|Sold by:||ARNOLDO MONDADORI - EBKS|
|File size:||636 KB|
About the Author
Date of Birth:February 21, 1962
Place of Birth:Pasco, Washington
Education:B.A. in journalism, University of Oregon, 1986
Read an Excerpt
Testing, testing. One, two, three. Testing, testing. One, two, three.
Maybe this is working. I don't know. If you can even hear me, I don't know.
But if you can hear me, listen. And if you're listening, then what you've found is the story of everything that went wrong. This is what you'd call the flight recorder of Flight 2039. The black box, people call it, even though it's orange, and on the inside is a loop of wire that's the permanent record of all that's left. What you've found is the story of what happened.
And go ahead.
You can heat this wire to white-hot, and it will still tell you the exact same story.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
And if you're listening, you should know right off the bat the passengers are at home, safe. The passengers, they did what you'd call their deplaning in the New Hebrides Islands. Then, after it was just him and me back in the air, the pilot parachuted out over somewhere. Some kind of water. What you'd call an ocean.
I'm going to keep saying it, but it's true. I'm not a murderer.
And I'm alone up here.
The Flying Dutchman.
And if you're listening to this, you should know that I'm alone in the cockpit of Flight 2039 with a whole crowd of those little childsized bottles of mostly dead vodka and gin lined up on the place you sit at against the front windows, the instrument panel. In the cabin, the little trays of everybody'sChicken Kiev or Beef Stroganoff entres are half eaten with the air conditioner cleaning up any leftover food smell. Magazines are still open to where people were reading. With all the seats empty, you could pretend everyone's just gone to the bathroom. Out of the plastic stereo headsets you can hear a little hum of prerecorded music.
Up here above the weather, it's just me in a Boeing 747-400 time capsule with two hundred leftover chocolate cake desserts and an upstairs piano bar which I can just walk up to on the spiral staircase and mix myself another little drink.
God forbid I should bore you with all the details, but I'm on autopilot up here until we run out of gas. Flame out, the pilot calls it. One engine at a time, each engine will flame out, he said. He wanted me to know just what to expect. Then he went on to bore me with a lot of details about jet engines, the venturi effect, increasing lift by increasing camber with the flaps, and how after all four engines flame out the plane will turn into a 450,000-pound glider. Then since the autopilot will have it trimmed out to fly in a straight line, the glider will begin what the pilot calls a controlled descent.
That kind of a descent, I tell him, would be nice for a change. You just don't know what I've been through this past year.
Under his parachute, the pilot still had on his nothing special blah-colored uniform that looked designed by an engineer. Except for this, he was really helpful. More helpful than I'd be with someone holding a pistol to my head and asking about how much fuel was left and how far would it get us. He told me how I could get the plane back up to cruising altitude after he'd parachuted out over the ocean. And he told me all about the flight recorder.
The four engines are numbered one through four, left to right.
The last part of the controlled descent will be a nosedive into the ground. This he calls the terminal phase of the descent, where you're going thirty-two feet per second straight at the ground. This he calls terminal velocity, the speed where objects of equal mass all travel at the same speed. Then he slows everything down with a lot of details about Newtonian physics and the Tower of Pisa.
He says, "Don't quote me on any of this. It's been a long time since I've been tested."
He says the APU, the Auxiliary Power Unit, will keep generating electricity right up to the moment the plane hits the ground.
You'll have air-conditioning and stereo music, he says, for as long as you can feel anything.
The last time I felt anything, I tell him, was a ways back. About a year ago. Top priority for me is getting him off this plane so I can finally set down my gun.
I've clenched this gun so long I've lost all feeling.
What you forget when you're planning a hijack by yourself is somewhere along the line, you might need to neglect your hostages just long enough so you can use the bathroom.
Before we touched down in Port Vila, I was running all over the cabin with my gun, trying to get the passengers and crew fed. Did they need a fresh drink? Who needed a pillow? Which did they prefer, I was asking everybody, the chicken or the beef? Was that decaf or regular?
Food service is the only skill where I really excel. The problem was all this meal service and rushing around had to be one-handed, of course, since I had to keep ahold of the gun.
When we were on the ground and the passengers and crew were deplaning, I stood at the forward cabin door and said, I'm sorry. I apologize for any inconvenience. Please have a safe and enjoyable trip and thank you for flying Blah-Blah Airlines.
When it was just the pilot and me left on board, we took off again.
The pilot, just before he jumps, he tells me how when each engine fails, an alarm will announce Flame Out in Engine Number One or Three or whichever, over and over. After all the engines are gone, the only way to keep flying will be to keep the nose up. You just pull back on the steering wheel. The yoke, he calls it. To move what he calls the elevators in the tail. You'll lose speed, but keep altitude. It will look like you have a choice, speed or height, but either way you're still going to nose-dive into the ground.
That's enough, I tell him, I'm not getting what you'd call a pilot's license. I just need to use the toilet like nobody's business. I just want him out that door.
Then we slow to 175 knots. Not to bore you with the details, but we drop to under 10,000 feet and pull open the forward cabin door. Then the pilot's gone, and even before I shut the cabin door, I stand at the edge of the doorway and take a leak after him.
Nothing in my life has ever felt that good.
If Sir Isaac Newton was right, this wouldn't be a problem for the pilot on his way down.
So now I'm flying west on autopilot at mach 0.83 or 455 miles per hour, true airspeed, and at this speed and latitude the sun is stuck in one place all the time. Time is stopped. I'm flying above the clouds at a cruising altitude of 39,000 feet, over the Pacific Ocean, flying toward disaster, toward Australia, toward the end of my life story, straight line southwest until all four engines flame out.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
One more time, you're listening to the flight recorder of Flight 2039.
And at this altitude, listen, and at this speed, with the plane empty, the pilot says there are six or maybe seven hours of fuel left.
So I'll try to make this quick.
The flight recorder will record my every word in the cockpit. And my story won't get bashed into a zillion bloody shreds and then burned with a thousand tons of burning jet. And after the plane wrecks, people will hunt down the flight recorder. And my story will survive.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
It was just before the pilot jumped, with the cabin door pulled inside and the military ships shadowing us, with the invisible radar tracking us, in the open doorway with the engines shrieking and the air howling past, the pilot stood there in his parachute and yelled, "So why do you want to die so bad?"
And I yelled back for him to be sure and listen to the tape.
"Then remember," he yelled. "You have only a few hours. And remember," he yelled, "you don't know exactly when the fuel will run out. There's always the chance you could die right in the middle of your life story."
And I yelled, So what else is new?
And, Tell me something I don't know.
And the pilot jumped. I took a leak, then I pushed the cabin door back into place. In the cockpit, I push the throttle forward and pull the yoke back until we fly high enough. All that's left to do is press the button and the autopilot takes charge. That brings us back to right here.
So if you're listening to this, the indestructible black box of Flight 2039, you can go look and see where this plane ended its terminal descent and what's left. You'll know I'm not a pilot after you see the mess and the crater. If you're listening to this, you know that I'm dead.
And I have a few hours to tell my story here.
So I figure there's maybe a chance I'll get this story right.
Testing, testing. One, two, three.
The sky is blue and righteous in every direction. The sun is total and burning and just right there in front. We're on top of the clouds, and this is a beautiful day forever.
So let's us take it from the top. Let me start at the start.
Flight 2039, here's what really happened. Take one.
Just for the record, how I feel right now is very terrific.
I've already wasted ten minutes.
The way I live, it's hard enough to bread a veal cutlet. Some nights it's different; it's fish or chicken. But the minute my one hand is covered in raw egg and the other's holding the meat someone is going to call me in trouble.
This is almost every night of my life now.
Tonight, a girl calls me from inside a pounding dance club. Her only words I can make out are "behind."
She says, "asshole."
She says what could be "muffin" or "nothing." The fact of the matter is you can't begin to fill in the blanks so I'm in the kitchen, alone and yelling to be heard over the dance mix wherever. She sounds young and worn out, so I ask if she'll trust me. Is she tired of hurting? I ask if there's only one way to end her pain, will she do it?
My goldfish is swimming around all excited inside the fishbowl on the fridge so I reach up and drop a Valium in its water.
I'm yelling at this girl: has she had enough?
I'm yelling: I'm not going to stand here and listen to her complain.
To stand here and try to fix her life is just a big waste of time. People don't want their lives fixed. Nobody wants their problems solved. Their dramas. Their distractions. Their stories resolved. Their messes cleaned up. Because what would they have left? Just the big scary unknown.
Most people who call me already know what they want. Some want to die but are just looking for my permission. Some want to die and just need a little encouragement. A little push. Someone bent on suicide won't have much sense of humor left. One wrong word, and they're an obituary the next week. Most of the calls I get, I'm only half listening anyway. Most of the people, I decide who lives and who dies just by the tone of their voice.
This is getting nowhere with the girl at the dance club so I tell her, Kill yourself.
She's saying, "What?"
She's saying, "What.>"
Try barbiturates and alcohol with your head inside a dry cleaning bag.
She says, "What?"
You cannot bread a veal cutlet and do a good job with only one hand so I tell her, now or never. Pull the trigger or don't. I'm with her right now. She's not going to die alone, but I don't have all night.
What sounds like part of the dance mix is her starting to cry really hard. So I hang up.
On top of breading a veal cutlet, these people want me to straighten their whole life out.
The phone in my one hand, I'm trying to get bread crumbs to stick with my other. Nothing should be this hard. You flop the cutlet in raw egg. Then you shake it dry, then crumbs. The problem with the cutlet is I can't get the crumbs right. Some places, the cutlet is bare. The crumbs are so thick in other places you can't tell what's inside.
It used to be this was a lot of fun. People just call you on the verge of suicide. Women would call. Here I am just alone with my goldfish, alone in my dirty kitchen breading a pork chop or whatnot, wearing just my boxers, hearing somebody's prayer. Dishing out guidance and punishment.
A guy will call. After I'm fast asleep, it happens. These calls will come all night if I don't unplug the phone. Some loser will call tonight just after the bars close to say he's sitting cross-legged on the floor in his apartment. He can't sleep without having these terrible nightmares. In his dreams, he sees planes full of people crash. It's so real and then no one will help him. He can't sleep. He can't get help. He tells me he's got a rifle tucked up under his chin and he wants me to give him one good reason not to pull the trigger.
He can't live with knowing the future and not being able to save anyone.
These victims, they call. These chronic sufferers. They call. They break up my own little tedium. It's better than television.
I tell him, Go ahead. I'm only half awake. It's three in the morning, and I have to work tomorrow. I tell him, Hurry before I fall back asleep, pull the trigger.
I tell him this isn't such a beautiful world that he has to stay in it and suffer. This isn't much of a world at all.
My job is most of the time I work for a housecleaning service. Full-time drudge. Part-time god.
Past experience tells me to hold the phone a ways from my ear when I hear the little click of the trigger. There's the blast, just a burst of static, and somewhere a receiver clunks to the floor. I'm the last person to talk to him, and I'm back asleep before the ringing in my ear starts to fade.
There's the obituary to look for the next week, six column inches about nothing that really mattered. You need the obituary, otherwise you're not sure if it happened or if it was just a dream.
I don't expect you to understand.
It's a different kind of entertainment. It's a rush, having that kind of control. The guy with the shotgun was named Trevor Hollis in his obituary, and finding out he was a real person feels wonderful. It's murder, but it's not, depending on how much credit you take. I can't even say doing crisis intervention was my own idea.
The truth is this is a terrible world, and I ended his suffering.
The idea came by accident when a newspaper did a feature about a real crisis hotline. The phone number in the paper was mine by mistake. It was a typo. Nobody read the correction they ran the next day, and people just started calling me day and night with their problems.
Please don't think I'm here to save lives. To be or not to be, I don't labor the decision. And don't think I'm above talking to women this way. Vulnerable women. Emotional cripples.
McDonald's almost hired me one time, and I only applied for the job to meet younger girls. Black girls, Hispanic, white, and Chinese girls, it says right on the job application how McDonald's hires different races and ethnic backgrounds. It's girls, girls, girls, buffet-style. Also on the application McDonald's says if you have any of the following diseases:
or Campylobacter, then you may not work there. This is more of a guarantee than you get meeting girls on the street. You can't be too careful. At least at McDonald's she's gone on the record saying she's clean. Plus, there's a very good chance she's going to be young. Pimple young. Giggling young. Silly young and as stupid as me.
Eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old girls, I only want to talk to them. Community college girls. High school seniors. Emancipated minors.
It's the same with these suicide girls calling me up. Most of them are so young. Crying with their hair wet down in the rain at a public telephone, they call me to the rescue. Curled in a ball alone in bed for days, they call me. Messiah. They call me. Savior. They sniff and choke and tell me what I ask for in every little detail.
It's so perfect some nights to hear them in the dark. The girl will just trust me. The phone in my one hand, I can imagine my other hand is her.
It's not that I want to get married. I admire guys who can commit to a tattoo.
After the newspaper got the phone number right, the calls started to peter out. The loads of people who called me at first, they were all dead or pissed off at me. No new people were calling. They wouldn't hire me at McDonald's, so I made a bunch of big sticky labels.
The labels had to stand out. You need the stickers to be easy to read at night and by somebody crying on drugs or drunk. The stickers I use are just black on white with the black letters saying:
Give Yourself, Your Life, Just One More Chance. Call Me for Help. Then my phone number.
My second choice was:
If You're a Young Sexually Irresponsible Girl with a Drinking Problem, Get the Help You Need. Calland then my phone number.
Take my word for it. Don't make this second kind of sticker. With this kind of sticker, someone from the police will pay you a visit. Just from your phone number, they can use a reverse directory and put your name on a list as a probable felon. Forever after that you'll hear the little click ... click ... click ... of a wiretap behind every telephone call you ever make.
Take my word for it.
If you use the first kind of sticker, you'll get people calling to confess sins, complain, ask advice, seek approval.
The girls you meet are never very far from their worst-case scenario. A harem of women will be clutching their telephones on the brink and asking you to call back, please, call back. Please.
Call me a sexual predator, but when I think of predators I think of lions, tigers, big cats, sharks. This isn't so much a predator versus prey relationship. This isn't a scavenger, a vulture, or a laughing hyena versus a carcass. This isn't a parasite versus a host.
We're all miserable together.
It's the opposite of a victimless crime.
What's most important is you need to put the stickers in public telephones. Try inside dirty phone booths near bridges over deep water. Put them next to taverns where people with no place to go get thrown out at closing time.
In no time at all, you'll be in business.
You'll need one of those speakerphones where it sounds like you're calling from deep inside somewhere. Then people will call in crisis and hear you flush the toilet. They'll hear the roar of the blender and know how you couldn't care less.
These days, what I need is one of those cordless telephone headsets. A kind of Walkman of human misery. Live or die. Sex or death. This way, you can make hands-free life-and-death decisions every hour when people call to talk about their one terrible crime. You give out penance. You sentence people. You give guys on the edge the phone numbers of girls in the same position.
The same as most prayers, the bulk of what you hear is complaints and demands. Help me. Hear me. Lead me. Forgive me.
The phone is ringing again already. The thin little coating of crumbs on the veal cutlet is almost impossible for me to get right, and on the phone is a new girl, crying. I ask right away if she'll trust me. I ask if she'll tell me everything.
My goldfish and me, both of us are just here swimming in one place.
The cutlet looks dug out of a cat box.
To calm this girl down, to get her to listen, I tell her the story about my fish. This is fish number six hundred and forty-one in a lifetime of goldfish. My parents bought me the first one to teach me about loving and caring for another living breathing creature of God. Six hundred and forty fish later, the only thing I know is everything you love will die. The first time you meet that someone special, you can count on them one day being dead and in the ground.
The night before I left home, my big brother told me everything he knew about the outside world.
In the outside world, he said, women had the power to change the color of their hair. And their eyes. And their lips.
We were on the back porch in just the light from the kitchen window. My brother, Adam, was cutting my hair the way he cut wheat, gathering handfuls of it and cutting it with a straight razor at about the halfway point. He'd pinch my chin between his thumb and forefinger and force me to look at him straight on, his brown eyes darting back and forth between each of my sideburns.
To get my sideburns even, he'd cut one, then the other, then the first, over and over until both sideburns were gone.
My seven little brothers were sitting along the edges of the porch, watching the darkness for all the evils Adam described.
In the outside world, he said, people kept birds inside their houses. He'd seen it.
Adam had been outside the church district colony just one time, when he and his wife had to register their marriage to make it legal with the government.
In the outside world, he said, people were visited in their houses by spirits they called television.
Spirits spoke to people through what they called the radio.
People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.
He went on cutting my hair, not for style as much as he was pruning it the way he'd prune a tree. Around us on the porch boards, the hair piled up, not so much cut as harvested.
In the church district colony, we hung bags of cut hair in the orchard to scare away deer. Adam told me the rule about not wasting anything is one of the blessings you give up when you leave the church colony. The hardest blessing you give up is silence.
In the outside world, he told me, there was no real silence. Not the fake silence you get when you plug your ears so you hear nothing but your heart, but real out-of-doors silence.
The week they were married, he and Biddy Gleason rode in a bus from the church district colony, escorted by a church elder. The whole trip, the bus was loud inside. The automobiles on the road with them were roaring. People in the outside world said something stupid with their every breath, and when they didn't talk their radios filled the gap with the copied voices of people singing the same songs over and over.
Adam said the other blessing you have to give up in the outside world is darkness. You can close your eyes, and sit in a cupboard, but that's not the same thing. The darkness at night in the church district colony is complete. The stars are thick above us in this kind of darkness. You can see how the moon is rough with mountain ranges and etched with rivers and smoothed with oceans.
On a night without the moon or stars you can't see a thing, but you can imagine anything.
At least that's how I remember.
My mother was inside the kitchen ironing and folding the clothes I'd be allowed to take with me. My father was I don't know where. I'd never see either of them again.
It's funny, but people always ask if she was crying. They ask if my father cried and threw his arms around me before I left. And people are always amazed when I say no. Nobody cried or hugged.
Nobody cried or hugged when we sold a pig either. Nobody cried and hugged before they killed a chicken or picked an apple.
Nobody lay awake at night wondering if the wheat they'd raised was truly happy and fulfilled being made into bread.
My brother was just cutting my hair. My mother was just done ironing and she'd sat down to sew. She was pregnant. I remember she was always pregnant, and my sisters were all around her with their skirts spread on the kitchen benches or on the floor, all of them sewing.
People always ask if I was scared or excited or what.
According to church doctrine only the firstborn son, Adam, would ever marry and grow old in the church district. When we turned seventeen the rest of us, me and my seven brothers and five sisters, would all go out for work. My father lives here because he was the firstborn son in his family. My mother lives here because the church elders chose her for my father.
People are always so disappointed if I tell them the truth, that none of us lived in oppressed turmoil. None of us resented the church. We just lived. None of us were tortured by feelings very much.
That was the complete depth of our faith. Call it shallow or deep. There was nothing that could scare us. That's how people raised in the church district colony believed. Whatever happened in the world was a decree from God. A task to be completed. Any crying or joy just got in the way of your being useful. Any emotion was decadent. Anticipation or regret was a silly extra. A luxury.
That was the definition of our faith. Nothing was to be known. Anything was to be expected.
In the outside world, Adam said it was a bargain with the devil that powered automobiles and carried airplanes across the sky. Evil flowed through electric wires to make people lazy. People put their dishes back in the cupboard dirty, and the cupboard washed them. Water in pipes carried away their garbage and shit so that it was someone else's problem. Adam pinched my chin with his thumb and forefinger and leaned down to look me straight in the face, and said how in the outside world, people looked in mirrors.
Right in front of him on the bus, he said, people had mirrors and everyone was busy seeing how they looked. It was shameful.
I remember that was the last haircut I got for a long long time, but I don't really remember why. My head was a bristling field of straw with just the short hairs that were left.
In the outside world, Adam said, all the counting was done inside machines.
All the food was fed to people by waitresses.
The one time he left the colony, my brother and his wife and the church elder who escorted them stayed overnight in a hotel in downtown Robinsville, Nebraska. They didn't any of them sleep. The next day the bus brought them home for the rest of their lives.
A hotel, he told me, was a big house where a lot of people lived and ate and slept, but no one knew each other. He said that described most families in the outside world.
Churches in the outside world, my brother told me, were just the local stores that sold people lies made up in the distant factories of giant religions.
He said a lot more I don't remember.
That haircut was sixteen years ago.
My father had sired Adam and me and all fourteen of his children by the time he was the age I am now.
I was seventeen years old the night I left home.
The way my father looked the last time I saw him is the way I look now.
Looking at Adam was as good as looking in a mirror. He was my big brother by just three minutes and thirty seconds, but in the Creedish church district there was no such thing as twins.
That last night I ever saw Adam Branson, I remember thinking my big brother was a very kind and a very wise man.
That's how stupid I was.
What People are Saying About This
Maybe our generation has found its Don DeLillo.