“They should shut down that Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital,” said the guy next to me in the aisle seat. He weighed 350 if he weighed an ounce, and it was a great effort to keep my leg from coming into contact with his. And this was going to be a five-hour flight.
His name was Sam Pennington. He’d informed me of that shortly after takeoff. He said he was a futures trader for some company I’d never heard of, and he was flying to New York to visit his brother, who lived in Queens.
I, of course, compelled by the niceties of travel, had to tell him my name and the reason I was here in this unfortunate seat.
“Bill Simmons,” I said. “I’m going to see my mother. She’s at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital.”
And that’s when he opined that they should shut it down.
“Huh?” I said.
He angled his bulk toward me. “Do you know how many people die of cancer inside that building every day? It’s a death factory. They should close it down.”
Unable to frame a reply, I glanced at the passenger on my other side, a beautiful young woman in the window seat, someone with whom I’d hoped to strike up a conversation. I saw that she’d pulled down the window shade and was, apparently, asleep.
“You think I’m crazy, don’t you?” said Sam Pennington.
“No, no,” I lied.
“Sure you do. That’s why the world is so screwed up.”
I opened the paperback in my lap, the one I’d bought at the airport kiosk. It was 11/22/63, Stephen King’s time-travel fantasy about the JFK assassination. “I think I’m going to read for a while,” I told Sam Pennington. Maybe, for the next five hours, I thought.
“Sure, sure, don’t let me disturb you. That’s supposed to be a good book.”
“It is, so far.”
“But, you know?” He shifted his weight, making my seat move slightly. “I wish people would finally let go of it already.”
I couldn’t help myself. I asked what he meant, although I knew I shouldn’t. And I was right.
“They’ve got to stop blaming Oswald.”
Okay, I thought, he’s just your average conspiracy buff.
“So you don’t think he did it,” I said.
“No, of course, he did it. He killed Kennedy in cold blood, no doubt about that. But it’s been over fifty years now. Isn’t it time people stopped blaming him for it?”
I tried to wrap my mind around this but couldn’t.
“So, by the same logic,” I said, “it’s time people stopped blaming Hitler for the Holocaust?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
I groped for words, then settled on: “That’s very interesting.”
“Thank you,” he said.
Struggling not to roll my eyes, I plunged back into the relative sanity of a Stephen King novel.
But I couldn’t concentrate. I kept thinking about my mother, the woman I couldn’t wait to get away from three years ago, when I’d moved to L.A. to find fame and fortune as a screenwriter.
So far, I’ve found neither. There’s been occasional TV work. You can see my name at the end of a couple of NCIS shows, if you look really quickly at the credits flipping by. Aside from that, and some passing interest by an agent in a screenplay I wrote, there isn’t much.
I wish I could say we parted on good terms, my mother and I, but we didn’t. Her last words to me were, “Go ahead, be a lowlife asshole like your father.”
My dad had made his own escape a couple of years earlier and is now living in Boston, happily remarried.
After I moved, I did manage to speak with her on the phone a couple of times, conversations that were rigidly civil with a decided undertone of antipathy. Lately, all of my contact had been with my older sister, Charlotte, who always got along with her better than I did.
I had no idea my mother was sick until last night. Charlotte called me out of the blue with the news that she had stage-four lung cancer. It was like a punch in the heart.
“Oh my God!” I said. “She’s always been a heavy smoker, but still…”
“But still is exactly right,” Charlotte said, sounding eerily like our mother. “They say stress contributes to cancer, and I’ve seen it up close and personal. She’s never been the same, you know, since you left. She can’t get over the fact that you defied her. It eats at her every day.”
It was like a second punch in the heart.
“You’re blaming me?” I said incredulously.
There was an awkward pause. Then: “I think you should come home. Don’t worry, it probably won’t be for long.”
And that’s why I couldn’t concentrate on Stephen King.
I decided to emulate the beautiful woman on my left and close my eyes for a while. I didn’t expect to sleep, but I found myself dozing, a blissful state that was interrupted by Sam Pennington’s voice.
“Yes!” he cried out.
My eyes popped open and I looked over at him. He’d lowered the tray table and put his laptop on it. He was now staring contentedly at the screen.
“Yes!” he said again, then seemed to notice I was awake. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I was just reacting to the news that gold is tanking.”
“And that’s a good thing?” I asked.
“For me it is.”
“Let me ask you something.” He shifted in his seat and, again, caused mine to move. “What do you think of the service on this flight?”
“I don’t know. So far, there hasn’t been any.”
“You got that right. Flying nowadays is no better than taking a bus. They served meals, once upon a time, not very good ones, but they were free. Now, either you starve or you have to pay five bucks for a bag of pretzels. And you know whose fault that is?”
“No, the flight attendants. They wanted more money, so instead, the airlines make them work less.”
I had the thought that flight attendants would have to work all day and night if they had to feed him.
“Ah,” I said. It was becoming my mantra.
Bing! The seat belt sign lit up. A chipper female voice came on the intercom.
“Hi, folks. The captain has informed us that we’re going to run into some turbulence, so he’s turned on the Fasten Seat Belt sign. Please remain seated with your belts securely fastened until the sign has been turned off, which, hopefully, will be soon. Thank you.”
“Mmf,” said Sam Pennington, pivoting back and forth as he rooted around on both sides of his massive self, trying to find the two ends. I had to duck away a couple of times from flying elbows.
The lovely woman to my left was, incredibly, still asleep, her long, auburn hair covering her cheek, her lips slightly apart. I thought maybe I could break the ice by gently waking her and telling her of the latest seatbelt developments, but I saw that she still had hers fastened.
The plane suddenly heaved violently to the right. Then left. Then, for one horrible second, it dropped like an elevator. My stomach said hello to my throat as I clenched my fists and held my breath. Somewhere behind us a woman screamed.
“Son of a bitch pilot,” Sam Pennington muttered, “taking us for a joy ride. These guys are all cowboys. They just love to show off.”
“You think he’s doing this on purpose?” I said.
“Of course he is.”
The plane bounced, producing another scream from behind us.
“Wha…what’s happening?” The beautiful woman, who must have been some good sleeper, had finally awakened. Her eyes, now open, were big and brown, and wide with fear.
“It’s only turbulence,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“Turbulence? Are you sure? It felt like there was some kind of explosion.” She looked around desperately, trying to see past Sam Pennington, who was grimly holding on to the tray table and his laptop.
“No, no. It’s probably because you were asleep. So you thought—”
The plane bounced again, then moved sideways. This time, the scream didn’t come from behind us. It came from her.
“I’ve got to get out of here!” she said.
It was insanity, of course, but panic knows no reason. Before I could speak, she’d undone her seat belt and was attempting to climb over me. I had no idea how she intended to get past Sam Pennington, who was looking at her with a sort of shocked amusement, but her knee dug painfully into my thigh as she struggled.
“Hey, hey, it’s all right, relax,” I said, trying to pull her back into her seat.
The plane tilted sickeningly to the left, which did the job for me. It virtually deposited her in the seat, which, of course, did nothing to calm her.
“We’re going to die!” she wailed, trying to get up again.
I reached over with both hands and tried to hold her in place by her shoulders, which wasn’t easy because I could barely rotate my body in the damn seat belt. But somehow, I had to break through her hysteria.
“Look at me!” I yelled at her. “Look at me!”
She blinked in surprise, but did so.
“I’ve been through much worse than this,” I said, my eyes locked in on hers, forcing her to keep looking at me. “This is nothing, it’s just normal turbulence. It’s like an amusement park roller coaster. Scary, but no one’s going to be hurt. It’s no big deal, nothing to worry about.”
It was dialogue I’d written for an unsuccessful TV movie. As it happens, the character dies right after saying these lines, along with everyone else, since the story is about an air disaster, but it was all I could come up with. And it seemed to work.
She managed a weak smile. “I hate roller coasters.”
“So do I, but we’re getting a little extra for our money,” I said as I reluctantly let go of her shoulders. She sank back into the seat.
The plane slid to the side again and she gasped.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said as the plane made a hop, skip. “Why don’t you put your seatbelt back on?”
Her hands were shaking so much that she couldn’t do it, so I did it for her.
“There we go.”
She grabbed hold of my hands. “I’m just so frightened. I’m sorry.”
“Hey, I know the feeling. No blame, no shame.”
Where all this courage was coming from I had no idea. I’d never been in turbulence that was nearly this bone-rattling and brutal. It was terrifying.
Maybe if she’d been fat and ugly, I would’ve been as scared as she was. And pissed off at her as well, for panicking. But beauty works wonders and, evidently, so does false bravado.
“Do you mind if I hold on to you?” she said, clutching tighter. “I know it’s silly, but…”
“No, no, please, that’s fine,” I told her. “Just let me take one hand away, though, so I can sit up straight.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Her face flushed, which, if anything, made her prettier.
She let go of my right hand, and I sat back in my seat, my left hand nestled warmly in both of hers. Painfully, too, because she was squeezing the crap out of it.
And even worse, there it was, sitting brightly above one of her white knuckles. An engagement ring.
“I would’ve slapped her in the face,” Sam Pennington hissed in my right ear.
“She was panicking. That’s how you deal with people like that. The way you’re doing it now makes her feel like it’s okay to act that way. She’d better not lose it again or it’ll be on you.”
So there I sat, strapped to my seat. On one side was a 350-pound lunatic. On the other was someone else’s fiancée, who was, at present, crushing my fingers to a pulp. If these were to be my final moments, was I fated to spend them like this?
The plane gave another nauseating dip, provoking screams all around us.
I turned toward the bride-to-be, who was staring grimly at the seat cushion ahead, her jaw clenched almost as tightly as her hands.
“My mother hates me,” I told her. “And now she’s got cancer, so she’s going to die hating me. But it’s not my fault.”
It was as if I’d pulled her out of a reverie. She stared blankly at me. “What did you say?”
“I said my mother hates me but it’s not my fault. I just wanted someone to know that.”
“Okay, whatever,” she said, then went back to staring ahead, her grip on my hand tightening. I had to do something.
“I hate to bother you, but could you ease up a little?”
“Huh?” Her eyes flashed in annoyance. I guess she was praying and I was interrupting her.
“My hand. You’re kind of squeezing it pretty hard.”
“Oh, right,” she said distractedly. She loosened her grip, but not by much.
“I appreciate it,” I said, wincing.
The plane did another buck and slide.
“They should slap the damn airlines with a class-action lawsuit,” offered Sam Pennington. “For reckless endangerment.”
I ignored him and closed my eyes. Oh, God, I thought, because why not? If you really exist…
But I didn’t have time to finish whatever it was I was about to pray because it was over, just like that. The plane steadied and everything became smooth again.
In a few seconds the seat belt sign was turned off, and sounds of relief filled the air around me.
She let go of my hand, and I flexed it a time or two. No apparent damage.
Sam Pennington heaved himself out of his seat. “Toodle-oo,” he sang out to no one in particular, “I’m off to the loo.”
“I don’t know how to thank you,” the beautiful betrothed lady said to me. “You were incredible. You literally saved me from going crazy. I owe so much to you, and I don’t even know your name.”
“Bill Simmons,” I told her.
“I’m Daisy McCann.” We shook hands delicately. “That was some experience.”
“Sure was,” I said. “Is your fiancé meeting you at the airport?”
“My fiancé? I don’t…oh, this.” She looked down at the ring on her finger and gave a self-conscious smile. “I forgot that I wear this when I’m traveling alone. It’s sort of a protective device, but I don’t think I need it right now.” To my astonishment, she slid the ring off and put it into her jeans’ pocket.
“And I’m so sorry I was rude to you. You were telling me something about your mother, and I just blew you off. That was terrible.”
“No, I don’t blame you. When you think you’re about to die, it’s hard to think about anything else.”
“But you said she hates you. How can that be?”
“It’s just how my mother is,” I told her. “She hates everything, so why not include me? She made my father’s life miserable, and my sister is the only person on earth who can stand her. In my head, I know I had nothing to do with her being that way; she’s always been that way. But now that she’s dying, I can’t help feeling responsible for her. Like it was, somehow, my fault.”
“Is it because you thought it was up to you to make her better, but you couldn’t?” Daisy asked me.
I nodded. “Something along those lines.”
She reached over and squeezed my hand, gently this time.
“I’ve been there. As someone once told me, and I think it was you, ‘No blame, no shame.’”
From then on, except for the seat-shuddering return of Sam Pennington, we had nothing but clear skies.