TALK IS CHEAPER
The plane reached its designated altitude as signs of the capital came into view. We were passing over Baltimore. The pilot’s usual housekeeping announcements to passengers took a surprise turn. “Below you, ah, coming into view, is the capital of the United States,” he said. “I would ask you... out of respect to the nation and our fellow citizens, that... we observe a moment of silence … to show respect for our countrymen who have passed.. and those who remain in need.”
I found that affecting.
We flew what appeared to be a straight north-south line over the city. It was difficult to tell if the other passengers observed the pilot’s request for a moment of silence in honor of the victims. There was too much rubbernecking, which worked for me. I was able to watch my watcher. People lined the aisle, straining to get a look at the devastation below. Like other passengers, the Cyclops shifted from one side of the cabin to the other, as if he were in a conga line. He never looked in my direction.
Below, the green of Rock Creek Park on the starboard side of the aircraft turned from green to black. Soon the District came into view, ashen, flattened into a grid. Slumped remnants of buildings hunched in the debris. The White House was gone, but the ellipses and the outline of Lafayette Park served as place marks. Never again to see cherry blossoms, I thought. The reflecting pool and the tidal basin looked like ash trays. Downed planes still lay on the ground at Reagan National where they had crashed. A gutted blue 737 looked like a robin’s egg with the chick’s legs poking through. The flash from the blast had blinded pilots, and its electromagnetic pulse fried their instruments.
Our pilot closed with a second announcement. “I want to thank you for observing a moment of silence honoring those suffering beneath our wings.” He paused at his nearly poetic remark and quickly regrouped. “We’ll be over Atlanta in less than two hours. God bless America.”
That had been my life down there, my city, my home, my work, murdered by terrorists. Now I was on a plane with another kind of killer. The sheen on my wrist had spread along my forearm. Mindful or not, I needed a drink.
The passengers relaxed back into their seats after we passed the District. Shortly afterward, the flight attendants served first class. A small, neatly pressed man in his early forties approached me and asked if I cared for refreshment.
“I’d like a glass, please, and I’ll buy up all your Jameson.”
I didn’t bother to respond, but instead unbuttoned the pocket of my shirt and took out a money clip thick with fifties. I nudged Beer Boy with my shoulder. “I’m buying. You want a drink?”
“It’s complementary,” Beer Boy said. He asked the flight attendant for a Heineken.
I took out two fifties, then a third. “I want all your Jameson’s.” I held the cash out for him, but he demurred.
“I can only serve two at a time.” He said to me, opening the bottle for Beer Boy.
“How many Glenlivets have you got?” I asked.
He looked upset. “Six,” he said, “but I can’t really offer you more than two drinks at a time.”
I withdrew another fifty from of my money clip. “That’ll take care of me and the Jameson family.” I smiled, hoping to charm him. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll put the dead soldiers in my pocket.” he stared at me. “I don’t get drunk,” I added.
He looked guilty but he took the cash, peering off into economy class as if he didn’t see that he was taking a bribe. That gave me another chance to look for the Cyclops. I pulled out another fifty for the Glenlivets. Now I had fourteen ounces of very expensive whiskey. I folded another snappy fifty and placed it under my plastic cup. “For later,” I said to the attendant. “It’s yours.” My generosity wasn’t just about drinking. The flight attendant could be a tool. You never know when you might need to call in a favor. Now I had bribed two people—the attendant and the Beer Boy.
I turned to Beer Boy who was grinning at me. I must have been a sight—sweaty, handcuffed, cheeks scarred, fat with fifties, and nervous about something in the back of the plane.
Fortunately, relief was on its way. I cracked the seals on then little green bottles, then played friendly with Beer Boy, “Put these in your pocket would y’please?” I gestured with my cup at the baby liquor bottles. “I’m a little tied up for now.” I tugged at my ball and chain. He got my signal and grabbed the bottles off my seat tray. He stuffed them into his cargo pockets—one pocket for empties and the other for candidates. I raised a glass. “God bless America,” I said.
The alcohol blotted my tension, and I worked at a plan to cope with the Cyclops. Surrounded by other passengers, I decided, kept me safe. I patted my face dry with my complimentary American Airlines napkin. Because of disruptions in the interstate commerce system, paper was becoming a luxury. Within the month, airlines were expected to begin charging for napkins and flight attendants would be working for tips and free travel, seat space allowing.
I had to concentrate on a play, at least measure my situation. The Beer Boy was my buffer. The attaché case chained to my wrist was a shield and weapon. I could get aggressive, but that would force a landing, and for some reason I felt I had to push on. Once again, my mind wandered.
Mogadishu Beer Boy watched me drink, grinning like I was the first fish he ever caught. “So you think you’ll ever get back to the Mog?” He pointed to the Pelican case.
I lowered the level of liquor in my cup by half. “Me?” He nodded. “No can say.” I sounded like I was talking to him over a combat radio. Really, I was listening for movement, an impossible task over the white noise of the jet. My throat felt grated and clearing it sounded like static. Once more I looked around for the Cyclops.
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