“AA 759 simulation successfully programed.”
My simulator had been stranded with Ally until now and I was surprised to discover I had missed that chirpy digital voice. Normally it had the effect of inducing a stream of sexually explicit profanity and once, when Ally walked in on me threatening it with a baseball bat, she suggested I switch it over to the male voice. “Maybe you’ll have more respect for it,” she said dryly and, in answer to the continued blankness in my face, further clarified, “Like not calling it a stupid cocksucker so much.” Dismayed when I began referring to the male version as a stupid cocksucker with even more frequency, she urged me to switch it back.
But now the voice, “Shall I launch AA 759?” it was prompting, and the familiar metallic aroma stirred by the cooling system, filled me with tender nostalgia. I could almost hear Ally and Melanie distantly calling to one another outside – “where’s my iPod, Mom?” “Wherever you left it!” – and before their voices could recede into the silence of reality, I slid on my headphones.
“Nice to have you back,” I said.
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Cancel AA 759 launch.” Why dampen the mood by confirming I could’ve handled the microburst with relative ease, could’ve still been a pilot rather than a soon-to-be convict? “Run JAL 123 instead.”
“Launching JAL 123. Have a nice flight.”
I rubbed my palms together and took hold of the throttle, so familiar to the touch it was like being reunited with a natural extension of my body that had gone missing. A respectable 28 minutes and 52 seconds later, I slammed into the mountainside with a surging exhilaration, another happy echo from the past.
I stepped out of the simulator and was struck anew by what a technological marvel it was. But it was already almost obsolete standing next to the newer models and, in another decade or two, would probably amount to little more than an antique curiosity as quaint as an old phonogram. Would I somehow live to see virtual reality technology in full bloom? I would have to make it to at least 70, perhaps even 80, a feat that seemed improbable especially now that time had begun feeding upon me with a ruthlessness that made me think of frenzied piranhas skeletonizing a cow in the Amazon River. But now more than ever, I yearned for a Star Trek style holodeck to escape to; a chamber that could perfectly simulate real-life scenarios down to the last chaotic detail, the smell in the air, the taste of skin; a time machine that could transport me back to relive those joyous memories I wept for in the night, even enhance and perfect them (delete that fight on the beach in Cuba and go straight to the outrageous makeup sex back in the hotel); a reality manufacturer that could make all my vanquishing hero fantasies, militaristic or pornographic or whatever, come to life. Real life. In this post-truth world, who would ever choose to get out of such a contraption?
The simulator door clicked shut behind me and with it my picture of Ally, her ear against my chest listening to my heart, vanished. I rubbed my ass as though I had just been caned and felt the card in my back pocket. It was logo-less and printed on cheap paper:
“Cosmetologist,” I muttered. When she had slid it across the bar at Milkwood’s, giving it a proud double tap with a long, manicured nail painted arterial red, I asked her innocently enough if she was a fortuneteller by trade.
For the duration of the long, sour look she held me in, I had the uneasy feeling I was soon to be wearing the fruity contents of her cocktail, never mind that it was a freshly delivered double. “Fuck,” she spat, setting down the glass instead. “I knew I should have just put ‘Makeup Artist’. I thought ‘Cosmetologist’ sounded more professional.”
“No, no,” I objected. “I’m just stupid about these things,” and that was no lie. “I was thinking of… of..”
“Astrologist,” sighed Phoebe.
“That’s it!” I said, snapping my fingers. “Star signs and all that horseshit.” With that all cleared up, my confusion was immediately revived when I went on to read the email address and website. Wary of putting my foot in it again, I just floated the words, “Sands Funeral Homes?”
“Actually, Slater and Sampson Funeral Homes.” She drew another card from her purse and appraised it with such cold disdain it may as well have been a used condom. “Probably I should’ve just put ‘Mortuary Makeup Artist’, huh?”
Now it clicked and I said, “Probably. So what, you make dead people beautiful?”
She ripped the card in half, contemplated the two pieces on the bar and then ripped them in half as well. “Bingo. Well, at least like they’re not dead, like they’re sleeping and dreaming something nice. I’m new to it. Just got my license a few months ago. But I’m damn good at it.”
“Like they’re dreaming something nice,” I repeated as I sank into a threadbare armchair with an atrocious dandelion pattern on it and entered the contacts in my phone. The purple tip of a fat, lumpy scar on her ribcage had revealed itself in the open armpit of her loose tank top whenever she raised her glass or got excited, the opening flourish of the signature Carrick Mayweather had carved into her body. It was harrowing to look at, but I still had to beat back the impulse to ask her if I could touch it, if she would lift up her shirt so I could trace the rest of its downward path to its dismal endpoint. Where might that be?
“When you’ve almost been murdered,you have to own it,” she had said with a shrug as I stared at her, mystified.
I saved the new contact, tapped ‘message’, and began to type.
“Which guy?” said Ally through a mouthful of olive and smoked salmon crostini.
“That one,” I said, pointing through the crowd to a slim man comfortably in his 30s with wavy mid-length hair and patchy scrub on the smooth slopes of his face. A harried cocktail waitress in a short white caterer’s coat was offering him champagne which he accepted with a rakish smile, thin lips curling back in such a way that, in the absence of the good humor stamped around his eyes, it could equally serve as a snarl. He lifted the flute to her by its stem and winked his thanks. He may as well have been wearing a top hat and swinging a pocket watch because this had the effect of persuading the cocktail waitress to thoroughly abdicate her duties. She set down the tray of glasses perilously close to the edge of a buffet table and, turning her back on them, began chatting with him as if she were one of the party guests. “Hypnotizing the young girl who’s supposed to be serving drinks.”
“Him? That’s just Jeff Rosenberg,” she said with a dismissive wave. “I think he’s a music producer or something.”
“Of course, he is.”
“Nothing. I saw you talking to him earlier is all.” I could hear the cold hostility in my voice, and I was startled, bewildered by it. What was wrong with me? Why was I picturing a younger version of this man talentlessly strumming a guitar in a college dorm room thick with weed smoke, a stoned girl in a beanbag chair cooing along, textbooks still in their plastic wrapping piled in a corner? Why was I inserting myself into that picture and reducing the instrument into kindling over his head?
Ally had an all-tooth smile that could take up the lower half of her face when she wanted it to, and she had liberally deployed it on Jeff Rosenberg. But she had done so on countless men at countless gatherings like this before while I sat watching from the bar without the slightest tremor of insecurity. That’s because Ally’s devotion was a force of nature. When we began seeing each other, she disavowed the paltry few nameless boyfriends she had had before me and, after we were married, erased all evidence of their existence by tossing out a box full of old photos and cards she had shipped down to Texas (where Dorothy had added it to her own decommissioned army of dusty, cobwebbed boxes stockpiled in her attic as if in preparation for some kind of memory apocalypse). On occasion, in a game now long abandoned for being as much “teenage bullshit” (Ally’s description) as it was futile, I would point out a man, either real or on TV, I could somehow imagine Ally finding sexy and say, “what about him?” Invariably Ally would roll her eyes and say either “not my type” or “he’s gross”, but something meatier in the tissue of her voice when she said “he’s gross” gave me the sense my gut feelings had come closer to the mark.
“Really, Paul?” coughed Ally, swallowing the last of her crostini and, as I looked at her bleakly, unsuccessfully attempted to wipe away the grin that had appeared on her face with a napkin. Placing her palm in the center of my chest, she kissed the side of my neck softly in that special place she had discovered long ago and whispered in my ear, “Not my type.”
“I never gave Jeff fucking Rosenberg another thought after that,” I concluded bitterly. “So much for gut feelings.”
Shannon removed her pen from her mouth, scribbled something spidery on her notepad and said, “Was that the only time during your marriage you experienced feelings of jealousy?” It’s an odious word – jealousy – forged in hell and dipped in sin, seed of self-fulfilling prophecy, and as it departed Shannon’s lips and traveled over the coffee table it crashed short of where I sat.
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said, plagiarizing my simulator.
“Was this the only time you suspected Ally?”
“I never suspected her!” I protested and, perhaps intuiting some counterfeit notes in my tone, Shannon took up her pad again.
There had been this one other time though, many years ago, when Ally announced an old high school friend, Kaitlin Lynch, was throwing a small housewarming party at her new place up in the Adirondacks. Ally usually coaxed me into accompanying her to these social events she knew I found tedious with cunning words of flattery (“you’re my husband and I want to show you off!”) but this time, before I even had a chance to groan, she let me right off the hook. “It’s going to be an overnighter and I don’t want you to suffer that long.” But was that really the reason? came the nagging question again as I lay on the couch in the dark with my movie paused. The image of Ally smiling at Jeff Rosenburg sailed through my head and I felt breathless. What if he, or someone like him, was there right now? What were the sleeping arrangements going to be?
That was it. Melanie was away at summer camp, so nothing was preventing me from going. I killed the TV, cleared away all the empties and bags of chips, remembered for a change to delete the browsing history from Ally’s computer, and headed north in the spare car. Even though I would have buried the needle on a breathalyzer, I didn’t take it easy on the gas and the winding corridors of pines contracted in the rearview in a blur. They caused some missed turnoffs at the end and when I finally burst through Kaitlin Lynch’s front door, my imagination was so overheated I half anticipated finding Ally writhing around on the floor in the midst of a Roman orgy.
“She was on the floor – I got that much right – cross-legged in front of a Ouija board with a bunch of other women cow staring me like I was an anal prober from outer space. Not a guy in sight,” I sighed. “Because, as it turned out, none had been invited.”
Shannon fake-choked on something and fanned at the flush rising in her face with the notepad. After a couple of false starts, she made a sound like she was swallowing a walnut whole and said tremulously, “So was THAT the last time you gave this Jeff Rosenberg a thought?”
“It was,” I said tersely, my humiliation at Kaitlin Lynch’s having permanently extinguished every last flame of the wildfire paranoia that had consumed me that night. But then Shannon went and lobbed her next question which settled somewhere atop my brainstem before detonating:
“So, you don’t think anything was going on with him until after the split?”
Phoebe: What RU up to 2nite?
Me: The good money’s on Milkwood’s.
Me: I may just move in there.
Me: Stop impersonating my wife.
Me: Besides, I better get the keys back to Dani. She’s well-armed and knows where I live.
Phoebe: I thought she was getting them from U?
Me: I was probably out if she came by.
Phoebe: Really? I slept all day. U go into town?
Me: Needed to get Jack and food. In that order.
Should I tell her about the keys? Earlier that morning, after I had slipped and skidded my way back through the sopping forest, the air heavy with the damp smell of decomposing leaves and soil alive with wriggling things, I wandered down to the dock jutting out alongside the red hangar. I tried turning the doorknob and sighed at its locked obstinance. Whatever. Despite the all-nighter and my liver throbbing dully in my side, I felt strangely invigorated and alive.
Squinting out across the water, a blinding white sun untethered itself from behind the dark hills on the other side, torching the last scraps of cloud and transforming the steaming lake into molten gold. Shell-shocked birds began testing their voices, the insane warbling amplified over the water, and the little waves colliding with the dock made sounds like falling coins. The air was cold and pure and had an anesthetizing effect on the cancerous sadness I suspected was changing the shape of my spine. I straightened my back and shoved my hands in my pockets. What was that? Dani’s keyring, as copiously laden with keys as a jailer’s. I wonder…
Sitting in the cockpit of the Cessna with the engine idling, calm water and blue sky framed in the hangar’s open doors, I checked the gas. Full tank. Enough to get deep into Canada. But what then? Go on the lam? Hide out in Montreal? Was Julianne Robbins even still alive? I shuddered and killed the engine. Jingling the keys in my palm, I muttered, “Locksmith, Jack, and food. In that order.”
Me: There’s something else.
Me: Are you working tomorrow?
Me: Think I could pass by?
As I exited the revolving doors of Home Depot, I was so preoccupied measuring the three freshly cut keys against the originals on Dani’s ring, I went crashing straight into a frail old black lady doddering by and almost sent her flying.
“So sorry, ma’am,” I mumbled, patting down the sleeves of her coat which might have been hollow if it weren’t for a bony hand protruding from the end of one, clutching a bag of groceries. “I didn’t break you, did I?”
“I’m good, I’m good,” she said in a creaky but vaguely familiar voice. When she finally looked up at me through the huge lenses of her wire glasses, I almost cried out in shock. It was Harold’s sister, Lucy. “Is that really you, Paul?” she said slowly, lifting her free bony hand to touch my face. “After all these years? You still look just like a remember you!”
Phoebe: OMG Paul 😢
Me: And guess where Harold’s body is?
Phoebe: No way.
Me: Way. They took him to Slater and Sampson Funeral Homes.
To be continued…
*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 11), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.