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.

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The Angle of Attack: First Intermission & Chapter 7


FIRST INTERMISSION

He hitchhiked the dark highways of the Midwest with a hazy notion of ending up in California but, as days bled into weeks and weeks into months, he only ever headed wherever the truckers who picked him up were headed and, never making it much past Nebraska, woke up one day to the disquieting realization he had become a drifter. Finding sporadic work in the fields and factories, even a short stint in a Walmart where he stole a .38 Special revolver before getting canned, he could afford a Motel 6 when the weather got rough. Usually though, preferring to hold on to the little cash he had, he settled for abandoned buildings and underpasses where oil drums burned through the night, their infernal orange glow making flickering shadows in the piles of trash and the outcasts, snoring and calling out in their sleep, among them.

Along the way, portents of damnation, marked out in inconsistent letters, ever loomed roadside on huge peeling billboards:

Hell is Real

LUST DRAGS you down to HELL

855-THE-TRUTH

 

Life is short. Eternity isn’t.

~God

 

GO TO CHURCH

Or the Devil will find you!

 

Where will you spend Eternity?

 

It’s your choice… Heaven or HELL

Read John 3:36 and call 855-301-3343

On those occasions he did check in to a motel, he would read John 3:36 along with other verses he had scribbled down from the billboards before they receded into the shadows in the elongated side mirrors of the semis: Psalm 9:17, 2 Thessalonians 1:19, Matthew 13:50, Jude 1:7… And he liked the Revelation verses best, those fiery lakes of burning sulfur, and would pore over them, lips moving silently. Then he would return the bible to the nightstand drawer, grab the inevitable package of complimentary condoms that came with it and, with the .38 shoved down the back of his pants, wander out into the night and down the empty freeway in search of somewhere worthless to use them.

He began cobbling together high school credits via correspondence courses and, now with no more money in his pockets, time passed in a hardscrabble blur until, as winter approached, his itinerancy opened up sores on his fleshless body, put a rattle in his lungs, and flecked the radioactive phlegm he coughed up in the cold mornings with blood.

On one such morning, in an alleyway on the outskirts of Chicago, he was shaken awake by a reedy man with a reedier face wearing a long suede coat with elephant ear lapels and armed with a hunting knife. Before he could reach for the .38, the reedy man stepped lightly on his wrist and put a finger to his lips. “Easy kid,” he said, leaning down to get a better look. “I’m not going to hurt you. How old are you?”

“Seventeen. What’s it to you?”

“If you’d like to update that estimate to eighteen, I think you could make a lot of money. Wouldn’t you like to make a lot of money, kid?”

In the weeks that followed, his fortunes U-turned just as the reedy man, who went by the name of Carbine, predicted. He paid calls to women and men alike, of all ages, shapes, and sizes, who didn’t mind blowing half a month’s pay to satisfy their darker impulses and secret fetishes. It became apparent that the more he was willing to do, the more they would pony up and he started swimming in money, even after Carmine took his massive cut. And it was during this time he learned the art of detachment, stepping outside himself and watching from above, a sort of consciously enforced out-of-body experience, as the calls became rougher, testing the bounds of legality.

Early in the spring he completed high school, had his tooth fixed with a gold crown, replaced the silver crucifix around his neck with a heavy 18 Karat gold one that thumped against his chest when he ran, packed up his clothes with the .38 and Carbine’s hunting knife, snorted the last of the cocaine that had focused him when he worked, bought a 40 of Jack, and boarded a bus to New York City where pilot training and blue skies awaited.

§

Chapter 7

I hadn’t really noticed it before, perhaps because he had rarely taken off his faux military cap in my presence, but the back of Gary’s skull, from bald crown to plunging hair fringe, was flat rather than dome shaped, as though it had been lopped off by a great scythe. He had grown up in rural Oklahoma and I imagined him as a boy, roaming lost in the towering stalks of a wheat field at unawares of an approaching combine. Diminished cranial capacity resulting from a thresher blade accident might explain the dimwittedness he was now showcasing on the witness stand.

As my lawyer rose for his cross-examination, Gary frowned at the damp patches blooming from his armpits in such consternation you would think he was leaking blood rather than perspiring. He cast a weak, sorry-I’m-dying-over-here, smile towards the jury box.

“So, even though Captain Manson’s piloting skills were widely regarded as exemplary prior to the incident, you claim he drank both before and during every flight you ever had with him?”

“Yes.”

“How did you know he drank before flying? Did he smell of alcohol when he got on board?”

“No.”

“Did he slur his words?”

“No.”

“Unsteady on his feet?”

“No.”

“Well, how then?!”

“His eyes. They’re always sort of misty and droopy when he’s been drinking. Just like they are right now…” I felt my breath catch in my throat as I heard Melanie’s giggly child voice chiding me, “Daddy, you got Daddy Eyes again!” and tried to squeeze the minibar bottle in my pocket out of existence. Before my lawyer could heap scorn on Gary’s accusation, the jurors had swung around as one and their dull, squinting eyes were now appraising the clearness and openness of mine. Staring them down, I actively hated these anonymous strangers hypocritically sitting in judgment of me. I knew I was guilty of what I stood accused of and, but for the intolerable prospect of jailtime, I would have waived my right to a trial and pleaded guilty. But what of them?

“…only alleged manifestation of impairment…” (Juror #8, with his tight smirk and tight suit, suffers chronic erectile dysfunction with his wife but not with his neighbor’s golden retriever…)

“…severe turbulence and a microburst came out of nowhere…” (Juror #2, with her throat pouch and dirty hair, is a lonely kleptomaniac who wears stolen panties before selling them online…)

“…could have been much worse than a tailstrike had you been at the controls…” (Juror #5, with his red bulldog face and wheezing, is a wizard in the KKK who pays for sex with black transvestites…)

“…after all these years, you still haven’t made captain… (Juror #11, with her haunted eyes and scooped out face, has brutal post-partum depression and wants to drown her children in the “perfect pool” her husband has just replaced her garden with…)

“…are, in fact, afraid of flying?”

Snapping out of it, I turned to face Gary who looked like he had just been dipped in boiling oil. He labored to rub an imaginary mop of hair back from his forehead with both his palms and then gripped the ledge of the witness stand as if it were about to take off. “That is a lie,” he said slowly through gritted teeth. “Paul has always been a pathological liar and master deceiver. Just ask his wife.”

As it turned out, Ally was next on the prosecution’s list of witnesses.

~

“So, this is Paul, the guy I’ve been telling you about,” said Ally excitedly as she fruitlessly tried to stroke out the creases on the front of my uniform. “Just in all the way from South Korea and came straight here from the airport so as not to miss you.”

“Really nice to meet you, Mrs. Hightower,” I lied, extending my hand.

Sitting upright on the barstool in a black cape dress, slim and elegantly gentrified, she gripped my hand with a masculine firmness and said with an unmistakable Texan twang, “Ah, the man who is literally going places.” I had to take a step back. Her gemstone eyes were so brilliant and piercing I could imagine small fires ablaze in their cores. “Sit with me,” she said patting the stool beside her, “I won’t bite, and the bar wench can fix you a drink.”

“Very funny, mom!” piped Ally who’d already ducked behind the bar to get me a Jack.

“And I’ll have another sherry, dear.” Sherry? Isn’t that what closet botanists drink in English novels?

“Well, cheers Mrs. Hightower,” I said.

“Don’t be absurd,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Call me Dorothy and mean it.”

“Cheers, Dorothy,” I said and, impulsively abandoning all pretense, knocked back the double in one epic swallow. “Make it another bar wench,” I said thickly through the vapors. Ally planted her fists on her hips, mouth agape.

“Oh, I like this one,” drawled Dorothy through a crooked smile, her alabaster face only lightly cracked by time. As she looked me over top-to-bottom, with a keenness absent moments ago, I was seized by a powerful sense those nuclear eyes were somehow seeing right through the delusive uniform and charting the dark shapes tectonically shifting beneath. “Why don’t you tell me how you came to be a pilot so young.” Translation: “Why don’t you tell me what exactly it is you’re running from.”

“It’s really the only thing I’ve ever been any good at.” Translation: “Everything.”

“Apparently not the only thing,” she said cheerily with a nod at Ally, who frowned. She lifted her glass and put it down again just before it reached her lips. Then it happened: her right eye squeezed shut as if suddenly afflicted by an ice-cream headache and a corkscrewing spasm passed up through her face and out the top of her head.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What was that?”

“What was what, dear?”

~

The palm frond umbrella rustled under a light breeze, its shadow retreating from the broiling white sand as the sun slung itself higher into the broad blue sky colored by the sails of paragliders. We would soon have to drag our loungers closer to its wooden trunk to keep under the shade. I stretched out my legs and, over the tops of my sand-caked feet, the bright turquoise sea sizzled and frothed up and down the beach which stretched off into the distance until heat mirages disintegrated the scattered shapes of oily sunbathers. A whiff of grilling fish and sliced fruits stuck in the air and a salsa beat drifted down from one of the bars.

“Getting hot,” I said as I sucked piña colada from an IV tube rigged to two plastic coconuts holstered to either side of my straw cowboy hat.

“I think I’ll get in the water,” said Ally sleepily. She had nodded off, a dogeared paperback face down on her chest like it had been shot in the back.

“I got to go fill up my hat.”

Ally made an awkward sound somewhere between a snort and a sigh, sat up in the lounger and looked out across the beach from under her hand. Close to the water, a stocky old Coonhound wearing a red bandana for a collar nonchalantly stomped through a sand castle some kids had been working on all morning and then, in answer to their anguished cries, turned back and urinated on it. I had to spit out a mouthful of piña colada so as not to choke on my own laughter. Ally gave me a dark look which blackened further when a couple of young girls in strings jiggled past.

“Unbelievable,” Ally muttered. “Right in front of me.”

“What?”

“Am I really here?” she asked, pinching herself. “Do I actually exist?”

“I ask myself that question almost every day.”

“You didn’t see the way those two were looking at you? Even with that ridiculous Hawaiian shirt on and that fucking thing on your head.”

“No,” I said, truthfully, my attentions still focused on the dog sauntering away down the beach, it’s mouth now stuffed with an orange ball it had intercepted.

Later that evening we were lying in bed before going down for dinner. The ceiling fan whirled silently overhead and my skin tingled as the sweat dried under it. Outside the open window of the beach hut, the surf whispered through the still air and I closed my eyes. Ally was on her side facing me and her long eyelashes made camera shutter sounds as they swept the pillowcase. She began massaging my nipple with her fingertip and, wedding cake having done nothing whatsoever to dampen her sexual appetite, I wondered sketchily if she wanted to go again.

“Paul,” she said with a hoarseness in her voice that signaled a marshalling of tears. “It’s okay if you need to be with other women sometimes. I mean when you’re away, flying, far away. Just don’t bring it home. Don’t make me have to see it. Don’t make me have to look the other way. Then it will… it will be okay with me. If you do that sometimes. You know, far away.”

~

“You’re kidding? She gave you a hall pass?” said Bob Calloway, setting down his glass with exaggerated care. My smugness evaporated and I searched his incredulous face, soldierly and handsome despite the shallow pits left behind from a zit beard he had worn as a teen. He loosened his tie and blocks of shifting muscle, perfectly preserved from his college football days, strained the fabric of his shirt which you could imagine him ripping off in a telephone booth before flying away as Superman. Recently promoted to captain, he was 10 years older and, having mentored me throughout my pilot training, I idolized him as the big brother I never had.

“What the fuck is a hall pass?”

“Don’t you remember from school?”

“I try to forget everything I can about school.”

“Never mind. In this case, it’s a free pass to have sex with other people.”

“Yes, okay,” I said impatiently, “And? What’s the problem?”

“You are a penis, Manson. Don’t you see? A woman only ever issues a hall pass when she wants to mess around, guilt-free, herself. It’s one of the oldest and snakiest maneuvers in the book!”

~

“What the fuck is a hall pass?!” shouted Ally.

“Come on! Everybody knows what a hall pass is!” I shouted back. A furious banging came through the ceiling as the upstairs neighbor, a grumpy old-timer with a face like a walnut, protested the noise we were making by adding to it.

Ignoring him, Ally shouted, “I don’t!” and stormed into the bedroom, slamming the door so hard behind her she split the wood around one of its hinges.

A few minutes later, she was sitting on the side of the bed, sobbing hard into one of my shirt’s epaulettes, filling my copilot’s stripes with salt water and mucus. “No, no, no,” she moaned piteously, “that’s not what I meant at all… you’re the only one for me… ever… you’re just so young… so handsome… that uniform… you can take your pick, I know it… I don’t want you to get bored with me… and leave me… I love you so much… I just need you, Paul… I need you… so that’s why I gave you… I gave you… a fucking… a fucking hall pass

~

“You’re the fucking penis, Bob,” I said and hung up the phone before he could speak.

~

“What’s a hall pass?” asked my therapist, bird eyes fluttering, after admonishing me for not addressing her by her given name, Shannon, one I liked for its rivery Irishness. Beside the jumbo-sized box of Kleenex on the glass coffee table separating us, a miniature Irish flag had been planted with a forest of pens in a mug decorated with shamrocks. I had always felt some vague affinity for the Irish, their inclination to debauched ruination and Sisyphean penitence in the confessional, and I speculated wildly on Shannon’s activities afterhours, after nightfall when the curtains were drawn, when nameless, ungovernable appetites took over. Had any of her patients ever tried to rape her?

“I see,” she said, tapping a tooth with the end of her pen, after I had explained everything. The way I remembered it, anyway. “So why do you think, then, Ally was so walled off from any prospect of reconciliation?”

I touched the emails in my pocket I had printed out. Email, that awful capturer of your truest, rawest emotions, when you hover the cursor over the ‘Send’ icon, the muffled voice of reason hollering from the pit of your stomach “Don’t do it! Don’t send that, you fool! You hate me now but you’ll thank me later!” you drown out with another belt and click ‘Send’ anyway, the exhilaration washing over you as you begin wondering if she’s already opening and reading it because, of course, she’s been sitting there all night anxiously waiting for it, and you read the message over and over as if you were her and you cry at the points she’s meant to cry at because the message is just so poignantly written; the eventual passing out on the couch in all your clothes, waking up parched hours later when the first light is making fuzzy monochrome shapes out of the clutter surrounding you, gulping water straight from the bathroom tap, those first fingers of dread tickling your spine because scraps of message are percolating through your sodden brain; the head-in-hands despair at sitting in front of the laptop in the brutal glare of morning, a greasy, smoky smell coming off your skin, staring at the horrible, unanswered, irretrievable message, knowing if you reach for the bottle now to take the edge off the sweating and shaking, you’ll likely make the same terrible mistake, probably worse this time, all over again that same evening.

I pushed the papers deeper down into my pocket. “That’s just it… Shannon,” I said, “If I’d only played my cards right, Ally wouldn’t have left. We’d still be together, with Melanie. There’d be no Jeff Rosenberg. I’d have handled the microburst. I’d still be a pilot. I’d – ”

“Who’s Jeff Rosenberg?”

“Who’s who?”

~

Severe turbulence and strong out-flowing winds can manifest beneath thunderstorms. Microbursts can be especially hazardous because of the severe wind shear associated with them. German theoretical physicist, Werner Heisenberg, allegedly once said, “When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions. Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first.” British applied mathematician and expert on fluid flow, Horace Lamb, allegedly hoped that God might enlighten him on quantum electrodynamics and turbulence, saying that “about the former I am rather optimistic.” The stormy, chaotic patterns found in the work of insane Dutch painter, Vincent Van Gogh, intuitively adhere to the deep mathematical structure of turbulent flow.

~

The wheels rasped loudly along the rails as the train slowed and halted feebly at Hillsborough Station. Having spent the entire journey in the bar car, I struggled to remember where my original seat was and only just got off the train before it pulled away and shuddered off into the night. The handful of people who had disembarked with me looked dazed and lonely, but as we shuffled wearily together down the platform towards the red glow of the exit sign and out into the parking lot, the headlights of waiting cars flashed and their occupants emerged:

“There you are at last!”

“We thought you were never going to make it!”

“I was so worried about you out there, darling!”

“Welcome home, finally!”

“Is it really true you guys hit someone?!”

After the bearhugs and air kisses and serious kisses and backslapping were done, and the cases and backpacks had been piled into their trunks, the cars pulled away slowly one by one until it was just me left under the parking lot’s lone streetlight which now burned with the peculiar melancholy of a dim and pointless light. I opened Google Maps and, after willing my bleary eyes to focus, oriented myself in the direction of the cabin which lay in the opposite direction to where the cars had gone. Setting my jaw, I turned and walked unsteadily out of the light and into the darkness.

~

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: First Intermission & Chapter 7), 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 6


Chapter 6*

“So, this lady in Montreal. Julianne was it? Was she the only one?” I knew the question was coming but it still made me feel my pulse in my scalp, and I started wordlessly opening and closing my mouth. The therapist set down her notepad and pen and folded her hands, an unconvincing signal my answer would be somehow ‘off the record’. Heat crept up my neck and I was seized by a sudden urge to flee the room. “Don’t worry,” she said in a soft voice that reminded me of my mother, “you don’t have to answer that now if you don’t want to.”

“I never had any affairs,” I said finally as firmly as I could. This was true to the extent that my liaisons with other women, not that there had been so many, were so fleeting one had occurred in a public bathroom. Briefly intersecting with them in the tedious emotionless spaces of airport hotel bars, we continued on in our separate directions. Most openly wore wedding bands like me but, in accordance with some tacit adulterers’ rule, discussion of spouses was taboo as if temporarily erasing their existence somehow preserved their dignity, like an organ in a jar. Typically, the sex was as clinical and unsentimental as an annual physical and afterwards, after the false goodbye air kisses, there was no exchange of phone numbers or emails.

“Usually, I never even gave them my real name.”

“So they couldn’t find you?”

“So I could feel even more like it wasn’t really me but someone else.” Despite this attempted detachment I could never cum without actively fantasizing about Ally, toe-curling Ally with her tight trampoline body, and not say floppy Sharon Kane, sales rep from Boise, Idaho with lipstick on her teeth and dark red areolas mushrooming from her inverted nipples.

The therapist took up her pad again and jotted down something which, from upside-down, looked like “EVEN MORE?” She looked up and I hurriedly scratched at a non-existence itch on my craning neck. Focusing on the floor, the spiral patterns on the carpet seeming to shift under the pressure of my gaze, I said, “I have good reason to believe I was born bad.”

She raised an eyebrow, jotted something else on the pad, and said, “We’ll come back to that. What about Julianne? Did you contact her after she sent the sex tape?”

I lifted my bowed head. She had a slightly pinched face, full of fragile bird bones, inquisitive bird eyes, flat black hair with a white skunk’s tail stripe down the middle. I liked her and it seemed important at the time for her to like me too. “No,” I said. “I never contacted her again.”

The spiral staircase leading up to the second-floor entrance was steep, the uneven snow on it glazed in a layer of ice from a freakish bout of freezing rain earlier in the day. I had been barhopping on boulevard Saint-Laurent and gripped the railing with both hands as I gingerly made my way up the unsalted stairs. On the balcony, I turned and coughed wet clouds into the frosty night air. Mount Royal’s giant electronic cross was ablaze and the revolving search lights from the PVM tower raked the smattering of low-lying clouds torn apart on its dark hump. The city sparkled magically as it slid down the mountain’s southern slopes towards the black swath of the Saint Laurence river and the bright bridges spanning it.

“Not so magical anymore,” I grunted, turning back towards the door and pressing the buzzer.

“Paul!” cried Julianne, her face a mixture of surprise and joy until, after I stepped out of the shadows and into the puddle of light on the doormat, it turned to abject terror and she moved to slam the door. I blocked it with my foot and shoved her inside.

“What did you do?!” I roared pushing her deeper into the apartment. “What did you do?!” She tripped and went sprawling across the living room floor. Grabbing a fistful of hair from the back of her head, I yanked her to her feet.

“Paul!” she yelped as I twisted her arm behind her back. “Don’t! I’m Canadian!”

“Shut up. You shut up.” I frogmarched her into the kitchen and slammed her down over a chopping block countertop. Squashing the side of her face into the scarred wood, I bent over her from behind. “You destroyed my life. You. Fucking. Bitch,” I hissed down her ear.

“Paul, please,” she whimpered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Really. I was drunk. I didn’t mean to. I don’t know what happened. Please.”

I reached for one of the handles protruding from the knife block and pointed the tip of the blade at her mouth which was working away like a carp fish I had once eaten in Chinatown when I was a boy. “Say that again,” I said. “Say ‘I didn’t mean it’ again and I swear I will empty you.”

She didn’t say it again, but I realized she had started grinding her ass into my crotch and, despite my rage (or was it because of it?), I was getting hard. With her free hand, she reached back and pulled at my belt. “Just punish me instead,” she gasped. “Then fuck me whatever way you want. Any way you want…Captain Manson.”

And in a devastating whirlwind of lust and grief, that’s exactly what I did. None of it was committed to video this time around but, as I got dressed and watched Julianne spread-eagled on the bed breathing shallowly, I couldn’t shake the chilling feeling Ally was somehow watching me all over again all the way from Pittsburgh.

Julianne’s phone started vibrating on the nightstand and I picked it up. A picture of a smiling intelligent-looking woman standing on a sea cliff, gray hair standing on end in the wind, lit up the screen. The caller ID “Mom” was superimposed over it. I burned inside at the injustice of it and when “Mom” finally gave up and the screen went black, I lifted Julianne’s limp hand and pressed her thumb to the home button. It didn’t take long to find the video and attach it to a text message to “Mom”. My thumb hovered over the send button, trembling in the excitement of pure, black vengeance.

I couldn’t do it. Some terrible, unfamiliar internal brake stopped me, and I permanently deleted the video instead. I flung the phone against the wall in disgust with myself, scrawled “PIG” in bright red lipstick on the wall in disgust with myself, turned and spat on Julianne Robbins in disgust with myself, flung money at Julianne Robbins in disgust with myself, the bills drifting down through the air, through the sour odor of sex and sweat and violence, and onto Julianne Robbins’s sticky back and legs tangled in bloodied bedsheets.

“Honest,” I said as the therapist pressed me. “I never had any contact with Julianne Robbins again.”

We raced our bikes alongside the smashed and rusted train tracks, long abandoned and overgrown with thorny weeds since the airport was built decades prior. They skirted the northern perimeter of the wastes which had once, in the memories of the dead, been a bucolic patchwork of meadows and forest. Now, smack in the middle, only a single tree remained: an obstinate old weeping willow slumped against the sky. Beneath it was an antique wood and cast-iron park bench with a bashed-in brass plaque that read:

In loving memory of

MILDRED STANFIELD

who at age 42 was struck by

lightning and died here on this

her favorite spot

27 May 1921

Unimpressed, someone had spray painted “CUNT” in large green letters across the bench’s seat and back. This was curious to Harold and me since we had never once seen anyone else out in the wastes, not even other kids who opted to raise Cain in the nearby Macmillan River Gorge instead.

But hanging out on and around Mildred Stanfield’s cunt bench, sipping high-octane jungle juice pilfered from the oceanic stockpile of Harold’s lovable but suicidally alcoholic mother, had become a favorite pastime of ours. I loved watching the white, streaking contrails from the planes tearing the broad blue sky into sheets, cloud signatures of departure to faraway places. “That’s going to be me up there, one day,” I said for the millionth time.

“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Harold. “You crazy and you ain’t going nowhere.” He went on to berate me about how terribly I was doing in school (which was true except for math and geography) and how I wasn’t going anywhere, anytime until I “smarten the fuck up.” But Harold was speaking more to his own fears. His father had been a gangbanger who at the age of 24, to the surprise of no one, was killed in a drive-by, three of the bullets sprayed from the Uzi catching him in the face and demanding a closed casket funeral. To ward off a similar fate, he knuckled down at school and on the basketball court, convinced it would pay off one day with a sports scholarship to college. I didn’t like his chances (I didn’t think he was tall enough) and so we both took a dim view of each other’s futures.

“Sure shorty,” I sighed, gazing at the airport in the distance, the green lenses of the control tower flashing in the sun. So close and yet so far…

“Don’t call me that motherfucker.”

“Woah check out that bug, man,” I whispered, pointing at the winged creature, great hairy tail dangling behind it, that had lazily fluttered in front of us, long crooked antennae probing the air like they were receiving signals from outer space.

“What isthat?!” Harold whispered back, staring wide-eyed over the rims of his too-dark shades. As we leaned forward, a small black bird with a bright orange beak swooped in out of nowhere and swallowed it whole, as instantaneous and arbitrary as the lightning strike that had sizzled poor Mildred Stanfield. The bird landed on a patch of scrubby grass in front of us, cocking its head back and forth, orange-rimmed eyes alert and black. I imagined the bug being slowly digested, still alive and conscious, in its stomach.

“Awesome!” I cried, startling the bird into flight, arcing up over the rustling branches and out of sight. Harold and I stayed silent until I said finally, “One day I’m going to fly away just like that. And I swear I will never, ever come back to Hillsborough again.”

“Next stop, Hillsborough,” said a weary voice over the train’s intercom.

“Really? You don’t like novels?”

“I tried a few times. Gave up after the last one. Can’t remember the name of the book now but it was about this supposedly eccentric British character going on and on about his long-lost glory days at Oxford. But he had this BIG secret, right? Only thing that kept me reading. I figured he was a spy, maybe a gay spy. You know what it was though? He liked studying plants in his spare time. Plants! He was a closet botanist! THAT was the secret!” I almost shouted, slapping my hand on the table with a thwack that caused people at nearby tables to look over. I clapped my hand over my mouth and whispered through my fingers, “I’ll take manuals and handbooks any day. The New York Times on Sunday.”

“You’ve just had bad luck,” she laughed and as she did, I was captivated once again by her off-kilter teeth; those predatory arrowhead canines… I ached to run my tongue along the bottom of them…

I realized I was staring at her in the same longing way a child stares through the glass of a closed ice cream store. “We’ll soon be reading everything off this World Wide Web thingy anyway,” I said airily, popping the last bloody hunk of steak in my mouth and gesturing to the waiter for another drink.

“Oh God! What’s that all about?” she laughed again. She had put on a light touch of makeup and wore a simple burgundy dress deliberately cut to reveal only scant clues to the landscape beneath. She was quickly discovering we had little in common and, by the end of the date, had even sketched a chart on a napkin that looked something like this:

Likes Ally Paul
Foreign films/language ✔︎
Candy/desserts ✔︎
Literature ✔︎
Animals/pets/dogs ✔︎
Pot ✔︎
Democratic party ✔︎
80s music ✔︎
Yoga/gym/meditation ✔︎
“Art” ✔︎
Etc., etc… ✔︎
…Flying airplanes ✔︎
Skinned, decapitated frogs ✔︎

But she didn’t find me boring and, try as she might with the demure posturing, a wolfish hunger invaded her eyes when they moved over me, scanning, appraising. “Has anyone ever told you, you look like Al Pacino?”

“No, but my best friend in high school once told me that Al Pacino is blacker than me.”

“What?” she said, her head recoiling as if the word had been fired from a canon.

“Long story,” I said, spreading out the air in front of me with the palms of my hands.

“Well, you do. A very young one. And you’ve got just the right whiff of gangster with that gold cross around your neck…” I hadn’t realized an extra button had come undone on my shirt and I closed it sheepishly… “and that gold tooth. What happened there?”

I had just turned 16 and I had just lost my virginity. Lucy was two years older than me, not a virgin, and Harold’s sister. Earlier when she had pulled off my underpants, me as frightened and wide-eyed as a newborn, rather than screaming in terror at my flaccid mouse tail, to my astonishment she put it in her mouth until it was harder than a broom handle. Lying there now with her head pressed to my sweating chest, the long buzzing songs of the summer cicadas slicing the muggy air outside, I felt I could die happily, my life complete. I was about to tell her that in the fading light when the rusty hinges on the screen door protested and Aunt Carrie came wheezing in long before she was due back from church group.

Not long after Aunt Carrie had dragged Lucy by the hair from my bedroom and shoved her down the stairs of the front porch, hollering abuse after her, I approached her on tiptoes through the candlelit gloom as she ironed her flower-patterned dresses in silent fury. A floorboard creaked just before I reached her and she swung around startled, clipping me in the mouth with the tip of the iron. As I fell, her gold crucifix came away in one hand while the knife I held in the other went skidding across the floor.

“I went over the handlebars of my bike when I was a kid,” I said.

“I see,” Ally said.

~

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 6), 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 5


Chapter 5*

With complete loss of hydraulic control and non-functional control surfaces, the only way I was able to keep the 747-jumbo airborne at all was by applying nuanced engine thrusts to pitch the nose up into a lurching climb and then releasing just at the stall warnings. The downward pitch of the phugoid cycle, like a ship after cresting a wave on heavy seas, was rapid and sphincter tightening. Unlike a ship, slowly plowing its way across the gentle warp of the curvature of the earth, my trajectory was inexorably descending; down, down towards the jagged peaks of the low-lying mountains which I couldn’t see but knew were there in the continents of shifting darkness below.

With its vertical stabilizer and rudder gone, the aircraft also entered into a Dutch roll, simultaneously yawing right and banking right before yawing back left and banking left in large swooping arcs like the veering flight of a gull knocked back and forth by contradictory winds. The engine thrust countermeasures I was applying only slightly improved stability and my ability to control the plane was deteriorating fast. In desperation, I lowered the landing gear. This helped dampen the phugoid cycles, but the throttle developed a mind of its own and I wrestled against its capricious movements with both hands.

I saw it to the left, a mountain-shaped shadow against the shadow of the night. I lowered the flaps 5 units via an alternative electrical system and briefly gained some altitude. Lowering the flaps another 10 units caused the plane to bank to the left, and the nose began to drop.

“Sink rate,” said the Ground Proximity Warning System in an impassive voice.

“Nose up! Not so much flap!”

“Sink rate,” repeated the GPWS as if bored.

“Power, power… flaps up!”

“Terrain,” said the GPWS with a little more urgency as an emergency beeping sound and flashing red light engaged.

“Nose up… Nose up… power… POWER!!!

“Pull up… pull up… pull up…” hollered the GPWS over a blaring alarm.

The plane was uncontrollable and as the left wing clipped the mountainside, everything outside the cockpit windows flipped upside-down and went blank.

“Simulation complete,” said a chirpy digital voice.

“Damn you,” I sighed, pulling off the headphones and running my hands through my hair. Programmed to run Japan Airlines Flight 123, to this day the worst single-aircraft accident in aviation history, it was my favorite simulation.

“Flight time: 24 minutes and 6 seconds,” replied the chirpy digital voice.

“Not even close,” I sighed again. Back in 1985 the captain of JAL 123, Masami Takahama, had kept his fully loaded 747-jumbo airborne for an insane 32 minutes and 23 seconds after its vertical stabilizer snapped off, long enough for detailed farewell messages to be found in the wreckage. I was in a pool with some fellow pilots to see if any of us could break Takahama’s 32:23 mark. So far none of us had, although I had come closest at 30:48. The virtual reality of the simulator simply couldn’t generate that adrenaline-goosed fear, fear you could smell coming off your skin like something oily burning, of being on a real plane really going down. That’s no arcade game with high scores and when I had once programmed in my Lajes flight, after crashing ten times in a row, I never ran it again.

“Run JAL 123 again,” I muttered into the cool darkness, putting my headphones back on and opening a beer (I was hiding from my daughter who had obnoxiously bet me that morning I couldn’t go a single day without drinking).

“Launching JAL 123,” said the chirpy digital voice as the console came alive with humming lights, the warm throttle vibrating gently under my grip. “Have a nice flight.”

I was staring intently at one of my father’s war pictures. He was standing in a floating fish market on the banks of the sun-stunned Mekong Delta, shirtless in the heat, battered dog tags flung across his sweaty torso. Dark aviator glasses blocked out his eyes, but his eyebrows were halfway up his forehead and, wearing an alarmed ghost mouth, he was extending a large blood-smeared steel tray towards the camera.

“What are those?” I demanded, pointing at the crowd of squatting alienesque creatures on the tray.

“Oh, not that horrible picture,” my mother almost spat as she peered over my father’s shoulder. Waving her away, he chewed on the bottom of his lip a moment and then explained they were frogs that had just been skinned alive and decapitated. He studied my face and, finding no trauma there, went on to say that they were still very much alive in the picture.

“No way!” I marveled, pushing my face closer. They were as big as a man’s fist and with their skin peeled off, beneath the shiny transparent membrane left behind, stretched tight over their athletic headless bodies like vacuum sealed plastic, you could make out their purple organs and the white steroidal muscles bulging in their hind legs. “How?”

“I have no idea. But I swear their chests were rising up and down, up and down, and they were turning this way and that as if they were having a good old chat about the weather.”

“Wow!”

“Just after this picture was taken, they were tossed on the grill.”

“Disgusting,” drifted in my mother’s voice from the other room.

“Did you… did you eat one?”

He put his finger to his lips conspiratorially and flipped through the stack of photos. “Here,” he said, with a wink, handing me one. I squealed in delight. He had one of the frogs all the way in his mouth except for the long hopping legs which dangled from the corners like a hideous Fu Manchu moustache. Young Vietnamese boys were crowded around him grinning with oversized buck teeth.

“You are a terrible, terrible man, Tom Manson,” my mother called from upstairs.

I also caught some flack in the schoolyard for having the same family name as a psycho killer. The memories of the Manson Family murders, that searing image of “PIG” scrawled in the blood of an eight-and-a-half month pregnant Sharon Tate, were still fresh. Suburbanites across America were checking and doublechecking the locks on their doors and windows before going to bed, ensuring none of the kitchen knives were missing, their anxiety trickling down into the dreams of their children.

I sometimes wondered if I had some percentage of psycho killer in me considering what a lasting impact my father’s frogs had made upon me. Over the shrill protests of my mother, I coaxed him into taking me to Chinatown in the city to hunt for live frogs to eat. We didn’t find any but I was awestruck by the steaming bloody redness of Chinatown, the windows crammed with lynched glazed ducks and ragged pork sides dangling by the trotter on hooks, dishes filled with calves’ brains, testicles, chicken livers, pork kidneys, sheep’s ovaries; all that raw flesh and offal lacing the air with a sulfuric bite that caught in the nose.

“Pick which one you want, Paul,” said my father leaning down to peer inside the aquarium where schools of big hardy carp jostled for space. One of them appeared to be watching me out of a wide black eye on the side of its head, gills rhythmically pumping.

“That one,” I said pointing, and the cook instantly netted it up and out of the water. It landed with a thud on a wooden block and thrashed around for oxygen. The cook clobbered it over the head with a short wooden club which subdued it, but the rubbery brown lips were still working as if it were trying to speak while its tail flapped up and down. Holding it down, the cook vigorously took what looked like a windshield scraper to its sides, showers of translucent scales flying towards a large enamel sink where the water had been left running. After its scaling, the fish’s mouth was moving even faster, in outrage I imagined, and then the cook deftly slit open its belly, tugged out its stringy innards and flung them towards the sink. The fish shuddered a few times and went still even though I sensed it was still somehow watching me.

Straight from the grill, its sizzling body was slapped down in front of me, blackened soya-drizzled skin peeling off, melted eyes now turned yellow. The flung-away innards had been replaced with fried garlic, lemon slices, spiky green herbs, and anyone’s guess what else.

The power of that!

“Dig in,” said my father with a hesitant smile.

I did with a dedication that surprised him and as each mouthful of that soft delicious meat went down, I felt more and more superhuman.

Me: Do you have to call me Paul?

Melanie: Yes.

Me: I’m still your dad, Mel.

Melanie: btw – speaking of names, I’m changing mine.

Me: wtf?! 😳

Melanie: The papers are all submitted. I’m dropping Manson.

Me: I repeat: wtf?! 😳

Melanie: I’m legally changing my name, Paul.

Me: Why? To what? 😳 😳 😳

Melanie: What do you think? Mom’s name! 😀And I don’t think I have to answer the first question. I gotta go. Please stop texting me.

Me: Melanie, I…

I stopped tapping at my phone. She had gone offline. “Melanie Hightower… ?” I whispered just as a tired, relieved cheer rippled through the bar car. The train was finally, FINALLY underway again.

“I’m going to the lady’s room,” announced Ida through a long sigh. Everything about her was long: long arms and legs, long toes and fingers, long painted nails, long horse eyelashes, long tongue, long wringable neck, long asshole. Except her stylishly disheveled hair was cropped short, which she plucked at as she slid lazily from the plush highbacked barstool, the single non-long thing about her as far as I could tell. I watched her as she sashayed off. Whatever she was, there was no doubt she was a knockout. If she possessed one iota of the acting talent she laid claim to, she could’ve easily been a movie star.

It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday and the bar was mostly empty and quiet but for Manhattan’s hooting and hollering sporadically penetrating the green and red uterine patterns of the Art Nouveau style window panes. I drained my glass while waving at the peppy barmaid who bounced over.

“Quick, before my girlfriend gets back. Can you make it a double?”

I drank it down to approximately the level it was at when Ida left. “That’s about right,” I said, examining the glass.

The barmaid watching me quizzically over a fan of money she was counting and said, “Your girlfriend sure is gorgeous.”

I looked up at her vacantly. She had luscious soft hair tied up in a chaotic sideways ponytail and the faintest of freckles speckling the tops of her cheeks. The lenses of her funky blue-framed glasses made watery blue planets of her eyes. She was athletically built but not in a masculine way, her lithe body filling out the snug clothes she was wearing in subtle contours that excited the imagination, especially when leaning over the bar as she was now.

“You know,” I said, hearing the tiredness in my voice. “When I walk with her hand-in-hand down the street, the guys stare like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I bet.”

“But not at her. At me.”

“I see.”

“I can almost hear them thinking, ‘how did a dirt bag like you bag that babe?’”

“I see.”

“You know what though?”

“What?”

“I drink because she talks.”

This made her laugh, a musical laugh like fingers running up and down piano keys. “I’m Ally,” she said extending her hand.

“Ally?” The name of the bar was Ally’s.“You’re the…”

“Owner. Yep, that’s me.”

“Amazing! You’re so young.”

“What do you do… um…?”

“Sorry, Paul. I’m Paul. I’m a pilot.”

“Look who’s talking about being so young.”

“…cleared to land two five nine, hold short three zero,” came the instruction from JFK Control. The cold night skies over New York were more congested than usual and we had been stuck in a prolonged holding pattern circling the airport. I was holding up my phone searching for any imperfections in Ally’s boyfriend’s face.

“Come on, Paul, time to put it down,” said Gary quietly. I had already chewed him out for suggesting I was flying erratically. Or had he actually accused me of being drunk?

“Fine,” I said, putting the phone away, steepling my hands above my crotch, and gazing at One World Trade Centre. One of its eight massive glass and steel isosceles triangles, slicing all the way up through the façade from the 20th to the 102nd floor, was ablaze in blue neon lights. “Like a target,” I mumbled.

“I meant the plane. We’re cleared. Did you hear it? Two five nine, hold short three zero.”

“Disengaging autopilot.”

“Please Paul,” said Gary in a pleading voice. “Please sit this one out. Let me handle it.”

“I got this, Gary,” I snarled, shoving away the hand he had placed on my shoulder. “Notify Control.”

It’s all a blank after that until I woke up on an ambulance stretcher on the runway. Surrounded by flashing emergency vehicles and scurrying EMS workers, the plane was parked at an ungodly angle and all of its evacuation slides had been deployed, their thick rubber orange tongues lolling out on the tarmac. Uninjured passengers were wandering around in a daze. Then I saw it. As though opened up by a giant can opener, there was a gaping serrated hole chewed from the bottom of the plane’s tail section, machine innards dangling from it. I hallucinated for a moment the cockpit windows were melted yellow eyes. Not far away, Gary was talking to a group of police officers and glancing over at me with that pale, doleful face of his. When I tried to get up and go to him, I realized I had been handcuffed to the stretcher’s sidebar.

~

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 5), 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 4


Chapter 4*

I had known all along that my parents weren’t really my parents. Not only did I bear zero resemblance to either of them, they were both Viking white while I was perpetually bronzed, my skin the approximate hue of a hazelnut. Right up until they died, we shared a tacit ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy by which I never asked, and they never told. It had held ironclad and true even on the occasions when I came home after the word “bastard” had been lofted in my direction in the schoolyard. My parents were real enough to me and besides I had more important things to agonize over, like my freakish penis.

That oblivious willful blindness came to an abrupt end almost immediately after I was packed off to live with my mother’s childless sister, Aunt Carrie. She lived in a shitty little house with faded yellow paint peeling from its melanomic sides. It was located at the edge of the flattened toxic wastes, realm of scavenging otherworldly blackbirds, that stretched out bleakly between West Hillsborough and the airport. From the outside, it had all the character of a storage container while the inside, cluttered with crumbling old furniture, was a spooky candlelit shrine to her husband who had died of lung cancer years before. Framed pictures of his sooty coalminer’s face were mounted on the walls of the musty rooms alongside large, immutably sadistic, crucifixes. I had always despised it and her.

“Go on and say grace now, Paul,” said Aunt Carrie, painfully squeezing my hand as we sat down to our first meal in the gloom of the kitchen, dusk pressing up against the windows, a shoelace of beef flung on a mound of gray mashed potatoes.

“No thanks.”

“It wasn’t a question.”

“I have nothing to say.”

“You will thank our Lord for the food in front of you or I’ll take it away.”

“Fine by me,” I said pushing my plate towards her. “My mom wouldn’t feed this slop to a dog.”

Aunt Carrie stroked the handle of her knife while tapping its blade against the side of her plate. The creased skin around her dull eyes was twitching and she began running the tip of her tongue along the bottom of her uneven teeth, probing at the gaps between as if trying to dislodge foul things stuck there. She leaned across the table, crucifix pendant falling from her throat, pushing before her air that somehow had the metallic odor of dirty coins. “Your mom?”

“Yeah, my mom!” I yelled.

“You listen up,” she said hoarsely, wagging the knife in my face. “Nicole may have spoiled you stupid, but she was never your mother. You know that, right? Sure, you do. What you don’t know is your mother, your real mother, was raped. That’s right. Raped by a black man. Got rid of you the second you were born. You’re nothing. Nothing but a godless… black… bastard… rape child…”

“‘Sup, niggas?” is how I greeted the lanky group of black boys smoking in the parking lot of my new school in West Hillsborough. Over the summer break, long and torturous, Aunt Carrie had so indoctrinated me with the “godless… black… bastard… rape child…” narrative, by the time school started up again in September I was wholly convinced I was evil incarnate, my darker pigmentation the physical manifestation of all that evilness irrepressibly pushing itself up to the surface of me. The boys stared at me, wide-eyed and speechless, as if they had all been simultaneously whacked upside the head with a frying pan. “Got a light?” I asked, a cigarette bouncing with the words from the corner of my mouth.

Never having smoked before, had I received the requested light, I would have buckled over retching and spluttering like a half-drowned person (which is precisely what happened when I did finally take my first puff off a cigarette). Fortunately, upon a signal from their leader, a tall seam of muscle improbably named Harold, I started getting the shit kicked out of me instead.

“Fuck, man! How much abuse can a nigga take?!” I protested from the pavement, rolling around, hugging my head. That question was promptly answered with another furious volley of kicks and punches.

“Hold up, guys. Hold up!” commanded Harold, pushing aside the others and bending over me. The massive afro mushrooming from his head, an array of multicolored hair picks embedded in it, blotted out half the sky. “I thought you looked, familiar,” he said, extending a hand and pulling me to my feet. “You’re that crazy cracker whose parents got blowed up.”

“That’s what I should do!” I said, slapping myself on the knee. “I should look up Harold!”

“What’s that?” said the shaven-headed millennial sitting across from me, pulling a headphone from his ear. Goddamn it, this unconscious talking to myself in public has to stop. Maybe, like this kid staring at me now, I should permanently keep headphones in my ears too. At least then I could pretend to be actually talking to someone.

“Sorry,” I said matter-of-factly, flicking imaginary bits of lint from my shoulder. “I just suddenly remembered I might have a friend here. That’s assuming we don’t all die of old age on this hell train.”

“Right on,” said the kid dryly, reinserting his headphone. He looked away and drummed rhythmically on his beer can with two fingers. His scalp was flecked, not unattractively, with divot-shaped white scars where hair didn’t grow, and I conjured the image of a Lilliputian golfer teeing off from there. Probably more likely he had gone headfirst through the windshield of a car. Whatever misfortune had befallen him, I sat there bitterly envying his youth, soft young features, big healthy oxblood liver, effortlessly summoned hard-on and, suppressing the sudden urge to brain him with the bottle between my feet, I thought of Harold again.

After the beatdown in the parking lot, Harold had accompanied me to the bathroom where I dabbed at my swollen boxer’s face. On the way, I tried explaining to him I was half black. “You crazy, man!” he cried, as he appraised the two of us standing in front of the mirror. “Al Pacino’s blacker than you, honkey! And that crazy long straight hair?!” He really liked the word “crazy” I was coming to realize, and he was right except that my hair, as black as the coffins my parents were buried in, fell in wavy riots around my shoulders and could scarcely be described as “straight”. That didn’t alter the fact that ever since Aunt Carrie had pierced the veil on my lineage, an infernal voice from deep within whispered with greater and greater authority over my enraged denial that it was all true, that there was something wrong and unnatural about me, something cursed that my violent spawning somehow explained.

The final buzzer of the day sounded and, as Harold and I shuffled through the fractured trash-strewn streets, we discovered we lived just around the corner from each other, he in a similarly despairing storage container house. “I got a ping-pong table in my basement if you want to play,” he said. I had never played ping-pong, but I’d have gratefully accepted an offer to watch dust settle in Harold’s basement if it would delay returning to Aunt Carrie’s morbid lair.

“Okay, I know,” he said defensively as I stared at his alleged ping-pong table. It was so battered and cracked and lopsided, the net a tattered nylon rag, it looked as though it had tumbled down a mountainside. “The ball flies at every crazy angle but if you master this table, you’ll be able to kick anyone’s ass. Even those crazy Chinese motherfuckers.” So, we began playing and that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted right up until the day Aunt Carrie sheared off the bottom half of my front tooth with the tip of a hot iron and I ran away from her and West Hillsborough for good.

Aunt Carrie was living proof of the inverse relationship between human goodness and religious fervor. If (human goodness) is inversely proportional to (religious fervor), the equation is of the form = k/(where is a constant, let’s say 60). So, if the equation is = 60/then doubling causes to halve as follows:

x = religious fervor
y = human goodness
1
60
2
30
4
15
8
7.5
16
3.75
…60
…1 (e.g. Aunt Carrie)

“I don’t want you to go,” said Melanie in that plaintive sing-song voice only little girls can deploy, especially when guilt-tripping their fathers. She was sitting up in bed surrounded by an army of stuffies, eyes drooping now that the last of the sugar and adrenaline overload from her birthday party that afternoon was finally washing through her. I had to fly and was feeling vaguely high on acetone having just spent an hour removing the hot pink glitter polish Melanie and her monstrous little friends had applied to both my finger and toe nails after some internal self-preservation mechanism had kicked in, mid-party, allowing me to pass out on the couch in the midst of all the chaos.

“You sit tight,” I said patting her hand and getting up from the edge of the bed. “I have a special something for you. Just from me.”

“I’ll go get it,” said Ally, leaning against the doorjamb, exhausted. She blew away an errant strand of sandy hair fallen from the pinned-up pile atop her head and waved me back down. “You stay with her.”

“What is it?! What is it?!” demanded Melanie, pupils dilating.

Ally returned with the box and Melanie set to tearing off the wrapping paper as if it was the first gift she’d received all day. “A globe!”

“AND a nightlight,” I said. “Here, watch this. If I take this little pin and push it in any city like tha-at… See, it lights up! Push it again and it goes off. So now when I go away, you can always see where I am, even when you wake up in the night.”

“Yay! Where are you going this time?”

“New York to Paris tonight.”

“Aw,” she whined as she illuminated the dots and spun the globe in its sickle-shaped stand. “No fair.”

“No, it is not,” said Ally.

“In the unlikely event everyone, including the air traffic controllers at CDG, hasn’t booked off on a month-long strike protesting some newly enacted labor law…”

“…Paul…”

“…one that so egregiously affronts French sensibilities for daring to require a few scraps of work actually be done in exchange for a big fat pay check and a booklet full of lunch vouchers…”

“…Paul…”

“…only the sacking of the city will do…”

“Paul!” cried Ally, waving one hand in front of my face and pointing at open-mouthed Melanie with the other. “You may as well be speaking Hindi!”

“Mom’s just saying that because she knows the next stop after Paris is New Delhi,” I said, stabbing the city alight with the pin. “The capital of India, a glorious land where cows have right of way.”

“So far away,” said Melanie in a faraway voice. “On the other side of the world.”

“But what happens if you keep going on past the other side of the world?” I asked as I slowly dragged my fingertip across Nepal, China, Japan, out over the Pacific. As it passed by Hawaii on the way to California, she smiled broadly, an all gums hockey smile ever since the Tooth Fairy had come knocking.

“You’re getting closer!”

“Exactly!” I said, taking back my faux military capand kissing the top of her Pippi Longstocking head. “So, as soon as I leave you, really I’m already on my way back home. Always on my way back home to you.” This was a total conceit (was it even me who had said the words?) but it had Melanie making gurgling noises and Ally wiping away happy tears.

   →                                              ↻

Rightwards Arrow                        vs.                         Clockwise open circle arrow

Over time, I was even accepted by Harold’s posse. “But don’t you ever call any of us nigga, nigga,” he had warned with lethal intensity, poking me hard in the middle of the chest. The memory of this unapologetic hypocrisy made me smile and I realized the kid sitting across from me had once again pulled a headphone from his ear, eyebrow raised.

“Really? Again?” I said.

“I guess your friend’s name is Harold.”

“Yes,” I sighed. “Yes, it is.” I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Harold who was being scooped up into plastic bags under flashlights in the darkness outside the train’s windows which, from the inside, bounced back the oblique forms of the drinkers, their flushed faces like Munchian apparitions in funhouse mirrors.

~

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 4), 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 3


Chapter 3*

My parents had been driving back from the city after one of my father’s post-traumatic stress disorder sessions at the VA hospital. This was in the days before PTSD had even been coined as a term of art and was still typically, at least in the context of war veterans, referred to as “shellshock”. It was a jarring diagnosis for my father since he had been the one dropping shells from above to the shock of those below. It also probably did little for his psychological equilibrium having to pass through the burnt and broken bodies wing of the hospital on the way to the burnt and broken minds wing where he recounted his experiences at the Hanoi Hilton. Perhaps he could better be described as having suffered from “empathetic reverse shell shock” but I’m guessing, even in these ‘heady’ 21st Century days, ERSS won’t gain much traction as an acronym in the psychiatric community.

Almost home, they were approaching the narrow 19th Century overpass, nicknamed the Tightrope, that linked East Hillsborough, the wealthy “hill” where helicopter moms fought off boredom while the kids were at school with wine and/or affairs behind the thick curtains of mortgage free houses set back from the treelined streets on leafy well-manicured lawns, to West Hillsborough, the not so wealthy “hill” where fried chicken eating husbands sat out on decrepit bungalow porches complaining about the fried chicken eating blacks, a shotgun in one hand and a bible in the other.

Then it happened: an air-to-surface projectile randomly fell out of the sky and smacked into the car’s windshield at just the right angle and velocity to pierce both it and my father’s skull. Either already dead or unconscious, he reflexively stamped on the gas and veered into an oncoming tanker loaded with ammonium nitrate. The explosion was powerful enough to rattle the windows of my school’s lunchroom and, as we swung around to watch the fist-shaped fireball punch up into the belly of the cloudless sky, I didn’t realize that my childhood had just been extinguished, its ashes blasted high up into the blue with all that swirling black smoke. That I would never know any real comfort or contentment again until so many years later when I finally met Ally.

The train had ground to a halt alongside the Tightrope. The rain had let up and under the diluted late-afternoon sunlight struggling through moody clouds, I could still make out faint scorch marks on some of the old stones, the ones that hadn’t crumbled and melted in the inferno. At the time, some witnesses came forward and reported seeing a tall white boy, face concealed by the bill of a ballcap, heave a rock from the Tightrope and flee towards East Hillsborough, barely escaping the explosion himself. In the weeks that followed the police questioned a handful of tall white boys with no alibis, but no arrests were ever made.

The intercom crackled to life, snapping me out of it:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that we have stopped here because it seems our train has collided with something on the tracks (some sideways knucklehead has used our train to commit suicide)… CRACKLE CRACKLE CRACKLE…

…The police are on their way to investigate (tape off the area, confirm it’s not a crime scene, and bag up all the body parts for the coroner’s office)… CRACKLE CRACKLE CRACKLE…

…We have been informed this will be done as quickly and efficiently as possible and then we’ll be on our way again (we’ll be stuck here for hours)… CRACKLE CRACKLE CRACKLE…

…We will keep you updated on the situation and do our best to make you comfortable while we’re waiting (but we’re not offering free drinks just yet so don’t go stampeding to the bar car causing any more unnecessary death).”

A collective groan went up in the bar car. Or was that just me? No, a few more people, faces weary and sallow in the poor light, had trickled in as the day had worn on with an interminability, now confirmed, that demanded a sharpener. They reached for their phones and started tapping away, no doubt complaining bitterly to whoever was waiting for them. No one was waiting for me, but I got my phone out anyway and opened Google Maps. Fuck, I was so close to the cabin I had rented I could almost walk the rest of the way from here.

“Say, how much is left in the bottle?” I asked the bartender. He thumped it down before me, spat something black and indistinguishable into a wastebasket and, folding his arms across his reedy chest, squeezed from it a judgmental a-hem cough. “I’m guessing you don’t do kids parties, do you?” I said absently as I crouched to ascertain the level in the bottle.

“What?” he hissed, eyes narrowing to knife wound slits.

I raised placatory hands and said, “Listen, how about I give you fifty bucks for that and then I won’t need to bother you again.”

Now his eyes opened wide, blinking slowly as if awaking from a coma. “Wait a minute. I seen you before,” he said, leaning over the bar and pushing his harrowing face up into mine. I took a step back. His breath smelled like an armpit. “It is you. I know who you are?”

“Well kindly enlighten me,” I said irritably. “Because I have no idea.”

“I seen you on the news. You’re that pilot. The one who almost got all those people killed.”

My parents were buried in the East Hillsborough Cemetery late in the afternoon on a cold sunny day, blustery winds chasing stray clouds from the hard-blue sky and roiling the pink blooms on the dogwoods. There were two full-length black coffins, brass handles flashing in the sunlight, prepared to be lowered into graves set next to one another. There wasn’t much in either: a jawbone, spine, and some knee fragments in my father’s; a couple of ribs, a femur, and a shard of pelvis in my mother’s. Their combined remains wouldn’t have filled a coffin made for an infant.

As they slowly descended, the church bell ominously bonged off the hour while a wizened old priest, not long for the grave himself, intoned in a cement mixer voice “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return…”, I was suddenly dizzy from a seismic movement deep within my chest cavity and almost fell in after one. It just couldn’t be true. Just last Sunday, the three of us had been sitting in the bright sunroom, drowning pancakes in Canadian maple syrup, my father pitching the route for our road trip through the Midwest to the Ozarks where we rented a cottage each summer. How could they now just be charred bones locked up in those awful boxes slowly going down, deeper and deeper, into those awful dark holes?

Dust thou art… No, it was not possible this was happening. Everything around me was so alive, somehow in sharpened focus and warped at the same time: the glorious trees, the birds prattling in their branches, the young leaves, the bright bursts of flowers, the thick grass, the damp green moss spreading out over fading epitaphs on the old cracked tombstones, the ladybug zigzagging in panicked confusion across the toe of my shoe, the sniffling sounds of sorrow. How could it all just go marching on without them? And wouldn’t it be so cold and lonesome here at night, silent but for whispering breezes?

I felt a strong hand grip my shoulder, steadying me. “You alright there, Paul?” I looked up into the gentle gaze of one of my father’s old air force pals, a towering old warrior glittering in full uniform.

“Where are they?” I said in a tiny voice not my own and I realized that, for the first time since the principal of my school had called me into his office to tell me after much clearing of his throat “something’s happened”, I was starting to cry.

He knelt before me and pointed at one of the medals pinned above the breast pocket of my jacket. “You know that one’s the Air Force Cross, right?” I nodded uncertainly. “Your father got it because he was a very, very brave man. Think you can be brave now, son?” I nodded even more uncertainly, not sure if I was even really there, as the miniature bulldozers came to life, beeping and whirring, and pushed the mounds of soil and rock on top of the coffins in thundering avalanches.

“I just want to know where they are.”

“Do you want to be buried or cremated when you die?”

“What kind of question is that from a child at bedtime?” cried my mother as she tucked me in.

“I want to be cremated for sure.”

“What?”

“I was watching a show tonight with dad about coffins getting dug up with scratch marks and broken fingernails on the inside.”

Massaging her temples, she said, “As soon as this ‘conversation’ – she put air quotes around the word – “is over, I’m going to be having words with your father.”

“Imagine that, huh?! Buried alive by accident! Waking up in a box 6 feet under! Trying to scratch your way out! Nightmare!”

“Paul…”

“And then when you finally really die, worms crawling out your rotting eyeballs?! No way! I’m going to get cremated for sure!

“Paul!!!”

“I guess they don’t have to worry about waking up down there. Or worms…”

The B-52 Stratofortress bomber was developed between the late 1940s and early 1950s, entering active service in 1955. From 2013 to 2015, it underwent extensive upgrading with modernized electronics, communications technology, computing, and avionics on the flight deck. The fleet is now expected to serve on at least until the 2050s, possibly decades longer. The current life expectancy of an American is 78.69 years not taking into account human upgrades being developed. The annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014. The B-52 is immune to suicidal tendencies but not always to surface-to-air missiles.

The tinted windows of my hotel room looked down onto the yawning international terminal where hundreds of passengers were milling around, strangers all together in one place for the only time ever before, like a bag of ball bearings emptied upon a floor, scattering in every direction all over the world. In the background, behind the terminal’s wraparound glass, the huge long-haul planes crawled to and fro, engines roaring occasionally as if in protest to the sluggish pace. Soon I would be flying one straight westward into the glob of sun melting on the horizon, chasing the daylight all the way back to New York.

I opened Instagram on my phone again and stared at the picture, swallowing hard around the great lump in my throat. It was a funkily filtered sideways shot of Ally, remarkably the first one she had ever posted of herself on any social media. Even more remarkably, shielding her perfect undemanding breasts with her forearm, she was topless. Her other arm was holding a younger man’s jubilant face, scruffily bearded in the fashionable Game of Thrones style, to her cannonball-sized belly. She wore a wry smile, vampiric canines as seductive as ever, eyes blazing defiantly right into the camera. I read aloud the caption for the hundredth time:

5 months in! What a happy daddy! 😍😍😍

She may as well have written “This one’s for you, Paul, you lying piece of shit. Maybe now you can leave me alone?” It was only then it occurred to me the picture wasn’t a selfie. Who in the world would Ally have allowed to take that? Then I went cold and drained my glass. I scrolled through all the ‘likes’, half of them from mutual friends no longer mutual, each one a cut with a salted blade, and there she was. Melanie. Scrolling through the nauseating comments now, there she was again: “Awesome pic mom! 😍Even if I do say so myself! 😉”

I felt like I was going to pass out, just like at my parents’ funeral. I didn’t bother refilling my glass. I just chugged straight from the bottle and began writing comments, all of which I still somehow had the clarity of mind to delete before posting:

  • Aren’t you too old for this? [no, Julianne Robbins was half your age]
  • What about the Huntington’s? [no, she obviously finally got tested just to spite you]
  • Why didn’t you tell me? [no, she just has told you… with a sledgehammer]
  • How could you do this to me, Ally? [no, god no]
  • How does Melanie feel about this? [no, Melanie took the goddamn picture]
  • I FUCKING HATE YOU AND HOPE YOU DIE YOU HORRIBLE SLUT!!! [no, that could end up being read by a judge]

The cursor was blinking in the empty comments box when I glanced at my watch and almost cried out. If I didn’t leave that instant, I would delay the flight. I had run out of time to undertake my usual breath-killing ritual of ordering up an oniony burger from room service, camel chewing each mouthful slowly and deliberately, vigorously brushing my teeth after. On top of it, I had drunk more than triple what I usually drank before flying. “Too bad,” I muttered, wiping grief debris from my face, “thing flies itself anyway.” I loaded my mouth with mints, straightened my tie and cap in front of the bathroom mirror (the deranged face staring back at me a stranger’s), grabbed my bags, and unsteadily made my way down to the lobby to check out.

~

To be continued…

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

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 3), 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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