“Learning to Fly” — a short story by Mary Burns

June 15th, 2019



“Learning to Fly,” a short story by Mary Burns, was a finalist in our recently concluded 50th Short Fiction Contest. It is published with the permission of the author.





Learning to Fly


Mary Burns






…..Harry Delaney is a night janitor, and he is teaching himself to fly. As he works his mop up and down the dim corridors of Waterville Public High School, he can feel what it would be like, floating, say, four feet above the floor, moving easily through the air, though not fast.

…..This feeling is strongest on the top floor, because from there he can look out far over the fields, seeing only shadow and light, no color by moon or star. He remembers he used to stand at those windows twenty years before, his heart open to the fields during that breath-held hush just before the class bell rang. Now, in the intervals of silent work, Harry sees himself gliding over the crops in their graded rows, trees lined up along the edges of the fields, the occasional farmhouse below, stark like a black and white photograph. At first, when this feeling came to him, he would just stare out the window. That was last winter, when the snow was an ocean of pearls under the moon. Later, in the spring, the feeling became so strong he found himself trying to make it happen.

…..He stands motionless in the hall and closes his eyes. Slowly his arms rise up to stretch out in front of him, hands relaxed, palms down. He is poised as on the edge of a diving board, ready to launch, but not fast like a diver, more like a balloon released from a child’s grasp. His weight shifts to the balls of his feet, rolling him forward to waver on tiptoe, testing that slight springing movement that will send him upward on a slant until his body levels out, gently pushing the air behind and past him, like Superman in slow motion. And when it doesn’t happen, his arms fall back to his sides, and his heels settle onto the worn linoleum floor. He picks up his mop and continues working until it is dawn and time to go home and sleep.


…..Each morning, he waits a few minutes at the end of the sidewalk by the parking lot behind the school. Soon an old, white Buick Electra comes into view, small at the top of the hill about a mile away, then gone behind a row of elm trees, then there at the driveway, crunching over the gravel. Emma, the school cook, is arriving to start the coffee for the teachers, bake the rolls and cookies for lunch, stock the milk machine, and line up the battered spoons and forks, the chipped serving bowls and platters. Harry watches as Emma steps out of her car, the long heavy door swinging out, opening up the clean blue interior, plush and soft, like the inside of a gleaming white box that holds a diamond ring.

…..Emma smiles with her whole face as she walks across the gravel, looking up at Harry as he looms tall and thin to her plump smallness.

…..“Hi, Harry.”

…..“Hi, Emma.”

…..“Want some coffee? It’ll just take a minute.”

…..“No thanks, it’ll only keep me up all night.”

…..This is repeated every morning like passwords that allow them to change places. They have known each other since childhood, have grown up attending the same schools, church, and summer camp; their parents were neighbors. They even dated for a couple of months, in their teens. Emma married when she was twenty, but her husband, a boy from the next town, died within the year, complications of pneumonia. They didn’t have time to start a family, and Emma did not marry again.

…..Harry wasn’t around then; he’d gone into the Navy for four years, then lived in California after that. He only came back to Waterville last year, in the summer. His mother died ten years ago from the cancer that struck her hard; his dad died when Harry was fourteen, and there is no one else left in the family. Harry ended up taking the job at the high school last summer when old Joe Thomas, the night janitor who’d been there for as long as any of them could remember, decided to retire. Now it’s almost summer again, the last week of school for the year.

…..Harry silently takes a heavy grocery bag from Emma. She nods her thanks and opens the door for him. Her rubber-soled shoes squeak as she walks down the hall and into the cafeteria. He puts the bag on the cold metal counter next to the refrigerator as Emma clicks on the small light above the stove with its six black burners, clean but worn. The sun is just showing up in a cloudless sky that gleams light blue across the growing fields of corn. It throws a tentative light into the kitchen from the high windows facing east.

…..“Going to be warm today.”

…..Harry nods.

…..“You doing anything special this summer, Harry?”

…..“Haven’t thought about it yet. You?”

…..“Well, one thing, I’m not going to do much cooking.”

…..“Yeah, well, I guess I won’t be doing much cleaning.”

…..Harry watches Emma as she fills the coffeemaker with measured grounds, pours water into the top, punches the switch to start it brewing. It occurs to him he might tell Emma about his wanting to fly. He doesn’t think she’ll laugh. He opens his mouth, but the words that come out are the same ones he says to her every day of the week.

…..“Well, time to go. Have a good day.”

…..“Okay, Harry, see you tomorrow. Sleep well.”


…..Above the hardware store in town is a small apartment, accessed from the street by an aluminum and glass door with a wicker blind on it that flaps and clacks when the door is opened or closed. Harry parks his car in the alley behind the store, and walks to the front. He takes a small pleasure in the stillness of the town at this hour. It’s too early for any of the merchants to be in their stores yet, although the diner down the street is open. He trudges up the long straight flight of steps to the second floor.

…..The apartment is clean, the dishes from his evening meal dry now in the white plastic drainer on the sink. Today, later on, he will take clothes to the laundromat, a chore he rather enjoys. It feels good to sit there with the warm, humid air filling the small space, the whirring of washers in their endless cycles, the constant hum of the dryers. Harry likes the warmth of the clothes on his hands and arms and chest as he pulls them from the dryer into the four-wheeled cart. He always feels a little cold, even on a warm day. Sometimes he thinks his skin is too thin to cover him properly.

…..Now he closes the blinds and draws the curtain against the opening day. Outside is the sun, and he will sleep in the darkness of a darkened room. Later, he will go out in the fading light, and work while the rest of the town eats dinner, and watches the news, and makes love and sleeps.

…..One of these nights, though, he will fly.

…..The night before school lets out, Harry stands again at the end of the hall on the fourth floor. It is half past three, the time when, a nurse once told him, if people are going to go, they go, when no one is near, their souls flying up to heaven with the angels, she said. This nurse had been on duty at the hospital the night Harry’s mother died. He was in the room with his mother, and had wakened from an exhausted sleep only when the absence of breathing had changed the sound in the room. He had not seen her soul take that last flight.

…..Standing now at the school window, his thoughts turn to the day his father died, the day after his fourteenth birthday, and his dad had given him a new bike, shining black and silver. Harry had ridden it to school, racing across town, flying down the hill to the school parking lot, skidding to a halt in a whirl of dust and gravel.

…..Word came to him at school that afternoon, just before history class. Harry was standing at the window, looking out at the corn shooting up in the fields, thinking about his bike, and marking the seconds before the bell would ring and send him racing for the door just before it would close. He looked away from the window, checking the clock, and saw Mr. Sawyer, the principal, walking toward him with a serious look.

…..“I’m just going to class now, Mr. Sawyer!”

…..“That’s all right, Harry, that’s fine. I … need to speak with you about something, son, something that has happened.”

…..Harry felt coldness creep into his chest, like an ice cube in his heart.

…..“What’s the matter, Mr. Sawyer? Is it my mom?”

…..“No, Harry, your mom’s okay. Look, why don’t we just walk down to my office for a minute. I’ll explain everything there.”

…..There had been an explosion, and a fire, at the canning factory, where Harry’s dad worked. He’d been a brave man, everyone kept saying, he’d saved people from the fire, but then was overcome by the smoke. The firemen had tried and tried, but all their efforts to revive him had failed. A neighbor was there to take Harry home.


…..Harry stares out the window at the black and white June night. Though it is warm, he shivers. The ice cube in his chest rivers through his veins and arteries, his muscles and his bones; he can see the blue coldness through the thin covering of his skin.

…..“Whatcha doin’, Harry?”

…..After the first start of surprise, Harry recognizes the voice. He doesn’t turn to look.

…..“I’m wishing I could fly out over the fields for once and for all,” Harry says.

…..“Yeah, well, you were always wishing that, back when we were young,” the voice says.

…..“What’re you doin’ here?”

…..“Talking to you, what do you think?”

…..They are silent together, looking out the window.

…..“Are you thinking about Dad?”

…..“Yeah, yeah I am.”

…..“What’re you thinking?”

…..Harry doesn’t answer for a bit.

…..“Well, I’m thinking about how he died in a fire, and how I’m cold all the time.” He pauses, then looks over at the other man. Harry sees he is wearing his favorite sweater, a boat-necked navy blue cotton pullover with a white stripe across the chest. He looks calm and ruddy, even has a little more hair. “What do you make of that?”

…..The man thinks a moment, then shrugs.

…..“You’re the one who started it,” he says. “I’m always plenty warm.”

…..“What do you mean? How come?”

…..“How come I’m warm?”

…..“Well, okay, let’s go with that.”

…..The man thinks again.

…..“The first thing I did was, I kept riding my bike.”

…..“So?” Harry says.

…..“That whole summer, I rode over to Dad’s grave every day. I talked to him, told him how much I missed him.”

…..“I don’t understand,” Harry says. “How does that make you warm now?”

…..The man eyes him, not unkindly.

…..“Because I never let myself stay cold in the first place.”

…..Harry looks at him, then looks away.

…..“It hurt,” he says, staring out the window. “It hurts now.”

…..“I know,” the man says. “You think I don’t know?” He pauses, then speaks again.

…..“I married Emma Sallinger.”

…..“You what?”

…..“Well, not right away, after the Navy.”

…..“We were both in the Navy?”

…..“Well, we did most things the same, up to a point.”

…..Harry thinks about this.

…..“So what’s it like, being married to Emma?”

…..The man smiles. “Great. She’s just great.”

…..Harry nods slightly.

…..“You still think it’s your fault, don’t you?”

…..Harry is silent.

…..“Well, don’t you? Just because he went to work that day, his usual day off, because he’d spent the day before with you, you and that damned bike, right? So that makes it your fault, right?”

…..Harry grips the windowsill tightly, glaring at the night fields rolling away across the land. “Why are you here bugging me?” he says.

…..“I came here to teach you to fly.”


…..“You heard me. You do want to fly?”

…..Harry turns to look again into the eyes so like his own, but without the regret. Then he nods.

…..“Okay, watch me, then. I’ll show you.”

…..“You can fly?”

…..“Just watch.”

…..The man who looks like Harry stands very still, his eyes closed. Slowly his arms rise up, stretch in front of him, palms down, relaxed. He rolls his weight onto the balls of his feet, and with a slight spring he launches gently into the air, travelling slowly, leveling out about four feet above the floor. Harry feels a soft whoosh of air flow past his face as the man moves forward, gliding smoothly, though not fast. He opens his eyes, looks back at Harry and smiles. With a turn of his wrist he floats first to one side of the hall, then the other. Harry watches as he gains the far end of the hall, turns gracefully, and comes back until he is again on his feet, standing in front of Harry.

…..“Now you try.”

…..Harry steps away from the window, facing down the long hall. He takes a deep breath, letting it out slowly. He closes his eyes. His fingers are cold and his chest feels exposed and icy. Arms raised, leaning forward, he loses his balance and catches himself.

…..“It’s no good. Forget it.”

…..A warm hand gently grips his shoulder, and shakes it slightly.

…..“C’mon, son, you can do this,” and this time the voice is Harry’s dad.

…..A flush of heat bursts from Harry’s heart and travels to the top of his head and the tips of his fingers.

…..“I don’t know if I can, Dad,” he whispers.

…..“Sure you can, Harry.” The strong fingers scrunch the back of Harry’s neck and ruffle his hair.

…..“But, Dad…”

…..“I know, Harry.”

…..Harry is quiet for several minutes.

…..“I’m sorry, Dad, I’m really sorry.”

…..He feels the warm breath of a long sigh blanket his shoulders and his back, down through his legs and into his toes.

…..“It wasn’t your fault, Harry. I did what had to be done. Don’t waste any more time with this,” his father’s voice takes on that firm quality that Harry remembers well.

…..“C’mon, close your eyes, and raise your arms again.”

…..Harry leans forward into the warm air and he feels his father’s hands, one on his chest, the other on his back, like when he taught Harry to swim. He looks up and sees the window, open at the other end of the hall, coming nearer. He can see the rows of corn under the night sky. With a rush that almost breaks his heart, he flies out the window and up into the stars.







Mary Burns is the author of several books of historical and literary fiction and mysteries. Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English; she also holds a J.D. from Golden Gate University. She now lives in San Francisco with her husband. For more information, please visit her website at www.maryfburns.com.




Share this:

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In this Issue

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)


Ornette Coleman 1966/photo courtesy Mosaic Images
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure author Maria Golia discusses her compelling and rewarding book about the artist whose philosophy and the astounding, adventurous music he created served to continually challenge the skeptical status quo, and made him a guiding light of the artistic avant-garde throughout a career spanning seven decades.


Mood Indigo by Matthew Hinds
An invitation was extended recently for poets to submit work that reflects this time of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and a heated political season. The first volume of this poetry is now published.


Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”


A now timely 2002 interview with Tim Madigan, author of The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. My hope when I produced this interview was that it would shed some light on this little-known brutal massacre, and help understand the pain and anger so entrenched in the American story. Eighteen years later, that remains my hope. .

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”


NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.


Art by Charles Ingham
Charles Ingham’s “Jazz Narratives” connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. Volume 8 of the narratives are “The Entrance of Bessie Smith into San Diego”, “Lionel Hampton Is Coming to Dinner at Dr. Gordon’s House”, and “Lionel Hampton: Central Avenue Breakdown”


Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #139

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
This bassist played with (among others) Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole (pictured), Dexter Gordon, James Taylor and Rickie Lee Jones, and was one of the earliest modern jazz tuba soloists. He also turned down offers to join both Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Who is he?


photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.

Book Excerpt

The introduction to John Burnside's The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century – excerpted here in its entirety with the gracious consent of Princeton University Press – is the author's fascinating observation concerning the idea of how poets respond to what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called “the noise of time,” weaving it into a kind of music.

Short Fiction

photo Creative Commons CC0
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #53 — “Market & Fifth, San Francisco, 1986,” by Paul Perilli


photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Frank Morgan, Michel Petrucciani/Charles Lloyd, and Emily Remler are featured


photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...

Book Excerpt

A ten page excerpt from The Letters of Cole Porter by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh that features correspondence in the time frame of June to August, 1953, including those Porter had with George Byron (the man who married Jerome Kern’s widow), fellow writer Abe Burrows, Noel Coward, his secretary Madeline P. Smith, close friend Sam Stark, and his lawyer John Wharton.


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
"Louis Armstrong on the Moon," by Dig Wayne

Book Excerpt

This story, excerpted from Irving Berlin: New York Genius by James Kaplan, describes how Berlin came to write his first major hit song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and speaks to its historic musical and cultural significance.

Pressed for All Time

A&M Records/photo by Carol Friedman
In this edition, producer John Snyder recalls Sun Ra, and his 1990 Purple Night recording session


photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”


The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive