Chapter Excerpt

Chapter one

FROM UP H E R E, a half mile above the Earth, everything

looks perfect to me.I am in my nifty little Skyhawk, banking her back into the sun,

having nearly completed my usual fair-weather loop. Below is the

eastern end of Long Island, and I’m flying just now over that part

of the land where the two gnarly forks shoot out into the Atlantic.

The town directly ahead, which is nothing special when you’re on

foot, looks pretty magnificent now, the late-summer sun casting

upon the macadam of the streets a soft, ebonized sheen, its orangey

light reflecting back at me, matching my direction and

speed in the windows and bumpers of the parked cars and swimming

pools of the simple, square houses set snugly in rows. There

is a mysterious, runelike cipher to the newer, larger homes wagoning

in their cul-de-sac hoops, and then, too, in the flat roofs of the

shopping mall buildings, with their shiny metal circuitry of

HVAC housings and tubes.

From up here, all the trees seem ideally formed and arranged,

as if fretted over by a persnickety florist god, even the ones (no

doubt volunteers) clumped along the fencing of the big scrap

metal lot, their spindly, leggy uprush not just a pleasing garnish to

the variegated piles of old hubcaps and washing machines, but

then, for a stock guy like me, mere heartbeats shy of sixty (hard to

even say that), the life signs of a positively priapic yearning. Just

to the south, on the baseball diamond—our people’s pattern

supreme—the local Little League game is entering the late innings,

the baby-blue-shirted players positioned straightaway and

shallow, in the bleachers their parents only appearing to sit churchquiet

and still, the sole perceivable movement a bounding goldenhaired

dog tracking down a Frisbee in deep, deep centerfield.

Go, boy, go.

And as I point my ship—Donnie is her name—to track alongside

the broad arterial lanes of Route 495, the great and awful

Long Island Expressway, and see the already-accrued jams of the

Sunday Hamptons traffic inching back to the city, the grinding

columns of which, from my seat, appear to constitute an orderly

long march, I feel as if I’m going at a heady light speed, certainly

moving too fast in relation to the rest, an imparity that should by

any account invigorate but somehow unsettles all the same, and I

veer a couple of degrees northwest to head over the remaining

patchworks of farmland and scrubby forest and then soon enough

the immense, uninterrupted stretch of older, densely built townships

like mine, where beneath the obscuring canopy men like me

are going about the last details of their weekend business, sweeping

their front walks and dragging trash cans to the street and

washing their cars just as they have since boyhood and youth,

soaping from top to bottom and brushing the wheels of sooty

brake dust, one spoke at a time.

confetti of a million cigarette butts, the ever-creeping sidewalk

mosses and weeds; I can’t see the tumbling faded newspaper circular

page, or the dead, gassy possum beached at the foot of the curb,

the why of its tight, yellow-toothed grin.

All of which, for the moment, is more than okay with me.

Is that okay?


I bought this plane not for work or travel or the pure wondrous

thrill of flight, which can and has, indeed, been scarily, transcendentally

life-affirming and so on, but for the no doubt seriously unexamined

reason of my just having to get out of the house.

That’s certainly what my longtime (and recently ex-) girlfriend,

Rita Reyes, was thinking about several years ago, when she

gave me a flying lesson out at Islip for my birthday. Really, of

course, she meant it as a diversionary excursion, just a hands-on

plane ride, never intending it to lead to anything else.

At the time she was deeply worried about me, as I was a year

into having early-retired from the family landscaping business

and was by all indications mired in a black hole of a rut, basically

moping around the house and snacking too much. On weekdays,

after Rita left for her job as a home-care nurse (she now works the

ER), I’d do my usual skim of the paper in front of the TV and then

maybe watch a ladies’ morning talk show and soon enough I’d feel

this sharp nudge of ennui and I’d head to the nearby Walt Whitman

Mall (the poet was born in a modest house right across the

street, which is now something they call an “interpretive center”

and is open for tours) for what I would always hope was the easeful

company of like-minded people but would end up instead, depending

on the selling season, to be frantic clawing hordes or else

a ghost town of seniors sitting by the islands of potted ficus, depressing

and diminishing instances both.

When Rita came back home, the breakfast dishes would still be

clogging the table, and I’d be on the back patio nursing a third

bottle of light beer or else napping in the den after leafing

through my tattered Baedeker’s Italy for the umpteenth time.

She’d try to be helpful and patient but it was hard, as that’s what

she’d done all day long. More often than not we’d end up in a

shouting match because she’d toss aside my guidebook a bit too

casually and I’d say something loose and mean about her mother,

and she’d retreat to the bedroom while I went to the car and

revved the engine inside for a long minute before clicking open

the garage door. I’d find myself at a run-down Chinese place on

Jericho, chasing a too-sweet Mai Tai with wonton soup for dinner

and then phoning Rita, to see if she wanted her usual pupu platter

appetizer and shrimp with black beans, which she would, and

which I’d bring back and duly serve to her, as the saying goes, with

love and squalor.

Excerpted from Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.