It's Up There


Michael O. Starr

Planning yet another high-speed run on his new ten-speed bicycle, Peter rode toward the big hill at the top of his neighborhood. It was all the fun to be had since his best friend Johnny McCaleb went on vacation, especially since he'd just now learned that his other best friend Cliff Waits was leaving for the weekend, too, being spirited off to Amite County to be christened into the Tabernacle Baptists. Cliff was puffed up like a frog at the looming indignity of getting dunked the old-fashioned way in Antioch Creek, but his mother was inflexible, and Mr. Waits had only platitudes to offer regarding properties of wheat in the fields. Mrs. Waits told Peter they'd be back Sunday evening, not before six. Without Cliff there was nothing, not even a hint of fun to relieve the weekend of its burden of unfilled time. At this rate church Sunday morning would be a treat.

Peter passed the McCaleb's driveway, looked resentfully at only the maid's car parked there in the carport. Ten more days they'd be gone. Ten days!

Just then the dangling kite string caught his eye, which followed it up to power lines along the right side of the road, then overhead, to where it disappeared into a huge blackjack oak growing on the left. Peter's scalp tingled with doubt when he saw it.

*          *          *

When each of the McCaleb brothers turned eleven he was expected to start helping their father at the IGA on Saturday mornings, sweeping and polishing floors, putting up displays and straightening shelves. Green Giant brands in those days sponsored an advertising giveaway of oversized plastic kites with an image of the big man himself printed on them, one of which Douglas took home after work and unwrapped under the carport. The next oldest brother, Mike, soon came along and discovered the theft, followed by little Johnnie.

All three fell immediately to fighting over the kite. Johnnie, wailing for Douglas to let him fly it, was refused on the grounds that Doug had stolen it to fly himself. Johnnie offered bribes ranging from making the kite's tail to doing Doug's chores for a week. Doug only laughed. Johnnie resorted from Mike, who refused to take his side, to the ultimate power, Mama.

Mrs. McCaleb was at first swayed in John's favor because the kite was ill-gotten, which she thought voided Doug's right to exclusive enjoyment. At that point Mike decided he liked the idea of flying it too, and entered the fray on Douglas' behalf, revealing the political advantage of having three sons: any two on one side meant an easy decision for Mrs. McCaleb. She told Mike and Douglas they could go fly the kite, if they would promise to stay out of the house until suppertime.

"Hush, John," Mrs. McCaleb said when Johnnie cried. "Go out and play. I bet they get tired of the kite after a while and let you fly it." But having been denied the kite, Johnnie was determined to get something out of it, so he took the chance to ask his mother for a bed sheet to make a club flag with. To his surprise, his mother said yes and wait a minute until she got it out. When she handed it over, Johnnie took the sheet outside, spread it on the grass, and went to get paints from his clubhouse.

Assembling the kite proved to be a slow job. It taller than they were, impossible to get any kind of grip on. It was also the first all-plastic kite they'd ever seen. Even the crossed support rods were like plastic drinking straws, only thicker, held together with oddly shaped clips, like hairpins. Three times they realized they were doing something wrong and started over. Once they had it put together, they had to wonder if it would fly at all. Conventional kite wisdom dictates that a proper tail measures one and a half times the length of the kite, no more, no less. They figured they needed three yards of tail. Where to get that much material stumped them for a minute, until Douglas hit on the solution: he cut several long strips out of Johnny's club flag with his scabbard knife.

Upon discovering this new outrage Johnnie avenged his flag by slashing the kite with his own scabbard knife. His brothers caught him at it, though, and terrorized him to within an inch of his life. Even worse, John saw that they would be able to patch the kite with packing tape. He realized he'd have to plot a better vengeance, so retired to his clubhouse to think.

The kite was twice as heavy as a regular-size kite to begin with. With the tape it weighed still more. Would it even fly? Mike and Douglas speculated as they carried it out to the side yard.

As it turned out, they didn't even have to run with it. There was a strong breeze. Mike had only to hold it up and how it flew! At first it leapt almost straight up over their heads into the sky, tail hanging straight down despite the stronger winds as the kite rose. It was as stable in the air as Douglas and Mike were standing on their feet. They craned their necks to watch its flight, feeding out the first ball of string in a couple of minutes. The smiling Giant, arms akimbo, flew readily away from them, looking down placid as if onto troubling but harmless menials.

*          *          *

Peter stopped and stared for a minute, then walked astraddle of his bike to the left side of the road by the blackjack's trunk, where he dismounted and carried it into the underbrush behind the tree. The woods faced the road along there with a ten foot thick wall of honeysuckle and wild privet tangled with vines reaching up into the tree above. Past this barrier, however, the woods thinned out considerably. Peter found an open spot and strained himself looking upward, trying to locate the string. No, it wasn't there. Was it? There were clouds above him, white with the afternoon sun, against which it took a good deal of looking to see, yes, there it was, right overhead, draping down from the oak tree into the wild plum thicket before him. Once he got some idea of its direction, Peter followed the string further into the woods.

*          *          *

"Keep an eye out for them, Doug," Mike said. "You know Johnnie won't be satisfied. He'll be out here flingin' eggs like last time."

"Not likely, after the kind of ass-whipping I put on him."

"Yeah, a big lot of good that did me. I was the one he caught with the goddam rancid egg, remember?"

"So, you whip his ass then."

Mike was silent, eyeing the ball of string playing out of Douglas' hand and keeping an eye out for his little brother, too.

They were standing in the side yard, stiff May winds at their backs. It was thirty yards back to the house, across freshly mowed lawn. The basketball goal posts could conceal no-one. They could not be snuck up on. Unless John perfected, as long-threatened, a way to cast eggs with his sling he'd never be able to ambush them. This did not reassure Mike.

"You don't think he'd get mad enough to use rocks, do you? John can knock birds out of trees with that thing."

"Will you cool out? Forget it! He's probably back there jerking off, that's all. And besides, I just had a real good idea."

"Yeah? What?"

"Let's put us a mile of string on this kite."

"A mile?"

"Sure! The way this thing flies I bet we can do it easy! We've already got two balls on it, right? That's a hundred yards already!"

Mike counted silently, then shook his head. "No way, man. That'd take fifteen, twenty more."

"So, get the nylon stuff. Seventy-five yards to a ball."

"Yeah. More than that, I think."

"We get a dozen balls of that and what's on here, that's over a thousand yards right there." Doug was visibly warming to his idea, waving his free hand at the sky and grinning.

"How many yards are there to a mile?"

"Something like that."

"Cool! You got any money?"

Between the two of them they had not quite two dollars. That wouldn't near about get it.

"I'll go ask Mama," Mike started.

"Screw that! Just go to the store, take it and go out the back door."

Mike didn't want to do it. He'd already been caught pilfering once this week.

"Oh forget it, chicken. I'll go. Here."

Doug left Mike to fly the kite while he rode his bike to the store for string. That took twenty minutes, during which Mike kept a careful eye over his shoulder. Douglas was the one who picked on the kid; it was his idea to take the kite's tail from Johnnie's flag. He hadn't even told Mike what he was going to do. But Mike cast his lot when he watched Doug ruin the stupid flag, and Johnnie would consider him fair game until this round of payback ran its course.

Doug returned with the string and they got started.

"We gotta get it way high first," Doug said. Mike began pumping the string like a fly fisher. The kite jumped like a feeding bass with each pull.

"Now," Mike said, "you've got it tied on?"

"Yeah, it'll hold. Let it go."

They began playing out the string. Mike gave the kite back and tied on the next few balls while Doug kept it pumped up. The winds grew stronger as the kite climbed. Soon Doug had to keep the string wrapped once on his arm.

"Feel the pull this thing's got, Mike."

Mike plucked the kite string in front of Douglas' hands.

"It's like a damn clothes line, man!" Doug crowed.

"Sure is. I wonder what it's flying over."

"Who knows? Must be past St. Catherine's Creek by now."

"You reckon?"

The kite, as they looked at it, was no bigger then an arm's-length thumbnail over the trees.

"Yeah, I think so," Doug said.

"Jeez! And we've still got five more balls of string here."

"Well, let's put 'em on. It's getting late. Mama'll have supper on in another hour."

*          *          *

The wild plums were still hard and green, as yet untouched by bugs or birds. Peter pulled a couple and nibbled on them. He feared to eat them once they ripened, feared what might have gotten into them. He passed under them quickly and into the section of locust forest behind the old bottling plant. In another fifty yards he reached the burned area, half the size of a football field, where Cliff had started the brush fire with the road flare last year. Thriving, head-high briars had taken over. On the fringe of the burn knee-high blackberries were ripe. Of these Peter ate a few, but with little craving for their grainy tartness. He circled in the treeline until he found where the string lay across what opened out into the nicest part of these woods — a mixed forest, easy walking, where the string was again hidden from him in the canopy. He passed through quickly to the last thirty yards of broom sage and beggar lice, over which sagged the kite string, reaching toward the bluff bordering St. Catherine's Creek.

*          *          *

They had the last ball of string tied on and playing out when John and now Cliff Waits came out of the back yard, screeching at a dead run. They charged to within fifty feet before throwing eggs at Doug and Mike. Since the spoiled eggshells could so easily break in their hands, they threw with little force and their lobs were easy to avoid, even by Doug flying the kite.

That's when Peter from across the street popped through the hedge, overjoyed to be in time for some action. Johnnie and Cliff welcomed the support.

"Aw shit," Douglas yelled so they could all hear, "here comes the bush fairy brigade, just in time for trouble."

John had scored big at the IGA trash heap. The side yard was pimpled with dozens of bad egg smears.

When they finally ran out Douglas said "Take this, Mike," handed over the string ball and chased his little brother toward the front yard, where he ran him down and went through all the motions of killing him, much to Johnnie's screeching, delighted protest. The kite interested Peter and Cliff more.

"You little dorks hit me and I'll. . . ."

"Suck me," Peter said.

"Eat shit and chase cars," Cliff said.

"No respect for your elders," Mike said.

"What for? Where's the kite?" Peter shot back.

"One mile up there, junior. One country mile."

Peter walked over to peer up the string, which ran to a kite that was now two balls of string out of sight. He turned and looked at the empty string cores and paper wrappers. He stared into the woods across the road, thinking. Then he peered after the kite again. Finally he turned back.

"You guys are so full of shit. There's nothing up there."

"Say what?"

"You've got it tied off to that oak tree over there."

"What? You're crazy! Look at the pull this thing's got on it!"

"You're pulling on it! You can't fly no kite a mile high."

"Looks like it's flying to me," Cliff ventured airily.

Peter stopped himself and double checked, disbelief writ large across his face. The kite string went out at a low angle now, close to the treeline fifty yards distant. And though its pull was still strong, it was now steadier, affected less by gusting winds. At times the string stood almost stationary. Peter knew he was right.

"Nah. No way, man," he concluded, turning to Cliff. "They're trying to make us look like dumbshits, standing here holding on to a string tied off to a tree and we're so stupid we can't figure it out."

"It don't look like it's tied to no tree to me," Cliff repeated, after reviewing the evidence himself.

"Let me fly it for a minute, then, and see if it's really up there."

"Yeah, let us fly it!" Cliff seconded.

"Hell, no, dipshit. You'll just have to trust me, now," Mike taunted. "After all I'm the one that put it up there."

"Right," Peter said, still talking to Cliff but pointing at Mike. "Never trust them when they tell you who they are."

"You're nuts! What's your problem, anyway?" Mike asked.

"That's right! Try to put it on me! Ya'll always think we're such idiots. Look, Cliff. That top branch? The string's swaying back and forth with it. See? When the wind gets it?"

He pointed. The sky beyond the treeline was crashing with thunderheads, all streaked with yellow, pink and grey in flattening sunrays. The string vanished into the sky-shot treetop. You couldn't tell anything about where it went. Peter became more convinced, certain he saw through a ruse.

As Peter stared after the kite string he didn't see his sister Janice and her pal Cyndy riding by on their bikes, and seeing the crowd, turn and ride back. Peter had worked up his courage so much that Doug's return from torturing Johnnie could not make him change his mind.

"See? It's tied alright. If it wasn't a blackjack you wouldn't have been able to climb it so high."

This time Cliff stayed shut up, and Peter smiled, on a roll.

"Climb what?" Doug asked.

Mike told Douglas of Peter's doubts.

"You are crazy as hell, Pete! There's almost ten dollars worth of string on that kite!"

"Yeah, like you really paid for it!" Peter cried.

"What's that got to do with it?" Mike screeched with frustration, nearly letting the kite string pull out of his hands.

"What's the problem?" Janice called, dropping her bike.

"Your dipshit little brother here doesn't believe there's a kite on the end of this string," Doug said.

"Well what you reckon they've got up there, Peterhole? A church pew?" Cyndy with the dirty mouth threw this out and everyone laughed about twice as hard as if another guy had said the same thing. When they finally stopped Doug spoke again in the same fathead tone as before.

"He thinks we've got it tied off to that tree over there," Douglas said, like it was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of.

Peter could see that Doug was winning. Everyone else had someone backing them up but him.

Janice scratched her head, then turned and looked very seriously at Peter. "Your nose warm? Sick, puppy?" She patted Peter's nose. Peter slapped down her hand, losing the last of his confidence.

"Aw screw you too, Jan."

"Tough guy, huh?" Doug said like he was really mad to impress Janice. "For that you deserve to die!"

This time it was Peter getting chased and caught, tackled, tickled, ritually tortured to screaming agonies of mirth as the last ball of string played out to the kite that none of them ever saw again, because suppers were getting ready, which returned them all to the wills of higher powers. No one except Johnnie wanted to hassle with taking it down, having to rewind all that string. They ended up tying it off to the post of the basketball goal. Douglas said that if it stayed up there all night he might let Johnnie take it down in the morning.

That night it rained, and the next day too. When John and Peter next noticed the kite string it lay drooped across the yard, up to the power line on the near side of the road and then to the tree which to Peter it more than ever looked as if it were tied. Peter pulled on the string and the top of the blackjack swayed.

John cut the string free from the post with his scabbard knife so no one would go running into it, but he said nothing. This encouraged Peter enough to ask. "I sure do wonder how they got the string over that power line."

"They flew it over, damnit" John said, "and wouldn't even let me take it down so I could fly it. Bastards."

"Oh, I know that," Peter said, but he dropped the subject.

Luckily, no one mentioned the kite or introduced it into neighborhood lore before the neighborhood fell into the doldrums a week later as school let out, and the car full of McCalebs drove off to see relatives in one of the New states. Everyone kept mixing up which one.

*          *          *

Peter stood and caught his breath. He'd run across the field and didn't know why. The lip of the bluff, one hundred feet of sheer dirt face, fell away before him to the graveled creek bed. The kite hung in the uppermost branches of a tremendous sycamore across the creek, its string still attached. There it was after all, hardly broken by its capture. Such breezes as penetrated the tree's branches played it in a feckless circle. The string swayed to the right as the wind picked up a bit, much more in motion than its kite would ever be again.

Peter turned around and followed the string with his eyes from where it cleared the last sweet gum tree, sagged across the clearing and passed over the lip of the bluff knee high. He could see the knot where they'd tied on the first ball of nylon, almost halfway across the creek.

It wasn't that Peter didn't want the kite to be there. He didn't mind being wrong again. It was more that he knew he couldn't trust them, even when they were right. Because they never told the truth without expecting something for it — no one did that — and they always found a way to turn that truth back on you. Trust your elders. Right.

The string went down lower than his feet before ascending into the distant sycamore. The breeze died again as he stood watching the kite string as it sagged into a straight, dipping line and settled as if hardening for an instant. Then, like unsuspected, silent but seen evidence, the string snapped.