The first time it happened, it had been a shock. Ray’s head rested heavy on the small oval window of the airplane. His eyes had just closed when a gentle ding sounded and the fasten seatbelt light was extinguished. Ray started with a little snort at the noise and lifted his head, noting with relief the vacant seat beside him. A flutter of white outside the window caught the corner of his eye. There was something on the wing.
Squinting into the setting sun, he saw a woman sitting on a stool. She was knitting. A strand of yellow yarn extended from her needles to a worn canvas bag slumped at her feet. Her long white hair stirred in what looked to be a gentle breeze. The woman was his wife, Dorothy.
Or, rather, the woman was his wife, Dorothy. When she had been alive.
Ray and Dorothy had worked hard and loved each other and raised two good kids, which they figured made them better off than most. Their life together had been simple and sweet, and Ray’s only regret was that his big-minded wife had never set foot out of Iowa. She had never seen the ocean. That didn’t seem right, so Ray made a plan. He saved a little bit of every paycheck from the meatpacking plant, and for Dorothy’s 60th birthday he bought them two airplane tickets to Portland, Oregon. From there they’d drive to the coast.
Of course he’d suggested California first. It was the obvious west coast destination. But she’d demurred, saying California wasn’t really her kind of place, even if it was warmer. There would be no sojourn among the blonde and tan for Dorothy; she wanted to go somewhere wilder, lonelier. They would take Highway 26 from Portland to the coast, and drive north to Cape Disappointment.
To Ray, vacationing at a spot called Cape Disappointment was just asking for it. But they never made the trip anyway. A week before they were to fly to Portland, Dorothy collapsed on the kitchen floor. She died right there of a ruptured brain aneurysm. After that Ray didn’t care if he ever went anywhere again.
But his daughter worried about him, and, one year after the trip he didn’t take, Ray flew to Seattle to visit her. That’s when Ray saw Dorothy on the wing of the airplane. He’d gasped, then waved his hand madly to get her attention. Dorothy looked just past him, her lips turned up in almost a smile, her head tipped as though she were listening for something or someone.
Ray waved a few more times to no effect, and only then began to wonder just how crazy he was going. He watched her out the window until it grew dark and he fell asleep. When he woke up, she was gone.
The following year, on a hunch, Ray flew on the same date to visit a friend in Salt Lake City. He chose a window seat next to the wing. Dorothy was there again, knitting, with the same inscrutable expression on her face.
Ray flew somewhere every year after that, whether he could afford to or not. A phantom Dorothy on an airplane wing was better than no Dorothy at all, even if she never noticed him. She never changed, even when all the hair he lost from his head seemed to sprout from his eyebrows, and he began to walk with a stoop, and his fingers became gnarled and knobby. Nothing changed but the growing pile of knitting, which began to spill off her lap as the years went by.
On Ray’s twenty-sixth annual flight, he was alone, as usual. He had never remarried. He would never want anyone but Dorothy. His Dorothy could splint a broken arm, field dress a deer, and brew coffee for a hundred people at a church potluck. Good coffee. Ray had never been much of a reader, but Dorothy would check out stacks of books from the library and tell him the things they made her think. He’d never find another Dorothy and he didn’t want to.
Ray ducked to take his seat at the window, fastened his seatbelt, and pulled a pillow onto his lap to rest his arms on. He was going to Seattle, as he had the first year after Dorothy’s death, to see his daughter and her family. The grandchildren would hug him and ask a few perfunctory questions before easing their phones out of their pockets. They would settle into the overstuffed chairs in the family room, taking furtive peeks at their laps while pretending to talk to him. He did not think they should have phones, and he was not looking forward to the visit. But he had reserved a rental car, a Lincoln. After a just-long-enough stay, he would drive down to Cape Disappointment at last.
The cabin lights dimmed. Ray looked out into the dusk. Dorothy was there, as he knew she would be. But today she looked as she had when he met her, and she was most definitely not knitting. Dorothy wore a cream-colored sundress. Her hair fell in chestnut waves around her shoulders. She pulled an enormous blanket from her knitting bag, and Ray saw that he had been mistaken about the color of the yarn. It was not yellow, but gold. Dorothy set a wicker picnic basket down on the blanket. Kneeling, she opened the basket, took out a lemon meringue pie, and placed it front of her.
Dorothy picked up a fork and scooted closer to the pie. In the fading light she held up a second fork, raised an eyebrow, and smiled right at Ray. He smiled back. Then Ray Miller, age 86, reclined his seat as far as it would go, leaned back, and closed his eyes.
A resident of Camas, Washington, Gypsy Martin is mom to two boys and has achieved minor fame as a lunch lady at their elementary school. Her short fiction has been published online in the Journal of Microliterature. Her work has also appeared in print anthologies, including the forthcoming Flash in the Attic: 44 Very Short Stories from Fiction Attic Press. She also won a prize in the memoir category of the 2012 Writer’s Digest Writing Competition for a story about the indignities of homemade underwear.
Image courtesy of Andrej Chudy via unsplash
Also published on Medium.