The Angle of Attack: Second Intermission & Chapter 14


SECOND INTERMISSION

From her office window, she watched him shuffle across the street, shoulders hunched, and head down like a kicked dog. Without looking up, he navigated the crowded sidewalk as though being guided by remote control and disappeared through the dark mouth of Benny’s Bar and Grill. “Of course,” she muttered. While he never showed up to their sessions perceptibly intoxicated, there was always a whiff of alcohol about him, even when she couldn’t smell it on his breath, and he always excused himself halfway through to use the bathroom, returning with his sad brown eyes freshly glazed and crunching on cough mints. Claiming he only needed alcohol to “steady his nerves”, she chewed on the end of her pen for fear he might be in Benny’s “steadying his nerves” to kill his estranged wife. Afterall, he had just wished her dead, violently dead, and then reiterated the desire as matter-of-factly as commenting on the weather. Or had he just been manipulating the session once more, trying to read her notes, becoming visibly pleased whenever he said something that warranted another note? Afterall, she was coming to the conclusion he was a card-carrying sociopath with a side of dissociative identity disorder for good measure.

Yes, he was manipulating me, just trying to get a rise, she was reassuring herself when she saw him emerge from Benny’s with a steaming takeout bag in hand which, to her astonishment, he dropped in the lap of a crippled old man slumped against a heating vent next to the subway. The pen fell from her mouth as she pushed her face closer to the glass. Did he just lean over and pat a bill into the breast pocket of the old man’s filthy coat before strolling off, hands clasped behind his back like a contemplative monk in a priory garden? Adding to the effect, a shaft of sunlight escaped a fissure in the low clouds and illuminated his progress down the street.

Turning away from the window, she bent right over until the tips of her black and white hair were dancing on the floor and attacked her scalp with such energetic scratching the stirring in the pants of the insurance broker watching her from his office window across the street stalled at the thought she might have lice. Finally done, her backside remained framed in her window as she breathed heavily into the floor, reigniting the broker’s appreciation, further vexed by how dirty the oscillating orange carpet fibers were up close. It was then she noticed it: a crumpled wad of folded paper under the coffee table.

Smoothing out the papers on her desk – was that a smear of blood on the last page? – she caught her breath. It was his. A printout of a text message thread that must have fallen from his pocket when he was getting up to leave. Little wonder he’d decided against showing it to her. Like a declassified government document, the crazy bastard had actually gone to the trouble of redacting it:

How long has it been going on with ————– Jeff Rosenberg?

What? I told you to stop bothering me.

How long?

None of your fucking business is how long.

————————————————————

—————————————

So you deny it?

I don’t owe you any answers to anything.

So you don’t deny it?

I’m not going to be bullied by you, ———.

I almost crashed a plane because of him.

Honestly Paul, you need serious help. Serious, intensive help.

I’m getting help, Ally.

Not the kind you need if you believe Jeff is responsible for your problems. You almost crashed a plane because you were blind drunk, ———-

Right! Because I saw that disgusting Instagram pic! I always knew there was something going on ———————-. I knew it the moment I set eyes on him at Marjorie North’s party. You were pretty sneaky about hiding your feelings for him, weren’t you? You looked me straight in the eye and told me he “wasn’t your type”. ——————————————————————— Please tell me, when did it start ——————————— I really want to know.

—————————

————————-

—————————————————————————–

——————————————————————————

————————————

Just tell me when it started. That’s all I want to know and I’ll leave you alone.

How dare you demand anything from me? Did Jeff ever send a video to you of me and him fucking? Fuck you!

I told you that girl in Montreal was just a terrible, horrible mistake. I never cared about her. Not for 1 second. It was 1 night. It wasn’t even me. ——————————————————————————– But, you’re in love with another man, Ally. In LOVE.

———————————————————————————–

———————————————–

————————————————————

You’re the only man I’ve been with in 25 years.

You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved in my whole life. There’s been no one else. No one. Not before, during, or after you. You have to believe me.

I’m not going around in this circle again Paul. Just leave me alone!!!

I can’t bear it, Ally. I can’t. I still love you so much you know.

Stop it.

Let me come home. Please, Ally. I can’t live without you and Mel. I don’t care about this baby you’re having. ————–

———————————————————————-

———————————————— But it doesn’t matter, I can love the baby too. I swear I can. I’ll never hold it against you if you just get rid of —————- and let me come home. I swear it.

Have you totally lost your mind? I’m happy now. For the first time in so long I’m really, truly happy.

Please don’t say that, Ally. We were happy. Really happy. You can’t deny it. We could be happy again.

You’re going to jail and even if you aren’t, guess what? I don’t need you anymore. Neither does Melanie.

How can you say that to me?! I’m still her ———- father!

———————————————————————–

———————————————————————-

——————————————— I AM MELANIE’S FATHER! You can’t take that away from me. ——————————————————————————————

———————————–

————————————————— You know what, Paul? I’m going to let you in on a little secret. After Melanie was born, I went and got the test. Negative. I don’t have it. Melanie doesn’t have it. This baby doesn’t have it. The Parkinson’s died with Dorothy, ok? I just didn’t tell you. You know why?

WHY?????

—————————————————————————–

——————————————————————————

——————————————————————————

—————————————————-

You’re killing me, Ally. ——————————

I don’t care. This is the end. Unless it’s about the divorce, I’m not responding to any more of your messages, you got it?

What divorce? I’ve already given you EVERYTHING!

Good. Then there’s nothing left to discuss.

—————————————

——————————- Goodbye Paul. I really mean it this time.

§

Chapter 14

Easing out of the passing lane and slowing to almost a crawl, Dylan scowled at the ‘Welcome to Ohio’ sign, lopsided and plastered with dead leaves off the shoulder of the highway, as if the state line marked some kind of point of no return beyond which only bloodshed and arson awaited. “So much to discover, my ass,” he mumbled through the unlit cigarette between his moist lips, his face in the rearview as sullen as the gunmetal gray sky. Injured by his failure to dissuade her from abandoning the trip altogether, Phoebe had salted the wound not only by bulldozing his own adamant refusal to come, but by coercing him into chauffeuring us all the way there on top of it.

“You’re shitting me! Why me?!” he had cried late one night in Milkwood’s, thumping his chest with the side of a closed fist, the firelight playing across his strained features lending them an additional air of hellish torment.

“I’m too much of a basket case to drive and Paul– ”

“You’d be less of a basket case if you didn’t go and forgot all about this!”

“And Paul,” said Phoebe, pausing to carve up Dylan’s babyface with dagger eyes, presumably because his emphasis on “less” implied her basketcasedness was not a temporary condition caused by the impending trip, rather an inherent one aggravated by it. “Paul can’t drive because his license is suspended.”

“Revoked to be precise,” I pointlessly clarified. “Anything with an engine could become a turbocharged killing machine in my hands. I’m surprised they didn’t bar me from those stupid electric kick scooters. Or confiscate my electric razor. I– ”

“I can drive,” cut in Dani over her shoulder, pouring fresh drinks behind the bar and casting Dylan a long hopeful look he was too agitated to notice.

“Over my dead body,” came a gruff voice as Dani’s father, exercising an uncanny knack for stealth, was suddenly standing among us as if he’d just sprouted from the floor. A retired hedge fund manager, Hal Topper had hair like spun silver and polished, tawny skin that somehow appeared expensive and impermeable to most anything, including bullets. His reputation for ruthlessness had exceeded even Wall Street’s cutthroat standards and, when he fixed you in his combative eyes, you felt more like a potential target than merely the object of his attention. Now his arctic gaze lingered over each of us one-by-one until settling upon Dylan, who visibly squirmed under it – as well he may since Hal Topper seemed a man more pained and bewildered than most upon having finally woken to his daughter’s sexual maturity – leaving little doubt that any “dead body” was scarcely going to be his own.

“Oh, just stop it Daddy,” snapped Dani, hands balled on her hips. “I’m eighteen now. If I want to go with my friends, I’ll go. And there’s nothing, NOTHING, you can do about it!” With that, she thrust out her generously endowed chest so much as to add “and I’ll be taking these babies with me.” As I watched the hardened old tycoon silently work his mouth, chewing on his daughter’s words like the bleeding Porterhouse he typically ordered from the kitchens, I envied his torment and refreshed my own with ideas of Jeff Rosenberg attempting to exercise parental authority over Melanie. Were those efforts being met with the same lippy resistance Dani was now perfectly imitating? Or was Melanie merrily complying just to spite me?

“You know, I’m guessing there’s SOMETHING he can do about it,” said Dylan staring at Milkwood’s front door which was still slowly swinging closed on its unimpressed hinges after Hal Topper had nearly torn it off during his departure.

“He’s probably just gone to fetch it,” I concurred as Dylan blanched.

But he never returned and now here we all were, me and Phoebe relegated to the backseat in our uselessness, the kids up front with Dylan at the wheel, on the road to Lucasville and the darkness that resided there. While the rest of us quietly brooded, Dani nodded her head side-to-side to whatever was pumping through her headphones, the only thing awaiting her at journey’s end the cheerful prospect of getting laid. Up ahead a ‘HELL IS REAL’ billboard, the ‘H’ in a red flame font, arose from a field of dead grass and dirty slush so desolate it corroborated the sign’s thesis.

“There’s something to discover, Dylan,” I said in the throes of powerful déjà vu, my voice a tinny reverberation from a parallel universe.

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“Don’t encourage him,” said Phoebe. “He’s enough of a pill as it is.”

Just as Dylan opened his mouth to meet the allegation a black cloud materialized on the other side of the median and, swooping downwards in a funneling murmuration pattern, broke across the windscreen with the same thunderous sound as entering a drive through car wash, and was gone, much of Dylan’s view now compromised by the splattered remains of liquefied bugs. “Jesus H. Christ!” he hollered, squinting and fumbling for the wiper. “What the fuck was THAT?!”

“Locusts maybe, if the sign back there is to be believed,” I offered to a dark look from Phoebe.

“Creeeee-py,” said Dani, yanking out a headphone and leaning forward to inspect the gunk smearing, or refusing to budge at all, under the insistent sweep of the wipers. “It’s like a giant sneezed on our car.”

“Or ejaculated,” I was about to say when another billboard, which my accelerating déjà vu predicted, came into view stark against the hostile sky:

WITH GOD, ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE

Craning my neck to watch as it passed by, I was 100% certain I had been down this road before and that there was nothing but hurt, agony, and pain at the end of it.

“I spy with my little eye something that begins with ‘B’. Outside.”

“Barn!” piped Melanie instantly from the backseat, pointing at a buckling old wooden structure set back from the highway behind a thin screen of balding poplars. A jumble of rusted farm machinery strewn out front and empty black spaces where windows used to be, it looked more like a place where teenage hitchhikers got taken to be murdered.

“Definitely not. And that’s a murder venue. Begins with ‘M’, just like your name.”

“Paul,” said Ally with an elbow to the ribs which would have been delivered with significantly more force had I not been driving.

“Billboard!”

“Nope. I’ll give you a clue though. It’s always right in front of us.”

Melanie scrunched up her face while digesting this and said, “How’s that possible?”

“Yeah, how?” demanded Ally.

“Only one clue! That’s the rule.”

As time passed, the Lexus became so full of female exasperation it probably looked like it was rocking back-and-forth to the cars behind. “Aw, I give up,” whined Melanie at last. “What is it?”

“Yeah, what?!” cried Ally.

“There,” I said pointing at the mucusy splotch glued to the windscreen in the cleavage below the rearview where the wipers didn’t reach. “Bug juice.” Waving away the symphony of groans and protests like it was smoke in my face, I said above the clamor, “It’s on the outside of the car and it’s always in front of us. Fair and square. And you would’ve gotten credit for just ‘bug’ so take it like men, ladies.”

“Honestly, Paul, how did you get to be so darn sneaky?”

“Yeah, honestly Daddy!”

I flicked at the glass beneath the splotch as if I could somehow dislodge the shard of wing protruding from it that way and, an honest answer to Ally’s question eluding me, said, “Mel’s my inspiration. Duh!”

Melanie squealed in that almost hyperventilating delight it seemed only I could provoke, an ability Ally envied and adored in equal measure and, leaning over to bite down on my shoulder with those big, piano key teeth of hers, she channeled the spirit of my mother and said, “You are a terrible, terrible man, Paul Manson.”

An aircraft needs smooth or ‘laminar flow the uninterrupted flow of air over the wings to maintain stable flight. When splattered bugs accumulate on wings during takeoff and landing, the airflow trips from laminar to turbulent, causing a reduction in lift and increase in drag. Because it can sap an aircraft’s fuel efficiency by as much as 6%, eviscerated bug residue causing drag has been a long-standing challenge for the aviation community. The problem is a bug doesn’t know it has been catastrophically destroyed when it collides with an aircraft at 150 MPH. Despite its exoskeleton rupturing and shucking off instantaneously, the bug’s survival mechanism still kicks in and activates chemical changes in the blood, making it thicker and stickier, as if healing any other injury. It’s this bug blood, or hemolymph, that clings to wings and windshields so tenaciously it resists all manner of removal.

“But at least NASA is studying lotus leaves and experimenting with different wing coatings on those planet-killers you fly for a living,” concluded Melanie, folding her arms under breasts buoyant enough to hold their own without the additional support (including a bra, apparently, since nothing was blunting the warheads jutting out in relief through her khaki Che Guevara T-shirt) and, already the same dimensions as Ally’s, likely still had room to run.

“Well? What do you think about that?” prompted Melanie, interrupting my indecision on whether I was going straight to hell for assessing my own daughter’s burgeoning chest or some lesser purgatory for having only just noticed it now.

Catching myself short of blurting “magnificent”, I artificially coughed to buy a moment to recall what she had been talking about. “It reminds me of playing Eye Spy on the road to Martha’s Vineyard,” I said, surprising even myself at the increasing ease with which plausible lies came to me. This one was wasted on Melanie though. The blankness in her face indicated either a true absence of memory or, more likely, a stony denial of any deflection away from how the weight of insect carcasses accumulating on my wings contributes even further to my carbon footprint. Best not mention the New Orleans – JFK run Gary and I had just made, our ascent over the steaming bayous having blackened our wings so thoroughly we might have brought half the population of Louisiana’s skies back with us, including of the avian variety since a bird strike had left the nose of our plane looking as though it had been pelted with snowballs made of frozen blood. Or indeed the image that now leapt to mind of Melanie, who had recently left Ally incandescent after dying her hair green, working the airport as a squeegee punk until the eggheads at NASA perfected their magic formula.

“What?”

“Bug Juice,” I said. “I burned you and mom with that one when you were still cute and little, remember?” And now I was back in the Lexus on that winding route through Massachusetts, watching the splotch’s shattered black wing quivering in the turbulence outside, a greater remnant of its owner than what had been left of Sarah Calloway it now occurred to me. Had Sarah also not known that she had been catastrophically destroyed? Had her blood become more adhesive, bonding to whatever bit of imploding skyscraper it could find to attach itself to? As if healing any other injury or so as not to be forgotten? So as to be found?

“What do you mean STILL cute?” said Melanie tremulously, wide eyes submerged in pools of rising water, her womanly self-assuredness dissolving before me. I took her face in my hands like I did when she was a child and began apologizing, her lower lip quivering from the sudden turbulence inside, from those raw and vulnerable emotions that would soon harden, as surely as the blood of the catastrophically destroyed, under the unapologetic lash of adulthood.

I closed Harold’s phone and, as a watery dusk rinsed the failing light from the windows, stared at my shadowy reflection in its black mirror. How could this thin slab of glass and aluminum cradled in my palm contain such a vast, sprawling trove of raw biographical data? How did it correlate to the baggie of ashes at my side, which looked more like party powder than the earthly remains of a human being? “His whole life’s in there,” Lucy had said, and she wasn’t kidding. If you were to set about going through all of Harold’s photos and videos, text and email threads, document files, music, social media feeds, it would take entire days, if not weeks, to complete the task. I had been at it all afternoon, so engrossed I hadn’t noticed the fire dying out or the damp autumn chill creeping through the cabin in its absence, and had barely scratched the surface.

Lucy’s account of Harold’s life in the decades since my “alien abduction”, as she referred to my traceless flight from Hillsborough county, had been perfunctory. His dreams of a basketball scholarship had come to naught, crushed less by insufficient height, as it turned out, than by insufficient God-given talent no amount of hard work and dedication could overcome. “He just didn’t realize how small of a pond West Hillsborough High was to be a big fish in,” Lucy had clucked, shaking her head. Crestfallen under the harsh glare of that reality but undeterred in his quest for a college education, Harold enlisted. This time his hard work and dedication were rewarded by deployment to Iraq where, after the Humvee he was traveling in drove over an IED, enough of his manhood was blown off to leave him impotent and in chronic pain. Honorably discharged, he returned stateside with a Purple Heart and VA disability compensation that, while a pittance of what he needed to attend college, was plenty to stoke a growing addiction to any painkilling narcotics he could get his hands on including, in the end, heroin. Unable to hold down jobs more elegant than the pumping gas and stacking shelves variety, he spent the years that followed in and out of rehab until finally the opioid epidemic swept him away on a whirlwind tour of self-destruction which featured a couple of near fatal fentanyl overdoses and culminated in his unsuccessful interview with the front of my train.

“And that was that,” said Lucy briskly, brushing the crumbs of the story from her hands and topping up my Jack. For a woman whose mother and brother had just had their cheerless lives gruesomely curtailed, and worsening rheumatoid arthritis her own mortal coil, she struck me as remarkably chipper and well carbonated. Through it all, she hadn’t so much as skipped a day of work clerking at the DMV.

“Jesus, God, and Fuck,” I said, aghast on her behalf.

That reaction may have prompted Lucy to loan me the phone as I was preparing to leave. “It’s not all bad,” she had said, handing it to me in the doorway and stroking my cheek with the back of her leathery hand. “You’ll see.”

And it wasn’t. Not so bad at all. A band of loyal friends, mostly old army buddies. His own army of girlfriends who, unphased by either his unserviceable gear or their knowledge of each other, were smitten by a silky tongue as suited to the art of cunnilingus as it was to the racy love poetry that accompanied it. A volunteer counseling post in the same burnt and broken minds wing of the same VA hospital where my father had been treated, an avalanche of poignant messages and photos bearing witness to the success of his interventions. A volunteer basketball coach at West Hillsborough High, one of his charges now playing point guard at Penn State on a full scholarship. A self-taught jazz pianist, good enough to play for free beers in the local bars. Fluent in Spanish. All in all, for a man whose life had been so successively touched by disappointment and tragedy, it seemed far more accomplished than mine had ever approached. No wonder a small cavalcade of mourners was already scheduled to come and pay their respects to The Warehouse, damn him.

Still, it seemed indecent, almost obscene, to rummage around in a man’s life like this and I told Lucy as much when she was pushing the phone on me. “What about his privacy?” I said, a cold finger dragging itself down my spine at the thought of the Julianne Robbins sex tape still lurking on my own phone. Of the brutal exchanges between me and Ally it had spawned. “His secrets?”

“He’s dead, Paul. D-E-A-D. Dead. Including his feelings. He doesn’t care about his privacy anymore. Besides, if he’s going to make my birthday his passcode, what does he expect?”

“Now look who’s talking like he’s still alive and not D-E-A-D.”

Sitting in the near total darkness of the cabin considering Harold’s dead feelings and moreover whether his blood had cemented to the lonesome tracks on the outskirts of town in keeping with the catastrophically destroyed, I nearly leapt out of my skin when the phone lit up and began blasting a Jimi Hendrix ringtone. The jolt caused the pulsing thing to flip from the end of my fingertips like a distraught fish and, landing face down on the floor halfway to the fireplace, it continued singing into its own bed of blue light. It had been unsettling enough earlier when notification banners, oblivious to Harold’s demise, appeared at the top of the display – “Hey, sugar! Why aren’t you calling me? Call me!” – before vanishing back into the internet. But now I sat glued to the sofa strangling my bottle of Jack with both hands. I had caught a glimpse of the caller ID:

Unknown Caller

And a very persistent unknown caller it was since Jimi Hendrix got halfway through All Along the Watchtower before the phone, edging across the floor under the vibration, finally went dark and silent.

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Second Intermission & Chapter 14), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 13


Chapter 13*

“You really going to meet that motherfucker?” said Dylan Glazer swinging the axe, the black grip of a handgun poking out the back of his elastic blue jeans as he brought it down. The last of the firelogs he had brought over shrieked pleasingly as it split cleanly down the middle, it’s two halves tumbling like dead men into the wet leaves on either side of the tree stump. Pulling off his gloves and stuffing them in his back pocket, he regarded the replenished woodpile beside my patio. Apparently satisfied, he squirted spit through his teeth, lit a cigarette and turned to me for an answer to his question. Asked in the thuggish inflection of second-generation Italians who don’t speak Italian, he had to concentrate hard on the accent because when it lapsed, which it frequently did, he sounded more like a computer dweeb than a tough guy.

And despite the excessive OG gold shackling his neck and wrists (Dorothy would have bloomed at the sight of him), the black hoodie under the black leather jacket, the slicked back hair, the sketchy facial hair, the anonymous naked girl tattoo on his shoulder – despite all that, and despite there being no doubt he was a street hustler like his father who was currently serving a life sentence upstate under the three-strikes law – he used words like ‘invidious’, even imported ones like ‘schadenfreude’, struggling tremendously to pronounce them in his phony Italian accent, his eyes brimmed with the same dreamy innocence as Phoebe’s, he retained enough baby flesh in his 20-year-old face to lend it a cherubic air, and he had the room-illuminating smile of a hungry baby presented with a pair of swollen lactating breasts, a smile that also brought symmetry to his face by producing a winning dimple on the left side of his mouth to match the permanent one on the right, a deeper divot marking the spot where the tip of Carrick Mayweather’s blade had nicked him in the womb.

Could the brutal interruption of his gestation somehow account for these enduring baby features? For the intelligent vulnerability that seeped through the hard exterior he strove to project. I suspected he cursed his underlying tenderness as an Achilles’ heel even though the girls would surely get in line for it, at least judging by the way Dani had drooled over him at Milkwood’s the other night, glaring at me homicidally when I reminded her of her own ‘no renting rooms by the hour’ policy. I could have sworn I caught her sniffing at him and wondered if he might even smell like a baby. When Melanie was born, the amniotic cheese-rind scent emanating from her freshly squeezed body competed with my addiction to the smell of the new Lexus Ally had purchased to pursue a career in real estate. Late one night, a police officer had discovered me in the driveway simultaneously inhaling new car and new baby with a 40 of Jack between my knees. Disgusted but unable to find anything to arrest me for, he had wandered back to his cruiser scratching his head through the top of his cap.

But whatever pheromonal essence Dylan may or may not have been emitting, I too found I liked him intensely.

“Your mother is keen I take him up on his offer,” I said. “We’ll see when we get to Lucasville.”

Frowning at this, Dylan took a long haul on his cigarette and in mid-exhale sneezed wetly, also like a baby it occurred to me, his astonished face shrouded in smoke like something in his head had short circuited. Fanning it away, he examined the heater end of the cigarette suspiciously and said, “Don’t let Phoebe boss you around”. Then, glancing furtively over his shoulder as if she may be hiding nearby in the woods, he said in almost a whisper, “I mean, what’s the point of it anyway?”

“I doubt there is one. When he heard I was coming, he told the warden he wanted to see me. Your mother wants to know what he has to say.”

“It’s fucking stupid,” he muttered taking a hesitant puff from the cigarette as though mistrustful of what effect it might have on him this time. “Why should anything that thing has to say matter?” My only answer to that was to pass him another beer. Tugging it from my hand, I gestured at some blood pooling in the basin between his thumb and forefinger. Dylan also had a habit of spontaneously bleeding, perhaps another echo from his in-utero outrage, that further undermined his bad boy image. He sucked it off with a smack and studied his hand. As usual there was no apparent source, no cut or nick even, as though his body had temporarily opened up, expelled some rogue T cells, and closed back over again. He looked up at me, licked his lips predatorially, and shrugged.

“You’re like a hemophilic vampire cannibalizing himself,” I said, hoping to extend the diversion of attention away from “that thing”. I needn’t have bothered because, as Dylan pulled at the fuzz on his chin to consider this, my phone binged:

Lucy: Phoebe just called and she’s got Harold. She’s going to bring him to Milkwood’s tonight and give him to you. Can you bring him over with you tomorrow?

Me: Just about the most surreal text message I’ve ever received Lucy.

Lucy: What?

Me: He sounds like a set of car keys.

Lucy: I don’t think he cares what he sounds like Paul.

Me: No, I don’t suppose he does.

“I kind of like the sound of that,” said Dylan with another squirt of spit between the teeth.

“There,” sighed Lucy setting down the white plastic tube, ‘Slater and Sampson Funeral Homes’ lettering stenciled in black up the side, next to a similar but smaller one in yellow which stood front and center in an array of bottles atop the wall-length liquor cabinet, “reunited with mama in The Warehouse.” It seemed a cruel joke worthy of a good haunting for Lucy to have surrounded her mother’s ashes with copious amounts of the exact remedy, now forever out of reach, that would have saved her life. I would have had them bottled in 180 proof so she might spend her death literally rather than just figuratively soaked in alcohol.

“A good haunting?”

“Fuck, did I just say that?”

“You weren’t thinking it. Boy, you really haven’t changed, hmmm? Not one… little… bit,” she said, jabbing at the air with one of her claws for emphasis. In truth, my hazardous habit of unconsciously voicing my thoughts, “babbling to yourself like a madman” as Ally had described it, had been worsening. Once during a dull moment at my trial Holden had almost crushed my toe under his heel when I started musing out loud about Juror # 7’s gypsy bandana: did she have cancer or sing in a Celtic band?

“And I’m not bottling mama either,” said Lucy firmly. “You don’t really believe in ghosts do you, Paul?” The short answer was no, certainly not. The majesty of death, the great leveler, is that nothing escapes – no emanation or afterglow, like the light sucked into blackholes – its silent, black permanence. Nonetheless, I did have a strange way of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects, especially those that struck me as somehow rejected or mistreated: I believed a single streetlight on a little used road must feel isolated, head bowed and cheered only momentarily when a rare car whizzed through its dedicated beam; when I contemplated buying something, as trivial even as a head of lettuce in the supermarket, I would worry it might think ill of me if I put it back and selected one of its fresher looking colleagues; I felt the heartbreak of a rusting kid’s bike with broken wheels that had been chained to a fence and long abandoned; and yes, I could imagine the terrifying claustrophobia those ashes were feeling packed into those sealed tubes, mama’s dying for a drink and Harold’s for an 80 of Oxy, and the vengeance they would reap if ever liberated.

“Certainly not. But if you hear a bump in the night, the first thing I’d do is check on those tubes.”

“Right!” she snorted.

“If one’s missing, check under the bed.”

“Silly as ever, hmmm?” she laughed, neutering my effort to spook her with a dismissive hand flutter.

“Whatever,” I said, draining my Jack and heading for the sliding glass door at the foot of the stairs. “I got to take a leak.” Stepping into the bathroom was like stumbling into a time machine. It wasn’t just the old 1960s chlorophyll-green mosaic tiles or the Farrah Fawcett red swimsuit photo that, incredibly, still hung on the wall. No, it was that antiseptic scent of, what was it? Eucalyptus? Lavender? Pine? Some unique combination of notes powerful enough I could almost hear Harold shouting up to me from the basement impatient to settle a ping-pong grudge (“the fuck you doing up there, homeboy?!”, Lucy bickering with her mother over the length of her skirt (“You look like a fuckin’ bar ho, Lucy!” “You ARE a fuckin’ bar ho, mama!”), and I was engulfed by a tsunami of nostalgia for this seedy old house that had taken me in like a stray, that I had fled to time and again with Aunt Carrie inflicted welts up and down my arms.

I opened my eyes to a tap on the door. “You okay in there?” came Lucy’s grownup voice from far away, like she was calling from the end of a long tunnel. “Sounds like you’re sleeping.”

“Give me a minute.”

“As many as you like. I got something here I’d like for you to have when you come out.” Amazing. Whether for her own benefit or mine, Lucy hadn’t broached a single one of the dreaded questions:

  • Where did you go? (I don’t remember)
  • What happened to Aunt Carrie? (I don’t remember)
  • Why didn’t you ever call or write us? (I forgot all about you)
  • Why did you come back? (I don’t know)
  • When are you leaving? (When I go to jail)

No, instead she was going to give me present. Little did I know, sitting there on the closed toilet lid breathing through my nose the fragrance of forgotten sanctuary, that she’d just poured a portion of Harold into a Ziploc for me to take home, now more like leftovers than a set of car keys.

“Just answer the question!” blared Frank Hill, tapping a surprising reserve of lung power considering he was looking even gaunter and more caved-in than usual that day. The increase in volume only served to deepen the exasperated fury in Bob Calloway’s face. With his nostrils flaring and neck flesh bulging red over his shirt collar, he reminded me of one of those doomed bulls we had seen together in Malaga’s Plaza del Toros, blood-soaked shoulders stuck full of banderillas, about to make a final charge. If only he would upend the witness box and trample Frank Hill into a pool of crumpled suit on the floor.

I hadn’t seen Bob this worked up since I had accompanied him to the opening of the 9/11 Reflecting Absence memorial and, he being too immersed in a mystical trance to notice himself, pointed out the absence of one of the l’s in ‘Calloway’ in the bronze parapet where Sarah’s name had been etched:

SARAH B. CALOWAY

“No,” Bob whispered, blinking at the inscription. He crouched into a linebacker’s stance to study it close up. Perhaps realizing the missing letter wasn’t going to materialize under the pressure of his gaze, he began scrutinizing the surrounding names, pausing and glowering at one, “SHELLEY R. HOLLINGER”, as though one of its excess L’s rightly belonged to Sarah.

As the silvering hair around Bob’s temples appeared to glow white against the red, I feared he might leapfrog into the 30-foot waterfall burbling into the South Tower’s footprint below, requiring his name (spelled correctly?) to be added to the list of victims. When I said, “Look on the bright side – at least they put the ‘H’ in ‘SARAH’,” he looked fit to take me with him.

“They’re going to fix it Bob,” I said for the hundredth time after I had dragged him away to Ally’s old bar. “They have to,” I said with a conviction I didn’t wholly possess because the entire parapet would have to be redone in order to do so.

“How?” he said coldly, scribbling on a cocktail napkin and pushing it towards me. “Like this?”

L

     CALOWAY

^

As a single tear escaped the corner of his eye and slipped down his dented face, he snatched back the napkin to wipe it away. Slumped in the booth, his hulking body looked like it had sprung a leak and was slowly deflating. Nothing was going smoothly for Bob these days. He lived in Indian Springs, Nevada now, working as a consultant to the drone pilots at Creech Air Force Base who remotely bombed “the shit out of those fuckers who murdered my wife” in the Middle East. His sons, already resentful for being uprooted from New York, now regarded him with utter contempt for the Asian girlfriend he’d brought home with the unpronounceable name who wore thigh-high boots and only looked a shade older than them, a sentiment they were not alone in holding.

“Christ Paul, did he buy that jailbait in Bangkok?!” Ally had cried.

“Maybe. Where’s the harm if she makes him happy?”

“She can’t even speak English!”

“I don’t think he’s with her for the conversation.”

“It’s disgusting. Those poor boys. Sarah must be rolling over in her grave.”

“I doubt it, since it’s empty.”

Unloved by his sons and mostly friendless down there in the suffocating desert heat, he spent a lot of his free time roaming the joylessly bright and noisy casinos of Las Vegas where, he had confided in me, the slot machines had relieved him of a good deal of his savings. I reached over the table and took has big upturned paws in my hands and said feebly, “We’re going to find a way to get that freaking L back, okay?”

Later that night, lying in bed listening to Ally’s steady breathing and the familiar architectural groans our big paid-off house made at night as it cooled off, my freshly dry-cleaned uniform set out for me to fly the next day, Melanie sleeping soundly with a bellyful of the pizza I’d brought home in her room a couple of doors down, I went cold thinking what might have become of me had Ally and not Sarah been obliterated in that torrent of collapsing skyscraper all those years ago.

“What did you just say?”

What had I just said? Which one of me had said it? For reasons already forgotten, I had been complaining about the phoniness of spontaneous sex scenes in movies. “No man exists in real life who can just drop his pants and madly pump away after 10 seconds of kissing.” I couldn’t tell if the way Shannon cocked her head and half smiled signaled concurrence or wistful reflection on her own personal experience with just such real-life men. In case of the latter I added, “rapists don’t count,” just to be vicious. But the doubt had been seeded. What if they did exist? An elite group of sexual carnivores who could, without the benefit of either adolescent hormones or pharmacological stimulus, summon an instant erection upon command? What if Jeff Rosenburg counted himself as one of them? What if Jeff Rosenburg, no doubt perfectly trimmed at his fucking brit milah, was showcasing the skills to Ally right this instant? My Ally?

“I said,” stonily, looking up into Shannon’s avian face crimped with alarm. “I wish it had been Ally who died on 9/11.”

“Answer it!” bawled Frank Hill again, Bob Calloway’s brawny arms swatting the air like a great bear assailed by autumn wasps.

Looking over at me desperately, he ran a hand through his wild Beethoven hair, and said in a seething gravelly voice, “Maybe Paul drinks a lot and maybe you can take a lot of what he says with a fair helping of salt. But by God he’s been a loyal friend to me. And there’s no better pilot out there. Has it ever occurred to anyone that, even if he was blind drunk, he might’ve actually saved all the people on board that goddamn plane? You’re not asking the right questions and he’s not the monster you’re making him out to be, you goddamn sniveling dillweed.” Taking advantage of the stunned silence in the courtroom, he turned to face the jury and said wagging a finger in my direction, “Even if he seems to like being the villain in his own story.”

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 13), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 12


Chapter 12*

Had the train been going full tilt when Harold, flying on Oxy, stumbled into its path, there wouldn’t have been much left besides chunks of flesh, organ and bone, perhaps the odd recognizable chunk. But since it had been slowing on its approach to Hillsborough, it had only bisected his body at the waist leaving the two halves contorted (his feet were pointing floorward off the end of the cooler shelf, a toe tag dangling from one of them) but otherwise intact. Gone was his magnificent afro, victim of baldness or a straight razor it was hard to say, and his overgrown eyebrows were as white as exploding phosphorus. A hump of cheek bone looked like it might push through the cracked skin below his eye and when I pushed it back into place, something else protruded from the top of his head and his unhinged mouth fell open grotesquely with a click. I looked up at Phoebe and she smiled weakly, honey-colored eyes moist and sympathetic.

“Not sure you’re going to be able to make it look like he’s dreaming something nice.”

“Not a problem,” she said breezily, leaning down and patting Harold’s head back into shape as though she were fluffing a pillow. “But didn’t Lucy tell you he’s going to be cremated, like whenever the coroner signs off on the report?”

“Right.” Lucy had mentioned that. To take him home rather than “stick him in a pit” she had said during our brief encounter on the street. When I asked her where home was these days, she told me she had recently moved back into the old house around the corner from Aunt Carrie’s, the same one we had all hung out at as kids, after her mother had died there of delirium tremens.

“How is that even possible?” I said, searching Lucy’s face which really wasn’t so ancient once I realized the reference point living in my memories was a nubile 18-year-old girl who had made my groin ache by doing panty-revealing cartwheels in the backyard and landing in the splits. “I once saw a bottle of CC in the washing machine in that house.”

“She fell and cracked her pelvis in the middle of the living room floor. Couldn’t get up. Couldn’t move. The Warehouse,” – this had been our nickname for the liquor cabinet – “and her cell phone were right there in front of her, just out of reach. Imagine that, hmmm?” I remembered that now, Lucy punctuating half of everything she said with an interrogative “hmmm?”

“Like collapsing in the desert right in front of the oasis,” I said with a visible shudder Lucy noticed and a mental note to buy a bigger hip flask.

“Exactly, and –” Whatever words followed were gathered up in the roar of a passing bus that, in a cloud of diesel fumes, buffeted Lucy a few paces down the pavement and made me wonder if her own pelvis’s days might be numbered.

“So frail,” I whispered.

“I know,” said Phoebe, giving my shoulder a squeeze. I snapped out of it and refocused on Harold’s crumpled body. It somehow reminded me of the bodies in those misty old black-and-white photographs taken after the great battles of the Civil War, something about its flung-away rag doll posture, the haunting “what happened?” expression frozen on his face. That in turn reminded me of the ghastly ultrasound pictures of Melanie in the womb, bones like broken plates going nowhere and a nose that looked half shot off. “How can you call them creepy? That’s your beautiful daughter!” Ally had cried in disbelief. “She looks like a dead soldier from Gettysburg,” I had said to Ally’s back as she waddled from the room slapping her bloated thighs.

Melanie. I felt my heart contract and rise up into my esophagus. It tasted like wet ashes and it wasn’t easy to swallow back down. “Let’s go,” I murmured.

Phoebe gently slid Harold back into the dark mouth of the cooler, the heavy hatch door closing with a hermetic sigh behind his upside-down feet. “You okay?”

“I’m okay,” I said, looking up and blinking into the unforgiving glare of the florescent tube lights, a hint of formaldehyde lingering in the air. “I just hope my daughter is too.”

“Daddy, can I go to D.C. next weekend?”

“What’s his name and are you using condoms?” Melanie stared at me with her mouth ajar, the mixed expression of incredulity and horror crinkling her forehead above a raised frown making her in that moment the spitting image of Ally. “Alright, Alright,” I said, showing her my palms, “If not that, then what?”

“Politicians, duh!”

“Mel, if you want to see a bunch of dirty animals, I can take you to the Central Park Zoo. After, we can go to Mom’s old bar for a belt.”

“Stop it, Daddy! There’s a Zero Hour march at the National Mall and I need to go!” I should have guessed. Melanie, or Melmans_the_treehugger as she went by on Instagram, was a self-anointed ‘Climate Change Warrior’ who never tired of hectoring me about my carbon footprint. My showers were too long, I ate too much meat, the weekly empties I amassed my own private Pacific garbage patch. Just that morning, during our Saturday morning breakfast ritual, I had absently tossed the eggshells into the garbage and suffered under her contemptuous scowl until I fished them out and put them in the proper repository – a vile composting box with flies buzzing around it she had installed by the backdoor. And her despair over my complicity in “catastrophic aviation emissions” bordered on grief. Anyone would think I was personally responsible for the environmental Armageddon she and her friends so morbidly anticipated. But since I was ever the good cop to Ally’s bad cop, whenever Melanie wanted something Ally resisted, selective amnesia set in and she would curl up in my lap stroking the lapels of my uniform, just as she was now, and moan, “Pleeeeaaaaaase, Daddy?”

“Who are you going with?” I said through a sneeze, a coil of her chaotic hair having caught in my nose.

“Celeste. Her mom is even lending us her car,” she said, elevating her voice so Ally could hear.

Celeste was a year older than Melanie and was one of those teenage girls who dressed like a five-dollar hooker either because she was petrified by the thought of sex and camouflaging her virginity or because she was, in fact, a five-dollar hooker. “Virginity it is,” I said after flipping a coin.

“What?”

“Nothing. Tell your mother I don’t have any problem with it but it’s her decision.” This meant Ally would cave and grouse about it with me later, but I had to leave for the airport soon anyway.

“Coolest dad ever!” shouted Melanie, leaping to her feet and punching her hand.

“Does this make me a Climate Change Warrior now too?” I asked the empty space where she had just been standing. The transactional moment lost, I looked out the window where the first of the fat, wet snowflakes floated down under the yellow spray of the streetlight at the end of our driveway. If only the storm had accelerated quicker and stranded me in New York. If only I had never made it to Montreal. If only I hadn’t gone looking for a hockey ticket.

If only.

Then I never would have met Julianne Robbins.

An economy class roundtrip transatlantic flight emits an average 1.6 tons of planet-warming CO2 per passenger. With nearly 4.4 billion passengers carried by the world’s airlines annually, their combined flights emit almost 1 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. This amounts to about 2% of all human-induced carbon emissions, 12% of emissions from all transport sources. Although massive, the carbon footprint left by the global aviation industry is baby sized in comparison to that made by… babies:

“Boom!” I said triumphantly, slapping down the printout in front of Melanie. “The worst thing I’ve done in my life to the environment, BY FAR, is having you!!!”

“Why only one?” I had no idea what Phoebe was asking about since we had just been discussing our road trip to Lucasville, Ohio to witness Carrick Mayweather’s execution. Her thought processes seemed to tick over at such a rate her voice only caught up with them when they brought her to a question. These could be as abstract as “Where is the thing for the thing?” Her doe-eyed presumption of my clairvoyance into her mind did not arouse in me the suspicion it would have if we were becoming romantically entangled, in which case I would have sniffed a budding mind game. Instead it was somehow endearing, funny even, and I had struggled with my composure when Phoebe earnestly explained how her attempt at making a living through direct marketing had stalled before getting started because “it seems a lot of people don’t understand me.” This admission did much to clarify how the trajectory of her career path had ended at the mortuary.

“Take a few paces back and start where your brain did.”

“Kids, dummy! What did you think I was talking about?”

“I thought we were talking about going to watch a man die but what do I know?”

“Let me guess, you only had one to save the environment?”

I stared at Phoebe, the wings of her mouth bent into a wry smile, as my recollections collided within me like tides tugged by opposing moons. With the saner ones coming better into focus I plucked at the word uncertainly, as though I were in the throes of the disease myself: “Huntington’s.”

“…Happy Birthday to yooooouuuuuu!” came the ever-grating climax, belted out enthusiastically by most everyone in the balloon-festooned yard but me. Even though it was my own daughter’s first birthday party, I had only half-heartedly mouthed the words, my singing voice a crime against humanity as demonstrated by an excruciating rendition of Yummy Yummy Yummy I had croaked out one morning in the shower unaware my old girlfriend, Ida, was recording it for the purposes of emotional extortion. Besides which, I was distracted by a little kid I vaguely recognized from up the road who was looking to brain a tabby prowling through Ally’s flowerbed with a small spade he had found god knows where. Thwarted by uncoordinated toddler’s legs that sent him sprawling, the startled cat hissed and leapt up into the safety of a tree where it stared down, disdainfully licking the pads of its paws. The boy’s eyes seemed to turn as black as the mop of hair on his head, blacker when his mother pried the spade from his hand and irritably shooed him back into the society of other children. I empathized with his frustration but had little doubt that, in the not too distant future, there would be a noticeable increase in the ‘Missing Cat’ flyers taped to the streetlights.

Too busy concentrating on decorating her face with cake and ice cream, Melanie wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention to the celebrations going on around her anyway (like funerals, birthday parties for babies are for everyone except who they honor). Neither was Dorothy who, sitting across from Melanie, struggled equally with her food, not much of what set out on her shaking fork making it to her mouth which was ceaselessly chewing, sucking, and swallowing as though her molars were made of hard candy. When she stooped over her plate, her party hat dangling from its elastic around her throat where it had fallen, and stabbed at its elusive targets, her head jerked up and down like it was attached to marionette’s strings.

“Hey, don’t forget to leave some for the birthday girl!” I said in phony cheerfulness, sitting down beside Dorothy and wiping spittle from her chin.

“There you are at last, Marvin,” she said, poking me in the eye as she tried to give my cheek a stroke. Her voice snapped like dry twigs but was otherwise one of her few remaining faculties left unaffected. “The captain was just saying the swell should let up this afternoon, thank god. I’ve spent quite enough time leaning over the gunwales feeding the fish. I think we deserve champagne cocktails when we dock tomorrow, don’t you darling?”

“It’s Paul here, Dorothy,” I said, immediately regretting it. Why pull her away from whatever boat she had returned to, crisscrossing the broad blue world of adventure, and bring her back to the howling prison her reality had become?

Her sharpened fingernail rasped down my face and, pausing at my mouth, tapped on my gold crown. Some idle bellows kickstarted behind her eyes and breathed fresh fire into them. “Paul? It is you, dear boy!” It was small surprise gold managed to glint through the dark swarming pathogens and illuminate a shard of memory. “It’s otherworldly,” she had declared when she first admired my tooth at Ally’s. “Did you know that tooth is literally heaven sent?” When I shook my head, suspecting this was one of those instances her eccentricity wandered over the border into madness, she did nothing to help her case by providing this abortion of a clarification: “Gold is born of dead stars.” When she caught me twirling my finger around my ear at Ally, she brandished a fist in my face which, with its fingers adorned with chunky rings, made brass knuckles redundant. “Want a matching one, buster?” she said coldly as I fought to keep a mouthful of Jack from coming up through my nose. “Look it up for yourself.” Easier said than done. Those were the days before you could reach for Wikipedia in your pocket to reign in a bullshitter which was too bad for Dorothy because, as I learned from a grizzled prospector during a layover in Reykjavík a few weeks later after having forgotten about it, she would have been vindicated: gold is the byproduct of a cataclysmic collision between two neutron stars billions of years ago. When I bought Dorothy a gold double star brooch with a repentant note (“You were right D, here’s a little more cosmic bling to add to your collection. P- xo”) it cemented my elevated place in her eyes as firmly as it did my sycophancy in Ally’s.

“My golden Paul,” she said just before her nail slipped from my chin and the fire went out. Seized by another violent palsy, a black hole grimace tore open her face with enough centrifugal force to shower more heavy elements across the lower half of the periodic table. I looked around for Ally. There she was traced against the sun, trademark sideways ponytail lashing the air as she swung a heavy platter of watermelon wedges I had warned her no one would go for as an alternative to “all that awful refined sugar”. For all her healthy living, there was a 50% chance she would end up the same and bleak anxiety would pull the skin taut over the ropy muscles in her throat whenever she accidentally tripped or knocked something over. I looked across at Melanie, a fresh slice of cake swimming in a pool of spilled grape juice, her face contorting not unlike Dorothy’s in preparation to howl as it disintegrated.

If Ally had the defective gene there was a 50% chance Melanie had it too and, in the end, I could lose them all.

“Come now, Benjamin,” mumbled Dorothy, back at sea on a fresh voyage. “Let’s get back up to the deck for this meteor shower everyone’s talking about.”

“So no, not the environment,” I said, looking up at Phoebe who had a death grip on her lower jaw as though it might come away in her hand if she attempted to speak. The firelight played across her smooth skin and the air that night in Milkwood’s was especially tannic. “I begged her again and again but Ally always refused to get tested. I didn’t know back then I would lose them all anyway.”

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 12), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 11


Chapter 11*

“AA 759 simulation successfully programed.”

My simulator had been stranded with Ally until now and I was surprised to discover I had missed that chirpy digital voice. Normally it had the effect of inducing a stream of sexually explicit profanity and once, when Ally walked in on me threatening it with a baseball bat, she suggested I switch it over to the male voice. “Maybe you’ll have more respect for it,” she said dryly and, in answer to the continued blankness in my face, further clarified, “Like not calling it a stupid cocksucker so much.” Dismayed when I began referring to the male version as a stupid cocksucker with even more frequency, she urged me to switch it back.

But now the voice, “Shall I launch AA 759?” it was prompting, and the familiar metallic aroma stirred by the cooling system, filled me with tender nostalgia. I could almost hear Ally and Melanie distantly calling to one another outside – “where’s my iPod, Mom?” “Wherever you left it!” – and before their voices could recede into the silence of reality, I slid on my headphones.

“Nice to have you back,” I said.

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Cancel AA 759 launch.” Why dampen the mood by confirming I could’ve handled the microburst with relative ease, could’ve still been a pilot rather than a soon-to-be convict? “Run JAL 123 instead.”

“Launching JAL 123. Have a nice flight.”

I rubbed my palms together and took hold of the throttle, so familiar to the touch it was like being reunited with a natural extension of my body that had gone missing. A respectable 28 minutes and 52 seconds later, I slammed into the mountainside with a surging exhilaration, another happy echo from the past.

I stepped out of the simulator and was struck anew by what a technological marvel it was. But it was already almost obsolete standing next to the newer models and, in another decade or two, would probably amount to little more than an antique curiosity as quaint as an old phonogram. Would I somehow live to see virtual reality technology in full bloom? I would have to make it to at least 70, perhaps even 80, a feat that seemed improbable especially now that time had begun feeding upon me with a ruthlessness that made me think of frenzied piranhas skeletonizing a cow in the Amazon River. But now more than ever, I yearned for a Star Trek style holodeck to escape to; a chamber that could perfectly simulate real-life scenarios down to the last chaotic detail, the smell in the air, the taste of skin; a time machine that could transport me back to relive those joyous memories I wept for in the night, even enhance and perfect them (delete that fight on the beach in Cuba and go straight to the outrageous makeup sex back in the hotel); a reality manufacturer that could make all my vanquishing hero fantasies, militaristic or pornographic or whatever, come to life. Real life. In this post-truth world, who would ever choose to get out of such a contraption?

The simulator door clicked shut behind me and with it my picture of Ally, her ear against my chest listening to my heart, vanished. I rubbed my ass as though I had just been caned and felt the card in my back pocket. It was logo-less and printed on cheap paper:

“Cosmetologist,” I muttered. When she had slid it across the bar at Milkwood’s, giving it a proud double tap with a long, manicured nail painted arterial red, I asked her innocently enough if she was a fortuneteller by trade.

For the duration of the long, sour look she held me in, I had the uneasy feeling I was soon to be wearing the fruity contents of her cocktail, never mind that it was a freshly delivered double. “Fuck,” she spat, setting down the glass instead. “I knew I should have just put ‘Makeup Artist’. I thought ‘Cosmetologist’ sounded more professional.”

“No, no,” I objected. “I’m just stupid about these things,” and that was no lie. “I was thinking of… of..”

“Astrologist,” sighed Phoebe.

“That’s it!” I said, snapping my fingers. “Star signs and all that horseshit.” With that all cleared up, my confusion was immediately revived when I went on to read the email address and website. Wary of putting my foot in it again, I just floated the words, “Sands Funeral Homes?”

“Actually, Slater and Sampson Funeral Homes.” She drew another card from her purse and appraised it with such cold disdain it may as well have been a used condom. “Probably I should’ve just put ‘Mortuary Makeup Artist’, huh?”

Now it clicked and I said, “Probably. So what, you make dead people beautiful?”

She ripped the card in half, contemplated the two pieces on the bar and then ripped them in half as well. “Bingo. Well, at least like they’re not dead, like they’re sleeping and dreaming something nice. I’m new to it. Just got my license a few months ago. But I’m damn good at it.”

“Like they’re dreaming something nice,” I repeated as I sank into a threadbare armchair with an atrocious dandelion pattern on it and entered the contacts in my phone. The purple tip of a fat, lumpy scar on her ribcage had revealed itself in the open armpit of her loose tank top whenever she raised her glass or got excited, the opening flourish of the signature Carrick Mayweather had carved into her body. It was harrowing to look at, but I still had to beat back the impulse to ask her if I could touch it, if she would lift up her shirt so I could trace the rest of its downward path to its dismal endpoint. Where might that be?

“When you’ve almost been murdered,you have to own it,” she had said with a shrug as I stared at her, mystified.

I saved the new contact, tapped ‘message’, and began to type.

“Which guy?” said Ally through a mouthful of olive and smoked salmon crostini.

“That one,” I said, pointing through the crowd to a slim man comfortably in his 30s with wavy mid-length hair and patchy scrub on the smooth slopes of his face. A harried cocktail waitress in a short white caterer’s coat was offering him champagne which he accepted with a rakish smile, thin lips curling back in such a way that, in the absence of the good humor stamped around his eyes, it could equally serve as a snarl. He lifted the flute to her by its stem and winked his thanks. He may as well have been wearing a top hat and swinging a pocket watch because this had the effect of persuading the cocktail waitress to thoroughly abdicate her duties. She set down the tray of glasses perilously close to the edge of a buffet table and, turning her back on them, began chatting with him as if she were one of the party guests. “Hypnotizing the young girl who’s supposed to be serving drinks.”

“Him? That’s just Jeff Rosenberg,” she said with a dismissive wave. “I think he’s a music producer or something.”

“Of course, he is.”

“Why?”

“Nothing. I saw you talking to him earlier is all.” I could hear the cold hostility in my voice, and I was startled, bewildered by it. What was wrong with me? Why was I picturing a younger version of this man talentlessly strumming a guitar in a college dorm room thick with weed smoke, a stoned girl in a beanbag chair cooing along, textbooks still in their plastic wrapping piled in a corner? Why was I inserting myself into that picture and reducing the instrument into kindling over his head?

Ally had an all-tooth smile that could take up the lower half of her face when she wanted it to, and she had liberally deployed it on Jeff Rosenberg. But she had done so on countless men at countless gatherings like this before while I sat watching from the bar without the slightest tremor of insecurity. That’s because Ally’s devotion was a force of nature. When we began seeing each other, she disavowed the paltry few nameless boyfriends she had had before me and, after we were married, erased all evidence of their existence by tossing out a box full of old photos and cards she had shipped down to Texas (where Dorothy had added it to her own decommissioned army of dusty, cobwebbed boxes stockpiled in her attic as if in preparation for some kind of memory apocalypse). On occasion, in a game now long abandoned for being as much “teenage bullshit” (Ally’s description) as it was futile, I would point out a man, either real or on TV, I could somehow imagine Ally finding sexy and say, “what about him?” Invariably Ally would roll her eyes and say either “not my type” or “he’s gross”, but something meatier in the tissue of her voice when she said “he’s gross” gave me the sense my gut feelings had come closer to the mark.

“Really, Paul?” coughed Ally, swallowing the last of her crostini and, as I looked at her bleakly, unsuccessfully attempted to wipe away the grin that had appeared on her face with a napkin. Placing her palm in the center of my chest, she kissed the side of my neck softly in that special place she had discovered long ago and whispered in my ear, “Not my type.”

“I never gave Jeff fucking Rosenberg another thought after that,” I concluded bitterly. “So much for gut feelings.”

Shannon removed her pen from her mouth, scribbled something spidery on her notepad and said, “Was that the only time during your marriage you experienced feelings of jealousy?” It’s an odious word – jealousy – forged in hell and dipped in sin, seed of self-fulfilling prophecy, and as it departed Shannon’s lips and traveled over the coffee table it crashed short of where I sat.

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said, plagiarizing my simulator.

“Was this the only time you suspected Ally?”

“I never suspected her!” I protested and, perhaps intuiting some counterfeit notes in my tone, Shannon took up her pad again.

There had been this one other time though, many years ago, when Ally announced an old high school friend, Kaitlin Lynch, was throwing a small housewarming party at her new place up in the Adirondacks. Ally usually coaxed me into accompanying her to these social events she knew I found tedious with cunning words of flattery (“you’re my husband and I want to show you off!”) but this time, before I even had a chance to groan, she let me right off the hook. “It’s going to be an overnighter and I don’t want you to suffer that long.” But was that really the reason? came the nagging question again as I lay on the couch in the dark with my movie paused. The image of Ally smiling at Jeff Rosenburg sailed through my head and I felt breathless. What if he, or someone like him, was there right now? What were the sleeping arrangements going to be?

That was it. Melanie was away at summer camp, so nothing was preventing me from going. I killed the TV, cleared away all the empties and bags of chips, remembered for a change to delete the browsing history from Ally’s computer, and headed north in the spare car. Even though I would have buried the needle on a breathalyzer, I didn’t take it easy on the gas and the winding corridors of pines contracted in the rearview in a blur. They caused some missed turnoffs at the end and when I finally burst through Kaitlin Lynch’s front door, my imagination was so overheated I half anticipated finding Ally writhing around on the floor in the midst of a Roman orgy.

“She was on the floor – I got that much right – cross-legged in front of a Ouija board with a bunch of other women cow staring me like I was an anal prober from outer space. Not a guy in sight,” I sighed. “Because, as it turned out, none had been invited.”

Shannon fake-choked on something and fanned at the flush rising in her face with the notepad. After a couple of false starts, she made a sound like she was swallowing a walnut whole and said tremulously, “So was THAT the last time you gave this Jeff Rosenberg a thought?”

“It was,” I said tersely, my humiliation at Kaitlin Lynch’s having permanently extinguished every last flame of the wildfire paranoia that had consumed me that night. But then Shannon went and lobbed her next question which settled somewhere atop my brainstem before detonating:

“So, you don’t think anything was going on with him until after the split?”

Phoebe: What RU up to 2nite?

Me: The good money’s on Milkwood’s.

Phoebe: 🙄

Me: I may just move in there.

Phoebe: 🙄

Me: Stop impersonating my wife.

Me: *Ex-wife.

Phoebe: 🙄🙄🙄

Me: Besides, I better get the keys back to Dani. She’s well-armed and knows where I live.

Phoebe: I thought she was getting them from U?

Me: I was probably out if she came by.

Phoebe: Really? I slept all day. U go into town?

Me: Needed to get Jack and food. In that order.

Should I tell her about the keys? Earlier that morning, after I had slipped and skidded my way back through the sopping forest, the air heavy with the damp smell of decomposing leaves and soil alive with wriggling things, I wandered down to the dock jutting out alongside the red hangar. I tried turning the doorknob and sighed at its locked obstinance. Whatever. Despite the all-nighter and my liver throbbing dully in my side, I felt strangely invigorated and alive.

Squinting out across the water, a blinding white sun untethered itself from behind the dark hills on the other side, torching the last scraps of cloud and transforming the steaming lake into molten gold. Shell-shocked birds began testing their voices, the insane warbling amplified over the water, and the little waves colliding with the dock made sounds like falling coins. The air was cold and pure and had an anesthetizing effect on the cancerous sadness I suspected was changing the shape of my spine. I straightened my back and shoved my hands in my pockets. What was that? Dani’s keyring, as copiously laden with keys as a jailer’s. I wonder…

Sitting in the cockpit of the Cessna with the engine idling, calm water and blue sky framed in the hangar’s open doors, I checked the gas. Full tank. Enough to get deep into Canada. But what then? Go on the lam? Hide out in Montreal? Was Julianne Robbins even still alive? I shuddered and killed the engine. Jingling the keys in my palm, I muttered, “Locksmith, Jack, and food. In that order.”

Phoebe: 🙄

Me: There’s something else.

Phoebe: ?

Me: Are you working tomorrow?

Phoebe: Yep.

Me: Think I could pass by?

Phoebe: ?

As I exited the revolving doors of Home Depot, I was so preoccupied measuring the three freshly cut keys against the originals on Dani’s ring, I went crashing straight into a frail old black lady doddering by and almost sent her flying.

“So sorry, ma’am,” I mumbled, patting down the sleeves of her coat which might have been hollow if it weren’t for a bony hand protruding from the end of one, clutching a bag of groceries. “I didn’t break you, did I?”

“I’m good, I’m good,” she said in a creaky but vaguely familiar voice. When she finally looked up at me through the huge lenses of her wire glasses, I almost cried out in shock. It was Harold’s sister, Lucy. “Is that really you, Paul?” she said slowly, lifting her free bony hand to touch my face. “After all these years? You still look just like a remember you!”

Phoebe: OMG Paul 😢

Me: And guess where Harold’s body is?

Phoebe: No way.

Me: Way. They took him to Slater and Sampson Funeral Homes.

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 11), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 10


Chapter 10*

I crunched up a meandering path through the forest, the same one Dani had materialized from earlier that morning, as the night soaked through the last orange cinders burning on the outskirts of the sky. With the darkness came a chill air, breathing silently down the hillside through vascular networks of leafless branches, and I could see my breath in the jigging light of my phone flashlight. I shivered, my bare forearms studded with goosepimples, suddenly feeling as though I was intruding upon the misty domain of ghosts and killers. I quickened my step, cursing myself for leaving the .38 behind, until the twinkling lights of Milkwood’s beckoned up ahead where the trees parted. It was such a heartening sight, I virtually ran the rest of way and burst through the front doors like a man who had been lost in the woods for days.

“Paul!” called Dani from behind the bar, waving me over.

I slid into a plush barstool with a felt back and sighed gratefully. “Aren’t you a little young to be slinging drinks?”

“Can’t drink the stuff for 3 more years,” she said, even as I smelled beer on her breath. “But serving it is A-Okay with The Man.”

“The Man is an ass. I’ll take a Jack. Double. Neat.”

“You’re just in time. Storm’s coming.” I looked at her skeptically. There had been nothing but crisp autumn sunshine all day but no sooner had the words come out, the glasses hanging over the bar trembled and chimed against each as a thunder clap boomed overhead and rumbled slowly away with all the heaviness of a freight train. “Told you.”

“I’m not going anywhere until it’s over,” I said, and that was a fact. As short of a walk back to the cabin as it was, the thought of being in the haunted forest in a storm brought a lunatic’s twitch to my face as I lifted my glass. Draining half of it, the warm glow spreading through my stomach, my spirits were further buoyed as I swiveled around and took in my surroundings.

This was no dimly lit dive bar for the down-and-out and brokenhearted to come and nurse $1 shots at 11 o’clock in the morning. A freshly stoked log fire snapped and spat sparks from the mouth of a hearth you could park a small car in, a goofy looking mutt blissfully passed out on its back on the stone floor, oversized paws in the air, in front of it. Its human patrons also appeared relaxed, clinking glasses in the flickering light, and as oblivious as the dog to the rain thrashing the windows and the wind whistling atop the chimney with increasing determination. Also unperturbed were the faces of the long dead in the grainy 19thCentury portrait photographs competing for space on the timber wood walls with old nautical and logging paraphernalia which, perhaps a little suspicious of the newfangled camera technology before them, stared out earnestly into the future.

Through the kitchen’s open door, a cauldron-sized pot of chili simmered upon a blue ring of gaslit flame, its vapors lacing the air with a meaty garlicy aroma which, almost in sync with the thunder outside, provoked a long, staggered grumble in my belly. I realized I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and was about to flag over Dani when a cheer went up from the end of the bar where a TV was broadcasting, through sheets of rain, a heap of black and gold uniforms celebrating on a football field muddier than a battlefield. The game was over and as I watched the high-fives going around, I felt like this was the kind of place I could stay in forever and part of me hoped the storm might never end.

“You’re in luck, then,” said Dani. “We stay open until the last man – or woman – is standing.”

“You probably didn’t want to tell me that.”

“There are spare rooms upstairs too. But no renting by the hour,” she said, wagging a finger at a corner table where a man and woman, both crowding 40, had pushed their chairs together and were draped over each other like a pair of gooey eyed teenagers.

“They’re married,” I said with unwelcome certainty. “Only to other people.”

“Daddy would have a coronary.”

“Turn that up!” called a woman three stools down, pointing at the TV where the local news had come on. Dani’s face darkened and it occurred to me she might have the shotgun within reach somewhere behind the bar. But the breathless 9-1-1 urgency of the women’s voice had a commanding effect and Dani produced the remote instead.

…back in 1975, decorated Vietnam veteran, Tom Manson, and his wife Nicole Manson were killed in a horrific collision after their car was struck by a large rock dropped by an unidentified youth from the Tightrope overpass. The random senselessness of the deaths sent shockwaves through the Hillsborough community and no arrests were made in the case. But earlier today, in a statement released by his lawyer, convicted serial killer, Carrick Mayweather, scheduled to die by lethal injection later next week for the murders of 11 women throughout the Midwest in the 1980s, has admitted – more than four decades later –  to being the culprit and, in a bizarre twist, issued an apology to the Manson’s only adopted son, disgraced pilot Paul Manson who was convicted earlier this week of flying a loaded passenger jet while intoxicated. “It’s too little too late to apologize to Captain Manson, I know,” reads the statement, “but if it means anything at all, I never intended for anyone to get hurt. I was a young and stupid boy acting impulsively and I wish I’d never done what I did. It changed me. I was never the same after. I never stopped hating myself after that…”

I stared at the screen through the same stars and false colors produced by a head rush after sitting too long, the rest of the story only coming through my ears in snippets.

…swift condemnation from family members…

…all brutally raped and scalped…

…no confession, no remorse for intentional crimes…

…extreme sexual sadism…

…only a drunk pilot…

…said the teary father of Katherine Stafford, Mayweather’s final victim…

“Final victim,” snorted the woman three stools down, the last of my hallucinations banished by the loud crack the gothic ring on her fuck-you finger made as she slapped the bar. We turned to face each other, and there was a feral look in her eyes. “I,” she said in a husky voice, emphatically pointing at her belly as though she had ingested her own identity, “am the final victim.” There was something familiar about her, the way she re-crossed her legs, the loud lipstick and plumed hair, and I realized it was the woman from the train who I’d been too weak-kneed to flirt with.

“I’m Paul Manson,” I blurted. Did I actually just say that or someone else?

“I see,” she said, in the exact same neutral, I-will-reserve-judgement-on-this-for-now, tone that Ally always deployed when she said, “I see.”

Every night, hundreds of passenger aircraft take off from airports all over North America and surf the Jetstream over to Europe on only a handful of “tracks”, virtual aerial highways established by the North Atlantic Organized Track System (OTS). Once out over the ocean, bored pilots flying the congested OTS frequently chat with each other on a common radio frequency, akin to a plane-to-plane party line, until the morning sun eats the black horizon line bent over the continent and they fan out to their destination airports.

Exhibit 14-B (12-09-2012): Transcript of mid-Atlantic OTS chat between the accused, the accused’s copilot Gary Filmon, and Lufthansa captain, Maximillian Fischer

The Accused: …and not just the World Trade Center. Half of New York’s skyscrapers were built by Mohawks come down from Canada. Some bars even stocked Montreal beers, so they didn’t get too homesick.

Maximillian Fischer: I think you’re the one whose been drinking Paul.

Gary Filmon: He’s drinking right now.

The Accused: Shut up, Gary. Seriously, Mohawks are the ultimate ironworkers. It’s genetic. Zero fear of heights – none – and perfect balance. They can walk up and down steel beams sticking out 60 stories up as if they’re strolling down Fifth Avenue. And when the wind gets up, they lean right out into it, with nothing but ant people and toy cars down below. It’s incredible. They’re like cats.

Maximillian Fischer: Even if I believe you, they must wear safety belts.

The Accused: They’re supposed to, but they don’t bother. Slows them down and time is money.

Maximillian Fischer: What if the wind angle suddenly changes?

The Accused: They have to compensate just like we do. Otherwise they’re done for. I guess that’s where the cat analogy ends. I doubt even a Mohawk blown off a beam 60 stories up would land on his feet and head over to the saloon for a Canadian beer to get over it.

Maximillian Fischer: The analogy still works. A cat wouldn’t either.

The Accused: Fair enough. But then again, I did start teaching my daughter’s cat to drink beer until my wife found out and blew a gasket.

Maximillian Fischer: You’re crazier than usual tonight, Paul.

Gary Filmon: Just… [inaudible]… needs another drink.

Maximillian Fischer: Was war das? [tr.What was that?]

The Accused: Gary’s just kidding, aren’t you Gary?

Gary Filmon: Whatever.

The Accused: Now, if cats were bigger and had opposable thumbs…

The prosecutor, Frank Hill, abruptly shut off the recording and studied the ceiling, as if some undiscovered elemental truth of the world were housed in its unreachable emptiness, feet apart, hands gripping his hips in a sheriff’s stance. He was a contrast in dimensions to Holden, thin in his suit which hung from him like scarecrow’s clothing on sticks, fleshless face and black hair cropped short to deemphasize it’s retreat to the top of his narrow head. His age was indiscernible but when he frowned, which was often, a wilderness of exhaustion lines broke around his hawkish eyes. He was frowning now, exasperated by the bemused expressions on the faces of the jurors as they continued reading the transcript.

He coughed and said, “As you can see, this transcript is dated from 7 years ago and supports testimony you’ve heard that the accused regularly flew while inebriated.”

“Objection, your honor!” bellowed Holden, laboring to his feet. “There is nothing in the transcript indicating my client was inebriated. In fact…”

I tuned out. Seven years ago. I was at the height of my powers then, ageless and brimming with confidence, my life on a steady upward trajectory like the 777s I flew out of JFK on clear windless nights. No matter what I did I somehow remained prophylactically shielded from the natural consequences of reckless behavior, inoculated from the retaliatory karmic wheel Ally so firmly believed in. But with each bullet that whizzed harmlessly by, I counted on Jack to arrest and drown the latent knowledge that would stir in the pit of my stomach and make my skin cold: this can’t last, and the wheel will turn.

Juror #7 giggled loudly into her hand and, reprimanded by another furious frown from Frank Hill, a crimson flush spread up from where an extra button on her blouse had been either deliberately left open or had given out under bust strain to her jawline where unnecessarily heavy makeup hid its advance. She let go of the transcript, which was carried to the center of the courtroom floor by a rogue current of air, and sat on her hands like a recently quit smoker in the throes of a craving. When Frank Hill resumed trying to convince the judge of the transcript’s relevance, she glanced over at me through a stray curl of yellow hair and pulled on the side of her lower lip with her two front teeth. Holden noticed this and a bronchial chuckle rolled through his cavernous chest. “I think Marilyn Monroe is in love. This couldn’t have backfired worse for Frank,” he whispered gleefully in my ear. “By the way, is this Fischer guy a friend of yours you haven’t told me about?”

“What about friends,” said Shannon, opening her mouth wide and, as usual, tapping away at a tooth with the end of her pen.I was equally divided on whether this habit of hers was intensely erotic or, like now, maddening enough to snatch away the pen and holster it in her eye.

“Friends?” I said taken aback as if she had switched from English to a foreign language I was supposed to know but didn’t.

“Yes, you know – friends.”

defn. friend noun: a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.

Harold fit the definition, but I hadn’t seen him since I was 16. Bob Calloway was a sibling relationship in all but genetic makeup. Max Fischer, even though we had roamed Berlin’s dark arteries on the couple of occasions we were there at the same time, he was an OTS acquaintance who popped up occasionally on the radio in accordance with the vagaries of the wind. Most of the guys in my JAL 123 simulator pool I hadn’t even met. And then it struck me all at once: throughout my entire adult life, I had relied almost solely on Ally for mutual affection. She was all I had ever needed but being both a sexual and family relation, she was doubly disqualified.

“Paul?” said Shannon, setting down the pen. She wore the expression of a parent confronted with the dreaded quiver chin of a baby.

“I don’t have any friends!” I wailed.

The sodden woodchips carpeting Milkwood’s tiny parking lot squelched underfoot as we walked out to her car, an anemic dawn light nudging through the last of the storm clouds still wringing themselves out as they retreated over the hills. “Sure I can’t give you a lift?” she said, shaking a bent cigarette out of a half crushed pack of Marlboros.

“I’m just a few minutes down there,” I said waving at a ragged black hole in the dripping trees that could have passed for the gates to the underworld.

“I can’t believe we’ve been sitting in there all night.” I couldn’t either. As if in answer to my wishes, the storm had raged on and off, mostly on, until the small hours of the morning. And we just stayed and stayed, talking and talking, and it seemed not to matter which version of myself I was projecting. At 10 pm, I scowled away Dani when she slipped me a note that read Remember no renting by the hour! At midnight she was offering me a room for free for the night. By 2 am, with everyone gone and me stoking the fire myself, Dani handed me the keys to the bar and said, “Just lock up whenever you guys leave. I’ll get them from you tomorrow.”

“I can’t either.”

“You still have my card, right?” she said in a rainy voice through a great cloud of smoke and condensation. “Don’t forget to put me in your phone.”

“I won’t.”

“I could sure use a friend right now, Paul.”

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 10), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 9


Chapter 9*

To please Ally I had kept my hair spartanly cropped after losing a bet with Melanie but now, in an effort to conceal my identity, I had started growing it out. But having been recognized twice in as many days, I resolved to stop shaving as well and, as I stroked the bristles on the haggard face in the mirror, I was taken aback to see them lightly salted with gray. Had these ghost sticks materialized overnight? And now, as I parted my head hair with my fingers, a few strands as white as bone revealed themselves in the thick sea of black. Thick? What had those breezes been doing at the back there recently? An antique hand mirror lay on the toilet tank lid and holding it behind my head I was mortified to observe a salmon colored patch of scalp the size of a quarter at its crown. Is this how it had begun for Gary?

What’s happening to me? Despite my violent conception and Pavlovian submission to unhealthy temptations, by some genetic fluke my body had remained virtually unscathed by the corrosive effects of age.

“Unbelievable,” Ally muttered on our 25th anniversary as she stabbed at my cheeks with a fingertip. “So springy. Not a single line. Did you make some pact with the devil? Are you Dorian Gray? Is there a hideous portrait of you locked away up in the attic?”

“I can’t pretend to know what you’re talking about. As usual.”

“Your face is just as tight and smooth as the day we met. No slackness at all. How is it possible for a man your age? Are you immune to gravity? It’s not fair.” It’s true it wasn’t fair. Ally’s own youthfulness had been hard won; the result of an Islamic devotion to exercise and nutrition, oceans of creams and lotions, and a resolutely temperate relationship with wine and pot. Even so, she bemoaned the crow’s feet that forked from the corners of her eyes, like ice cracking, when she smiled and the slight flattening of her solid breasts down her sides when she lay on her back. “It’s black magic,” she concluded.

“Could be. I’m half African American, after all. We age better than you Caucasian types.”

“I can’t look at you anymore!” Ally hollered, pretending to smother me with a pillow.

I had also been unaffected by the mounting anxiety that beset Ally, as if she were terminally ill, in the days fleeing the calendar prior to a decade turn, her unrelenting war on age having commenced at the stroke of midnight on her 30th birthday. But something was changing. There was an aging stranger, turkey flesh accumulating at his elbows, staring back at me and Ally’s perennial lament “where does all the time go?” seemed to warp the glass of the mirror as it shimmied through me and, perhaps to punish me for a lifetime of indifference to mortality, filled me with the coldest dread.

“You’re going to die,” said the stranger flatly. Is it possible that captaining planes all over the world like a big shot, all the hotel cocktails along the way with besotted women, a devoted family waiting back home in a big comfortable house, had instilled in me a fearless invincibility (confirmed by the Lajes landing) that had somehow forestalled the aging process? And now that these things are gone, will I soon be gone with them as my body races to catch up with and overtake stolen time, found dead in a cell, my ashes blown into directionless air from the chimney of a prison crematorium, not even a blood smear left, the memories of me held in dismay by those misfortunate enough to be encumbered by them?

I touched the glass with trembling fingers, the stranger’s face a picture of naked terror. “Who are you?” I whispered, my heart banging against my sternum like the insistent ringing of iron bells.

The Acceleration of Time

Years of life Feels like… Relationship with time
0-20 y.o. 60 Time is too slow! More birthdays! More birthdays!
20-35 y.o. 40 Sweet spot = 28 y.o. but future birthdays now unwelcome!
35-50 y.o. 10 From still young to deep middle age in a wink! Make time stop!
50-65 y.o. ? 7 ? A senior what?! Time is evil!
65-80 y.o. ? 5 ? 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

“I want to testify. They’re making me out to be a monster. I’m not a monster, Holden.”

“I’m really not sure I want you on the stand,” said Holden, leaning back in a groaning desk chair and interlocking his fingers across a belly of such misshapen substance you could imagine a set of deformed triplets coming to term in there. Drumming on it with his thumbs, he studied me unblinking, serene, through the lenses of black 1950s-style glasses so thick they magnified his beady green eyes to bullfrog-like proportions. I looked away, nettled by his conspicuous silence on my monstrousness.

“Why not?” I growled.

“Let’s see how it goes with Bob Calloway. He’s a good witness for us. He should make an impact.”

“I can make an impact.”

“You certainly can.”

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

“I just realized it now,” he said and frowned disapprovingly at a teetering stack of legal binders on his desk as though it, by some ventriloquist’s trick, had spoken the words. “Sorry.”

“Why don’t you want me to testify?”

Holden stroked his heavy pink jowls, making a raspy sandpaper sound. The light was fading from the glass wall behind him and yellow rectangles, like blocks of butter, were appearing down the sides of Midtown’s dark towers. He exhaled slowly and the minty antiseptic odor on his breath contained all the foreboding of painful dentistry. “I’m going to tell it to you straight, alright?”

“Please.”

“Whenever we sit here and go over this case, your story changes depending on which Paul I’m dealing with.”

“Which Paul?”

“See, one day you tell your story in a nice straight line, okay? You’re articulate and sympathetic and all the pieces fit together like Lego. The next, you’re all over the map,” he said, drawing a big sweeping circle in the air with a sausage finger. “Rambling, contradictory, angry, self-pitying and, honestly, it feels like I’m talking to someone else.”

“I don’t fucking believe this.”

“Exactly. I’m sorry, Paul, but you are an unreliable witness.”

“Why, there you are!” cried Dorothy, gliding up to me at the smaller of the makeshift bars furthest away from the dancefloor where Sarah Calloway was leading a snaking conga line, dress straps slipping from her perspiring shoulders as she shook a pair of maracas to the beat of Hot Hot Hot drifting up into the storm of stars cartwheeling across the unambiguous sky of the Deep South. “Only you would take cover from your own wedding.”

“It’s only a matter of time before the DJ gets the ABBA out. I can smell it.”

“Don’t be silly, dear. You’re in Texas now. That would be a capital offense.” She draped a ring-laden hand over my shoulder and kissed my cheek wetly the way mothers kiss little children. At least the way I imagined mothers kiss little children. The way I remembered my mother kissing me at bedtime, benign rain tapping at the window, my eyes heavy from the day and knowing I would soon be lulled to deep, untroubled sleep by the gentle sounds of my parents’ voices floating upstairs with the familiar buzz of the television news. Why did Dorothy love me so much? Her face didn’t light up for people, even Ally it seemed, with the unalloyed pleasure it did for me.

“I don’t care much for flying,” she had once told me bluntly. “There’s no mystery to travel anymore.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“No, really. I saw the world by cargo ship back in the 50s and 60s. I’m not talking about namby-pamby passenger ships, mind. This was freighter travel and you had to be self-sufficient. There was no entertainment except for a small space for shuffleboard, no cruise director. You ate with the officers and supplied your own alcohol. Glorious!”

“You did this by yourself?”

“I certainly did. You made friends along the way and, naturally, there were men now and then. One even had the nerve to put Ally in my belly in the end,” she said, her voice trailing off, eyes glazed with bittersweet nostalgia. When I cleared my throat, she shook her head and said brightly, “But what a bigger, more adventurous world it was! Distances meant something and homesickness could crush you if you let it. Even the basic New York to London crossing took almost a week, you know.”

“Almost a month back in the days of sail. When you were just a girl.”

“I’m just going to let that one slide,” she said slowly and evenly, screwing a cigarette into a black cigarette holder the length of a wand and lighting it. “For now. But wouldn’t it be just a dream to live back in the frontier days? Days when… when there were places where the maps ended.”

“I’ve gone to places where the maps ended,” I said and immediately wondered where that make-believe had come from.

Dorothy looked at me quizzically, eyes like supernovas, and spoke through darts of blue smoke: “I knew you were special, Paul. I knew it.”

The opening glissando of Dancing Queen tumbled from the speakers and brought me back to where I was. “I knew it,” I said, glaring at Dorothy.

“He’ll get the needle for this,” she said dryly, shoveling air with the backs of her hands towards the dancefloor where Ally and Sarah had begun grinding lewdly. It seemed by now even the dogs roaming around had had too much to drink. “I’ll see to it.” A tic then seized Dorothy’s uptilted chin and traveled violently through the side of her face. I was about to start chiding her for her continuing refusal to see a doctor when Ally’s younger brother, a buff hayseed with too many tattoos ironically named Newton, emerged from the darkness of the surrounding fields. A flushed bridesmaid with crushed bluebonnets in her hair giggled on his arm and they lurched off towards the psychotropic lights cast from the lazily rotating disco ball. “He’s not a bad boy, really,” sighed Dorothy staring after them. “Just swapped out his head for a bag of hammers at some point. When he was little, he strolled through a game of horseshoes and took one straight in the face. Could be it started then.”

“Seems like a good enough kid,” I said with a shrug.

“He’s unreliable. Gets laid too much for his own good, if you ask me.”

“He’s young.”

“You’re young,” she said curtly and gripped my hand as if we were ascending the lift hill of a monster rollercoaster. “I see the turmoil in you, Paul. It’s a sign of intelligence and you don’t bullshit around with it. You work it. That’s how you got to be an airline pilot at your age. That’s how you got Ally. That’s how you got me.”

The word tumbled from his fat mouth like a sack of leaking trash out the back of a hydraulically masticating garbage truck. Unperturbed by it, he leaned back in his persecuted chair once more and steepled his hands, face all lawyerly smugness. My eyes felt like they were hardening in their sockets and might slip out and go bouncing across his desk like a pair of dropped marbles.

“Unreliable?”

“Look, Paul,” he said suddenly fidgeting nervously, as well he might be as I was picturing him no longer there, only a gaping Holden-sized hole in the glass wall left of him.

“Save it,” I said, willing myself to my feet and heading for the door.

“Paul…”

“If my mother-in-law were still alive to hear you say that, she’d piss in a cup and make you drink it.”

Paris Syndrome: Lured by popular culture depicting Paris as the City of Light, muse to artists and philosophers, where beautiful roundeyed Caucasians clad in the latest Chanel and Louis Vuitton wander from one smoky café to the next through warrens of cobblestone streets lined with fairytale buildings and flowering chestnut trees, several million Japanese tourists per year embark on the grueling 12-hour flight to Paris, their expectations higher than the stratosphere they’re traveling through. Confronted with the diametrical opposite of those expectations after they arrive, the disappointment (in combination with severe jetlag and language barriers) can trigger culture shock and homesickness so profound some begin to literally lose their minds. Psychiatric symptoms include:

  • Delusional states
  • Hallucinations
  • Feelings of persecution (e.g. from psychopathic waiters)
  • Derealization
  • Depersonalization
  • Anxiety
  • Psychosomatic manifestations including vertigo, racing heart, sweating, vomiting 

The Japanese embassy in Paris even runs a 24-hour hotline for victims of the syndrome and every year repatriates as many as 20 of the acutest sufferers, flying them home with a doctor in tow to ensure they recover from the shock.

It would have taken Dorothy Hightower more than 7 weeks to sail the 13,000 nautical miles that separate France from Japan.

I stood in shards of broken mirror wrapping a bandage around my hand, the last of Dani’s beers almost finished and teetering on the edge of the blood-spattered sink. It would look like I had been fighting but I was determined to go and check out Milkwood Inn, the triangles of its old gabled roof just visible above the trees from my kitchen window, putting trust in Dani’s word that she would keep a lid on it about my identity.

“I don’t think you got such a fair shake,” she had mused earlier in the day as I stared longingly at her father’s Cessna bobbing on its pontoons through windows begrimed with pine resin and bug corpses.

Startled by this unexpected charity, I mock shouted, “Where were you during jury selection?!”

“No, really. If you hadn’t been half in the bag, they would’ve pinned a medal on you.”

“Maybe a little more than half. So where were you when I was looking for an attorney?”

“I’m serious,” she said snapping closed the shotgun as if she were about to fire off a round to make a point of it.

“You got a reason for lugging that canon around, anyway? Something I don’t know about?”

“There was a ‘Green Man sighting’ – she air quoted – “around here last night.”

“Green Man? You got aliens in these parts?”

“No, no!” she laughed through an even set of impossibly young, unblemished white teeth. “It’s probably only poor Raymond Richards. Came back from Iraq with green skin and most of his face melted off. Walks around the woods in the middle of the night because he got tired of making people scream.”

“Probably?”

“Definitely, okay? And Raymond’s harmless. Daddy’s just a worrywart.”

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 9), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 8


Chapter 8*

A warm bar of sun infiltrating a gap in the heavy curtains fell across my face and lit up the backs of my gummy eyelids. I hauled myself up in the old bed, its springs protesting loudly as if they too were affronted by the daylight. I was still dressed, the bottle of Jack from the train empty and on its side on the floor, but at least I had managed to kick off my muddy shoes, a broken twig gripped in the treads of one of them. The dead air was rank from the toxins and dirty travel I had oozed into it throughout night.

Throwing open the curtains and windows, I gulped down the crisp air. It tasted like pine and sunshine and through a scattering of trees the ripples on the lake glittered like strings of silver jewelry. I staggered into the microscopic bathroom and, daring not so much as a glance in the mirror, endured some loud and painful moments on the toilet before squeezing myself into the shower stall where I stayed, primitive plumbing clanging, until the hot water ran out and I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face for the steam. Groping around for a towel, I realized there weren’t any and made my way out onto the small patio out back, an erratic wet foot pattern on the wood floor in my wake. Standing in a spotlight of sun, I stretched out my arms and steam billowed from my scalded skin in the cold air as though I were on fire. I could feel my inflamed insides gratefully ungluing themselves from my ribcage and, closing my eyes, I listened to the urgent morning birdsong hurtling back and forth through the trees. Then a crunching footfall made me swing around.

“And good morning to you too!” chirped a young girl with a Russian style fur hat jammed atop a heap of flaxen hair and an open shotgun slung over her forearm.

“Who the hell are you! And what are you doing on my property? What do you –” Realizing my genitals were flapping around in unison with my agitation, I cut myself off and planted my hands firmly on my hips, chin raised haughtily. “Well?” I demanded with all the authority of a man clad in a freshly pressed captain’s uniform.

“Whoa! Sorry Mr. Manson! Didn’t you see the note I left for you inside?”

“What note?”

“I’m Craig Sanstead’s daughter. You know, the owner? We heard about your train, so daddy asked me to come down last night and put a few things in the fridge for you. There’s milk, eggs, a couple of beers, a –”

“Beer? Really?” I said, marching with purpose into the cabin.

“– I tried calling, but you didn’t answer,” she concluded as I reemerged with a half-chugged beer in one hand and the note in the other:

Welcome Paul Manson! I put some stuff in the fridge if you’re hungry or thirsty, but I forgot the towels. Ooops! I’ll come by in the morning with some. I’ll call first so I don’t startle you. 

Dani (Craig Sanstead’s daughter).

PS- the Wi-Fi code is Milkwoodinn1776

“Thanks for this,” I said, and I meant it. “I see my simulator got installed too. That’s excellent.”

“Don’t you have any other stuff?”

“Gave it all to the wife.” It was then I noticed, on the other side of the patio, a tree stump with a large splitting axe buried in it which I momentarily envisioned bringing down on Jeff Rosenburg’s head, making it pop in a cloud of red just like JFK’s in frame 313 of the Zapruder film.

“Wife?”

“Ex-wife, I suppose,” I muttered, chewing off a flap of skin on the side of my thumbnail, knowing it would soon be a throbbing torment for doing so. “Say, is there anything in the boathouse down there?” I said, pointing at a red barnlike structure peeking through the trees further up the shoreline. “Looks almost like a hangar.”

“It is a hangar. That’s where daddy parks his Cessna.”

“Really?” I said, draining the beer. “Can I take a look?”

“Sure, but as fascinating as your old unsnipped junk is – it’s starting to turn blue out here, by the way – are you ever going to put any clothes on? Or did your wife, ex-wife, literally take the shirt off your back too?” Dani reddened in pleasure at her cleverness while I clamped my hands tightly over my groin like one of those nervous soccer players. “I only just turned eighteen, you know,” she said with a withering wink, shifting the broken gun barrel to her other forearm. “Barely legal!” she called after me as I fled inside the cabin, the screen door crashing behind me.

8:46 am

“Look Daddy, there’s an airplane up in the sky,” gurgled Melanie through a mouthful of breakfast, half of which lay on the patio’s flagstones. I followed the line of her fork, its tines dripping blueberry pancake gore, and saw the streaking 767.

“It’s awfully low, isn’t it, Paul?” said Ally, baring her fangs at the crisp blue sky just as the plane banked at a sharp angle.

I clapped my hand over Melanie’s eyes, almost knocking her from her booster, and Ally gasped as a delayed concussive thud rolled in. “What’s happening?! Let me see! Let me see!” squealed Melanie.

9:03 am

Ignoring her incensed protests, Ally had dispatched Melanie to the park with the bewildered nanny and we were now in front of the TV watching black smoke belching from the North Tower and listening to the clueless speculations of the commentators. Ally held my hand in a death grip in her lap and I yanked my tie off over my head with my free hand, certain I would no longer be reporting to JFK as scheduled today. “Do you think the pilot maybe had a heart attack or something?” asked Ally weakly, desperately.

“Could be,” I lied. The flight path had been calculated and deliberate and I was suddenly seized by a familiar skin-tingling awe: the power of that! and I shook my head as though a sticky cobweb had just broken across my face.

“Oh my God!” cried Ally through the knuckle between her teeth, the surging fireball on the TV screen reminding me of the view from the window of my school when my parents’ car exploded.

9:34 am

“Paul,” croaked Bob Calloway down the phone. “It’s Sarah. Sarah’s up the South Tower.”

“What? No.”

“Her cell phone’s gone dead. I can’t get through anymore.”

“She’ll be okay,” I said, cursing the lack of conviction I heard in my voice.

“She was standing on a desk, the floor was so hot. She said she couldn’t see anything in the smoke. She can’t get to a window. She’s burning, Paul, I know it. I know it!” he shrieked and hung up before I could speak.

9:59 am

The South Tower buckled at the blackened impact zone, lurched sideways and vanished into the floors below, thundering and vomiting volcanic smoke and ash in their sequential annihilation, like a great mouth at ground level was sucking the entire structure back into the earth from where it had risen.

I blinked at the screen and said, “Sarah Calloway was in there,” and I wondered if she had still been alive, still conscious, just for a moment even, under that pulverizing avalanche of concrete, glass, and steel. What had been her last thought? Ally began making shallow hyperventilating noises and buried her face in her hands. I put my hand on her back and felt her heartbeat, strong and alive, pounding through it.

I called Bob Calloway. He didn’t answer but, after an eternity of ringing, an ebullient voicemail greeting finally came on:

Hi, this is Bob! It’s a great day to be flying isn’t it?! So, leave a message and I’ll be sure to get back to you as soon as I hit the ground!

10:21 pm

Ally had dropped a sleeping pill and crawled into bed with Melanie who, having spent the entire day being lured from one playground to the next with the promise of more ice cream, was out like a light. I poured a fresh drink and returned to the patio. With both towers now amputated from the skyline I could barely recognize lower Manhattan even though the smell of phantom pain lingered in the slick of smoke smearing out the stars.

I tilted my head back and gazed up into my vacated workplace, the sky, now reclaimed in whole by its rightful owner, the birds. For how long? Forever, if Ally had her way. “That could have been you, Paul… it so easily could have been you. I can’t bear it. I just. I can’t. I won’t!” she had wailed, her face and voice so distorted by catabolic emotion they were unfamiliar and, impersonating a Melanie tantrum, flung my uniform to the floor and ground the ball of her foot into it over and over, hips swinging, as if crushing out lit cigarettes. “The world has gone crazy! Poor Bob! I mean… What?! What is this world now?! Just insane!” she hollered, pointing hand pistols at her temples that I could almost believe were about to go off.

I sighed and thought about Melanie sleeping soundly upstairs, Ally holding on to her with the same desperation a non-swimmer holds on to a life preserver. It occurred to me that if she lived to be over 100, an entirely plausible prospect these days (assuming she doesn’t get incinerated by terrorists along the way), she would see the dawn of the 22nd Century. What kind of crazy, insane world would it be by then? I was tempted to go upstairs, shake Ally awake, and ask her but finished my drink beneath the abandoned sky instead.

The singularity will occur when artificial intelligence has advanced to the point where there is nothing any human being can do that a machine can’t do as well or better. Projections include translating languages (2024), writing high school essays (2026), driving trucks and flying airplanes (2027), working in retail (2031), writing bestselling novels (2049), preforming surgery (2053). It is expected machines will outperform humans in ALL tasks (including the creation of literature, music, and visual arts) sometime between 2060 and 2100, leaving the vast majority of the world’s population idle and unemployable. As machines continue to exponentially outpace themselves into the future, humans will return to being little more than simple, biological animals with levels of intelligence and ingenuity that are today ascribed to dogs.

Bob dropped the better part of 10,000 dollars to bury a coffin full of air in a shady corner of Calvary Cemetery in Queens. After it had been lowered into the grave at the end of the service, his older son, recently arrived at the gates of puberty, ignored Bob’s nudge and refused to step forward to throw a clod of dirt on it. Giving perfect expression to what the rest of us were thinking, he folded his arms across his chest and said sulkily, “This is stupid. There’s nothing down there but an expensive box.”

Bob’s face went the purple color of the sky in the moments before a storm. “Your mother’s spirit is down there, Franklin,” he said, measuring out each word slowly so as not to explode. This provoked a mournful sound from his younger son who pointed at the priest and howled, “he said Mom’s spirit is up in heaven, not down there!”

“Yeah!” shouted Franklin who now stepped forward, hawked up a fat slug from the pits of his lungs and spat it into the grave. It landed with a vile splat on the lid of the coffin followed by stunned silence. Bob was staring at Franklin with such unbridled loathing, muscles twitching wildly beneath the fabric of his suit, I feared he might solve the problem of the coffin’s emptiness by murdering Franklin right there and stuffing him into it. I stepped between them and gently pushed Franklin out of the range of Bob’s clenched fists.

“He’s just a boy who wants his mom back, Bob. He doesn’t mean it,” I whispered in his ear, patting the concrete pec barricading his shattered heart. He sank to his knees beside the grave and bawled incoherent apologies into its darkness while the priest began shepherding the rattled onlookers from the cemetery.

For the next nine years, Bob visited Sarah’s marker every week with fresh flowers and spruced it up every spring after the winter’s muck had run off. I suspected this might be precisely because there was no vestigial violence in the ground there. I had never visited my parent’s gravesite knowing their blown-up bits of remains lay there. Harold had never brought himself to visit his shot-up father’s either. But then, in the spring of 2010, a team of anthropologists and archeologists, combing through the Fresh Kills Landfill (yes, that’s actually its name) on Staten Island, found a flake of concrete with a blood smear on it containing Sarah Calloway’s DNA. So delighted was Bob to have finally “found Sarah”, he had the coffin exhumed and reburied with the flake inside it. It came as no surprise to me when he told me, years later, he never visited the marker again after that.

When I returned to the patio, opening a fresh beer, Dani was still there standing in the same spot, whistling tunelessly and tapping at her phone. She looked up and delivered a broad dimply smile. “Why, I hardly recognize you with clothes on.”

“There’s no need to keep proving to me you’re a smartass. It’s obvious enough.”

“Thanks.”

“Weren’t you here to give me some towels?”

“Right!” she said, snapping her fingers in front of her face and crossing her eyes. She set down the shotgun and unslung her backpack. Slim in a boyish way and dressed in snug forest green clothing, she was every bit the woodland imp albeit a heavily armed one. “Here,” she said, pushing a pile of towels into my chest. “Use is optional, you know.”

“And weren’t you going to show me the plane?” I sighed.

“Okay. Why anyway? Oh wait, I forgot. You’re a pilot, aren’t you?”

“Used to be,” I sighed again, putting the beer to my lips. “Recently retired.”

Dani looked out at the water and gave me a sidelong glance, readjusting her hat. “I just realized you look kind of familiar. Aren’t you that pilot –”

“Yes, yes. I’m THAT pilot.”

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 8), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in Angle of Attack | Leave a comment