“What Can You Pen?” First Place Prose Prize

First place winners will be published in Westwind‘s quarterly journal. 

The Airman
By Hannah Hogen 

There was one time in middle school where the teacher gave us all this research assignment. He wanted us to do a write-up on a part of San Cielo that we found particularly fascinating. We could pick our own topic within reason, and prepare a two to three minute presentation that would include why we chose it and why the place we picked was an important part of the city.

I wrote about the little public park on Seventeenth and Harborview that was right down the street from the tiny apartment me and my mother had just moved to. She took me down there to explore while she helped the parks commission paint the graffiti from the walls and play places. The full name of the park was something like “Parque de la gente de mi tierra,” but she and I and everyone else I knew just shortened it to “Parque Gente.” There were these big sculptures there made out of greening metal that dotted the park, bending under the trees and saluting the sky beneath the more open areas. I used a big green poster board for my presentation, splashed with crudely drawn pictures of plants and trees and plastered with pictures printed on lined paper. I got an A- and my mother was very proud of me. Three years ago they tore down Parque Gente to make room for a bigger parking lot to feed the new promenade over on Sixteenth.

But what I wrote about for that one stupid project back in middle school isn’t important. What is important is what I didn’t write about.

Nearly everyone else in my class, other than the handful of other kids who had just transferred from other districts or from the suburbs like me, wrote about the Air Man.

After class I asked my best friend at the time, the Scott with a lisp and a garden of flowering acne, why everyone wanted to write about the Air Man. It wasn’t that I’d never heard of him—even if you lived on the outskirts of San Cielo, you still would hear about the Air Man whenever he was spotted in public—but I’d always figured it was something that the general public entertained and used as a gimmick rather than fervently cared about. It had never seemed that important to me.

And Scott, the same kid who’d shoved no less than five grape tomatoes up his nose the day before, donned the most serious expression that I’ve ever in my life seen on a kid below the age of fourteen and I asked me where the fuck I had been all my life.

Scott knew the answer to that, that I had not lived in this city until a couple of weeks ago, but it hit me then and there that that did not matter. That something was different in the water of San Cielo, that there was some tiny molecule that was immune or ignored by even the most skeptical of filters. And that molecule would form a protein, and that protein would swim through your blood and attach itself to a receptor on your brain and then pump chemicals through your body that triggered an obsessive fascination with the air man. Now that I was living in the city, there was a certain degree of curiosity about the Air Man that I needed to have in order to be socially acceptable.

I learned about how to solve geometric proofs, how to spell chlamydia and how to properly grind down the entrance rails at the Promenade on Fourth and Esperanza but I swear; the most vital thing that I learned about that year in middle school was the sheer importance of the Air Man to everyone I would ever come into contact with during my time in the city. Even babies with no concept of anything past their own fingers routinely sported jumpers emblazoned with “Forget the stork, I was dropped off by the Air Man!” as their parents pushed them down the sidewalks.

As I grew up I learned more and more about the air man and more and more about just how much it was integrated into everything about life in San Cielo. The trinkets and ads and articles in the newspaper that I’d written off as tourist bait were now seen as legitimate parts of a culture that consumed the city from top to bottom and all around in between. It was a phenomenon that had been institutionalized in the year since its inception, and the total penetration was revealed bit by bit to me as I grew and found the proper pieces to place into the puzzle that was the relationship between San Cielo and its Air Man.

As it is with most creatures of legend, Air Man doesn’t charge for his services, and doesn’t have a shop or counter or booth or anything like that set up around town. Despite his consumerist culture he’s no corporation. He doesn’t seem to have a set pattern for who he picks up or where he picks them up. There are people who study this kind of thing, and they try to find some kind of rationale behind the Air Man’s actions, but so far most of them have wound up with nothing. And the ones who have wound up with something base their conclusions on conjecture, lies, and leaps of faith.

There’s one thing they do know, though, and it’s the one thing about the air man that everyone who believes in him is sure about. No one’s ever been picked up by the Air Man twice.

The testimonials of the people who’ve been picked up by the air man describe the experience as something like this: they’re walking alone, or standing on their balconies, or smoking in the parking lot. There was one guy who claimed he’d been snatched up while jumping off the bridge that connects Isla Corona to the mainland. It can happen at any time of the day, though more often under night or dusk. Some report the overwhelming smell of lavender, or rotting fruit, or piss. The air man appears to them, swooping down out of the air or smoothly coming to a stop like a landing plane or just suddenly being there. People used to be scared and confused when the air man first started picking up people but not anymore, now everyone knows, so they reach out to him and he takes their hands and then they’re off and up and flying above the city. No one reports feeling cold, or being unable to breathe no matter how high up the air man takes them. They lose all sense of time and say that everything else melts away save for a pervading sense of elation. Eventually the flight ends and the Air Man drops them off in a different location within the city than before. Then he leaves, and they never see

him again.

No one really knows what the air man looks like. He’s been photographed several times, but each time he looks a little bit different. That usually leads to people crying hoax, but of course then a host of others spring up to defend. They often site the constant presence of the same purple bandana tied to varying parts of the Air Man’s body as proof that a hoax is unlikely. There are wars in newspaper columns about the air man. There are wars about him everywhere. I’ve seen people destroy friendships over the veracity of the Air Man. Every year there’s at least a couple of people who get shot over him.

Some people figure that the Air Man is actually a group of “air men” who have banded together, which would explain the variety of appearance and the constant presence of the purple bandana. Like a kind of uniform or insignia. Maybe, they say, it’s to distinguish themselves from other rival gangs of “air men” that comb the clouds and slip their knives out in super cells and when they bleed they bleed clear and silver and that’s why it rains. Warring “air men” is the new urban myth of creation.

Some people have reached the conclusion that the Air Man is not a “man” at all. They figure he’s something like a monster or a Mothman. The more spiritual sectors see him as some kind of shape-shifting demon that snatches people away and replaces all their pious thoughts with wicked obsession and an overinflated sense of pride and worth. All the attention paid to the Air Man is just a modern form of idolatry, they say, and we’re playing right into the demon’s hands. San Cielo is a Golgotha built of ego where we’re going to sacrifice the son of good taste and sensibility! We’re looking to the skies for all the wrong reasons, they say, looking for the wrong kind of invisible man who refuses to show his face!

Some people instead decry the Air Man as a corporate fabrication and accuse the social elite of using the Air Man to fuel their plutocratic whims and lord over the public with the help of an absurd distraction, but from what I can see they’re just as blinded by the legend as we are. The emperors all still eat the bread and go to circuses.

Some rich old men, riddled with tumors and bulbs of fat blubber out promises and set up reward bonds for the Air Man, encouraging him to come to them and sell his services. Some have even put a bounty on the Air Man for any individual who will catch him and bring him in so that they can live out their dreams of being picked up before they die. Some have been caught trying to manufacture their own air man experience with the help of stunt men and experimental jet packs but they almost always get caught and exposed because it’s pretty hard to hide the fact that the guy parading you down through the skies of Broadway doesn’t have a machine stuffed under his shirt and isn’t emitting whirring noises and streams of white smoke from his ass. Sure, they could do it someplace more secluded but there’s no point in trying to manufacture an air man experience if you don’t get the live public’s attention first. They’ve stopped taking photographs and videos at face value and in order to impress them you have to have them see the Air Man with their own eyes.

All of these men, without fail, have died in their beds without a glimpse of the city skyline from the view of the safe hands of the Air Man. 

And it’s not just the people and the private enterprises that take note of the air man. Hell, the municipal census even has a section on the Air Man now, and as of last year’s results only twenty seven percent of the city’s population has been taken flying by the Air Man. That seems a bit high to me, and considering the huge amount of awe and legend surrounding the Air Man I’m sure a lot of people lie, even when the only thing they’re lying to is a piece of paper.

Lies about the Air Man bring with them a sort of self-satisfaction that citizens of San Cielo thrive on. It’s a badge of honor and respect and awe, so of course people are chomping at the bit to come up with their own Air man Story and gain the respect of their friends and family.

Sometimes it’s really obvious who is lying, and who isn’t. Sometimes it isn’t.

I had a friend once, Marquel Eleison, who told me he’d been picked up by the air man, and I believed him. He’d been an honest guy; worked himself up from a shitty home and was going to university on scholarship. Told me that the Air Man had picked him up when he was nine years old. Told me that was why he decided to rise above the situation he was in and get out, and make something of himself. The Air Man had given him his dreams. He’d sounded so sincere, and he was an honest man, so I’d believed him.

One night, I was drinking with Marquel, and he had a shot of whiskey too many, and he cried into my shoulder, and I asked him why. He told me he’d never been picked up by the Air Man. I said no, don’t you remember he picked you up when you were nine and Marquel spat a glob of spit and alcohol onto the carpet. He turned to me with sloppy red eyes and told me it was a lie he’d made up for his university application essay and it had just been so tantalizing and so special that he’d never stopped believing it. He tried to drink down the last semicircle of booze in his glass and had spilled it down his chin and collar. I took him to his home and dropped him on the couch with a glass of water and two aspirin on the coffee table.

That night I drove out of the city and parked my car on the tiny strip of dirt that ran alongside the highway. I parked right before the big billboard with the mural depicting a sunny day with San Cielo on the curve of the bay, glittering like a rainbow pearl in the sand. Flowery blue letters told passerbys they were leaving San Cielo, and hoped that they would come back soon. I’d stopped, and sat on my car hood, and stared up at the sky. I stared until the dark blue started to turn a milky pink, and then I drove back to my apartment and never spoke to Marquel Eleison again.

He’d been a liar and ever since then it’s become harder and harder to believe people when they tell me they’ve been picked up by the Air Man, because it’s all too good to be true.

Sometimes I don’t know what to believe. The skies have been so clouded with hoax and copycat that I wonder if the Air Man is still there, or if he was ever there at all. If it weren’t for some of the clearer pictures I would have long ago written off the Air Man as a myth, and even then the magic potential of Photoshop haunts doubt in my head.

There was a monster in the town of Flatwoods, West Virginia; this big terrifying

extraterrestrial thing with bulging eyes and claws and a great big tapered head. It’d been reported that a UFO had crashed nearby, and those who’d gone to investigate had seen the monster and fled in panic. However, in the end that had turned out just to be an especially large horned owl that had warped into the monster due to the high anxiety of the situation. I wonder if that’s what the Air Man originally was, when he was first sighted way back after the war. Just a product of hysterical hope. Maybe just a couple of pieces of clothing caught in an especially strong updraft and photographed by some imaginative man who sold it to the local paper where it was blown out of proportion and grew to the size of a colossus that now straddles San Cielo from Isla Corona to Rime Pier. Maybe we’re constantly shadowed by massive thighs of newsprint and television screen and merchandising and tourism. Maybe we’re looking at an idol that’s been mistakenly identified as a god.

But every time I think about stopping or hell, even moving away from San Cielo and the poison in the water, I can’t bring myself to. Every time I see a local car dealership advertising “skyrocketing” sale prices with a cheap costumed air man I know I should. Every time I see friends lose friends and gain scars over whether or not the air man exists I know I should. Every time I hear a little girl on the street tell her mother that the only thing she wants when she grows up is to have air man take her away and make her a princess in his cloud castle. I know I should.

But I can’t.

I suppose I’m just as much a victim of the mystique and the promise of the air man as the rest of San Cielo is.

———

I get out of classes at 5:50 in the evening on Thursdays. It’s spring, so the sky is dying slowly, currently caught in the throes of purple.

I stretch my arms above my head, the strap of my laptop bunching up near my neck as I glance around. The university’s campus isn’t much of a campus at all. Rather than being sectioned off it’s built right into the city, indistinguishable from the adjacent apartment buildings and small businesses save for the banners and pennants of periwinkle that hang from the doorways.

I take deep breaths on the stairs. The first inhale after a long lecture is always the freshest. It’s a relief, even if it’s only the replacement of one form of pollution for another.

But tonight there’s the scent of something new that rises above the typical mix of gas and grime and grilled onions from two streets over at that little collegiate hole in the wall the sallow science majors call home. Usually I head over there or to a couple of other local hangouts, but I’d just sat through two hours of a merciless psycho-bio lab and was ready to call it quits early.

The new smell is warm and flowery, with a hint of spice that makes the tip of my tongue tingle. It comes in and out, like music through the fuzzy snow of a radio station nearly out of range. There’s a familiarity about it, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I don’t pay the smell much mind, because I’m exhausted and want nothing more than to collapse on my bed back at the apartment and grow into the sheets for a few hours until hunger stirs my sleeping giant into heating up the rice cooker. Stowing my hands in my pockets, I head down the underground steps to the metro station. I wait with my eyes fixed on the ground until the train pulls up.

The metro rattles and rolls along the track, lighted advertisements blinking outside the window like a disjointed picture show or a child’s flick book.

The Gold Line takes me about a block away from my house. The public transit in San Cielo isn’t bad enough to warrant a car, so I make do.

The smell is still there when I emerge from the underground, and that’s when it begins to strike me as something strange. Scents aren’t ghosts that haunt you from one part of the city to the other. They are secluded and sequestered within the overpowering Smell of San Cielo in its entirety.

This isn’t a smell endemic to the corner of Imminence and Coast and I should know because I’ve rounded this corner many times since moving to the apartment complex just shy of the old movie palace. It’s a clothing store now, but if you ask the manager they’ll sometimes let you in past the converted lobby and into the main theater where they now store their stock. It’s amazing, even with boxes of scarves and blouses filling the velvet aisles and crowding the chipped plaster idols of Ancient Egypt.

There’s a rustle in the alleyway just beyond the underground stairs and I think that maybe it’s a stray cat, and if that’s true I wonder if I should go to it and take it in, even though I’ve never had a love or an affinity for cats. I brought home a stray cat once when I was younger, and I hid it in my closet so my mother wouldn’t find it. I tried to bring it a scrap of pork from the kitchen table but it flattened its ears and scratched me and fled out into the living room. I’d let it out but my mother had still chastised me for letting it claw up the carpet.

I step cautiously down the alley, following the smell. My fingers curl in my pocket as I glance about, perhaps searching for the source. Perhaps.

There’s a dark shape at the end of the alleyway that I don’t notice until the very last second, but I stop in mid shirk once I get a better bearing of my surroundings.

It’s a man I’ve never encountered before. I know who it is the moment I see him. His skin is olive, darker than mine. I can’t see the exact color of his eyes in the dim cast of the alleyway but they seem pale and mellowed in the traces of amber light. The same light that curves along shags of hair curls and a light brown jacket and a pair of shoes with a bare toe poking through the left end. It wiggles and cracks at eye level.

He doesn’t look anything like the pictures I’ve seen before, but I can see the dark hang of the purple bandana wrapped tightly around his upper arm and there is no doubt. If there was still any doubt after the fact that he was clearly levitating more than a few feet off the ground.

My mouth is a sandstorm as my head hunkers down and boards up its windows. He lowers himself down to the cement and it’s so effortless that I can’t breathe. There’s no whir of engines. He doesn’t move his arms or pinwheel his legs or otherwise try to stabilize himself in an unstable medium. He’s been doing this all his life, of course, of course.

All of my doubt, all of my musing and analysis, it turns to ash and falls to the ground as the heel of his soles brush against the top of a crunched trash can. He cocks his head at me and sticks out his left leg, wiggling the toe in invitation.

I don’t have to answer. I don’t think I could possibly answer. Nothing is working in my body except for my eyes and my hands; my hands that curve until I’m holding an invisible ball in the air. A ball of apprehension, suspicion, and anxiety, begging him to take it. Take it, before someone sees. Take me, take it.

And take it he does.

The moment he takes both of my hands we are floating upwards, the initial fear at the absence of solid ground gone as we rise out of the alleyway.

The topography of the buildings stretches all around, with the mountains of downtown shining off into the distance. We rise slowly, turning a bit with the push and pull of the wind. Swaying with the current like a buoy out in the harbor; both secure and sovereign.

His jacket is mustard yellow here in the clear light out of reach of the musky amber of the alleyway. His eyes are a definite green. Some kind of fuzzy patina has been lifted—and everything is as transparent as the air now surrounding me and the Air Man.

My laugh is low and nervous. My skin feels clear as well; invisible flesh placing all of my organs and all of everything on display.

I feel vulnerable with the Air Man, like a child being shown a world it is unfamiliar with. But the Air Man seems to understand this, because he behaves like a gentle guide, first leading me in slow skating patterns above my apartment building. All social embarrassment that would usually be tied to such an action seems irrelevant when night birds and noises are the only things to bear witness. Before long we are touching over the tops of buildings like they are slick stones crossing through a creek bed.

The same buildings that are no more than colorful blocks during the day have become vibrant monoliths emboldened with lights all around. I always knew the city was more beautiful at night, its ugliness both masked and magnified by the crust of the dark. But now that I see it from a new perspective, a new height; that beauty seems more, so much more than what I can see from my view on the asphalt.

We jog towards downtown and in no time at all the tallest building in San Cielo, La Aguja Bendecida, stands before me. The lower tiers are decorated with brilliantly lighted advertisements—some, I think, probably depicting the Air Man. The din of the crowds below is muted and grows fainter as the Air Man drags me up the side of the building, my stomach almost skimming the steel and glass and stone. My laptop bag bites into my shoulder as it trails behind me and I briefly worry about my computer bursting into a flurry of bits and pieces but it’s such a petty thought that I soon leave it behind.

We clear La Aguja quickly, and I think the Air Man pushes off the very tip of the spire’s antennae but he moves too quickly for me to see it before we’re streaking up and up and beyond San Cielo.

The wind tears at my hair and clothes and threatens to pull them to shreds, thread by thread. Maybe take me along with it.

I feel like I’m about to disintegrate when suddenly the Air Man holds me tight, arms crossed over my back. I can barely fit under his chin so I hold my head off to the side, temple pressed up against the stubble of his jaw. The hold would be shamefully intimate if it weren’t for the fact that the Air Man and I were soaring hundreds of miles above the earth. Believing that social conventions apply beyond the reaches of breathable air is ludicrous.

The world below has curled away into a slip of lighted coastline. All the individual windows and signs and bits and pieces of neon have swirled into one. A single beacon standing out against the black of both the ocean and the inland desert.

The adrenaline has dimmed to a simmering heat. My breathing heaves in contrast to the calm press of the Air Man’s chest. Now that I’m away from the constant stimulation of the city lights, it gives me a moment to process the fact that this is not a dream, was never a dream. Could never be a dream. And I wonder.

What had they seen, everyone who had come before me? And there was no doubt in my mind that those people had existed, even under all the lies and commercialization and corruption. There was no doubt.

What had they seen?

Perhaps powder blue skies flecked with peach clouds in the break of morning. San Cielo consumed in mist blankets below. A fresh and earthy firmament curling over layers of smog and dust. A curve of lime moon rising up against the dusk. Atomic orange clouds scattered like something shot their brains out and splattered them over the sky.

I see frost crusting on the edges of the Air Man’s jacket and the curls of his hair but I feel nothing and he doesn’t slow in his ascent, not yet.

I don’t know what I’m feeling in this moment. It feels like I’m at the height of something grand measured in more than just altitude. There’s something inside me that’s threatening to burst out.

But before that happens the Air Man begins to slow, and then he tilts backwards and gently begins to fall.

The descent is slow, like the twirling gait of a scrap of paper falling from the height it was blown up to. The Air Man releases his tight hold and merely holds me by the wrist, using only the barest touch to keep me afloat. I close my eyes and enjoy the moments that stretch out in long ropes of foam against the coastal shore.

My heels knock against something solid and I’m jolted out of my trance. I open my eyes and glance around.

I don’t know where I am. My surroundings are wholly unfamiliar. It’s a flat roof, fenced in my tiny strip malls and crisscrossed telephone wires. The glow of the city seems farther off, so perhaps he’s placed me on the environs of San Cielo. I’m not entirely sure. A siren peals through the night. I can hear the sizzle of the generator squashed in the roof’s corner.

The sounds of the city pull me back, and I begin to touch my body, pressing my hands against my chest as if to make sure I’m still here, still solid and flesh. I don’t understand why I’m still alive, because I’m sure I stopped breathing a long time ago.

My legs are hardly legs, more jellied meat than stiff bone. I heave a breath and tremble, placing my hands on my knees to try to keep myself from falling to the ground. I watch the Air Man’s feet, watch him drift a little back and forth.

He touches the sides of my head, causing me to look up. Then he pulls back and laughs, and his teeth are bright white even though he’s shadowed and facing away from the light of the moon. I furrow my brows as I pant.

He’s waiting for something. He’s still floating a couple of inches off the ground, looking me dead in the eye. With a slight, curious smile on his face.

Is he that courteous? Does he allow his kidnapped copilots a last word before he jets off, never to be seen again?

He’s still waiting. So I ask him.

“Why?”

At that, the Air Man’s smile drops a bit. He looks sad, and it hurts. I don’t know why it hurts so badly, but my heart is suddenly swimming in my stomach. It feels disgusting and sick.

The Air Man fully frowns and I’m not sure why until I feel something run down my face. I’m crying, and I can’t stop, and it’s stupid. Men don’t cry. Everyone knows that.

Everyone cares about that.

I’m crying and for the first time the Air Man isn’t a toy, or an advertising gimmick, or a legend, or a reward, or anything, the Air Man is just a man like me and that sucks, that sucks, and why.

It’s been a case of mistaken identity all along but instead we’ve mistaken something a god when he’s just a man. Holy holy holy, he’s just a man.

He speaks and it takes me by surprise because I’d forgotten what voices sounded like. The words he’s saying don’t sound like English or Spanish and I’m aware I shouldn’t understand them but I do, they’re loud and clear in my head and heart and I understand.

Somehow, I understand.

———

That morning I’m awake in my bed, now knowing all too well why the Air Man doesn’t pick someone up twice.

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