The flight attendant’s voice was squeaky and earnest. I didn’t want to hear which exit was closest to me, or how I was supposed to proceed in the event of an emergency.
I unlocked my seatbelt in defiance of caution well before we leveled off at 38,000 feet. I passed the rear galley, a hotbed of non-nutritional activity. If the plane didn’t crash, certainly the food would kill us all.
Finally, I came to the passengers at the rear of the plane, the most disheveled humanity on earth. The refuge of last-minute thinkers and great procrastinators…
I opened the bathroom door and slid the lock shut. I stood there in the temporary safety of my confinement and unzipped my pants, one hand holding onto the plastic handle overhead. A warm yellow stream hissed into the toilet as a fan-jet engine, so large a grown man could stand in its intake, whirred along not five meters away.
I glared at myself in the small mirror over the sink. I stood straight up, trying to reverse years of sloth and neglect and bent my forty-one year-old frame back into the shape of my fondest memory. I pulled back my shoulders and tucked in my hardly noticeable gut. Nothing worked. I was who I was. Nothing more, and nothing less.
My younger brother, David, was in a hospital in Tampa. He had suffered with diabetes for many years and the day after tomorrow was going to lose his left foot. His two children were in grade school and wouldn’t understand what had happened to make their father such a different man.
This was his greatest fear. Not fear for himself, but for how his children might see him as something less than he was. I was neither married nor had ever experienced the joy and torment of parenthood. I hoped 1986—already problematic for Haitian President Jean-Claude Duvalier who fled to France and President Ferdinand Marcos who fled the Philippines Major and for most of Western Europe after the nuclear accident at Soviet Union’s Chernobyl—would be a better year for me than it was turning out to be for David.
I opened the bathroom door to a line of impatient travelers stretching back to the galley. I passed what was once a sea of meaningless faces and was now the backs of bobbing, canted heads. Different shapes and sizes with hair in every color; some with long, dreamy swept-back locks, while others, mostly men who drew from the wrong side of the gene pool, sporting bald spots and endless tracts of barren flesh.
David had a thick head of curly blonde hair. He knew how this one characteristic had affected his relationship with women. Teresa loved to run her fingers through it, tug at it when they had sex. Or so I had been told.
Teresa was a wonderful mother to Becky and Danny. She loved David with a sense of devotion I had always thought I would see in the eyes of the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.
Two men turned and looked up as I passed. Both men were heavy, fleshy, unshaven Eastern European types in their late forties and dressed in poorly tailored suits—large and precipitous bodies making a considerable effort at being inconspicuous in seats meant for lesser forms.
They were sitting behind a very pretty blue-eyed, blonde woman who thankfully was wearing a skin-tight white tank top. My fantasies made the most of the moment.
The woman sitting next to me continued reading a recent bestseller about an attorney who conquered impossible odds to press on pleading for some pathetic indigent who had been injured by a large faceless multinational conglomerate.
I, on the other hand, had brought little else with me but my fears, probably like many of my fellow travelers: making their journey through life with no guarantee of success, and more than enough evidence of the possibility of catastrophic failure ahead.
Past the dowager in the window seat billowy white puffs passed by only to re-form, as we all would, sometime later into a new life and life form.
“Are you frightened?” she asked.
If Bernoulli could only have grasped the magnitude of his gift to humanity by postulating the concept of laminar lift, would he have believed such a metal monster possible? “Just thinking about what keeps us up.”
She glanced out the window as though I had just discovered an ominous cosmic relevancy. “Why would you want to know that?”
“Because it’s a constant fascination to me.” I found myself enjoying terrorizing this poor creature. She’d probably babble on to her friends at their canasta party next week about how she was unfortunate enough to sit next to a lunatic who made her trip a disaster. “I mean, look around you. Don’t you think it’s unusual for us to even be up here where birds don’t fly?”
“You’re not fascinated by the fact that we’re moving along up here against reason and rationale? A million pounds of people and metal, fuel and baggage shooting along at 600 miles an hour?”
She set the book in her lap. “Here,” she said, taking a complementary magazine from the pouch in front of her, “maybe you would enjoy something to read.”
“I’d enjoy being back in New York or, at the very least, on the ground.”
“You know we’re perfectly safe up here. I’ve read you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than having a flying accident.”
“I’ve already been struck by lightning.” Of course, it wasn’t true, but it did make her stiffen up a bit. “I don’t need any more excitement in my life.”
The little woman returned to her potboiler. I had turned my attention to my brother and his ever-deepening financial plight when I noticed one of the hostesses straighten out her stockings outside the forward galley.
She paid particular attention to the razor sharp line of her seam that stretched up the back of her calf into her thigh and beyond. Just as she dropped her skirt back down over her knees, she glanced up and caught my eye.
“Great legs,” I whispered, again attracting the attention of the dowager princess.
“Were you talking to me, sir?”
“Great light out there,” I said nodding to the setting sun, which was streaming in through her window. She looked back at me disapprovingly, as though she had caught a schoolboy with his hand where it shouldn’t have been. I’m familiar with that look too.
David had been a star athlete since grade school and won several state high school championships in the four hundred meter, mile, and javelin. He was intense and dedicated and, if he hadn’t been so interested in architecture and received a college scholarship to pursue his studies, he might well have taken the time to train for the Olympics which had been his dream from as far back as I could recall.
I was trying in vain to get comfortable in my seat when that very same hostess moved passed me. She pressed several fingers into the top of my shoulder as she went by then disappeared into the rear of the plane. I turned around to make sure I wasn’t having one of my frequent hallucinations. You know the kind you get when facing the impossible and you feel you’re ill-equipped to deal with even the most meager of life’s realities.
I started to get up, actually skulking out of my seat, when I noticed that beyond the curtain that separated the peasants from the peacocks, the door to the cockpit was open.
Maybe we were flying on automatic pilot? Maybe the crew had a collective heart attack? I took a few steps toward the front of the plane. A young couple got up and squeezed past me and made their way toward the rear. The man was tall and rangy and had severe body odor. His girlfriend was plain and looked like she hadn’t slept in weeks. I walked forward, finally standing in reckless abandon at the door to the cockpit. The co-pilot turned, acknowledged my presence and invited me in.
“I’ve never been inside of the cockpit of a commercial airplane.”
“Nothing that complicated. Just a lot of dials,” he announced.
The captain turned toward the engineer sitting at a small console at my right. “And sometimes assholes.”
“I flew a small Piper Cub twenty or so years ago,” I said. “A hundred-eight horsepower high wing.”
“You fly now?” the captain asked.
“No. It was nothing like that. I had enough money left over after a skiing accident to take up flying lessons.”
“I can see the connection,” the co-pilot agreed.
“It made perfect sense to me at the time.”
“You want to take the controls?”
I stared back at the captain. “You’re kidding?”
“Of course he is,” the co-pilot gestured with a reproving grin.
“I’ve always wanted to ask a passenger that question,” the captain said laughingly, and returned to the forest of instruments.
The view forward was an endless expanse of blue studded with white to the edge of the horizon. The sun was brighter, more believable. Bernoulli might have been shocked and, hopefully, gratified.
“More importantly, who is the brunette with the great legs?”
All three turned at once, but it was the co-pilot who answered. “Nice rear-end too?”
“Great rear end,” I replied.
The captain seemed annoyed at my observation. Apparently, I had encroached on his territory, though the wedding band on his hand would indicate otherwise. “She’s extended family to the guy who owns the airline.”
“Good looking but very uptight,” the engineer added, as though he cared too.
“You know if something happens to all three of you, I could probably take over the controls and land us safely in Tampa.”
That caught the captain’s attention. He swiveled his head, looked me up and down. “Well, that’s very reassuring.”
Okay, so it sounded ridiculous. But, at least I said what I wanted to say, and that was more than most people could claim for themselves. The trip back through the cloistered first class passengers with their fattened free drinks and wide, genuine leather, seats and pulsating air of aloofness was made without incident.
What the crew and I didn’t know was that at that very minute a twin-engine plane was taking off from Birmingham, Alabama and was locked into an east-south-east heading toward Savannah, Georgia. The pilot, one Philip Alexander—his friends called him Skip—was flying his three year-old supercharged Cessna to Savannah to pick up his niece and bring her back to college in Georgia where he lived. He was about my age but he kept himself in considerably better condition.
I plunged back into my seat. The dowager princess remained occupied. The two Eastern European thugs were nowhere to be found. The blonde was, well, blonde.
“This is the captain. I just want you to know that we will be diverting our flight path several hundred miles to the west in order to avoid a storm front moving inland from the Atlantic. We will be delayed twenty or thirty minutes from our scheduled landing time in Tampa. We apologize for the delay. If any passenger has to make a connecting flight, please speak to the hostess who will radio ahead so that you will be able to catch the flight. Again, thanks for your cooperation and enjoy the rest of your flight.”
“He didn’t sound quite contrite enough,” I declared. The dowager princess didn’t budge. No one turned their head to see who had leveled the scathing indictment. However, the brunette did walk over to my seat and kneel down next to me.
“I think we’ve met before.”
Without hesitation and totally out of character, I responded, “Just thinking the same thing.”
“You live in Tampa?”
“Maybe jogging in Logan Park? I jog five miles, three times a week.”
“What a coincidence.”
She put her hand on my arm. “You jog too?”
“No, but I go to the park to watch female joggers run five miles, three times a week. It’s a little hobby of mine.”
“Good to see you again,” she said with a wink, got up and disappeared beyond the forward curtains.
By this time, we were less than a hundred miles northwest of the twin-engine Cessna heading to Savannah. Philip ‘Skip’ Alexander was radioing into the Savannah airport control tower to confirm his position just as our co-pilot was doing the same. The air traffic controller in Savannah got the frequency confused, giving each pilot the wrong instructions. Not ten minutes later, the dowager princess to my right closed the book after finishing a particularly clichéd chapter, looked out of the window to her right and noticed a dark distant dot in the sky.
The dowager continued her vigil until she could make out the form and size of the small aircraft and slowly, in disbelief, realized what was about to happen. Instead of screaming, she simply closed her eyes and lifted her book to her chest as though it would protect her from the inevitable. Seconds later, the entire plane shuttered and lurched to the right and then left, as I believe the captain tried to maintain level flight. The plane shook violently then lurched to the right again. Ice-cold air gushed into the cabin, peeling passengers from their seats and sending baggage in all directions.
In the fuselage above and ahead was an opening the size of a small van through which you could see an expanse of bright blue sky. Whoever was standing or moving about near the rupture was quickly sucked out of the gaping opening. Passengers howled in panic and confusion.
The dowager princess’s book was sucked from her grasp. She crossed her chest and prayed, but it was to no avail. Before she could complete her prayer, the fuselage on both sides near the rupture split wide open. The two pieces of fuselage—the forward and aft section—separated and began their seven-mile descent. As expected, the forward section in which the first class passengers enjoyed a higher level of service went first.
The twin engine aircraft was vaporized in the impact.
Clothing and bodies and food and other particles of life shot about the metal coffin. Something struck my right shoulder sending a sharp pain into my back. The wind blew away all other noise.
I was right from the beginning. Knowing where your closest exit was or where and how to get into your life preserver wasn’t going to be of any help, especially to the engineer I spotted floundering about thirty or so yards overhead.
Something, or someone, flew by, but this time I ducked. I unfastened my seatbelt and floated away from the princess who had passed out—or had a heart attack—and died. I will never know.
I was buffeted about, but slowly maneuvered my way to the front. I wanted to get as far away from the fuselage as possible. By the time I grabbed onto the curtain and pulled myself through the fuselage, I could no longer see or hear what was going on behind me.
The impact of the cold air rushing up to me made it difficult to breathe—not that there was much breathable air at that altitude. I moved my hands and legs about and knew that my right shoulder was seriously injured. After a while, I stabilized my tumbling fall and was able to breathe. I had always wanted to skydive, always wanted to feel the world around me rush by while I, at the last minute, pulled my ripcord only to cheat death.
Bodies, pieces of plane, unopened cans of soda, cold tacos floated around me. Some of the bodies were lifeless, with terrible facial wounds. Others were crying or screaming while most were flapping in the breeze trying to get a foothold on heaven. The two massive sections of plane were about five hundred feet above me, and falling end over end. A giant piñata of death.
I recognized a few faces as we fell together. The two spies were widely separated. I spotted the brunette with the stockings not forty feet away. She was falling feet first. Her skirt was hiked over her head revealing the tops of the stockings, the thick smoothness of her upper thighs and curve of her buttocks. I fluttered about a bit, but was in no rush to change my view. Her eyes were open, but unmoving, as was her lifeless body. Another body—it happened so quickly I couldn’t tell if it was man or woman—struck her from the side, sending her spinning away into oblivion.
Even though we were falling, I knew there was plenty of time before impact. Plenty of time to get one’s life in order, to make amends to those whom you have harmed or in some way taken advantage of or have, by not coming to their aid, made their lives more precarious.
“David, you take care of yourself and Teresa and the kids.…”
A section of fuselage floated close to me, the pilot still strapped in his seat, a startled expression on his face. Just above him came the co-pilot. Each wore a mask of rage and dismay.
“… I tried to be there for you.”
We were dying or about to die or already lost.
“David, oh shit! I forgot to tell you I loaned your camera to Harvey Lyman. You know—the guy who was my accountant years ago? I know the bastard isn’t going to give it back once he finds out you don’t know.”
The farmland below still looked very far away, and I couldn’t understand why some of the bodies and pieces of wreckage were falling faster than others. I knew from high school physics that, unless the laws established by Newton had suddenly been repealed, everybody should be falling at the same speed. Then I realized that the good—those who have lead an exemplary life—would be lighter and therefore not fall to earth so quickly.
The further we fell the more spread out our little band became. The sky, which was once filled with mechanical and human carnage, had been scattered to every corner of the horizon. I think my right foot was broken. My brother was going to be disappointed at my tardiness. I promised him and Teresa I would be at their side until he was released from the hospital.
But my right foot hurt. I tried to reach down and pull back my pants to see what I could do about the injury when the pretty blonde who’d been sitting in front of the thugs came whizzing by. “Tramp,” I muttered as she shot towards the earth at twice my speed.
Now the outline of villages on the ground below became clear. We were in the middle of nowhere. Maybe that was good. The ground would certainly soften our impact. It was a hell of a lot better than dropping at hundred-twenty miles per hour onto concrete.
Obviously, this would never have happened if I were at the controls. Even with only eight hours training in a single engine Piper Cub I knew that impact with another plane, especially in midair, was something to be avoided.
It was that idiot pilot’s fault I was never going to be at David’s side. Never going to play ball again with Danny or Becky. Never going to fulfill the promise of whatever career I’d had. That arrogant asshole should have let me take control of the plane right there. It would have been our only hope of getting to Tampa in one piece. I needed to be more assertive next time.
I guessed that only half a mile separated me from wherever I was bound. Though the ground below had spread out in all directions and bore no impact craters—no indication that an accident of such magnitude had ever taken place—my immediate future was a certainty.
Eyes squeezed shut, all I could think to say was, “Dear God.”
“Hey, it’s time to get up,” Teresa said, unable to catch me as I heaved myself awake, rolled off the couch, and struck something cold and unforgiving. I opened my eyes. Teresa and my parents were hovering around me, as were two nurses who were particularly interested in how badly I had struck my head on the uncarpeted floor of the waiting room.
“The surgery was a success. David is sleeping comfortably,” Teresa said without taking her eyes from the long gash that crested above my right eye.
“You look worse than your brother,” one of the nurses commented as they carefully lifted me onto a wheelchair and rolled me into the emergency room. She was a brunette.
“You’ll be fine,” the other nurse added.
“Well, I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.”
There were no wheat fields, no bodies floating by. No horror across an endless landscape of tragedy.
I was lifted onto a table and a bright light shown into my eyes. The doctor was a woman in her late fifties who cleaned the bloody wound and gave my scalp a thorough inspection, making sure there were no other injuries. “I’m going to give you an injection to make the area numb. You won’t feel a thing after that.”
I glanced up and saw the sharp silver needle drop towards my head and passed out. I drifted for a while until the thunder around my ears was too loud to disregard. What the hell were they doing to my head? I questioned as I opened my eyes and saw a wheat field below shoot up at me.
I remember falling face forward toward a huge stack of baled hay. I remember the impact wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, then bouncing a few feet back up into the air and coming down again, this time next to a golden mound of straw.
It smelled fresh and dry and raw.
I managed to open my eyes just once more, but couldn’t recall the name of the dowager’s novel that had just landed nearby.
“Damn that Harvey Lyman,” I think were my last words.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business and interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1. He has taught at the New School University, lectures on leadership skills for CEO’s and has given testimony as an expert on best practices before United States Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform and appeared as an expert witness on best practices before The New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing. He has written 11 novels and over 130 short stories. Over 50 stories have been published in 35 magazines online and in print. The Amsterdam Quarterly (the Netherlands) hosted their 2014 Yearbook East Coast launch party on January 17th 2015 at the Anne Frank Center in NYC. He was one of the guest authors and read from Roy’s Desert Motel, which they published in September 2014. “Conversation In Black,” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize by Calliope, the official publication of the Writers’ Special Interest Group of American Mensa, Ltd.