As Near As Far Away

My sister got married on a Friday night and I flew back to Austin out of Baltimore that wet Sunday evening. I breezed through security as a white guy traveling light, then finally sat with all the miserable assholes in the terminal for a couple hours looking like one of them, wearing a gray XXL fleece jacket my father had lent me because I hadn’t thought well enough to pack warm for a trip to Maryland in late-November.

I spent my time as I normally do in a terminal: slowly nursing an intense terror of flying. I thought:

· With how much force would we hit the ground from our cruising altitude

· What if I jumped right before we crashed?

· Why don’t all planes have parachutes available?

This is hardly an exhaustive list, but eventually I shook loose the terror and justified the airplane ride home by counting how many children were flying with me. The logic was that a plane wouldn’t crash with a bunch of doe-eyed babies on board. It’d be too tragic. Too sad. I counted 10 kids, which seemed reasonable enough to be spared by fate, or the odds, or whatever.

At first, the terminal itself was as desolate as a beach at night. Burnt-out lone travelers wheeled their fat luggage by me, young mothers tugged their wayward children along. I ate a soft pretzel and drank lemonade, waiting to take my (prescribed) Xanax until the lot of us lined up to board, where I had the odd rare luck of standing only just behind the first-class people, which amounted to few women who were wearing fur coats and pillbox hats.

Right after the women boarded, a man who could’ve only been the pilot rushed off the ramp in a bluster. “We have to delay the flight for five minutes,” he said to the gate attendant. He kneaded his thumbs into his temples, palms out and up. He was pantomiming a nervous moose.

He walked to a nearby corner in the terminal to make a call, putting one hand cupped at his ear while the other dished out plain facts from his abdomen. He was justifying himself to somebody.

At the gate, the attendant was a blonde and middle-aged woman with deep-set eyes, an old-timey red kerchief around her neck and a sort of narrow, Renaissance-Era-shaped chin. She looked at me and said under her breath, without a hint of humor, “Trouble at home.”

“Can he do this?” I asked.

“Looks like he is,” she said.

She was not amused. And by extension: Nobody really was.

*

We all watched the pilot fight with his wife. Schadenfreude mixed with impatience, turned to anger. Finally, the 50 or 60 or more of us boarded anyway, while he was still swimming thick in one of many marital doldrums. The plane’s interior had the usual air of the runway: People ignoring the fact that they could die very violently. People reading the airplane company’s monthly magazine. People ignoring the people next to them until one of them commented on the price of air travel these days. They nervously adjusted their seats. They switched their phones to game mode. They looked around for people who might be terrorists.

I was placed in a middle seat, left of another middle-aged woman who reminded me of an art teacher — big glasses; short, unkempt gray hair and a thin flowery pastel-cotton dress — and to the right of a balding alcoholic man of about the same age in a fairly nice navy suit with a bright red tie.

The one Xanax was at full strength, but soon it became apparent that it wasn’t going to be enough, when over the intercom, a voice said: “I hope you like rollercoasters. Because it’s about to get bumpy.”

This was the pilot.

I turned to the woman on my right, who seemed like the type to understand.

“I hate rollercoasters,” I said.

She patted the top of my hand twice as I curled it around the armrest between us. She smirked. The pats were enough, she thought. She was sort of right.

I rummaged through my carryon laptop bag, then popped another Xanax, thinking the pilot was maybe being passive aggressive. There was also a trace of despondency in his voice. I hoped his call with the missus had ended alright. For my sake. For the sake of all these kids.

*

My anxiety wore thin quickly. By the time the plane taxied over the runway, the Xanax, my dad’s XXL jacket and the warm cabin had lulled me into an un-dreamy sleep. I woke up with no concept of time having passed, my head held in my hands that were boosted on the tray table. The woman on my right shook my shoulder.

“Young man,” she said. “Young man. Young man.”

“What?” I asked, still dopey from the drugs. I rubbed my eyes.

“You were having a nightmare. You just shouted a swear.”

A flight attendant was standing above us. The alcoholic, with his fat and judgey gnarled-up nose pointed at me.

“Oh,” I said, groggily. “Sorry, fear of flying.”

They stared at me.

“I don’t remember having a nightmare about anything.” This was a lie. I had actually dreamed about riding a terrifying rollercoaster. But when they were all satisfied, I asked the art teacher, “What curseword?”

“You just said, ‘Oh fuck!’ once. But it was noticeable. You scared a few people,” she said. She smirked, again.

“God. How long have we been in the air?” I asked her.

“About an hour.”

“Has it been like a rollercoaster?”

“Not yet,” she said.

“Oh, fuck,” I said. Quietly, you know, as a joke for the woman.

Outside our row’s window, I could see it was deeply night. I could see the arteries of civilization pumping automobiles down some fly-over highway like so much blood of wan yellow light. Another two hours left.

*

Then, the turbulence began. The man at my left spoke to me. “You afraid of flying, yeah?”

“Yes,” I said.

“It helps to talk to people,” he said. He had four empty minis of whiskey on his tray table, which toppled over after a ship-sized gale caught under our wings.

“Yeah.” I said. “Yes.”

“You feel like talking?” he asked. “My iPad is dead.”

“Yes, talk,” I said.

It seemed by now he had a story he wanted to tell me. Still, anything to get my mind off the ground below us.

“You know a few nights ago there was that cage-fight between those two women?” he asked, meaning a fairly highly touted pop culture ordeal from the weekend before.

“I recall,” I said. “But I didn’t watch it.”

“I didn’t either,” he said. “I got off work late — I work at a hospital, yeah? — I went to the bar to see it. Missed it by about 10 minutes.”

I didn’t have anything to say to this, so I didn’t say anything. The airplane steadied. My hands held pinned to the nubs of the armrests.

“Anyway, that morning, about 4:30, I had been driving to work,” the drunk said, “and I swear to God I saw a wolf cross in the middle of the road just ahead of me. I’m terrified of wolves. But I’m still oddly fascinated by them. I know a wolf when I see it. Boom it just gets hit by a Mac truck. It did a few somersaults and landed on the side of the road.”

“A wolf? In Texas?” I asked.

“Anyway it was on my mind,” he said. “Do you want a drink? The woman came by but you were asleep so we didn’t know what to get you. Probably just a Coke would’ve been fine, yeah?”

The woman on my right said, “Oh! I saved you your peanuts.” She handed me a small, shiny blue-and-white bag of halved nuts. I tore open the bag and ate them, wondering about all the things that happened while I was unconscious.

Finally, I said: “No, I don’t want anything to drink. I’m already out of it.”

The alcoholic sat back a little in his seat, stretching his gut as if to take off his shoes, which thankfully he didn’t do. He sloshed the cup where his whiskey and coke had apparently been and then chewed on the ice.

“That was the story?” I finally asked. “What did the wolf have to do with the fight?”

“Oh,” he said. “So I went to a bar to see the fight, yeah? And I’ll tell you. I missed it. But after, this was the strangest thing. It seemed like everybody in that place wanted to murder each other. There was a lot of violence in the room, is what I mean.”

“I can see that,” I said. “People see fights and they co-opt the aggression or something like that.” I was still having a tough time getting my bearings from the Xanax and the pockets of whooping, inhospitable air around us. “Fights lead to more fights, right?”

“When I left I saw two men go at it in the parking lot, like two vicious dogs,” he said. “I mean just really go after each other, yeah? Snarling. Growling. And for some reason I felt like — I’m not superstitious, but my ex-wife says I am — anyway I felt like the wolf from earlier had something to do with it.”

“Like an omen,” I said. On my right I could feel the art teacher listening in again.

“Exactly,” the drunk said. “So I get back in my truck and head home and on the way back I see the wolf is still there. The body of the wolf, I mean.”

“Nobody picked it up?” I asked.

“Guess not, because I parked the truck and got out and walked up to it.” He paused and stared out into the headrest in front of him. By now it felt like three to four rows of passengers had dialed in to listen to us. “And I went to kick the damned thing to turn it over, yeah, to see it?”

“Why?” I asked.

“I wanted to see its face.”

“I guess that makes sense,” I said.

“But it wasn’t a wolf, anyway.”

“It was a coyote?”

“It wasn’t a wolf or a coyote or any dog for that matter. It was just a costume.” The drunk took a swig from the half-melted ice and crunched on it. “If you can believe it. Just a wolf costume. Like something a person like you or me would wear.”

And when he apparently thought I didn’t understand — though, I believe I finally did.

“A fucking wolf costume,” he laughed. “Not even a wolf at all.”