Feb '03 [Home]
Ian Christopher Hooper
The woman strikes match to matchbook; a sonic boom crackles out over the yellow autumn cornfields.
The two events occur nearly simultaneously, an illusion of cause and effect. Then two jet fighters drop down from out of the thin cloud cover. They circle in close to each other—so close that everyone watching thinks there's going to be a mid-air collision—until finally the jets blast off in opposite directions, silver arrows against pale sky. With an air of studied nonchalance, the woman touches match to cigarette, and the audience applauds.
So the woman smokes her cigarette, and you watch. She wears a dark green dress, along with fashionable, lace-up-the-side boots. Also: tortoise shell sunglasses and a white scarf. She stands with one hand cocked against a slender hip, eyes on the sky, hair long and brown and straight over her shoulders. She cranes for the helicopters that are scheduled to perform next. Already, you can see them as dull gray specks on the horizon. In minutes, they roar past overhead, their trailing dust plumes obscuring the view of the city and of the mountains. They engage in mock combat and everyone in the crowd cheers wildly.
Everyone except the woman, that is, who watches the show with the intense indifference of a puma scanning an antelope herd, like maybe she's plotting something, like maybe she's the kind of person who comes to air shows with the secret hope of seeing a plane or two crash and come hurtling across the tarmac. Maybe even right now she's trying to use telekinesis on the helicopters, trying to push them just a little too close, so that the tips of their blades get caught up in each other. Or there are other possibilities. Anything and everything is at this point possible. Maybe she likes to go out on dates to the airport, likes to spend her evenings casting voodoo spells on businessmen taking the red-eye to Chicago. Maybe she crosses herself whenever a commercial airliner over-flies her path. She could be that someone free and rebellious and splendidly irrational that you've always imagined yourself with, the kind of person who can make anything and everything exciting. The kind you've never, ever, actually met in real life.
Not that you're here hoping for disaster. In fact, you're rather neutral on air shows. The only reason you came at all was because the whole thing was free, and because you'd never been out to the new airport before, and because your friend Sammy Diaz insisted that you'd like it. Sammy loves airplanes, of course. He's got his commercial pilot's license and works for United. His old man joined the Airforce as a way out of the ghetto, so Sammy grew up around planes and has always known what it was he wanted to do with his life. He can tell you the specifications on anything with wings, just pulling out numbers from underneath his mop of black hair. And Sammy is a good guy, tall and lanky, quick to smile. But in a lot of ways, he o.d.'d on this whole aircraft thing. He had posters of F-16's and F-18's in the dorm room you shared, and when he speaks of jets, it's with an annoying combination of reverence and awe. So, it's no wonder you're drawn to this mysterious woman, so quiet and calm in the face of supersonic speed, daring aerobatics, stunning technology.
It would be good, you reason, if she did believe in telekinesis or voodoo, because that kind of mind-set would go a long ways toward balancing out Sammy and his near-worship of what are, after all, machines made for killing. And faced with two such extremes—some spiritual rejection of modern technology versus a smugness in its flawless workings—well, maybe nestled between those two extremes you could feel like it's okay to be non-committal, because there's nothing like two opposing extremes to remind you of how ridiculous certainty can be, whether it's about what progress is, or success, or love, or anything.
You're so intent on this thought that you don't even notice when Sammy's wife Michelle gets back from the concession stand.
"Hello? Do you want a beer or not?" she says finally, holding the heavy tray.
"Oh, Jesus. Sorry, 'Chelle." You take a beer and a hot dog. Sammy takes the same. This leaves Michelle with a Diet Coke that she sips through a long, thin straw.
She's a tall brunette, leggy, a good match for Sammy. In high school, they both ran cross-country, and they both have the runner's thin build. You remember how in college you and Sammy and your third roommate, Sal Hastings, used to play penny poker on Monday nights, and how whenever Michelle joined in she would always win. She was always smart and hard-working and you and Sal used to tease Sammy that he didn't have a chance with her. She talked about how she was going to Asia to teach English. Or else back-packing in South America. Never once did you hear her talk about marriage. Yet, somehow she and Sammy have found in each other a contentment, and it is both wonderful and incomprehensible. Michelle's just recently gotten her pilot's license, and when she and Sammy talk about flying, it's like they're flirting.
"There," Sammy says, between swallows of beer, "that loop's got to be tough, but the plane on the left's gotten too far ahead."
"Maybe he's just excited," says Michelle, squinting.
You haven't been paying attention to the schedule. The helicopters are gone and two new jets are involved in some sort of huge curlicue across the sky.
"Yeah," Michelle goes on, "just imagine the view that pilot has. Just mountains and sky and open prairie for a thousand miles in every direction. It's got to be tough not to just let the throttle out and just fly, you know, in a jet like that."
You think about this. In one of those jets, you could rocket to any point in Colorado in minutes. It's a Saturday afternoon, late September. The day's been hot, but a cool night is just waiting to spill out over the horizon and wash the blue from the sky, leaving it clean and black for the stars. Where would you want to fly to on an evening like this?
Fifty miles to the north is Fort Collins, where on days like today you and Sammy and Sal Hastings used to sit up on the roof and drink under the hot Indian summer sun. Sal was always the practical one. He'd tell you to come down from your perch before you got sunburned, and you'd call all your friends, and then shower and dress and go down to the liquor store on the corner. And all you'd have planned would be to walk the streets of the university district and listen for the sound of guitars playing and people laughing, and follow it to some brightly-lit party. Because, back then, tomorrow was theoretical at best, the future only the barest of abstractions. And would you want to fly back to that if you could, if you had some voodoo mystic jet fighter?
Or would you go four hundred miles to the east, to St. Louis, where the blonde you dated back in college now lives with her electrical engineer husband, the girl who wanted to marry you? Would you fly back and change any of this? Or would you go only the forty miles south to Colorado Springs, where the girl you dated just last year is doing who knows what with who knows whom, her father paying the way, with no need for a job, planning, nothing? How long would it take to fly in an F-16 to a place where we could all live like that? you want to ask Sammy, like maybe he'd know the stats on that one.
"You know," says Sammy, unconcerned, finishing his hot dog, "we should get together tonight, all of us. I can call Sal and he could come over and we could all have a barbeque, maybe even play some poker. "
"Oh right, 'cause you still haven't seen our new place," Michelle says. "And you really got to see our new place. It's all so brand new!"
You finish your beer. You look out into the crowd. The girl in the green dress and the white scarf and the boots who had so caught your fancy is gone. You look up into the sky at a set of fading contrails. Their white streaks mix with billowing, island-like clouds, and in them it's possible to make out shapes, visions, possible futures. Can you see yourself someday in a crackerjack suburban townhome like Sammy and Michelle, new car parked out front, brain surgically removed and a set of credit cards installed? Or, take your old roommate Sal. Would you want a job like his? He's managing his own upscale pawnshop, an extraordinary pawnshop in a national chain of pawnshops, all devoted to revolutionizing second-hand retailing. End quote. Does he believe in any of that corporate mission crap? Of course not. But he's rolling in the cash, so he pretends. He likes to play real poker now, not just the penny ante variety. Yeah, and he's cynical. You don't hear him talking about marriage ever. He likes to go down to the Glorious Koran, where the dancers are gorgeous and young. Sal's got the money to tip well, which translates into better service. He tells you this every time you see him. The dancers will shove their nipples in your face and run their hands over your thighs. End quote. This is how he met his last girlfriend; he was telling you this the last time you saw him, at a New Year's party in Sammy and Michelle's old apartment.
The clouds roll lazily across the blue of the sky, changing shape so slowly you hardly notice. The contrails fade out into nothingness. Michelle is talking about the logistics of shopping, getting the grill going, calling up Sal. She barely notices the show's finale, when three huge cargo planes lumber in for a series of touch and go landings while a stealth fighter soars overhead. Then everything is over and the crowd starts for their cars. The asphalt everyone has been standing on all day clears to reveal smashed and splintered plastic cups, spilled beer that's attracting wasps, air show programs blown into piles like dead leaves. The heat of the day is already fading; people are putting on sweaters and coats.
"We're heading out to find our car," Sammy says, "I'm sorry we can't give you a ride,"—this is because they're in Michelle's little two-seater Fiat—"but we'll see you then in an hour or two, at our place?"
You nod. Then you go and stand in line for the bus back to Denver, because your own car broke down two weeks ago and there's no money to fix it until the end of the month. But what else is new? If only, you think, there were something more.
A lot of people came out to the air show and traffic is bad. You have to wait a long time for the bus. There's nowhere to sit down and your legs are already sore from standing all day. But then you see that the woman in the green dress and the boots is in line for the bus too, not far ahead of you. She no longer wears her sunglasses; her eyes catch yours watching her. The sun is low and dull on the horizon, the sky already purpling.
Very soon, it will be completely dark. And because the wait for the bus is such a long one, everyone in line begins talking to everyone else, complaining about the wait, about how chilly it's getting. A man with a big thermos of coffee shares it with the people near him in line. A man with a walkman tells everyone the score of the Colorado-Miami game, and then goes on to give a play-by-play account of the final minutes. Everyone is eavesdropping on everyone else, laughing at other people's jokes—there's nothing else to do. Your conversation with the woman begins without formalities, without introduction. You're both rooting for Miami and not Colorado. You have to discuss this strange incongruity, and it turns out that she went to school there. Whereas you're rooting against CU because you went to Colorado State.
You're still talking as the bus arrives. You talk as it winds its way through the suburbs and then through the streets of Denver. You talk and talk, and you're still talking when the bus drops everyone off downtown in Larimer Square. Waiters are bustling from table to table in the sidewalk cafés, the customers keeping warm under tall, umbrella-like heaters, each glowing a rosy red. There's a street musician at one end of the square playing an electric violin and snapping the shiny brass cymbals of a high-hat with his foot. The trees that line the square rustle in the breeze, swaying this way and that. What a lovely evening, you think. There's no reason why everything shouldn't be this lovely.
And, at that moment, you know that you don't need no telekinetic fighter jet, no pilot wife, no whore, that you don't even need friends who are ghosts of the past only. That maybe what you need is something as simple as meeting someone you'd never expected to, a catalyst to clear the mind, to set it working on possibilities again instead of history, to restore your confidence in luck. To let yourself work out some kind of answer to the questions you've been trying to ask yourself all day: Where to go next. And what to do with this stream in front of you, this future.
Ian Christopher Hooper has spent the last ten years living in Asia, Europe, and Mexico while on the lam from student loans and responsibility, but is now settled down as a librarian at a bilingual school in Denver. His work has recently appeared in Red Booth Review, Stick, and the Red Wheelbarrow, and is currently online at the Mississippi Review.
Photo: Robin Cooke.