Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Day Upside Down

by Martin A. Ramos



"Reality favors symmetries and slight anachronisms."

Jorge Luis Borges

Time: disconsolate and dissonant.

3:59 a.m. The hour in which the alarm clock rings and awakens Victor Falcone from a dream in which he is flying on the back of an eagle with enormous rigid wings.

Peculiar how the luminous numbers on the rectangular dial of the digital clock on the night table appear to hover and flash, flash and hover, as if frozen or suspended in time.

Victor watches the clock as it forever signals 3:59 in red and thinks that maybe a spike of electricity has melted a condenser or destroyed a printed circuit, causing this technological wonder's internal machinery to malfunction. Although unsupported, this theory seems reasonable, because Victor remembers he set the alarm to awaken him at 4 o'clock sharp and not at 3:59 a.m.

Today time seems different; it feels textured like a silken fabric of multicolored weave. Time feels textured because Victor Falcone has an appointment and -- like the White Rabbit in Wonderland -- he mustn't be late.

Culebrón, his cocaine distributor and criminal mentor, a man devoid of altruism, compassion and self-respect, would consider it a breach of etiquette if his number one pilot were to arrive late, especially for this run, which is too important for any screw-ups. One hundred million bucks. The market value of the merchandise Victor is scheduled to deliver. Enough to guarantee every man involved, especially the flyboy and the men up front, a sizeable payoff: an insurance against old age or an unforeseen turn of events.

If everything goes according to plan, with precision timing, without a hitch. Particularly Victor's end.

No wonder time is so important, so vital.

Victor bolts from the bed and turns on the table lamp. With a less vehement motion he silences the burr of the machine, pushes a switch and music -- Led Zeppelin -- oozes from the CD he left installed on his clock radio. Strange. No malfunction there. The CD plays back perfectly Jimmy Page doing that brilliant guitar jam toward the end of "Stairway to Heaven".

Now Victor stands naked but for a striped pair of Playboy briefs. He breathes. The air surges through the windows of his two-room bungalow laden with the salt spray of the Caribbean. When he stretches, fine ripples form on the countered surfaces of his skin. He is as proud of his physique as Michelangelo was of David, displaying the finest rectus abdominis of any bodybuilder on Venezuelan soil.

He spots the full-length mirror, the one he bought last summer in a Caracas flea market. On another occasion he might have paused to admire what religious training and healthy food have given him: a masculine body so desirable that women have, literally, fought to possess it.

But not today. Not today because today, at this moment, Victor's thoughts, feelings and emotions are centered elsewhere. He is thinking about a rendezvous point, the delivery he must make. And that once in a lifetime payoff.

A bar of soap. Just an ordinary bar of Camay soap lying inconspicuous on the tile floor of the bathroom, which he probably let drop yesterday and was too unconcerned (or distracted) to pick up.

Statistics say -- and a Gallup poll can probably show -- that most accidents occur in the home. Many (this will be one) in the bathroom.

Victor slips on the soap, falls heavily backward and lands on his head with a resounding thud.

At most this incident should have provoked embarrassment -- even a chuckle -- except that its unfortunate victim, Victor Falcone in this case, loses orientation. Then he loses consciousness.

Not a good sign. An omen. Especially today when he is so pressed for time.

####

A man and a boy identically dressed in loose-fitting robes (held with a sash) and sandals. The man is stout, handsome though middle-aged, his forearms bristling with taut, sinewy muscles. The other, an adolescent in the vigor of youth, has tightly strung musculature but looks no older than sixteen. Both wear leather headbands, their hair dark and long, foreheads wide, lips full, noses distinctly aquiline like the beaks of birds.

With tanned skin the luster of burnished metal, their bodies are a temple to Apollo and serve to complement their equally impressive blue-green eyes. No ordinary eyes, but shimmering pools that project with the brilliance of coral from beneath their somber brows.

They stand in a workshop where bronze and wooden tools have been arranged on the floor, racks, shelves, tables and chairs. The artisan is named Daedalus, and Icarus is his son.

The boy motions to the pair of wings outstretched on the table in front of him. "Is this your new invention, Father? Excuse my frankness, but these wings are larger and more ungainly that the others."

Scratching his graying beard and wiping sweat from his ample brow, Daedalus says, "Appearances can fool you. Can't you see that, though bigger, I have fashioned them so on purpose?"

Icarus smirks. "I suppose. How big is each wing this time?"

"From shoulder to its final feather, seven and a half feet."

The boy strokes his firm and pointed chin -- as if puzzled or amused. "A wingspan of fifteen feet."

Daedalus sighs. "You are a wizard with numbers, boy. No wonder you get such high marks in the gymnasium. Now, tell me what you think."

"They are a sight to behold. Bold and ingenious. The best work you have ever done and worthy of a king's ransom."

The artisan says, "No understatement, I'm sure. But I would never sell my, as you say, 'wonder.' Profit and greed are base emotions fit only for lowlifes and thieves. I am an artist and you are my apprentice. These noble wings are my legacy to you." He pauses, then adds, "Not even the gods have wings such as these."

"The gods? You speak blasphemy, Father. If the gods had intended for a mortal to fly, they would have given him wings."

Daedalus bellows: "Bah! That is an old wives' tale invented by pottery vendors to fool gullible children. You, naďve apprentice, should know better."

Icarus again strokes his chin, wonders. "I should?"

Daedalus shakes his head. "Analyze it. Think. The gods, may heaven preserve them, have given us something better than wings."

"Better? What?"

"Brains."

"Oh." Looking beet-red and feeling disconcerted, a trickle of sweat running down his brow and smooth face, they boy watches his father work with the supple hands and dexterous fingers of a master craftsman. "You're right," he says, nodding. "These wings are beautiful."

"There is beauty in symmetry, balance and design. This particular construction," Daedalus explains, "was no caprice of the gods. Many were the hours I spent observing the creatures of the air in flight. And many the shapes, sizes and wing types I examined. Seagull, albatross, vulture, an eagle. Even the wings of the humble honey bee." He gestures. "Notice here how the primaries taper just so."

"Magnificent," Icarus exclaims. "You take such pride in your work. But -- "

"What? Speak up, boy."

"How will they help us get off the island? You made them too heavy to flap."

Daedalus chortles. "Can't you guess? Notice this armature. I will fasten it to your shoulders and arms in a manner similar to the way you lace your sandals to your feet. These wings will not only help you fly; they will also let you soar and glide like any denizen of the sky. They will support your weight and carry you to safety -- not the other way around."

Icarus finally nods with understanding. "Of course. How obvious. Why didn't it occur to me?"

"You are too anxious," Daedalus exclaims, "too headstrong to consider the possibilities. Knowledge requires both time and patience before it will grow and bear fruit. It is then that wisdom follows."

"Do you think our plan will work?" the boy asks.

Daedalus's mood changes. Icarus notices the sobriety in the tone of his voice as well as in the deep furrows which crease his father's brow.

"We must remain more vigilant, it's true."

"Why, Father?"

"Time, Icarus. Time will not allow another practice flight. The King has ordered me to finish his wings quickly, and to instruct him in their use."

"The King wants to ... fly?"

"Yes, the old fool."

"Will you refuse -- to teach him I mean?"

"It would mean a horrible death to disobey him. We must flee this place. And soon."

"Death walks that close?"

"Yes, my son." Daedalus places a hand on Icarus's shoulder.

"Hounding our heels."

####

Cold. Slowly Victor Falcone becomes aware of the hardness and cold discomfort of the bathroom tiles. He shakes the cobwebs from his head, heaves up from the floor and stands. He turns on the light, observes the tessellated pattern of the bathroom tiles and is aware of no double or blurred vision. No dancing bright spots or suspicious "floating flies." Just normal, focused, clear images.

His recovery surprises him. He realizes he was lucky and feels for a lump or contusion, for blood, on the back of his head. No blood, bump, laceration, clot or wound. Nothing abnormal, there in the back of his head.

Unreal, he thinks, believing that his head struck the bathroom floor with the requisite force needed to crack his skull like a tap with a spoon cracks an eggshell.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

"Now why the hell did I think of that?"

Victor asks it, and receives the grating response of a cricket for an answer. He hasn't considered poetry, schoolboy rhymes or classic tales since that awful time in Mrs. Lamhar's English lit class. The bitch. She was portly, dark, ugly, cruel and mean. Like one of the mythical Furies. And the worst of it: she failed him his junior year.

Victor shivers. No matter. Not even a freakish accident -- Mrs. Lamhar or any other woman -- can stop him now.

Though his vision seems normal, with no apparent vertigo or pain showing, Victor does notice a ringing sensation. Ringing. It reminds him of the alarm clock, which malfunctioned this morning, and his pressing need for time. Though it is still dark out, he knows he has lost time and must hurry because he mustn't be late.

He finishes in the bathroom, dresses and eats light. He vacates his house, but not before securing his gun, a Walter P5 in 9mm, and checking the time on his Rolex: 4:45. He sighs. He dons a leather jacket and clambers into the front seat of his four-wheel drive Explorer. He guns the accelerator and the Explorer kicks up gravel and dirt as it surges.

Dammit. He knows he will get there late (and incur Culebrón's anger at the airstrip), but -- hopefully -- Culebrón will not be too angry, and Victor will not be too late.

Yeah, Culebrón will definitely get on his case.

####

Like sentinels, naked except for loincloths, Icarus and his father stand upon an overhang of rock overlooking the frothy sea. Each is wearing an exotic pair of wings attached to his shoulders and strapped to his arms. A rare appendage, Daedalus's invention.

Tense and uncertain, the boy surveys the curl, crest and crash of the surf against the craggy shore. The wind buffets his face, and the salt spray stings it. Howling, the gale churns the waters of the Aegean as it radiates an intense emerald splendor in the early morning swelter. Icarus breathes, tasting the salt spray, tangy upon his tongue. The cold lash of the wind flails his naked skin and he shivers.

Not an ideal day to be out, for any living creature, bird or beast, wings or no wings. Standing half-naked, nervousness showing, the boy senses it.

He says, "Few sea birds out. No hearty clouds in the sky. A cruel sea and bitter wind. Did you notice it, Father?"

The man stands in silence, brooding.

Icarus and Daedalus are gambling with their lives. They both know it. But there can be no turning back. For soon, with honed swords in hand, the palace guards will sound the alarm and initiate a search for the artisan and his apprentice.

Daedalus listens for the coming of the guards. He shades his eyes, peers out to sea and says, "You must learn to be more trusting, boy."

"Of course, I trust you," Icarus replies. "But I am ... afraid."

Icarus had never confessed it. Not a sign of fear or tribulation in all the years of his apprenticeship. Poised of character and noble of breed, his behavior and demeanor always set him apart -- an example to be emulated. In fact, Icarus was considered a Greek about whom the bards would one day compose a song, a paean. A demigod to be sure. Never a coward.

Someone to make Daedalus proud in his old age. Icarus, his noble and beautiful son.

"Why are you afraid?" Daedalus asks. "Your wings are more than airworthy. You will do well as long as you maintain a level flight. This is important. Fly too low, and the muggy air will clog your wings; too high, and the sun will melt them. Remain always vigilant, and use your wits and common sense. It is the best advice that I can give you."

Icarus pauses. "Yes, Father. I understand." Face pale, sweating, the boy soon asks, "Is it a sin, to be afraid?"

Daedalus smiles. "There is no shame in this. But pray to the gods. Listen to their counsel. I have. And, above all else: obey." Then half in jest, as if to buttress the boy's temple of courage, Daedalus adds, "No doubt the eagles will bow their heads with envy when they gaze upon your excellent and noble wings."

However faintly, these words bring a smile to Icarus's lips.

####

"You're late, pendejo," Culebrón says, scowling.

Funny, Victor thinks, that the man known as "Snake" should call him that. It's Culebrón who stands bow-legged like a pampas cowboy and dares to display in public what might otherwise be considered a human face. Such a terrible face, it has made many a professional killer wince with disgust upon first sight of it.

It gave Victor the willies back then, when he first met Culebrón Contreras. It's a face which disturbs him even now, a grotesque Halloween mask, in moonlight.

"Sorry, Culebrón. I got, you know, laid up. But don't sweat it, amigo. It isn't even daybreak. We've got time."

Culebrón lights a cigar, the tip glowing like a firefly in a clear patch of Venezuelan jungle. The air is crisp, quiet except for the drone of mating cicadas.

"Time? Time is something you no longer have. You cut it pretty thin, flyboy. I told you I wanted no mistakes on this run. Know why? Both our asses are on the line this time."

Mindful of the situation, and Culebrón's temperament, Victor offers the following in his defense: "I understand what you're saying. I'm not stupid. You know I'm the best pilot there is, your ace in the hole. I'll do the job and we'll each clear a minor fortune. So lighten up, buddy boy."

"Don't call me that, you cocky, stuck up hijo de perra."

What? Victor senses something unusual here. Never in the past had Culebrón acted this irate before a run. Demanding and foul-mouthed and cranky, yes, but never to a degree that would make Victor nervous. "What's the problem, jefe? If you got a problem, I wanna hear it."

Suddenly the drug runner produces a 9mm pistol from his shoulder harness and aims the weapon at Victor's head. "Want to know what my problem is, flyboy? You've been screwing my wife. That's my problem. Now you think maybe I got a reason to gripe?"

Victor stands, dumbstruck. "That's a lie. Who ever told you that is lying."

Culebrón smiles crookedly. "You calling my wife a liar?"

Victor ponders what is happening here. A lie. It must be. Sophia would never tell Culebrón that she and Victor were having an affair. She knew Culebrón would kill them both, not even blink when he pulled the trigger.

Besides, she was enjoying their trysts together as much he, so why spoil the fun? Culebrón was probably saying it to see if Victor would lose his cool. And this was something Victor had learned never to do. Certainly never as a member of the drug cartels, or while flying an airplane.

Victor says, "It's a lie. And I can prove it."

"I'm not interested," Culebrón says. "There's too much money at stake now. Since I'm such a reasonable man, I'm willing to let this go -- if you can do one simple task for me."

"Which is?"

"Make this your best run. If you deliver the merchandise and if it gets through okay -- every last ounce -- you're a free man."

Victor feels a bead of sweat run down his temple (the man pointing the gun had yet to lower it), and senses something cold scurry down the middle of his back as well. And to think that for a time he had considered Culebrón Conteras as a possible substitute for the father he lost in childhood. When, he now wonders, did their relationship start to turn sour, to go askew?

"Deal," Victor says. "I'll take care of it just fine. Jefe, have I ever let you down?"

Culebrón finally holsters his weapon. He stares at Victor and says, "Never. And if you value that good-looking pale face of yours, you better not start now. Know why?"

"I have a feeling you're about to tell me."

"Damn right. Because if I fall, you fall."

Victor zippers his jacket, clears his throat and chews his inner cheek. "I catch your drift. Anything else I should know before I leave?"

Culebrón sucks on the cigar, exhales smoke in Victor's direction. "Dump the load on the southern shore of the island. The narcs won't be expecting it there. Now get the hell out of my face and make me as rich a man as Aristotle Onassis. Even richer, if that's possible."

Victor feels the 9mm as he heads for the runway, toward the rigged twin engine Cessna that is already fueled and waiting for him there. As he climbs into the cockpit and straps himself in, his mind conjures up an image that brightens his day. The lifeless body of Culebrón Conteras, splayed on the ground like a gutted pig, with a bullet hole between his beady brown eyes and his mouth full of black, gluttonous flies.

For many reasons, and one in particular, Victor wishes his mentor were dead.

####

Flight. When he was a boy growing up on the island of Puerto Rico Victor Falcone's father took him to see the jumbo jets at the airport in Isla Verde, and ever since that significant day he fell in love with flight. So much so that learning to fly became an obsession, a driving force. Then and now.

Daybreak reveals the Caribbean with no clouds in sight. The plane Victor flies rockets into the void as the sun's rays pierce the horizon. Victor guns the throttle and smiles, sensing the power of the twin-engine Cessna as it soars, higher.

Like a beautiful and willing woman, speed and power always give him an adrenaline rush. He permits himself such a maneuver, that of gunning the throttle early in every flight, because once he approaches his drop zone island radar will force him to fly low in order to avoid detection.

Puerto Rico, La Isla del Encanto: no longer does it make him nostalgic. Neither watching the waves strike the shore nor letting the plane skim the palm line.

He had been poor on this island, after his father died, most of the time a waif, lonely, ragged, hungry and neglected. Luckily he had resources. He grew up with empuje, what islanders know as drive. He had ambition and a lust for the finer things in life.

Money, for one. Why money?

Money meant power, and power gave him the freedom to do as he pleased. The freedom to acquire material possessions, and even another man's wife. Sophia Contreras for one, but she would be the first of many. It was Culebrón who perceived Victor's ability and taught him the ropes: how to survive in the world of the drug cartels, how to make a fast buck and how to spend it. With Culebrón as his mentor, Victor's future was undeniably assured.

Or so Victor believed.

Suddenly a terrible thought grabs him by the lapels. He looks past his shoulder, at the load stored in the cargo area of the plane. At least two dozen bales, taped, wrapped in plastic, neatly stacked and watertight. He finds his jackknife and uses it to gouge a hole in one of the packages. He extracts some of the material with his knife and tastes not cocaine but talcum powder.

Hell. A double cross. But why would the mentor double cross his apprentice?

This delivery was to have been the watermark of his illustrious criminal career. The culmination of a lifelong dream. His road to riches, and power.

Why did Culebrón no longer trust him?

As if in answer, the Cessna suddenly sputters and stalls. One engine completely stops, but Victor somehow manages to keep the plane from rolling. He steadies the plane, reappraises the situation.

Culebrón. That pockmarked bastard from cocaine hell.

No doubt the jefe set him up for a fall, and for the obvious reason, his wife: Sophia. But Sophia wouldn't have betrayed him, Victor was sure. Then how could he explain this current predicament, the engine stalling and the fake coke in the back?

It was a mystery Victor would take to his grave, because at that instant the plane strikes an air pocket and refuses to respond. Then the second engine shuts down. With only weight and drag, no thrust or lift -- whirling this time -- the plane finally plummets into the sea with half a ton of worthless cargo and its derelict victim strapped helplessly inside.

Funny. Now that it doesn't matter time is a commodity upon which Victor can no longer rely. And funny as well because Icarus knows it, too, having regained his wits within seconds of his fall.

The sensation of falling and vertigo have him riveted, because somehow the images have switched and his notion of time -- past, present and future -- has become disjointed, like an illusion or a figment of the imagination.

Stomach churning, head reeling, Icarus no longer finds himself in that strange flying machine, a contraption the other knows like the back of his hand but which to Icarus seems both fictitious and phantasmagoric. For that memory is the illusion, the lie.

In his delirium, brief and psychotic though the episode has been, Icarus has come in contact with a fiber from the future, an experience beyond space and time. Not only has he remembered people, places and things through Victor's memory; he has also experienced reality through Victor's mind. In other words, Icarus touches not only the sky but also the future, living vicariously in the age of strange, flying machines.

Confusion? Yes. Frustration? Surely. Panic? Of course. But the experience is not wholly without its recompense for in that interval, ludicrous though it has been, Icarus achieves that which had for so long eluded him: his freedom.

Little wonder all the images, emotions, thoughts and sensations suddenly collide in his head with the fury of a whirlwind, so that he learns to distrust his gut instinct, his mind and his sanity. For a moment Icarus loses touch with reality, and this makes him wonder what, if anything in heaven or on earth, is right.

Is he the betrayer of his father, or the fugitive from Crete? Is he Victor Falcone, the demigod with the beauty of Apollo who flies in a chariot with -- is it -- wings? Or is he the daring apprentice who soars with the eagles on his own two wings: in a one on one against nature, against his fate, against the will of the gods?

Is he a god, a cocaine runner, or just a flying fool who fails to listen to wise counsel, a daredevil who displays fear, yes, but also courage and hubris and the ultimate transgression, which is a bane to the gods: free will?

Is he a man who strives for too much or a boy who disobeys and touches Time, but in so doing incurs the gravest chastisement, being shot like a bolt out of the blue, who tumbles and twirls head over heels because he feels the wind in his hair and the sun on his face and thinks it means freedom, flying faster and bolder than any bird or beast of the sky, forsaking all sense of proportion and throwing caution, as it were, to the wind?

A boy who flies higher until the wax gives, the damn wax, and the wind (much fiercer up there) whips his feathers -- the scapular, tertial, alula -- into a frenzy. His feathers, because these are his wings and not the wings of Victor Falcone or Daedalus or even the wings of the all-mighty gods.

His wings until ...

The wax melts and the straps snap and the glorious, carefully selected and beautifully waxed feathers disperse one by one like leaves in a maelstrom, until he is no longer the harpy of heaven and monarch of the skies.

It is Icarus who disobeys, and is chastised. It is Icarus who falls from the sky, and drowns. Having betrayed his mentor, no doubt Victor Falcone will also fall. But that's neither here nor there but in his future.

Being level-headed and wise, an artisan, not a clock maker or a soothsayer, Daedalus cannot imagine what has happened to Icarus, nor would he have understood the strange altercation his son had with Time, the apparent psychosis which finds expression in an anachronism.

Dadalus watches the spectacle of Icarus falling, and to his weary eyes the splash the boy makes appears like an unwanted snag on the stretched tapestry of the sea.

THE END


© 2011 Martin A. Ramos

Bio: Martin A. Ramos is a writer of short stories and poetry from Hormigueros, PR. Though he was raised and educated in Chicago, he now lives in his hometown of Hormigueros, PR. He has published stories in Latino Stuff Review and Chiricú (at Indiana University). His poetry has appeared in small literary magazines such as Rattle as well as online.

E-mail: Martin A. Ramos

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