So Many Stars

These things happen. Stories, I mean. They pop up out of nowhere.

Driving into town, listening to music, they come. Music is the key that unlocks the door, to memory, anyway. I listen to words and a memory comes calling, then a story takes shape from memory.so-many-stars-im

So, out of the blue, another story. Many thanks to Andrew for looking this one over before, making a few suggestions.

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So Many Stars

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” 

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It’s an old story, really. Been told a few times too, I reckon.

About an old man – well, not really old, not quite yet, anyway – but an old man who’s followed his heart and run into a few potholes along the road more or less traveled. A man you’d have thought was old enough to know better. My story, if you want to know the truth of it. I think I’ve got the beginning down, maybe even the middle, but it’s the end that’s got me stumped. And I’ve been sitting here all night thinking about where this story’s headed, but right now I’m clueless.

Actually, I think the last chapter got underway yesterday, but if I start there you’ll be more clueless that yours truly, so let me take the snap and drop back in the pocket, hit the rewind button and see if I can get this straight.

A while ago, three months and four days if memory serves (but who’s counting), the company I worked for advised a bunch of us that our services would no longer be needed. As a point of reference, that company is an airline and management had decided to retire an entire type of aircraft – the 747-400, if you’re interested in such things – and that meant Change was headed my way. If I’d been a few years younger I’d have been retrained, taken classes for one more type rating, and so would have been able to keep flying for them a few more years. But I had passed the magic number, was a few years too old to warrant the expense and was bought out, given early retirement. Not a bad deal, financially anyway, but the thought of being put out to pasture with a few years of flying still ahead left me feeling a little put out. In short, I wasn’t ready to head to the barn just yet, and so I put out a few feelers.

Actually, one was all it took.

My phone chirped as I was walking through the terminal in Minneapolis, and I looked at the screen and stepped out of the stream of people dashing madly by for their connecting flights, hit the little green button and listened to the proposition.

An outfit based, nominally, in LA, and let’s be coy right here and now and just call this company Sheep-Shit Airways, wanted me. Badly. Bad enough to offer me an obscene salary, sight unseen. They needed a chief pilot, one FAA certified to do check-rides. A pilot with at least ten thousand in type, fifteen even better. Someone who wouldn’t mind flying the Indian Ocean, back and forth, over and over again.

Someone who wouldn’t mind flying sheep, and I mean live sheep, from Perth, Western Australia, to Saudi Arabia. Several times a week.

Really, if the recruiter hadn’t been talking so fast I’d have hung up before he mentioned salary, but he was and I didn’t.

He mentioned a number and I kept my mouth shut, made a non-committal grunt – and he was off to the races. ‘Of course,’ he scrambled, ‘with your qualifications…’ – and he mentioned another number. I whistled, and we both knew he had me by the short hairs.

On my next block of time off I hopped down to La-La Land – to Newport Beach, in point of fact – and met management. The only burning question on their minds was ‘when can you start?’ and right then I should have known better…but…someone kept dangling that number in front of my eyes, pulling on the short hairs and, well, that was all she wrote.

I started with them a few weeks ago. Rented my house to a co-worker, put my car in storage and packed a few things before heading back to LAX, and there I made a connection for Sydney, then another for Perth.

When I left Minnesota it was ten below and there was blowing snow everywhere in Minnesota but the runways and taxiways; when I stepped off the Qantas 737-800 in Perth the sweat that formed (instantly) on my forehead began to boil – and I was still inside the terminal. I’d never flown into the new airport northeast of the city-center, and the only time I’d been in the city was during what passes for winter down there. Which is to say it was hotter than hell then, too, but nothing like this.

The base manager met me as I walked off the jetway and hustled me to their facilities on the far side of the field and, once there, introductions got underway. Still, I need to introduce you to Sheep Shit Airways, just so you know what was really up down under.

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Sheep Shit was the brainchild (or brain-fart, depending on your point of view) of one Frank Cordoba. Frank flunked out of Stanford and finished his studies at a small business school just up the road in Menlo Park, almost taking a degree in marketing before becoming seriously interested in racing Corvettes and chasing strippers. Frank’s dad owned a few car dealerships around the Bay Area and had made some money along the way dealing narcotics, but I think the old man had always assumed little Frank would take over the family business one day. Well, dad died one day too soon and little Frank had an epiphany: he was suddenly quite a wealthy man. Matter of fact, he was rich as hell, and discovered he really didn’t care about cars or racing – or even strippers – anymore. He looked at FedEx and UPS and was pretty sure he could do better, so with a few friends from Menlo – and with his sudden millions in hand – he started an air cargo operation just about the time the first Gulf War got under way. Long story short, he made some serious money renting out old 747s and flying military equipment to and from Saudi Arabia, and he made some new friends in the Kingdom, as well.

Sheep don’t graze well on sand, but the Kingdom’s growing population, and growing surplus of cash, presented lands of opportunity and Frank was all over it. Kind of like a wet blanket, if you know what I mean. On one side of the equation, millions of people with billions of petrodollars were hungry for a supply of fresh sheep, Australian sheep at that, and Frank stood ready to balance the equation with an idea – and stepped in to fill the emerging need. Sheep Shit Airways was born, and had been marginally profitable from day one by following Frank’s Simple Formula for Air Cargo Success: lease the oldest aircraft at the cheapest possible price, pack the cargo to unsafe (oh? legal?) levels and fly the aircraft until they were no longer economically viable to maintain – then dump ‘em and get more run down – but cheaply serviceable – aircraft at bargain basement prices.

As these old 747s were near the end of their service lives, and as they weren’t carrying human cargo anymore (because, hey, pilots don’t count), the interiors were stripped to bare metal, fumigated, then reassembled to allow palletized sheep pens to be loaded on both the cargo and passenger decks as rapidly as possible.

So why, you ask, was this outfit known far and wide as Sheep Shit Airways?

Well, sheep aren’t exactly world travelers, but they are, by and large, nervous sorts. When you pack more than a few nervous herbivores into a tight metal tube and fire up those four engines out there on the wings? Yup, they start to get excited.

My first flight to Saudi-A was instructive, so let me digress.

Pull out onto the active and begin your dash down the runway, rotate and start your climb-out and all is right in your little world. You’ve been flying people for three decades and things feel pretty much like, well, normal. The way things should, I guess I’m trying to say.

Then something is odd, something unsettling: a new smell wafts through the airplane and hits you in the face like cold tuna.

You see, those sheep back there in coach are taking their very first airplane ride. Their first experience. In an aircraft. With all the sound deadening insulation humans expect – REMOVED.

The aircraft rotates and climbs into the sky, and several thousand now very agitated, very well fed herbivores rotate too, and this being their first airplane ride and all they, well, a bunch of them manage to get upset. Then they start thrashing around, or trying to anyway, because they’re packed in tighter than sardines in olive oil – so can hardly move.

That’s when, I suspect, the real panic sets in, and when deep sheep panic sets in the floodgates open. In a matter of seconds several thousand sheep let go, and the aroma is immediately noticeable. In the extreme.

Andy Ainley, my first officer on that first flight, reached down and pulled a giant economy sized can of air freshener from his flight bag – and flipped up the landing gear lever with one hand while spritzing a Country Cinnamon Apple aerosol into the cockpit – and I gagged. I gagged, you see, because while I was clueless, my eyes were burning.

And that’s not normal.

“What the fuck is that smell?” I barked. “Are we on fire? Did you shit your shorts?”

Ainley looked away, but I could see he was trying not to laugh. “Welcome,” he said, “to Sheep Shit Airways.”

I rolled my eyes, once they stopped watering, that is.

It’s about 6000 miles from Perth to central Saudi Arabia, so depending on winds anywhere from ten to fourteen hours. That’s ten-to-fourteen hours with a bandana tied over your mouth and nose, and a couple of spritzes of cologne on the bandana helps – for a while, anyway. I say helps advisedly because nothing, and I mean nothing, completely gets rid of the stench let off thousands of rounds of sheep shit. Even after you crawl on your hands and knees out of the cockpit (gagging, gasping for air) – the stench remains – but by that point it’s in your clothing, your hair, and it never leaves your mind.

A crew comes in after the furry little shit-bags are hauled off and, wearing gas masks, they sanitize the interior as best they can – which turns out to be a pretty good thing for all concerned. All the sheep shit falls, by the way, into stainless steel trays under the pens so there’s usually not too much of the muck on the decks and walls, and what little there is remaining is dealt with summarily, given a decent send-off, then the interior is fumigated, once again, and the aircraft’s ready to go – again.

So one more point: if you recall your aircraft, 747s have a big hump in front, and that funky spiral staircase that leads to a second (really, a third) floor, sometimes called the upper deck. This lofty perch is where the front office, aka the cockpit is located and, and lets be frank here, the cockpit is the one place I’ve called home most of my life. The upper deck on a -400 is relatively large, as these things go, and there’s a head up there (you know, a place to wash up?) and, on some variants, a small bedroom with a couple of bunks in it. Sheep Shit Airways’ were so equipped and they had (graciously, cheaply?) left the upper deck accommodations intact, too, so there were seats up there. Big, fat, wide first class seats – a few dozen or so – and seats that, according to my FO (Andy Ainley) remained empty most flights. Still, he told me that on occasion we hauled people, and that bothered me.

There are no flight attendants needed to haul sheep, thus no working galley, no beverage service, and worst of all, no ‘Mile High Club’ – so, who the hell would fly with us? And after a few minutes of the enduring biological attack right after take off, who the devil would stay onboard for ten-plus hours – unless out of pure, unadulterated desperation? I guess you could start an IV drip of morphine and LSD and settle in with movies on your phone, but really, why bother? Do the words Flight From Prosecution come to mind…?

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So, I guess we all have expiration dates stamped on us somewhere, a ‘Best If Used By’ date that lets the world know we’re just another commodity destined to used up and sent to the dump. It’s not a very flattering view of life, but the reality is that once we humans hit a certain point our expiration dates roll around, our ‘shelf life’ is up and it’s time to move out of the way, let fresher produce take our place on the shelves.

I grew up in a small town, and, as luck would have it, a town Deep in the Heart of Texas. A railroad town, and I grew up in a railroad family. A town where everything was movement, where nothing stayed the same from one day to the next, where life was lived moment to moment, and life turned on the whim of a vast machine you never saw and rarely heard. The landscape I remember was an foliage of rust and steel, shifting colors as fast freights and slow locals rolled through on their way to someplace, anyplace else but my hometown.

There was a small depot in the center of town, a simple one-story building, wood frame construction painted pale yellow, gray trim around the windows and along the soffit, all wrapped up under a tin roof painted a hopeful shade of red. When I was a kid, passenger trains stopped there several times a day; by the time I left the passenger trains were a fading memory, and even then it felt like the good ole days were destined to never return. By the early 70s, hopeful was a word that had slipped from the town’s vocabulary, but change is change and besides, the roof was all faded and chipped by then. You meet change head-on or it rolls over you, and leaves you for dead – in the middle of the road.

There was a small diner in the center of town, right across from the depot and with a white sign over the door, the sign framed by two red dots at each end. Drink Coke! – it read inside the red bookends – and in between, in the middle of the sign it read “Spring Street Cafe – Home of the Best Food – and the Slowest Service – in the World.” Hamburgers were a dime there when I was a spud, cheeseburgers fifteen cents, while homemade root beer was a nickel and an ice-cold glass of Coke a little more.

There was a high school in town, not very big but big enough to have a football team, and I quarterbacked the last team the school fielded, right before the school was closed – due to declining enrollment. I was pretty good, too. Good enough to attract a few scouts, good enough to land a scholarship to play in Austin, nowhere near good enough to make a career out of it so I joined an ROTC program and went into the Navy. I learned to fly, became good enough to make a career out of that, and so the worm turned.

I think it was the railroad, really, and growing up around trains, that left me with the desire to move people around. Our house the house I grew up in, the railroad built, the railroad sold to my grandfather and which was financed by the railroad was on the southwest corner of Baldwin Street and Pullman Avenue. Tree lined streets with gas lights scattered on the corners, the pecan trees around our neighborhood providing broad shady pools to fuss away our summer afternoons and, as mom made red Kool-Aid and oatmeal cookies almost every day, we bounced through life on a sugar-high. And I have to say that the girl next door wouldn’t have been my first choice, but Nancy-Sue Travis turned out to be my playmate of the mouth when it mattered most, a sweet soul who opened up the world of possibilities only a girl can show a boy.

She took me places in my mind I never knew existed, and we walked hand in hand under summer stars, always ready to explore the new terrain she constantly seemed to invent. I knew every inch of her, memorized her landscapes with my fingers and oh, how I loved her lips. I found my humanity within the warmth of those lips, began to see a world of possibilities beyond the contours of need, and we would sit out there under the dome of the sky – counting stars, I think – wondering what was out there in all that empty space. Realizing how small we were, yet how impossibly big life was.

When I left for Austin, Nancy-Sue had just started to work at the café, waiting the counter and, I guess, waiting for her expiration date to roll around. I heard from her once my freshman year, but didn’t even open the letter. Change, you see, had come calling and I was already on that train, disappearing into the night as fast as I could – and while I never heard from her again, I’m not sure I even once looked back.

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I’ve already mentioned Andy. As in Andy Ainley, the First Officer during my first month at Sheep Shit. He was, prior to his own meeting in Newport Beach, an FO for Qantas – until he displayed an attitude, an unofficially unapproved attitude, one day on the flight deck. His crime, according to his version of events, was finding that the captain had staggered to work while three sheets to the wind, and then reporting this little gem of information to the office. I never checked out his version of events, but I know the folks at Qantas reasonably well and I’d like to hear both sides before making a decision. That said, I commiserated but doubted the hell out of his story; beyond that I didn’t really give a rat’s ass. He was a born natural in the cockpit, his instincts were spot on and he had a soft hand on the stick. Pleasant to be around and proficient…what more is there?

As our flights were so long, and over water, we were required to carry a third crew member, and on my first few flights we were joined by one André Dufour, late of Air France and a veteran of an even more storied carrier than Sheep Shit: Air Afrique. He flew Caravelles and the 742M from Paris to Dakar for decades, but after 11 September he moved back to France and went to work for Air France, started flying the -400 freighter. Until he broke their age barrier, that is, and had to retire. With more than a few years flying cargo available to him, in short order he found himself in Newport Beach, too. He’d been in Perth a few months when I arrived, and was quite a character: our very own Mr Mystery Man…

Flying sheep didn’t bother André, not really. While flying commercial traffic in equatorial Africa, he ran across more than a few hygiene challenged passengers – and their cargo – so much so that the first wave of sheep shit to wash over his Gallic nose didn’t elicit much more than a shrug. And André didn’t like flying people as much as cargo, because passengers griped about his flying style, which was, well, in a word: rough. Commercial pilots (and their autopilots) are trained to fly with a soft hand, to make gentle corrections – so as not to scare the everlovin’ do-do out of little old ladies knitting back in coach. To put things in perspective, André did not care about these little old ladies. André liked to fly. He lived to fly. If he ever had an opportunity to do barrel rolls in a 747 he surely would have – with a shit-eating grin on his face, too. I might have called André a man’s man, or a pilot’s pilot, but he was as gay as they come, the worst kind of overtly effeminate, in-your-face gay I’d ever run across. Then Ainley whispered in my ear: “He likes to dress up…you know…like a dame. Like he’s some kind of 1940’s Hollywood starlet…”

Uh-huh. Okay. Sure. Whatever you say, Andy. On my third flight to SA I saw André in the head trying on mascara, checking his face in the old mirror.

“Well, what do you think?” he asked, and yeah, more than a little coquettishly.

I stopped and looked at him, appraised the look for a moment. “Depends on what you’re going for,” I said, trying my best not to bust out laughing.

“Like a whore on the Place Pigalle, about to get on my knees,” he shot back – and a little too defiantly, I thought.

“Well then, a little more eyeliner and I think you’re there.”

He smiled at my response and, having made his point – that things between us were out in the open now – I guess he was happy. André didn’t like closets, didn’t like hiding in them or living in one, so what the hell…more power to ‘em, ya know? C’est la vie and all that. As long as he didn’t try to fly in those six inch heels…?

At any rate, yesterday we put down at King Khalid and taxied to the cargo ramps on the north side of the field, and after we shut down trucks moved up and our sheep were escorted off the aircraft. Soon the disinfecting crew was working through the cabin and, as it was now safe to pull bandanas from noses, we wrapped up paperwork and were just getting ready to leave for the Marriott when there came a knock on the door.

That doesn’t happen all the time; in fact it’s really quite rare for someone to come to the upper deck before we open the door, and Ainley looked at me, I looked at André – who looked weird in his hooker makeup – and I decided to go to the door and check out the view through the peephole.

“Man in uniform,” I said. “Military, I think.”

The man knocked again, a little more insistently this time. “Open up, please,” the man said. “I have a priority dispatch for you.”

I unlocked the door, not quite ready to believe Sheep Shit Airways had a priority re-tasking from the Saudi military, and opened it slowly. “Howdy, Tex,” I said, hiding my disbelief as best I could, “what’s on your mind?”

The man, a full bird colonel in the Saudi Air Force, handed me the paper in his hand and I read it, shook my head then handed it to André. The colonel was staring, wide-eyed, at André, and he was – I feel sure – not quite ready to believe he was looking at a four-striper wearing heels and make-up, then he turned to me again. “Fuel trucks are on the way,” he said. “How soon can you depart?”

“That depends on how many rules you want me to break.”

“Yes,” he said, “the hours involved put you over the clock. Still, a hefty bonus has been paid, and the King would very much appreciate this.”

“No doubt,” I said, stifling a yawn, thinking of dinner and and a movie – in bed.

“We have filed a preliminary flight plan,” the colonel added helpfully, handing me another sheaf of paper.

“Swell,” I think I added. “Y’all don’t have something you could handle this with?”

“No, nothing. Not even Emirates. Again, the King would very much appreciate this…”

“Gotcha. Well, about a half hour to get loaded, so I guess as soon as Texaco gets over here and puts some gas in this thing we can skedaddle.”

“What?”

I shook my head. “We should be wheels-up in 45 minutes, give or take.”

The colonel smiled, seemed very relieved and shook my hand, then ran down the stairs and disappeared.

“Seems like somebody’s ass is in a wringer,” I said – to no one in particular…

“I’d like to put his ass in my wringer,” André said, licking his lips.

I don’t know. There are some days when weird just seems to be the new normal…know what I mean?

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When I left the navy I got on with Northwest Orient and went straight to 747s. Enjoyed the training, the somewhat less regimented atmosphere in the cockpit, but it was the stewardesses that got – and held – my attention those first few years. The girls were a revelation back then too, and I don’t want to seem too sexist here, but after six years in uniform they were just sexy as hell and their “come fly me” persona came close, on more than one occasion, to driving me right out of my skull.

Minneapolis Tokyo, Tokyo Minneapolis, like a Duncan yo-yo doing end-over-end loops on my way to infinity, the only social life I had revolved around layovers in Japan. That is to say, I had a lot of fun with stews, and I think I came to be known as the kind of happy-go-lucky type, always ready to go out for drinks and dinner, and, I assume, could be counted on if one of the girls wanted to get laid. The reputation stuck, too. I never took these relationships seriously, and the girls I was with never did, either, and as a result I was happy as a clam – and I became a dedicated, completely confirmed bachelor. I didn’t want to get married, had no desire to have kids or a dog; I wanted to be free of all attachment, free of commitment, free of house payments and most of all, free of the specter of divorce lawyers and alimony.

It seemed to me, back in the 80s and 90s anyway, that every couple I knew was in a marriage that lasted about five years. I didn’t meet many who were happy, even before their marriage came apart in balls of flaming wreckage, and all that misery took me back to my parents.

What I remember most when thinking about my parents is that they should’ve gotten a divorce long before I came along. Dad was away a lot of the time, making runs to West Texas or Louisiana, and my mother started drinking when he was away. Then she started drinking all the time, and as if that was just a prelude to the main performance, she started fucking all the time. And not fucking my father, if you know what I mean; then the rumors started, all the sidelong glances and whispered accusations – and in a small town that’s lethal. When dad was home he was sullen, then increasingly angry, but dad was a Marine and the word Duty was always up front and center in his mind. Divorce wasn’t an option, so I grew up on a battlefield, the engagements playing out in slow motion, the wounded carried off to mend – so they could live to fight another day. Some days I came home from school and found mom in bed, fucking her brains out with some engineer or truck driver passing through town; other days I found her passed out on the kitchen floor, and empty bottle of bourbon by her side. I’d get her to bed and cook dinner, do my homework and watch some TV, going in to check on her from time to time.

But some nights she’d get weird. I go into her room to check on her and she’d sit up in slurred delirium and reach for my belt buckle. A sudden gush of filthy expectation would spill out over my world and I could see into her heart, see her broken dreams then, and a part of me wanted to hold onto her, tell her everything was going to be okay…

But I couldn’t. Not really. Because I wasn’t sure, not in the least, that anything would ever be okay in our little corner of the world.

Then one night I was checking on her when dad came home unexpectedly; he helped me tidy her up and we talked about things for a few hours and the next day when I went to school he drove her into San Antonio and checked her into a hospital. When I came home I found him on the sofa in the living room, a pistol in his hand.

“What’s that?” I said as I looked at the stainless Smith & Wesson, suddenly feeling more than unsure about life and love and the meaning of existence, but it was the look in his eyes that got me. Faraway, distant and unfocused, like he’d seen a great truth – and didn’t like the view. He put the pistol back in it’s box and looked up at me, said something about going to the Dairy Queen for dinner, like nothing unusual had just passed between us. But something had changed, something big and dark, a shadow lurking in the night between us and things were never the same after that.

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I could see a convoy approaching the left side of the 747; Hummers broke off and surrounded the aircraft – then the loading operation was underway. Fuel bowsers were hooked up, and once anti-static leads were confirmed, Andy went aft to supervise the refueling. André and I entered data for the run to Stuttgart into our flight management computers, and a half hour later I looked down to check on progress – only to see a stretched Mercedes S600 – black, of course – as it pulled up ahead of the wing. The door opened and all I saw was leg, and even from up in the cockpit I could tell I was looking at an extraordinary, world class leg, a drop-dead gorgeous leg, and when the second slipped into view…okay…I was well and truly impressed. The rest of the woman attached to the legs was pretty nice too, in an upscale, sunglasses and Hermes scarf sort of way, and I watched her black dress ascend the exterior stairs and disappear – and curious now, I shook my head and wondered what the hell was going on.

“What next? Kangaroos?” I sighed.

“Oh, you’ll get used to it,” André chuckled. “One of the benefits of the job.”

Now just what the hell did that mean? A woman hadn’t been mentioned in the dispatch. No, not a word, and yet André’s words seemed to imply this was a more than regular occurrence…

Oh, joy. What the hell had I gotten myself into this time?

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I’d been flying for Northwest about ten years when life presented one of it’s first ‘Payment Due’ reminders, and everything about the next few years caught me off guard. Unprepared, clueless even.

I’d just bought a small condo in downtown Minneapolis, a fun place, visually interesting. An old railroad warehouse, huge but strong as hell, the building had been converted into lofts and I bought a two bedroom unit. It was located near the Mill District, looked out over the river – well, it was just my cup of team. Brick walls, hardwood floors, tin ceilings so high you could barely see ‘em, and soon enough I was bringing stews home or meeting gals downtown and all in all life was pretty good.

Then I got a call from mom.

“I need you to come home,” she said – and my heart sunk.

“Is dad okay?”

“Yes, he’s fine, strong as a ox and twice as stupid, but he’s fine.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m not going to talk about this over the phone, so just come home, Jimmie. As soon as you can.”

“Mom?” I said, hating it when she called me ‘Jimmie.’ “Is it an emergency, that kind of ‘come home’ thing. If it is I can ask for leave, if not…”

“It is. Get down here as fast as you can.”

Four hours later I was in coach, sitting in the back of an ancient 727 as it taxied for the active, wondering just what the hell my mother was drinking.

+++++

Another knock on the cockpit door; I see Colonel Smiling Face standing there with Madame Hot Legs in the shadows. Open door, do my best not to appear annoyed, am utterly unsuccessful when I try not to stare at Hot Leg’s legs.

“Yes, Colonel?”

“You’re new to this, Captain Stewart…”

So, he knew my name. What else did he know?

“…so let me explain.” He handed me a manilla envelope. “This is your passenger’s passport and a ticket to New York. See that she gets off the aircraft in Germany with as little interference as possible; after that she’s of no interest to us anymore.” He seemed to pause and turn his head a little, as if he was speaking for the woman’s benefit, not mine, then he handed me three more envelopes. “For your trouble,” he said as he turned and walked back down the staircase.

Each envelope was labeled – with three names, mine included – and when I looked inside mine I whistled.

“See,” André said, grinning like a snake, “you get used to it.”

+++++

It’s about a thousand miles from Minneapolis to Austin-Bergstrom International, call it two hours and some change, and home is not quite 50 miles from the airport. Hop on Highway 71 and head ESE for an hour and you’re there, Deep in the Heart of Texas, land of chicken-fried steak – smothered in cream gravy – and dilly bars. Highest cholesterol levels on the planet are found in East Texas, and it may just be a coincidence, but perhaps that’s why most of the best cardiologists in the world work in Houston. Quite a monkey dance, ain’t it?

Home, such as it is, didn’t look too different these days, either. The high school wasn’t where it was supposed to be, yet something new had sprung up west of town to take it’s place, something really big, a sprawling thing you could look at and be forgiven for thinking it was a prison. The Dairy Queen was gone, but there were a couple of smart looking coffee places on the main drag, and yes, the railroad was still there, splitting the town in two – kind of like a stake driven through a vampire’s heart.

There was a fresh coat of paint on the house, and the yard had recently been mown. The pecan trees seemed fatter, more lush than I remembered and, indeed, the landscape I saw seemed a little more alive than the last time I saw it.

Yes, call it seventeen years since I’d left, seventeen years since I’d seen my mother.

Dad?

He came to my graduation in Austin, and again, after I finished my jet transition training program at Pensacola. We kept in touch, in other words, and he filled me in things going on around town. He would always love my mother, or so he said, but here and there, in between the lines I caught wisps of that lingering, smokey anger in his words. I pulled up to the front of the house and looked around, looked around the houses and trees as a dusty parade of unwelcome memory began, a marching band of hopes and dreams that somehow always passed me by.

Then the front door opened. The same front door my great grandfather used to open on his way to work. That I had walked through coming home from school, when I found that other parade marching by, strangers in my father’s bed, doing things to my mother I’ll never forget.

And my father was standing in that doorway, looking at me. Just staring, clearly at a loss, like I’d been gone for a few hours and was late for supper.

I remember thinking this, and only this: ‘Why am I here? What did I do to deserve this?’

The door closed behind him and he walked out to the door and I rolled down the window. He stuck his hand in, his right hand, and I looked at it, wondered what to do.

“Hey, boy. You gonna stay out here all day?”

I left his hand hanging there and got out of the car, walked around and gave him a hug. It didn’t feel right not to – and I figured if I hugged him he wouldn’t be too upset if I ignored mom.

“Got a bag?” he asked.

“Yeah, Pops. I’ll get it.”

We went in and mother was sitting there – and on the sofa across the room?

Nancy-Sue Travis. She of long walks under starlight, my playmate of the mouth. Sitting on the same sofa my mother used to pass out on, sitting under an afghan mother’d knitted for my seventh birthday, her feet curled up under all her naked fragility. Her skin was gray, eyes sunken into her head, and her hands and feet were orange, around her eyes, too.

And for once, I had just enough sense to keep my fucking mouth shut.

+++++

The flight director said it was 2457 nmi from King Khalid International to Stuttgart, not quite six hours to the threshold. We’d fly over Damascus, Nicosia, Sarajevo, transfer to EuroControl as we approached Zurich and, assuming no change in the weather, make a straight in approach to runway 25.

Our cargo?

A 1955 Mercedes 300SL, the mythical, so-called Gullwing model, silver with a red interior. The King’s favorite, now due for an oil change. Yes, that’s right. Twice a year, whether needed or not, this car was hauled to the airport and flown to the factory – for a little TLC – and then back home a week or so later. It was tied down now over the main wing spar box, and there wasn’t one speck of dust on it. Anywhere. I know, because I checked.

Our passenger?

One Miss Samantha Taylor, US citizen, born and raised outside of Fresno, California.

After I went down to drool all over the King’s Gullwing, I stopped off and introduced myself.

“Jimmie Stewart?” she said, laughing. “You’re not serious?”

“I am.”

“You’re not, like, related, are you?”

“Yes, he’s my little brother.”

She laughed, again. Everyone does every time I crack that joke.

“And yours is Samantha?”

“No, it’s really Kate, Katherine Hepburn,” she feigned.

“Ah, so Tracy it is. And where is C K Dexter Haven?”

She smiled at me when she heard that. “I bet not many people get that one,” she said, then she crossed her legs and I tried not to stare. So of course she caught me staring.

“Well,” I said – blushing madly, “the colonel seemed kind of happy to see you leave. What’s the story?”

She looked away, sighed. “You want the short version?”

“I’ve got to get back to the cockpit in a half hour. If I don’t reset the autopilot we’ll crash.”

“So, you’re a smart ass, too? Gee, this is going to be so much fun.”

I took the hint and nodded, stood to leave and she looked away, out the window and into the night.

“Sorry we don’t have meal service, but I’ll try to check in with you in about an hour.” I turned and left her in the gloom, but I heard a mumbled “Don’t bother” and decided to take her at her word.

+++++

Mom and dad left us alone, left Nancy-Sue on the sofa and me standing there – clueless. Again, as always.

I wanted to ask her how she was doing, what was happening with her, all the usual questions you’d ask someone you’d loved once but turned away from, but all her answers were right there in front of me, staring me down, daring me to ask.

She pointed to a space next to her on the sofa, so I came over and sat.

The first thing she did was take my hand in hers, and kiss the tips of my fingers. She was crying when she did, and I felt lost, bereft in that moment – because I knew she was saying goodbye, and I knew something had gone terribly wrong with my life when I stopped caring for her, and in that moment we were back out under the stars. Walking along, alone in the moment, just the two of us.

It had been all so clear to me, my life, the way it had been mapped out for me. I was supposed to have graduated, gone to work for the railroad and come home to her every night. Live the life my mother and father never had, find the goodness they’d never shared. The life I’d wanted for them, for us. For me. I had to make things right, that had been my charge, and I’d turned and run away. I’d run away from Nancy-Sue, and all that was supposed to go right in life.

And the first thing she said to me?

“God, how right you were to leave this place, to get away from all the lying and hating and cheating…”

I didn’t know what to say.

But she did.

“I wish I’d had the strength to leave when you did.” She squeezed my hand just then, and she looked away for a few minutes, then turned back to me and said: “I should have gone with you, you know…I should have…”

But no, I thought, she’d have never made it out there, she had been better off staying with the familiar, surrounded by the people and places she’d grown up with. I knew I’d been the one to break the faith, that ‘home’ was never going to be right for me – because mine never had been.

And I tried to tell her, but in the end there was no way I could say something like that to her. And even if I had, I doubted I could make her understand – because I wasn’t sure I did. Not then, anyway. I sat there thinking about all the ‘what ifs’ and ‘might have beens,’ yet the simple truth of the matter was simple, so very easy to see: I could not – or would not come to terms with the anger that still defined my feelings about this place, and I never would until I could look my mother in the eye and tell her how much I hated her, how much I resented what she did to all our lives.

Then Nancy-Sue pulled my hand to her face and kissed it again. I could feel it then, the illness running wild under her skin. I turned to her and held her close, and for a few minutes I wanted it all to be okay. The way it might have been, should have been…

And then she whispered in my ear…

“I want you to meet somebody.”

Her name was Alice, and she was seventeen. She was, it turned out, my daughter.

+++++

About halfway through the flight to Stuttgart, somewhere over Greece, there came a knock on the cockpit door and André walked over and unlocked the door. I heard him talking to Samantha – I assume asking for a few pointers on how to apply eye-liner – then I felt her behind me, peering over my shoulder – trying to look out the windshield.

“I’ve never seen anything more complicated in my life,” she said. “Are you sure you know what all these buttons and things do?”

“No, not really, but I carry one of those Idiot’s Guides with me…you know, How to Fly a 747 Without Really Knowing How To Fly? I can get you a copy from Amazon, if you’re interested.”

“Asshole.”

“Yes, I’ve got one. I’m sure you do too. At least you give every indication of having one.” Then I turned and looked at her.

Nope, she wasn’t having any of it…any of my bullshit. She was just looking out the glass, staring at the night sky from seven miles on high. A grain of sand skimming along a rock hurtling through space.

“God, there are so many of them…?”

“What’s that?”

“Stars. So many stars. I had no idea.”

I hit the memory switch on my seat and it whirred back, then I took off my harness and crawled out of the way. “Take a seat,” I told her. “The view’s much better.”

Once she was down I hit the switch and the seat inched forward, and she craned her neck until she was looking almost straight up. I knelt down, looked where she was looking and I pointed to Orion.

“See that bright pattern, there, a little to your left?”

“The butterfly looking thing?”

“Yup. That’s Orion, the Hunter. He’s drawing a bow…”

“I see it!”

“He’s wearing a belt, and there’s a sword hanging from it, over to the left. Got it?”

“Yes?”

“There’s a fuzzy patch in the middle of the sword…”

“Okay, I see it, but it looks kind of pink…”

“Because it is pink, and it’s pink because it’s not a star. That’s called the Orion Nebula, and it’s a huge cloud of hydrogen gas. Now, I want you to consider one thing about that pink spot. You see that fuzzy spot because light was emitted from stars inside those clouds, and little bits of that light traveled all the way here, to this spot on earth. And it took those little bits of light 1500 years to get here, just to tickle the back of your eye.”

She turned to face me then, and I could see a little smile through the look of wonder in her eyes. “I bet you’re a great dad,” she said, and I turned away. Turned away because she couldn’t have made a sharper cut if she’d used a razor blade.

+++++

About halfway through the services for Nancy-Sue I tried to take Alice’s hand – but she pulled away from me. Stepped back a little, then turned and walked to the cars parked under barren pecan trees. I swallowed hard, tried to make sense of her hatred but I couldn’t. I had no frame of reference. At least I think that’s what I told myself, standing out in that sharp winter’s wind, staring into the hole in the ground Nancy had just been committed to.

Nancy had asked that I take Alice, take her to live with me in Minneapolis.

In the second semester of her senior year?

When Alice heard that she laughed in my face. “Who the fuck are you?” she spat at me. “Some fucking sperm donor?”

“But…”

“You are not my father,” she screamed, now right in my face. So she stayed at her grandparent’s house, the home she’d lived in almost all her life. She disowned me, asked me to leave, to never try to contact her.

So I left.

And a few weeks later I got a letter from her. Asking me to forgive her.

I wrote back to her, told her if there was ever anything I could do for her, to just let me know.

Of course, I figured I’d never hear from her again.

What goes around, comes around – ya know? Ain’t that the way it always is?

+++++

I walked back to the head, washed my hands and face then went over to the little ice chest strapped down where the galley used to be and got a coke and a cup of ice. I popped the top and poured, then I heard her. Behind me, again.

“Could you fix me one too?”

“Sure.”

“Would you sit with me a while?”

I turned, looked her in the eye. “Oh?”

“Look, I’m sorry, but I won’t bite.”

“I’m impervious,” I said, pointing at my chest. “Heart of cold stone.”

“I doubt that.”

“You shouldn’t.”

“Why? Why do you think that?”

So I sat, I sat and told her about Nancy-Sue and Alice, even a little about my mother and father, all of it. And it hurt. To think about it, let alone pour this stuff out all over a stranger.

But Samantha was a good listener. She pulled me along, pulled me out of myself.

“What about your mother?” she asked me at one point. “Did you ever tell her how you feel?”

“You know, I saw her a few years ago, when I went home for Dad’s funeral, and I thought about it. About telling her off. But really…what’s the point? Open up that can of beans again – just to get something off my chest. No good reason, is there?”

“Probably not.”

“Yup. In the end she’d be hurt and I’d feel like shit for making her feel like shit.”

“Well said.”

Thanks. I put a lot of thought into that one.”

“I was at Menlo, back in the late 80s. A bunch of Saudis there, at the business school…”

And suddenly I was all ears.

“They all had Ferraris and Maseratis, and by the end of the first week of school they had all the cute girls, too. I ran with that pack, and we were kind of, well, like their harem. And the funny thing about it was everything was kind of medieval. Like we were property. From the moment we entered their lives they let it be known what was expected of us, and that there was no turning back. The one that chose me, well, he was a prince then. He had a jet at San Francisco International, and weekends we’d go to New York or Paris. I was eighteen, and it was all very impressive. I moved to Riyadh after graduation, but we never married. He was, you see, already married. Had been since he was sixteen, something like that. And he had about twenty of us, girls from Europe and the States, stashed around different houses. Playthings, like a Ferrari.”

“Why didn’t you leave? Just pick up and go?”

“Because we couldn’t. We heard stories about what happened to girls who tried.”

“Sheesh. But then, here you are now. Free to leave?”

“Gray hair and wrinkles. I think I’m what you call past my prime, or a bottle of milk that’s been on the shelf a little too long. Like I’m past my expiration date.” She sighed, looked out the window. “They put some money into an account in Switzerland, for my years of faithful service. Can you believe that? Service? Faithful service?”

“Does the name Frank Cordoba mean anything to you?”

“Yes, Captain James Stewart of Minneapolis, Minnesota, it does, and you can bet he knows everything there is to know about you, too. And that everyone who works for him in a close capacity does too.”

“What?”

“Oh, the colonel? He knows exactly who you are, where you went to school, what rank you held in the Navy…everything. That wad of cash burning a hole in your pocket, the one he gave you? Guess what? You’re a servant now, a servant of the Kingdom, bought and paid for – if you know what I mean.”

“What?”

“Sure. Your pal, Cordoba? His old man used to work for people like Nixon, back in the day. Did dirty work for the party. You’re familiar with the term? People who get in the way, ya know, kind of get moved out of the way? When Frankie met the prince in Menlo Park, well, the Cordoba family moved into the big leagues.”

I was feeling a little sick to my stomach so finished my Coke, went to the ice chest to get another. When I came back she wasn’t as talkative, like she had suddenly come to her senses and figured out it was time to shut the fuck up…

+++++

So of course a few week later there was another envelope in my mailbox. Alice was graduating from high school in early June, and she wanted me to come. There was another letter from my mom, too. Alice’s grandparents didn’t have the money to buy a prom dress. Things were tight, real tight. Could I help?

Could I help?

Of course I was on my way to Austin on the next flight, Alice’s sweat-soaked envelope tucked neatly in a pocket. After I picked up the rental car and made the dash down 71, I got to my folks house in time to pick her up and drive her back to Austin. We had dinner and roamed a mall, found her a dress and all the doo-dads girls need to pull off their magic transformations, and it was like she wanted to bridge the distance between us, but didn’t know how. I was content to just be with her, to walk with her and listen to her talk, because she was so much like the woman I should have…well, you know where that’s going, don’t you?

And that was the really odd thing. I think I’d rushed to be with her because Nancy-Sue was gone. This girl – of ours – was all that was left of something that had turned out to be important to me, and I know that sounds kind of screwball, like ‘she’s only important to him now because she’s dead…’ – but it was more than that. A whole lot more.

We drove out of the city in silence, and every now and then I’d look over at Alice – yet there in the blue-green glow on the panel-lights I saw Nancy-Sue – then, about halfway home my daughter said “Thanks, Dad,” and I kind of choked-up inside.

I came down for prom night, and again, a few weeks later for her graduation. I was happy she was happy with the way things were going, happy she’d decided to at least try. When she called me ‘Dad’ or ‘Father’ I knew she was pushing her limits, but one time she told me she couldn’t stand the thought of calling me ‘Jim,’ or (God forbid) ‘Jimmie,’ and I don’t know…somehow that admission cemented things between us in place.

I met her boyfriend, Mike, who by all accounts was a ferocious linebacker and smart as hell, and after we shook hands all he wanted to do was talk about flying in the Navy. And that conversation was weirder still – the whole ‘this kid could become my son-in-law’ thing – the notion that I might have this instant family grow out of thin air, magically come into my life, a grandson soiling his diapers while sitting on my lap…?

My father called me a few weeks after graduation, told me they’d been driving back from Austin that night and apparently Mike tried to beat a train at the crossing on the west side of town. Alice was gone, my father told me, and Mike would never walk again. I know I heard those words, but I think it was the irony of the moment that left me speechless, unable to breathe. The railroad had made all our futures possible, and now, through no fault of it’s own, the railroad had just taken mine away.

I’m sure there’s a symmetry at work here – somewhere, but really, it eludes me even now.

+++++

Innsbruck was below now, a layer of scattered cloud hovering over that close little valley, but I could see the lights of the airport down there shining through. ‘Here I am!’ – they seemed to call out – “We’re here if you need us…”

Here if you need us?

As the thought struck home I wondered what they were telling me, what I was trying to tell me about all I’d lost. Home? Someplace like home? But home was, for all intents and purposes gone now. Dad gone, mother in a home, a nursing home. Emphysema, congestive heart failure – the usual end to one who’d smoked two packs a day for fifty years. Nancy-Sue gone, Alice too, and even the little house on the corner was just a memory now, sold to people just starting off, working for the railroad and with life still like a train in the distance, a future coming, things to look forward to.

What did Dorothy tell Toto?

There’s no place like home?

I smiled at my distorted reflection in the curved glass, thinking ‘Yes, there is no place now.’ That little condo by the river seemed more like a jail cell, and the future I’d built for myself more than a little confining, like a dream. Someone else’s dream stuffed into my head, crying to return – home.

The radio brought me back to the present and I got to work, looked over the missed-approach procedures for Stuttgart and started working frequencies. Andy was taking the final, so I started reading through the pre-approach checklist, trying not to think about the lights far below – under the clouds.

+++++

Mom was a wreck, a vast train wreck strewn all over the countryside. She watched her husband disappear into his grave, witnessed another hole in the ground swallow up her past, and I helped her to the car after, fearful of the reckoning that surely had to come now. I watched as a handful of his remaining friends drove up to the house and walked in, and their wives, as such people often do, came with them and laid on a Hill Country feast. Hams, deviled eggs, macaroni salads of every conceivable sort, all scattered from the kitchen to the dining room, and the survivors came together and talked about old times while they ate. My father’s friends, engineers and firemen, tried to talk to me, tried to talk about how they’d cheered me on thirty years before, on that high school football field, but I was a pilot, I worked for the very industry that had crippled, almost killed off the railroads, and there was a resentment in their eyes I’d never noticed before.

Had my old man felt that way about me too? Had my life been a repudiation of his? Had I chosen to do that to him, to us? Had my life turned into one vast plot, for revenge, perhaps, for all those drunken, smoke filled nights?

I helped clean up after the house emptied, and I watched as mom went to the cabinet where she still kept her booze. She poured a stiff one and trudged off to her bedroom – and she said not a word to me, shared not one passing thought. I guess there was nothing left to say, really, nothing left but the questions between us – that would forever remain unchallenged.

+++++

There’s one airport in Stuttgart capable of handling a 744, one very long runway with one primary approach. Pretty straight forward stuff, even in foul weather. Clouds were deep and dense, the air roiled with sleet and rain as we passed the outer marker, but Andy was handling it well enough.

I caught something in my eye out left and ahead, a pulsing beacon maybe, but then a little Cessna resolved in the mist, trying to…

“My airplane!” I shouted and Andy let go as I went to full power, began a sharp climbing turn to the right…

“Approach, Argosy 2-2 heavy, we’ve got a Cessna in the pattern, turning on final just ahead. Executing missed approach now,” I told the tower, then to Andy: “Set up the go-around, would you?”

“Jesus Fucking Christ,” Ainley said. “How’d you see him?”

“Beacon, just barely caught it,” I replied, trying not to spit nails and cuss out the sonuvabitch in the Cessna. And at four in the fucking morning, too, but getting things back in the groove became the new priority. Resettled on the new approach, and I flew it on in this time. Deep fog was settling over the valley and we were about to go CAT III, a so-called zero-zero approach with no visibility at all, and Ainley expressed no desire to shoot one after seventeen hours on the stick.

+++++

I was getting off the aircraft one day in Tokyo, but someone from dispatch was waiting for me in the Jetway. Some kind of emergency at home, the woman said as she handed me the details.

At home?

But, I have no home?

Yet even so, there was a message from the police, home being that field of dreams Deep in the Heart of Texas. I called from the pilot’s lounge, was told they’d been called to my father’s house when my mother was reported out in the front yard, drunk – and fingering herself – and not content to simply shame herself completely, she’d started yelling at anyone within view – to come fuck her. The officer responding arrived in time to observe her commanding a six year old boy to get off his goddamn bicycle and fuck her in the ass, and when he – politely, I feel most certain – tried to intervene she scratched the officer’s face, tried to kick him in the nuts and otherwise acted the genteel southern belle. Not feeling jail the correct facility for her, an ambulance was summoned and she was subdued, strapped-down then carted off to a special hospital in Austin.

“How soon,” the person on the telephone in Texas wanted to know, “can you get here?”

I explained the logistics and the officer sighed, asked permission to do a ‘white warrant’ on her, a psychiatric commitment that would put her on ice for 72 hours. Sensing I’d arrived at a moment of truth, I agreed with him, told him I’d get to Austin as soon as I could.

I don’t know why, but the kid wished me ‘good luck.’

Somehow, I knew we’d need it.

+++++

So many metaphors. One must be right for me.

Flying in fog, screaming through the night at 200 knots, and I can’t see anything but a cluster of instruments dead ahead. I look up, look at the swirling ocean of mist around me, strobes pulsing white reminders – ‘we’re right here…see us?’ – then that mechanical voice joined me in the night…

“200 feet…”

“160 feet…”

“100 feet…”

“50 feet – retard, retard…”

I can – just – sense the moment of contact before it happens, when the mains hit and the hyper-choreographed dance of reverse thrust and braking begins, then slowing for the turn-out and crawling onto the ramp, shutting down a half million pounds of airplane and fuel for the night.

But it’s morning. The fog is turning –  incrementally –  lighter, and for the people here their day is just beginning. I feel like I’ve been up more than 24 hours – because I have; my eyes are burning and my skin is tingling, my body is screaming for bed and wants nothing more to do with flying…

But we had to supervise unloading the GullWing, fill out fuel chits and customs forms but it’s all so easy now because we’re flying the King’s Mercedes…doors open magically, the curtain parts and we see the Great and Wonderful Oz pulling all the Levers of State, making magic things happen out of sight, out of mind…

And when I go back up to the cockpit I find Samantha – Sam – is still sitting by her window, looking out the platic, her eyes wide shut as another life parades through her reflection…

I go, sit next to her.

“Are you alright?”

The smallest shake of her head.

No, she’s not.

Then she turns just the tiniest bit and takes my hand in hers.

“Do you know how long it’s been since I felt my skin on someone else’s?”

“That bad?”

“You have no idea.”

“Anything I can do?”

“I looked at you when I got onboard and I’ve wanted you ever since.”

“I see.”

“Do you? I mean, really, do you? Because this is so much more than a burning fire. I want to be fucked, but I want to fall in love again, I don’t know, maybe fall in love for the very first time. I want to know what all those things feel like – because – I never have. I feel like a slave that’s just been freed, like a newborn taking her first breath, opening her eyes for the very first time, opening my eyes to the possibilities…”

“But?”

“Yes…but. There’s always that big ‘but.’ They’ll never let me live, Captain. I know too much, too many secrets. Where all the bodies are buried and all the money is hidden. I know things that would put most of the congressmen in D.C. straight into prison jumpsuits, and I’ve never heard from even one of the girls who left like I just have. They all disappear, so I take that to mean…”

“I get the picture.”

“Do you?”

I nodded my head. “And I assume you think there’s something I can do to help?”

“I have a plan, yes, but first…? Do you know where a good, soft bed it? There’s something I need to …”

+++++

When I got back home – well, to Austin, Texas, but close enough – from Japan, I found my mother in full restraints. Wrists and ankles tied to the bed, a catheter in place and an IV running into her right forearm. Her doc, a third year psychiatric resident, told me the primary problem mom was facing was dementia, but with an underlying schizo-affective disorder, with traces of borderline personality as well as elements of narcissistic personality disorder thrown in for good measure.

Like what, I told her, you think you’re telling me something I don’t already know?

She smiled. A nice smile. Disarming. “She’s really put you through it, huh?”

“You have no idea.”

She nodded her head. I think because she did know. “So, you were in Tokyo? What do you do?”

“Pilot, for Northwest.”

“That’s got to be fun. I’ve never been to Tokyo…what’s it like?”

“Crowded, like swimming in the sea, in packed pods of little people all darting around madly, mindlessly.”

“That sounds awful…”

“It’s not. I love it.”

“Do you go there regularly?”

“Yup. Too regularly.”

“Look, I’ve got an hour for lunch. Can we talk about your mother while I grab a bite?”

Mom needed to be stabilized medically before the real work could begin, Linda Stephens, MD, told me over a lunch of something I thought certain only a goat could enjoy. Her liver, she added, was just just about totally fried, she had undiagnosed diabetes so of course chronic kidney disease too, COPD and incipient cardiac insufficiency. This on top of a truly foul sense of humor, and, oh yes, cataracts.

“Is that all?” I think I said.

“Yeah, thank God for Medicare,” she said, and I’m pretty sure I laughed. Then she looked at me like, well, you know. “You have a nice smile,” she said, then: “I like it when you laugh.”

So…I’m looking at that dreamy, faraway look in this woman’s eyes and thinking: my mother’s shrink is coming on to me?

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she stammered, catching herself in mid-fall.

“Would you like to have dinner with me tonight?” I said, catching her off balance.

She had more than a nice smile, too. Fucked like the proverbial epileptic whore, if you know what I mean. Plug in and hang on for the ride. Still, there was something about this one. Something real, something that cried out “Home!” Like what I needed to do right now, right here and now, was stop and take a long smell at her roses.

She grew up on a farm outside of Athens, Texas, was a small town girl – she knew what a Dilly Bar was without having to stop and think about it. She’d wanted a fancy red sports car, but bought a Chevy pickup instead, because she went home a lot on weekends and still helped out on her dad’s place. She wasn’t afraid to be seen with a little dirt under her fingernails and wore sensible shoes. That kind of small town girl.

And she was smart. Took her degree in philosophy and turned that into an M.D. She liked to talk about current events and what we might do next weekend. I took her to Tokyo and we walked until I was about to drop, saw more things in one week there than I had in ten years. She talked and I listened, and against all odds I found myself falling in love with her. An odd feeling, too, kind of fun, but with a lot of anxiety.

And I think I told her about my feelings one day. Out walking around a Buddhist temple, acting like tourists. We were hand in hand when she told me she was madly in love with me, that she been since the moment she laid eyes on me. Totally irrational, she added, looking at me with the kind of possessiveness that drives most sane men to drink.

“So, when can we get married?” she asked then and there.

Married? Me? I think the numb speechlessness might have given away my feelings. It’s amazing how quickly something so fine and big can come crumbling down into piles of rubble.

Oh yes. Mother. I moved her to an assisted living facility, but by then another doc had taken over.

+++++

The plan, according to Sheep Shit Airways, anyway, was for us to bunk-out in Stuttgart for the required interval, then fly back to Perth for the next load. Yeah, I guess, like…whatever. But me? I was thinking about the money in the envelope, and what it all meant – at least according to Sam. I don’t cotton to the idea of being someone’s slave, and the slow burn in the middle of my gut was reminding me of that, but now it was time to leave the aircraft and get some sleep. Nothing else mattered now.

So Andy and André handled the bags and I helped Sam down the two-story stairway, then we grabbed a taxi and went to the nearest Marriott, and a black C-Class Mercedes followed us to the hotel, and two men in sunglasses watched over us as we checked-in. How clever, I thought, especially as there was so much sun out this foggy morning.

I got her an adjoining room, of course, and when she’d gone in I laid out my bag and was getting stuff out to shower when she knocked on the door between rooms.

She was naked as the day she was born and grabbed me by the cock and pulled me into the bathroom. We showered, draining the Rhine in the process, and she coiled around me in the steam, began striking all the right places, and soon all thoughts of sleep were gone. Barely dry, we fell onto the bed and she took charge, yet it was soon apparent her every gesture, every thought that passed her lips was all about wanting to be loved, needing to be appreciated as something more than a toy. As someone who’d been used and discarded for decades, as someone yearning to feel something deeper than love.

And you know? It’s kind of odd, but I could relate to that.

+++++

I flew down to Austin the weekend they were moving Mom from assisted living to a long term care facility. She’d become unmanageable again, throwing feces on the people who came by to check-up on her, urinating all over the place, trying to get orderlies to eat her out – those kinds of unmanageables.

And Linda met me at the airport.

“We need to talk,” she said.

“About Mom?” I asked, my eyes locked-on her belly.

“No, you silly moron. Us. We need to talk about us, you and me. You and me – and the baby we’re going to have.”

+++++

I let her sleep-in that first morning, sleep with her dreams and get comfortable with them, and sometime in the afternoon I went down to the lounge. Sat down and ordered a dark rum something and pretended to drink it, brooding in my dark corner thinking dark thoughts.

And André wandered in, though thankfully not in full drag, and he came over and sat down across from me.

“You’re a good pilot, Jim,” he began, “but I think perhaps you are a lousy human being.”

“Oh? So you’ve just noticed?”

“Some people hide it very well. Others, not so.”

“So, what gave me away?”

“That woman. Sam. She is in trouble, no?”

“Yes, very much so, I think.”

“These women, these women the Saudi’s send away, they do not treat some of them so well when they leave.”

“Discarded, I think, is a better choice of words.”

“As it may, but I thought I read in your dossier that you are engaged.”

“That’s true. I am.”

“And yet you take this woman to your bed?”

“That’s true. I did.”

“So, this is why I think you are a bad man.”

“I see. I agree completely.”

“I can fix this, you know. I can take you upstairs and put on my other clothes and fuck you in the ass.”

“You know, André, as tempting as that sounds, I think I’ll take a rain-check.”

He laughed.

I laughed.

Nervously, I might add.

“So,” he continued, “what are we to do with this girl?”

“Get her on that Lufthansa flight to New York. Tonight. They won’t fuck with her over there.”

He nodded his head. “That may be, but my guess is that won’t stop them.”

I nodded. “Delta still flies non-stop from here, to ATL, but she’s got another flight on Lufthansa booked. Frankfurt, then Chicago and on to San Francisco. Try to throw them off.”

“So, she’ll show up for Lufthansa, then hop on the Delta flight?”

“That’s the plan.”

He steepled his fingers, sighed. “We may need some sort of diversion.”

“Oh?”

“I’m not an idiot, Jim. I saw the goons in the Mercedes, and I don’t think they’re going to let her out of their sight for one minute.”

“Goons. I like that…”

“Yes. I thought of Bogart and Bergman when I saw them, and I smiled a little too, I think. Perhaps they would approve, too, this desperate flight of hers, and you struggling to help her?”

“So then, in this old world of yours, I’m Victor…what was his name?”

“Lazlo. Paul Henreid. And of course I would be your Captain Renault. Oh, and this Samantha makes an excellent Ilsa Lund, don’t you think?”

“I do, yes, but with all due respect to Miss Bergman, Sam’s got better legs.”

“Yes. She’s elegant enough to make me wish I was straight again.”

“Again?”

“Yes, but that’s a long story, one for another day. Oh! – here comes our Ilsa now…”

And he was right, of course, she did look a little like Ingrid Bergman. A much taller Ingrid Bergman, and with Bergman’s perfect breasts too, but her legs were something else entirely.

She sat across from me, looked at André, then me. “What are you having?” she said, looking at my drink and wrinkling her nose.

“A rum something. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it’s just a little shy of 200 proof.”

André picked it up and sniffed, then put it down and pushed the glass away, mumbling “And here I thought you’d spilled jet fuel on your trousers…”

A waitress came over and Sam asked for some white wine, a Riesling, perhaps, and I watched as a jazz trio came in and set up their amps and mics. Then Sam’s goons came in and sat across the room from us. One even looked our way. Foolish.

“This is so fun!” André said breathlessly, in all his limp-wristed glory. “I can hardly wait to see what happens next…”

Sam looked at André and smiled, but I could see she was a little put off by his over-the-top showmanship, then her wine came and the waitress asked André what he’d have.

“Ooh, one just like his,” he cooed, and after the girl left Sam looked at him coyishly…

“So, are you going to drink it, André, or suck it off?”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, here we go…” I sighed.

“Ooh, Jim, I like her…she’s reading my mind. Maybe we could go up later and have a little threesome?”

“No thanks, amigo, I’m trying to quit.”

“Oh? So there’s hope for me yet?”

And Sam chimed in next: “Should I leave you two alone?”

I simply shook my head. When the cocktail waitress came with André’s jet fuel she looked at my glass and asked if I was ready for another.

“Sure,” I said, “but this was really weak. Could you ask the bartender to make the next one a little stronger?”

+++++

I was in a funk. I mean flat-out, stone-cold depressed.

I’d gone to visit my mother and after five minutes the only thing that came to mind was little Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist. Head spinning, split-pea soup flying everywhere, screams of “Your mother sews socks that smell…” filling the air with latent malice. All that was missing was Father Karras absorbing Satan and flying out the window, absolving humanity’s sins one more time as he tumbled down those perilously steep steps.

But Linda had tried to warn me over the phone. Hadn’t she? Hadn’t she said something to the effect that mother had really gone downhill? That it wasn’t going to pretty?

And that her condition was only going to get worse, that the COPD and CHF were getting very bad now? That her brain was starved for oxygen, that normal function was shutting down.

No, not pretty at all.

We were sitting at my favorite restaurant in the world, an old Mexican place on the east side that’s been there, right there, since before the last ice-age. Best cheese enchiladas in the known universe, and the thought of arriving too late and finding they’ve run out of guacamole a mortal sin known to make grown men weep, because even presidents have been known to divert Air Force One to Bergstrom – just for their guacamole. Yes, it’s that good.

And I sat there at the table with Linda, looking at that green stuff in the bowl on the table and thinking about my mother, strapped down in a hospital bed just a few miles away.

I’d failed her, hadn’t I? I’d tried once, when I still cared about her, but her pandoras’s box of insanities had driven me away, just as surely as little Regan’s demons drove away Father Karras. They’d driven my father away too, once upon a time, but that sense of duty intervened – and he stuck it out.

Until he finally put that Smith and Wesson in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

But…I’d failed Nancy-Sue too, hadn’t I? Wasn’t that plain to see now?

And what about Alice? Didn’t I fail her too? I tried, at least I think I tried to be there for her once I knew she needed me, but…? Wasn’t that another case of me doing too little, and maybe just a little too late?

Even so, Linda was holding my hand, helping me through cascading floods of doubt and self-recrimination. When you get right down to it, there’s nothing better than to have your existential crisis with a psychiatrist sitting across from you, ordering you another Margarita and feeding you green goo on stale chips.

But no, she was drinking club sodas, wasn’t she?

And she was sitting there, eating for two now, as she put it.

And my chromosomes had danced the dance with hers, tripped the light fantastic and in the afterglow something happened – again. The cosmic tumblers had fallen into place – again – only this time there was no running away.

And I told her about my feelings. My feelings about failing my mother. About failing Nancy-Sue and Alice…

“You know, Jim, you told me once, in Kyoto, that you loved me.”

“At the temple,” I said. “Higashi Honganji – I remember cherry blossoms?”

She nodded. “Do you – remember?”

“You’ve picked a helluva time to ask me that, you know.”

She nodded, and yes, I think then she understood. That’s the problem with shrinks, but I guess you knew that already.

+++++

A vocalist joined the trio and began playing, so I leaned back and drifted down Moon River for a while, thinking of two drifters – off to see the world. I looked at Sam, wondered if she might be my Huckleberry Friend, if there could ever really be such a thing. She was looking at me, kind of a cross-eyed stare, distracted, but then I realized she was looking through me – looking at the goons –

Then the trio started in on their next song, a song that took me back to Nancy-Sue and long walks in the night. So Many Stars. Sergio Mendes’ smooth vibe on the dreams that wait for us out there.

And the choices that come for us in the night.

The girl’s voice was something else, and she had a kind of smokey Streisand thing going…

The dark is filled with dreams

So many dreams which one is mine

One must be right for me

Which dream of all the dreams

When there’s a dream for every star

And there are oh so many stars

So many stars

I kept drifting, drifting in her currents, until I was somewhere deep in the heart. I saw an old phonograph in the living room, and I heard that music again, coming out of tinny speakers – and I saw my mother. Dancing. In her bare feet. Alone – lost in the arms of her dreams – as voices lost in time drifted through the music…

And there are oh so many stars

So many stars

“Jim, are you alright?”

It was André. I turned and looked at him, wondered where I was, thought I saw myself dancing with my mother, and I remembered the way she looked at me that night. I’d just been accepted to UT and she’d been all crazy proud of me, so happy. She’d been dancing to that music when I came in from practice, dancing before I’d shown her my letter. It was the only time she ever told me she was proud of me, the only time I ever felt like she loved me.

But drifting through the music I suddenly realized I’d been very wrong…about her, about a lot of things.

+++++

She came and sat beside me, held my hand, looked at me like I was a little boy who’d just lost his puppy.

“I think I understand you, Jim. You’ve been running all your life, haven’t you? On the football field, at home – and then here, in Austin. Then you just kept on running. Maybe out of fear, or maybe it was something as simple as habit, something like inertia. But I know this about you too. You’ve felt cornered all your life, because you hated your mother – but thought you had to love her – and that there was something wrong with you because you hated her so much. And then, your father’s suicide…”

“But I…”

“No, Jim, let me finish.” She had my hand in something like a death grip, which I suppose it was, really, and while I could see some kind of fire in her eyes I also saw something far more troubling. She knew I was slipping away, that my own inertia was pulling me away from her. “You told me you felt guilty about leaving home, about leaving Nancy, but I’d like to know why? Why’d you feel guilty? Had you made promises to one another? Did you know she was pregnant?”

“No. I felt like I had to get away from her, that she was suffocating me, wanted to cut me off – from my dreams.”

“So why on earth would you feel guilty about leaving someone who made you feel that way?”

“I’m not sure I did…not until I learned about Alice.”

“And you didn’t learn you had a daughter until the girl was, what? Seventeen?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re supposed to feel guilty about that, too?”

“I don’t think ‘supposed to’ had much to do with it. I felt guilty because I wasn’t a part of their lives. I started to think it had been my destiny to be there…for them.”

“Your destiny…to not follow your dreams? Really? I’m curious…whose life are you living, anyway? Yours, or are you beholden to any and everyone who stakes a claim on you? That you have to cut your dreams loose and fall into a new orbit when someone passes too close?”

I shrugged, but not because I didn’t know she was absolutely correct. No, I was getting mad – because of the look in her eyes. Anger. Almost fury, the very opposite of love. “You’re wrong about one thing.” I paused, waiting for her to ask, but she wasn’t biting so I continued. “I don’t hate my mother.”

The look in her eyes was almost murderous, like I’d betrayed her – and all she thought she knew about me, then…

“Bull-fucking-shit,” she said.

I don’t know, it was like something snapped inside as I sat there, numb at first – then furious, looking into her eyes for a way out. I felt betrayed, injured and hot with pure madness, and she seemed taken aback – like she’d gone too far.

“Goodbye,” I said as I pushed back from the table, throwing a wad of cash down, then putting on my coat. I walked away, walked out into the night. And I never looked back.

I guess some things never change.

+++++

“Jim?”

“Yes, André. Sorry. I was just caught up in the music.”

“Jim?” I heard Samantha now. “You’re crying.”

“Am I? How silly.”

“The music…? Made you feel how…?” she asked.

I looked into her eyes, let her look into mine. “I was thinking…what it would be like to fall in love with you?”

“You don’t want to know,” she said, smiling.

“I’m not so sure.”

And I felt André’s eyes on me just then. Not condemning, not judging me – more like he was measuring me. Something like depth of resolve, perhaps. Was I, just maybe, a man of my word?

+++++

I called a taxi from the restaurant, went to the hospital.

A nurse made a stink about visiting hours. I told her I needed to talk to my mom, and that it was important.

She called someone, then called an orderly – who took me to her room.

Of course, the nurse had called Linda…

My mother was a shadow of herself now, just another shadow in a room full of dark places falling off into a different kind of night. She was, I assumed, in that place people go when on a diet of haloperidol and thorazine, a dry-mouthed land of hazy awareness spiced by never ending sleep. I pulled a chair to her bedside and looked for her hand, found it under the restraints binding her to the bed, to this life – and I took her hand in mine.

“Jimmie? Is that you?”

“Yeah mom, it’s me?”

“I didn’t want you to see me like this?”

“It’s okay, Mom. Doesn’t matter one little bit.”

Her tongue was thick and dry and she had trouble talking now, so I brought a cup of melting ice to her lips and slipped the straw into her mouth. She took a sip, then another, then shook her head a little.

“Thanks, Jimmie. I was feeling a little dizzy… ”

“I love you, Mom,” I said – and she smiled as those words skipped across her waters like a stone.

“I know you do, Jim. You were the only one who did, you know.” She looked up, shook her head. “Feel so dizzy, but there’s something I need to tell you – about your father.”

“No you don’t, Mom. All that doesn’t matter now. It never mattered.”

She squeezed my hand, she looked at me again and smiled – then she stopped breathing.

The orderly was standing by the door and he came to her bed, checked for a carotid pulse then ran from the room. I heard the ‘Code Blue’ call on the intercom, carts rushing down the hall, nurses shouting and it all sounded very serious – then we were in the living room, listening to that song…

Along the countless days, the endless nights

That I have searched so many eyes

So many hearts, so many smiles

Which one to choose, which way to go, how can I tell

How will I know, out of, oh, so many stars

So many stars

I held my mother’s hand as our last dance played out, and I refused to let her go – until it was time to leave again, to walk out into the night and run again – far, far away.

Linda was in the hallway, waiting for me, but I was lost now, far from home and all alone. I walked from the shadows and fell into her arms…wondering not just where I was, not only who I had become – but how I’d arrived at this naked, hollow place – where nothing made sense. And where, suddenly – as if in blinding absolution – everything did.

+++++

I felt a hand on mine.

“Jim?”

“Hmm?”

“I think we’d better get him up to the room”

André’s voice. Full of – what? Concern?

They are helping me stand – Sam on one side, André on the other – then walking me from the lounge. I am aware the goons are staring at me, laughing under their breath, then I see the elevator. Door opening, a couple of nicely dressed women walk out, pause, stare at me then dart into the shadows. We step inside and I see the goons following now, see their reflection in the polished brass wall. The door shuts and I stand up.

“Okay, they’re following,” I say. “Let’s stick with the plan.”

Sam gets off on the third floor and walks to a far exit, takes the stairs down to the basement garage; André slips off on the fourth, and Andy is waiting for him there. They backtrack to the same stairway, then Andy heads to the garage while I go to my room. I turn on the shower and the television, close the bathroom door then lay down on the bed, though I have conveniently forgotten to close the room door completely.

It doesn’t take long.

Like sharks coming out of blue gloom, the goons walk by once, circle back and pass by again.

On their third pass they stop outside my door; with guns drawn they step silently into the room.

One listens through the bathroom door while I ‘sleep’; he hears someone in the bathroom, takes one steps back and kicks the door open. And his face disappears in a pulpy red mist, and as his companion meets the threat with his pistol – his face too disappears.

André steps out of the bathroom, a silenced Walther firmly in hand, and he wraps the goons’ heads in towels. He steps into the hallway, looks both ways, goes for the a soiled linen cart he’d stashed earlier and rolls it into the room. We get the two bodies stuffed into the cart and André rolls it down to a utility room by the service elevator, then we head for the main elevator.

“Did you get all the cameras?” I ask.

“Oui.”

Andy has the car by the elevator lobby in the garage and we slip inside; Sam is in the trunk as we head for the airport. Forty minutes later we are airborne with a flight plan logged for Perth; ten minutes after takeoff Andy changes the flight plan to Quito, Ecuador. Climbing over France, Andy declares a medical emergency, EuroControl advises Lyon is the closest facility that can handle a 744, and Geneva is our ‘stand-by’ alternate.

Twenty minutes later we are on the ground, an ambulance on the tarmac ready to take me to the nearest medical facility. There are only two of us onboard the empty aircraft, so customs isn’t a problem, and minutes later I’m in the ambulance, on my way to a hospital to be treated for presumed gall stones, but what will ultimately be regarded as a case of severe belly pain accompanied by extreme flatulence.

+++++

André sits comfortably close to the old lady by his side, taking his grandmother to Paris – if anyone cares to ask. The woman sitting by his side does indeed appear very old, yet not at all frail… Indeed, she has very nice legs for someone so well on in years, and he helps her off the train in Paris, hails a taxi and takes her to a safe house south of Orly. He turns Sam over to handlers who will conduct a thorough debriefing, learn all she knows about the influence of radical Islamist groups in the Kingdom which, it turns out, is considerable.

André considers this last operation a success, and though he will miss flying he has a small house on his family’s farm out the Rue de 8 Mai 1945, near the village of Sissonne. He wants to do little more now than paint little toy soldiers on their miniature battlefields, and perhaps, from time to time, to play with interesting new eyeliners – but he has trouble letting go of things, trouble turning away from friends.

+++++

I was inside an operating room at St David’s Hospital in Austin, Texas, looking on as the anesthesiologist started his spinal. Linda had decided to have not one child – no, she instead opted for two. A pair of girls, or so I’m told, about to come into this world by Caesarian. I watch the scalpel trace a scarlet line down her swollen belly, look on with an odd sense of becoming drifting around my eyes, then…

…the first girl’s head appears, and the obstetrician looks up at me, then at Linda.

The little baby’s skin is as black as night, certainly blacker than my blond haired lily white chromosomes might have had a part in making, and I look at the doc, then at Linda. She is not looking at me just then, only at the little girl the nurse has held up for her to see. Then, I don’t know, maybe she does the math – then – looks-at-me.

And in perhaps the most eloquent statement in the history of such moments, she says, hopefully, something that sounds a little bit like “Oops?”

I think I’m smiling, but I know my eyes are blinking like semaphores, sending out clear signals of existential distress into the room.

“Oops?” I end up saying. Then, as implications spread around the room like a cancer: “Well, ain’t you something?”

I walked out of the operating room, pulled off the scrubs I’d been obliged to wear, tossed the mask and booties and little paper hat into a bin and drifted out electric doors that parted before my anger like Moses before the Red Sea. My place in Minneapolis rented out, our old home just down Highway 71 now a memory, I suddenly felt well and truly homeless – and the feeling left me breathless, unsure of myself. I’d been staying at Linda’s place in Round Rock the two weeks since my return from Lyon, had even drifted to a Ford dealer and bought a pickup truck, a mammoth thing that weighed at least twice as much as a fully-laden 744.

I got behind the wheel of the beast and turned the motor on, set the air-conditioning to MAX and let the frigid air flow over my steaming anger. Taking a deep breath, I headed for I-35 – lost in the idea I had no place to go. No time to be somewhere, anywhere. No one to go home to. I looked over the immediate options, saw sweltering heat to the right and somewhere, somehow, cool mountain air to the left. I turned north, towards Waco and Dallas, and on the outskirts of town I saw an RV store on a frontage road and turned back. A couple of hours later there was a recklessly huge camper strapped on the back of the Ford and, after I pulled back onto the interstate, and I resumed my northward trek.

Something about all this was comforting, this seeing a problem and fixing it, striking out on my own, drifting down my own little Moon River. Still, there was something missing.

If I was going to travel the backroads I was going to need a companion, and now convinced that women were the anti-Christ I pulled into a rest area and pulled out my phone while I looked over a roadmap. A little town, maybe ten miles away…

I called their animal shelter, asked if they had any dogs in need of a home. They did, but they were closing soon. Could I be there within a half hour?

I said I could, and set off down a lonesome highway in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, and ended up in a little village called Maypearl. I found the shelter with minutes to spare and went in.

There were a couple of puppies in cages, and an old girl sitting off by herself. Maybe she had been a retriever once, perhaps a Golden, but she was old now, her eyes milky cataracts, her muzzle white with cares not of her own making.

“What’s her story?” I asked the town’s Animal Control Officer.

“Her owner passed away last week, no one to take her. Her ten days are up, too.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m putting her down as soon as you leave. I would have already if you hadn’t called.”

“What’s her name?”

“Holly,” the guy said. “Holly Golightly, if you can believe that…”

“As a matter of fact, I can.”

The guy gave me a simple rope leash and I helped Holly out to the truck, opened the door and waited. She sniffed my legs, looked at the seat and hopped up, circled once and sat as she looked at me. The she sighed, kind of a thoughtful, well considered sigh. I went around and got in, looking at her looking at me…

“We’re going to be alright, Miss Golightly. It’s just you and me now, off to see the world. Where would you like to go first?”

She sat up, looked out the windshield, then at me.

“I don’t know either. I was thinking north, if that’s okay with you? Maybe New Mexico, Arizona – someplace like that.”

I backtracked to the interstate, got back on my little moving river and…

The phone chirped.

I looked at the display. An international number – France?

“Hello?”

“Jim?”

“André?”

“Where are you now?”

“Somewhere just south of I Don’t Know.”

“I have you just south of a place called Desoto. I’m at DFW, the American concourse outside of Gate 21. You should make it in a half hour.”

The line went dead.

“Well, Holly, I think there’s a fly in our soup. What’ll it be?”

She starting scratching behind the left side of her face, then shook her head roughly and I felt her ear. Warm. A little too warm. Too late to call a vet now, I set the GPS for DFW and followed the prompts, pulled up to the terminal forty minutes later. I pointed to the back seat and André hopped in.

“Another woman, I take it,” he look, looking at Holly.

“I couldn’t resist. How’re things in the spy biz?”

“Troubling. The goons are back.”

“Surprise, surprise. Still after Sam?”

“No. You, I’m afraid.”

“Swell.”

“They were at the hospital in Austin, then we lost them.”

“Great news all over.”

“What happened?”

“With Linda, you mean?”

“Oui.”

“Well, when the first cookie popped out of the oven…well, my guess is the father was from Somalia, or perhaps Mali.”

“Merde.”

“Took the starch out of my knickers, amigo.”

“Head for the north exit, take 635 east,” he said.

“You put a fucking beacon in my truck?”

“Oui. Last week, when the latest goons were spotted in Paris. Someone in CIA is feeding them information.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“We should not have involved you.”

“I seem to recall you didn’t have much choice.”

“That is true. So, here I am. A debt of honor, I suppose.”

Holly was sitting up now, looking over the back of her seat, looking at André.

“How long have you had her?”

“Holly? Oh,” I said – looking at the watch on my wrist, “about seventy five minutes.”

“Ah.”

“I think she’s going to be the love of my life.”

“Yes, I can see the possibilities with her.”

“Did you say 635 East?”

“Oui.”

“You bring high heels and lipstick, or is this trip strictly business?”

“Oh, oui, I always come prepared. Why, do you have something in mind? Something you’d, perhaps, like to try?”

“Feel her left ear, would you? Seems a little warm.”

André called Holly – who obligingly hopped into the back seat – and he played with her for a minute, then felt each ear.

“Oui, it’s infected. I think a dose of flea medication might be useful too.”

“Oh, joygasm.”

“North on 35, towards Denton.” He got on a phone and spoke quietly, rapidly, then rang off and we drove on in silence, the sun slipping down to the horizon now. Almost an hour later he looked up and spoke. “Here. University Drive West, and take a left,” and after another mile “Turn left here, on Western.” Another mile or so and I saw an airport off to the right, a small municipal field, and I saw a Falcon 8x sitting between hangers, a single rotating beacon beating atop it’s fuselage. “Pull up there,” André said, “by the airstairs.”

He opened his door and got out, walked up into the jet – and a moment later two men came out and walked around to the back of the truck, then André came back out with a briefcase in hand.

“Some money, in case you run short, and a few toys,” he said, passing the case in through the window. “A phone too, with direct access to me. Do not let this fall into the wrong hands, Jim.”

“Understood. What are those guys doing back there?”

“A better tracking device, a new identity,” André said, shrugging as he handed my another envelope. “You never know, oui?”

I saw her then, and those goddamn legs of hers…gliding down the stairs, coming out into the night, coming to me. I got out and ran to her, held her eyes in mine and I saw real joy there, but then André was beside us.

“I’ve just learned the goons in Austin had a little accident, something about a fire in their rental car. A pity, no? Anyway, that should buy you some time. That, and this fucking monstrosity…” he said, waving his hand contemptuously at my little camper, “are all the disguise one could possibly need.”

Sam had reached down, taken my hand in hers, leaned her head against my shoulder and I put my arm around her.

“Jim, could you keep in mind the 21st of next month? Chama, New Mexico. There’s a campground?”

“Okay, André, we’ll be there.”

He shook my hand, kissed both Sam’s cheeks then turned and bounded up the stairs. We watched them taxi to the end of the runway and depart, then I turned to her.

“I’m sorry, but I need to introduce you to my new girlfriend,” I said, walking to the rear door of my truck. I opened it and Holly jumped into my arms, and, I don’t know, maybe just then I felt like I’d finally found my place in the world.

We were on 287, driving north again in the middle of the night. I pulled into a rest area and helped Holly down, walked her over to a beckoning patch of grass when I felt her come up behind me. Sam put her arms around me again, and I felt the side of her head against my back…

“What was that song you were playing a while ago? Was that the same one in Stuttgart?”

“Yup. So Many Stars. When I was a kid, I used to watch my mom dance to it.”

“I think deep down, you must have loved her very much.”

“We had our moments,” I said as I turned to her. “But not as much as I love you.”

Then Holly was jumping up on us, pulling me back to the truck, leading us on – into the night.

(C) 2016 Adrian Leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com

4 thoughts on “So Many Stars

  1. hmmm
    darker than expected, but it takes a dark sky to see more stars.
    High Society or the Philadelphia Story?
    butterscotch
    surprised Holly (autobiographical connection?) wasn’t a Springer
    thanks for the diversion

    Like

  2. Holly Golightly, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – eg Moon River, two drifters and My Huckleberry Friend motifs. Had to slip that in somehow.
    I can’t imagine finding a Springer in a pound. Just can’t do it.
    Philadelphia Story. Has to be.

    Like

  3. It’s been 8 years or so since my parents got rid of the last of their sheep, but yea. The ultimate herd animal. If one craps, they all crap. If they get really freaked out, they all start spontaneously aborting (if they are preggers). Oh, yea. Good times. Love the inclusion of the railroad into the story – though one of the most horrifying things I ever witnessed in my life was watching a car get hit by a Guilford freight in downtown Dover, NH.

    Like

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