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On the runway, passenger Winston Mabie began to narrate his flight home in the manner of his own obituary.
Or, since he would note the milestones of survival, maybe it would be more proper to call what he was constructing an antiobituary. "Winston Mabie did not perish on takeoff, nor shortly after," he observed to himself once airborne, the plane struggling under him like a goose, urging itself upward, on a wing and a prayer. "Winston Mabie has survived the first minute of his trip." A former girlfriend once told him that most airplane accidents occurred in the initial forty-five seconds after the wheels left the ground; her habit had been to count slowly to forty-five and then relax, reassured by statistics. Winston gave himself a full three hundred measure, good and easy "two hundred fourteen, two hundred fifteen" before even pretending to slacken. He tallied as he breathed, glancing over his seatmate out the window where the gray riveted wing protruded like a ledge. He hated that wing, because now he was going to watch it from here to Wichita, waiting for it to fall off, to wobble and creak, to leak greasy fuel or burst into flame. And didn't those rivets need paint?
"Remember that Twilight Zone gremlin?" he said, sort of to himself, right after whispering "three hundred."
"I hate to fly," he murmured. His companion nodded distractedly. She'd already unpacked a load of work, her hands flashing over a computer keyboard, their ten gleaming fingernails the color of freshly minted pennies, thumb firm on the space bar. Copper, the nail polish would be named. Her toenails, he thought, would match.
The plane climbed and banked,shimmering as if relieved if not amazed at its own ability to lunge, once again, into the wild blue yonder. I thought I could, I thought I could, it seemed to be saying. Apparently it wasn't going to be caught unawares by a wind shear over the greater Kansas City metro area.
He would have preferred being driven to his parents' house, and ideally by his little sister Mona, but the ticket had arrived from his mother, her last missive addressed to him at Larned, and, since he was the son of depression era Democrats, both of them frugal and practical, he knew it had cost her more than its dollar price, and accepted his boarding pass without protest. Accepted it, and then handed it over as if in exchange for his life. Flying he hated; yet what awaited him, at the other end, he would no doubt also hate.
Winston surveyed, as best he could, the aerial view of his homeland. How would it be to die today, above the wheat fields and the grain elevators? From overhead, the elevators didn't resemble toilet paper rolls, as you might expect, but simple gray disks in the otherwise green landscape. It was awfully green, as rain had been falling ceaselessly in the Midwest this week, flooding and letting spin with the tornadoes, typical spring behavior. The Missouri River was swollen, as was the Kaw, the various declines around the countryside filled with water, reflecting the hazy sun back at the sky. The plane's shadow passed over the land like a premonition. Green and gray, puddles, patches, a great black looming storm approaching from the west, which was the direction Winston was aimed. It irked him that he might endure all the trauma at this end of the flight only to perish at that end. If it had to happen, he wished it would be now, save him the trouble of agonizing and brooding for the next hour....
Wouldn't it be queer, down there, to find the body parts of an airline accident? Scattered digits like buckshot, pieces pelting the tin farmhouse roofs and QuikTrips and the heads of farmers, the parking lots and their cars, the vast empty stretches of the north or south forty? But maybe the Midwestern farmer was prepared for the impact of parts, having been through cyclone season, all the wind-tossed objects driven by supernatural force into their phone poles and front doors.
"Winston Mabie did not succumb to turbulence over Olathe." Below him, just north, sat his alma mater, the University of Kansas, his former dorm rooms and housemates he latched on to one in order to claim his attention, direct his anxiety to the category of memory, what was she called, that strange roommate, Jennifer, who'd changed her name to Cassandra, who thought she was a witch, who couldn't drive her car so instead painted it with psychedelic house paint, crosses and bats and other funky discordant iconography....
He hadn't flown in more than five years, but it was all coming back to him, surging over him with familiar fears and hopes. Your comrades, sitting in alarming proximity, might be sensitive to your fear, or nursing their own, or they might be bemused, ignoring your presence despite your knee knocking against theirs, your cough in their ear, their collar and dander in your face, elbows sparring on the armrest, parry, thrust, retreat. Other passengers seemed to think of flight as either an opportunity to reflect with closed eyes, or to read a book, or to open a computer screen or magazine or catalog or safety guide from the elasticized pouch before them. They might casually consider the 747 diagram provided them and learn osmotically how to exit in case of emergency. The calmness of most passengers only served to exaggerate his fright; someone had to keep the thing aloft, praying and parlaying and striking unkeepable bargains.
"I hate to fly," he might comment moodily to his neighbor, as he had to this one, who on other flights might have agreed, she or he did, too, or who might smile indulgently, noncommittally, and return to an open, popular, poorly written novel. This person might strike up a conversation, might indulge some horror story of flight, might ask what he did for a living. How Winston relished the anonymity of this forced intimacy there beside him sat someone who could believe nearly anything he had the balls to create. He could be anyone: author, playboy, student, surgeon. Loyal son, zealous uncle, caring brother. Into most of this invention entered an aspect of truth, or at least of desired truth. In the abstract, climbing to 30,000 feet, Winston certainly wished he were honest and wise and humble and kind, modest and temperate and pious and sweet. His seatmate surely wanted it. Perhaps all the passengers of Flight 500 felt the same, hopeful for his success. Or utterly indifferent, either response one he could embrace. It was the response waiting for him on the ground that troubled him.
Down there there would be guardedness and suspicion and pity and solicitous kindness.
He imposed an exercise in distraction. First, didn't he want a cigarette? Wasn't he a pack-and-a-half-a-day man? Oughtn't that to be absorbing him at present? Wasn't his system hungry for his friend nicotine? And what about those flight attendants, two hefty middle-aged women, twin grinning Vikings, red-faced, ample-bodied frumps, zealously detached during the safety procedures, their cavalier treatment of the oxygen mask and the seat-belt buckle enough to make anyone see how perfectly safe he was in their hands, how needlessly worried...
Still, even though the flight wasn't full, Winston took a moment to stew about the stewardesses' heft. What if the plane were too heavy to hurl itself smoothly from here to there? What had happened to the regulations that had kept previous stewardesses trim and shapely, role models of anorexic teenage girls, subject matter of male pornographic fantasy? How the hell had these Wide Loads squeaked through flight attendant training....
It stunned him how quickly his thinking had shifted from its recent course to its older habit, how swiftly he'd moved out of prison. Never would he have guessed that flying would still frighten him. He'd thought he'd found subsuming fears to occupy him. But with each subtle bump, every minor instance of turbulence, his heart pattered.
He touched the smiling scar at the base of his skull, the little zipper of wrinkled flesh two inches long. To touch it brought a sweet nausea, a wave of willed discomfort, punching the built-in punish button. This was his pain, his and no one else's. It was a queasy combination, guilt and horror and simple sadness to touch it brought back a particular flashing moment, the interior of the car just after impact. And inasmuch as it tormented him, it also reminded him of who he was. This was his scar, his memory, pitiless and private, possession and stigma.
He used to be a driver, behind the wheel, in charge of his craft and master of his fortune. Of course, he had not driven a vehicle since the accident that had landed him in prison. This was a change he would have to accept in his character. He had now no desire to drive. In prison he had worked hard to adopt a philosophy that would permit him not to need a car. Something along the lines of a reach never exceeding its grasp, a destination never being other than one within walking distance.
Or on a bus line, he supposed now, observing the sheer space of his home state. Perhaps in a large city one could live without a car, but in the rural Midwest? In the boxy horizontal scatter of strip malls and suburbs and the long empty stretches between? Where property was habitually described in terms of acres and counties? He should have taken the bus home from Kansas City.
"Keep your nose clean," advised Sonny Noisome, Winston's favorite of the guards. Sonny had only one eye. Winston had come to trust the advice of the injured, the damaged, those who had lived to tell.
Over the PA system rustled the voice of the captain. His name was James Taylor. Winston sort of liked James Taylor the singer, even though he whined. In music, Winston's taste tended toward the sentimental, the ballad, the whiners. His little sister Mona liked to listen to people who were in some deeply developed stage of outrage or irony, nihilism ad nauseam. He loathed her music.
But James Taylor the pilot sounded more like John Wayne the cowpoke. He said he was taking the plane "upstairs" and on the way they might experience what he called "chop." Winston marveled. See how the world went on inventing new ways to say the same things? Even in his absence, this had happened: planes went upstairs, under the threat of chop and people like James Taylor were doing their best to "keep it smooth."
Down below, Winston believed he could pick out Emporia, which reminded him of the six years he'd spent making pit stops there, en route home from Lawrence, cotton-mouthed, red-eyed, aimed toward the weekend of doing laundry, eating his mother's cooking, sleeping in his giant bed, cranking up to return to school. College had suited him, better than anything else. Education, before college, had been to a large degree about avoiding conflict the conflict of the playground, of boys, of team sports. Winston hated competition. But once he'd hit the university, his difficulties passed. His natural inclinations sympathetic teachers had always labeled him "sensitive" had worked in his favor. He grew out his hair and started wearing sandals. The loveliest girls wanted to sleep with him. In a class on feminist literature, he had actually been mistaken for a girl; the professor opened her anthology, scanned the length of the long seminar table, and declared how glad she was to see a roomful of women. And this hadn't appalled Winston, not in the least. At East High he would have balked, he would have never lived it down, but at the University of Kansas he felt thrilled, included, camouflaged to advantage. He'd slept with four of those women over the course of the semester, including Dr. Ringley.
He would never experience that same ease in the world again. He felt suddenly sorry for himself, a wave of despair upon him. He had looked toward release from prison, had marked that time as his goal, his one concrete objective, a focal point in an otherwise monotonous landscape. You could be free, he thought, flying mysteriously through the air, and still trapped. Trapped by former happiness, by a knowledge of diminishing returns, by a cowardly nature. He ran his finger over his scar again, just to locate himself, just to feel his unique queasy pain.
The service cart was coming down the aisle, the seat-belt lights had gone off, the nose of the plane seemed satisfied with its altitude and allowed the tail to catch up, make itself level. Cruising altitude, his captain claimed cockily. Statistically, this was the part of the flight least likely to kill a person, but Winston could not reconcile the reasonability of statistics with the irrational and ludicrous fact that he was 33,000 feet above land. What sort of fool put himself in a vessel such as this, an aged flying bus whose interior shimmied as if to shed its exoskeleton, and allowed himself to be catapulted into the atmosphere? Preposterous. Of course millions of similar fools endured air travel every day. Of course it was more likely he'd smash off the interstate driving to the airport than explode in his plane the same ex-girlfriend of the forty-five seconds had also told him it was more likely he'd be hit by a meteorite than die in an airplane. Surely his odds of getting knifed in the exercise yard over five years' time were better. Yes, plenty of people survived many years of air service, there was probably an entire squadron of retired stewardesses, they probably had reunions, maybe they chartered a goddamned airplane for their reunions, what about old Chuck Yeager and Charles Lindbergh and all those military personnel, prevailing despite bombs and bad weather and tricky sworn enemies whose whole raison d'être was to blast them from the skies, all sorts of ill-fated adventures during all sorts of wars. Think of his own father, veteran of World War II, lying in the bomb bay of a tiny little plane, coming home over the Atlantic...
The 747 lurched suddenly, seeming to fall in the way of the roller coaster, a plunge that registered first in the groin, then throat, then head. No matter your thinking the body would always betray: Winston was still terrified of flying. The drink cart clanked. Instantly the seat-belt light dinged on. James TaylorJohn Wayne came over the public address system, all mellow cowhand reassurance: "Well folks, we're experiencing some unexpected turbulence, just a little bumpy air, so I'm gonna " He cut off abruptly. What was he gonna? Winston clutched his seat arms, touching the pale cream sleeve of his seatmate with his elbow. She removed her arm without missing a beat in her typing. Unflappable, Winston thought. "Winston Mabie and his unflappable neighbor made it through a bit of bumpy upstairs air."
"I hate to fly," he repeated aloud, sincere and contrite. The plane shuddered once more. "Winston Mabie made it through the bumpy air?" he narrated weakly, a kind of plea. It surprised him to find that he did not want to die; he'd thought he did, a time or two lately.
Meanwhile, the service cart proceeded toward him. He tried to take solace in the serene expression on the stewardess's face. Surely she was destined to reach retirement from American Airlines, see her fiftieth or sixtieth birthday, fly in much worse circumstances and come through those trips, too, make it home to greet her husband week after week. Maybe he was a pilot: doctors married nurses, professors married coeds, pilots married stewardesses.
His grandmother Bunny had enjoyed flying, he remembered. That ought to cheer him, that someone as wise and ancient as Bunny had liked to fly. Simultaneous with this relaxing memory was Winston's recollection that the anniversary of her death was disturbingly impending. Or was it past? This week, certainly, odd he couldn't remember which day. Five years. Just the sight of a certain kind of old woman's hair made him remember his grandmother, a wavy yellowish gray, bobbed, her hands cupped under her ears, bouncing the skirt of her coiffure, still a little vain even in her seventies, eighties. She had a way of tipping her head like a bird listening to the noise underground, cocking her glance in your direction, a half-smile, big blue eyes like his, the narrow nose his sisters always claimed to envy, her thick hair he also had inherited, not hay-colored like hers but black, wasted on a boy, according to his sisters...
A baby began crying, its shriek blood-chilling. Winston's heart leapt. Infants, like animals, might sense danger before the average dulled adult instinct would. It was a premonition, an omen. When flying, everything became an omen. For instance, the lipstick smeared on the stewardess's lower lip could such slovenliness be tolerated from the mannequin sensibility of flight attendance? or the "human organ" cooler box he'd noted in first class, blaze-orange tape lashed round its contents as if they'd just been pulled, warm, from a dying body, or even the trash left in his pouch from a bag of candy orange slices deposited by the last occupant of seat 13D. Thirteen D?!? Thirteen? Why, if high-rises were erected without a thirteenth floor, if elevators went without mentioning the number, surely the airline industry ought to know better. Good god, how could he be sitting in...
The plane bumped again, boat on rough water, toy falling down the steps, forcing Winston to remember the way the ground crew had been scuttling around just before takeoff. What had they been doing out there? Had that been panic on their faces? Were they trying to communicate something to the pilot, who was probably guzzling at his hip flask and adjusting his Stetson instead of concentrating on the business of piloting? Should Winston have intervened, buzzed his buzzer, notified authorities? Had something flammable leaked from a fuselage?
What was a fuselage, anyway?
Some asshole was always proclaiming nothing to fear but fear itself. This did not take into account death, dismemberment, heartbreak, or financial ruin. It neglected pain of all sorts. It passed over rejection, betrayal, public speaking, pink slips, and Dear John letters. Anonymous phone calls, rabid dogs, toxic toadstools, loneliness, crowds, boredom, or hyperactivity. The loss of memory, paralysis, eviction, the big bad wolf, temptation, consummation, Mack trucks, motor scooters, wild geese, alligators, the dark, the basement, the attic, the creepy antique dealer. The killer on your left eating pork and beans, the child molester on your right eating the same, the arsonist, the rapist, the man who fed his wife rat poison. Flying. Fear itself, separate from its subject, was just another bodily function, a revved bloodstream, an anatomical jumpstart, a swift kick in the adrenal gland.
Winston's flight seemed cursed, as all his flights had. Perhaps this one seemed particularly treacherous because he hadn't flown in such a long time and he'd lost the knack. He'd survived a relentless and humiliating and terrifying incarceration, and now, free, had to suffer more of the same. The time he'd worked toward appeared to him, in his heightened fear, a hopeless fantasy. Life was not going to be necessarily easy, this flight home was teaching him. This was step one.
All around him seemed people destined to die. The women behind him, for example, across the aisle in seats 14A, B, and C, all three clutching dolls as if they were real babies, rag dolls wrapped in scarves, swaddled near their armpits. The women had their eyes closed. Were they in a cult? Grief therapy? What the hell were they doing on his flight? Why in the world should the three of them anticipate seeing the light of another day on this planet?
Directly across the aisle, 13C, sat an older woman who kept placing her paperback on her little tray table only to have it slide to her lap. Over and over it slid. Perseverating behavior, he recalled from some psych class, indicating a certain kind of brain trauma. Despite trusting the message of the damaged, Winston did not like to be cargo with misfits. He wanted to be counted among the able, the worthy, those who fit and were necessary. Everyone on this flight seemed utterly expendable, even the partial person in first class, the "human organ" in the cooler box, on its way to some poor one strapped in a hospital bed. A tragedy in the wings. Winston looked around, seeking out military types, CEOs. Those people just kept surviving; where were they when you needed them to secure your own survival? He wanted to snatch the sliding book away from the woman and fling it down the aisle, right into the backside of the stewardess as she trundled nearer with her ominous cart of fluids. Beside him, the businesswoman typed complacently, aggressive thumb banging on the space bar. Winston attempted to read her screen, but it was not text. It was a pie graph. She was consulting numbers and then blipping to another place, so quickly Winston couldn't track the data. Almost imperceptibly he registered her knowledge of his peeking, the way she shifted slightly, sighed, requested ginger ale when asked.
Ginger ale: the beverage of the fully actualized adult.
"Scotch," Winston blurted. His heart pounded in his throat. He hadn't had a drink in five years. But what better time than now, at 33,000 feet, seated in the chariot conveying him to his death?
"ID?" asked his looming stewardess.
"ID?" Winston repeated, not understanding.
"Identification. Are you of age."
Beside him, the computer woman finally looked up. Winston reached automatically for his wallet despite not having reached for it in years elbowing his seatmate in the upper arm as he did so. "Sorry," he murmured, his face burning. He did not have a driver's license, revoked at the accident scene, and his K.U. ID had expired in 1988, when he'd last matriculated. His other cards he did not wish to extract, the feeble effects of a marginal citizen, the freebies: social security, local library, obsolescent video rental. "I'm thirty-three," he said, turning his face upward to the stewardess. And her expression registered his age, he thought. It registered a face he'd learned to make during his stay at Larned, new to the world outside that place, one that insisted you shalt not fuck with me. All his life, he'd been mistaken as younger than his years because he smiled a lot, because he was handsome. It wasn't intentional, it was just the way his face went. A laid-back face, a girlfriend had told him once. A beautiful laid-back face. She liked to study it after sex. Her own, she'd claimed, was not as nice.
But now he'd scared the stewardess with his other face.
"Coffee," Winston said. "Forget the scotch." In the unserved seats behind him, Winston could sense restlessness; he'd taken up enough of the stewardess's time with his foolishness, people needed their pretzels and soda, they were entitled. He was handed a cup and a tiny packet called Whitener. "Whitener?" he said to his seatmate, who had gone back to her pie graph. Winston laughed hollowly.
Suddenly the plane dipped again. Winston clutched his seat as if holding it might help right the thing, as if he could steer them through turbulence from back here, the extraordinary power of sheer nervous energy. But they kept dipping, the nose aimed downward, his whitened coffee trembling at a definite declined angle, the surface quivering like Winston's hands. If he were a farmer in a field, would he look up now and watch the little 747 fall out of the sky, over there behind the wheat fields, silently, a tiny problem of someone else's, a mess of shrapnel and gruesome human body parts in a fellow farmer's barnyard, a fire in the haystack, a trail of black smoke pluming not unaesthetically heavenward? About suffering they were never wrong, Winston remembered, those helpless scissoring feet in the distant pond while the grim farmer went on fulsomely tilling in the foreground.
Again he remembered college, the adrenaline of insight, the intensity of the sun on the front porch of the last house he'd lived in, with the witch and the computer nerd and the alcoholic premed student and the working girl, Jeannette, with her romance novels and peculiar sleeping hours. Jeannette worked at the plastic factory, checking those margarine tubs night after night, reading her romances during the day. Jeannette, Jennifer née Cassandra (or was it Cassandra n&@233;e Jennifer?), Oliver, McFarland, Winston himself, the string hammock on the porch, the diamond-shaped impressions it left on your thigh skin like butcher-netted meat, the fall-winter-spring sunshine, the pile of books and the deadlines of essays and take-home exams and the brilliant campus on the hill like the Emerald City, like El Dorado, the trilling campanile, the pond and the big tail-waving dogs with Frisbees and their useless purple or red bandanna collars, and garage bands, and pickup volleyball, and keggers, and long strung-out nights on coffee and saxophone broadcast live from Kansas City, meanwhile ideas rocketing through the body like the new substance of all vital fluids, blood, saliva, sweat, tears, and semen, holding forth with good-hearted girls who felt the same, who fell into bed weary but willing, perfect, more perfect, most perfect. He could cry to think all of that was over, forever, for him.
More descending. How much descending could a plane do before it found itself nose-dived in a bog? But his captain returned to inform them this ear-popping plunge was intentional, nothing more than the initial descent into Wichita, the old air capital city herself, that explained the dipping, the activity in Winston's ears, the return of the wide-bottomed stewardess with a plastic bag to collect debris. His seatmate clicked off her screen and snapped shut her computer, which resembled a small bathroom scale. "I've never seen a computer that tiny," Winston said.
"Yes," she answered, unsurprised, as if she'd been aware since having had the bad luck of landing next to him in the seating lottery of his lack of savvy in the world of computers, fashion, grace, and flight. She couldn't have been much older than he but seemed quite firmly established in another camp, on the other side of an important line drawn somewhere in the sand, the side that made money and decisions, the side that ran industry and commerce. On the one hand, she depressed Winston. His good looks weren't charming her. He seemed to have lost his touch. But on the other hand, she was quite definitely a survivor, which meant he would ride her coattails to terra firma. His older sister Emily was like this woman, competent and able, the sort Winston had liked to undo, in the old days.
Beneath him Winston felt the wheels erupt from their cargo space. Out the window, a section of the ledge-like wing rose, another opened out, flaps and props. The improbable whirring gadgetry of approach. Irrationally, this was Winston's favorite part of flying because it meant he was closer to the ground. Statistically, he seemed to recall that it was the most dangerous, the forty-five seconds at the end of the journey, but he was happy to recognize landlocked objects, highways and cars and barns and cows. Good old cows, chewing through their days. Surely his odds were better than any one of the cows' down there? They weren't standing in a pasture because they'd been spared the rendering plant they were just waiting. "Winston Mabie's flight did not culminate in a lightning strike or tornado as he entered the Wichita region, home of Pizza Hut and Boeing."
The paperback woman now slid her plastic drink glass down her tray table, over and over, until the stewardess made a last pass. Then the woman hid her cup, folded away her tray until the stewardess had gone, then let it down again to continue her game.
"Hey!" Winston said, clinging to rules and propriety as a way of ensuring salvation. "You're supposed to close that thing."
Her face, when she turned his way, terrified him. On it he saw a fear much larger than his own, shimmering on the scrim of her features. Her pale blue eyes were filled with tears, her small mouth trembled, her loose cheeks were the crepey pink of fair skin grown old. "I'm sorry," she mouthed soundlessly. She handed Winston her cup, righted her table, then pushed herself against her seat back so hard her gnarled knuckles turned white on the armrest, blue veins so prominent they ought to have burst. Though she was nothing like his grandmother, the woman made Winston remember his Bunny, and this made him sigh. He had been responsible for her death, five years ago, and although he could long for Lawrence and his college days, his actual destination was Wichita and his family. Not his past, but his future. His parents, his two sisters, the house where he'd grown up and become who he was.
He found himself praying that "Winston Mabie wasn't going to belly flop on the landing strip." Reverse backthrust would now explode into its appropriate parachute-like anchoring use, and Winston Mabie would survive.
Oh, maybe all of this was useful, this preparation for death. If he dreaded seeing his family so, perhaps it would be just as well if the plane fell earthward, met its demise, sucked in a hapless pigeon or duck to tangle its engine. So long cruel expectation, so long to his own cruel disregard of the same. They would forgive him, he thought, if he died today. They would stand at his grave and regret his death. And wasn't that all anyone could expect or hope for? Their grief made him swear to himself to be good to his family, should he make it through this loud and terrifying landing.
Winston recalled other bargains made with God for his survival through a flight. Hadn't he sworn to stop lying? Stop belittling fools? Stop drinking? Now he'd be punished, harassing an old frightened woman, attempting to purchase a scotch, lying and bleating to God as he approached yet another arrival, a hurtle onto the ground from the air on indelicate wings. Now God would get him for reneging, put him through the whole of this tortuous flight only to obliterate him in the last act, just like any meaty tragedy, save the spectacle for the end. Forget that old deus ex machina today, bub. Ha, ha. For Winston Mabie's promises meant nothing, absolutely nothing, less even than nothing, and God knew it very well.
Copyright © 2000 by Antonya Nelson