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