The Dead Pilot
Horace was the one who’d discovered the dead pilot’s remains in the woods behind Jimmy Sledges’s trailer. They hadn’t been there the day before.
Horace was Jimmy’s coon dog. The cur was raising holy howling hell over his find, and by the time Jimmy got out there to investigate the ruckus, Horace had his teeth clamped around a hose that dangled from the front of the pilot’s pressure suit. He shook it ferociously, growling in a way meant to convince his master that he was “on the job.” The dog made it plenty obvious that he wasn’t going to stand for this impertinent intrusion into their private territory.
“What in God’s green creation have you turned up now, Horace?” Jimmy asked.
He shooed the hound away and bent over the twisted corpse. A trickle of beer spilled out of the can he held; Jimmy had been clutching it while watching the Tennessee-Auburn football game on TV. His breath caught as he stared into the empty eye-sockets of the pilot’s fleshless skull, peering back at him from behind the broken acrylic faceplate of a flight helmet. A faded “USAF” decal and the pilot’s stenciled name were still visible on the helmet: “Capt. Davis.”
“Lord,” he said. “Good Lord, Almighty.”
Jimmy straightened up and rubbed the stubble on his chin, reflexively. A million years earlier, one of his more hirsute kinfolk might have done the same thing after seeing a giraffe for the first time. This was just not right.
The thing was, Captain Davis was completely skeletonized inside his flight suit. That would take, what–ten or twenty years of exposure to the elements? Maybe more, Jimmy thought. He looked up and surmised that the pilot must have been hung up in the limb of a tall pine tree for all that time, until the vagaries of nature had finally acted in concert to pitch him out onto the ground.
“How could I not have noticed a gosh-damned body hanging up there in my trees?” Jimmy asked. Horace swiveled his head around to bite at a flea crawling on his butt, as if to say: don’t feel bad; dogs never look up, either.
Jimmy decided it wasn’t right to leave Captain Davis lying out in the woods, so he dragged him back to his trailer and sat him down in a mildew-coated plastic deck chair in the backyard. He put Horace into his pen, then stared at the dead pilot and thought about what he ought to do.
“Surely, y’all’s got a family, and they’ll want to know you came back to Earth. And I reckon the government will want to close their books on you, too.”
Jimmy went into his trailer and called the airbase over near Sumter. At length, he was put in touch with a Public Liaison officer.
“I found a dead Air Force pilot in my woods,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy didn’t know it, but the Public Liaison officer was having a particularly troubling day. An inadvertent discharge of ordinance from an F-15 into a WalMart parking lot that morning had turned the officer’s life into the kind of shithole that only visitors to the seventh circle of Hades could accurately describe.
“Mr. Sledge, I can tell you unequivocally that no U.S. Air Force pilots are missing or unaccounted for in this region. I can also tell you that making false reports of this nature can and will be prosecuted in accordance with Federal Regulation 11CFR20, which prescribes penalties of up to five years imprisonment in a federal penitentiary and/or fines of up to $10,000 for each offense. Harsher penalties apply to persons interfering in any way with military aircraft wreckage or the bodily remains of Air Force personnel. If you wish to pursue your claim, you’ll need to obtain and fill out a DD345-1, a DD1296, and a DD56 form. In triplicate. And file them in this office. Addressed to me.”
“Sorry, wrong number,” Jimmy said. He hung up the phone quickly.
He looked through the jalousie windows in the kitchen at the dead pilot sitting in the plastic chair outside, and shrugged.
“Sorry, Bub. Couldn’t get through.”
Jimmy caught the tail end of the Tennessee-Auburn game, then fixed himself some country-fried steak for dinner, smothered in white gravy, with steaming piles of corn grits and collard greens on the side. Later, he took the leftovers out back to Horace’s pen and fed him. Jimmy looked at Captain Davis, sitting alone in his lawn chair in the waning twilight.
“Hell,” he said.
Jimmy dragged the dead pilot into the trailer and placed him in a sitting position on the sofa in his living room. He got another beer out of the refrigerator and sat in his recliner next to the sofa.
“You surely had some mighty tough luck there, Captain Davis. Soarin’ in the sky one minute, fallin’ down through it the next. I wonder if y’all were one of them old rocket-plane pilots, flyin’ way out there where you could see the curve of the Earth below you?”
Jimmy accepted the dead pilot’s profound silence as confirmation.
“Myself, I never been off the ground. Never been on an airplane. Heck, I hardly ever been out of the county. I drove to Greenville once, to visit a cousin. That was years ago, furthest away from home I ever been. All I know about the world is what I seen on the TV. But you’ve flown with the eagles, seen it all. And what glorious sights they must’ve been!”
Captain Davis did not deny Jimmy’s speculations.
“It just seems a shame, to this old boy. You belong in the sky. Not lyin’ in a heap on the ground. There ain’t no justice in this world!”
The dead pilot didn’t disagree.
“Hey, what say we watch wrasslin’ on channel 97?”
Some folks might have dismissed Jimmy Sledge as just another dumb country hick–but that assessment would be both unfair and quite far from the mark. True, Jimmy lacked social skills, living alone as he did. But he had other dimensions, and some of them plumbed out to a considerable depth: a good imagination, a results-oriented attitude, an optimistic outlook on life. And he had capable hands. He found lucrative work easily whenever he needed money, doing carpentry and construction jobs. He could build things, and build them well.
When dawn came, Jimmy resolved to construct a craft that would send Captain Davis back to where he belonged: in the sky.
Jimmy sleepily saluted Captain Davis, still sitting inert on the sofa, as he passed from his bedroom to the kitchen to corral some eggs and grits for breakfast. He had left the TV on, muted, from the night before; the dead pilot didn’t seem all that tuckered when Jimmy had decided to cash it in for the night.
“I’m fixin’ to send you home today, Captain,” he said.
The low morning sun had just begun to send hazy beams of light slicing through the nearby pine forest when Jimmy finished breakfast and strode out to his workshop outbuilding. He didn’t know anything about building airplanes or rockets, but he knew intuitively that it would take a lot of energy to propel Captain Davis back into his home realm. And energy was something he had in plenitude: there was close to a full case of dynamite in his shop, which he kept handy for removing the occasional tree stump.
Jimmy banged together a 45-degree inclined ramp in front of his trailer, made out of salvaged 2X4’s and plywood, about sixteen feet in length. He had a large kitchen base cabinet in the shop, left over from a previous construction job; he emptied it out and designated it as a cockpit. He welded together a combustion chamber out of thick steel plates, adding a pyramid-shaped funnel on one end that would confine and direct the thrust of the dynamite blast. This he bolted to the cabinet, and manhandled the completed craft up onto the base of the takeoff ramp.
Jimmy carried Captain Davis out of the trailer, sat him in his wooden cockpit, and roped him securely in place. He patted the pilot’s helmet when he was done. Next, he carefully filled the combustion chamber with sticks of dynamite and spooled out an ignition line attached to a detonation cap inside.
By this time, the Carolina sun had risen to its fuller glory. Jimmy pulled out his father’s pocket watch. It had passed to him after Big Jim’s heart had locked up for the last time, three years back, during the double overtime of the USC-Clemson basketball game.
For over forty years, Big Jim had worked at the pulp mill; his job was to keep track of the inventory of logs as they were delivered. Jimmy chuckled when he thought about how Daddy had stood on a rise outside the mill every day for ten years after he retired, binoculars in hand, continuing to count and size the logs in the lay-down yard as they were dropped off. He marked them down in a little butcher’s book he always carried, tucked into a pocket of the khaki one-piece coveralls he always wore. Daddy didn’t know what else to do to keep himself busy, and Mama didn’t want him hanging around the house, meddling and getting in the way of her chores.
Jimmy was reasonably sure his Daddy had never had to deal with a problem like this. He glanced at the watch and saw that it was almost noon. He decided to take a quick break to cool off.
“A short countdown delay, Captain,” he said, navigating the two cinderblock steps up to the tiny front porch of his trailer. He trudged into the kitchen, grabbed a can of beer out of the refrigerator, and finished off a bag of pork rinds while he tested the TV remote by flipping through the ninety-nine channels coming into the big satellite dish sitting out back next to Horace’s pen, aimed over the pond to the south of his property. I’m just stalling now, he thought. He wiped his brow with a dishcloth and marched back outside. He took another guzzle of beer to get himself bucked up for the final step.
“Okay, Bo’. Let’s do ‘er.”
From a distance he judged to be reasonably safe, Jimmy leaned over, beer in hand, and counted down aloud from ten to one. With his free hand he touched the ends of the ignition wires to the terminals of a lantern battery.
The explosion was impressive. The heavy steel combustion chamber disintegrated instantly into a spray of deadly shrapnel. Miraculously, none of the flying shards managed to hit Jimmy–but the front of his trailer and the pickup truck parked next to it were all but destroyed. What was left of Captain Davis’s spacecraft ascended ten feet up the ramp before it came to rest. Horace howled in terror from his pen behind the trailer, as the fading echoes of the blast reverberated through the pine forest.
“Now, that’s a hell of a thing,” Jimmy said.
A small bit of shrapnel had punched clean through his beer can; two thin, golden streams descended from it, making a puddle next to his right workboot.
Jimmy spent the next few weeks working for Haskell’s Construction, doing finish carpentry on a new apartment complex going up across from the Walmart, where dump trucks had been filling a few large holes in the parking lot. Vaughn Haskell had been a good friend of Big Jim’s since High School, and he always tried to take care of Jimmy whenever the boy needed to put a few dollars together. He’d even loaned Jimmy an old pickup to use until he got his own patched back up; it wasn’t much more than a hunting truck, but Jimmy wasn’t one to thump a free watermelon.
After putting in a full day nailing shoe molding into place, Jimmy swung into the Double-T Bar-B-Q Diner over on Route 76 for a pulled pork platter and a hunk of Tully Jane’s special Key Lime pie.
“Hey, Jimmy, how you doin’?”
Jimmy had known Tallulah Jane Smoat since they were children in grammar school. He still remembered getting beat to a bloody pulp by Drew Matthews over her; the big bully had been taunting Tully about her buck teeth, and Jimmy didn’t think that was altogether right. She couldn’t help it if her Grandma Viola’s horrible dentition had decided to pass itself down to each and every one of her offspring–and beyond.
“Hey, Tully Jane. Doin’ okay. I about got my trailer patched up, and my old horse will be out of the shop next week.”
Glory, those were some mighty powerful genes, Jimmy thought, fixated on Tully’s toothy smile from across the counter. He hitched his pants up over his belly and sat down on a cracked, vinyl-covered stool whose padded innards had been slowly but inexorably escaping since 1975.
Unfortunately, Tully Jane’s folks hadn’t been able to afford braces for her. But Tully’s teeth were no real sin, so far as Jimmy saw it; there wasn’t any reason to pick on her about it. So he’d taken a poke at Drew, who was two years older and a full foot taller than Jimmy–and had gotten taught a lesson: people would do better to mind their own business. Especially when it came to women. Jimmy hadn’t forgotten that particular teaching. He still had a gap in his own pearly smile to remind him of it.
Jimmy didn’t realize it, but Tallulah Jane remembered that event, too–no, better to say that she preserved it perfectly within a crystalline chamber inside her mind. It was a sublime moment in her life–one whose like she had never re-experienced. She still held a crush on Jimmy for presenting her that unique gift, so long ago–and it just. . . wouldn’t. . . quit. In one more year, she’d have enough saved up to get her chompers fixed. Then she’d be able to do a proper flirting job on the man sitting in front of her.
Tully reached into a cooler and put an ice-cold bottle of Busch on the counter in front of Jimmy. Nothing was too good for her secret beau.
“You never did tell me what got you so tore up, Jimmy,” she said. “What were y’all doing out there?”
“Can’t tell you, Tully. It’s kind of private. Just tryin’ to help a friend out, and it backfired.”
“Anybody I know?”
Jimmy chuckled. “Nope. He just sort of dropped in from out of town, unannounced-like. I was tryin’ to help him get home again. How’s the pig today? Lord, I’m famished!”
“Just out of the pit this morning,” she said. “You goin’ to bring your friend in here and introduce me to him?”
Jimmy thought for a minute. Tully Jane was smart; heck, she’d won all the spelling bees in grammar school. She could’ve even gone to college, if her daddy hadn’t kicked her out of the house after she graduated from high school. She’d worked at the Double-T ever since then. After his woeful failure at rocket science, Jimmy hadn’t come up with any new ideas on how to get Captain Davis home. Maybe Tully could help him think of something else to try.
“Can you keep a secret, Tully? I mean, a real major league secret?”
“Jimmy Sledge, I’ve kept more secrets than you can shake a stick at,” she said. Her grin seemed to reach right across the counter to him.
“Then stop by my place after work this evening. I got me a heckuva problem, and maybe you can help me figure a way to solve it.”
Tully talked her boss, T. Ben Taylor, into letting her leave her shift early that afternoon. She raced home to shower and get properly primped and perfumed for her “date” with Jimmy. Leastways, that’s the way she viewed their pending tryst. He’d never actually asked her out before. Truth to tell, no one had. She put on pretty underwear, a colorful rayon blouse, a fetchingly short pleated skirt and a pair of four-stepping fancy boots that wouldn’t have been out of place in any of the finer Country & Western venues around.
The sun was just setting when Tully pulled her ’65 Skylark behind Jimmy’s loaner pickup and cut off the ignition. She waited while the car’s engine dieseled for a few moments before coming to a clanking halt. Grabbing her purse, she pivoted out of the car and stepped smack into a dog turd that had lain in wait for her alongside Jimmy’s sandy driveway.
Tully wiped the feces off her boot with a Kleenex as best she could, then she walked toward the trailer, sniffing her fingers and eyeing the ground carefully. She stumbled when she stepped onto the lower cinderblock of the porch steps; a rough edge caught her leg as she went down, putting a run in her pantyhose that stretched from her boot all the way up to some unknown, unspecified region underneath her skirt.
Horace howled from somewhere out back, and Jimmy suddenly appeared at the open door of his trailer, beer can in hand.
“Tully Jane, what in God’s green creation is all this fuss I’m hearin’ out here? Best you come in before you call up the devil on us–or kill yourself, one.”
Tully looked up at him from her supine position on the porch and managed to produce her unique grin. “Hey, Jimmy.” Her man was here. Everything was going to be all right.
“And try not to break anything inside, okay? I’ve had enough trouble already,” Jimmy said, reaching down to help her to her feet. He guided her through the front door.
They walked inside, and the girl glanced over at the dead pilot sitting on the sofa. She was dimly aware of the sound of her purse hitting the floor, although she hadn’t registered dropping it. Her jaw tried to follow its path.
“This is your . . . friend from out of town?”
“Yep. Horace found him out back the other week. Tallulah Jane Smoat, meet Captain Davis, late of the U. S. of A. Air Force.”
Tully walked closer to the corpse and stared at its skeletal face through the helmet enclosing its skull. She wrinkled her nose. “Smells a tad musty, don’t he?”
“It’s no worse than that dog shit on your boots, Tully. And I don’t hold that against you. Nor other things.”
She spun around and looked back at Jimmy. Her heart was already racing, and he had given it a spin in yet another direction. “You got an extra beer, Jimmy? Because I reckon I could use one, right about now,” she said.
Jimmy brought her a can of Busch–he appeared to catch himself up at the last moment and opened it in gentlemanly fashion, spraying her with a mist of foam–and they sat down while he related the details of his exploits with Captain Davis, about his call to the airbase, about his abortive effort to send the pilot back to his proper home. And about how he wouldn’t feel right simply burying the dead pilot out back and washing his hands of the whole business.
“Besides, Horace’d probably just dig him up again,” he chuckled. “But what can I do? You’re a smart person, Tully– if a bit clumsy, at times. You got any ideas?”
“A balloon,” she said. “I read once where they used to send men in balloons all the way up to the stratosphere. That was way back before they had rockets to get ‘em there. You could make you a balloon, tie your dead guy to it, and send him on his way.”
“A balloon. . .” Jimmy stood and began pacing back and forth in the living room. He began to flesh out the idea. “We could get us a couple of parachutes from the army surplus store downtown, and sew ‘em together–you know, kind of upside-down-wise from each other. Fill ‘em with helium. I can get gas bottles of that from the welding supply center over in Rawlston. Then some light nylon rope around it all, to secure Captain Davis.” His eyes lit up. “Tully–you’re a genius!”
He bent over and kissed her hard on her lips. Tully swooned.
“Damnation,” he said, bringing his hand to his mouth. “I think I just chipped a tooth.”
The next evening, a series of bangs on his front door disrupted Jimmy and the dead pilot in the middle of the wrassling matches on TV. Jimmy sat his beer down and went to the foyer in his stocking feet. He opened the door a crack and saw Drew Matthews standing on the porch, his sheriff’s badge glinting from the light of the naked, forty-watt bulb mounted by the side of the entry.
“Evening, Jimmy. Mind if I come in?”
“I surely do, Drew. What you got on your mind?” Jimmy stepped out onto the porch and smiled up at Drew’s towering form, exposing the gap in his teeth that the sheriff had created almost twenty years before.
The lawman stuck his thumbs into his waistband.
“It’s not an official visit, Jimmy. More a sociable one. I hear you been up to some strange things lately. Had an . . . upset out here, according to your neighbors. Then I hear you been going around, procuring some unusual materials in town. And then I hear Tallulah Jane Smoat’s been spending time over here. It all just don’t add up like the normal Jimmy Sledge behavior that I’ve come to know. I’m just wondering what’s going on. You in trouble, Jimmy?”
“What goin’ on is my business, Drew. And what goes on between me and Tully is my business, too. I appreciate the social call, but I’d also appreciate it if you’d get the hell off my porch.”
Drew scowled. He left.
Jimmy went back into the trailer, slammed the door shut and leaned back against it. He breathed hard. “Captain, we got to get you home soon,” he said.
Tully had indeed been spending time over at Jimmy’s place, sewing tight seams between the huge perimeters of the two nylon parachutes he had bought. It had to be done by hand; the material was too delicate and too voluminous to be able to manipulate in a sewing machine. It was not a task suited to Jimmy’s rough hands. He sat nearby and watched her sew by the light coming through his back patio doors. The late afternoon sun illuminated her hair; she appeared as some sort of saint to him at that moment. Saint Tallulah of the Funny-Looking Balloons, he thought, snorting beer out of his nose.
“What’s so funny?” she asked, turning toward him.
“Tully, you are wonderful.”
“How could you think otherwise? I’m sittin’ here, slavin’ away at makin’ your cockamamie project come true. And I’m thinkin’, maybe you don’t deserve it.”
“I do appreciate it, you know.”
“I’d rather you appreciate me, Jimmy.”
Jimmy rose from his chair, walked over and kneeled in front of Tully, amid the mounded sheets of nylon. He took her hands and looked into her face.
“Tallulah, I do appreciate you. I’ve appreciated you since we were kids. The world’s a better place with you in it.”
Tully closed her eyes as Jimmy said this, her face flushing. “Oh, Jimmy. . .” she purred.
“And now,” Jimmy said, “can you please just gawd-damn sew faster? We have to get Captain Davis launched soon.”
The nylon parachutes, melded together, lay flat across the field behind Jimmy’s trailer. Jimmy rolled two pressurized helium gas bottles from his truck to the backyard. He laid them down flat on the ground, removed their transport safety caps and screwed a pressure regulator onto the main valve of each bottle, struggling for a moment with their left-handed threads. Next he plumbed them together with fittings and attached a length of rubber hose to his crude manifold arrangement, running its free end into a small hole he’d cut at the nadir of the lower parachute. He cracked open the valves of the helium bottles and turned up the pressure regulators to provide a slow, controlled flow of helium into the balloon.
Tallulah Jane sat on a plastic deck chair on the lawn behind Jimmy’s trailer, petting Horace and sipping on a glass of sweet iced tea. The dog’s tail was going a mile a minute; he must’ve known that something special was up. “It’s going to work, Jimmy. I know it will.”
“The trick will be to get the rope rigging right,” Jimmy called back.
When the balloon was partially filled, he ran the nylon ropes over the top of it and wove them into a loose mesh that would prevent them from slipping off when the structure was fully inflated. The merged parachutes expanded steadily, becoming more unwieldy as they filled. Their makeshift balloon began to lift from the ground, changing from a flaccid sac to a fuller, more rounded ball.
Jimmy carried the dead pilot over to the balloon and began to lash him to the end of the ropes that encircled it.
At that moment, Drew Matthews’ police cruiser turned into Jimmy’s driveway. The sheriff got out of his car and paced toward them.
“What you doing there, boy?”
Jimmy, still in the midst of tying the dead pilot to the balloon lines, turned toward Drew in surprise. But Horace was already charging the trespassing sheriff. The dog hurled himself against Drew’s chest, knocking him down onto the driveway. Drew tried to draw his service revolver, but Horace had other plans about that. He locked up the sheriff’s wrist in his jaws.
By this time, the balloon had inflated fully and was ready to seek its ultimate destiny. Jimmy cut the mooring line free from the riding mower he had been using as an anchor. The bulbous craft lifted off the ground, pulling the dead pilot up with it. But Jimmy’s left leg had gotten tangled in the slack coils of his lashing ropes; he too began to be lifted off the ground, upside down.
Tully Jane shrieked when she saw Jimmy waving helplessly, and Horace, alerted to this new development, let loose of Drew’s wrist. The dog raced toward Jimmy and jumped high into the air; it was a magnificent leap, one which Horace must have been keeping in reserve for his entire life, in anticipation of this single moment. He caught a sleeve cuff of his master’s denim workshirt and hung on tenaciously.
Drew and Tully watched the balloon ascend, with Horace hanging from Jimmy, and Jimmy hanging upside-down beneath the dead pilot. The dog’s legs flailed in the air.
Drew raised his revolver and pointed it toward the drifting balloon. “Those miscreants ain’t going to abscond on me!”
Tully knocked his arm aside just as he pulled the trigger.
“Drew, no! You’re liable to hit Jimmy!” Tully glared at the sheriff. “Drew Matthews, if you don’t want your wife to know about where you really go on Kiwanis nights, you’d be thinking twice about makin’ any trouble for us.”
Tully was, after all, a waitress. And waitresses come to know everything that happens in a small town.
Drew’s face grew ashen. “No need to get personal, Tully Jane. I get your meaning.” He holstered his gun and turned away, heading back toward his cruiser.
The huge craft drifted southward, over the small fishing pond that lay adjacent to Jimmy’s property. Tully watched Horace plummet into the water, Jimmy’s ripped-off shirt sleeve still in his jaws. He was followed a moment later by Jimmy himself, whose wriggling legs had finally managed to free themselves from the dangling rigging. The dead pilot continued on his journey toward the heavens. He twisted at the end of his rope tether; one of his arms swung out in an arc, looking for all the world like a farewell wave.
Tully ran to the edge of the pond. Horace had already reached land and was shaking himself dry; Jimmy huffed and puffed as he crawled up onto the bank, his face and clothes smeared with mud and pond scum.
Jimmy managed to find his feet and stagger over to Tully. They clung together at the water’s edge, watching the balloon until it was only a tiny speck in the sky, disappearing in the glare of the afternoon sun.
“We done it, Jimmy. We done it up good,” Tully said.
“Yep, gal. We surely did, didn’t we?” Jimmy hugged her tighter.
Horace sat next to them on the bank, tail wagging, studying the sky for perhaps the first time in his life.
Captain Davis of the U. S. of A. Air Force was soaring with the eagles once again.
“The Dead Pilot” was originally published in 2007 by Lunch Hour Stories (Nina Bayer, editor).
Gary Cuba’s work has previously appeared in Comets and Criminals (Issue #2, “Photographing Minnesota Pete”), as well as in Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Universe Annex (Grantville Gazette), Abyss & Apex, and many other magazines and anthologies. He lives in South Carolina, USA.