Welcome to the Writer’s Salon, Life Of King’s new (and hopefully growing) fiction writer series. Our inaugural story comes from Baltimore writer and editor Clare Lochary. Want to contribute? email firstname.lastname@example.org
Anne loved to travel, even on the most boring, proasic business trips to resolutely unglamorous places. Things that were givens in your hometown — finding the office, remembering what kind of car you were driving, feeding yourself — became noteworthy accomplishments on the road. Doing the distinctly unsexy security point strip tease, tearing away her layers of scarves and coats and shoes, felt like a patriotic duty instead of a bureaucratic hassle. Anne had always been a neatnick, and the opportunity to have government officials inspect and approve of her perfectly organized carry-on bag was a secret pleasure, although she kept the bored business traveler’s poker face in place while they did it.
Her one great lament was that she couldn’t bring her sales kit on the plane, and had to check luggage every single time she flew. Anne worked for a company that sold industrial lighting — big, bulk orders of fluorescent bulbs to light the hallways of factories, big box stores, and anonymous office parks all over the country. There was no super-duper secure TSA list you could get on that let you take a big box of glass and metal onto a commercial flight in the U.S. No way, no how. Anne had checked.
The kit itself was a hard, red plastic case that said FEESER LIGHTING SUPPLIES, SCRANTON, PA in gold lettering on its top. The interior was a marvel of engineering, one that warmed Anne’s fastidious heart, with its specially designed foam rubber cases for the weirdly shaped halo bulbs and chunky outdoor lights and the occasional flame-shaped chandelier fixture.
Lately all the customers wanted to hear about were energy efficient CFL bulbs, which made the bosses at Feeser nervous because they manufactured relatively few of them. Anne rather liked them — cheerful little things that looked like a cross between a question mark and a curly pig’s tail. They made her think of AL Gore, who seemed like such a nice, well-meaning man. Anne had been too young to vote in the 2000 election, but she’d always felt sorry for the poor guy, who had been bred from birth for the presidency, and then saw it slip through his fingers at the last moment. People made fun of his beard and his gut and his post-election depression, but Anne admired that he’d pulled himself together and said, “OK, I’m 52 and my lifelong dream is dead. What I am going to do now?” And the answer was win an Oscar and promote green living. A person could do worse. You’re entitled to a few months of binge eating and poor personal grooming after you flame out in spectacularly public fashion.
Anne herself was 26, half Gore’s age during his presidential run, and had never had a lifelong dream, a thing that would get her out of bed in the morning for decades on end. Supposedly this was a generational thing, that people like her were given too many participation trophies as children and too many options as young adults, a combination that left them both entitled and confused.
That’s why she liked work travel. By the time you got yourself back from a sales dinner at Morton’s (anne figured she had eaten her weight about eight times over in strip steak) and collapsed onto the bed at the Marriott and zoned out in front of a Sandra Bullock movie on Pay-Per-View, you were too exhausted to ponder existential questions. Some people drank, some people did drugs, but Anne traveled all over the country with her bulbs in their safety case and all in all thought it was the best choice.
Besides, she’d never been on a plane until her freshman year of college, when a wealthy suitemate invited her on a trip to the family ski lodge in Aspen. She’d marveled at how the green faded out of the landscape as they raced across the country to the desert and then the mountains. Even if the plane had just turned around at the Denver airport and went home, the flight alone had made it the best vacation of her life.
Anne flew about twice a month now, but she still got a frisson of excitement from it. She’d once dated an aerospace engineer who could explain the science of flight, and while she appreciated that for him, the realities of physics were exciting in their own way, she always tuned him out. She preferred the idea of flight as a tremendous magic trick. That final upward gravity-defying thrust, the moment when the huge heavy plane pulled away from the earth and leapt into the sky, gave her a thrill, no matter how many times it happened.
Anne had that first flight on her mind, since this one was also to Denver. She pressed her face against the window and stared at the planes wreathed in morning mist, like shiny dragons breathing fire on the runway. When her neck started to ache, she turned back towards the aisle, and saw that the flight attendant, a woman in late middle age wearing a sweater vest, was henpecking the Blair Underwood look-alike who took the aisle seat in Anne’s row.
“Now, sir, don’t tell me a big strong man like you can’t lift that little bag into the overhead compartment,” she tittered. Her combination of ruthless efficiency and shameless flirting was an odd but effective one. She wore golden wings on her lapel and golden wings in her hair, great sloping curls whipping back from her face like frothy, frosted ocean waves. The bangs were likely vestigial wings from her first days as a flight attendant, when both the job and its uniform were more glamorous. On the sweater vest, beneath the gold wings, gleamed a nametag that said “BARBARA.”
Blair seemed both bamboozled and charmed by Barbara. Despite the outdated hairstyle and sweater vest, Barbara seemed to Anne like one of those women who are natural coquettes, regardless of age, appearance, or circumstance. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly.
Blair stowed his briefcase and then folded himself elegantly into his seat. He turned toward Anne with the playful smile that had originally belonged to Barbara. It was like being the moon that reflected the light of the sun, Anne thought grimly.
Anne herself was tall, and imposing in her immaculate business suits. In airports, she stood out like an stately goddess of commerce and stoicism amongst the throngs of travelers who valued comfort above all else and dressed in sweatpants. Her look was not the kind that regularly attracted the attention of handsome strangers, but Blair flicked his eyes down to Anne’s legs and then back to her face.
Oh, it was the stockings. It was always the stockings. Anne favored fishnet stockings, not the cheap Halloween string kind, but expensive Wolford stockings with just a hint of pattern to them. The diamond designed made the stockings so much sturdier and they hardly ever ran or snagged in the wash.
After settling everyone in, Barbara launched into her pre-flight safety demonstration which was an unlikely melange of FAA regulations and bad stand-up comedy.
“If you press the button above your heads with the picture of a light bulb on it, it will turn your overhead light on. If you press the button above your heads with the picture of a flight attendant on it, it will not turn us on,” she said, to a smattering of laughter. Blair chuckled and glanced again at Annie’s face, then legs and back again.
“She’s something else, isn’t she,” said Blair, nodding toward Barbara.
“Hm? Yes,” answered Anne, catching a whiff of airport bar bourbon on his breath. She turned away from him to press her right temple against the double-pane window. She didn’t want to miss a second of the take-off, even though it made her nervous. Anne wasn’t the type to fret about plane crashes — everyone knows that you’re more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the blah blah blah — but she both loved and feared the moment when the plane definitively yanked away from the ground and became aloft. It was both thrilling and unnatural, and it always made it her think that as much as she loved it, the whole concept of flight was a bad idea, a defiance of the will of God. Because how could it be that a big metal machine should put itself into the air for miles and miles? It was a miracle.
After the plane surmounted through the clouds and started to level off and the seat belt light went off with a ding, Anne felt herself exhale, happy to have witnessed and survived the miracle once again. As she turned away from the window, she inadvertently tossed a beaming smile in Blair’s direction. He propped an elbow up on their shared armrest and gave her a long, evaluative look.
“Coming or going,” he asked. “Business or pleasure?”
“I’m sorry?” replied Anne, still lost in thought.
“Are you coming or going to Denver? For business or pleasure?” he drawled, with a knowing smile.
“Oh. Going, for business. I’m in light bulbs,” Anne said.
“Light bulbs?” he said. “Really?”
The reaction was typical, Anne had learned. Non-lighting-industry civilians usually thought light bulbs just…existed, as if they grew out of lamps like fruit on a tree, but no. They were designed, manufactured, and sold, sold, sold by people like Anne. At any time of day, most people in the developed world were surrounded by dozens of light bulbs and didn’t seem to know or care about all the work that went into making sure that everyone wasn’t just sitting around in the dark. They didn’t seem to care about all the ambient light around them.
“A beautiful young woman like yourself shouldn’t be all business, now should she?” Blair said.
“What makes you think that I am?” Anne replied. Like, just because she sold light bulbs, he must think she was as dusty and fragile as the 60-watt antiques that crowded the upper shelves of America’s closets.
“Oh, I don’t. I don’t. Not at all,” Blair said.
“I’m taking an extra day in Denver. I’m going to see the Museum of Nature and Science,” Anne snapped. “What are you doing there that’s so great?”
“I’m headed home,” Blair said. “After a long trip, and a long layover. Denver. The Mile High City. You ever been to the Mile High City before?”
He dragged out the vowels on a few words — miiiiile hiiiiigh ci-taaay — as if they were a set of particularly bon mot, and punctuated it all with an eyebrow pop.
“Once. In college. With a friend,” Anne responded. The wealthy suitemate had been named Sara, a girl with a babydoll face that hid Veruca Salt levels of entitlement.
“Really? Sounds like you were a little wild in college,” Blair drawled.
The main thing Anne remembered from that first Denver trip — aside from the flight — was Sara’s explosive break-up with her high-school boyfriend. He’d confessed to cheating on her with a Denver Broncos cheerleader named Celeste. They never made it to Aspen, and Anne spent the week in Sara’s childhood bedroom, wrestling the phone out of her hand to prevent her from calling Rob with death threats and tearful make-up pleas. She didn’t get to see much of the town.
“Depends on what you consider wild,” Anne said with a smile.
Blair leaned in as if sharing a tremendous secret, and with their foreheads almost touching, he whispered, “I’m going to the bathroom now. How does that sound to you?”
Anne pulled her head back.
“Sure. That sounds…it sounds fine,” she said.
People on planes talked about the oddest things.
Blair vacated his seat and Anne turned her attention back to the window. She liked flying over the Midwest, with its tidy yellow, brown and green fields, spreading across the landscape like a giant patchwork quilt. But there was nothing to see except a thick cover of cotton-ball clouds, and Anne couldn’t find any interesting faces or shapes in them.
Out of boredom, she started pushing the overhead light bulb button on and off, on and off. As expensive as planes were, they used incredibly cheap little microwave bulbs for the seat lights. Anne mentally did the calculation of the sales commission of eight bulbs in a row, 50 rows in the plane, and god knows how many planes in the fleet. It could add up to tens of thousands—
“Where were you?” Blair hissed.
“What?” cried Anne, who jumped in her seat.
“I was waiting for you,” he said. “For like, 10 minutes.”
“Waiting for me to do what?” asked Anne, who kept pressing the overhead button as a nervous tic.
“Waiting. For you,” said an increasingly indignant Blair. “In the bathroom. In the uh…upright and locked position.”
He popped that eyebrow again, just as Anne punched the light bulb one last time and caught his meaning.
“Oh, GROSS!” she yelped. Rows of people turned around. Blair ducked down in his seat and shot Anne a poisonous glance.
“Why in the world would you think I would have sex with you in an airplane bathroom? I don’t even know you,” Anne hissed.
“You said you did it in college! You were going on about how wild you were and everything, and you kept looking at me,” Blair said.
“I have to look at you! It’s a plane! There’s nowhere else to look,” Anne replied.
“Is everything OK over here?”
Anne and Blair turned at the sound of Barbara’s bell-like voice chiming from overhead. She looked down on them with a solicitous smile.
“Fine. I’m fine,” Anne said.
“OK, good. Usually we don’t hear people say, ‘Oh, gross’ until the food service starts,” Barbara said. Then she tilted her head, sending her wings aflutter, and waited for the anticipated laugh. Anne and Blair both grimly stared at the seats in front of them.
“I just wanted to make sure everything was OK. The gentleman was in the bathroom for quite some time,” Barbara intoned. “Sir, is there anything I can get for you? We have a fully stocked first aid kit with motion-sickness pills, or laxatives if that’s what you need–”
“I’m good. I’m great, thanks,” Blair said. “How much longer is this flight?”
“We have about three hours remaining. If we catch a tailwind, Captain Reynolds might be able to bring us in a little faster, but that’s hard to say,” Barbara replied.
Just then a toddler three rows up let out an ear-piercing shriek. Barbara excused herself and bustled off to help the young mother, leaving Anne and Blair alone again. They sat in silence, speaking only once to answer Barbara’s perky question regarding the chicken or the pasta. They were both tall, so it was hard to sit still enough to avoid bumping their knees together.
Eating made Anne feel better. People made fun of airplane food, but she appreciated the design and order of the tiny trays, with their Lilliputian utensils and neatly packaged condiments.
After dinner she found herself stealing envious sidelong glances at Blair’s tray, eyeing the plastic cup half-full of water with a lemon slice floating on its smooth, even surface. Anne usually made a point of staying hydrated on flights, but she wanted to avoid having to shimmy past Blair to get to the bathroom. He’d probably think it was an overture. And oh, God, the bathroom. Would she ever be able to use an airplane bathroom again?
The trip was a disaster, a complete disaster, before she’d even touched down. She was uncomfortable, humiliated and thirsty. Very thirsty. She glanced again at the cup of water, and noticed the lemon slice was no longer floating parallel to the tray table, but at an angle. She instinctively reached out to save the tipping cup, but something about the motion was wrong, all wrong, and she knocked the drink into Blair’s lap. It was too awful.
Anne apologized profusely and cringed back toward the window as Barbara, ever efficient, appeared with paper towels and sympathetic clucks. The clouds had dissipated and Anne could see land again. But just like the water glass, there was something off about the angle. Suddenly, she realized why.
“We’re going down,” Anne murmured.
“Look, miss, the moment has passed. It’s not going to happen,” said Blair as he picked damp bits of paper towel from his lap. Barbara gave them both a strange look and opened her pink-lipsticked mouth to say something when the seat belt sign dinged on and the PA system buzzed to life.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Reynolds speaking,” said a booming, disembodied male voice. “Would the flight crew please report to the cabin? And passengers please return your trays to the upright and locked position.”
Barbara and the other attendants hustled up the aisles as a murmur of discontent rippled through the rows of the plane.
There was no sudden lurch, no loud boom, but only a barely perceptible sense that the plane was listing to the right.
The flight attendants returned from the cabin with flinty faces. Barbara’s bubbly cheer had evaporated and in its place was a fiercely attentive calm, like an Olympic figure skater right before the music begins. Like someone who’d trained her whole life for this moment.
“What’s going on here?” asked Blair, still picking nervously at his now-clean pants.
“I’m not sure,” Anne said. “Something’s not right.”
The voice boomed from overhead again.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re currently experiencing some mechanical difficulties and will be making an emergency landing in Omaha,” Captain Reynolds said. “Please remain in your seats and brace for impact. We will be releasing jet fuel from the plane, so do not be alarmed if you see it.”
Anne looked to her right just in time to see a white cloud of something rush by the window. The murmur of discontent rolled over into panic, led by Blair.
“Oh my god. Oh my god. An emergency landing? Fuck. FUCK!” said Blair, who was frantically yoinking at his seat belt, pulling it tight enough to dig into his belly and pressing his back against the seat as if he could crawl away from the plane’s ever-steady descent.
Barbara moved quickly through the cabin, stopping to remind parents to tend to themselves first and the children second if the oxygen masks dropped down. She then turned her attention to Blair, who was the most histronic person on the flight.
“Sir, I know this is unexpected but you must keep your voice down,” Barbara said. “Captain Reynolds and the crew are doing everything we can to land this plane safely and you’re scaring the children.”
Something had happened to Barbara’s voice. It had been full of honey and now it was full of steel. Anne liked the steel better. Blair nodded frantically and dialed the screaming back to a whimper, so only Anne was privy to his rapid cycling through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.
“This is not happening. This is not happening. this is not happeningthisisnothappeningthisisnothappening.”
This was really, really happening. Anne and everyone on this plane and the plane itself were going down, about to be smashed into the earth like a light bulb against the pavement. Maybe human flight was a bad idea, unnatural, witchcraft, an affront to God and greenhouse gas emissions and Al Gore and all that was good and holy.
“Why the fuck is this happening? Why the fuck is this happening to me?!”
But she was sitting towards the back, those people statistically stood a better chance of survival, right? No, not really. Not much. Had she even called her parents to tell them she was on this flight? Did anyone know where she was?
“I just wanna get off this flight. Oh God, oh God, I shouldn’t have had that drink. I shouldn’t have tried to fornicate in an airplane toilet. Oh God. Oh God. I’ll never drink again and I’ll go to church every Sunday, I swear.”
Anne shakily reached beneath the seat and fished her wallet out of her purse, and tucked it inside her shirt. Hopefully it would make it easier to identify her body. She had a fleeting longing for her red plastic case with the gold script on it, wishing that it had a padded space just her size that she could crawl inside for safety.
“Oh my God, I’m stuck here on this METAL TUBE that’s going to CRASH. I can’t get out. I CAN’T BREATHE!”
The older sister of the screaming baby, a girl about kindergarten age, started whimpering softly as Blair’s voice carried over into her row. No matter how bad things got, it was intolerable for grown man to behave worse than a child. Anne reached out and slapped Blair’s face.
“Look,” she said, grabbing his cheeks in ove of her big, capable hands. “This is a bad situation but we are going to get through it together. You, me, that kid up there, ALL OF US. GOT IT?”
Blair, stunned by the slap, stared at her. After a moment of silence, he burst into tears.
“That really hurt,” he blubbered.
“Look, look,” Anne said. “It’s going to be OK.”
The plane took a terrible lurch. Anne reached for Blair’s hand and clasped it. She steadied their elbows against the armrest between them.
“It’s going to be OK,” said Anne, with honey instead of steel in her voice, squeezing his hand. “Hey, hey, can I ask you something?”
Blair took a deep breath, let it go, and squeezed her hand back.
“What’s your name?”
“Kenny. My name is Kenny.”
“OK, Kenny. Let’s do this.”
They released their hands, bent forward, flung their arms over their heads, and braced for impact.
When they landed on the foamed-up Omaha runway, it made national news. The plane was ruined beyond repair, but no one died and only 12 were injured in the initial impact. Anne and Kenny, seated near the back of the plane, were not among the unlucky dozen. In fact, Anne felt so crazy, euphoic, alive alive alive that she shouted “Whee!” as she slid down the emergency slide into the mess of foam below. It was like leaping off the plane into the clouds.
She was so dazzled by the flashing, whirling red lights of the emergency vehicles that lined the runway that she fished her wallet out of her shirt and tried to give a business card to the EMT who checked her vitals, babbling that she could get him a better price on the ambulance’s cherry top. She was fine, fine, but because she just wouldn’t stop talking and laughing, they sent her to the hospital for an evaluation and concluded she might be concussed and had to stay overnight for observation. As Anne was wheeled into her room, she was surprised and pleased to recognize her roommate.
Her wings had fallen flat — it had been many, many hours since they’d seen a curling iron and some Aqua Net — and she had a broken nose and a comical-looking black eye,, but it was Barbara. The grounded flight attendant was fussing with her hospital meal.
“They say the only thing worse than hospital food is airline food, but I think they’ve got it backwards,” Barbara said as she poked at a wiggly square of Jell-O. “And we’re on a plane with limited space and altitude issues to deal with. Don’t they just have a normal kitchen here? And where is the nurse? I would say their average response time is well over three minutes, which will get you grounded where I come from.”
Anne laughed, but it wasn’t the crazy laughter any more. Barbara was just her kind of people.
“I think Jell-O is good for you. Protein or something. From horses’ hooves,” Anne said.
“Really?” Barbara said. “You learn something new every day.”
“You do,” said Anne.
“Hey, you were pretty good up there, handling that guy in your row,” Barbara said. “It’s always the big tough guys who are complete babies about every little bump. Although, that was no little bump. But you did really, really well.”
Barbara took a contemplative bite of the Jell-O and grimaced.
“Barbara, may I ask you a question?”
Barbara smiled with a professional smoothness that belied the setting and the nose splint. “Of course, honey. Anything you need to know.”
“How long have you been a flight attendant?”
Clare Lochary is a writer and editor, mostly for a tech company but also for publications like The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times. She is originally from Catonsville and now lives in Roland Park. Most weekends, you can catch her on stage with Baltimore Improv Group.