Kirstin Valdez Quade


It's one week before his thirty-ninth birthday, and my brother is training for his new career: He wants to be an aviation mechanic. My mother calls to tell me, and she is triumphant because unlike me she's never given up on him, not once. She's paid for his classes, Tuesday and Thursday nights, designed for working people, but since my brother doesn't have a job his days are free.

It seems he spends these free days in the park, flying a remote-controlled Styrofoam plane. He's preparing for his future, my mother tells me in her hopeful, desperate way. She tells me, There's physics involved.

Remote control? I ask. What, like a toy?

Well, she says, at least he's not drinking.

I snort, because her dishwasher is still cracked from where he kicked it last Christmas, and he still has ten more court-mandated months with the ignition interlock device, and the coffee table will never be the same, but my mother ignores me. Then she tells me what he's told her: the last step in building a plane engine, the very last step before the FAA will certify that it is safe and ready to fly, is to make sure that it can handle a four-pound bird. They have to demonstrate that, should a bird get sucked into all those compressors and fans and turbines, the plane will stay aloft. And instead of using live seagulls and crows, they use frozen chickens.

I imagine those men in their blue mechanics' coveralls, standing in a semi-circle in front of a whirring engine mounted on blocks. My brother is there with them, tonguing his bad teeth, shifting his weight, trying to look right. They throw the chickens high and fast to simulate flight. Butterball and Jennie-O. Cage-free and grain-fed. Kosher and self-basting. My brother heaves his chicken like his life depends on it.

There is a mess, of course, if the engine is sound. Chicken parts spray across the concrete floor: nub of bone, shred of skin, a skimpy tight-clenched wing. Some sticky-raw, some charred black, some grilled a perfect golden-brown.

It's the kind of drama my brother loves most: the kind that ends in carnage. It'll be a year at least, my mother tells me, before he's working in an actual plant. In the meantime, his schedule is open but for the night classes. So on his birthday I know where to find him.

He's thirty-nine years old, alone in the park on a weekday. He doesn't see me approach, and I don't call out as I cross the grass. He is thinking of throwing chickens, while above him a toy plane flies circles against the sky.