Issue No. 15, Flight - Fragments
When Chester complained to his father about the climbing rope in gym class, Chester’s father knew just what to do. He was a pilot and could not abide a fear of heights in his children. He found a rope, nearly a mile in length, and fastened it to the end of his next flight to Cleveland. The other end was given to Chester, who was instructed to stand in the street outside their home. “Wrap it around your arm once or twice,” said Chester’s father, “maybe around your waist. But not too tightly.” So Chester stood while his classmates were climbing ropes in school. He waited the whole morning for his father to reach the airport and board the passengers. The myriad ways of connecting the rope to his person passed the time, but soon he heard the rippling of atmosphere above him and, looking up, saw Flight 1407 approaching his neighborhood. The rope brushed through the trees, scaring the birds, and on the street before Chester it picked up like fire following a line of gasoline. With a tremendous strain on his forearms and palms, Chester traveled to Cleveland. The most experienced of passengers felt a slight drag but thought nothing of it. Chester skidded across a frozen lake and, when he stood up, complained only of rope burn.
Morose and ill at ease, the superhero sat at home watching television. There was a blindfolded soldier on TV cleaning his gun. One channel up a blindfolded mechanic was replacing a timing belt. On the channel above that a blindfolded chef was preparing a risotto. The superhero felt insecure. Super as he was, he did his job fully sighted. Gradually though he grew inspired. “I can do this,” he said. He tugged his cape out of his collar and pulled it over his face, covering his head. It looked like an onion was bobbing between his shoulders. “I can do this!” He took a running start at his window and crushed the framed Dali print to its right.
The soon-to-be martyr eyed with loathing the conservatively dressed businessman at the other side of the gate. The businessman’s style of dress was exactly the one the martyr was forced to copy, and of course it was the businessman’s values he was forced to destroy. His betters thought the sockless loafers, suit jacket, and open collar would dispel the connotations of the dark pigment in his face. But it was no good. The martyr felt a fool. He saw a young man at the window. The man wore a polo shirt under a trench coat, brown corduroy pants, and suede dress shoes. The clothes suggested to the martyr an intellectual rigor, a seriousness and sense of purpose. “I should want to look like him,” he said, and pulled his loafers back under the seat.
Years after Flight 497 flew into the Sears Tower from Dallas, a reporter at the Tribune wrote a piece about everyone between the two cities who might have seen the plane on its way north.
“The high-flying bird and the current of its white wake,” he wrote, “entered into the daydreams of lounging Midwesterners before becoming a part of their nightmares minutes later. Men looking up from a lawn mower that wouldn’t rev up and children not reading in hammocks saw in that plane the place they wanted to be—a flight attendant handing off a cold Coke, the chance to look down at the clouds when everyone else is asleep then joining them with a pillow you find above your seat.”
The reporter told his subjects that the plane they had been gazing at was the same plane on TV. Several of the interviewees later stated they had a hard time looking at the sky again, which in the Midwest is a difficult thing to be afraid of.
The head librarian of the Carnegie Library enlisted all the children’s reading groups to stop reading and comb the stacks. He wanted every book thumbed so that the boarding passes left in as bookmarks could be irrevocably removed. Those passes irked him, and the closer they were to the front the more they irked him: obnoxious proof that the patrons were up to finishing their journey but not their book.
No aspiring oil painter can begin his working life as an oil painter, which is why, at the age of twenty-five, Louis became a flight attendant. He enjoyed the travel, the chance to meet a wide variety of people, and the time it gave him between drink services to catch up on a canvas.
I happened to be in seat 1A on a flight between New York and Raleigh when Louis asked politely if he could paint my portrait. Since I was already locked in place, I agreed. Frankly the attention flattered me. I asked him which pose he liked best: reading, sleeping, looking out the window. He suggested something more classical, my chin on my hand, my eyes unfocused towards something in the distance. Once I was posed, Louis set about sketching.
It made the flight seem shorter, or longer. I was more, or perhaps less, aware of everything around me. The sitting put me in a mood removed from time and space, not unlike the mood you get from flying itself.
Once we landed and the Fasten Seat Belt sign was switched off, Louis turned the canvas around for me to see.
At the outset he had told me he was going for something photo-realistic, but the pockets of turbulence had made it an abstract. Either way I was flattered. I asked him if I could take a picture of it with my cell phone, but he told me it wasn’t quite finished, that the colors weren’t right. He took a picture of me with his cell phone. “For guidance,” he said, then he asked for my contact information and thanked me again.
Meanwhile, everyone had already grabbed their bags from overhead and was ready to deplane. Louis stuffed his easel into the service cubby and began his goodbyes. The pilots opened their door to give their own goodbyes and, with one look at the paint splotches all over the front of the cabin, promptly upbraided poor Louis.
At the end of that month, I received via UPS my painted portrait. He really did get the colors right. He also sent me, along with the invoice, a snapshot of the interior of his plane. Each window was covered with a finished work. On the back he wrote a note: “The pilots calmed down. You can see their portraits in the front two seats.”