||Setting the scene
Mark Manning, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Journal, has struggled for seven years to solve the mystery of a missing heiress, who he believes is still alive. Now hes under an ultimatum from his publisherhe has ninety days to prove his theory, or his career is finished. Something else has been on his mind as well, and it colors his thoughts as he awakes from a restless sleep at home on a Saturday morning in October.
Excerpt from the text of Flight Dreams
Bare cement flooring meets Mannings bare feet. Sitting on the edge of his bed, squinting at the sun rising over Lake Michigan through expansive east windows, he stretches, rubs his eyes, and brings the room into focus. Ive got to do something about this place, he tells himself aloud, albeit hoarsely.
The condominium loft, spacious and new, boasts an enviable address. But it is still unfinished and mostly unfurnished, its down payment having taxed Mannings finances to the limit less than a year ago. Rising from a restless sleep, troubled by the sudden insecurity of his job, he wonders how long therell be money for the mortgagelet alone decorating.
With the days first uncertain steps, Manning walks to the back wall of the loft, where a spartan row of cabinets serves as kitchen, and switches on the coffee maker, loaded last night with bottled water and freshly ground beans. Listening to the machine start to gurgle, waiting for the first drop to appear in the glass carafe, he remembers the old admonition about watched pots and decides that its a good morning for a run along the lakeshore.
He pulls on a pair of bright yellow nylon shorts, a faded Illini sweatshirt, and socks that crumple at his ankles. Putting on his Reeboks, he eyes them askance for a moment, then relaces one of themjust so. He grabs his keys and heads for the door, glancing back at the coffeepot, which is beginning to fill.
Hes out the door, down the service elevator, and suddenly on the quiet side street that turns onto Lake Shore Drive. Its Saturday, still early, and traffic is light. The chilly air smells barely of fishthe spring influx of alewives has long since washed away. No wind blows, and the lake is placid. Gulls glide low over the water, their random calls breaking the stillness. The only people in sight are a few other runners headed up and down the shore. Some wear headphones, but most are content with natures own pristine music on this waking autumn morning.
This will be an easy run, Manning decidesnothing serious todayso he skips his usual warm-up and takes off at a leisurely pace, headed north.
The intensely blue sky reminds him of fall afternoons more than twenty years ago in high school when he was a member of a ragtag running team. All students in the small school were expected to participate in at least one sport each year, and for Manning the obvious choice was cross-country, which stressed personal achievement more than team spirit. He overcame his initial dislike for runningthe inevitable aches and pains of getting startedand eventually learned to enjoy it, taking quiet pride in his slow but steady progress, setting new goals. Regimented during high school, the discipline followed him into college and beyond as a matter of choice. Now approaching mid-life, Manning takes greater satisfaction than ever from running. It assures him that hes not drinking too much, that hes not smoking too muchthough he knows, of course, that he is. Most important, it simply tells him that hes still able to do it.
Having found his stride, he pushes harder, adjusting the rhythm of his breathing. Suddenly aware that he is clenching the keys in his hand, he loosens his grip, making an effort to relax every muscle but those in his legs. As he picks up speed, the rushing air makes beads of sweat feel icy against his brow. It parts his hair, as if with fingers, into damp, clustered strands that bob in unison with the pounding of his feet.
Manning feels his second wind, the renewed burst of energy known to all runners. His shoes seem to glide at a micro-distance above the pavement. His throat begins to burn. Every muscle, every tendon, works and pulls and releases and pulls again like a machine thrown into high gear, straining beneath a sheath of taut, elastic skin. He feels the muscles of his calves and thighs bulging. The light-headed euphoria of over-breathing reminds Manning that he has always found something vaguely erotic about running, about the confusion of pleasure and pain.
Did it start in high school, with the sights and smells of the locker room, or did an unspoken fascination take root in his subconscious long before then, during those misty prepubescent years of youth? Is it possible to explain the pleasure derived from the sight of a mans ankles, the tick of white laces slapping his shoes?
Can those old preoccupations (preoccupations he has never knowingly pondered, for they would surely seem ludicrous, even embarrassing, if his mind would allow such questions to gel, to take on the rubbery yet distinct form of words that are actively thought) explain the indifference that has marked his sporadic intimacy with women?
His sexual history, the history that can be recalled as actual events, did not begin until collegehis sophomore yearwhen he knew he could no longer make the excuse, to himself or to others (particularly his mother), that he was busy. The pressure to lose his virginity in those days of liberation was intense, so he lost it. Mission accomplished.
She was pretty and loving, sufficiently more experienced than he. He performed just finenothing traumatic befell himand the physical release was admittedly pleasurable. But it was not the stuff of dreams, not the culminating end-all event hed been led to expect. And it never would be. Subsequent couplings were equally ho-hum, even with Roxanne, who was easily the most feisty and energetic of his partners.
So he never got much involved. Hes been content to be wed to his career, a commitment that has brought many rewards. Earlier, in college, he preferred to concentrate on his studies, and that too had its rewards. Thats how he explained things to his mother.
Then she died before he graduated. He grieved, of course. She was too younglung cancer. But he felt relief (and he felt no guilt because of this) that he would no longer need to make excuses to her regarding the direction of his life. At her burial, he also felt relieved that issues of intimacy were never discussed with his father, who died when Manning was three.
An uncle, his mothers brother from Wisconsin, a wealthy printer, was at his mothers funeral. Manning hadnt seen him forhow long?at least ten years. His uncle kissed him on the lips once as a boy, then again at the funeral. Manning wondered, standing near his mothers grave, if the man was gay.
The sun has inched higher into the sky. Traffic on the Outer Drive is brisker now, and the path along the beach is filling in with bicycles, dog-walkers, and many more runners.
Far ahead through the crowd, Manning glimpses a couple running toward him. The guy is a few years younger than Manning; his girlfriend, younger still. Even at a distance, they exude an air of vitality and playfulness that sets them apart from the others trudging by. The guy has tousled blond hair, teeth that flash white as he laughs at something. Hes well muscled everywhere, as is the girl; their spandex running togs are both skimpy and flattering.
Handsome couple, Manning tells himself. Ill bet they work out together.
Morning! says the girl as the couple draws near.
Manning returns the greeting as they whisk by. Glancing over his shoulder for another look, he realizes with dismay that his gaze has been fixed squarely on the guy.