Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. He’s a graduate of General Arts and Science at Humber College, with concentration in psychology, journalism at Centennial College, and the Specialized Honors BA in English literature from York University. His hobbies include cycling and photography. His creative writing has been published in wide variety of Canadian and international magazines and literary journals, online and in print.
As Miles flew the crippled jumbo jet towards Flying Fortress Lake, he was almost overwhelmed with emotion at the thought of returning home to Beaverbrook. With a sense of nostalgia tinged with sadness, he remembered Lisa.
Afterwards, Michael read in Macleans newsmagazine, Toronto Star, and Winnipeg Free Press that the bomb, made from plastic explosives, embedded in a compact disc player, exploded in a luxury suitcase. The Semtex blasted a jagged hole through the luggage compartment and burst the cargo hold of the jumbo jet. Middle Eastern Airlines Flight 642, originating in Vancouver, en route to Tehran, Iran, via Toronto, flew at forty thousand feet over the provincial border dividing Manitoba and Ontario. The only Canadian pilot with Middle Eastern Airlines, Miles feared the damaged aircraft would plummet into an uncontrollable dive if he veered the flight in the opposite direction to Winnipeg international airport to make an emergency landing.
Believing they needed a longer airstrip, Miles and his Saudi co-pilot scrambled through a list of nearby airports, ruling out municipal airports in Kenora, Dryden, Sioux Lookout. A native of the region, Miles suggested they fly the airspace around his hometown until they found a suitable frozen lake. An avid angler and bush plane pilot who landed light aircraft with pontoons and skis on lakes in the area early in his aviation career, Miles knew late in the winter the ice was maximum thickness, and considered Flying Fortress Lake a suitable landing area.
“You honestly think we can land this plane on a lake of ice?” his co-pilot asked.
“Yes,” Miles said. “I landed smaller planes on this lake every day during winter.”
“I’ll feed you information, airspeed, altitude, wind speed, from the instruments, and you better focus on flying. Please keep talking; this is stressful, white knuckle flying for me.”
Later, envious of his friend’s accomplishment, Michael read another article suggesting it wasn’t possible to land a 747 jumbo jet on a frozen lake covered with ice less than two meters of thickness. But he remembered the spectacle he witnessed, as Miles glided the aircraft to touchdown on Flying Fortress Lake, where the ice measured two meters thick at various fishing holes.
“We haven’t been talking to each other. I shouldn’t say we’re incommunicado: It’s just she hardly speaks to me, except when drunk.”
Lisa said she wasn’t surprised Mary lost her disinhibitions when intoxicated. Lisa often spoke in a formal, stilted manner, Michael noticed, but she was a registered nurse, and he appreciated her precise, clinical manner and unconsciously emulated it. “That’s unfortunate,” Lisa replied. “I didn’t realize you two had relationship trouble.”
“No trouble, but we’re not getting along; we’re not talking except when she’s intoxicated. I don’t get drunk because I can’t tolerate it—psychologically or physically, but we don’t converse the way we should except when she’s drunk. I visit the bar, drink cranberry juice, or lime-and-soda, while she sips rye-and-ginger ales or rum-and-Cokes, and I try to negotiate.”
Lisa placed a cranberry juice container in her grocery cart. “If you’re not living in her house, where are you staying these days?”
“I’ve got a bachelor apartment in Flying Fortress Manor.”
“Across the street, the crescent with the snow mountain, where we rented the house.”
“I lived there once in a one bedroom with my ex-boyfriend Miles,” Lisa said, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
“Miles, the hometown boy who flies 747’s for Middle Eastern Airlines. Isn’t he a captain? Doesn’t he fly jumbo jets?”
“He’s actually scheduled to fly over Beaverbrook tonight—at 40,000 feet, mind you but we haven’t been together for a year.”
“You’re alone, but Mary still talks with me—when she’s drunk. There’s definitely that therapeutic value to alcohol—loosening the inhibitions, so pathologically shy people who normally wouldn’t meet and greet are suddenly chatterboxes after a few several drinks.”
Lisa rolled her eyes upward, thinking, as a health-care professional, she didn’t need any lectures or information on psychopharmacology or the effects of alcohol from a semi-professional hockey and small town radio broadcaster in a supermarket. “Uh-huh.” Still, she noted he was now potentially available for a one-night stand, but he seemed too worried, preoccupied, and entangled in a narcissistic mood to notice. Michael and Mary had an unusual relationship, she concluded, but who was she to judge? Lisa tried to give him the impression she was no longer interested in discussing their separation, but he said: “Yes, the fiancé you’re separated from won’t talk to you—can’t talk to you—except when she’s drunk. Only after she’s binged on alcohol, do you get along perfectly.”
Lisa forced a laugh. “How can she be your fiancé if you’re separated?”
“It’s complicated—but she does a good job avoiding me when she’s sober.”
Lisa reflexively raised her shaved eyebrows and thought of her ex-boyfriend Miles, who stunned her and sent her spiraling into a depression when he quit his job as a bush pilot in his hometown and moved to Toronto to fly passenger jets for Middle Eastern Airlines.
“When she does see me downtown, at the gym, convenience store, or supermarket, she pretends I don’t exist.” Lisa glanced down the counters of fruits and vegetables in the supermarket produce section, the sweet peas, baby carrots, apples, oranges, bananas, in neat geometric and linear arrangements. “I’ll say, hi, but she goes about her business as if she’s deaf or I’m a complete stranger or homeless person she doesn’t know.” (Once Lisa muttered Michael looked like a homeless man with wild scraggly hair and an untrimmed beard. If that was her impression, Mary retorted, why did she keep acting like she nurtured a crush on her boyfriend or wanted a one nightstand with him? That allegation triggered one of their many arguments.) “It’s a small town—”
“Of course, it’s a small town—not tiny, but small enough.”
“We can’t avoid bumping into each other.”
Grimacing, pursing her lips firmly, she said flatly, “I understand.”
“We have the same likes and dislikes, the same habits, and practically the same schedules. Since the food co-op closed, so now there’s only this supermarket, we can’t avoid chance encounters in Comida when shopping for groceries or fresh produce. We’re both birds of a feather.”
Lisa raised her brow again, pushing back her tightly wound bundle of hair. Talk of birds made her think of Miles, particularly when she desperately tried to forget her ex-boyfriend. She put a carton of asparagus in her grocery cart basket. “I understand.”
“Then, on a Saturday night, there’s all that action at The Flying Fortress, seeing nobody wants to visit The Whiskyjack anymore.”
After breaking up with Miles, when he left Bearskin Airlines to pursue a pilot’s career at Middle Eastern Airlines, she lost hope in the local bars and drinking establishments, the whole after hours and singles scene in Beaverbrook. “Yeah, I see what you mean.”
“So, by the time I get there, she’s already smashed. She sees me, saunters up to me, and starts chatting, full of life and vivacious talk. She tells me everything that happened that week and mentions things she never divulged before, stuff she should’ve revealed long ago and only mentions now that she’s drunk. That’s sort of peculiar, but it only makes me love her more than ever. Then we head to her house, our old place. We talk, and we talk, and we have sex. We have sex all night, and it’s the best we ever had. Maybe it’s the best either had because neither had sex all week, when we’re used to it once, if not, twice, a day. Anyway, it feels like the best sex we ever had. Then, early in the morning, before she wakes, I leave, and, we’re temporarily happy, content, but next time I see her, usually a weekday, and, for the whole week afterwards, she has her frigid attitude. She puts on her cold act, I-don’t-know-you-and-I-don’t-care act, as if I never was her fiancé, as if she never intends to speak with her boyfriend, unless I happen to visit the bar on Saturday night, and she’s half-cut, and the whole cycle repeats itself.”
“Wow. That sounds weird, almost, but it also sounds very human.”
“I suppose. I’m beginning to think maybe sex was the only thing that held us together.”
“I’m certain you wouldn’t be the first couple that found lovemaking a glue bonding them together.” Michael never considered their relationship quite that way. “But you do love each other?” Blurting the words as if it was a question in which she possessed an intensely personal interest, Lisa realized she revealed more than originally intended. Her inability to forget her pilot boyfriend unhinged her romantically.
“We still do, I think.”
Unused to conversations of this nature in the supermarket, never mind the café or bar, she suddenly worried about shoppers or store employees eavesdropping. She wondered how she managed to waste this much time talking to him, but she usually found him engaging, albeit an odd fellow, too open, wearing his heart on his sleeve, revealing his thoughts and emotions to anybody, including strangers. When they engaged in a conversation, he sometimes spoke for long, protracted periods. She theorized his loquaciousness originated when he was lonely, when he possessed no one towards whom he could express concerns and vent bothersome emotions. Touching on every personal topic, never mind the average person might think such matters deeply personal, no subject being taboo, he spoke unendingly. Since they oftentimes shared the same outlook, philosophical viewpoints, and attitudes, she didn’t mind, but Mary’s intuition sensed this affinity and became jealous. Lisa’s own ex-boyfriend hardly talked, which, he claimed, served him well in his occupation as a pilot since he communicated only when necessary and silence allowed him to concentrate on piloting aircraft.
“How do you get into town? I thought you didn’t have a driver’s license?”
“I earned my driver’s license long ago, but I walk and prefer to walk because the exercise keeps me fit and in shape.” Michael motioned to his backpack. “I hike the snowmobile trail across the lake into town and throw my groceries and mail in my backpack.”
“The ice has melted, though—it looks scary, dangerous. Is it safe walking across the ice this time of year?”
“Extremely safe. The ice is very strong, over a meter thick. They could land a jumbo jet on that lake ice, if needed. The ice will be safe enough to walk or snowmobile across for at least another month. You can cross the ice with running shoes the trail and ice is so hard and packed.”
“I’m finally getting some exercise, too. I lost about twenty pounds over the past couple of months.”
Lisa visually appraised him. “I noticed.”
“I always loved walking, too, but once I started living with Mary I always rode in her car even when I needed fresh air and exercise, so I gained weight and lost my conditioning. Then, in the past few weeks alone, I lost ten pounds. I always enjoyed hiking.”
She glanced at her wristwatch and realized they spoke for over forty minutes. Scheduled to a secret dinner later that evening with Mary, who she needed as an ally in a dispute about overtime pay with their shift supervisor, she needed to make a quick exit soon. For consolation, she might even try telephoning Miles at his stopover in Toronto or as he flew across Northwestern Ontario with Middle Eastern Airlines, even though he warned her about calling him while he flew.
“Michael, I don’t mean to be rude, but I have to cook a healthy supper for myself tonight.”
“Sure. Just—Lisa, I know you see Mary practically every day, so please keep this conversation confidential.”
“Of course; we’re not even on the same shifts.”
Shifting her weight from one high heel shoe to another, Lisa felt pleased to see him eyeing her slim waist and hips, his eyes tracing her long legs below the hem of her short skirt. Earlier she suspected he might have gay tendencies, but now she figured he wasn’t aggressive enough in asserting his masculinity. Knowing how he’d reply, she asked, “You sure you don’t need a ride home tonight? It’s pretty chilly.”
“No. I’m fine. I could use the exercise, but thanks for the offer.”
That Saturday evening, Michael thought he should avoid the bar, if only to save money and avoid contact with Mary. But what other activities did he have for entertainment and diversion, particularly on a Saturday night? Did he really want to watch television reruns of the games featured on Hockey Night in Canada earlier that evening? Besides, he lost interest in watching ice hockey when The Detroit Red Wings eliminated his favorite team from NHL playoff contention. Exiting the squat brick building, where he resided in a bachelor’s apartment, he hiked in his parka, cargo pants, moccasins, and toque, along the snowmobile trail across Flying Fortress Lake. Careful to tame any panic induced by the foreboding vision of breaking through the lake ice, he cautiously tread along the hard packed snowmobile trail. Occasionally when he hiked across the lake ice alone, he envisioned himself breaking through the ice, flailing his limbs, struggling to stay afloat in the frigid waters, swallowed by the dark undertow, suffocated, drowned under a huge mass of ice and packed snow, but he realized the prospect was unlikely. Walking briskly, he crossed the lake to the municipal beach and strode along the main traffic artery running along the lakeshore into town on the sidewalk under the railroad bridge, and arrived at a hockey arena. He tugged at the handle, frozen, frosty, but the steel door was locked, so the fitness center, the weight room, the sauna, or the gymnasium he ruled out, with the municipal recreation facilities closed early Saturday night. Then he walked downtown to The Flying Fortress nightclub, where Mary waylaid him, ambushing him as soon as he stepped into the bar. Drunk, unamiable, she appeared intent on a violent quarrel.
“What business have you discussing my personal, private life with Lisa? My relationship with my ex-boyfriend is none of her business.” She ranted and raved, gritting her teeth, hissing, clenching her jaw, so her neck revealed twitching muscles and corded tendons in an unfeminine manner. Her verbiage grew like an explosion, digging into him, criticizing his ragged clothes and scuffed shoes, berating him for growing his hair and beard long, leaving it untrimmed, curly, scraggly. She complained about the money he spent on books and compact discs and warned she donated his books and music collection to the women’s shelter, homeless shelter, thrift shop, and friends. She pushed, slapped, and backhanded him, as he worried about attracting attention, although most patrons were distracted, drinking, dancing, listening to music, playing billiards and shuffleboard, conversing loudly and boisterously.
“What future has a man who spends so much money on useless books and music? Huh?" She slapped his hairy arm. “Tell me!” She slapped his face and tugged on his beard. “Huh?” She snatched his gloves, hurtled aside his toque, and clenched his parka, but a friend, remembering him from high school, intervened. Michael He spent the last of his cash to buy several glasses of orange juice and diet Coke as well as a few Molson Canadian beer and mixed drinks for his former classmate. Beside a wall with a huge saw blade from the stud mill, a propeller from a crashed floatplane, a hanging moose head, deer antlers, model aircraft, and autographed hockey jerseys, he played snooker with his pilot buddy, in another section of the tavern, gazing warily towards the bar, where Mary simmered, glowering, and drank.
Later, after haggling with a bartender who explained it was too late to order alcoholic beverages and arguing with a bouncer who warned about closing time, Mary approached Michael. As if none of her disputatiousness transpired earlier, she politely asked him to take her home. Did she want him to drive? No, she didn’t drive downtown that night, since, with her car in the service station for new winter tires, she rode to the bar downtown with Lisa, after meeting over dinner. He gathered from her distracted monologue the nurses still hadn’t settled on a plan in the dispute with their supervisor over overtime. He asked why she didn’t call a cab?
“I don’t have the cash for a cab, and these cabbies don’t take credit cards.”
He didn’t want to admit he didn’t have cash for a cab that night and, trying to sound as if he didn’t begrudge her, said, “Okay, I’ll walk you home.”
“Walk? It’ll take hours.”
“Not if we take a shortcut, the trail across the lake.”
“The trail across the lake? Are you crazy? Ice melts, especially in the middle of March.”
“We can still walk. The ice is safe, hasn’t melted enough. Trust me. The weather’s fine and it’s a beautiful night.”
“Then snowmobiles will run us over.”
“The snow machines have headlights. The snowmobilers aren’t drunk and driving like they’re blind or mad.”
She spoke softly, as if warning, “Ice melts in the spring.”
After he bought her a hot dog, dripping with an overload of ketchup, mustard, and relish, from the vendor on Railyardside Street, they walked along the wide brick inlaid sidewalks on the south side of the main traffic artery. She checked the parking lot of the train station and hostel for the train crews, freight conductors and locomotive engineers, to see if any of her male friends could drive her home. They strode down Railyardside Street until it turned into Lakeshore Drive at the train overpass, and then approached the snow-covered beach.
“I’m afraid of the lake, walking on the ice,” Mary said.
“So am I, which is why you don’t need to worry. I wouldn’t dare put you in danger.”
“What if we hit an air pocket in the ice?”
“We hit an air pocket.”
Their feet crunching, the couple walked along the packed snowmobile trail, which zig zagged across Flying Fortress Lake. To relieve the tension and break the monotony of their footsteps chomping the ice and snow, he said, “Do you know why they call this Flying Fortress Lake?”
“I may’ve heard a story about the lake name, which they once called Pelican Lake, I believe.”
“Yes, maybe we heard the same story,” he said, as he led her along the packed snowmobile trail across the lake ice. “They say towards the end of the Second World War a formation of long range heavy bombers, Superfortresses, fully armed with bombs, machineguns and cannon, was flying from an army airfield outside Chicago to Alaska before heading to island air bases in the Pacific to bomb Japan. One bomber in the convoy started experiencing mechanical troubles, lagged behind, and was forced to make a crash landing. The airport in Sioux Lookout was nearby, busier than it is today, but the pilot decided to ditch the plane on the frozen lake, which had a landing strip, because he didn’t think the airport landing runway was long enough, and he wasn’t sure if he could maneuver the big bomber in that direction. It was a smooth landing, except the landing gear skidded and fishtailed partway along the frozen lake, and the plane landed on the lake when the ice began to melt. By the next morning, the big bomber started sinking and plummeted through the ice before they could tow it to shore. They didn’t even have time to evacuate the bombs and munitions. The dumbfounded aircrew and locals could do nothing to rescue the plane, which sank several hundred feet to the lake bottom. It sank in water so deep the U.S. Air Force and Canadian army never tried to recover the plane, despite the cargo of live ammunition and bombs. Apparently, that Superfortress, loaded with bombs and ammo, sits at the bottom of the lake, around which the town grew, today.
“I think you’re full of bull, but it’s certainly a beautiful night,” she said. “Anyway, if a Superfortress plane sank why call it Flying Fortress Lake? If I understand my history correctly, the Flying Fortress was actually a different bomber, smaller, shorter range, but very effective.”
“I didn’t know you’re familiar with World War Two history.”
“I think I mentioned a few dozen times my grandfather was a veteran of the RAF and before I decided to go into nursing I minored in history at university. I actually loved my World War One and World War Two courses, partly because I was fascinated humanity could commit such carnage in modern times.”
“Maybe the plane was actually a Flying Fortress.”
“That makes more sense, but it doesn’t sound as dramatic as Superfortress, does it?”
“With your flair for the dramatic you know better what grabs a person’s attention—”
“What are you talking about? Are you trying to start an argument?”
“Listen, I don’t want to fight,” he interjected, when he suddenly realized the direction in which the conversation headed. “I was merely trying to tell you a story.”
“Anyway, what does it matter? Pelican Lake is named for pelicans, but when did you last see pelicans around the lake or town.”
“I think DDT killed them all back in the postwar boom days.”
The thought of insecticides silenced them. The skies were clear and crisp and the constellations were sharp in outline, sparkling like diamonds, with no contamination, they observed, from artificial lighting to diminish the visibility of natural light. As they continued hiking, the aurora borealis, green glowing, snaking, swirling, soaring, twisting, twirling, danced across the broad expanse of the night sky above the snowy frozen lake, fringed by the small buildings and roads of the town, intersected with trails and the airstrip. Mary held Michael close and tight. By the time they reached halfway across the bay, a kilometer from the shoreline and the park trail that led to the cul de sac where he currently lived, she stopped walking. She gazed about the darkness, sighed deeply, got down on the hard ice of the frozen lake, and reclined, sitting on her bottom and then stretching out.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m resting, star gazing. It’s warm anyway.”
“I didn’t think it was that warm.”
“It’s fair, the temperature hospitable.” She patted the crusty frozen snow on the lake with her damp mitten. “Lie down beside me.”
“You’re acting strange.”
“The nighttime lake—it’s nice. We’re finally getting spring weather, and it was originally your idea to walk across the ice.”
“It was my idea to walk you home, not lie down on a frozen lake.”
“If we’re going to walk across the lake, why can’t we lie down on the ice and gaze at the stars, the constellations, and the northern lights?”
Conceding her point, he sat down beside her. She unbuttoned her ski jacket, tugged at the sleeves, slipped if off, put her arms above her head, and pulled off her sweater. “Make love to me.”
“Make love? Here?”
“Yes. I’ve never done it under the northern lights before.”
She took his hand and placed his cold fingers on her warm bare breast, the pierced nipples firm, erect.
“What if a snowmobile comes speeding across the lake?”
“There’s no snow machine driving around at this hour.”
“You should know better. What if a bush plane with skis came along for a landing?”
“Who cares? I’m not worried.”
“I think we’re directly in their flight path. The landing strip is just over there.”
“I don’t think their aircraft are flying this late. Miles said most bush planes only fly during the daylight hours because they don’t have the navigational or flight instruments for nighttime flying. Anyway, it’s late in the season for the ski planes to land on the ice.”
“I saw one land a few days ago and couldn’t help think of Miles.”
“Lisa is totally hung up on Miles; she’s still not over their breakup. She took him for granted, thinking he’d live in Beaverbrook forever, since he always talked about my hometown this, my hometown that, like it’s a Bruce Springsteen song. Then he shocked her by taking a job with Middle Eastern Airlines and moved to Tdot.”
She lay beside him in the relative peace, quiet, and warmth, resting her head on his stomach, and muttered how she couldn’t believe how warm the weather was in March for Northwestern Ontario. When she belched, her breath smelled of beer.
“After I left the Ontario Hockey League, I missed the National Hockey League draft and just finished high school. I returned home for graduation and the celebration, where everybody was years younger because I delayed my education for hockey. So I left the party. I walked along the railroad tracks west of town, to the rapids at the end of the Flying Fortress Lake, near the reservation, where I sometimes fish for pickerel. It was a long hike. The narrows at the headwaters are almost accessible by road, but I didn’t have a car. If I worked for the sawmill or railroad, I’d earn plenty and could afford a car, maybe even a sports car, black or red, sleek, with plenty of speed and horsepower, but instead I played semi-professional hockey and earned barely enough money to survive. I’m not sure why I wanted to hike at night along the railroad, but I think I wanted to end my existence by being crushed by a train. So I walked along the tracks to the narrows—if I didn’t get run over by a locomotive, I could drown in the rapids by moonlight—a nice scenic spot to die. No matter how long I walked for some reason no train, no freight or passenger, came along to crush me. It was dark, but clear, and there was a remarkable amount of light from the nearly full moon. So, after midnight, I strode along the tracks, which ran beside the lakeshore, through this beautiful wilderness, with this incredible view of the landscape, illuminated by moonlight. The railroad tracks gleamed ahead, through the bush and along the lake, while I listened to the Rolling Stones’ song ‘Moonlight Mile’ on my portable music player, on repeat, but the noise from the wildlife in the bush and on the lake was incredible. Frogs, insects, nesting waterfowl—they made a symphony of wild noises. It was almost deafening, and thousands of stars dotted the night sky. Then periodically the lonely cry of the loon echoed across the lake and lingered. The loon’s call over the lake in the middle of the wilderness was haunting. I thought, Wow, how could I miss another of these amazing experiences? I need to hear those lonesome loons call again. But I wouldn’t experience feel that eerie ambience again if it ended, and that was the last time I thought along those lines.”
Michael looked at Mary’s face and realized she had fallen asleep. Disappointed, he noticed her closed eyes as she nosily breathed through her mouth and made funny nasalizations, snoring in her own idiosyncratic way. She still exuded the smell of beer. “Mary?” He nudged her, realizing she was recovering from her drunkenness, her torpor, and sighed. He was ready to say he was joking, that the actual truth was he was forced to walk home, after his friends left him without a ride at a bush party late on a Friday night miles from town, outside the gatehouse to the First Nations reservation and residential school. So he took the only shortcut he knew home, along the railroad tracks back to town. He was in a preachy mood, but, as usual, his sermonizing comments were lost on her.
As he felt the growing chill of the late winter air, he gently woke her and turned at the distant sound of a jet approaching, a noise which grew peculiarly louder. She stirred and slowly climbed to her feet from where she passed out on the ice and, amnesic, wondered what happened. They continued to walk along the trail to the opposite shoreline and the roadway to their homes as the horizon started to lighten.
When they gazed skywards, they saw a sight they would remember for the rest of their lives: The jumbo jet with rocking wings flying dozens of meters above the lake as fire spewed from a gaping hole in the fuselage. The huge jet passenger plane landed gently on the lake and the landing gear skidded several hundred meters across the smooth snow crust and ice. The cabin doors flew open and passengers slid down the chutes and slides to escape from the aircraft. The couple rushed towards the aircraft as a local ambulance and a fire truck sped down Lakeshore Drive and swerved onto the ice road and broad snowmobile trail, speeding towards the spectacle of the immense airline jet parked on the frozen lake at sunrise, with a growing group of passengers dotting the snow.