The Boy Who Could Not Fly
Chapter 1, excerpted from “This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew”
The first time I saw him he was standing on the roof of our house, wearing frayed and faded cutoffs and nothing else, eyeing the swimming pool about twenty-five feet below. William. Last name unknown, unnecessary. Already — in my mind, at least — he had achieved the single-name status of a rock star, and I had yet to even meet him. I’d only heard about him from Holly, my sister, who was older than me by six years. My sister’s boyfriend was on the roof.
It was unclear why he was there at first, though he did have the look of someone about to take a leap. But that was impossible: the pool was on the ground, and he was on the roof of our house. Out of utmost concern for any potential accidents, my mother had had the diving board removed, and that had been just three feet above the water. He was eight times higher than that. He had thick, corn-yellow hair tied back into a ponytail, broad shoulders, was thin at the waist, and he stood spotlighted by the sun. I thought, Holy cow. He is about to jump.
I was twelve. Until that day I never thought of a roof as a thing an actual person might, on purpose, jump off of. To get there, he’d first had to stand on the back porch railing, and then balance on a window sash, lift himself up and over the gutter, and roll away from the edge. After that it was a simple walk at a sloping forty-degree angle, barefoot on hot shingles, to the other side of the house, where the roof flattened out. This was the roof over my mother and father’s bedroom, a 1960s addition to the 1930s house. He was standing at the edge of my parent’s bedroom, surveying his flight path into the water.
My father did not like William at all.
He was definitely about to jump.
I guessed it could be done. It looked like it could be done. With a little lift he would miss the concrete skirt and splash into the deep end. But there were a multitude of ways for the jump to go wrong. He must have been considering a few of them. He could slip and miss the pool and hit the concrete instead. That was possible. But even if he hit the water, he couldn’t know how fast and how deep his jump would carry him. He might hit bottom, break his legs, drown. He could crack his head. So many bad things could happen between the roof and the bottom of the pool.
Or maybe it wasn’t William who was considering these things. Maybe it was just me.
I was okay at just about everything, the best at being average. And now this, this is what I was looking at, this man who was flying off our roof, falling through the air.
And now he took the three steps back away from the edge of the roof for the running start, the bold approach, the liftoff. In my memory this happened in slow motion. Maybe it actually was in slow motion; maybe he was that good. And then he was airborne. Freeze frame.
It was toward the end of May. Summer had come to Birmingham, Alabama, hot for sure, but it wasn’t the heat that knocked you back. It was the warm, wet blanket of humidity, the cottony air. But it was also beautifully green, and there were robins, cardinals, butterflies and dragonflies everywhere, and the pool he was angling toward glittering and glinting like broken glass. A beautiful day to fly or, worse scenario, die. I was watching him through the backdoor screen. Velma, our housekeeper, was upstairs ironing. He couldn’t see me. I had just gotten home from school, seventh grade, my second year of private school. It was a boy’s school, a former military academy, and everyone had to wear a tie and whenever an adult entered the room we had to stand, as if at attention. I was still wearing my tie. I was as thin and white as watered-down milk, and quiet, and I made straight Bs. I was okay at just about everything, the best at being average. And now this, this is what I was looking at, this man who was flying off our roof, falling through the air.
He hit the water, of course, made a giant splash and disappeared beneath the wake, not for too long, but long enough for me to wonder if he would ever come up. Then he surfaced, leaning back his head to let the water pull his hair away from his face. Then he got out of the pool, climbed the house, and did it again. And again.
It was pretty magnificent. I was spellbound. It wasn’t some unformed idea I had about masculinity or manliness in him that I was drawn to; I wasn’t into that, then or now. It was just the wildness, the derring-do, his willingness to take flight—literally—into the unknown, an openness to experience and chance that so far in my short life had not been previously modeled to me by anyone. Whatever I was, he wasn’t that, and I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to be the me I was. That’s what I would learn from him though, over the years, how to become the me I wanted. Not by being him, but by watching him.
Daniel Wallace is the author of six novels, including Big Fish, which was adapted and released as a movie and a Broadway musical. His novels have been translated into over three dozen languages. His essays and interviews have been published in Garden & Gun, Poets & Writers and Our State magazine, where he was, for a short time, the barbecue critic. His short stories have appeared in over fifty magazines and periodicals. He was awarded the Harper Lee Award, given to a nationally recognized Alabama writer who has made a significant lifelong contribution to Alabama letters. He was inducted into the Alabama Literary Hall of Fame in 2022. He is the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.