But today I dream of falling...into the crowd of God-struck people. The pale leaves of their faces tilt up and their white limbs rise to catch me as I am passed among the river of their hands, one to another, am kept by them, am kept.
-- from Walking on Air
It is the Depression in America, 1931. Twelve-year-old June is a tightrope walker. Performing in her preacher father's revival shows, June travels through cities, makeshift camps, carnivals, and freak shows. The family has no home, no money, no friends -- and faith that is getting thinner than the air upon which June walks. On her journey June examines her life and is torn between loyalty to her family and their religion, and the life she might have. She comes to understand that discovering what the world has in store for her will require facing old family secrets and making some gut-wrenching decisions.
Walking on Air is a stirring novel of self-examination, as June balances on a literal and figurative tightrope within the rich and tormented landscape of America during the Depression. Facing the problems of her day, June must use her wit, fire, and strong spirit in order to triumph.
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
Margaret K. McElderry Books
April 30, 2010
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Walking on Air by Kelly Easton
FROM GOING TO AND FRO ON THE EARTH, AND FROM WALKING UP AND DOWN ON IT.
-- The Devil speaking to God, JOB
Another town. Wet streets and broken streetlamps. This one is not as bad as some. Only half the shops are boarded up.
We are living it up with a diner meal: white volcano of potato with lava gravy, carrots and peas, gray oblong of meat (some cow shoulder or butt).
Pa sucks on his cigarette as if it's his last. Ma raises her fork to her mouth every thirty seconds. It's like she is doing some kind of experiment and the timing has to be just right.
Occasionally, she says something pleasant, which is meant to remind Pa how nice it would be if we could all stay in one place. "Nothing like my cooking, is it?" she says, or, "Remember the roast chicken I made one Christmas when we were living in Ohio?"
As usual, Pa says nothing, just blows smoke out of his mouth as if it's words and comforting.
He rarely speaks to Ma anymore. I don't know why. Maybe he's saving his breath for when we'll haul up the tent and he will go on for hours in a voice loud and menacing enough to reach God, if He is there, and he will preach about Jesus.
I play with my food. It's another sign of my sinfulness. Pa says God is everywhere: in hungry faces, in trees, on the stripes of the barbershop pole, even in food.
God is in a mashed potato or a chunk of dead cow.
I lift my fork and set it down. I make the peas into an army of soldiers where they can triumph over the carrots.
"Eat!" Ma nags me. She's the one who should eat. Her skin is a white dress on the hanger of her bones.
"Shouldn't she keep up her strength?" she prods Pa.
Because the night hasn't gone well, Pa buttons and unbuttons his shirt cuffs, rolls up the part of his sleeve that is unraveling. Then he puts out his cigarette in his own plate of food. "Seven people," he hisses, referring to the believers who came out on this cold night to hear him preach. "Seven. You can count them on your fingers and what good'll it do ya."
Outside, the light spatter of rain turns hard. There are many hard things in the world, especially in this year of Our Lord, 1931. The world is hanging by a thread, Ma says, and the thread gets thinner and thinner. One day, it could snap.
Under the awning, I see the shadowy figure of Rhett, smoking a cigarette. He works for our family. Just once in all these years did Pa ask him to join us when we ate.
Sometimes Rhett is with us; sometimes he isn't. It's hard to figure where he goes in between. He might disappear in Kansas City and reappear in Chicago. How he keeps track of us is beyond me, but he always manages to bring me something good when he comes back: a chocolate coin, an orange, or a pencil.
As long as I remember, he has not spoken. Once I heard Ma tell someone that he had taken a vow of silence. He didn't speak up at a time when he should have, she said, and hasn't spoken since.
I think about striking up a friendship with my uneaten supper; there are days I've gone without. But before I can make a move, the waitress rushes over and sweeps my plate away.
Ma doesn't notice. She is watching the rain pour from the awning to the street, lost in an earlier time when the spirit of God made her sing, and Pa heard her voice and took her away with him. Ma thought she was marrying a man of the church. She imagined a little house, a rectory, a small garden, a choir, and works for the poor. Instead he took her away away: to his many and constant travels, his salvation shows for Jesus.
"Y'a were good up there on that tightrope, little girl." The waitress stands behind me. "The way you could jump and spin! I thought at any minute you would disappear into the clouds."
Sometimes I feel like my head is an apple on a pole. It feels so heavy, ready to fall and take the rest of my body with it, or just tumble off onto the floor, still talking and breathing.
I worry it could hinder my balance.
I tilt it back and look at her. Her hair is orange, her lips red.
I love strangers. What you don't know about them. What you can make them be.
"Thank you," I say.
"I'll bring ya a piece of apple pie and ice cream. On me."
"But did you see God?" Pa wraps his fingers around the waitress's wrist. The coffeepot wobbles in her hand.
"I see God everywhere. He gets in my mirror when I'm doing my face." She tugs her arm away and returns to the kitchen.
"You can see how bad it's getting. The likes of her sees God everywhere and don't think they need preaching to help them along. When people were fed and clothed" -- Pa swats at an invisible fly -- "Aimee Semple McPherson herself could come to town and they'd yawn and hide in their beds."
Aimee Semple McPherson is Pa's idol. She's a lady evangelist who's gotten rich and built a big temple in Los Angeles. When she preaches, crowds spill out onto the streets. Pa says she can save souls just by touching their foreheads with her little pinkie. He's even thought of renaming me after her, to remind me that I'll be a great preacher too, one day.
I can just see it. Me standing under a leaky tent in the rain, shouting scripture. Cripes!
The waitress brings my pie. The tag on her dress says GLADYS.
If I could, I would live on pie. It's as if all of the excess of feeling in these towns -- the forlorn brides, the town drunks, the lonely old ladies, the hungry kids -- have landed soul-flown in the crust, the weeping apples, the peaches like babies curved in their mas' bellies.
I love anything sweet: pastel candies in lines on paper strips, the flesh of pulled taffy, funnel cakes dredged in red syrup and snowy sugar, grainy cotton candy made of air.
We used to do our show in carnivals, but in these hard times, they have disappeared. Back then, when I wasn't performing, I could eat all the sweets I wanted.
I would duck into a tent with a caramel apple and see the bearded lady, the flippered man, the Siamese twins.
The Siamese twins were named Hari and Kari and they told me the story of their birth in a field of wheat. A farmer was harvesting his crop when he found them: one body, two heads. At first he thought that he had cut someone in two!
He picked up the babies. They were covered in a thin yellow fluid. He told his wife that they were probably hatched from an egg but she didn't believe him. What she believed was that he had been unfaithful and that these were his sons. God was punishing him, she thought, for his sins.
For a while she took them in. The farmer grew to love them. He loved them for their joy, the way they stuck out their two tongues and laughed when people stared at them and pointed.
My spoon slides into the pie.
"She didn't finish her supper," Ma says. "She shouldn't have dessert."
"Let her have what she wants," Pa replies. "Besides, it's free."
"Don't spill it on your costume, June," Ma adds. She sometimes thinks that I am the enemy, although I know that is not true. I know that I am the best friend she'll ever have; maybe Rhett secondly, because he is kind to her when Pa isn't looking, putting a sweater around her shoulders, helping her build a fire, giving her the change from his pockets.
"Time to close." The waitress strokes my hair. "You liked that pie, sweetie?"
"Yes, thank you."
I would like to go with the waitress Gladys. I would like to lean into her hands and close my eyes, be led through the rainy streets to where I imagine she must live in a walk-up apartment. She'll have a big radio and listen to Lum and Abner and Amos and Andy, and she'll laugh, even if she's alone. She'll have boxes of sugar almonds and a single lamp that gives off just enough light.
I would like to know what is going to happen tomorrow and the next day.
When Hari and Kari were three, the farmer's wife asked him to kill them. "Sever them in two the way God intended," the farmer's wife instructed. "Bury them under separate trees."
But the farmer didn't obey.
Instead, he got on a train and took them to Cleveland, where a traveling carnival was stopping for a big show. The head carny asked how much they ate and gave the farmer two dollars for them.
The farmer wept as he rode the train home and watched the rippling fields of wheat from the window. "It was God's will," his wife repeated, as he stumbled in the door.
If you ask me, it's bad luck to try to second-guess God's will. When Pa does it, it never goes well.
Every time Hari and Kari told their stories, the bearded lady cried. She wasn't really a lady, but a man so fat he looked like a lady. His story was also sad. His whole life he believed he should be a girl. His whole life his pa beat him for it, until finally he ran away and joined the show.
What time must it be? We're the only ones left. The cook is scrubbing down the grill. When I'm up on my tightrope, there is no such thing as time. There is only air, the lightness of it.
Tonight I wore my pink costume with my lace parasol, and danced on the rope like a ballerina. When Pa told the people that hell is an endless pit, I teetered and pretended to fall. They gasped as I righted myself and back-flipped in the air. "Come to me as little children," Pa shouted.
Gladys collects the plates. She does it like she means it. She sets a scrap of paper on the table; Ma checks it to make sure she didn't charge us for the pie. Pa pulls out the collection box. Because I don't feel like leaving the warm diner and heading out into the rain, because we're sleeping in some old lady's barn, because I feel mad for reasons I don't even know, I say, "I thought you collected that money for the poor."
"Well, ain't we the poor?" Pa pulls another cigarette from his pocket.
Hari and Kari grew to enjoy their life in the traveling carnival. They had each other, of course, and they became friends with the other performers, but they never forgot the farmer or stopped worrying about him having to live with a woman who had such a hard heart.
These are just two people (or one) whom I've met on my many travels, and who've disappeared on me like it was them, and not us, who were such fly-by-nights.
LISTEN TO YOUR FATHER WHO BEGOT YOU.
We leave the next morning in our broken-down car. Pa says we need to find a town where there's a factory and workers. After a day of labor, a paycheck in their pockets, their stomachs full, they will look for another need met. God as savior. God as entertainment. "This will be our best revival yet," Pa says.
It's a funny word, revival. It reminds me of a drowned lady having air blown into her mouth. We never go to the same place twice. What is there to revive?
The streets are dark with rain, but the sky itself is clear. We live our life by weather. We have been snowed in, rained out, and dusted over one time when the dust storm was so heavy we couldn't make our way in the car. Today, the fear is that if the rain starts up again, the road will turn to mud.
Rhett stands on the running board. He watches for signs that might direct our travels. From the look on his face, you'd think that he was skiing at a fancy resort instead of being blown around by an icy wind.
Once we've navigated our course, Rhett climbs back in the car and plops down next to me. He smiles and does tricks with string before falling into a deep sleep. Sometimes he mumbles from within his dreams; it is the only way I know that he has a voice.
I look out the back window at the few shops that aren't boarded shut and the diner where we had dinner, and wave good-bye. It's a habit I have. I pretend that there is someone waving back: a lady standing on a porch in a printed dress and apron, an aunt or grandma, a man in a hat and vest smoking a pipe, a grandpa, a bearded lady.
"Look, there's the school." Ma points as we pass a small white building with a flag. "It looks like a nice one. So many of them have been shut down. I wish..."
That's all she needs to say; Pa knows where she's headed, for she often talks about her enjoyment of school, her belief that I should go too.
"What's she gonna learn? That man is descended from apes?" Pa pounds the dashboard and he is off on one of his favorite subjects; the scientist's attempts to murder God.
I have seen an illustration that shows an ape all slumped over, then slowly standing straighter, looking more and more like a person until he is wearing a suit and hat. Whether we came from apes, or clay -- the hard soil of the earth -- it doesn't seem much different to me; both are miraculous, like there is something else driving life, and that something is invisible.
"That wasn't a bad town." Ma's voice is high, tense. "A person could live in a town like that, get to know people, settle down."
"That town makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like an advertisement for Paradise. It was a sin-pit."
It's hard for me to make a connection, though, between the barbershop and diner and the sinfulness he is going on about. It gets harder and harder to make sense of what he says, and I wonder if Ma feels the same. She told me that when she first met Pa, his voice was sweet as caramel. It sure is sour now.
I put my hands over my ears and lean up against the window. A thin crack runs right down the middle, but somehow it holds together. Ma once told me that there are miracles everywhere; they're just very hard to see. Here is a visible one.
Ma has said that without the car we would be "goners." The car has housed us many times when the weather was bad and we didn't have enough money for a room. And it brings us to places where we are new for a day or two (America loves novelty, Pa says), but the car is getting as tired as Ma. When Pa changes gears there is a grinding sound. The door is rusted and part of the front end has dropped off.
Within a few moments the shops shrink to dollhouse size, then disappear into nothing. The past has just passed again.
In better days, back in the twenties, Pa had bigger crowds; sometimes there were rich people. And he wore a velvet suit. Once, when I was three, an old lady who needed a hand with her soul let us stay in her fancy house for two whole months. She gave Ma a silk dress and put bows in my hair. This was when Ma still sang and she was the attraction, not me.
The rich lady gave Pa the car. She had bought it for her son, to keep him from running off, but he left anyway. She was afraid of the car. She asked Pa, "Do you think it's the devil's work, to come up with something that can move people so fast and far?"
"Let me take it off your hands," Pa said. "I know how to dispose of it."
The rich lady offered to keep me when they left. She said that without her son the house was too quiet and that my gold curls made her think of an angel. Ma considered it. She liked the idea of me living in one place, to grow in any direction that I pleased and not be stopped by the confines of a car or tent, but Pa said no, that Ma's voice was going sour and they would need something else. That something else just might be me, he said.
He had never paid much mind to me until the week before, when a man had come to him and said, "Your daughter is a beauty. Enough to make a believer out of anyone."
"Yeah," Pa had agreed, "I should work her in somehow."
I still remember the first time. I wasn't yet four. Pa tied a rope across two poles. "The air will hold you up. It is made of angel's breath. Just let your feet touch and the rest of you will float."
He was my pa. He wore a blue velvet suit. I believed him, and I did it.
"She's a child," Ma argued, but was silenced by Pa's glare.
At first Pa held my hand. Then, when the tightrope became higher, he used a pole to help me balance. Soon he just walked beside me while I learned to twirl and spin, to drop and rise on the rope as if I had been born on it.
I practiced from the time I woke up until lunchtime. Ma often said that I could walk the tightrope in my sleep. She thought Pa was being mean to me, but I liked the tightrope, then. The things Pa said that made no sense on the ground made more sense in the sky. I could see how angels might hover above the earth, like balloons filled with helium, how they might see everything going on and wish it was better, but not be able to touch the ground.
I could imagine myself any way I wanted up there: getting in my own airplane and flying around like Amelia Earhart, opening my own candy shop, or following the other girls in their blue coats and hats, their satchels, their lunch pails, and entering a schoolhouse where the teacher would slice facts and make them bleed meaning.
I could picture myself like everyone else.
How long ago was this? I've kind of lost track. I guess the passage of time by the weather and the changes in my body, the way flat places are growing rounder even as I sit in the car, and I wonder: How will these changes affect my balance?
"Moses himself couldn't convince me!" Pa erupts. All I know is that if Moses couldn't convince him, then Ma definitely can't.
Moses is one of Pa's heroes because he could walk up to a sea and it would split right open for him.
God came to Moses in a burning bush and told him, "You will lead my people out of slavery," but Moses wondered how he could do that. Who would believe that Moses saw the vision of God? "Besides," Moses told God, "I stutter."
"Take your brother Aaron," God instructed. "He speaks really well."
Moses argued over and over with God. Finally, Moses said, "Please send someone else!"
Pa says Moses didn't want to lead the people out of Egypt because he was too humble to believe that he could do it, but I think maybe he just wasn't happy about spending all those years hiking around in the desert with a bunch of whiners. Or maybe he knew that God would offer him the Promised Land, and then make him die before he set one foot in it.
While Pa is as skinny as Ma, Rhett is beefy. I lean against his big, warm shoulder. "Stay with us, Rhett," I whisper. "I hate it when you leave. It's no fun."
His arm flops over me, but he doesn't wake up.
There have been other folks who have traveled with us. There was once a lady from New Mexico. We met her in Oklahoma. She had a rattlesnake that she kept in a cage. She'd take it out and it would slide around her body, as meek as a kitten. This showed God's favoritism toward her, she said. At anyone else, the snake would strike.
The snake was responsible for the death of two of her three husbands. The third one had just been no good. He had stolen all her turquoise jewelry one night and crept away along the riverbed by the light of the moon. She never heard from him again, although she got a postcard from a friend saying he'd gone to California to build movie sets.
Snake Lady could speak in tongues. Her eyes would roll back in her head and ancient languages would crawl like snakes from her mouth. And she could heal. Pa has never had the healing touch. When he tries, half the time he knocks people over, whacking them on the forehead with the palm of his hand, shouting "Heal" with a Southern accent, even though he's from Chicago. Nothing makes a crowd madder than being promised they'll be cured, then having some preacher knock 'em over and sprain their ankle or their wrist.
But Snake Lady had a softer touch. A boy might come limping up and she'd massage his leg and whisper to him like he was her boyfriend and he'd go skipping away.
Pa said she asked to be dropped off in New Orleans, but Ma said he made her leave because she had the spirit and Pa was jealous of her talents.
Ma admitted to me once that Pa used to have the spirit. At night, he would lie awake, his eyes shining, and recite scripture. It was like he was in a trance, Ma said. In the morning, he didn't remember a thing. And it used to be he'd share what little he had with anyone like he was Jesus or St. Francis. But somewhere on the path between hunger and disappointment the spirit just took a different road and never visited him again. It was then that Pa turned mean.
After Snake Lady, a cousin of Ma's ran away from home and joined us. He was fifteen. His name was Big Ben. The joke of it was that he was about as little as you could get. Fifteen and he was all of four feet high and about sixty pounds. He didn't like being called Big Ben. He said Big Ben was a clock in London, England, and he was no good at telling time. But it was his name and he was stuck with it.
In his sleep, Rhett mumbles. When Aimee Semple McPherson was only nineteen she walked into a church, opened her mouth, and spoke in tongues. She was that filled with the spirit.
Since then she has healed more than five thousand blind, deaf, paralyzed, and heartbroken people. Of these, it must be the heartbroken that are worst off.
From beneath the gray blanket of air, atop the rumbling road, I fall into sleep. Usually, I dream that a voice comes to guide me. When I ask the voice who it is, it answers: a rock, a spiderweb, a branch, a white bead on an abacus. It has never once said God.
But today I dream of falling. I am on the rope when I grow very, very heavy and I fall into the crowd of God-struck people. The pale leaves of their faces tilt up and their white limbs rise to catch me as I am passed among the river of their hands, one to another, am kept by them, am kept.