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“Flight attendants . . . prepare for landing. . .”

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A heavy breath, then a pause. Relative silence — besides the creaking of the wings. The overhead speakers clicked. Again — this time in a breathy, almost pained rush through clenched teeth: “Flight attendants prepare for landing. . . NOW!

The plane bounced on turbulence. It rattled. My head shook around on my neck.

I looked up. A pretty blonde woman, smiling, extending her nicely-manicured, just-barely-shaking hand toward my half-empty can of V8 juice. I never drank V8 juice anywhere else in those days — just on airplanes. I hated V8 juice, and I still kinda do. It has the color and saltiness of blood. V8 was a torture I inflicted on myself just for just those occasions in the air. Made me feel more grounded or something. Mortification of the flesh. One more swig. I smiled and handed her the can.

I noticed sweat beading on her brow and upper lip. Her foundation make-up had started to fade. The smallest hint of it smudged  the dark blue collar of her dress. Still, she smiled. She radiated a determined, cheerful calm. It was in the manner of duty. I could tell she’d been at this job for a while.

The plane shook. It rolled to one side, then snapped back. The stewardess braced herself against the seat in front of me, still smiling that smile. Planes don’t usually move that way. There was danger — everyone felt it. The plane stabilized, then shook again. I looked out the window. Lighting flashed somewhere over the Atlantic, or maybe Rhode Island. It was hard to tell. It was dark outside. Rain streaked the window.

Peggy gasped. She was the nice lady seated next to me. I still remember her name: Peggy Lambert. I think most of us know a Peggy Lambert. Sometimes they’re called Monica Hughes or Darlene Adams. Peggy was in her 50s and wore a smart pantsuit and a turtleneck, all in some muted earth-tones. Tasteful jewelry. Her hair was short but not too short, and nicely styled. She was coming back to her home in some Boston suburb after visiting family somewhere in New York. New York was only about 150 miles away. Somewhere in that 150 miles, the sunny May skies above LaGuardia had become something else, entirely.

Peggy pressed her palm to her chest. Her brows twisted. I smiled. “Kinda rough out there, eh?” Peggy nodded. Her eyes shifted. She seemed awed by my calm. The plane shook again. In the corner of my eye the flight crew had just retreated past the front row — garbage bags still in their hands. I anticipated another angry reminder from the cockpit, but as soon as they crossed into the galley area and tossed the bags into the trash, they turned and almost flung themselves ass-backwards into their jumpseats. They fumbled with seatbelts. They were as scared as anyone else; they were trained not to show it while on duty.

Duty.

I looked at the attendant who took my V8 can — the older, blonde lady. She exhaled, still tense. She didn’t let her shoulders slump from that ideal posture perfected over decades. She loved to fly, and it showed. She had likely seen worse — probably. I thought back on how she and the other, younger women in her crew just kept clearing the beverage service. The angry voice through the speakers meant nothing, nor did the gyrations of the plane. Oh, thank you! Are you finished? You’re welcome. Thank you! We’ll be on the ground shortly! They kept it up even as the mighty hand of Zeus himself reached down and jackslapped that 737 and the captain shouted over the speakers. In their eyes, not a hint of a doubt the plane would keep flying. She wasn’t thinking about that at all. She wasn’t thinking of the pilot struggling at the controls while breaking away just long enough to tell her to take her seat, either. She was only thinking I have a job and goddamn it, I’m going to do this job. I’m going to meet the expectations placed upon me by Delta Airlines for superior customer service. So you can fuck off until I’m done — please — Captain.

Peggy Lambert was trembling. I looked into her eyes through her conservatively stylish glasses. “It’s going to be OK. We’re going to be fine,” I nodded. I tried to seem as consoling as I could as a sleep-deprived 23-year-old. I still remember something about a St. Christopher’s medal. I might have given it to her, or at least shown it to her. I think it was on my Levi’s jacket behind my lapel.  The plane shook again. “Oh, Lord,” Peggy gasped.

I really didn’t know it was going to be OK. I guess I hoped it would be. I had faith. Or maybe, I just didn’t care. I hadn’t slept much since leaving Spain a couple days before. Couldn’t sleep on the bus from Valencia to Barcelona. Could barely sleep on the train back to Rome. I tried to sleep in the airport, but the Italian cops saw to that. I usually can’t sleep on planes, and so I didn’t for the eight-hour flight back to JFK. Maybe I was just too tired to consider an end to my life as clichéd as a plane crash. Or maybe I figured I’d seen enough of this world — already jaundiced at my young age. If I ended up at the bottom of the ocean or scattered across the rooftops of Brockton, Massachusetts, it would be OK. Life was fun while it lasted. Only two days before I held a relic of the true cross in my hands. At least that’s what those gay priests in Valencia had told me was at the top of that monstrance they handed me.

Surrealism points had been stacking up. The deadly plane ride was just another score. Goooaoooaaaal.

I savored the aftertaste of the V8 on my gums. The taste of V8 always reminded me of the time as a kid I slipped on a sidewalk and ate some concrete. I was only 14 then. The moment my face hit the ground, I thought my life was over. My mouth filled with blood. That had been eight years before. Never thought I’d make it as far as I did — all the way to Europe; all the way to a relic of the true cross and all that.

We were in a holding pattern. Had they not needed to change planes at the gate before leaving LaGuardia — twice — we might have found an easy spot in the landing sequence — and avoided the storm. “Mechanical problems,” they’d said, repeatedly. Now, the pilot had been circling Boston for a while, telling us all traffic was backed up due to the weather. Then suddenly: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a spot in the sequence but we need to land right now.” I wondered what was really going on up there in the cockpit, and in the control tower below. But not much. It was someone else’s duty. People doing their duties would keep us from death. Or maybe, they couldn’t.

The bloody taste of V8 hung in my mouth. I remember thinking about that word: Duty. I looked at that older stewardess — the one still maintaining that calm demeanor while sitting in the jumpseat and facing us. She was doing her job. “Do you want to be a saint?” a priest once asked in a homily. “Then do your job.” A saint did his job. He did his duty. That was all there was to it. I discerned that night in that plane that my duty was just to go on living. On that plane, I surrendered to my duty in some small, subconscious way. So many things had been trying to kill me: malfunctioning fireworks in Avila, multiple car accidents we passed while riding the mini-bus along those dark and primitive Spanish highways, that immigrant who chased me through the streets in Valencia, the Italian cops with their MP5’s stuck in my face. All of that had served one purpose: I finally knew my job. I didn’t need think of forcibly checking out early anymore. I was being held aloft in that plane by other people doing their duty, which was basically to keep me alive. My end of the bargain was to continue to live. I suddenly quite clearly knew my job. I accepted my duty.

I looked back at Peggy’s strained expression. I smiled. She smiled back, faintly. I sensed her exhale at last, if only a little.

One final, rocky plunge and I felt three sets of wheels hit the tarmac, separately. The nosewheel  slammed the pavement just as my own nose had that night back when I was 14. The thrust-buckets flipped on immediately. The fuselage jerked one last time. The pilot was slamming on the brakes — for some reason. I remembered images from an accident at Logan years before. There’s nothing at the end of the runway but the sea. Only one or two people died that time. Front end of the plane fell off into Boston Harbor.

The sudden deceleration threw my body against the seatbelt. Peggy’s feet tensed against the floor, trying to help the plane stop.

Rain pelted the fuselage as we taxied to the terminal. I smiled at Peggy. I patted her hand. She smiled back. There, that wasn’t so bad. The plane stopped. The engines spooled down. The seatbelt lights went off. I pulled my bookbag out from under the seat. God Bless, Peggy!

I walked past the cockpit. The pilot sat turned toward the open door. Sweat rings rimmed his shirt. “Thanks for flying Delta . . . ” The words barely crept out of his dry throat and oozed towards me. Dark bags hung beneath his eyes.

Duty.

“Thank you, Captain.”

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