A little more than a year had passed since the Great Sadness.
She watched as every seat on the plane became occupied—many with people who seemed to have way too much stuff for the space provided in the overhead compartments. Grownups with fidgety kids and shopping-bags bulging with holiday gifts.
Families created by people who possessed extraordinary courage. Or so she imagined.
She waited for the plane to take off—dutifully strapped, as she was, into a seat by the window, next to the emergency exit. On the left-hand side of the aircraft, just over the wing.
The story had been running in her head for almost fifteen years—dormant between flights, only to be re-triggered by the happenstance of boarding a plane.
Updated each time by the rush of events across the world’s screen since the last time she’d checked in. Many of those events undreamed of and unforeseen, or so the media would have it.
Not surprising, when she considered that they’d begun to report a smattering of emergency-door openings mid-flight on planes all over the world. The first couple of occurrences having happened, it was said, far enough apart in time and space to be regarded by the authorities and reported by the press as random and unrelated cases of sociopathology.
The incidents began to surpass hijackings and bomb threats as sources of public fear and dread. Needless to say, the prospect of passenger planes being morphed into missiles yet again by bearded men bearing box-cutters hovered always in the wings of the cultural imagination.
A worldwide dip in air travel ensued, the market remaining solvent only because no one had invented any other way to ‘get there fast’; nor had anyone discerned a pattern in those acts that might have helped travelers decide which airlines, flight times, departure points or destinations to avoid.
The powers-that-be turned their attention to the matter, working day and night to solve the mystery of who and why—or so the story went. It having been propounded that a loose conspiracy (if not a loose cannon, she felt compelled to add) must be at work, never mind that each time an emergency door opened mid-flight, at least one member of that shadowy consensus, if indeed it existed, was snuffed out (along with countless unsuspecting passengers).
Sucked out, if the truth be told.
Though the media avoided that expression.
For every perpetrator self-sacrificed to a cause, if any, which only s/he could have explained, at least one or two sprang up to take his place. Or so it was feared, if not exactly suspected. And although more than half of those identified—however shakily, from the available remains—had been declared male, somewhere between twenty and thirty per cent were suspected not to be.
What remains were those, besides a few phantom names on passenger lists? A scrap of briefcase or handbag still harboring a boarding-pass stub with the fatal seat number; a hastily-jotted prayer or poem or some other emblem of departure less readily interpreted, penned or penciled in the trembling hand of the actor?
It was rumored that a cellphone had been spotted still glowing among one batch of fallout, a cryptic text-message beaming from its face: the initials “F O F”.
Perhaps the sender had meant S O S?
If not some slogan involving the traditional obscenity.
Discovery of the tiny transmitter, its body unscathed, its battery miraculously fully charged, raced across the tabloids and the web. People speculated endlessly in chat rooms opened to explore the mystery.
The cellphone itself assumed the status of a holy relic, some bloggers alleging that god or one of his emissaries—evidently hitherto unheard of on this planet—had loosed it upon the rubble to send us some kind of message from on high.
The powers-that-be, in their own timely fashion, announced that a new kind of terrorist squad was at work, that its “cells” extended to every corner of the earth (though ‘ether’ was perhaps the more accurate term); that alas, profiling would not be used as a detective tool, given that adults of every age, ethnicity, sex and personal style had been found to be involved, in percentages curiously proportionate to their slice of the air-travel pie; and that a “vast network” of airline employees had also “signed on”, worldwide. Rumor had it that these workers, whether bribed or recruited to the cause, as the powers-that-be insisted upon calling it, made sure that a kamikaze, to use the media’s word, got assigned a seat next to an emergency door. That of the eight exits on a typical plane at least one, but not more than two per flight, were tended by a member of this “suicide squad”.
She leaned forward as the harried, overweight flight attendant addressed the eight people, herself included, who’d been assigned to the emergency seats on this plane.
The flight attendant proceeded to administer to each of them a pop quiz, even as she joked with them as if to reassure them that none of it was serious.
Though her purpose may have been just the opposite: to generate a sense of alert, not to say alarm, in each of her charges.
As it soon became clear from the proceedings, each question had only one right answer. The flight attendant duly echoing the word in a loud voice after each person spoke it.
She herself listened for unexplained pauses as her fellow keepers of the exits offered their responses in turn, on cue.
A ‘no’ to even one question being cause for removal from the post in exchange for someone who was willing to answer ‘yes’ to every one.
Or so the eight passengers were told, after being informed that they’d passed the test ‘with flying colors’.
She couldn’t help wincing at the flight attendant’s choice of words.
Even as she wondered if anyone ever opted out.
Never mind that a few questions went unasked. Questions she herself might have raised, had she been in charge.
Such as, have you never had the impulse to open an emergency door in the middle of a long flight? Not even for a moment?
Realizing that most people would answer ‘no’.
By which, of course, they’d mean yes, they’d never had the impulse.
At least, if they’d never had it.
Though she had to wonder how many people, or how few, fought the urge on every flight they took, if only for a few seconds.
She herself having had to sit on her hands at times, so strong was its call.
A few, if asked, would no doubt hesitate before saying yes. Or would they mean no?
That ambiguity, if nothing else, made it impossible to tell who might be at risk for unlatching an emergency exit mid-flight, and who not.
She couldn’t help remembering planes she’d heard about that had crashed in perfect weather, killing everyone on board, because the air-traffic controller failed to understand the English of the pilot, or vice versa.
It being no doubt a revelation to some infrequent flyers that the doors could be opened by anyone, anytime at all.
The urge to test this possibility already beginning to glimmer in the psyches of some of the passengers as they pondered, however fleetingly, their place in that limitless space just beyond the glass; as they felt themselves gear up to relish the rush and the roar of its breath, the sting of its hum, recalling in spite of themselves, in spite of the still-earthbound state of the plane, the sensation of soaring through night skies swirling with galaxies of stars in dreams of self-propelled flight at the age of four or five, dreams that inexplicably ceased as their attachment to the ground grew stickier with age.
Though perhaps it was less an attachment than an uneasy compromise.
However urgent the pull of gravity might have made it seem.
Still, the question remained: what cause would compel so many ‘reasonable’ people, even those bound to families they‘d created, to commit the act so deftly sidestepped in the flight attendant’s questions? Barring a kind of gut curiosity, might it suffice to elevate the phenomenon to a sense of adventure, even of mission, however perverse the powers-that-be might find this?
Though perhaps the right word was ‘omission’.
A desire to go out, as it were, with a blast, to soar for a second at 30,000 feet with nothing between the wind and your skin, free for once of fear of flying or of crashing from the purest high you could ever know—the uber-peak from which all metaphors flowed like the fingers of the great Brahmaputra? The air itself the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end of all hyperbole?
Might not it be a matter of the ancient urge to merge with the ephemeral and the evanescent?
The ethereal, if not the ineffable?
The very ‘happy death’ legendarily touted in all its quasi-erotic glory by a slew of writers and philosophers long since dead themselves?
However unhappily, on very different terms.
None of them having had it so clean or simple, if memory served her.
Recalling the case of Albert Camus, who’d perished at the peak of his powers at age 43. Quite against his will.
On one of those two-lane, tree-lined country roads in France, on the way to a book party. He’d been riding in the front seat next to his publisher, who’d been driving.
If she wasn’t completely wrong about the details.
The place her parents used to call the suicide seat.
At a time way before they had seat belts—at least in cars.
Camus’ last book bearing the title, in French: La mort heureuse.
Published posthumously, as it turned out.
Could he have suspected somehow that it might be his last?
But what of all the travelers who might have preferred not to quit the earth even temporarily, just to cross the country in hours not days—only to go slamming back into it, naked as bullets, from thousands of feet up, en route?
They being the kinds of people, she speculated, who’d avoided roller-coasters in their childhoods.
Never mind that some of them were children themselves, on board this plane through no choice of their own.
Then again, the sort of person who’d pry open an emergency door mid-flight could hardly be expected to ponder the issue of whether her fellow passengers, no less captive on this vessel than she, might not wish to join her if they had a choice, now, could she?
Or were her seat-mates rather part of the plan—to be outed against their presumed will yet despite their repression of an urge which, after all, threatened to hijack the brains of even the most earthbound, shackled as they were for hours in their cramped positions, however metaphorically?
The more so, perhaps, when deprived of the minimal conditions for unfettered thought, whatever those might be. Or, if not exactly deprived, then detained in the kind of context-free environment that taunted the mind to remain landlocked even as it dared it to break free. A situation in which she and her fellow passengers became inmates, voluntarily yet warily belted into seats in a sealed pod soon to be suspended miles above their customary habitat, their ears filled for now, for good or ill, with the insipid patter of the kind of piped-in music still found in transitional spaces like this worldwide, a razz of bleached-out big-band sound blended with a blur of blue-haired bossa nova—music leeched of its last trace of sonic personality, mauled into something fatally bland.
So she mulled in the moments before takeoff, moments that threatened to stretch into hours while the pilot waited his turn at the foot of the runway, the other planes poised like a flock of ungainly cranes as they too awaited permission to soar.
Hunkered in that DMZ of dead air during which even the most basic privileges ended up suspended.
Though that wasn’t quite what she meant.
Privileges stowed, perhaps, not unlike the coats and carry-ons in the overhead bins.
Privileges—to say nothing of rights, like going to the bathroom.
Stowed? Grounded, was more like it.
The flight attendants poised to strong-arm her back into her seat, were she to unfasten her belt, then manoeuver her body over the legs of her seatmates and proceed to stride down the aisle toward a lavatory—face it—that might never be vacant, or clean, again.
It had happened on more flights than she could name.
In that spider-hole of time after they’d locked all the doors, before the plane lifted into the air.
The urge to exaggerate the most inane details of her surroundings being just one symptom, she supposed, of the captivity itself.
Engaged, as she half-believed she was, in a kind of mental rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.
If she could be pardoned for putting it that way.
The 57 channels that offered everything from the roots of R&B to throat-singing’s greatest hits not, alas, programmed to kick in through her headphones until the plane took off.
A lag which always threatened to become interminable, or if not that, so protracted as to constitute a kind of torture lite.
Or so the media might call it, were they to report on the subject, some holiday with nothing much else in the news.
A malaise arising not merely from the constriction of one’s body in a too-narrow space for too long, nor from the smell of the air which, trapped here itself, had already been recycled by who knew how many people with colds, to say nothing of TB or SARS, there being no other air available to breathe, in theory, until the plane reached its destination.
The torture lay not just in this, but in the not-knowing.
A feeling not unlike the one that had overtaken her during the first few seconds of the first earthquake she’d ever experienced.
The question was always: how long will this last?
And then, if the dishes hadn’t clattered off the shelves by the end of that thought, Was this going to be it? The one they’d been expecting for the past eighty years?
She thought of her landlady in Tokyo, back in the 1980s, who’d told her about how she’d crouched under her desk, in second grade, in a school near the center of the city. Only to discover, hours later, that she’d lost her home, her parents and most of the rest of her family to the earthquake.
Not to mention most of her schoolmates.
This having happened to the woman some sixty years earlier.
The remaining survivors of the daishinsai of 1923, in which great tracts of Tokyo burned to the ground owing to the spread of fire unleashed from hibachis when hundreds of houses, all made of wood and rice-paper, began to collapse one minute before the stroke of noon, would now be approaching their nineties—at least, those survivors old enough to remember it. Those she’d spoken to recalled that it struck at a time of day when many housewives, a word they still used, were cooking lunches of rice and broiled ayu, a fish known for its delicate flavor, its meltaway flesh. A fish you could still count on catching, back then, in the Sumida River, before that stream became the ooze of chemical waste it had been for decades now.
An oily canal in the heart of the city with nothing alive left in it.
At least the last time she’d checked.
The time of day of that cataclysm, however coincidental, bearing an uncanny familial parallel, if she could put it that way, to the hour at which the pilot of the Enola Gay had let loose The Bomb on Hiroshima, twenty-two years later.
Not noon, but eight in the morning, a time when that city’s housewives were cooking breakfast for their families, or just clearing up, sending their kids out the door and off to school on foot, their husbands on bicycles, all of them bearing lunch-boxes still warm, no doubt, from the freshly-steamed rice and broiled fish they carried.
Almost precisely the same hour, come to think of it, that Japanese pilots had attacked Pearl Harbor some five years earlier. A few of them having grown up, no doubt, in Hiroshima.
She wondered what kind of research, beyond the purely military, might have gone into that decision. The choice of time of day.
What role, if any, the impulse to avenge that opening act might have played. The consequent need to match it in certain key details, if not every one. The urge for a grand finale.
The bombing of Hiroshima being an event which, unlike Pearl Harbor, no one had been warned of, as far as she knew.
However expert Japan’s seismologists were said to be at predicting earthquakes in what was said to be the most seismically-active spot on the globe.
Though if they were so accurate, how could they have failed to forecast the Kobe disaster of 1994?
She might have been wrong about the year. Already it seemed so long ago.
A-OK for Aug 6, weather should be swell. So read one memo, framed behind glass in the peace museum in Hiroshima.
The time of day only minutes earlier, come to think of it, than the moment the first plane crashed into the first of the World Trade twins some fifty-six years later, just a little over one year ago.
A time when parents were just dropping their kids off at the daycare a few blocks away, a time when many grownups were already at their desks on the ninety-somethingeth floor, sitting in front of their computers with the coffee and Danish they’d stopped for in the lobby—or pacing before the windows, gazing down at the rhinestones of sunlight shimmering off the harbor, the twin towers of the Verrazzano Bridge with its perfect curves of filament silhouetted, toy-like, against the water far below. A time when, if the wind had been especially strong, they would have seen the pictures and placques, if any, on the walls of their cubicles and conference rooms shift ever so slightly back and forth with its random but unmistakable motion.
The hijackers of those planes having no term in English for the extraordinary depth and brilliance of the sky on that particular mid-September morning—the range of visibility, the flawless horizon before their eyes. A happenstance they’d laid at the feet of their god, no doubt. An auspicious omen. A blessing.
Or so she surmised.
Unlike the air-traffic controllers and pilots from her own country, who would always remember the weather that day. Minus, alas, the four pilots whose planes had been pirated.
A blue so deep it was almost the color of midnight, all the way to the horizon. In every direction.
She’d been told by a pilot friend of hers that they had a term of art for weather like that.
They called it severe clear.
Which would have been duly noted in their flight logs however far flung—now frozen in time, forever.
Immortalized—the mundane hand in hand with the monstrous.
Not unlike, alas, the patterns on the shirts of some of those children—ancient, familiar motifs etched into their backs at the moment the bomb hit, that perfect day back in 1945, as they cavorted and dallied their way to school, hand in hand, in groups of four or five, with their lunchboxes of mackerel, rice and pickled plum.
Patterns memorialized in certain black-and-white photos on view in the peace museum in Hiroshima.
If, that is, her memory had not completely abandoned her.
Even as it commandeered her brain as a labyrinth for its relentless wanderings.
Though perhaps she meant a punching-bag.
Who was the warden, who was the inmate?
It was so hard to tell sometimes. And only getting harder with each passing year.
Or so she reflected, as the plane continued to idle at the foot of the runway.
Year? Perhaps what she really meant was each passing thought.
A pale sun climbed slowly into the sky. Her ears smarted beneath the tinkle of a muzak’ed version of Jingle Bell Rock.
Come to think of it, was there any other kind?
Never mind that audio-harassment like this had been rendered largely obsolete by technology that allowed the powers-that-be to run endless tape-loops of whatever they wanted to hear or to wish upon her and anyone else within earshot—anything and everything from CPE Bach to Peggy Lee; Billie Holiday to Billy Joel.
Even as audio-harassment like this had become easier than ever.
Though they usually chose a safe blend of hits from twenty or thirty, even forty, years ago—not so much a stream of standards watered down as of the kind of white-bread sound that had, alas, been born that way. A groove with no spice, no pepper at all.
Songs once perhaps iconic of a certain era, now guaranteed to offend no ear. Or so the music seemed to plead to no one in particular, disembodied as it was, wafting from the walls or ceilings of holding-pens like dentists’ waiting-rooms and department stores.
Places she’d gone only when dragged by her mother, as a child.
Only to find herself passing time in them, not infrequently, as a grownup. On her own recognizance. If she could call it that.
The sound, even so, guaranteed to remind everyone of something—and thus no doubt to offend at least one ear, if not many pairs of them.
Designed to insinuate itself into the collective unconscious, if there was such a thing.
Given that the music, in its original form, must have carried no small resonance, back in its time.
Swaying, though hardly bristling, with portent.
At least for those like her who’d been approaching the summit, if not the pit, of their youth at the time it came out.
People of a certain age, who’d come of age in an uncertain one.
Which she supposed she herself had been doing as she hid under her desk with the rest of her classmates in second grade in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, back in 1953. Not that she would have thought to put it this way, back then.
Dog-tags around their necks, waiting for the drill to be over.
If not for The Bomb to drop.
Though from now until a little past New Year’s, she and everyone else on board seemed doomed to be bombarded by an endless stream of holiday tunes, if you could call them that, in every public space—a sound so cloying as to tinsel-whip the simplest thought she might have entertained, forget the most complex.
On any topic at all.
Perhaps the emergency-door pirates, whoever they were, had believed themselves to be on some kind of outing, however frivolous that might sound. They’d been, after all, hellbent on getting some air, or so it seemed.
Taking a breather. If not precisely a powder.
Did anyone younger than her Japanese landlady use that expression anymore? Assuming, that is, a Japanese equivalent of it even existed.
Never mind that they got a lot more air than even they, perhaps, had bargained for.
An outing not only of themselves, but of the number of passengers on any given flight who could claim with a straight face, if asked, that they’d never had the faintest urge to escape through the door of an aircraft speeding at 30,000 feet and be swept across a sea of blue on endless duvets of gold-flecked whipped cream.
Not that anything like that would actually happen to them.
Perhaps the idea was to out all the passengers, not just those who’d never wrestled with the notion of escape.
Which, if so, made their moves comparable to those of Jim Jones in the ill-fated Jonestown, minus the paranoia.
If not right along with it.
The followers Jim Jones had ‘taken out’ with him back in Guyana, some thirty years ago, by way of dixiecups of Kool-Aid spiked with cyanide, having been innocent of anything more sinister than harboring dreams of a paradise on earth. If not exactly 20/20 visions of that.
Many of them having believed they were living a version of it at the time.
Or if not living it, drawing closer with every passing day, like a spacecraft approaching the sun.
Even as they wondered just what was wrong with this picture.
Was it not one that cried out for some kind of rational explanation? By someone still capable of drawing breath?
What would drive an otherwise competent adult to pry open a door in mid-flight, only to take out the better part of a planeful of unwitting strangers along with her?
But if an explanation could be found, wouldn’t the threat thus enshrined evolve into something born and growing, already half-housebroken?
Notwithstanding its characterization as ‘horrific’ by the powers-that-be.
She wondered if the process whereby the threat became flesh, for want of a better word, could properly be called ‘evolution’.
Perhaps ‘devolution’ was more like it.
Some creatures, surely, beginning to degenerate the moment they were born whole in one piece.
Sad as this notion made her feel.
Though perhaps it applied to all creatures.
Contemplation of the monster inviting a free fall into the trivial, once they gave it a nickname.
That choice alone, however unconscious, being a matter not merely of imagining, but conjuring the beast—the route from this a hale bop to the rim of the abyss.
If not indeed a summons from the pit.
If she could be forgiven for couching it in such terms.
The act, thus described, as trackable as it had once been unspeakable: a rumor now grown hard as black ice on a wing and every bit as shiny. Fearsome as the weather.
Yet every bit, alas, as banal.
Or something like this.
Something you watched, from your couch, on TV.
She thought of how the media reported crashes on the interstate, always in a voice like cold mashed potatoes. Such accidents, however lethal, long since classified as commonplace on the priority-charts of the powers-that-be—events deemed important enough to note only when they caused people who had not been killed or maimed in them to arrive late for work at their offices.
Or when they caused people who were considered celebrities to be killed or maimed in them.
Events once monstrous—now merely happening.
Inviting repetition, yet elusive of review.
Not unlike 911, come to think of it.
The question begged to be asked: how was she to interpret the phenomenon, to say nothing of protecting herself from the threat it represented? How was anyone to do this?
Assuming the menace was real.
Could it mean there were no more emergencies?
The concept itself gone somehow obsolete? Swept off into the wild blue?
She suddenly realized why the safety instruction card in the back pocket of the seat in front of her told people to jump out of the way as soon as they made it through the emergency exit and down the slide. Not for any of the obvious reasons, such as that the plane was, after all, crashing, and thus liable to shatter her and her fellow passengers into a trillion bloody fragmentini; not because the plane would have, by then, long since burst into flames, leaving those, like her, with the misfortune to be either on or near it, not already suffocated from the smoke they’d inhaled however against their will, not already succumbed to the trauma of impact, thus slated to be sizzled to a crisp, momentarily; no, not by reason of any of these very likely scenarios; but because at least some of the emergency doors were situated near the lavatories, and if by some miracle you’d made it off the plane alive in the first place, the last place you’d want to be as you landed was in the path of the contents, now airborne and hurtling straight toward you, of a busted toilet-waste receptacle.
Though maybe that was only the next-to-last place.
First they’d called it EDT, for ‘emergency-door terrorism’—only for the powers-that-be to note some months later, in their usual timely fashion, the uncanny resemblance of these initials to the first letters of the tried-and-true ‘estimated departure time’.
Their cure for the confusion being to dub the threat, worldwide—what else?—‘E.T’.
She marveled at the tact and grace of this decision. Or was it merely an instance of cultural amnesia, however stunning, on the part of the powers-that-be?
If not, on the contrary, someone’s weird idea of a stroll down memory lane.
The once-famous film of that name having been slated to be re-screened in theaters all over the world on the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary the very next year.
A movie whose most remembered line had been, phone home!
This being an age in which irony seemed to have gone into hiding—or so the media proclaimed with some regularity.
To say nothing of solemnity.
Though perhaps irony was merely traveling incognito.
Which, if true, it may well have decided to do in reaction to the efforts of the powers-that-be to deride it as a form of treason.
Why, she’d go into hiding herself, if it ever came down to that.
But perhaps she already had.
How many steps ahead of the powers-that-be could she run without losing her very last breath?
Or was it rather a matter of outrunning, if not out-gunning, the media?
If she could even call it that. A question, she had to admit, she found herself at pains to answer.
Funny, when bits and pieces of irony seemed to be flying all over the place at any given moment. Why, you had to duck your head if you wanted to avoid being splattered.
She watched a guy do exactly that, just up the aisle from her, as he nudged the latch of an overhead bin only to see its top fly up and smother his face in a cloud of falling fleece.
Even as sentimentality seemed to blanket, or stifle, all debate.
Supersized as it threatened to become at this time of year. Reminiscent of the helium-filled cartoons in the Thanskgiving Day parade.
To say nothing of so many of the grownups headed back to their parents’ homes for the holidays.
All of them somehow fatter than ever this year.
The presence of seat-belts on planes being a phenomenon she’d always found poignant, especially in light of the supreme inefficacy of such a restraint in the event of an actual crash.
To say nothing of the glaring lack, by contrast, of seat belts on buses, a place where they might have been able to do some good.
What was next, air bags on planes?
Redundant as such a concept seemed, not unlike waterbeds on boats.
Or something like that.
Though not quite like them, either.
The question begged to be asked: why was it so easy to pry open an emergency door while a plane was in flight?
But if this oversight, if that’s what it was, were to be corrected, didn’t someone have to define it as a problem first?
So, at least, she reasoned.
Before anyone could decide whether its solution was in fact a matter of adjusting the technology, or merely of changing the rules?
She thought she recalled reading or hearing somewhere that the powers-that-be were thinking of drafting a law that would make it a federal offense to touch the latch unless you were a form of “authorized personnel”.
Whatever that was.
Being all too familiar with the style of the powers-that-be, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised to find them approaching the matter from such an obtuse perspective.
If, that is, they were approaching it at all. If they had a style.
Not to say that a measure like this would stop anyone who was already on a trajectory.
No one yet having figured out how to keep the door tamper-proof and at the same time capable of being opened quickly and easily in an emergency.
Or perhaps tamper-evident, as the labels on sealed pill-bottles seemed to proclaim themselves more and more often, lately, from the dubious safety of drugstore shelves.
Tamper-evident? Surely they didn’t mean that.
Nor had it turned out to be feasible to restrict access to the exits, except in the most general terms.
Impossible to say, as it was, who should be ‘qualified’ to have such access, and who should be kept away. Never mind how that might be determined.
To say nothing of who should make those decisions, even if it could be decided, if not exactly ascertained, what the proper criteria for playing such a role might be.
Or the proper ‘training’ for it, if any.
Though she suspected that training had nothing much to do with it.
Wasn’t it more a matter of innate affinity, the requisite trait embodying a sort of dispassion toward human suffering? Coupled, of course, with a sense of mission. Not to mention a jones for micro-managing other people’s lives.
A Jim Jones, if you will.
Those being the very qualities, come to think of it, that the desired “authorized personnel” shared with the exit-terrorists, if the ‘personality profiles’ posted for some of the latter were to be believed.
However unripe the question of authority, if any, of such personnel might have been, if it hadn’t already gone moot.
In the end, random assignment of passengers, by computer, to emergency-exit seats remained the only tenable course, despite its incompetence to solve the problem. It being, some felt compelled to insist, the very condition out of which the problem had arisen in the first place.
She gazed out the window at a luggage cart loaded with people’s bags that had been waiting on the tarmac unattended for forty-five minutes.
Short of stipulating that the occupier of an emergency seat be over 15 years of age, ‘of sound mind and body’, and willing to assume the “responsibilities” lurking in the situs of the seat, the airline was hardly equipped to pronounce upon what kind of person sat there, now, was it?
Far less to exercise any real control over the matter.
Whatever ‘kind of person’ might mean.
Surely not, when every carrier deemed it necessary, last time she’d checked, to provide a free flow of booze on every flight, day or night, whether for two hours or eighteen, to anyone who asked for it.
Well, OK—if not free, cheap. Even as every airline threw up its hands in the face of what it called ‘air rage’.
The only difference in the status of her seat compared with the others on this flight being that it gave her the right to move away if she didn’t want to assume the responsibilities, dormant or not, which hovered around the site like bats around the Washington Monument.
The right, that is, to change places with someone who might rather assume them himself.
No matter how much he’d had to drink.
Responsibilities which she always dared hope would remain quiescent.
The task of screening the population of air-travelers worldwide for some tendency, however discernible by way of a series of questions for which ‘yes’ was deemed the only right answer, being itself a prospect so daunting as to invite comparison to the fabled labors of antiquity. . .or of the heroes and heroines of uncounted video games.
Quests of epic ambition—or were they penalties? like counting the grains of sand on a beach. Or all the clouds in the sky.
Clouds? No, stars. Wasn’t that how it went? Far more stars than clouds likely on the kind of night a day like this might portend. In any case.
The tendency screened for, presumably nothing so simple as suicidal: a longing to silence the cries that screamed from the pit of one’s soul, perhaps, but not just this: a compulsion to rescue others from their versions of the same—an urge itself fueled by those very cries. The sort of Pied Piper impulse that might lead the shyest adult to pry open an emergency door mid-flight, knowing that most of the passengers would follow whether they thought they wanted to or not.
The urge to escape, if you will, beginning with the incline of the body, to say nothing of the senses, toward that scene out the window, itself a banquet of space ablaze, beckoning her to come out and feast. A realm separated from this capsule of plane by mere inches—accessible, almost instantly, via the lift of a plastic latch on the door next to her seat, a handle about the size of her forearm.
A simple matter of applying her fingers to the handle. And the muscles of her forearm to the task of moving it.
A compulsion not merely suicidal.
Some might say, not at all.
Self-annihilation having nothing to do with it, prior to the sensation of release.
How sad to consider that the others flung into the void by a tug of the latch would very likely finish their days not merely as homicides, but as ‘third-party beneficiaries’ as well.
Or so some lawyer could be counted on to claim in the class-action suit that would inevitably follow.
However unknown to the deceased, however beyond their capacity to speak out in posthumous protest.
The case for the defense, likely as not, to be based on the notion that she who’d released the emergency latch had done not only herself a favor, but everyone in her wake, as well, the moment she’d taken the action.
Though in what capacity was far from clear, there being little doubt how the families and friends of those blown away by her gesture would respond to this argument.
She recalled being told once, by a lawyer friend, that the first job of an advocate was to aggressively defend the client.
She remembered wondering what the limits of such aggression might be, if any—and what a mystery the answer, if any, had seemed to her at the time.
Was it not a kind of instinct, or lore, accessible only on a case-by-case basis?
Surely the demise of the client, prior to the maturity (if not the birth) of the case itself, had to be one of those limits.
Who was the client here? Whom could anyone sue?
The airline, of course—no doubt about that. The designer of the door. To say nothing of its manufacturer.
The actual perpetrator being, by then, nowhere in sight. Though perhaps in pieces, and thus in no competent condition. . .
In which case anyone who opened the door mid-flight became, by default, an agent of the airline. If not of the designer and the manufacturer, all three.
She gripped the armrests on either side of her seat as the plane’s engines roared.
Years ago, in that innocent time when kids still killed for earrings, looks and leather jackets, when men pushed pregnant women off of subway platforms onto the third rail to see, as they said, what it felt like to do it; when boys pulled the red emergency cords on trains for the rush of power, as one of them said, it gave him to feel the train stop short in the dark between stations; in a time gone quaint in its sudden obsolescence—in its consignment, post-911, to the cubbyhole of back-in-the-day, a time when a white guy in a cabin in Montana was still sending bombs to professors of computer science by snail-mail, around the same time that two guys in Oklahoma, unknown to him, were plotting to blow up a building whose explosion in fact killed 169 people, many of them children—the question might well have been asked: what protected her and her fellow passengers from the threat of unguarded emergency-exit doors on planes?
Were there really, yet and still, so few crazies out there?
She peered up and down the rows of seats, every one of them filled. Every passenger settling in, or so it seemed, as the plane left a toy city scattered on the ground far below its enormous flanks. A city gone still and silent, all of its traces soon to vanish from view.
The wheels of the aircraft folded themselves with a clunk back into their burrow, somewhere beneath her seat.
Most of the passengers wore headphones as they watched the screens above their heads. As many as five or six different dramas darted across the squares, or so it seemed.
She gazed at the vanishing terrain outside her window, glanced at the features of the door panel next to her body as the plane pushed itself through the long slope of clouds and up into open sky. She pressed the arrows on the touch-pad in the arm of her seat. The music in her headphones flitted from Dixieland Classics to the New World Symphony, Sounds of Brazil to The Merry Widow.
Or was it the merry weirdo?
She stumbled upon a female voice singing Delta blues, a recording which, from the sound of it, must have been purged off a 78—made some time in the 1920s, perhaps even earlier. The faint wail of sound seemed to float up from a long way down, the voice itself trapped, perhaps, in a cabin somewhere, a hollow in the woods, the singer herself no doubt long silenced by a death that couldn’t have been very happy.
Or so she imagined.
Though she might have been utterly mistaken.
The scratches they hadn’t been able to purge from the recording when they transferred it to CD whispered in her ear like secrets shared by a passel of fugitives. What was that game she and her friends had played back in the fifties, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee? A kind of ‘hide and seek’ in reverse? One child hid, and all the others tried to find her. Then, one by one, as they did, they joined her in her hiding-place until there was only one kid left outside, one still wandering the woods, still seeking.
She remembered how she’d begged to be ‘it’ so as not to become that child. How, when forced into the role by the simple luck of the draw, she’d been shocked at some point in the game to find herself suddenly alone, wondering where all her friends had gone. As if they’d vanished all at once, instead of one by one, over time. As if her whole world had changed in a snap of the fingers.
She glanced across the aisle toward the exit opposite hers. A couple and their teenage son sat in the three seats, the boy’s father next to the window. Reading a magazine, hearing whatever he could hear through his headphones, the man stuck his hand inside a bag of crunchy snacks and idly crammed the pieces into his mouth. He pulled down his windowshade, eyeing her sharply as if he had caught her in some kind of unnatural act.
Perhaps for a second he thought she’d caught him in one.
The babies on the plane, hungry now, began to scream.
B J Atwood-Fukuda lives and writes in Spuyten Duyvil, NY and Woods Hole, MA. Her work has appeared in American Letters & Commentary, The Mad Hatter’s Review, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present (Scribner’s, 2003) and Free Radicals: American Poets Before Their First Books (Subpress, 2004).