“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

"Nina" by Marsha Hammel
A Collection of Jazz Poetry — Winter, 2024 Edition...One-third of the Winter, 2024 collection of jazz poetry is made up of poets who have only come to my attention since the publication of the Summer, 2023 collection. What this says about jazz music and jazz poetry – and this community – is that the connection between the two art forms is inspirational and enduring, and that poets are finding a place for their voice within the pages of this website. (Featuring the art of Marsha Hammel)

The Sunday Poem

"Zambramomania" by Roberto Nucci/CC BY-NC-SA-4.0 DEED
“The Eye Tapes…Monument to my Jazzy Eye” by Anita Lerek


Proceeding From Behind: A collection of poems grounded in the rhythmic, relating to the remarkable, by Terrance Underwood...A relaxed, familiar comfort emerges from the poet Terrance Underwood’s language of intellectual acuity, wit, and space – a feeling similar to one gets while listening to Monk, or Jamal, or Miles. I have long wanted to share his gifts as a poet on an expanded platform, and this 33-poem collection – woven among his audio readings, music he considers significant to his story, and brief personal comments – fulfills my desire to do so.

Black History

The Harlem Globetrotters/photo via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: The Harlem Globetrotters...In this 2005 interview, Ben Green, author of Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters, discusses the complex history of the celebrated Black touring basketball team.

Black History

photo of Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten/Library of Congress
A Black History Month Profile: Zora Neale Hurston...In a 2002 interview, Carla Kaplan, editor of Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, talks about the novelist, anthropologist, playwright, folklorist, essayist and poet

Black History

Eubie Blake
A Black History Month Profile – Pianist and composer Eubie Blake...In this 2021 Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Eubie Blake biographers Ken Bloom and Richard Carlin discuss the legendary composer of American popular song and jazz during the 20th century


Jamie Branch's 2023 album "Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))"
On the Turntable— The “Best Of the ‘Best Of’” in 2023 jazz recordings...A year-end compilation of jazz albums oft mentioned by a wide range of critics as being the best of 2023 - including the late trumpeter Jamie Branch's Fly or Die Fly or Die Fly or Die ((world war))


"Lester Leaps In" by Tad Richards
"Jazz and American Poetry," an essay by Tad Richards...In an essay that first appeared in the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry in 2005, Tad Richards - a prolific visual artist, poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer who has been active for over four decades – writes about the history of the connection of jazz and American poetry.


photo of Pepper Adams/courtesy of Pepper Adams Estate
Interview with Gary Carner, author of Pepper Adams: Saxophone Trailblazer...The author speaks with Bob Hecht about his book and his decades-long dedication to the genius of Pepper Adams, the stellar baritone saxophonist whose hard-swinging bebop style inspired many of the top-tier modern baritone players.


IISG, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Interview with Judith Tick, author of Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song...The author discusses her book, a rich, emotionally stirring, exceptional work that explores every element of Ella’s legacy in great depth, reminding readers that she was not only a great singing artist, but also a musical visionary and social activist.


Trading Fours with Douglas Cole is an occasional series of the writer’s poetic interpretations of jazz recordings and film. This edition is influenced by Stillpoint, the 2021 album by Zen practitioner Barrett Martin


“Latin Tinges in Modern Jazz” – a playlist by Bob Hecht...A nine-hour long Spotify playlist featuring songs by the likes of Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ahmad Jamal, and Dizzy Gillespie that demonstrates how the Latin music influence on jazz has been present since the music’s beginnings.


[Columbia Legacy]
“On Becoming A Jazz Fanatic In The Early 1970’s” – 20 linked short poems by Daniel Brown

Short Fiction

Christerajet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #64 — “The Old Casino” by J.B. Marlow...The author's award-winning story takes place over the course of a young man's life, looking at all the women he's loved and how the presence of a derelict building informs those relationships.


George Shearing/Associated Booking Corporation/James Kriegsmann, New York, via Wikimedia Commons
True Jazz Stories: “An Evening With George,” by Terry Sanville...The writer tells his story of playing guitar with a symphony orchestra, backing up jazz legend George Shearing.

Short Fiction

Defense Visual Information Distribution Service/via Picryl.com
“Afloat” – a finalist in the 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest – is about a troubled man in his 40s who lessens his worries by envisioning himself and loved ones on a boat that provides safety and ease for all of them.


The poet Connie Johnson in 1981
In a Place of Dreams: Connie Johnson’s album of jazz poetry, music, and life stories...A collection of the remarkable poet's work is woven among her audio readings, a personal narrative of her journey and music she considers significant to it, providing readers the chance to experience the full value of her gifts.

Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt from Becoming Ella Fitzgerald: The Jazz Singer Who Transformed American Song, by Judith Tick...The author writes about highlights of Ella’s career, and how the significance of her Song Book recordings is an example of her “becoming” Ella.


Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII


photo courtesy of Henry Threadgill
Interview with Brent Hayes Edwards, co-author (with Henry Threadgill) of Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music...The author discusses his work co-written with Threadgill, the composer and multi-instrumentalist widely recognized as one of the most original and innovative voices in contemporary music, and the winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Music.


art by Russell duPont
Three jazz poets…three jazz poems...Takes on love and loss, and memories of Lady Day, Prez, Ella, Louis, Dolphy and others…


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
“A Baker’s Dozen Playlist of Ella Fitzgerald Specialties from Five Decades,” as selected by Ella biographer Judith Tick...Chosen from Ella’s entire repertoire, Ms. Tick’s intriguing playlist (with brief commentary) is a mix of studio recordings, live dates, and video, all available for listening here.


"Jazz Trio" by Samuel Dixon
A collection of jazz haiku, Vol. 2...The 19 poets included in this collection effectively share their reverence for jazz music and its culture with passion and brevity.

Jazz History Quiz #169

This trumpeter was in the 1932 car accident that took the life of famed clarinetist/saxophonist Frankie Techemacher (pictured), and is best remembered for his work with Eddie Condon’s bands. Who was he?


From the Interview Archive: A 2011 conversation with Alyn Shipton, author of Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway...In this interview, Shipton discusses Cab Calloway, whose vocal theatrics and flamboyant stage presence made him one of the country’s most beloved entertainers.


Nominations for the Pushcart Prize XLVIII...announcing the six Jerry Jazz Musician-published writers nominated for the prestigious literary award


Gotfryd, Bernard, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
“Devotion” – a poem and 11 “Musings on Monk,” by Connie Johnson


photo of Mal Waldron by Giovanni Piesco
Beginning in 1990, the noted photographer Giovanni Piesco began taking backstage photographs of many of the great musicians who played in Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, that city’s main jazz venue which is considered one of the finest in the world. Jerry Jazz Musician will occasionally publish portraits of jazz musicians that Giovanni has taken over the years. This edition is of the pianist/composer Mal Waldron, taken on three separate appearances at Bimhuis (1996, 2000 and 2001).


Leffler, Warren K/Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
A Black History Month Profile: Civil Rights Leader Bayard Rustin...


FOTO:FORTEPAN / Kölcsey Ferenc Dunakeszi Városi Könyvtár / Petanovics fényképek, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
.“Community Bookshelf, #1"...a twice-yearly space where writers who have been published on Jerry Jazz Musician can share news about their recently authored books. This edition includes information about books published within the last six months or so…

Short Fiction

photo by Thomas Leuthard/Wikimedia Commons
“The Winslows Take New Orleans” a short story by Mary Liza Hartong...This story, a finalist in the recently concluded 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, tells the tale of Uncle Cheapskate and Aunt Whiner, those pesky relatives you love to hate and hate to love.

Short Fiction

painting of Gaetano Donizetti by Francesco Coghetti/via Wikimedia Commons
“A Single Furtive Tear” – a short story by Dora Emma Esze...A short-listed entry in the recently concluded 64th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest, the story is a heartfelt, grateful monologue to one Italian composer, dead and immortal of course, whose oeuvre means so much to so many of us.


photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Interview with Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950’s Quartets...Long regarded as jazz music’s most eminent baritone saxophonist, Gerry Mulligan was a central figure in “cool” jazz whose contributions to it also included his important work as a composer and arranger. Noted jazz scholar Alyn Shipton, author of The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets, and Jerry Jazz Musician contributing writer Bob Hecht discuss Mulligan’s unique contributions to modern jazz.

Book Excerpt

“Chick” Webb was one of the first virtuoso drummers in jazz and an innovative bandleader dubbed the “Savoy King,” who reigned at Harlem’s world-famous Savoy Ballroom. Stephanie Stein Crease is the first to fully tell Webb’s story in her biography, Rhythm Man: Chick Webb and the Beat that Changed America…The book’s entire introduction is excerpted here.

Short Fiction

pixabay.com via Picryl.com
“The Silent Type,” a short story by Tom Funk...The story, a finalist in the recently concluded 64th Short Fiction Contest, is inspired by the classic Bob Dylan song “Tangled Up in Blue” which speculates about what might have been the back story to the song.

Book Excerpt

Book excerpt from Easily Slip Into Another World: A Life in Music, by Henry Threadgill and Brent Hayes Edwards

Contributing Writers

Click the image to view the writers, poets and artists whose work has been published on Jerry Jazz Musician, and find links to their work


Designed for Dancing: How Midcentury Records Taught America to Dance: “Outtakes” — Vol. 2...In this edition, the authors Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder share examples of Cha Cha Cha record album covers that didn't make the final cut in their book

Pressed for All Time

“Pressed For All Time,” Vol. 17 — producer Joel Dorn on Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s 1967 album, The Inflated Tear

Coming Soon

An interview with Tad Richards, author of Jazz With a Beat: Small Group Swing, 1940 - 1960;  an interview with Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz, authors of But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the 60's Girl Groups;  a new collection of jazz poetry; a collection of jazz haiku; a new Jazz History Quiz; short fiction; poetry; photography; interviews; playlists; and lots more in the works...

Interview Archive

Eubie Blake
Click to view the complete 22 year archive of Jerry Jazz Musician interviews, including those recently published with Richard Carlin and Ken Bloom on Eubie Blake (pictured); Richard Brent Turner on jazz and Islam; Alyn Shipton on the art of jazz; Shawn Levy on the original queens of standup comedy; Travis Atria on the expatriate trumpeter Arthur Briggs; Kitt Shapiro on her life with her mother, Eartha Kitt; Will Friedwald on Nat King Cole; Wayne Enstice on the drummer Dottie Dodgion; the drummer Joe La Barbera on Bill Evans; Philip Clark on Dave Brubeck; Nicholas Buccola on James Baldwin and William F. Buckley; Ricky Riccardi on Louis Armstrong; Dan Morgenstern and Christian Sands on Erroll Garner; Maria Golia on Ornette Coleman.

Site Archive