MARK C. HULL
We sat there plopped like puddles of water on the floor, at the gate, waiting for the flight to depart. She was a stranger to me and I to her, and sometimes those are the best friendships I’ve ever had, fleeting as they are. It wasn’t obvious that we had anything in common, other than the fact that, due to the crowd, we had taken up spots on the marbled tile. It was as good a bond as any, us sitting on the floor together. As it turns out we were both heading home, too. Home as in the geography of our youth, not necessarily where we were currently living.
“Did you hear they found D. B. Cooper?” she said.
“Oh?” I said, not believing it.
“He gave a sworn deposition. He’s been living as an investment counselor outside of Seattle for almost fifty years,” she nodded, intent on convincing me. I was familiar with the story. D.B. Cooper was the notorious bank heist villain who parachuted from a commercial airliner in nineteen-seventy-whatever, most likely dead, the stuff of lore and legend. I suspected that, somewhere in the United States, every day, someone was claiming to be D.B. Cooper.
“I hadn’t heard.”
“What fantastic speed these things have,” she said, looking out the window, regarding the airplane parked at the gate. I sensed she was the type to toggle back and forth between subjects, in a way, traveling twice as fast in conversation as I was.
“From the outside, sure. From the inside it feels like you’re sitting still,” I said.
“Are you trying to be clever?”
“Always trying. Rarely succeeding.”
“Technically, the first American to travel to outer space was a chimpanzee named Ham,” she told me.
“A pioneer,” I nodded.
“Imagine if everything came to a screeching halt,” she said.
“I believe that is referred to as death,” I said.
She winced, almost imperceptibly, at the mention of the concept, although I got the impression that she was less afraid of death than she was of stillness, of being rooted to one spot, of running out of gas. She tapped a message into the phone she was holding, fielding yet another conversation. I sat back and thought about my trip home. Speaking of being motionless, I was traveling in order to sit, for a while, in a parked 56’ Buick Skylark convertible. I was going to sit in the backseat on the passenger side. It was a thrilling and scary and stupid plan, to make a thousand-mile journey in order to sit in the backseat of an old parked car. Yet here I was, making it.
“They discontinued them, you know,” she said.
“The rear hatches that used to be in planes. The one D.B. parachuted out of. They stopped installing them.”
“Were you planning on trying one out?” I said.
“Oh, oh, look! That guy’s luggage bag is open and his stuff is spilling all over the place!”
I turned to see a man wheeling a suitcase down the concourse with a line of random items in a trail behind him. Someone stopped him to point out his open bag. He turned and began cleaning up the path of clothing he had left.
“Where are you heading today?” I asked.
“Same place as you, hopefully, since we are on the same plane.”
“Going for something fun?”
“I have to go to a funeral,” she said, not sounding the least bit sad.
“Oh,” I said, in sudden realization. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s going to be great,” she said. “My friend that died is going to be there.”
She had me stumped with that one. It was so obvious as to be utterly confounding. My own phone came alive in my pocket with a tiny spastic shudder. I looked at it, hoping that the girl sitting next to me, a complete unknown, had somehow figured out my phone number and decided to send me a fun little message. No such luck. Instead it was from someone named Constantin, another stranger. “Constantin here,” the message read. “Meeting A.S.A.P.! Stock in free fall. Circle the wagons on software crash!”
“Wrong number,” I typed back.
“Oops. Thanks,” responded Constantin, now gone forever.
My phone never gives me anything exciting. It is a gadget of spam mail and wrong numbers. It promises the world of possibility at my fingertips and keeps it just out of reach. All the mystical opportunities, invitations and offers are careful to avoid my inbox, like sailors circumnavigating the Bermuda Triangle.
“What are you going to Velo for?” she asked me.
“If I tell you it will sound like I’m crazy,” I said.
“No judgment,” she promised.
“A car from my past has reappeared. It holds a special place in my heart and I am going to go sit in it and try to relive a very special night.”
“Reappeared! Like D.B. Cooper,” she said, aglow with the connection. “Did you lose your virginity in it?”
“No. We used it to rescue a mermaid down at Swift Beach once,” I said.
“I love Swift Beach. In fact, if I am ever reincarnated I want to come back as a seashell on Swift Beach.”
I guess the 56’ Buick Skylark convertible was my own personal D.B. Cooper. I didn’t even know what year the car was actually made in, I just liked to say 56’ because it sounded cool. It had fins on it, and a lot of chrome. I had been obsessed with it since I was seventeen, casually obsessed, if there is such a thing, because my ride in the car was the result of a blast of spontaneity that still mystifies me, twenty-five years later. There had been a high school band recital, and I had been playing the kettle drums, which means I commanded the thunder, and there is no greater rush than commanding the thunder in a hundred-piece orchestra. I was so powerful that the conductor himself, started melting. Really, the man’s arms began dripping off him.
“I wonder if they sell battery chargers around here?” she asked, frowning at her phone.
“I’m sure they…”
“I can’t wait for a slice of pizza,” she declared. “First place I’m stopping when I get to Velo. A slice of pizza with extra grease.”
“It’s funny about home,” I said. “The things about it that we love and the things about it that we hate.”
“It’s the place where I keep all the embarrassing stuff from my past tucked away, like in an old attic, gathering dust,” she said. “All the zits, the punishments, the taunts, the tantrums, the awkward kisses, the growth spurts, the wild spread of pubic hair, a hundred broken hearts. All the wrong words I’ve ever spoken I’ve spoken at home.”
“That is my philosophy,” I said.
“I don’t like philosophy. Philosophy is stupid,” she said. I nodded. It would make sense that she would think that and I would disagree, given that she was seven or eight years old and I was a hundred and forty. These ages were very rough estimates.
“It is the tether that keeps pulling me back, like a child tugging on a balloon that keeps trying to escape to the sky,” I said. Not a child, though, a Buick. Jodi’s Buick had been taken away from her by her parents because she wasn’t supposed to be driving it that night and now it was back, somehow, in the driveway. My brother had called me to tell me the news. After I hung up the phone I booked my plane ticket, before it disappeared again.
“These days I seem to only return for funerals,” she said.
“Was the person who died close to you?” I said.
“He is my one crazy friend. He was out in Moab doing some dangerous hike through the desert and something bit his foot, and by the time he got help his foot had shriveled up and died, so he is having a funeral for his foot.”
“Just the foot?”
“Yes. He is the only person I know wild enough to pull off a stunt like this. He is always risking his life for something or other. I suspect he will die off in increments. One day there will be nothing left but his head.”
I chuckled, and excused myself for finding amusement in tragedy. She encouraged me to laugh like she was. It was ridiculous, after all. Though we were sitting next to each other right there on the floor of the airport I felt that she was a satellite, above me and around me, whizzing by in an arc of movement and flux. Every soul has its own momentum, and some travel faster than others.
“Was it your car that you lost?” she asked. “The old Buick?”
“The car was Jodi Kilgore’s,” I said. “She lived in the neighborhood and was part of the band. Played the flute, if I remember. What had happened was we had a band recital and I was playing the kettle drums…”
“A fine instrument…”
“And I was hammering away with such intensity that the conductor’s arms fell off.”
“He was a guest conductor and he was flailing so wildly that he split open the tuxedo jacket that he was wearing. At first I couldn’t understand why he kept pushing his coat sleeves up, and his tempo got faster and faster and the orchestra got faster and faster as he tried to keep his sleeves on and still keep his baton moving, except he couldn’t because the jacket had ripped right down the back and eventually he had to let it fall off him. It was a miracle the musicians kept playing, I mean, a few slight flutters but we got through the piece. To have teenage musicians watching a grown man burst out of his concert jacket and still keep it together is evidence that some kids are amazing and the future is not doomed. We were young professionals. We held tight. Once the show was over, though, and we were outside the auditorium we howled, the kind of laughter that makes you think something in your chest will be damaged beyond repair.”
“So what about the Buick?”
“There was an after-party at a band kid’s house, the tuba player, and I didn’t have a ride and so Jodi had an extra seat in her dad’s Skylark, which she wasn’t supposed to be driving, as it turns out. Until that moment we never had spoken and now I was in a car with her and her friend Sarah riding shotgun, and two guys that played the trumpet in the backseat with me, and we set off to this kid’s house but we were still laughing so hard about the conductor’s arms falling off that Jodi had to pull off into the Swift Beach parking lot because her eyes were filled with joyful tears. Then she decided to whip the laughter out of us by driving that Buick in big wild circles through the empty stretch of pavement. We went sailing around and around in crazy orbit. I was pinned to the back wall of that car and the two guys next to me were pinned against me, and we laughed and I looked over at Jodi Kilgore and fell in love with her right then and there, her magical profile, and her stunt driving, and the song that was cranked up on the radio that was the best song ever even though it was super cheesy, and when she finally screeched to a halt we all decided that wasn’t enough and so we jumped out of the convertible without opening the doors and ran straight into the water, fully clothed, drifting in the surf that reflected a billion stars above us. That’s where we found the mermaid.”
“A real mermaid?”
“It was a six-foot wooden masthead washed up on shore, covered in seaweed. We had to save her. So we loaded our mermaid up into the Skylark and took her to the party. We arrived all damp and wild-haired and we were hailed as heroes for rescuing a mermaid and also for playing a smashing concert even though the maestro had fallen to pieces.”
“Sounds like a great night,” she said.
“After that everything started to unravel,” I said. “A gang of football players showed up uninvited to the party and stole our mermaid. Then when Jodi’s dad found out that she had taken the car he was so angry that he got rid of it the next day, or so we thought. Now it’s back in the driveway of that old Kilgore house and I’m going to walk right up to it, yank that canvas top down and climb into it and sit there for as long as I need to, and in my head I’m going to drive in big wild circles. I don’t care if they call the police.”
“You’ve left a part of yourself in that car,” she said. “Since then you’ve been dying off piece by piece, like my friend.”
“You have been very helpful,” I said. “Enjoy your funeral.”
Time to board. We gathered ourselves up and got on the plane. I hoped, maybe, that her seat was next to mine, but of course it wasn’t. Instead a man sat down next to me, a man that looked strangely similar to the police sketch of D.B. Cooper. Somehow I knew she wouldn’t be sitting next to me because all the magic, fortune and luck I had ever known had come and gone in that one strange night with the melting maestro and the Skylark and the mermaid and Jodi Kilgore, who went off to college and never came back. Just as well. Let her exist in her perfect state in the dells and glens of my memory.
As eager as I was to see that Buick again I was also a little scared that it would not be the fascinating transport of my nostalgic youth. It may have, over the years, settled into being a plain old car. Maybe it would sense my presence, remember me and, between the two of us we could get a little bit of that old sizzle happening again. Victory or failure. Either was possible.
It occurred to me that the elusive concept of heaven may just be getting to return to a moment, a cherished, full moment, and realizing that it was as glorious as you remembered it to be, that it did hold all the sacred energy you had assigned it for all time since then, that it was the boost of velocity that kept you going for years afterward. Hell, on the other hand, would be getting to go back to that same moment and realizing you had it all wrong; that it was a con, a mirage, a false event, a dead boneyard that was forever playing a trick on the senses. I got off the plane, hailed a taxi, and crossed my fingers for heaven.