For Jeanie

THE BLIMP PASSED FIRST, SILVER WITH SIX WHITE FINS AT THE tail, like a giant bullet fired slowly through the sky. It glided far above the sugar pea field, too high to cause a stir. Its long black shadow skated over the dirt road between the rows of bright green plants, over the barn beyond, and then the blimp was gone and for a long moment all was as before. A spotted rabbit scampered out into the road, sniffed the air, then darted back into the trellised stalks just as Preston Bristol’s Model T came crashing through, trailing a thick cloud of dust and chalk. The car was weather-beaten—one headlight missing, the other yellowed and cracked, the tires patched with flapping runs of tape. As it bounced along, tiny continents of rust rattled loose from the peeling hood and were whisked up and off.

Inside the car, Pres had his right foot jammed on the gas and his left foot pressed on top of his right. He squinted through the sunlit windshield at the blimp up ahead, still unable to accept it as a fixture of the sky and not something conjured up by his eye, a floater, a stain. He’d lost the blimp in a cloud formation over the Arkansas border and hadn’t seen or heard mention of it in nearly a week. Now, suddenly, here it was, right in front of him, coasting along not even a quarter mile ahead. Pres could see the great aluminum blades of its propellers. He could see the windows of the blimp’s cabin—the windows! He tried to find Claire behind one of them, but all the curtains were drawn shut. Pres had never been inside the blimp (this—two hundred, maybe three hundred yards behind it —was the closest he’d ever gotten), but even so he could picture its empty dining room, the booths of buttoned velvet, the golden maple dance floor across which he imagined someone, a man, swinging Claire past all those drawn curtains, pressing the stiff blond brush of his mustache into her ear. Pres glanced at the .38 lying on the passenger seat. He wondered whether anyone up there would try to stop Claire from coming home. He stuck his head out of the car window and listened for her voice.

“Claire!” he yelled at the blimp. “Claire, can you hear me?” But there was only the roar of the wind in his ears.

As the field gave way to grazing land, the front of the car nosed inside the blimp’s shadow. Pres felt a gust of joy blow through him. He would catch it this time. He had it! As if in agreement, his map, weighted down in the backseat by a rock, began to beat its corners against the seat leather.

Pres had started after the blimp in late February of 1918. Now it was only the middle of spring, but the past couple of months seemed to him like a cannon through which he’d been shot from twenty-one years young straight into the sagging net of old age. His hands ached at the joints. His ankles had swelled. His back was sour from hunching over the wheel. Last week, while undressing for bed, he’d noticed a dusting of silver in his black hair. He wondered if Claire would look any different to him, if all that time up in the air had changed her somehow. As the car splashed through a series of deep-rutted puddles in the road, he imagined her emerging from the blimp a radiant version of herself, tanned as a pancake and sugared with freckles, her eyes the brilliant green of the stripe inside a marble. He wondered what he’d say to her, how it would feel to touch her. She was his fiancee and his best friend, his only friend, and yet he had no idea how he’d react when he encountered her again. Would he kiss her? Crush her against him? Maybe she would make the first move, though, he thought. Maybe she would grab him by the ears and cry into his neck and tell him exactly what had happened, why she’d left at all.

A cloud appeared ahead of the blimp, simply rolled in from nowhere. More than a cloud, it was a vast island, beginning as a thin shore of vapor and quickly thickening to tangled, cottony fields before billowing up into tall forests of green-and-black thunderheads. Sadness seized Pres so fiercely he began to shake. Not yet, he thought, his eyes fixed on the blimp, which was already nearing the first tendrils of haze. He was too close. He’d come too far to lose the blimp again. He reached for the gun on the seat beside him. In his mind, he pointed the .38 out the window and blasted six large bullet holes in the blimp’s gas cells. The helium poured out with a flute-like music as the airship deflated and settled gently to the ground. But even as he aimed the gun, he knew that it was too small to do any real damage, that he himself was a tiny, harmless thing.

Pres watched as the cloud swallowed the top of the balloon, then its silvery bulk, until only the cabin was visible, sailing along beneath the cloud’s underside. He watched until the blimp was gone.

For a long while after, Pres kept the car pointed down the same road. Every few moments he glanced up at the cloud cover for punctures or tears, any hole that might afford him a glimpse of the blimp. How much time passed this way he couldn’t tell—an hour, two? The land shifted, became hilly and wild. When the clouds lifted, revealing nothing behind them but an empty tabletop of blue sky, Pres stopped watching the air altogether and scanned the ground for clues.

In the past he’d found things thrown down from the blimp—Claire’s things. Back in Cayuga he’d discovered one of her shoes standing up in the road like a dart. When he’d pulled it from the ground he found the impression of Claire’s foot still inside, a soft dent where her heel had been. He’d torn the shoe apart looking for a message from her, something written beneath the fabric, maybe carved into the heel. Outside of Pittsburgh he’d found her flowered hat floating in a pond, half pecked-apart by birds. A few times he’d come upon the smashed remains of cola bottles—Dapper Boy’s Pop, Claire’s favorite. The bottle tops were always sealed, the caps carefully twisted back onto the severed necks. Pres believed Claire was using them to send messages to him, that she wrote desperate notes and sealed them inside these bottles and then flung them out of the blimp, hoping they might find a soft landing. Each time he caught sight of a bottle neck he screeched to a stop and searched the area for her note. He picked through the grass, checked the bushes and trees, but the note always managed to blow away before he came looking.

Pres had met Claire in a wax museum near Buffalo. He was twenty and just orphaned with a pinch of money. She was nineteen. Her job was to stand very still among the dummies and then come to life and scare people. The first day Pres came by, the museum’s manager had Claire sitting on a bench of figures sculpted to look like they were waiting for a train. She had a circular valise covered with exotic stickers by her feet and wore a hat that drooped over one eye. On one side of her a young boy in overalls sucked on his ticket; on the other a plump man frowned through a monocle at a pocket watch chained to his vest. Pres had never seen such a pretty girl. Her hair was short, shorter even than his, ending at her ear in a soft, curling point that made him think of a beckoning finger. She looked so ready to leave, too, so eager, leaning forward with her hands on the edge of the bench, her neck craned to see down the tracks. Her lips were parted a touch in the middle, as though she were kissing the station —her whole life—good-bye. When Pres leaned in close he saw her tongue inside, pink and wet in the flickering light from the lamp on the wall. He wanted to kiss her, but even more he wanted to be the one she was waiting for, to be what was coming to collect her. He tried to angle himself so that she was looking right at his face, but every time he positioned himself inside her gaze, she shifted her eyes, rolling them a bit so that she was always looking just over his head or to the side of his ear. It wasn’t until she burst out laughing that Pres realized she was a real girl, playing with him.

Pres’s face burned; the girl was laughing so hard she had to hold on to her hat.

“Enough already, birdie. I knew it was you,” he said.

“Sure, I could tell,” she said.

“I did. I saw you shaking. You make a lousy statue.”

“So get out of here so I can keep on being lousy at it,” she said, and then she started arranging her pose,

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