open wide, tonight. All the people sprint over to the wooden fence to gaze at the wildfire of lights, or maybe they hope to help. Maybe they still believe, but the doors to our Silver Bullet station wagon don’t tumble open wide.
Instead, we wait.
Instead, my mom replaces the speaker on its metal post. She labors up the hand-crank on her window, like a slowing locomotive. She puts one hand in Gavin’s, then puts another hand in mine. She guides us in a prayer for the people on the plane.
But the plane is still exploding. I will never close my eyes. I will never stop staring at what is real when my mom lets go and drives us in silence out of the parking lot, ghosting the three of us toward home.
It is right here, now, and what must my mom be thinking about when she sees it, right there in front of us, right on the other side of the windshield, right at that place where the headlights don’t reach, near the top of the grade up ahead, where the lane lines whisper away to nothing, where all the unanswered prayers must fall? We’re driving right into it, that place where the highway at night collapses into the sky. We’re going to live there.