blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1




They were the only two people in the kiosk waiting for the airport shuttle that would take them to the Radisson in downtown Minneapolis. They had arrived early and the shuttle was now ten minutes late. He didn't like to initiate small talk, but he didn't like the pressure of silence either. Silence could be uncivil, a confession of indifference, an implicit insult. "I had to stay overnight in Wichita because of a missed connection, and now this."

She smiled. "I used to work for Northwest but I hate to fly. You don't know who they're letting on the planes these days. I wish they'd give Amtrak more western routes. Don't tell anyone I said that, they might not let me fly out of here." She laughed then, a bright sound that rose in pitch then stopped short, as if she needed to rein it in.

"I sat next to a Middle Eastern guy on this last leg," he said. "Burnoose, beard, Italian wrap-around shades, the whole deal. It was hard not to profile him. He was tall, too, like Osama. Everybody was jumpy, especially the flight attendants. Christ. The poor bastard must have thought he was travelling with a psycho lynch mob."

She was definitely pretty, he saw that now. He hadn't thought she was—airline passengers are too fatigued and short-tempered to be seen as attractive—but when she smiled and laughed he saw that his first impression was typical and wrong. She had hooded eyes, cool Scandinavian gray, and she smiled in a way that made him think he'd known her for years.

It was a humid day in early June and he was eager to get home to Seattle. This stop in Minneapolis was unnecessary, but he wanted to see his brother who worked at Honeywell. He hadn't seen his brother in almost ten years.

"So what brings you to Minneapolis?" he said.

"Work, I'm afraid," she said.

He liked the inflection she gave to "work"—a weary but upbeat acknowledgement that life was more than slavish routines. He worked for an aerospace company, a technical editor in the Missile Development division, a good but undemanding job. He did most of his work in the morning before his lunch break and spent the rest of the day visiting the cubicles of his colleagues or going out to a favorite bar near the plant. His boss had so little to do himself that he was away most of the day, allowing his people all the freedom they wanted. They worked under generous cost-plus contracts with forgiving default clauses and ample lead-times.

"You're staying at the Radisson?" she said.

"For a few days. My brother lives here. I haven't seen the old desperado for years."

He almost laughed, calling his straight-laced brother a desperado. His brother was anything but that. He was a no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grindstone type. A systems analyst with degrees from Stanford and Cal Tech. What had he been thinking? Did he expect this woman to believe he belonged to a family that produced desperados? Would she think that maybe he was a desperado himself—a carefree type looking for adventure, a born to be wild risk taker? If the word meant something to her, she gave no sign.

By the time the shuttle came there were enough people waiting in the kiosk to fill all the seats. He sat next to her on the bench behind the driver. They were wedged between two sweating heavyweights in three-piece suits. "Sardines again," she murmured, and he grunted in agreement, but he welcomed the pressure of her thigh against his.


At the hotel, the check-in line was long and the clerks and bellhops were overwhelmed. The stressed and impatient travelers, dragging their luggage behind them, grumbled at yet one more bottleneck in a world increasingly clogged by bottlenecks.

She checked in ahead of him, speaking to the clerk in confidential tones. He leaned forward but could not hear her name. When she took her keycard and picked up her bag, she turned to him. "God, a nice long shower is going to do absolute wonders for me," she said.

Only one side of her face smiled. Her left upper lip curled in a friendly sneer—a character trait, he saw, not an affliction. The smile was conspiratorial and tough. It included him in a rebellion of two against the indignities of mass travel. He was momentarily dazed by her smile. He watched her walk to the elevators, imagined her in the shower, her drenched hair, her glistening skin, the half-smile that promoted him from victim to rebel. Her hooded eyes fascinated him, too. They had a subtle Asian quality common to some Scandinavians, Norwegians in particular. The clerk jarred him out of this reverie. "Sir? Are you checking in?"


He saw her again a few hours later in the hotel restaurant. It was too early for dinner, and the restaurant was almost empty. The maitre d' led him to a table close to hers. When she looked up from her menu she saw him watching her. "Hello there," she said. She had changed into casual clothes—cream-colored sleeveless blouse, silky teal slacks, white strapless sandals.

He waved, struck again by her odd smile.

"Why don't you sit with me?" she said. She pushed the chair next to her away from the table with her sandaled foot. "They're still serving lunch."

He carried his menu to her table. "I never liked eating alone," he said.

"You can get used to anything."

It was a coded remark. There was a history behind it, but he didn't try to decipher it. He filed it away, studied his menu.

"Did they give you a room over the street," she said, "or one of those that look out into the alley?"

He put the menu down. "You know, I didn't notice. I didn't even open the drapes. I turned on the air conditioner, called my sister-in-law, took a nap, then came down here."

"A man of simple needs," she said. And there was that smile again—conspiratorial, rebellious, worldly. "I've got a glorious view of the alley. Although, as back alleys go it isn't half bad."

The waiter took their orders. When their food came she said, "So tell me about your family—back in Seattle, is it?"

"It's that obvious?"

"You said it yourself. You don't like to eat alone. You're used to others at the table, a wife anyway."

He laughed. "Wife, two kids, big dog."

"Let me guess," she said. "A big old retriever named Pal or Dudley."

"Close. We call him Buddy."

"The demographic ideal," she said. "The recipe for a happy ending."

He couldn't argue with that. He had a decent enough job, his wife was still young and pretty and relatively content with life in a suburb of what was arguably one of the nicest cities in the country. The kids, a boy and a girl, were high-achievers and reasonably well-behaved. He hardly ever felt trapped anymore; he'd outgrown that early claustrophobic sense that all the escape hatches had been welded shut. Happy? Of course he was happy. He'd be a damned fool to argue otherwise.

Having a motorcycle in the garage helped him through that early sense of domestic confinement. He'd bought a Harley Sportster seven years ago but he hadn't taken it out on the road in months. His wife hated that machine, believing it represented needless risk. "The way the streets get when it rains," she'd said, tearful—but angry, too, "one miscalculation, by you or by some idiot driving a Suburban, and you're dead. Then what would we do? You've got to think of us."

And she was right. The Sportster was a young man's machine, a young man without responsibilities. He was almost forty. He knew he'd sell it soon and use the money to put a brick patio in the back yard, something his wife had wanted for several years now—and to be fair, he wanted it, too.

"Family life can be fulfilling," she said, "but sometimes the rewards don't compensate for the sheer drudgery."

"I get the feeling you've been there," he said.

"Four years. One child. A jackass of a husband who couldn't deal with ordinary domestic boredom. He took off with his secretary and now he's got two more kids and enough domestic boredom to anesthetize the continent. Turned out, he did me a big favor. I've been footloose and fancy free ever since. Revenge is sweet." She laughed, and he laughed too but cut it off when he realized his laugh had the thin sound of regret in it. She studied him for a long moment. "So, tell me the big secret," she said.

He shrugged. "No secret. You find the right person, you make the commitment, you live out your life. Sure, boredom comes with the package, but there are plenty of high points too. End of story."

"And that's enough? That keeps you from swallowing the rat poison?"

"What else is there?" he said, annoyed. "It's a big lonely world out there with no mercy for the loner."

"You're right about that. On the other hand, the snipers are on the loose and we're in the crosshairs. Live it up while you're still up."

"Sorry, I flunked Existentialism 101," he said.

"Okay, I deserved that. I've always been a loner, though. Marriage didn't change that. My parents split when I was two and I lived around the country with different relatives until my mom married again. By then I was sixteen, no longer a virgin, and ready to fly the coop after my stepfather came into my bedroom and tried to make me his girlfriend."

"I'm sorry," he said.

"I am too. But hey, most people have a checkered history." She raised her water glass. He clinked glasses with her and she smiled in that lopsided way, the sly rictus sneer that made them old pals and conspirators.

She dug into her purse and took out a small note pad. "Listen," she said. "I've got things to do this evening, but if you're in by, say, ten or eleven, why don't you come up for a nightcap? I need more enlightenment on the rewards of domestication. We'll call it research."

She jotted down her room number and gave it to him. He folded the note carefully and put it into his wallet. His mouth felt dry and he drank some water. She was studying him again, her gray eyes cool, analytical. He had no idea what she was thinking. He was sure it wasn't the pros and cons of domestic life.


His brother picked him up that evening and they drove out to the upper middle-class suburb where his brother had put down roots fifteen years ago. The house was a two story brick with a steeply pitched slate roof, set in a manicured landscape. The broad lawn was edged with juniper and dogwood, and fenced by a tall privacy hedge. A replica of a civil war cannon sat on a bark-covered knoll menacing the neighborhood. Off to one side of the knoll there was a twenty-foot flagpole. The spot-lit flag was tangled in the ropes. A soft breeze raised one ragged corner of the flag. Even though Christmas was six months past and six months in the future, strings of festive lights dotted the eaves and peaks of the house. He remembered calling his brother a desperado and almost laughed out loud again.

They were greeted at the door by his sister-in-law, a heavy, nervous woman in an A-line dress that hid her bulges in a starched pyramid of blue denim. He recognized her from recent snapshots his brother had sent to him, but she looked nothing like the slender girl his brother married twelve years ago.

The children were paraded out for his inspection, two girls and a boy, pink as their parents and already tending toward obesity. A family of unabashed heavyweights. He made the appropriately flattering remarks, shook hands with the boy whose grip was firm and manly, patted the blond heads of the giggling girls.

His brother led them into the formal dining room and they all sat down to dinner. To his surprise, his brother said grace. They hadn't grown up in a family that observed any kind of religious formality, but now here was his brother praying at length over the food. He prayed with his head bowed, his voice pulpit clear. It was obviously an established ritual, and he realized his brother was more of a stranger to him now than when they were growing up.

He wasn't hungry at all but managed to force down a wedge of meatloaf, a scoop of mashed potatoes, and spears of asparagus in a white sauce. He gave his sister-in-law the expected after-dinner compliments and she seemed pleased, even though he'd turned down her dessert specialty—a black square of mud pie the size of a paving stone.

He and his brother retired to the rec room and talked about their jobs, the little annoyances and the petty personalities they had to deal with. It was clear that between them his brother had the most prestigious job, a job that had a real effect on Honeywell's prosperity.

His job, on the other hand, was routine and could have been done by almost anyone with a modest education. He'd always played second fiddle to his brother who'd been the star of the family, and so he felt compelled to inflate the importance of his work at his company's Missiles division with exaggerations and outright lies. Which didn't matter much since his brother showed no interest at all in his work as a technical editor other than saying, "We call them liberal arts hacks in my department. They're generally clueless, but useful now and then."

They switched to world politics, the future of capitalism, the threats of embargoes and bombs coming from the middle east. His brother seemed heroically amused about it all, as if he were personally invulnerable. His wife, however, was another story. She had developed unreasonable fears since the World Trade towers came down. Anthrax and other biological weapons terrified her. "She microwaves the mail before she opens it," his brother said, chuckling. "She won't open the door to strangers. She won't set foot in an airport much less a plane."

By the time he was ready to leave it was after eleven. For whatever reason, he hadn't been asked to stay at his brother's house, and was glad of it. Three days of meatloaf, mud pie, and prayers, along with his brother's casually issued insults would have been hard to take.

His brother didn't want to drive all the way back into the city and offered to give him a car to use for the few days he'd be in town. He understood then that his presence here was an inconvenience. He didn't feel unwelcome exactly, but knew his surprise visit complicated a life that had been made simple by unchanging routines.

His brother had a new Mercedes, a vintage Cadillac, and a ten year old Volvo wagon. "You can't have the Caddy," he said. "It's almost a collector's item. And the Merc is my go-to-work car. So you get the boat. It's the wife's, so do not ding it up. Consider that fair warning."

He drove back to the Radisson in a rage, thinking it would be just fine if he wrapped the old Volvo around a light pole.


She answered the first ring. "Still offering nightcaps to strange men?" he said.

"Give me a minute, stranger. You like gin? I've got a bottle of Bombay Sapphire on ice."

He took a shower, shaved, splashed on some cologne. He looked at himself in the bathroom mirror, his image haloed by steam. He'd gotten pudgy in the last few years. Not like his brother who was getting to look like a sumo wrestler, but he didn't like what he saw. He vowed to get in shape when he got back to Seattle. A few months in Gold's Gym would flatten his gut and put some steel in his chest and arms.

She answered the door in silk pajamas and robe. "I'm beat," she said. "I think I signed two hundred books tonight."

He didn't know if he was supposed to understand what she meant. He said nothing. She picked a book up from her dresser and held it so that he could see the jacket cover. Sins of the Mother, by Valerie LaSalle. "That's me," she said, "Valerie LaSalle. Except that's not my name. I write romances, so the name on the cover's got to have a romantic ring to it, you know? I write for the Torrid Zone imprint, a hardback lust-or-bust series. We tweak the old material a few degrees hotter than the competition. It's a good living, but these signing tours are a drag."

She handed him the book. He read the jacket copy, looked for her picture but there was none. Valerie LaSalle. He was reminded then that he didn't know her name just as she didn't know his and that neither of them had been forthcoming. If there was a time to identify themselves this would be it, but mutual self-restraint kept them from speaking—a tacit agreement to remain anonymous. It excited him, knowing that they were both on the same page. Conspirators.

"You're a celebrity," he said, stating a fact. "You disguise it pretty well. I mean that as a compliment."

"Thank you. But no, I'm no celebrity. It's a job, a damn good one. I deliver masturbation fantasies to housewives who haven't given themselves permission to invent them on their own."

He laughed because she expected him to, but his mouth felt dry again.

She made drinks and they sat down on the small sofa opposite the TV.

"I've learned to go directly to the chase," she said. "I'm forty-five and don't like to play footsie. I've had breast cancer, I take meds for superventricular arrythmias, and my doctor doesn't like the sonogram of my uterus. He's put a hysterectomy on my calendar. Time is not on my side."

He swallowed some gin, felt the cold heat sear his throat. "Why are you telling me this?"

"Oh please Mr. X. Are you going to make me spell it out? I'm not asking for commiseration."

It was a line he hadn't crossed in eight years of marriage and he didn't think he'd cross it now. It was enough to approach it but not step over. The thrill of possibility was an adventure in itself. But when she touched his thigh and said, "I want to do nice things for you," he knew he'd crossed the line earlier that day in the kiosk, when she first smiled at him.

He composed a gin-inspired justification: Anonymity made it easier. Stripped of names they were fragments of a vast population of bodies. Some of the bodies would be dead by morning, others more alive than ever. Planes full of bodies would fall from the sky, buildings packed with bodies might collapse and burn. Gun-toting bodies would kill other bodies—for grievances ancient and new, or for the simple joy of it, or because God in his sacred texts willed it. New bodies would be squeezed into the world and old bodies would be fed to the worms. None of them had a name that would stick. The fetus and the corpse are nameless. Names are baggage, dead weight, figments. Names die, bodies go on forever. He found these notions erotic.

"You have to think it over?" she said.

"No," he said.


They stayed in bed through the next morning. Room service brought them lunch in the early afternoon. They ate ravenously. "Fuck fuel," she said—that smile, that laugh, capturing him again. And he was willing prey, happy in the huntress's net. He kissed her reconstructed breasts, the pale flesh above her afflicted womb, her fierce mortality.

He watched a baseball game on TV while she sat at a small table working with her laptop computer. In the early afternoon they took a shower together and then he went back to his room, changed his clothes, and drove out to his brother's house.


"What happened?" his brother said, frowning.

"Happened? Nothing happened. Why do you ask?"

His brother studied him, a sidelong glance, suspicion creasing his forehead. "Did you ding the Volvo? Is that it, you dinged the damned Volvo?"

His brother inspected his wife's forest green station wagon, kneeling at the wheel-wells and bumpers, looking for nicks. He opened the driver's side door and felt the seats and headrests. He checked the odometer. He opened the hood and pulled the dipstick out, brought it close to his face, then slid it back in, unsatisfied.

Dinner was ham, mashed potatoes and red gravy, buttered green beans, and slabs of homemade bread. Cardiac city, he thought. In fact it was the kind of food he loved. But he ate too much and had to refuse dessert—German chocolate cake and ice cream. This time his sister-in-law seemed hurt by his refusal. He asked if he could take a piece of the cake back to the hotel with him. This mollified her somewhat and she gave him enough cake for two, her generosity innocent, no implication that he would have help eating it. She packed the cake into a Tupperware box and he thanked her, said she was too good to him, she was a wonderful cook, and he kissed her warm fleshy cheek, and got the hell out of there before his brother could make him eat humble pie again in the rec room, another kind of dessert he wouldn't be able to stomach.


He got back to the hotel early. He called her room but she wasn't back yet from her second signing gig in a downtown bookstore. She called her signings "gigs," and he felt like an insider to the life of a celebrity. He watched a movie, The Asphalt Jungle, then fell asleep.

He woke to a tapping sound. The sound had entered his dreams. He dreamt he was driving his brother's car, the Mercedes, on a freeway. The car was stuck in low gear but he was traveling at freeway speeds. The engine was roaring, the tachometer needle deep into the red zone, and then the engine began to tear itself apart but he couldn't take his foot off the gas pedal. He finally managed to steer the car off the freeway and bring it to a stop. A policeman dragged him out of the car and slapped his face hard enough to knock him down. He didn't know what city he was in, but in the distance skyscrapers were burning. He woke up, a sob stuck in his throat, his heart pounding.

Someone was knocking at his door. Not "someone," of course, it could only be her, and he went to the door naked, without bothering to cover himself. She smiled, weary now, but that smile was all he needed and maybe all he'd ever need.

In bed she said, "Tell me your secret. Tell me the thing you don't want anyone to know. I want to know your blackest sins."

She was playing with him, her lips on his neck, his face, his chest and belly, rousing him again.

"I'm afraid my sins are trivial," he said.

"How unlucky," she said. "Then tell me something you've done that you're least proud of." Her nails dug into him, mock torture urging confession.

He thought about it, but in fact he wasn't really proud of anything he'd done. Not proud. Not ashamed, either.

"My life story would make dull reading," he said. "I'm pretty ordinary."

"I think you're deluded," she said. "I think you're a desperado—dangerous in your modest way. A potential bomber. A man the feds should keep tabs on. You're pure possibility waiting for a triggering event."

He laughed, flattered in spite of himself. "And you?" he said. "What are you?"

"A chronicler of boredom. Boredom is bomb fuel. It can reach critical mass. The explosion can be spectacular. Go to any supermarket—you can hear the hausfraus ticking."


On their third day together she said, "Don't go to your brother's house tonight. Come with me to St.Paul. I'm doing a reading there before I sign books. Then I'll take you out to the best restaurant in the Twin Cities. How about it, chum?"

"That's a no brainer," he said, tickled by her use of the word chum, because that's what they'd become. Chums. "If I never see my fat-ass sibling and his neurotic jumbo wife again, it'll be too soon."

They went to the bookstore in the Volvo. She sat close to him on the long drive that took them across the Mississippi and into St. Paul.

The bookstore was crowded with women. A table had been stacked with the books of Valerie LaSalle. The manager of the bookstore tapped a wine glass with a pencil, quieting the crowd. "We are delighted," she said, "to have Valerie LaSalle with us tonight. Valerie, as you know, is a rising star of the Torrid Zone series, and she has consented to read a chapter of her new novel to us." The crowd applauded and Valerie LaSalle took her place behind a podium that had been set up next to the signing table. He lingered at the back of the crowd, the only man in the bookstore.

"I'm going to read something new," she said. "Something I'm working on. And yes, I'm using you ladies as a test audience." The women tittered, pleased to be literary guinea pigs. "As you might know, I take my work whenever I can from real life. The following scenes are more or less true, with some embellishments." She held her hand out flat and titled it one way then another, suggesting the digressions from fact that fiction required. She smiled then, that cordial sneer he knew he'd never be able to forget, and he became erect between islands of travel books.

He picked up a book on Tahiti and thumbed through the color photographs. He imagined them together in a grass hut, one day like another, no clocks or calendars, no seasons, just the simple cycles of day and night, sex and food, sleep and wakefulness. Time would be nameless here, the days unnumbered—which was the original condition of human life.

Her reading voice was not like her speaking voice. She delivered her lines with practiced ease, modulating the differences between narrative and speech, acting out each role. The sound of her voice was hypnotic as a lullaby, and it wasn't until he heard her say: ". . . the stranger kissed her wounded breasts, worked his way to her damaged womb, nuzzling, kissing, his lips hot, his tongue a searching flame that ignited her, and her back arched with a pleasure she hadn't known but had longed for, a pleasure her husband would not provide, and she moaned the helpless moan of release, wanting to call out his name—but she did not know his name, just as he did not know hers . . ." that he realized she was writing about them.

There were scenes of them dining together—the words they'd spoken, the silent communication of gestures, the quick meaningful glances. She was a skilled writer, her talent shaped and muted by the genre she worked in: The housewives got their masturbation fantasies at twenty-five dollars a copy; she got her royalties. One or two of the women in the audience turned around in their chairs to look at him and he hid behind the Tahiti book. The island seemed less like a real place now and more like a setting for a fantasy.

In the car, on the way back to the Radisson, he said, "You've been using me."

"Chum, you're only half-right. I don't think you've got much to complain about."

"Grist," he said. "I've been grist. I should get a cut of the profits."

"You want me to send you a check?"

He laughed at the idea, a "consulting fee" from her publisher coming in the mail. His wife studying the check, looking at him, puzzled: "Consulting? What consulting, honey?"

"What the fuck is grist, anyway," he said.

"Wheat. Grain. A Middle English word, I think."

"Now I'm a character out of Chaucer."

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with Chaucer." She touched his face. "You've been good grist. Likeable grist. Grist of high quality. You've even transcended grist, if that means anything to you. Tell me you haven't had a good time."

He stopped in a dark neighborhood and kissed her hard. She resisted—it was over now, her work done—then she relented and they got into the back seat. He was rough with her but she didn't complain. Her reconstructed breasts, which he had treated like wounded children, were just breasts, her damaged womb just one of countless damaged wombs.

Back at the hotel he said, "Tell me your real name. I want to know who you are."

"I can't."

"You can't?"

"It's protected."

"Meaning what exactly?"

"It's a contractual thing. I write serious books under my real name. I'm actually taken seriously in some quarters."

"Serious books. What kind of serious books?"

"Muckraking stuff. Social criticism. Some neogeopolitics. Blurbs from the big boys, some of those very public intellectuals you see on Charlie Rose. But I've developed a high-maintenance life-style and muckraking doesn't pay the bills."

"And you don't want to let people know you write fuck books for the hausfraus. That explains the absence of a photo on your dust jacket."

"I give you my name, you might find a buyer. The tabloids pony up for little scandals."

"I don't believe you," he said. "You're lying."

"And you? You're a fountain of undiluted truth?"

She was hurting him on purpose, looking for a clean break, a getaway.

"I want to write to you," he said. "I don't want this to just end, goddammit." He gripped her arm hard enough to leave bruises, but she wouldn't wince.

"Write to Valerie LaSalle, in care of my publisher. They send me all my fan mail."

"Fuck you, lady."

"Yes, and wasn't it fun."

And there was that lopsided smile again, not so conspiratorial now, and the Asian Scandinavian eyes were arctic cold. He knew he might not survive that smile. It would haunt him in Seattle, it would hollow out his life, his marriage.

He drove the Volvo back to his brother's house early the next morning. "What's up with you?" his brother said. "You look terrible. Have you been drinking? It's a little early for that, don't you think?"

His brother, still in his robe and slippers, inspected the Volvo.

"What's that stain on the back seat?"

"I don't know. It must have been there."

"No, no. I'm sure it wasn't. Did you leave the door unlocked at any time?"

"Maybe. I don't remember."

"I can't believe you'd be so irresponsible. A bum might have spent the night in the car doing God knows what."

After a breakfast of Canadian bacon, eggs, and English muffins, his brother drove him to the airport. The subject of conversation at the breakfast table had been job security. "You'll never have it," his brother said, "as long as you work for a company that depends on government contracts for half its capital. The government compensates companies like yours for every man they hire, X dollars for every warm body they put on the payroll, more dollars by at least fifty percent than the company pays out in salaries. Your company makes money on body count. So they hire, excessively by any standard, until the contract terminates. Then they surplus the unneeded bodies which have now become a liability rather than a source of revenue. It amounts to fiscal pornography."

You son of a bitch, he thought, but didn't argue the point, which might have been close to the truth. He was too hungover to defend his company from "fiscal pornography," a lurid notion coming from his pious brother.

He was still a little drunk from an evening spent in the Radisson's piano bar, alone, where a gray old man in a purple tuxedo played melancholy favorites including "One More For the Road," a maudlin piece of synchronicity that made him laugh out loud hard enough to cause some late night drinkers to look at him with fleeting interest. She had checked out early, before he got up. He'd called her room, let it ring ten times or more before admitting to himself that she was gone.

His brother dropped him at the airport. "I want you to apply for work here, at Honeywell," he said. "They usually don't like to hire people out of the aerospace business—they tend to have poor work habits—but I can put in a good word for you. I have garnered some leverage in the past ten years or so."

He wanted to tell his brother off, puncture his inflated view of himself, but didn't have the energy. His brother, as if trying to get a rise out of him, brought up the stained back seat of the Volvo again. "It wasn't there," he said. "It got there while you had the car. I'd like to know how it got there. I don't think it was a bum."

"It's jism," he said.


"It's jism, ordinary gonad spew. You remember having some yourself, don't you?"

"You're disgusting."

"I think maybe your wife's got a secret. Maybe she's got a back-seat thing going with her butcher. She must spend a lot of time with him, the amount of meat you people eat. I wouldn't be too hard on her though. She puts out a damn fine meal."

His brother took the insult calmly. "I don't know you," he said. "I don't think I ever knew you. And you know what? I don't want to know you. Do us all a favor and don't come back." And then his brother slapped him. The slap didn't have much force but it made him catch his breath. He cocked his fist, then laughed. "Desperado," he said. "You fat fucking desperado."

His flight was delayed because of a security problem involving the metal detectors which weren't working properly. The boarding areas had to be evacuated and every passenger would have to be re-screened. It was going to take several hours and he'd miss his flight. The next plane to Seattle wouldn't leave until late that afternoon. He spent the time in one of the bars in the unsecured mall. When he was finally able to board a plane he was drunk.


She was pretty, and he had caught her glancing at him as he took the seat next to her, saw her hesitant smile. The world was vibrant with possibilities. And so he spoke to her.

He didn't mean anything by the remark, it was just a way of breaking the ice. "Some people need killing, don't you think?" he said. "I mean, the world would benefit by their absence." The flight attendant came by with the refreshment cart and he ordered a bourbon and soda.

The woman was pretty in a wounded way, a way he found appealing—probably a legal secretary or maybe a dental assistant. Not a professional, in any case. She seemed self-conscious and unsure of herself, even self-abasing. These deficiencies were not what you'd expect in a lawyer or upper-tier executive. He thought: She'll be grateful for the attention. She was in her mid-thirties, slightly overweight, wearing gray slacks and a black silk blouse that accented her cropped red hair.

"I'm talking generally, of course," he said. "I just spent a few days with my self-important brother. I'm glad I wasn't carrying a gun. I might have shot the whole goddamned family. Five well-placed shots to their smug heads." He downed his drink, signaled for another. "They probably wouldn't have noticed they were dead."

He was presenting himself as a risk taker, thinking it touched something in women who were weary of predictable men who lived in a world of bar graphs, flow charts, and bottom lines. From now on, he told himself, he'd be ready for adventure—and take his lumps if it came to that. He'd buy another Harley. A big one, a hog.

The woman next to him said, "Please don't speak to me," and leaned away from him.

This surprised him. Please don't speak to me? What had he said to her? She reached up and rang for the flight attendant. He understood then that the woman was terrified. God how easily people frighten these days, he thought. He touched her wrist, wanting to put her fears to rest and to make human contact. "I bet you microwave your mail," he said.

"I asked you not to speak to me," she said, pulling away from his touch. She unbuckled her seat belt and stood up.

When the flight attendant came, the woman said, "He's violent. He said he wants to kill his family. I think he's armed. The metal detector at the terminal wasn't working very well."

"Jesus Christ, don't be ridiculous," he said, forcing a chuckle. He looked up at the flight attendant. She looked frightened, too. "It was just conversation, you know? People talking to each other. Is that a fucking crime? She's blowing it up way out of proportion!"

"Blowing what up?" the passenger in the seat in front of him said. A commotion had started in the seats surrounding him.

"Sir, you'll have to come with me," the flight attendant said.

He unbuckled his seat belt and stood. He felt very warm. His pulse tapped against his shirt collar and he broke a sweat. He shouldered past the flight attendant and went down the aisle to the restroom. Two male flight attendants followed him, their faces stern with fear and duty. He locked himself in the restroom and waited.

He felt strange. He'd suffered a mild concussion once playing a rough version of flag football. The blow left him lightheaded, the sense of reality diluted. This was how he felt now. He washed his face but the cold water did not shock away the strangeness. He was locked in a narrow cubicle, thirty thousand feet above mid-west America. He looked at himself in the polished steel mirror and the brooding, stubbled face that looked back at him was not familiar.

His life, all the things he'd ever done and all the places he'd ever been flattened out into two-dimensional unreality. He tried to think of his wife, his kids, his job, but he couldn't bring them into focus. His past was fading, a snapshot left in the sun. He only had a future now. When he opened the restroom door it would

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