Chapter one of Next
As the ground rushes up to meet him, Kevin thinks about missiles again. One missile in particular, a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, blasted from a tube balanced on the bump where some guy’s clavicle meets his scapula. What guy—a Saudi? An Egyptian? A Yemeni? Some pissed-off Arab anyway, kneeling in the bed of a dinged-up pickup truck with Texas plates, or crouching on the springy backseat of a rented convertible on a dirt track just outside the airport fence. One of those portable weapons from Afghanistan, back when Afghanistan was somebody else’s problem, called . . . something, a Slammer or a Tingler or something like that. Kevin recalls that it’s the same name as a cocktail—a Whiskey Sour? A Tom Collins? A shoulder-fired Banana Daiquiri? No, a Stinger, that’s it! Four parts brandy to one part crème de menthe in a cocktail glass, or a fat olive-green tube that farts flame out the back while the missile erupts from the front, its backside trailing a wobbly spiral of smoke until the missile gets its bearings and climbs like a sonuvabitch in a long smooth curve into the heat-hazy Texas sky toward the sleek underbelly of Kevin’s plane, a Pringles can with wings, packed full of defenseless Pringles.
Trouble is, Kevin’s seen his fair share of movie air disasters. Used to be they just shook the camera and Ronald Colman or whoever would grit his teeth and bug his eyes and dig his fingers into the armrests, and then a wobbly model airplane would plow up a miniature of a mountainside in the Hindu Kush, breasting snowbank after snowbank like a speedboat. Now of course they rub your nose in it, and you see planes split apart from the inside: the skin peels away like foil, the cabin fills with flying magazines and gusts of condensation, oxygen masks dance like marionettes. Then there’s the money shot, no movie air disaster these days is complete without it: the awful, thrilling, gut-wrenching cum of the whole sequence when some poor extra still strapped in his seat is sucked out of the plane, or a whole row of seats is yanked as if by cables out the ragged gap where the tail used to be and spins ass over tit into a freezing, fatal darkness.
But now it’s broad daylight, and Kevin’s flight from Michigan is coming down in Austin, Texas. He was even more worried about missiles during their predawn takeoff from Detroit Metro. How could he not have been, what with the security check-in line running out of the terminal all the way to the parking structure, and with every ceiling-hung TV along the concourse tuned to CNN or Fox, still streaming images from the bombings in Europe last Thursday? Crumpled subway cars, rows of bodies under sheets, cops and paramedics in orange vests, deltas of blood on pale, wide-eyed faces. The usual images—for all he knows they could be running file footage from earlier catastrophes: London, Madrid, Mumbai. Not to mention the usual grainy CCTV images of the usual round, dusky, beard-fringed faces of pleasant-looking young men--those people, Kevin can’t help thinking, against his better nature—guys only just out of adolescence, with a death wish and a remarkable talent for synchronization. Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, all within a few minutes of each other. And Bern—who bombs Switzerland? And Glasgow! If the first, botched attempt on Glasgow was farce—a couple of pissed-off professionals torching a Jeep Cherokee, not quite enough to bring Western civilization to its knees—this new attack was tragic, but it still felt unlikely to Kevin. Who knew Glasgow even had a subway system, and now Kevin remembers the name of Buchanan Street Station (a place he’s never heard of before) as indelibly as if he’d ridden through it every day of his life. Creeping in the check-in line through the terminal, he passed a Wayne County sheriff every thirty feet posed like a Cylon centurion in Kevlar vest and riot visor. At the checkpoint itself, he saw the surest sign of Orange Alert, a couple of paunchy Michigan National Guards in fatigues and combat boots, carrying automatic weapons and eyeing Kevin with a caffeinated gaze as he stood crucified in his stocking feet while a TSA drone swept him with a wand. Have a nice flight, sir!
And it didn’t help that Detroit Metro is a ten-minute drive from Kevin’s favorite Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn, where no doubt some deeply disgruntled dishwasher dreams of airliners dropping from the sky like ducks in duck season, or—who knows?—where some Al Qaeda sleeper out of an episode of 24 is waiting tables and biding his time for a chance to sneak out to a two-track behind the airport with a piece of cast-off American ordnance and blow one of his better customers—and Kevin’s a big tipper, he used to wait tables himself—out of the sky. But now, deep in the privacy of his brainpan, in the plane descending over Texas, Kevin feels guilty for thinking this. Those people—what a thing to say! In the cozy progressive cocoon of Ann Arbor, where he’s lived nearly all his life, you don’t openly speculate about terrorists in Dearborn, not in polite society you don’t, not even four days after a six-city European bombing spree. And if you do, it’s only to concede that it serves us right for looking the other way while our government handed out Stingers to radical Islamists in Peshawar like a corrupt Indian agent handing out Winchesters and firewater to angry Comanches in some glossy fifties western. Read your Chomsky, friend, we’re only reaping the whirlwind, and anyway, Islam’s a big, complicated religion like Christianity, it’s not a monolith, it’s not like every Muslim in the world wants you dead. Apart from the waiters in Dearborn, Kevin doesn’t even know any Muslims, or at least he doesn’t think he does. In college he slept a couple, three times with a girl named Paula who called herself a Sufi, but probably only to épater les père et mère back in Grand Rapids, and anyway that was thirty some years ago, and who knows where she is now. Probably not shooting down airplanes, is a safe bet.
And those people, it turns out, can be guys just like Kevin. Just this morning, keeping an eye on CNN as he dressed for the flight, Kevin learned that the Buchanan Street bomber, according to the surveillance footage, was a pale, green-eyed, red-haired Celt—another Kevin, in fact, a young white Scotsman named Kevin MacDonald, who’d changed his name to Abdul Mohammed--slave of Mohammed, read the helpful caption beneath his grainy visage—and who carried a backpack full of plastic explosives into a crowded Glasgow subway car. The cable ranters are already hyperventilating about the Glasgow bomber’s ethnicity, parsing his motives—whatever they may have been—and either blaming the grinding poverty of his upbringing for his desperation, or blaming permissive Britain for allowing radical Islam to infect the white working class. Kevin, to his mild shame, understands how unsettling this other Kevin is, how each new attack seems to strike closer to home. The first Glasgow terrorists were doctors, for chrissakes, sworn to do no harm, but at least they were, you know, foreigners, or at least foreign to the country they were attacking. Not to mention inept, especially the one idiot who managed to set only himself on fire, thus scoring one for the other team. But how much scarier is it if it’s a guy who looks just like you? Kevin’s half Polack, so this morning he can cling to his mother’s heritage for consolation, but the fact is, looking at the guy’s ID photo on the television as he pulled on his dress trousers, Kevin thought, he could’ve been my cousin on my father’s side, or my nephew, if I had any nephews. Twenty-three years old was Kevin MacDonald, says the CNN caption, and Kevin thinks, hell, if I’d ever gotten lucky in Glasgow—where, thank God, he’s never been—this kid could’ve been my son.
So the lingering images of Buchanan Street, the blunt Celtic face of the Other Kevin, and the prospect of sudden, violent death on takeoff worried our Kevin enough to distract him from his pretty seatmate, a long-limbed Asian American girl some twenty-five years younger than he who had already curled next to the window with youthful limberness, and who had plunged into a fat paperback even before Kevin got on the plane at Metro. He folded his suit coat and laid it flat on somebody’s garment bag in the overhead, and settling into the aisle seat he exchanged a glance and a smile with the young woman, who was reading, it turned out, a mass-market edition of The Joy Luck Club. An Asian girl reading Amy Tan—at first this seemed kind of predictable to Kevin, and then kind of redundant, a coals to Newcastle kind of thing. What could Amy Tan tell this girl that she didn’t already know? Then his Ann Arbor brainpan brimmed over with guilt again and he thought, maybe I should be reading Amy Tan, what do I know? He’s never read the book, but he’s seen the movie, a glossy melodrama—he saw it with Beth, years ago—and mainly what he remembers is a series of yuppie young women whining about their jobs and their boyfriends, until they’re flattened by their no-nonsense immigrant mothers, who say things like, hey, you think you got it bad, back in China I had to drown my baby.
But as the plane lurched back from the gate and rumbled slowly out to the runway, thoughts of the Other Kevin and of terrorist Lebanese busboys from Dearborn drove Kevin to ignore the girl and peer anxiously past her instead into the predawn gloom beyond the glare of the runway, where of course he couldn’t see a thing. She glanced at him a couple of times, probably thinking that he was just another melancholy middle-aged guy checking her out, and maybe he was, just a little bit. She wore jeans and a green camisole top with teensy little straps, and she had kicked off her sandals to tuck her heels under the tight denim curve of her rump. While scanning the bright amber-and-green circuit board of suburban Detroit below—I-94 streaming with white lights one way, red the other—for the tell-tale flash and blinding streak of a shoulder-fired missile, Kevin managed to admire how the straps of her camisole angled over her collarbone, how the jagged cut of her hair brushed the long, smooth slope of her shoulders, and, when she fixed him with a clear, brown-eyed gaze, how the golden nose stud twinkled in her left nostril.
“Do you want to switch?” she said to him in a flat, midwestern accent like his own.
“It’s okay,” he said, forcing a laugh. “It’s just that I don’t like to fly.” Especially not today, he almost added, but why belabor the obvious?
“Then maybe you shouldn’t look out the window,” she said evenly, her thumbs keeping The Joy Luck Club pried apart in her lap.
“Well,” he said, “you’re right.” He shifted his backside in his seat. He folded and refolded his fingers over the buckle of his seat belt. He refocused his gaze down the aisle. “That’s a good idea.”
But now, enduring an ear-popping descent into Texas, where there may or may not be fewer Arab terrorists—fewer Lebanese restaurants, perhaps, but more Middle Eastern students of petroleum engineering—Kevin shifts uneasily in his seat. During the flight, out of Stinger range at thirty thousand feet (or so Kevin hopes, he really has no idea), his imagination had shifted again to the Other Kevin, the baby-faced Scottish jihadist, the freckled Islamo-Celt, and Kevin found himself profiling every person who walked past him down the aisle to the bathroom: every young guy in jeans, to be sure, especially the dark or swarthy or bearded ones, but also pale guys his own age in polo shirts and Dockers, and even the weary blond stewardess with the crow’s feet. Who knows what she might be embittered about? High over southern Illinois or Missouri, Kevin wasn’t thinking of Stingers, but of rogue bottles of shampoo and mouthwash, holding household chemicals that the guy in Dockers could mix in the tiny bathroom sink and then spark with the battery from his iPod or his cell phone, blowing a hole in the plane, sucking everybody out one at a time through the toilet like Goldfinger at the end of Goldfinger. Still, perhaps because the latest bombs in the news were backpack devices in subway cars, Orange Alert this time around hasn’t meant the confiscation of personal grooming products, but in the last year or two, Kevin has been on flights whose passengers were relieved of shampoo, mouthwash, toothpaste, shaving gel, sunblock, cologne, perfume, moisturizer, not to mention any implement for the care of one’s nails: clippers, scissors, nail files, emery boards. On those flights Kevin saw a vision of a new world in the sky, a dirtier, scruffier world with planes full of passengers unshaven, unwashed, unscented, untanned, undeodorized, unmoisturized, and unmanicured, their untrimmed nails inching over the armrests they gripped so tightly.
But right now, descending into Austin, Kevin’s thinking is old school, he’s thinking that whatever gets them is going to be a good, old-fashioned, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, and he glances once more past Ms. Joy Luck and through the sun glaring in the scratches across the little oval of window. All he can see is a dull silver expanse of wing, dinged and dented and streaked, and beyond the wing a little wedge of desiccated brown ranch land sectioned by white dirt roads and fence lines and littered with tin-roofed houses and metallic trailers and oblong stock ponds full of greenish water. Even if the plane splits open like a piñata, he won’t have far to fall. He angles from side to side, wondering what’s the point of these fucking little windows if you can’t see anything, and his heart begins to pound almost as if he’s actually glimpsed the silver streak of the Stinger atop its billowing gush of smoke. Joy Luck was right—he’s better off on the aisle, where he won’t be able to see anything, where he won’t know what’s coming until it’s too late. Even if he were able to watch the entire, fatal, rising arc of the missile, he’s just another Pringle in the Pringles can gliding belly down out of the sky, with no control over the plane, no say over his fate. What would he do if he actually saw it coming? Clutch Joy Luck’s hand for that last moment of human contact? Tighten his seat belt? Put his head between his knees? Pray?
His seatmate lifts her eyebrow at him. She’s barely moved for three hours, except to shift her knees from one side to the other. The thick sheaf of pages in her lap has shifted inexorably from right to left, unread to read. She says, “Maybe you should’ve sat here. You’d have felt less, you know.” She wobbles her hand in the air.
“Maybe,” gasps Kevin. “Maybe not. Partly it’s just . . .” He curls his arms over his head, evoking the long, enclosed, hermetically sealed tube of the plane. “And the way we’re all . . .” He pushes his palms toward each other at an angle. Pringles in a Pringles can, he nearly says.
“Yeeaah,” she drawls, sympathetically. “You’re all . . .”
“Yup,” gulps Kevin, his hands curled in his lap. His heart pounding, his fingers numb, his stomach rolling over and over. He hears the windy thunder of descent, the anxious hiss of ventilators, the electric whine of the landing gear. Down the aisle of the tube he sees the fragile crowns of every defenseless Pringle’s head—black, gray, blond, tousled, kinky, curly, straight, buzz-cut, cowlicked, and pinkishly bald—none of them potential terrorists anymore, but his fellow innocents, the people he’s going to die with. Earlier in the flight a cherubic infant was propped up in his seat looking back at Kevin with the twinkly, ruddy-cheeked smile of a bemused old man—Winston Churchill without his cigar—and now the kid is out of sight, wrapped up and belted in. Who’s going to save that baby, he wants to know, who’s going to save us all, who’s going to save me from the furious Stinger whizzing closer and closer to the belly of the plane, now only an inch away, now half an inch, now a quarter of an inch? The only thing that’ll save us is Zeno’s paradox—Kevin was a classics major once, for about three weeks—all we have to do is trust in the pre-Socratics and that sonuvabitching missile will never catch up. Though of course if you follow that line of reasoning, the plane itself will never reach the earth, the fat black wheels will come closer and closer to, but never . . .quite . . .touch, the tarmac, the fat-bellied plane and the shark-nosed little missile will streak together forever at a hundred and sixty miles an hour, never coming in contact, never coming to earth.
Then they do, or anyway the plane does, the wheels screeching and smoking against the runway as all the Pringles lurch forward against their lap belts. (Some breakage may occur in shipping.) Kevin feels the jolt through his backside and up his spine, and he grunts in alarm. The braking engines scream, the overhead bins rattle, the whole plane shudders with relief. Joy Luck rocks in her seat but never lifts her eyes from the book, and out the window Kevin sees the flat Texas horizon looking greener edge on, while the strange little growths between runways—junction boxes on metal stems and unlit yellow lights like tulip bulbs and arcane little signs that say G3 or E1—glide by. Behind the plane the angry Stinger sputters out in exhaustion, shark-nosed no more, but red-faced with bulging cheeks and eyes rolled white like Thomas the Tank Engine or the Little Engine That Could, only this is the Little Missile That Couldn’t, doubled over gasping in midair, pooting out a last couple of comic little puffs of exhaust, comedy clouds for a cartoon rocket, before it tumbles fuelless and unfulfilled, bent and blunted, end over end down the runway behind the plane. Meanwhile the pickup full of glowering Saudi engineering students simply evaporates.
Kevin sags into his seat like a sack of meal. From the little speakers overhead comes the pilot’s syncopated Chuck Yeager drawl: “Welcome to Austin, folks, it’s eight forty-eight in the ay em, we’re juuust a tad early, the temperature is a balmy eight-tee-two degrees,” blah blah blah. Enough with the Right Stuff already, thinks Kevin, just park the fucking plane. All around him the other passengers rustle restlessly in their seats, stretching, collecting, cell-phoning, watch-glancing, yawning, all except Joy Luck, who will not lift her eyes from her book. Beyond the girl’s admirable clavicle he glimpses the low half shell of Austin’s terminal, blanched with morning light, airliners nosed up under the tall tinted windows, an accordion jetway affixed to each plane like a remora to a shark. Thrust up behind, the tail fin of each aircraft shimmers in the heat.
At last, at last, at last Kevin’s plane bumps to a stop, and with the clacking of unbuckled seat belts passengers surge into the aisle. Kevin’s one of the first up, tipping back on his heels from the swing of the overhead door, then rocking forward to snatch his suit coat. Waiting now with chin tucked to breastbone, Kevin finds himself looking down the front of his seatmate’s camisole. She’s already flipped up the armrest and stretched across both seats, her finger still stuck in the paperback, while reaching behind with the other to pull on her sandals. In the cool green shadow where the camisole droops away on its straps, Kevin can see her nipples, and perhaps even the shadow of a tattoo snaking up from under one of her velvety breasts. Her eyes are hidden under her bangs. Now he is the melancholy middle-aged guy copping a look, and as she scootches up onto the aisle seat, tucking one knee under her, Kevin drapes his jacket over his clasped hands and rolls his eyes upward, an altar boy contemplating a prank.
Inch by inch the snake of passengers unkinks up the aisle, making the floor panels thump. Kevin steps back to let Joy Luck ahead of him, and she unfolds herself into the aisle, still holding her place in the paperback. She’s nearly as tall as he is, and she pops open the next overhead compartment and, still holding the goddamn book, effortlessly hoists out a fat, cylindrical, olive-green duffle. It’s so big Kevin’s surprised they counted it as a carry-on, but she swings it over her shoulder and sways up the aisle like a sailor. Kevin treads right behind her, his nose a couple of inches from the bulging round bottom of the duffle. He shuffles up the aisle past the flight attendant with the crow’s feet, and he follows the girl through the gap between the plane and the jetway where the Texas heat leaks in like steam. Then they’re walking faster up the slightly cooler slope of the ramp, where he can encompass Joy Luck from head to toe in one glance. She’s long-waisted and slim-hipped, and she sways up the jetway with one bare arm curled round her duffle and her other arm swinging at her hip, the paperback pinched around her middle finger. The abbreviated hem of her top reveals the matching dimples at the small of her back and the small tattoo of a green apple between them, just over the beltless waistband of her jeans. Kevin cannot help but admire the enormously fetching way she moves, a sort of well-lubricated slouch by which she lets her shoulders droop and leads with her hipbones. It’s not an aggressive catwalk strut, it’s much less self-conscious and much more feral, and as Kevin follows her into the filtered light and cathedral echo of the terminal itself, into the delta of debarking passengers fanning across the carpet and onto the cool marble, he thinks, I know that walk, I’ve seen that walk before. And for one thrilling moment, his heart swells with the possibility that I know that girl! But of course, he couldn’t possibly, she’s twenty-five, maybe thirty years younger than him, he’s never seen her before in his life, and if he had, he’d have remembered. But by God he knows that walk, someone else used to walk that way, he’s felt that walk up close, he’s curled his fingertips around those hipbones from behind, and then his heart fills up again, only this time with honest-to-God, hundred-proof middle-aged melancholy. It’s Lynda, he realizes, Lynda used to slink like that, Lynda used to glide away from his touch just like that. Lynda on the dance floor, Lynda à la plage. Lynda on the railing.
Then something tangles round his ankles and he staggers forward, the fat treads of his shoes sticking at the icy floor. In that pre-accident moment of crystal-clear slo-mo, he realizes that his jacket has slipped off his clasped hands and fallen to the floor between his feet. In a desperate little tap dance he kicks the jacket free, and it slithers across the marble floor like the cloaked shadow of a Ringwraith. He hops and pirouettes and catches himself with both hands on the top of a trash bin, while the other folks streaming out of the jetway step briskly around him as if he were a dog chasing its tail. He’s blushing, he can feel the heat rising off his face, and he pushes himself erect from the trash can, stiffening his back and lifting his chin. Then he stoops to the limp jacket, which is laughing at him from the floor, and jerks it into the air. Of course the carefully assembled contents of his left inside pocket all tumble to the floor: his notebook with a loud slap, the letter inviting him to the job interview gliding like a paper airplane, his pen and sunglasses skittering end to end. Clutching the jacket to his chest, he stoops red-faced again to snatch everything up, smiling sheepishly at no one in particular. A young mother pushing a slack-jawed infant—young Winston at rest—twists the stroller in a sharp angle to avoid him.
The terminal’s arctic air-conditioning clamps around him then, and he shakes the jacket out by the collar as if disciplining a child. His heart hammers from embarrassment, his hands tremble a little as he slots the notebook, the pens, the glasses, and finally the letter back into the jacket’s inside pocket. He puts the jacket on and glances around to see if anyone has noticed his spastic little routine, but all he sees are a couple of men dozing in the black leatherette chairs and an old woman paging through a magazine. By now the plane is empty behind him and the rest of the passengers are trailing away down the long cathedral arcade of the terminal through the pillars of light streaming in the windows: silhouettes fat and lean, major and minor, limping, striding, slouching, swinging briefcases, dangling backpacks, towing wheeled suitcases, in twos and threes, or weaving through the crowd, alone. None of the silhouettes ahead is swaying. None of them is carrying a duffle. None of them is dangling a book at her hip and holding her place with a finger. Kevin can no longer see his slinky seatmate, Ms. Joy Luck Club, the girl in the camisole, the girl with the tattoos, the girl who walks like Lynda.
Copyright © 2010 by James Hynes