One mile out of Chicago O’Hare the plane turned around, grounded, the flight to Los Angeles cancelled due to a burning engine and pounds of ice in the wings. Three degrees Fahrenheit and a column of smoke on the runway. I sit by the gate and watch the fire trucks spray, their flashing red lights piercing the dull gray blizzard. Inside the terminal, the heat has overcompensated and those of us now waiting on standby are sweating, eyes watering, human cargo left to suppurate. When I try to call my wife, the little triangle on my phone blinks red.
People pace in front of the gate and stare out the glass windows, uncertain, deplaned. I stare, with everyone else, at the nervous, middle-aged man who had started talking loudly about terrorists as soon as he got on the plane. He is being detained by hard-looking Homeland Security ladies wearing surgical gloves and nightsticks on their hips. His eyes are wide, mouth hanging slightly open. They hold his arms and hustle him into their golf cart. Every now and then the former passengers shoot mean looks at the airline agent behind the desk who seems both bewildered and terrified, her blonde hair sprayed up like the crest of a frozen wave. She speaks into three telephones at once and taps on her keyboard.
Over by the news stand, a young, fat woman in florescent polyester growls at her three children as if she hasn’t had more than an animal thought since civics class, senior year of high school, last year. She screams at her boys not to scream and swats them with her open hand. They shriek and run in circles, listening to her probably as much as she listened when she was their age—as much as necessary to know where food, feces, and shiny things go. Her post-adolescent husband sits at the small round table. He has a military haircut, acne, and a black T-shirt. He stares despondently into his fruit cup. Occasionally, his wife turns to him and says something hard-edged, after which he says, “Behave,” to the kids. And they do not. They squeal and run.
“Can you believe this shit?” asks the guy in the row of seats behind me. He’s wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and a Dodgers cap. He has a silver ring on every finger and two on each thumb, the Tribune open on his lap.
“No, dude, this doesn’t happen.”
Delicate, porcelain-skinned Japanese women in black leather, drift into the terminal. They don’t sit. A swarthy, Cockney-looking man missing his right ear holds up a sign for them in kanji. He smiles to them, bows. They smile and nod. He says something and their laughter is soft and sudden like the wings of birds leaping into flight.
Bing Crosby’s White Christmas plays in the ceiling.
“Look at that,” I say, as much to myself as to the guy behind me. “People don’t hold up signs at the gate anymore.”
“Yakuza,” says my new friend.
The kids shriek in unison, what I imagine tearing plate glass might sound like—a high-pitched squeak under a hiss, the alien keening of something being rent that was meant to shatter instead.
Linda, the flight attendant, has been divorced twice. She still wears an engraved, white-gold sorority ring, Cal Poly, Tri-Delta, ’98. Linda has no children. She likes to keep fit. She’s a Scorpio by birth by a Virgo by nature. This is what Linda has told me. She likes to sit in the terminal with the passengers because pilots, she says, are all the same.
“What about flight attendants?”
She rolls her eyes. She has folded her blue uniform blazer on the seat beside her. We are the only people in our row of interlocked plastic seats, but I can feel the guy with the rings listening behind me. “What do you do?”
“I’m a monkey trainer,” I say, “for a circus in San Dimas.”
Linda smiles like she doesn’t believe me. “I’ve been to San Dimas.”
“You’ve been everywhere, right?”
“I bet you’ve been to Togo.”
She laughs and shakes her head. “What’s in Togo?”
I drink the last of my coffee and watch the young mother shake a child with one hand while she holds the other by the back of his collar. Her face is round and scarlet, a rare moon glimpsed only on the feast days of certain Confucian saints—the hard, terrible, idiocy of nature, raw and elemental.
“Monkeys. Hundreds of them. That’s where we get them.”
“You’re funny.” Linda smoothes a strand of hair away from her face and leans toward me, hands on her knees. “Funny’s good.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
We look at each other. She smiles. I blink slowly and massage my temples.
“So where are you headed?”
“Fresno.” As if suddenly she’s discovered that the monkey thing was true. “Who’s in Fresno?”
When a structure burns long enough that the outer layers are consumed, the frame will linger in place for a time, glowing veins of fire sunk into the crossbeams, now part of them. There may even be a point where the fire is the only thing holding it all together. Linda’s expression is suddenly like that—held together with flame and not much else.
“Great.” She leans back, hands no longer on her knees. “You sure you’re not a pilot?”
“Once you spend time around monkey trainers, you’ll see we’re all the same.”
Linda stands and shakes out her jacket. “I’ve got to catch a plane.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Go fuck yourself,” she says.
“What a bitch, says the guy in the Dodgers cap behind me. His silver rings click on the molded plastic seat beside me when he leans over. “She say she was a stewardess? What airline?”
“Yeah. Don’t feel bad, dude. She’s full of it.”
An elderly couple creeps across the terminal, the old woman bent over, almost horizontal to the ground. Her husband held her arm. He looks upright and wiry with that spark of nervous energy people get from eating right and worrying their whole lives.“Where’s the wheelchair?” he yells. “Come on. Can’t we get a wheelchair?” People stream around him. He glares at them as if, through the act of glaring, one of them will be unmasked as the wheelchair bringer.
“Then again,” says the guy behind me, “maybe she could have hooked you up with some flights. There’s that.”
“I’m a cop.”
“Jesus Christ.” He stares at the side of my face, betrayed somehow, then moves three rows back. I can feel him staring at the back of my head.
I tell him I’m kidding, but he looks away.
The old woman collapses, and those formerly streaming past now stand in a circle around her making nervous sounds. People with walkie-talkies run and join them. Paramedics arrive with a gurney. The husband stands by with tears in his eyes. “The wheelchair,” he says. “We needed the wheelchair.”
The kids and their parents all seem temporarily mesmerized by the scene, waiting for something else dramatic to happen. The mother’s face is no longer red but, like her kids, is suffused with expectation. I think of Linda cruising somewhere above the clouds, thinking about earlier, happier Tri- Delta times.
A woman sets a small wire dog carrier down on the seat beside me and asks if I’ll keep an eye on it while she uses the bathroom. I say okay. Inside, a little terrier puppy blinks up at me through the bars. It’s white with black spots and a tiny pink smudge on its nose. It wags its tail, distracted only by the new shrieks of the kids—no longer interested in the old woman being wheeled away. I raise my eyebrows and give the puppy Linda’s disbelieving smile. It sighs and puts its head down on its paws. And we wait.