America's Funniest Home Videos Episode 25,857: Helicopter Dad
April, a Tuesday, and we were all at home. They'd closed Penny's school again because of the cold, there was no contract work in Hawthorne, and Cara's x-rays had come back bad, silver spiders spreading in each breast.
We hadn't told Penny yet. Cara's librarian job was part-time, no insurance, and I'd gotten us the cheap kind that only covers x-rays and check-ups. I'd meant to upgrade but then the cold kept deepening—four years since the last thaw—and the work slowed and our heat bill kept rising no matter how low we kept it.
I was looking for a new job, anything with benefits: a janitor, a manager at a fast food restaurant, a filer in a cold, gray room. I'd already put in some applications. No one was hiring but I'd done a lot of work for influential people in town, had refinished the basements of doctors and lawyers and engineers, made-over their kitchens with marble counter tops and state of the art appliances, crafted additions to their subdivision houses, tiny apartments for their dogs and out-of-town guests.
Every year, the clients gave us expensive, thoughtful Christmas gifts: Broadway show tickets—I was a theatre kid in high school—so we could sit in a plush, toasty theatre for hours and imagine ourselves in Saigon or the South Pacific; gift cards to the luxury mall in White Plains, where we bought long underwear meant for skiing to wear around the house; rare bourbons that Cara and I would give to Penny in tiny spoonfuls with her after-dinner tea, the liquid warming all our bodies.
I had all these connections. A call would come through soon and then we could tell Penny. We'd present a calm, united front, and she would have hope.
"Stop teasing the dog," Cara shouted at her now.
She was filming another one of her shorts with her camera phone. The dog was supposed to be a zombie-werewolf and Penny had slid a Halloween mask over her head, causing the animal to howl in anguish and confusion.
"Let's all get some air. Get the stink off us," I said.
"Please," Cara said, smiling at me like I'd suggested Disney land.
I went into the closet, pushed aside the cans of bulk chili and extra blankets and grabbed the remote control helicopter, still in its red, white, and blue Toys R' Us box.
I'd gotten it for Penny that Christmas.
"What do you even do with it," she'd asked.
"Next thaw, I'll show you," I'd told her, and then, of course, the thaw never came and Penny forgot and it was kind of old fashioned anyway, Cara, said.
Of course she was right. We all love video games now, love playing out the different plots in Quarantine and Diseased Dead, love roaming cities we've never been to, cities with green palms and hot beaches and plenty of sun, cities where it is warm enough to wear short sleeves and dungarees as you shoot diseased zombies, raze crumbling hospitals, board sleek, private jets to Costa Rica or Brazil to find the hidden cures inside insect abdomens.
And maybe part of me was dreaming of heat and jungles and intrigue when I bought the dumb thing. Royal blue with silver stripes up and down the sides, it looked like something out of the nineties sci-fi thrillers my father loved as a kid, like the corporate craft the scientists would take to the island inhabited by mutant reptiles. At the end of the movie it would lift into the sky just in time, a pack of genetically engineered raptors clawing at the propeller.
It looked like a joke and it looked like a cartoon. It looked, when I was honest with myself, like something my father would have bought me as a kid, something meant to make me interested in physics instead of drama, a toy I would have broken on purpose.
Now I carefully installed the tiny motor, popped in the batteries, attached the propeller, wedged the stern looking pilot into the black leather cockpit.
"She's ready to rip," I told Penny.
"Can we get hot chocolate afterwards?"
"We're cutting back. Austerity budget. We're saving for a special vacation."
"We're wasting gas by going out."
"That's right. Why don't we stay home and we can work on your math."
"Okay, geez," she said and ran up the stairs.
All year she'd been stuck on fractions. When I tried to help her, she'd get red in the face and flee the kitchen table, disappear into her room to watch a horror movie, or to work on some new script with a monster who sounded like me, used all my same catch phrases.
"You're going to learn something new for once," I shouted up the stairs, then burst of the house and into my truck.
The cold felt like swallowing drill bits. I cranked up the heat, sat with my hands balled in my gloves. The neighborhood was quiet, everyone's drapes taped tightly over their windows, the lawns white and empty and blank, not even sledding tracks. The driveway basketball hoops and lacrosse goals waited for shots that would not come, the nets frozen stiff, gilded in ice, catching the noon sun. The sky was blue and the light was bright, streaming through the windshield. By the time Penny and Cara came outside in their fleece masks, I was sweating in my parka.
"Nice of you to join me," I said.
"Relax, Nick," Cara said, her hand on my shoulder. "We need a good day."
"I'm looking forward to this, dad," Penny put in, trying to be the good only child.
I drove us away from our run-down neighborhood, away from our streets lined with broken down cars and uncollected garbage, past the shuddered school which used to be my school, past the glassy corporations with their heated artisanal fountains, dream worlds of light and water rising and falling behind artesian brick walls, across the interstate and into the gated streets of the rich. My construction truck always had clearance.
"Where are you taking us?" Cara wanted to know. "Do you have a job today?"
"Look at that," I told Penny, pointing to the greenhouses steamed with heat, the indoor pools domed in blue glass, the sauna perched beside a man-made pond. You were supposed to sit in the sauna until you overheated, then jump into the cold pond.
"It cleanses your pores," the client, the founder of an online auction you've never heard of, had told me.
Now I explained it to my daughter.
"Cool. I want to try," Penny said.
"An engineer lives there," I heard myself say. "Maybe one day you can build yourself one. A little less with the camera, a little more with the fractions."
"I'm trying as hard as I can," Penny said, her voice breaking. "Leave me alone."
"Yes, leave her alone please," said Cara.
"I'm sorry," I said, my gloved hands graceful as paws on the wheel. "It wasn't my best subject either."
I'd lasted two years in engineering at state, the only classes my father would pay for. I had trouble sitting still in the underground computer lab, trouble concentrating on the four-hour engineering tests. I'd finish an hour early, then go to the movies.
"Short sighted," my father said when I came back to Hawthorne. "Throwing your education away."
I worked under him for the next ten years, the two of us trading mean spirited remarks during jobs, all if you hadn't or if you would have. When Penny was born, I wouldn't let him around her alone, hired distracted teenagers instead. I worried he'd say something cruel to her, make a crack about her mini-plays, her story boards, something like Good luck getting a producer.
Also, part of me blamed him for the turn my life had taken. A larger part then I like to admit now. I wanted to get even.
"A kid should be allowed to be creative," I'd say pointedly during Penny's Thanksgiving screenings, when we showed her movies on the big screen TV for the whole family. "We want her to have options."
"That's great," my father would say, and go for more beer.
"I grew up in a different kind of world," he told me before he died on a bitter day in September, the beginning of another nine month winter. "I wanted you to be safe."
"I appreciate that," I'd said with all the kindness of a bill collector.
Now I couldn't say what I wanted for my daughter. I only knew that I was scared. I drove us to the outskirts of town, out to the abandoned Loews where my father had watched movies as a kid, where I'd watched them too.
"Why are we here?" Penny said, looking up at the busted glass, the faded, faux-gold columns, the blank marquee.
I wanted to tell her: this is where we used to go back when it was warm enough to dream the craziest dreams, back when winter was a season we kept boxed in our attics. I wanted to tell her that she infuriated me and that she also gave me hope. I wanted to say, remember me, remember us, as people who struggled but still enjoyed life.
Remember us as people who loved you.
I said, "This is the flattest place in town. Let's rock and roll."
And the parking lot was a perfect field of white, so bright it hurt my eyes. I popped on my sunglasses, walked to the center, my body all stiff and lumbering. I placed the helicopter on the snow pack, took off a glove, started her up. There was a congested, whirring sound, somewhere between a mosquito and a broken snow blower.
"It's not working," Penny said. "Can we go get hot chocolate now?"
"Hold on," I heard myself snap, my fingers going numb. I pulled up on the joystick, hit the blue button, and the thing rose heavily into the air.
"Wow," Penny said with exaggerated enthusiasm. Then she took out her phone, trained the camera on me.
And as you know, Funniest Home Video fans of America, I zoned out before long, piloted the thing directly into my own head, my clumsiness and stupidity captured for all eternity by my daughter, who will go on to live her own moments of clumsiness and stupidity regardless of what my wife and I tell her.
What you don't know is I was thinking of those nineties sci-fi thrillers, of how baffled the genetically engineered dinosaurs must have felt when they woke up on earth again. They must have thought they'd tricked extinction, or that the drought and cold and death they remembered was only a dream. Here they were in this warm, green place, everything the same, everything they loved all here except there was this strange new buzzing sound, getting closer, getting closer now.