A Story by Shirley Ann Grau
SHE went to the observation deck to watch the plane take off, the way she always did. She watched it swing away from the loading ramp, windows like dots on its fat silver side. She tried to see into each window, to find a face, and couldn’t. The plane cased around and began the long lumbering trip down the field. The big jets had to go all the way back to the very end of the runway. When they swung into takeoff position, their tails seemed to hang over the low barbed-wire fence.
A small red private plane crossed overhead. The people next to her waved frantically, the children screeched, “Good-bye, good-bye. See you soon.” “He can’t hear you,” their mother said. Their father said, “He better not be looking down to see you either.” They walked away.
Her plane had cleared the buildings and the scattered service trucks and moved upheld, a bit faster now, tail bobbing at each joint of the concrete. Another jet swung in behind; like two ducks they waddled up the runway, their shiny coats gleaming in the smoky sunlight.
She knew that by the time they reached the end of the runway she would have lost sight of her plane. She had never learned to tell one from another in that hazy distance. All the other times she had come, she stood for half an hour in this same spot and watched plane after plane take off; that way she could be sure that one of them was his. And that he was gone.
She didn’t really know why she waited. It was just something she did. Her eyes glanced from one speck to the next, trying to hold them in view for the seconds after they had disappeared. She thought of him up there, stretching, pulling out a magazine, settling back for a nap. Only maybe she was watching the wrong plane . . .
Now there was a cluster of planes down at the runway’s end. The heat haze washed around them like beach ripples.
The top of her head began to tingle with the sun; she pulled a scarf out of her purse. In the sharp gusty breeze she had trouble getting it on straight. She finally tied it loosely under her chin, letting it crumple crookedly across the back of her hair.
In the plane, he would be relaxed. Flying didn’t bother him at all.
“Honey, when you’ve flown as much as I have, and in some of the planes I been in, with people shooting at you, or thinking of shooting at you, you get to think that a commercial flight is like sitting in a movie. No storm is going to be as bad as that ground fire coming up at you.”
“I’m afraid,”she said,“I can’t help it if I’m afraid of a lot of things.”
“When your number’s up, it doesn’t matter where you are.”
“I just don’t think that way.”
“I have to, honey. In my business you have to.”
Dust blew into her eyes. She let planes take off unnoticed while she blinked furiously. I’ll have to cry a tear or two, she thought. And that was very easy. Tears came so freely she had trouble stopping them. The piece of dust washed away.
The haze and the planes were all the same silvery color. She squinted at them. And decided not to wait. Not this time.
She turned and pushed her way through the turnstiles, climbed quickly down the flight of stairs. She marched into the lobby, her heels clicking purposefully on the cement floors. Then quite suddenly she was very tired. Quite suddenly she felt the three or four nights of broken sleep, and tears, and the steady nagging ache in the center of her chest. The heart does hurt, she had thought over and over again. I always thought it was just a saying, but it’s real. Your heart can hurt.
Now in the airport lobby her shoulders turned heavy and the back of her knees began to tremble. Flic tips of her fingers tingled and burned. She stopped to look at them. A porter, arms full of bags, dodged around her. “Sorry,” she said.
She would sit down for a moment. The chairs in the center of the lobby looked smooth and clean, their slick green covers were chilly with air conditioning. She sat still and felt the cool slip through her dress and disappear against her sun-hot skin. As soon as one spot warmed, she shifted her body to a cool one. Once she even moved to another chair. The trembling left her legs, and she could breathe more easily.
“This isn’t hot” he said, ”not like out there. God, I never felt a sun like that. Or maybe it’s the damp. And the funny plants. They got some vines out there, you’d swear they reached out and grabbed at you, they kind of wrap around you.”
Here were only some plastic palms, standing on each side of the bar entrance. Two children played tossing paper balls into their sand-filled pots, and sailed a folded plane over their shiny hard green leaves. Now and then they stopped to get some more paper from a rack that said Catholic Literature Take One.
“You’ve done two tours of duty out there. Why should you do a third?”
“They’re short of people, honey.”
“They’re always short of people. Why you?”
“I guess it’s like the submarine service. Those guys get a lot of sea duty, honey. More than they should.”
“But they told you; they said you’d be stationed right here, right here in town.”
“You saw the orders, honey.”
“It isn’t fair.”
“Things happen like that. You got to expect things like that.”
She smoothed her pink linen skirt across her thighs. The building shook with the sudden roar of a plane. Funny, she thought, sometimes you didn’t hear a plane and then sometimes you did. The wind must blow the sound around.
Would he have looked down from the plane to the observation deck, and would he be upset that she wasn’t there? The way the planes were taking off, he probably couldn’t see anything at all.
She kept on smoothing her skirt, getting each little wrinkle out of the linen, working at it carefully, inch by inch, as if it were the most important thing in the world.
It hurts to worry this much, she thought. It really hurts like a cut, or a broken bone. It hurts more than my broken arm when I fell off the climbing bars in third grade. A lot more than that. It hurts so much that it can’t hurt any more.
“I’m just scared,” she said.
“I’ll be all right. I’ve always been all right.”
“Your luck’s going to run out. You can’t get away all the time.”
“I’ll be extra careful, honey.”
“You’ll get killed. I know you’ll get killed.”
The flat final sound of that voice, her voice, ran in her head. She heard it echoing among the bony arches, vibrating the white tunnels. Killed. He was going to get killed. This time, he would die.
She was so thirsty, her lips felt swollen. She would have to find a water fountain somewhere. She circled the lobby, then turned into the tile corridor that led to the landing gates. She kept swallowing; and each time her throat ached more.
He’d be killed. This time she knew he’d be killed.
She coughed, her throat was that dry. She couldn’t seem to moisten it. They said you were thirsty when you were dying. They said people screamed and begged for water, that was how you knew they were dying. Would he do that? He never asked for anything. Not before. It bothered her sometimes that he never even asked her for a cup of coffee, he’d just get up and fix it himself. Of course they hadn’t been together very much during their three years of marriage, not in places they could call their own. There’d been a lot of different hotels and motels, and then she’d come back to her parents’ house alone. That was the military life, he said, always coming and going.
“I could go to Hawaii,” she said. “I could get a job in Hawaii, and it would be closer for you.”
“Hawaii is pretty bad when you’re alone. Anyway, it’s not so far back here, not with all the planes. I can always get on one of them.”
“But I want to.”
“You stay with your parents, and I’ll do the running around.”
He never asked for anything. It wasn’t in him to do that. Maybe he’d have learned if they’d had longer together.
She was halfway down the blue and yellow corridor, her heels clipping neatly. There seemed to be no planes unloading on this side. The tile-lined space was almost empty, with only a leftover smell of passing groups of people.
She asked a single blue uniform, “Do you know where a water fountain is? I can’t seem to find one.”
“There’s one downstairs by the taxi stand,” the blue uniform said. “But the closest one’s right there in the Weather Bureau.”
“Thank you,” she said, and walked toward the door he indicated. Then stopped abruptly.
“Anything wrong?” the blue uniform asked. “Change your mind?”
“No.” She pointed to the door. It said clearly: No Admittance. Authorized Personnel Only. “I guess I’m not authorized.”
He pushed the door open and held it for her. “I forgot that some people still read signs. Fountain’s right there.”
She drank. The water splashed her nose and ran down her chin. She drank with little gulping sounds until she had run the water so long it was freezing cold and her teeth began to ache. Slowly she lilted her head, took a couple of breaths, then ducked for a last taste. Finally she turned away, reaching in her purse for a handkerchief.
He was still holding the door. “You really were thirsty,” he said.
“I hadn’t had a drink for a long time, thank you.”
As she walked down the hall drying her chin, she thought: Why did I say that? It isn’t true, I’ve been drinking water like crazy all day.
“Don’t gulp so fast,” he said. “If you’re thirsty, I’ll get you some water.”
They were sitting in the bar, the dark cool bar with its soft vague music, wasting the few minutes before his /light left.
“I don’t want you getting drunk when I’m going to have to leave. I’d worry about your driving home.”
“I’m just thirsty, that’s all.”
“Drink water,”he said, “drink all the water you want. It can’t hurt you.”
She went back to the lobby, found her old seat taken and chose another, facing a high arched window and a fuzzy gray white sky.
“Good-bye, honey,”he said.“Take care of yourself.”
She kissed him briefly. “Be careful.”
“Just remember what I promised you, honey. I can get out in eighteen months, and I will. I meant that.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll remember.”
But he wouldn’t be back. She began smoothing the skirt across her lap again. He’d pushed his luck too far. He wouldn’t be back. The pain inside her chest told her. He was dead, it was only a matter of the exact date . . .
She looked down at her hands which had stopped moving and lay palms up on her lap.
You always know, she thought, when to begin grieving. The plane wasn’t yet six hundred miles away, and she was sure.
Her hands reminded her of boats drawn up on the sand, boats tipped over and dry, waiting for the tide.
And she was thirsty again, so thirsty. When she got home she would take the biggest glass in the kitchen and fill it right to the top with iced tea. That’s what she’d do as soon as she got there. But first she’d have to catch her breath. She was really very tired, she hadn’t had enough sleep in a long time, three or four or five nights, ever since she had come to realize that he was going off to die.
He laughed at her.“What do you want me to do, honey? Desert? Like in the movies?”
“We could go to Mexico.”
“They’d catch us in Mexico.”
“Well, there’s got to be someplace, if we changed our name.”
“Honey baby, I’ve got to go back.”
“You want to go back,” she said bitterly, her tears a nasty salt in the corners of her mouth. “You really want to go back to the fighting.”
“You’re wrong, honey,” he said quietly. His brown eyes were flat shiny marbles flecked with yellow. “I just do it.”
She would rest a bit and then she’d get her catout of the parking lot and drive home and have supper with her parents and watch television with them. Just not yet. She wasn’t ready yet. She must have stayed too long on the observation deck, her head was still burning. When she was a child, she’d spent hours sun-bleaching her hair to the color of straw, but she couldn’t seem to take that much heat anymore.
The big high window got too bright and too shimmering. She looked away blinking.
There was somebody sitting next to her; a blue uniform was asking, “Do you feel all right?”
She had talked to a blue uniform in the corridor, was this the same one? She hadn’t looked at a face out there, she hadn’t thought to.
“Of course I’m all right,” she said. “I’m just tired, and I stood in the sun too long.”
“You look a little pale.”
“Were you the man I talked to over there, who showed me the water fountain?”
“I was so thirsty.”
“Maybe you did have too much sun. It’ll do that, they tell me.”
“I’ll be all right. I’m always all right. I was just resting before I drove home.”
“You’d better,” he said. He had curly gray hair and a round face, a mouth that was too small and cheeks that were too heavy. A pleasant sort of face, the sort of face that would be easy to forget.
She lifted the hair up from the back of her neck, pushed it behind her ears. She seemed to be perspiring heavily. She took a handkerchief from her purse, found it damp, and began flapping it in the air to dry.
“Here,” he said, “use mine.”
She hesitated and then accepted. She hated the feel of perspiration drying on her skin. She blotted carefully. The cloth smelled faintly of something — a flower or something like lavender. She couldn’t quite place it, it was so vague.
“Thank you. I can go home now.” She stood up and big black spots spread over everything until there were only little cracks of light and she peeped between them. For a minute she thought the light would wink out completely, but that time passed.
“It would be criminal to let you get in a car.” He was holding her arm tightly. “You’re not drunk, so you’ve got to be sick.”
She was still swaying a bit. “I almost fainted, didn’t I?”
“You came pretty close.”
“Look,” he said, “why don’t you come have a cup of coffee with me before you get in a car?”
She hesitated, wordlessly.
“Look,” he said, “I’m no creep. I’ve got a wife and two kids in Cleveland. I brought a ship in a while ago, and I’m going to take one out tomorrow. I meant coffee right there, over there in the bar where we can sit down because I don’t want to drink it standing up and holding you up too.”
She laughed. “OK,” she said. “I was upset.”
“Saying good-bye does that.”
“Yes,” she said, “it does.”
He held her arm until they were inside the doors. Then he let go. One of the children’s paper airplanes sailed between their legs.
THAT’S the third cup of coffee you’ve had,” he said.
“I didn’t notice.”
“You drink it like you were hungry.”
“I guess I didn’t have any lunch.”
“I’m dieting,” she said.
She thought: Why did I lie like that? And why, after I’ve said those things, do I get so I believe them? As if I were somebody else and they really were true about me.
“Women always seem to be on a diet. Especially the ones who look fine the way they are.”
She swallowed the last bit of coffee. “I think it’s because clothes look better.”
“Maybe so. Look, if you’re going to have another coffee I’m going to have a drink.”
“No more coffee, thank you.”
“Skip it,” he said. “If I’m going to drink alone I’d rather stand at the bar.”
“I’ll wait with you while you have it,” she smiled slowly, knowing it was a good smile, that her teeth were white and even, that her lips were well shaped and firm. “It’s the least I can do since you did keep me from smashing my head on the floor out there in the lobby.”
He grinned back at her, and his grin was much younger than his face. “Let’s change tables. There’s an empty one over by the window.”
He steered her carefully through the chairs. “I’m not dizzy anymore,” she said.
“I hope not.” He didn’t drop his hand. “You know, you’d think I’d get enough of those ships out there, but if I’m around them I just have to get close enough to watch them.”
He stared out through the sheet of glass, squinting a little in the glare.
One of the smaller jets flashed crosswise on the runway, half-obscured in the haze, and hopped into the air, climbing steeply.
“They’re really very pretty, very graceful, and I guess that’s why you like to watch them.”
“That’s certainly why I watched you.”
The blue eyes were still out on the hazy distance. She was not sure she’d heard anything. “You noticed me because f asked you for some water. If I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have looked.”
“You’re wrong,” he said. “You were the only person in that corridor. I had to notice you.”
“And when I nearly passed out, you were kind enough to worry. All that many people don’t faint; you have to notice when they do.”
“I see lots of people all day without noticing too much.”
“And you spent the last half hour feeding me coffee so that I could drive safely.”
“About an hour.”
“That long? Well, it’s very kind of you to take so much trouble for nothing.”
“Not kind,” he said, “and not for nothing.”
He left the planes and looked at her. She started to close her eyes and slip away behind the lids, but she moved too slowly. Once she had started looking at him, she couldn’t stop. His eyes weren’t as blue as she had thought, there were black lines out from the pupils, lines like stars. And his hair had been blond, you could see the yellow tinge underneath the gray.
She knew perfectly well that he hadn’t said anything. But she’d answered him.
“I’ll have my drink first,”he said.
“I’ll have to call. I wouldn’t want my parents to worry.”
“And your husband?”
She looked at her wedding ring. “My husband was killed in Vietnam.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
And he might have said more, but the waitress brought his drink and she got up to find the phone.
“It’s right beside the door there,” he said.
“I saw it, you don’t have to worry, I’m not upset anymore.”
He had two more martinis, and she had a scotch she didn’t finish. The hot light turned into the beginning of a soft dusk.
Everything was slowing down, she thought, everything. And there would be a quiet time. A perfectly still minute. Perfectly balanced . . .
“Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. It’s almost time.”
Later on things did stop and time ended, and she perched on a single spot, weightless and empty in herself. Quite detached from her body, her mind stole out, prowling like a cat in the shadows, searching. And it found that there was nothing on any side of her, that she hung like a point, like a star in the empty sky.
This is as far as I can go, she thought. This is the farthest.
And the cat that wore her mind found a dried empty shrimp shell mixed in the sea wrack on a beach somewhere, empty beach, wet and cold, and began to play with it, to slap it back and forth with its paw. The shell rattled like a dry gourd.
“I wonder where that beach is,” she said aloud. “I don’t even know where that beach is.”
“Hush,” he said. “Don’t talk.”
And she saw her husband. Yellow stalks, heavy and bending almost double with grain fluttered slowly all around him. There was surf sound and spume mist in the air. He was lying on his back, he was lying on the water, it was supporting him, cradling him. There were snakes too, trying to crawl toward him, but the surface of the water was like glass, slick, and the snakes couldn’t move across it. The water held him safe and floating. But all around him was red, and he was dead.
She wanted to cry, but the glassy water was tears after all, and she had none left.
She stared at him, and waited. Until she saw him move. And saw that the water was just water, and it drained away with a falling tide, and the snakes were ripple shadows. He got up and climbed up a little rise of ground and disappeared beyond a clump of trees. He’d been dead and he was alive again . . .
No, he’d been asleep. He was in a plane, and he always fell asleep in planes.
She began to smile, at first, and then she chuckled aloud.
“Why are you laughing? What’s so funny?” “Because there wasn’t anything left. And he came back.”
“For God’s sake.”
Yes, she thought. Yes, indeed.