DEPARTING PHL: Repo Man’s got a code. You too must learn the codes; the three-letter names of every airport. You must learn the name of the beast. Pay your respects. Those said to dwell in the Great Tree of the Endless Jungle are known to eat of the fruit of that tree. When they return from the hunt, they breathe or expectorate deep into its blossoms and the tree yawns to receive them home. This is as it has always been, and as it should be.
Waiting for clearance to pull away from the terminal. It’s flying time again. The belly of this commuter aircraft is full of clean, folded laundry and, looking around me I would estimate, seven cord-wrapped hair dryers, a handful of business-casual outfits, approximately thirty-three additional pairs of shoes and twice that number of toothbrushes in various hues. Each total set is encased in progressively identical cloth cubes with Chihuahua-grade wheels affixed to one end.
Everything is patient here. The two men sitting in front of me are wearing matching plaid shirts. They don’t appear to know one another, so I don’t think they planned it and it’s entirely possible they’re too embarrassed to speak out about their wardrobe malfunction, but that makes no difference to the sky god. Everyone weighs the same to the sky god.
The empty plastic Starbucks cup shoved into the seat back across the aisle from me is especially patient. It has no other objective. Plastic cups are extremely low entropy objects. They are created for one purpose: to hold one drink, one time. And once that purpose is served, the cup is discarded. It becomes refuse. Refused. Two clean well-manicured hands held up in polite protest: “Oh, no thank you. I refuse this item.” Thus begins the hundred year obligation toward decomposition. A plastic cup is patient like Chuck Norris. It is born, and it waits in line. It serves a purpose. It doesn’t make mistakes. It doesn’t have credit cards, an Amazon shopping cart, or a favorite beer. The plastic cup owns two things; nourishment and rot and there is no celebration when it moves from one stage to the next. There are, at present, no greeting cards available for this occasion. The plastic cup barely acknowledges its own existence. From the viewer’s perspective, the cup is only one in an endless army of translucent sleepers. Waiting.
Another preflight. Another safety brief. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re preparing to close the doors, so now would be a good time to wrap up that conversation. During the flight, the captain may turn off the seatbelt sign. During the flight, the captain may enjoy a spirited game of Asshole with the rest of the flight crew. During the flight, the captain may get on the intercom and regale us with the story of the time he engaged in relations with his first ex-wife in the women’s restroom at the TGI Friday near the airport. Thank you for flying with us.” The co-pilot has heard these stories, one and all. He looks back, nods his head in agreement. “Don’t judge, just roll with it. It’s all part of his therapy.” The cockpit door closes like a punchline on a punchline.
The engines scream to full power and the aircraft executes a smooth 180-degree corkscrew turn as it climbs slowly in place, the heat waves of the downward thrust creating bacon-shaped ripples just visible against the tarmac. The landing gear folds up into position, away into the thorax. The turbines kick in with a fierce blue flame and we are born away on the breath of the sky god.
PORTSMOUTH, NH. Day two. For weeks now, I’ve heard people exclaim, “Gee, I wish Autumn would hurry up and get here!” I don’t know what happened and I’m not assigning blame. Maybe the lines got crossed. Maybe the address labels got mixed up, but this is where it’s happening. Fall is here. All of it. And the casualties are many.
There’s a river of pumpkin spice latte about three feet deep running through the center of town, with whirlpools of rotted cream and drizzled sauce congealing in dense puddles by the side of the road. You can’t move for all the goddamned pumpkins and the absolute stink of burning leaves is everywhere. It’s like they got so fucking colorful that every tree throughout history plain-ass exploded. Pumpkin pies by the millions are smashed and smeared against the store front windows, much to the delight of the darkness of swarming flies. You can’t walk a block without seeing people bailing what was once hot cocoa from their flooded basements or expensive motorcars with plastic buckets and a sullen look on their face. There is a sense of sorrow in the air. Somewhere close by, I can hear an old woman crying. I mean to tell you this place is Autumn’d the FUCK OUT. This is where it’s all been collecting. Great lakes of apple cider have bubbled to the surface of many lawns and local parks. The bodies of various rodent float past, washed from their warrens, nests, dams, sports bars, what have you. All of it. Right here. I hear Hallmark is sending in a response team to cordon off the area and begin gross decontamination.
ENROUTE TO ORF: Zero sleep last night. Took a small red pill about an hour ago to deal with some mild congestion; the sweet stink of Autumn takes time to dispel. Anyway, I think I just grew a new set of lungs! I feel good, as though I were a fast car, inhaling big through clean filters and exhaling via over-sized chrome pipes. I’m ready for the flight home. Get me a large black coffee, a fine-tipped Sharpie, the best of Ozzy Osborne, and home in time for dinner, please and thank you — the phone rings. “Yes? No. Okay. Sure… yeah. Okay. I’m on it.”
I’m not going home. Not yet.
ENROUTE TO HOU: We follow the Mississippi River south, as explorers and traders have done for two hundred years, flying above scattered piles of soft white water, waiting. Everything is patient above 20,000 feet. Nothing here is hurried. The sky god takes his time.
ENROUTE TO THE LONG NIGHT: Many hours later, a break room in the Galveston, TX, County Health Department. I’m eating a cold piece of Little Caesar’s cheese pizza because all the good stuff is gone. The coffee here is crap. I’m working a case. If all goes well, it will sink like a flat stone fresh out of skips. I have not slept in 27 hours.
(Time passes) Did the job. Went back to my hotel at hour 28, slept for six hours. Woke up, checked in. The operation had been a success, the outpost was already empty. “Don’t bother coming in. It’s over.”
I’d rented a brand new Dodge Charger, not even 5,000 miles on the odometer, so I showered, dressed, brushed my teeth and my team mate and I went barreling down to Galveston Island with the windows down, the needle hard to the right and the Texas wind whipping at our clothes like a screaming banshee. I couldn’t even feel the road. The gods of hot sunlight, blue sky and loud rock music were summoned to drive away the cobwebs of the past two days.
Next day. The drive back to HOU was uneventful. I turned the keys over to two sweet little old ladies and caught the airport shuttle, which was being driven by an older black man. His face was half obscured by amber sunglasses, and his hair was knotted in tight cornrows, like decorative wrought iron affixed to the sides of his head. He brushed at the leather wrapped wheel with fingerless gloves as he guided us through traffic and told a number of gentle jokes, choosing his words, measuring his audience. He had a soft chuckle, like brushing against dried cornstalks. What was he thinking? Were we crazies from the North? Who’s to say?
Now at the airport. Nothing to do but find the gate and fly. Try to find that same mind space I had on the flight to BOS last week…
(Dead wind signals, the end of electricity. No one uses that crap anymore, many a robber baron left holding the bag. Clouds beyond my window like white blossoms floating in a sea of rice milk, confection sugar, and pure cocaine. The best pilots know where to fly, how to scoop that buzz. Remember the era of the Density Dial, an invention so wonderful it allowed users to run in the clouds, dive through them, climb them, all with the spin of a tiny wheel. Early models were cumbersome, too easy to spin the wrong way and fall beyond the sky. Terrible tiny screams from the mouths of the bravest test pilots. Maybe they got their chutes open in time. Maybe. Another sacrifice to the sky god. The next wave controlled their mass with electrodes pasted directly to the skin. Further augments included a darkened visor, radio receivers to pick up air traffic control signals. There for awhile, many reports of bodies thumping against the sides of low-altitude commuter jets, followed by a savage giggle, a face in the window: “MY BAD!” Doppler shift screams of jubilance such as you’ve never imagined. Eventually they got bold, started robbing planes in mid-air. Easy, really: generate a field around the plane, kill the thrust, pressurize the bubble and rip open the doors, screaming, “Stand and deliver! Your money or your life!” Copper wiring, watches, whiskey, wild women and wonderment were theirs, for awhile.)
The phone is ringing…