TUESDAY: Autopilot


This story was previously published in How Exhilarating and How Close gritLIT anthology 2015. Copyright is held by the author.

MY MOTHER swishes her paintbrush through tinted water, the ferrule a hyperactive metronome against the glass. She massages its bristles, wetting her fingers.

We are wearing Dad’s torn uniform shirts as smocks, badges removed, threads dangling like whiskers. Buttons dot our spines. Mine falls to my knees, a grey dress; my mother looks priestly with her backward collar.

Perched at the kitchen window, we’ve been painting pictures of the condominiums across the parking lot. The brown rectangles are bright in the sunshine, clouds boiling from their chimneys. My mother’s snowbanks are bold cobalt and lavender; mine, disappointing smears of muddy-white-on-white.

Our heads snap toward the door and a muffled clomping on the wooden steps, and a shout of: “Hello, The House! I’m home!” My jaw skews sideways, as it does, cheeks pinking as though I’ve been slapped. Hearing a parka unzip, I race into the hall. My mother follows, flustered and beaming.

I sock-foot dance in the stream of freeze that has rushed in with my father, snow packing under my toes. He looks tired, pale, his Royal Canadian Mounted Police shirt slept-in under his flight suit. He smiles, almost shy, and his brown eyes illuminate, crinkling dusky skin.

“Peg,” he says. He kisses my mother hard on the lips, gripping her head to pull her over top of me, knocking her barrette loose. He hands her his muskrat hat which she hands me.

Dad’s face has a vaporous scent of snow and airplane fuel as he bends to kiss me and blow raspberries into my neck.

“Hello there, Buckshot!” he growls. His moustache is prickly, his frozen ears like the lips of the dead against my cheek. I shriek with delight, the tickling unbearable; the joy of my Daddy coming home safe from playing with the bad guys, to play with me, explodes in my chest. He is finally back in Yellowknife, exhausted after a week-long trip in his silver-skied Twin Otter.

“OK, OK. Let me up for a second, now,” he says, still tangled in outerwear and handing off bits and pieces to my mother. Ashes dot his dark blue pants. He steps out of his coveralls the same way I step out of my snowsuit, one elbow pressed against the door for balance, shaking off snow-crusted pant legs. I bury my nose in the hornet stripe on the side of his thigh and cling there, smelling tobacco.

“How was your weather?” my mother asks.

“Bad.” He ruffles my hair. “Daddy’s little ’Tinker.”

“Oh, yes.  She’s Daddy’s girl, all right,” says my mother.

A tang of peanut butter and stale white bread wafts from his flight bag as I drag it down the hallway to the living room. My mother sends peanut butter sandwiches along when he flies, meals which will keep for days should he get snowed in or have mechanical problems. In case they crash on the tundra, so he won’t have to eat his engineer.

“I could sure use some soup. Got a coffee on, Peg?”

He is home! We watch him eat a bowl of Campbell’s vegetable soup and a grilled-cheese sandwich, gulping down cup after cup of sweet coffee.

He rolls and unrolls the corner of the placemat as he smokes and talks to my mother about his trip. I finish my muddy painting. He and his engineer had done a search over Great Slave Lake for a boy who had run away from his settlement in the night, wearing only a jean jacket; picked up a nurse and a prisoner from Inuvik and flown them to Tuktoyaktuk; transported a freezer for a constable and his wife who had been transferred to Coppermine. All in unusually high winds, with a bit of a ticky engine. They had landed on Lac la Martre and snowshoed into the bush to check on a trapper who hadn’t been seen in quite some time. Their rifles had frozen to their mitts. They’d draped the wings of the Otter with tarps and run kerosene heaters beneath the engines at night so they wouldn’t freeze, as it had been below -40?F most of the trip.

“That reminds me. Maybe you remember, Peg . . . ,” he begins, and speaks of someone called “Mad Trapper”, and a bush pilot named “Wop” May from long ago.

“He was a very handsome man,” purrs my mother.


Occasionally, my mother and I went along on his trips, if he had no prisoners. We would take off in the Otter after he had propped me up on a stack of phone books in the copilot’s seat so I could see out the windows, headphones clamped over my ears. The cockpit smelled like the war, with its rubber and grease, and the G-force threatened to tear the teeth out of my head, but I loved the power of the engine and the enormity of it all as we wrenched away from the runway to a place where there was no ground.

After levelling out above the clouds, Dad would flick a few switches and pull the yoke toward my lap. And there I would sit, grim-faced, jaw going sideways, gripping the controls through my mittens, trying to keep the big plane in the air. My mother was in the passenger seat behind us, and I had been charged with keeping her alive.

Dad would lean back and pour coffee from his Thermos, casually holding the orange cup by its delicate plastic handle without spilling a drop, the liquid rippling concentrically with the prop vibration. He would sip, close his eyes and lean back in the left hand seat, sunlight on his face.

Every so often I’d see his mouth move and a second later his deep voice would yark in my headphones, mechanical and tinny.

“Everything under control, Peanut Butter?” He’d lean over and press my thumb onto the intercom button so I could respond. It was like talking into a soup-can-and-string telephone as I replied: “Yes, Daddy.”

He’d tug my left braid, and go back to “napping”, arms crossed on his chest. I would risk putting us in a death spiral and flick my eyes off the instrument panel to steal glances at his uniform shirt, shoulder flash and navy clip-on tie. He wore his revolver on his left hip in an oily brown holster with a brass snap, like a purse. I couldn’t see it from the co-pilot’s seat, but knew it was there. My thoughts would wander and I would wish I’d been allowed to bring my cap guns along, then drift to thoughts of horses until I fell asleep. The Otter’s course stayed true and steady.


Now, stiff from the kitchen chair, he moves into the living room, slopping coffee onto the red shag carpet as he walks. He lights another cigarette. He sits on the chesterfield, knee jiggling, and talks about his childhood in Ontario. I curl up next to him on the couch as he holds court in the noon sun. Normally, these are bedtime stories.

During his summers in Northern Ontario, Dad had been taught to set traps and shoot a .22. His grandfather would send the young boy into the woods of Coe Hill alone for the day.

“I was only a couple years older than the boy we found on the lake,” he says. “Not too much older than you.”

He spoke of making snares, seeing to the trapped animals, and boiling tea in a little pot over a one-match fire, fending off black flies and snakes with cigarette smoke and a big stick.

The pelts of the animals he caught and skinned he sold for pocket money in Peterborough when he went back to town at the end of the summer. His father had been killed flying in the war, and money was tight. He talked about learning to stuff small rodents in his mother’s humid, bloodied basement with varying degrees of success, squirrels he had killed in the woods near his school with a slingshot, trying to teach himself taxidermy from library books while his mother was out working.

I pepper him with questions: “What kind were the animals? Did they bite? Did the traps hurt them? How did you kill them? What colour were the poisonous snakes? Wasn’t the little boy cold?”

He pushes up from underneath me and digs around under his drafting table in the corner of the living room, retrieving a cardboard box which holds The Rock Collection, humming a tuneless song.

We line up the rocks one by one on the sofa cushion between us.

He’s tagged each sample with a black plastic strip from an embossing labeler, the whitened letters rising like stars. He has collected these from all over Canada, from wherever he lands. There are quartz crystals, a block of silver — big as a fist — chunks of waxy green flint, scabby wafers of mica schist and pewter cubed galena. We categorize the minerals and sort them, first by colour, then by order of favourites, these small galaxies, these tiny planets. My favourite today is the bar of chrysotile asbestos with its impossibly long hairs he insists we must wash from our hands after we touch it. When he’s not looking, I rub the furry stone against my face, then feel like a criminal.

My father stretches out on the couch once I begin playing house with the rocks, making each one a different character. My mother putters in the kitchen and soon he is snoring, his long feet hanging off the arm of the sofa and twitching. The furnace roars as the sun goes down. His cheeks are coarse with whiskers.


We nest happily for a few days, my dad at his art table inking editorial cartoons for our local newspaper, the Yellowknifer, resting his feet on his box of rocks. My mother’s records play: Glen Campbell, Anne Murray and Nana Mouskouri. When the power goes out, Dad plays his guitar and we all sing the two songs he knows, “Both Sides Now” and “Cotton Jenny”, huddling around a bonfire of Chianti bottle candles on the floor between us. When the power is back on, there are drawing lessons: how to draw a road going off into the distance (from Dad), and how to make a cocker spaniel wearing a beret starting from a number “8” (from Mum).

Another day, my mother insists we all need some sun. We smother ourselves in long johns and parkas and snow pants and mukluks, don homemade cardboard snow goggles with razor-thin eye slits to prevent snow blindness, and hike over the Canadian Shield boulders behind our house. We look for animal tracks and droppings and small bones picked clean on the top crust of snow. There is hot cocoa in Dad’s Thermos, tucked under his armpit inside his parka so it won’t freeze.

In the evenings, Dad reads war books in his recliner, biting on his little finger. My mother and I sit on the couch detonating red paper caps with my toy guns, because we both like the gunpowder smell. Mum makes cinnamon buns one night, and burns sandalwood incense the next night while we play Parcheesi. There is Inuit throat singing on the radio.

On Wednesday night, my dad and I allot ourselves one bottle each of the red Fanta cream soda that he brought up from Edmonton on his last trip south.

“I don’t know how you two can drink that stuff. It’s so sickly sweet!” my mother chastises, pouring herself a cup of black coffee. We smile at each other. More for us.

At eight o’clock, we sit in front of the two channel black-and-white TV and watch M*A*S*H on the CBC. I adore Hawkeye, his raven hair swooping handsomely over his forehead like my father’s, although he does not share Dad’s distinguished moustache. Maybe this is what “Wop” May looked like? Or the Mad Trapper — I wasn’t sure which of the two my mother had thought was attractive. Hawkeye’s wounded eyes peer over the top of his surgical mask as he saves another life and makes a wisecrack. I feed off the buzz like a hummingbird and suck red sugar from my pop bottle, trapping my tongue painfully inside the neck when I make too much of a vacuum.

“Outer space is a vacuum like that,” Dad says. “It would boil your blood.”


My mother serves cup after cup of coffee with canned milk and sugar to Dad and a young pilot who dropped by just before supper (as young pilots always seem to do, she says), apologizing for interrupting the staff sergeant at home on his days off, but desperate for help with an upcoming flight exam. The two sit with books and binders on the coffee table in front of them, smoking and slurping from their mugs absentmindedly. Their flight bags lunge from the carpet like hungry seals, the mouths dark ominous holes.

“No, you’re not getting it. Try it again,” said my father loudly, sounding both patient and frightening. They discuss crosswinds and celestial navigation, fuel consumption calculations and feathering of engines. I stay out of the way in the kitchen with Mummy, but will not help her wash the dishes.


Dad is back to work tomorrow, off on another trip. He is increasingly distractible as the night comes to an end, like a horse about to be taken from its stall. His head tosses at sudden sounds, the corners of his lips draw down as from the drag of a bit.

“At least I’m not flying with that stupid son-of-a-bitch. He’s going to kill somebody.”

“Frank,” murmurs my mother.

And now he is going, my mother and I up in the dark of the morning with him. She is down in the kitchen making bacon and eggs. I hate eggs, but she says they will “last him.” It is black outside, frost thick on the inside of our windows, the moonlight glowing electric blue on the snow. I can see why she painted her snowbanks that colour.

Dad is upstairs in the bathroom, door open, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. He is already dressed in his uniform pants and a white RCMP undershirt, the blue crest over his heart. He has shaving cream on his face, chin thrust upward, top lip folding under like a cat’s. His moustache is tipped with white, like icing. His razor scratches across his neck.

I run to my bedroom and wrench off my nightgown. I take a tank top from my dresser and put it on, with jeans, and run to the bathroom. Dad notices, and puts the toilet lid down so I can stand on it. He silently pats shaving cream from his own cheeks onto mine. From the medicine cabinet, he takes out a second razor, my razor, and hands it over.

I push my chin out also, and copy his shaving techniques on my own face, imagining that I, too, am making myself perfect before leaving. Adrenaline pounds in my chest, my face must be made perfect. I try to stare myself down in the mirror with the same dead-eyed expression that my father does.

I reach for his cigarette now that we are done our shave, and he holds it to my lips as he rubs my face off with his towel. I smoke as he has taught me, blowing out, causing the cherry on the end to flare like a Christmas tree light.

“Just one puff,” he says. “Your mother will kill us.”

We go down to eat breakfast with her. I am told to look after her while he’s gone, and he tugs on my braid as he heaves out the door.

“Bye, girls. Gotta go make money to buy toys.”

His flying boots stamp flatly down the steps leaving elephant footprints. His flight bag whops against his legs as the wind tries to rip it from his hand.

My mother and I stand inside the kitchen window, too icy to press our faces against although we get close, and wave like it’s a party as Dad shovels the station wagon out from under the snow. He starts the car, with much screaming from the frozen engine, and unplugs the extension cord from the block heater. A tiny orange light flares and bobs inside the car. We wave faster as the car finally floats out of the townhouse complex on deep snow, the back end fishtailing as he turns onto Matonabee Street.

One of the Armed Forces fathers is exiting his townhouse now, as well — the townhouse my mother had immortalized in her painting last week — dressed in bulky green. His bath-robed wife stands in the doorway, arms in an X over their baby, her head jerking back as he goes in for a kiss. I have had enough of goodbyes, and climb down from the kitchen chair, wishing I was the one leaving. After a moment, my mother slaps her palms together as if beating dust from her hands, and says:



Mummy is painting another picture: this time of her spaniel in its beret, and me with my lemon braids, and a little black-haired boy in a blue jean jacket, all of us holding hands and flying in the air over the tundra. The sun is shining, we are radiant, smiling, the dog’s tongue hanging out, joining with its nose in a tricky figure-8.

Upstairs, I climb onto the bathroom counter. The sink digs into my knees as I fish my silver razor and Dad’s black one from the medicine cabinet, wanting to touch them, to rub them against my face just for a little bit. I compare them, side-by-side, for the first time, and see that mine has no blade.

My father had removed it before pressing the razor into my hand.


Image of a smiling Jen Jones

Jen Jones is a writer, editor, and artist living with PTSD/ADHD in Hamilton, Ontario. She runs Quoth the Raven Writing Co., is a City of Hamilton Arts Award recipient, and taught creative writing at Mohawk College. Jen is a past winner of the gritLIT writing competition and the Hamilton Public Library/Hamilton Arts & Letters Short Works Prize, a past-VP of the Association of Canadian Cartoonists, and a former police officer. Jen has recently been published in Blank Spaces magazine, the Cootes Paradise Writers Sanctuary anthologies, and Just Words Vol. 5 anthology. She is working on a creative non-fiction memoir called The Barrenlands.

  1. Such an evocative and beautifully executed childhood memoir. I’m not a fan of first-person-present-tense pieces but this one pulled me right in. Nicely done.

  2. This is the best short story I have read for some time. Particularly liked the unexpected corners and deadfalls – the little girl with the razor and cap gun; the frozen boy. There is also s ‘tone’ (and an ‘awkwardness’ of diction) which informs the text- something not said which casts a light on the text. Can’t wait to see more!

  3. Excellent storytelling.

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