The Red Line train shuffles onto the Northbound tracks as it approaches the Airport station, and coasts to a stop; the end of the line. The doors open and he steps onto the platform as a humid gust of wind blows through.
He walks to the end of the platform and looks over the long runway as an MD-80 shatters the hum of the airport, starting its take off roll. Taking off east, he thinks. The journey West will start east.
He walks down the stairs and out of the train station into the South terminal—Delta International Airport—passing the always silent messengers of the Lord, some church or religious group always in the MARTA stations, and courteously never coming after you, just waiting to pounce should you ask them.
He and Phil walk into the South Terminal and out to the Sky Caps to get their boarding pass, for good or ill, this is a carry-on excursion to New Orleans. It looked like they’d make the flight even though they had just spent more time on the Alstom train than they were likely to spend on the Boeing plane. God, nearly an hour from the hospital station to here. Did Kenny make to? They are getting ready to find out.
Walking up to the kiosk—do they even have Sky Caps now?—he snaps back. He slides his card in and out and follows the prompts to check a single bag. He drops the bag with the attendant at the nearby desk. “Have a good flight, sir.” He’s thinking that at least these people no longer have to ask who packed your bags, as if a terrorist would volunteer the info that the bomb maker packed the bags with a surprise.
He walks through the atrium and eyes the TSA line and breathes a sigh of relief: the line is short. In the line, he takes off his shoes, belt and lays them and his dignity on the belt. He goes thru the x-ray machine but still get called for a pat down. He eyes the TSA guy who eyes him and pats him down. The last squeeze is, well, slightly x-rated. He thinks for once, all this nonsense is worth it. He puts his shoes on again but is halfway down the tunnel before he notices his belt’s not buckled.
He gets to the gate and gazes out at the L-1011. This was his first time flying and his first time away from home for this long a time. He is still surprised his parents took as little persuading as they did to let him do this. A shortened summer term with two classes and independent study. This will be fun, he thinks. He’s overdressed in coat and dress pants, but, well, this how people are supposed to dress when flying, so his parents, and others that would know, say. Between chop over Harrisburg and Albany he winds up with creamy Italian dressing on his shirt and hot coffee on his crotch. Stained shirt is one thing, burnt Dick & Balls is another…a narrow miss, to put it mildly.
The one thing running thru his mind now is the Jew of Malta. They saw the Marlowe play at the Barbican; Alun Armstrong played Barabas; he’d been fascinated that there was yet one more way to spell Alan/Allan/Allen/Alain. The beginning of play had Machiavel rising from pit in the floor to proclaim, amongst other thing, “I count religion but a childish toy,/And hold there is no sin but ignorance.”
He remembers the others, Dalton and Redgrave in A Touch of the Poet, seeing Queen Elizabeth at Saint Paul’s. He’s seen the Queen twice: once in London and once in the colonies when she was on her way to Monticello to mark the 200th anniversary with Ford. He never saw an American president.
Now, looking out at the 777 as the catering trucks and luggage trains swirl about, somehow never colliding with each other or the trucks pumping Jet-A into the wings.
The plane taxies away from the gate and down the apron. He is surprised when the plane turns left without hesitation and heads down the taxiway to 27R. The first time in all his years flying that the direction of the airport changed between checkin and takeoff. The L-1011 went down the taxiway, flaps and slats noisy grinding down, as they prepared to takeoff into the setting sun, golden light glaring off the cabin. He could feel excitement all over.
Now the concourses slid past as 777 slowly rolls down the tarmac, its flaps and slats going down with a bit less noise than its predecessor. He thinks the first time he left Hartsfield, it was on 27R; now, he leaves one last time on 27R He hears the pilot say something over the PA, but really pays no more attention to than he had the safety film. At the point where the plane should have held, the engines started spinning up; what the hell, he thinks. A rolling start on a 777…never done this.
He sits back as the giant plane gathers speed on its take off roll. Being a short—for this plane—domestic flight, there isn’t much fuel so the plane rotates climbs out quickly. He briefly glances out the window but does not tarry his gaze on the city where he’s spent most of his life. In any case, as the plane quickly climbed out, the city fell further behind.
When the cabin crew, stewardesses in his uncle’s day—stews, he called them—started circulating again, he asks for a ginger ale, his more or less official drink on a plane. Growing up, his parents only kept ginger ale around for sick days, never much else. He loved the stuff, but always associated it having just thrown up or waiting for a stomach rumble to end in a shart.
John had taken him down to Hartsfield once to ride in a simulator, a 727. He had a go at it, and managed to put the ’27 in the weeds just beyond the FLY DELTA’S JETS sign. John’s air stories were always the best, and apparently this one time, at LAX, a stew walks into the cockpit and told them that Liz Taylor was on board. The flight engineer—a quaint DC-8—goes back and has a look, comes back and says, “yep, that’s Liz.” Captain goes back comes back and says “sure as shit, that’s Elizabeth Taylor.” John goes back, sees her at her, uh, not mid-70s best, comes back and says “Christ, how are we gonna get this thing up?” Flight Engineer says “That’s what Fisher used to say.” They all laugh. Stewardess says “Come on guys, she’s had it rough the last couple of years…”
His mother’s mother never liked John, and he, well, never liked her. For his part, she was one more scold telling him how to live, for her, he was living proof that someone somewhere was a having an unauthorized good time. He always loved John cuz he was fun to be around, always had jokes you couldn’t repeat around the other adults. And one time, when someone made fun of his stutter, John had instantly cut them off.
Plus, if they were all in Roanoke, he might take the cousins down to the Roanoke Weiner Stand, down on the market. True to it’s name, it served hotdogs and little else, fries and soft drinks. All the way was mustard, onions, and chili. One of the original owners was usually there to put chili onto the dog, and the last time he went in, the guy was still there, at the age of 150, still putting chili on dogs and still saying the age-old “Somebody’s gotta be next.”
As he got older, he preferred the Texas Tavern several blocks over. The Tavern’s menu is a bit more extensive, even if the only thing he’d ever ordered was the chili dogs. He usually saved the Tavern or the Weiner Stand for a post-hike bite. The AT arc’d North and East around the City, and he always hiked some portion of it when he could.
He’d been on this flight more than a few times, the first back, way back, when it was a MD-11, bless its 3-engined heart. He was listening to a Coltrane playlist when he faintly heard a cabin announcement; he took his earbuds out in time to hear the captain explain what and where Shiprock is; to give everyone a chance to see it, he was dropping the left wing. He looked down at the massive rock formation on the New Mexico desert.
He was flying on an accidental flight with Phil to Los Angeles when the pilot did the same thing so everyone could see a crater put there by a meteorite eons ago. That flight was supposed to be a short flight to Toronto to see the Film Festival there. They got to the airport, and Phil realized he didn’t have his birth certificate and the Delta people told him he might not be able to get into Canada. They weighed their options and decided to burn some miles and go to the capital of movies and create their own film festival. So instead of a Mad Dog to Toronto, they had a ’57 to LA.
They found a room in West Hollywood at a Ramada that had clearly been redone by the Gay Decorating Mafia. It was not yer Grandma’s Ramada. One of the guys at the desk had pointed them down the strip to a local dive. Walking into the bar that evening, they hit it off with the bartender and a local. Soon enough, they were joined by a woman who, claiming to be a singer, would occasionally belt out some faint hint of a show tune—well, he guessed, show tunes were never his thing. Phil and the local guy talking, and the woman starting telling him about her career, she was,as her voiced confirmed, from England. She told him how she wound up in Hollywood and he guessed that story had been told a thousand times by as many people. Oh, and she was scheduled to be on Jay Leno next Tuesday night.
The woman’s attention was suddenly directed toward someone else. The local guy and the bartender asked him if he’d enjoyed his conversation with the Queen Mother. The Queen Mum? Yeah, that’s her nickname. She’d been around for a long as either one of them could remember and she was laboring—mightily, it appeared—under the impression that she could sing. Oh, and she almost always tried to bum a drink or a cigarette or something. Phil looked at him, “You didn’t give her anything…”
“No, she asked for money for something, I think. She is charming, I guess.”
The next Tuesday night, when the Queen Mum of Hollywood was supposed to be on Leno, she wasn’t. Nor was anyone, for that matter. September 11, 2001 was the day that interrupted a lot of things.
She was still occupied in the back of the bar. Phil had struck up a conversation with a couple, the girl of which knew a dance club down the Santa Monica; she could get them all in sans cover. So, well, why not. They got in her car and went down to the club. It was fun doing something totally on the spur of the moment with someone you hadn’t known an hour before. Since smoking was verboten in California bars, it was equally nice to walk into a bar smelling like Chanel and walking out smelling like Chanel.
Going around Los Angeles watching indie films was a lot of fun and so was touring Paramount, including the Soul Train set. Going totally rogue on plans was a great time had by all.
His mind is thinking ahead to what do once this plane lands. This trip is beyond any plans he’d made. He was going to LA and then, maybe, San Francisco, driving, he guessed, up 1 and 101. He wanted to see Gordita Beach, Manhattan Beach as imagined by Pynchon in Inherent Vice. Somewhere in the area, just up from the beach is the house where he’d written Gravity’s Rainbow. He was now trying to finish re-reading the book. The book, in fact, was why he was now heading to LA. He wanted to come to an end in the same place where the narrative is ended by 00000.
Gravity’s Rainbow, his favorite, he guessed, had started off in London, and now the L-1011 was, showing by the chart on the bulkhead by the center lavatory, halfway across the Atlantic. Gordon was doing an independent project based on A Word Child. He’d thought about suggesting doing something similar with the Pynchon novel, but, well, he was guessing someone like Pynchon would be viewed dimly by the powers that be in the English Department and, he was reasonably certain he didn’t even understand half the book. It defied easy explanation by anyone, let alone him. He did, fueled by gin and tonic, go looking for the approximate location of Prentice’s digs, the house with the bananary on the roof.
He was imaging what the finished paper would look like. Him standing at all the places on the map where the rockets hit…where Slothrop had a one night stand, where he’d gotten a boner. What does he do? Stand there are make a self-portrait with a boner in some London neighborhood? He could think of a person or two that might like that….
The late-morning sun glares off the knife-edge of the wing as the slats and trailing flaps slowly cut down into the current. Clouds and time rush past as the 777 slices down toward Los Angeles. The journey westward is nearly complete.