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?”
“Whenever we sit here and go over this case, your story changes depending on which Paul I’m dealing with.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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
- Feelings of persecution (e.g. from psychopathic waiters)
- 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.”
“Definitely, okay? And Raymond’s harmless. Daddy’s just a worrywart.”
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
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