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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.

“It happens.”

“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?”

“Hardly.”

“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.”

“Fresno.”  As if suddenly she’s discovered that the monkey thing was true.  “Who’s in Fresno?”

“My wife.”

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?”

“Didn’t say.”

“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.

The alligator gar was a magnificent fish.  Even in the dark room, it glittered: long, a ribbon of dimes floating in the tank.  Empty tank, clear water.  Seen from the bed, the gar seemed more like a static picture behind gray glass as if it would never move.  And, in truth, Hoki had not seen it travel more than an inch forward or back in the enormous tank.  The fish never showed more than the slightest muscular ripple, its tailfin drifting gently to the side.  The tank filled the top half of the wall beside the bed.  Hoki watched the fish.  The fish watched Hoki.

“Stop it,” said Rina.

He heard the flick of her lighter, the hiss of her cigarette.  Hoki lay on his side, his back to her, his head resting on his arm.  He often woke in that position, staring at the gar, listening to Rina’s quiet breathing or to her already moving around her house.  The mouth of the enormous fish was slightly open, flensing the water back through its gills.  It’s row of white teeth like a saw.  It’s black button-eye in a silver iris.

“How can it know I’m watching?” he said.

“It knows.”  Smoke in the dark.  The fat hiss of her long black cigarette with a golden band where the filter began.  “It can feel you.  Trust me.”

Rina felt things like that.  She always knew when to call, knew when he was asleep.  Hoki often wondered how she managed it.  Rina never did what he expected.  He’d turn in mid-sentence and Rina would be dreaming, her breathing deep and slow.  But when he was least expecting it, in the middle of the night, in the dark hours of the morning: the flick of her lighter, the hiss, the gar looking at him through tinted glass.

Hoki rolled onto his back.  Bars of moonlight through the blinds striped rumpled sheets, Rina’s thigh.

“So tell me its name.”

“Stop asking.”

“You can’t just keep it there in an empty tank.  It’s inhumane.”

She laughed.  The cigarette hissed.  “I’ll be the judge of what’s humane for my fish.”

Hoki didn’t look at her.  He slid off the bottom of the bed, walked barefoot down the long oak hallway in the dark—warm wood, even in winter, even without turning on the heater.  Wood that made the soles of one’s feet feel good, that cost a lot of money.  Not his wood.  Not his money.

Not his bathroom, either.  Hoki waved his hand over the switch.  The lights came on dim, got brighter until he waved his hand again.  He didn’t want it too bright that early in the morning, after a night with Rina.  Hoki rubbed his eyes.  His spiky black hair seemed to have gotten grayer at the temples.  At 33, he felt twice that.  These nights with Rina were sending him to an early grave.

“What are you doing?” she called.  “Get back in here.”

Everything in the bathroom  was dusty blue marble and steel.  He took a cotton ball from a chrome jar and soaked it in rubbing alcohol from a bottle below the sink.  Hoki knew where everything was—the bottle of codeine; the dark towels Rina’s husband, David, never used; David’s bottle of Viagra that had given Hoki the most painful and long-lasting erection of his life; the sterile needle and thread taped underneath the middle drawer just in case.  His shoulder might have needed re-stitching this time if Rina had kept on.  The places where her bites had punctured his skin burned when he swabbed them.  He washed his face and dabbed it dry with a burgundy towel that he re-folded and placed beneath a neat stack of identical towels in the side cabinet.

“Baby get in here.”  Rina was not a patient woman.  But there was one last thing.  Hoki found the tube of Preparation-H where he’d left it beside the rubbing alcohol.  He carefully smeared a bit under each eye, where the skin had begun to sag, and counted up to fifty.  Baggy, tired eyes were not acceptable, even in the dark.

When he went back to the bedroom, he felt more put-together.  He stood beside the bed.  Rina ran her fingers over his stomach muscles while she finished the last of her cigarette.  She smiled.  The sheet had bunched in her lap, bars of moonlight across her breasts, the black ringlets of her hair.

“You’ll tell me its name someday,” he said.

“Don’t waste time.”  She blew a line of smoke and threw the sheet aside.

He climbed onto the bed and went down on her, realizing too late that he had forgotten to wipe off a bit of the Preparation-H below his left eye.  There was no fixing it now.

Hoki dressed while she was showering.  His T-shirt and jeans smelled like sex.  She’d bought him a new pair of Bottega Ventanas on a whim and Hoki made sure to wear them when he came over.  They still smelled like new shoes.  But eventually everything he wore would smell like her Sobraines, her Clive Christian at $800 an ounce.  The black marble box with white veins sat on a narrow table right below the tank.  Just large enough for six crisp $100 bills.  Hoki folded the money, put it in his back pocket.  The gar stared.  And Hoki paused as if the gar were about to speak, to explain everything.

“I’ll get your name,” he whispered.  “You’ll see.”

The gar’s tailfin flicked gently.  It’s gills expanded, contracted.

Hoki always waited until Rina left the room before he went to the box.  It was good that way and it wasn’t vulgar.  Then he went down the hallway in the dark.  She wanted him gone by the time she got out of the shower.  That was part of it, the night over and a new day beginning.  He keyed the house alarm and closed the front door behind him.  By the time David got home from the airport, the sheets would be changed, windows open, another black Sobraine between her lips.

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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