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
Life is short. Eternity isn’t.
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.
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?”
“How did you know he drank before flying? Did he smell of alcohol when he got on board?”
“Did he slur his words?”
“Unsteady on his feet?”
“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.
“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.”
“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?”
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 at: http://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.