Short Story: Sangre de Christo

Sangre de Christo

by Richard R. Barron

Sunday

As usual, her hands smelled like gasoline. It was unavoidable. To her, though, it was a good smell. It meant that soon she’d be flying again.

Standing before her bright white and blue Cessna Skyhawk 172, she pulled on the center of the propeller and the airplane rolled slowly into the October sun. The sky was deep blue. She looked up into the morning sun, thinking how perfect the day was for flying.

The preflight walkaround complete, she got in, and adjusted her seat. She looked at the silent interior of her beloved airplane for a moment. She’d spent so many hours having so much fun in this airplane, just her and the machine and the sky.

The sky was her favorite place.

Now, though, she paused. She was going on a trip she didn’t want to take.

She thought again about the preflight. Did she check everything? It was going to be a long ride, nearly five hours, and she wanted everything to be perfect. Yes, she thought, I’m ready. She smelled the avgas on her hand again. Checking the fuel for contamination always got it on her hands. The smell was comforting.

“Clear!” she yelled, knowing no one was around, but keeping the practice anyway. She turned the key and the prop turned, groaned, caught, stalled, and finally the engine roared to life. A quick look at the engine gauges, and she started to taxi the eager airplane toward the runway.

Roses. She thought, suddenly, about the roses she sent him only a week before. Sadly. A lot had gone wrong all at once, and now those roses seemed wrong somehow.

Flying, she reminded herself. Think about flying the airplane. Usually when she flew, flying was all she took into the sky with her. But he was intruding, and she felt angry. She pushed a little more right rudder to center the plane on the taxiway, and thought about the letter…mmm…she gritted her teeth. That damned letter. And he had some nerve calling her answering machine and reading it to her while he knew she was away.

At the end of the taxiway, she swung the plane hard around into the wind and stopped. She was so mad at him. Madder, she though, than she’d ever been at anyone.

Throttle to 1700 RPM, gauges good, carb heat OK, mags check, flight controls check. Time to fly. She pushed the button on the control yoke and spoke into the black microphone suspended from her headset. “Hays traffic, Skyhawk 1270 Lima is departing one-seven, Hays.”

She taxied onto the runway, and felt the sensation of flight start to come over her. She pushed the throttle to the firewall, and in a great burst of rushing air, Cessna N1270L was about to fly. 50 knots, 60 knots. She pulled back on the yoke and the ground drifted away beneath her. She was flying again.

She smiled, felt relieved, free, relaxed. She was in her sky again, where she belonged. And Eric never came with her.

But as the ground fell away, 2000 feet, 3000 feet, 4000 feet below, thoughts of Eric began to intrude on the serenity of the cloudless sky. Angry thoughts, alone thoughts, sad thoughts.

Four months earlier, Kristi and Eric met, her persistent smile and a bottle of Perrier charming her way in the door. Before long that night flew by, and she drove home thinking of nothing but him. She thought of his dark hair that tumbled down his shoulders.

The night before that, Kristi and Eric had gathered at the house of a friend, Hank. Along with Hank’s wife Sara, the four of them formed a kind of club. Every other Friday, they met to trade short stories, poems, and artistic ramblings.

Kristi looked behind her over the empennage. Twenty miles back and a mile below she saw her home, Hays, Kansas. In that little town she fell in love with him, easily, deeply, fearlessly. In the short time they were together, the intimacy they found was intoxicating.

The little town now twenty-five miles away, she thought about how far away he was.

Spring Glen, Utah lay 546 nautical miles in the distance. Somehow it seemed further. He’d been there for three weeks, isolated from the rest of the world, isolated from her. Just outside the dusty mining town was the Castle Gate Treatment Center.

Eric was an alcoholic.

One Friday night, Hank and Sara, each through a six pack of imported beer, started arguing about Hank’s story. Sara thought the plot, about a man committing a series of gruesome murders, was absurd. As they shouted across the table at each other, Kristi and Eric looked at each other and smiled.

During a momentary lull in the argument, Kristi held up Eric’s latest literary attempt and caught his eye in an uncomfortably intimate moment for him.

“You. You’re the one who has something to say in this group.”

The story in her hand was about a small boy being beaten by his alcoholic father.

Alcoholic. She thought about the word for a moment as she scanned the sky. She tossed it around in her head. The word was completely alien to her. No one in her family, none of her friends were alcoholics. Kristi never even drank.

Something was wrong, somehow, suddenly with the idea that she was so in love with someone with so much of a problem.

She tensed for a long moment, then let out a long breath. It was time to conduct more of the business of flying. She reached up to her comm 1 radio, dialed in 122.3. Squeezing the microphone button, she spoke calmly, professionally, “Wichita Radio, Skyhawk 1270 Lima on 122.3.”

“November 1270-Lirna, Wichita Radio.”

“Good morning, sir,” she cheerfully said. His voice was just a bit familiar. Maybe she had talked to him before. “1270 Lima would like to open my VFR flight plan at this time.”

“Roger 70-Lima, flight plan activated at 1330 Zulu.”

She smiled. Her talents were many, not the least of which was her radio voice. It was strong and commanding, yet still human and engaging. It was too bad for the man in the darkened room at the Wichita Flight Service Station that he could only hear her voice. Kristi was a strikingly, powerfully beautiful woman.

Her smooth, tanned face and soft sandy hair bracketed her giant, shining blue eyes. Tall and slender, she carried herself with grace and confidence. And her perfect smile was always the brightest light in any room.

At 8500 feet, she leveled off, but didn’t have much reason to smile. She thought of his face, his eyes. She missed him. And at the same time she didn’t really want to see him. For a long moment she pictured herself slowly turning the airplane around, landing on the broad 6300-foot runway at the Hays airport, parking the plane, driving horne. It was Sunday, and there was still time to have lunch with her mom.

Instead, she reached up to the Nav 2 radio and twisted the black knob to 112.2. She turned the volume up and listened. Through static she could hear the familiar, “Dot dot dot dot, dash dash dot, dash dash dash.” H-G-O. The Hugo VOR was 175 miles away.

She turned the Omni Bearing Selector to center the VOR needle.

She was on her way.

Five days earlier, she sat in the small, bright office of her counselor, one she saw exclusively to help her deal with Eric, with fists clenched in rage at the message from Eric.

“Instead of calling me, he called my answering machine,” she explained, almost in tears. She unfolded a piece on paper on which she’d written the words he’d read over the phone to the machine, and read.

“I need you to look at your own issues of codependency and control and work on your own pain. This gives me the chance to work on mine. I am not willing to remain in a codependent relationship at all. I know you talk to my friends. I also think you should listen to what they say, too, because I know they have brought up the codependency subject, and you have not accepted its presence in our relationship. One of my boundaries is now that I will not be with anyone who isn’t committed to a serious program of recovery. The longer you concentrate on me and my pain, the less time you have to look at your own. You cannot protect me or care for me enough to keep me out of pain I have denied for 20 years. I am in a place to take care of me, and while I am here, I need the space to do that.”

What a bunch of crap, she thought. She looked up at her counselor. “Paul, I think this is a bunch of crap,” she said angrily. “His ‘friends’ are a bunch of alcoholics just like he is. Why should I listen to them? And why should I be in a recovery program? I’m not an alcoholic at all.”

“But you’re in a relationship with someone who is,” he answered.

Kristi paused for a moment. “For now. We’ll see.”

“One thing you might keep in mind, Kristi. A truly codependent person would have fought tooth and nail to keep him from going to the treatment center in the first place.”

Kristi liked herself. She liked her work, and she liked her life. She liked the way she expressed herself. And she loved to fly.

Once when Kristi was brushing her hair in the bathroom, Eric sneaked up behind her and hugged her. Instantly they were transfixed on the reflections of each other. A moment passed, and he looked away.

“Kristi, when you look at yourself in the mirror, do you like what you see?”

Without a pause, she said, “Yes, I do.”

He frowned silently for a long moment, as though he was surprised by her answer. “Sometimes,” he said shyly, “I feel like I don’t deserve to be loved.”

The sky was deep blue at 9500 feet.

Why should I be in a recovery program indeed, she thought. It’s not for my problems. He wants me to be in the same kind of program as he is because he feels so bad about himself. He needs me to be as sick as he is.

The tiny indicator on the VOR lazily started to rotate from the “TO” indication, first to “OFF”, then to “FROM”, telling her she had passed over the Hugo VOR, and that she was more than a third of the way there. The idea of being closer to him made her heart jump a little, made her tense.

At the start, going to Castle Gate seemed like a good idea to Kristi. Eric would check in to a 30-day treatment program, and she would, at his invitation, join him in the third week of his treatment. The center held a “Family Program” for spouses, family, and friends. Exactly as he promised, a few days after he disappeared into seclusion deep in the mountains, she received the notice of when to be where.

Comm radio to 124.0. “Colorado Springs approach, Skyhawk 1270-Lima. 20 east, 10,500 climbing. VFR Direct Blue Mesa VOR.”

“Roger 70-Lima. Squawk 5204 and ident.”

“5204 and ident. 70-Lima,” she answered.

She turned the knobs on the transponder from 1200, the normal VFR code, to 5204, and pushed the lighted blue ident button. A moment later, the controller, a non-pilot sitting in a dark room 5000 feet below, spoke again. “Skyhawk 70-Lima, radar contact 19 east. Traffic at your two o’clock, four miles. Boeing 727 descending out of niner thousand.”

Kristi looked off her right wing and below, and saw the shimmering wings of the jet. “70-Lima has the traffic,” she answered.

Almost at 11,000 feet, she set the mixture nearly as lean as it would go, attempting to get another 2000 feet out of the already hypoxic airplane. The Skyhawk lumbered in the climb.

Kristi’s father had taught her to fly, and how to fly in the mountains. At 12,500 feet, the airplane could climb no more, so she leveled off again, and looked at the majesty that lay before her. Below her, Colorado Springs. Ahead and to the right, Pike’s Peak. Beyond that, more huge, imposing towers of rock and snow and pines.

In the week since receiving his letter, she felt so angry and betrayed. It seemed almost like there was no reason even to be with him.

There was always doubt. That uncertainty had grown when, early in their relationship, Eric revealed that he was an alcoholic.

“Part of the reason I’m going to Castle Gate is so I can be in this relationship with you,” he told her once.

“I want to fall in love with you,” he explained. She believed he meant it, too. She wouldn’t marry a man with that kind of problem, though. They both hoped the treatment center would help him, and they could be together.

“70-Lima,” came the controller’s voice, “radar service terminated one zero west of Colorado Springs. Squawk VFR. Good day.”

“Good day,” she responded, and set the transponder back to 1200.

Alone again. The mountains now firmly below and around her, she began the complicated task of real mountain flying. Although flight service hadn’t issued any flight precautions, she respected mountain flying.

Nav radio to 114.9. Direct Blue Mesa VOR, then direct Grand Junction VOR, then direct Carbon VOR, her destination. Her Skyhawk had extended range fuel tanks, so this long mountain flight was possible without stopping.

Some of the times they had together were magnificent, she thought, relaxing a bit. She remembered some of the good times.

Once, during a quiet moment as they sat together on the couch in his apartment, he took her hand and drew her close, quietly, gently folding his arms around her. They held each other close for a few incredibly peaceful moments, feeling each other’s warmth, and then looked up into each other’s eyes.

“Thank you for letting me hold you,” Kristi said.

“We held each other,” he added, smiling.

She thought of another time when they each dressed to the nines and drove over 70 miles to Salina just to have dinner. When she opened her door to greet him, there he stood, the perfect gentleman in his black tuxedo. And she was radiant in her black taffeta dress. The evening was as a dream for both of them, completely romantic, completely wonderful.

Kristi wondered if they would ever share another night like that again. She looked all around at the spectacular mountains which surrounded her. Far off to her right, The Mount of the Holy Cross and Mount Elbert, parts of the Sawatch Range. Below her, Cottonwood Pass and Tincup Pass. To her left, the La Garita mountains, and beyond that, the Sangre De Christo mountains of her youth. For a long moment she scanned her old haunt 100 miles to the south, dim and soft in the light haze. She imagined herself pointing the Skyhawk south for another hour and landing in Taos, New Mexico. She could visit her best friend again, climb the Rio Grande gorge like they did when she was seventeen.

The Sange de Christo – Blood of Christ – mountains, her home, her favorite place on earth, were only an hour away. Somehow, though, the airplane stayed unwavering at 280°.

My pain dims in comparison to his, she thought. His father beat him up until he was sixteen. By the time he was eighteen, he had a six pack in him by noon every day, and had attempted suicide four times.

Only two days before reading the letter over the phone, Eric had composed a much kinder note. But since he mailed it, Kristi actually recieved it after the message on her machine.

“As far as my pain goes, you are doing what I need you to do. You validate my feelings. You offer me comfort and positive strokes. You share my sorrow. You are willing to walk my journey with me. Last night we had a relationship seminar. You and I are on target with the way we have conducted our relationship.

“We are building something very solid. Kristi, you mean a great deal to me. I need you in my life and I love you.”

Kristi thought of the two letters and felt mystified. How could he go from such an extreme to another in such a short time? Even more mystifying for her was why she loved him in the first place. They were two very different people, and Kristi often didn’t understand, and in some cases didn’t even respect, Eric’s views. He believed in God; she was an athiest. He smoked; she was a vegetarian non-smoker. He loved television; she thought it was puerile. He believed in astrology, which she…well, she thought it was complete crap. Eric also based most of his beliefs on a psychology-as-truth genre, which Kristi was coming to doubt most of all. The more she contemplated the concepts of the “inner child” and the 12-step idea, the more she began to understand that she and Eric were in different worlds.

She thought of this as she crossed the last range of mountains that stood between them. In the hazy valley fifteen miles ahead, she spotted the Carbon County airport. Seeing the town sent a shot of adrenaline through her, making her heart race. She felt dangerously near him, and near his problems.

She took a deep breath. Time to land the airplane, she thought. She pulled the throttle back to 2000 RPM, and the bright white craft started to descend into the valley.

Why indeed had she fallen in love with him? She thought of his face for a moment, narrowed her eyes. There he stood before her, smiling sweetly. It dawned on her in that instant why she loved him. His face. He was a strikingly handsome man. It was the only reason that came to her mind. For the same reason she loved the mountains, for the same reason she loved her photography, for the same reason she loved flying itself, she loved him. They were all things beautiful to her eyes.

Now these beautiful, sharp blue eyes began setting up the landing approach. The checklist was simple in the Skyhawk: turn on the landing light. Five miles out, she pushed the button on the yoke and spoke.

“Carbon County traffic, Skyhawk 1270-Lima is five east, inbound, full stop, runway one eight.”.

When the aircraft had settled to 7000 feet, about 1000 feet above the ground, she applied full power to stop the descent. At a mile and a half, she turned parallel to the main runway and spoke again into the microphone on her headset. “Carbon County traffic, 70-Lima is left downwind for one eight, full stop.”

The airport clearly visible below her left wing, she searched every inch of ground and sky, remembering what her father taught her from her first flying lesson when she was fourteen: “Cover your butt.” The airport, like most she used, was uncontrolled, so there was no control tower, and no radio requirement. Kristi self-announced her intentions for her own protection; there was no guarantee other pilots would.

At the approach end of the runway, she pulled the power back to 1500 RPM, and she and the Skyhawk sank toward the ground.

“Carbon County, 70-Lima is turning left base.” She put down ten degrees of flaps, and the plane slowed to 80 knots.

“Carbon County, 70-Lima is turning half-mile final for one eight, full stop.” Twenty degrees of flap, throttle off, she centered on the runway. A bit of left rudder compensated for a slight right crosswind. Ten feet off the runway, she rounded out her descent, and two feet above, she flared the nose high, and heard the familiar barking sound as the wheels touched the pavement.

She had arrived.

Thursday

Dark clouds hung low over the tops of the mountains to the east. Patchy fog dipped in and out of the valley, in and around the Carbon County airport. She sat under the left wing of her beautiful airplane in the soft grass next to the tiny red brick terminal building.

She looked at the turbulent sky. To her shining blue eyes, it was a blur. She was crying.

His words rang in her head over and over. “I just don’t think I can love you the way you love me.”

And that damned sky wouldn’t let her leave, wouldn’t let her go home. The Cedar City Flight Service Station was calling for, “Low clouds and fog in mountain areas until 1800 Zulu, VFR not recommended until then.” Kristi looked at her watch. 11:15 a.m., 1715 Zulu. She would have at least 45 more minutes to sit and think about the last four days.

The moment she arrived at the treatment center, her anger with Eric melted away. She was so glad to see him, she actually ran to him, melting into his arms and holding him tight for a long, long time. The rest of the visit the first day went much the same way. They sat in the sun under a tall grove of aspens on the grounds of the center, quietly making eyes at each other and discussing the turmoil of the previous three and a half weeks.

It was obvious to her that he was still in a lot of pain, despite all the treatment he’d been given.

“Kristi,” he said in a whisper barely louder than the wind rushing through the trees, “what do we have?” The wind rose a bit and caught the leaves in the tops of the trees. The aspens gently sang their songs of sweet seclusion as they cast spots of sun and shadow on the quiet couple.

“We have mutual respect. We have physical affection. We’re both intelligent. We love each other. We listen to each other. We have fun together.”

“Do we have intimacy?” he asked, shrinking from her as though the answer would hurt him.

“Yes,” she reassured, “we have intimacy.”

Intimacy. She thought about the word as the first spot of sunlight pierced the rolling grey and shone on the north end of the 7300-foot long runway. Didn’t he understand…love, respect, affection, fun… that was all intimacy?

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and stood. She stepped over to the pay phone and dialed 1-800-WX-BRIEF to get another weather briefing from Cedar City. One ring, and a professional voice clicked on. “Pre-flight,” he announced.

Immediately, she felt better. Instead of talking to the tormented families of chemical dependants, she was suddenly in contact with someone like herself, someone who knew about flying, someone who, to her, made sense.

“This is Skyhawk 1270-Lima. Cessna Skyhawk, private pilot. Papa Uniform Charlie VFR to Hotel Yankee Sierra. Departing within the hour. I’d like a standard briefing please.”

She smiled suddenly. It felt so good to speak the language of a pilot again, instead of the words of someone whose “significant other” was on the edge of self-destruction.

She thought of the people with whom she spent the last four days. Dianne, who was sexually abused for four years as a young teenager, had come to support the recovery efforts of her husband, who three months earlier drank himself into a coma.

Edward, a chronic chain-smoker, came to see his chronic chain-smoking wife, who also drank to excess. Sondra was visiting her fiance, whose drinking had cost him his job and his driver’s license. Guido, the gangster, attended on behalf of his sister, a problem drinker since she was 14.

None of these people were anything like Kristi, and Kristi never faced their kinds of problems, in her childhood, or in her adult life. As the week progressed and they all attended workshops and group therapy meetings, it became clearer and clearer to her that the “swirling toilet of despair”, as one family member put it, was not for her.

The briefing complete, and filled with good news about the weather, she hung up the phone, and walked back to her airplane. Removing the fuel tester from its holder in the cockpit, she began the pre-flight. Left wing tank first, she drained several ounces of 100-octane low-lead aviation fuel. At the bottom of the tester was nearly two ounces of water, probably formed in the tanks when they got cold at night over the last four days.

She drained again, until the tester came up with nothing but fuel.

Around to the tail section, she checked as she went. Then to the right wing tank, she followed the same proceedure. She carefully inspected every inch of her craft.

It came as no surprise to her when, on Wednesday morning at the “one-on-one” meeting with Eric, he announced that their relationship would be ending.

What surprised her was how much both of them cried. For 45 minutes, gathered in a small upstairs room, Eric explained why he couldn’t love her. The reasons he gave to her seemed to be unconnected, thinly-contrived excuses, she thought, for him simply being too afraid to be with her. He said he needed her to be in “recovery” too, but never told her from what he wanted her to recover.

When the one-on-one meeting was finished and the counselors had left the room, Kristi and Eric held each other and cried and cried.

It had become very clear in the sessions that she attended in the two days before that she was an emotionally healthy person. Every time a counselor would ask for a show of hands, or ask Kristi directly, she could only shrug and feel more and more like she was in the wrong place.

On the last day, Wednesday, the family members sat in the circle that had become a familiar home for their pain, their tears.

One by one, each told the group of their feelings, and what they thought would happen next. Finally, when everyone else had spoken, Joan, the group therapist and alcoholic herself, looked over at Kristi, who had remained silent throughout.

“Kristi, we haven’t heard from you yet.”

She paused, looking at everyone looking at her. In four days she came to know these people as friends, despite their desparation and sorrow. In the circle of couches and chairs in the small white clapboard building in the high mountain air of eastern Utah, they had all opened their hearts to each other as they never had before. They arrived as strangers from Maine and Wisconsin and Georgia and Kansas, and departed as friends who had all cried together in a small mining town far away from everything.

Now, at the end, it was finally Kristi’s turn to cry with them.

“I feel left out. Everyone here is going home to be with their partners. It’ll be hard, but you will be with them…” she looked down and closed her eyes tightly, but was unable to keep the tears from spilling down her cheeks. “…I have to let Eric go.”

After another long silence, Joan spoke. “Kristi, what are you going to do to take care of yourself?”

“I’m going home,” she answered, “to my friends, to my family. I love them. I love my job. I like the way I live. I love my life. I like myself. And I’m going to keep flying.”

“That sounds very healthy,” Joan added.

Far to the south, a thunderhead had been growing for an hour, and it finally opened in a great grey cloudburst. She watched it, but saw that it was moving west, away from her intended route of flight. She thought about the rain so far away, how it was so much like the tears she was crying.

Nothing can grow without rain, she thought.

At ten after twelve, she decided she had waited long enough. It was time to fly. She dried her eyes for the last time and climbed into the silent bird. With checklist in hand, she quickly completed the start-up. A rush from the propeller dragged the Cessna from its grassy parking place onto the taxiway toward the waiting runway. At the end of the runway, she turned into the wind and followed the run-up procedure as she had hundreds of times before.

She looked around at the airport, the valley, the mountains, the town in the distance, the treatment center beyond that. It was all about to be a part of her past, below her, shrinking and far away.

A rush of engine noise and she was on the runway, then full power. 40 knots, 50 knots, 60 knots, and she pulled the nose of the airplane off the tarmac.

As the runway fell below her, she smiled brightly, and tears filled her eyes again. Now, they were tears of joy. The treatment center, the family members, the dusty town, Eric … none of that mattered any more.

She was flying again.

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