Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flight 1549

Another ex-employee at the printing plant emailed me these photos of Flight 1549 after it was pulled from the Hudson River. I suppose I hadn't given it much thought that the carcass would be a flatbed swerving around side streets in tiny New Jersey towns, just like when the US military had crashed saucers underneath giant tarps and those same flatbeds drove through those same towns. I try and kid there,because in truth, I'm terrified of flying. The third and fourth photos actually got my heart going, because at least the first two made me thing of a plane on the ground. Mind you, if I had to fly tomorrow, I would, though I really do enjoy Greyhound more than any other method of travel. At the end of the month, I'm going to Mo*Con in Indianapolis to sign books and I might just fly Southwest from Midway. So, while flying terrifies me (even more than those big black ants), I'll still get on a damn plane and not go goofy. Its just one of those deals where you have to realize there isn't a damn thing you can do if things go wrong. Back in 2000, I had a story on an audio CD, PERSONAL DEMONS, and it ties in with that fear. I guess my real fear is that I couldn't write about the plane crashing because I'd be distentegrated...


By Wayne Allen Sallee

The world we build inside ourselves
to dwell in when we die. –Christopher Priest

Any memories of the Dallas skyline I had were the result of the opening credits of the 1970s soap opera of the same name, several action sequences from the X-Files movie, or the occasional anniversary footage of the Kennedy assassination. It was dusk now on a Friday evening in late September and the pilot has already told us that the high in Dallas that day was 97 degrees and that north Texas had not experienced rain in 84 days. My cousins from Kentucky had come to Chicago for a funeral, and when the drought was mentioned by a chipper weather girl on the news that morning, Danny jokingly mentioned that if it rained while I was there, I might be considered a religious figure. Denise realistically added that, once the rain had stopped, I would be then be killed. We laughed about that as I dragged my suitcase out the door to wait for the bus. Twelve hours ago and it seemed an eternity. I am not going to land in Dallas, will not see Dealey Plaza or the old Texas Book Depository or Erik and Jenny or Sid or Christine. The plane is going to crash and I am going to die. I am not sure when it will happen–the plane is not breaking up, it is only spinning out of control–and I blame it on my ignorance on what comes between me in the here and now and the shadowed buildings and expressway arteries somewhere to the west.
My view of the sunset outside and the cabin inside and the creeks and suburbs below is skewered. I am seated in Seat 10F of Flight 257 on any airline you might want to choose to put me in at death and I am guessing that an engine has fallen from the left wing, turning the plane’s slow descent into a carnival ride. Now I am looking at the city sideways and I am thinking how it resembles a stunted bar graph, black lines of various lengths on red-orange presentation paper.
Someone vomits and it sprays onto the overhead luggage bin, dripping away from the window like fat, brown slugs leaving behind a trail of beige syrup. In the seats ahead, at least one person is trying to make a call from their cellphone, and, as ridiculous as that might seem, I cannot fault him, because right now I am talking into my fist-sized cassette recorder.
Of all the things I should be doing in these last minutes of my life, thinking of my family or my God or how ludicrous it is for me to think that this recording will outlast me, and not disintegrate in a way to put than any of the tapes Mr. Phelps heard in every episode of Mission: Impossible to shame. Yet here I am, blabbering away, unheard and unnoticed by everyone else. I look around and think of that line in last winter’s movie...I see dead people. Suddenly I want to start chanting, I see Dallas, I see France, I’m looking up the stewardess’s underpants.
I actually can see her underwear. Her name is Julianna and her hair is black and cropped short and her underpants are powder blue. She has been moving down the aisle collecting shoes, glasses, and jewelry. I keep my glasses momentarily hidden, along with the recorder wedged into my crotch. I need to see my death arrive. At least, I want to see the powder blue panties as more than a blur when Julianna with the close-cropped black hair drops her bundle and starts shoveling the mess of pointy heels and wire frames into the head levorotary.
The entire plane is a white noise of mad desperation so I put my glasses back on not so much to check out Julianna’s ass while is still part of a moving, living body, but that I might be able to describe the frozen moments and ludicrous images past the cuticles of my clenched left fist and the rotating spools of the recorder. My uncorrected sight is that bad. Or was. Or whatever.
I am addressing this to everyone and I really, truly hope that it is not coming out as pleading, because those that beg for mercy and redemption are usually the ones with the biggest egos. Should I be condemned for wanting to witness my life up to the last blink of my eyes before my lids are seared to ash and I can take in one last rush of air before my lungs implode as my ribcage does Mambo#5?
Initially, I thought of directing all of this visceral imagery at Jason Quinn, who is a frequent correspondent from Nova Scotia. Jay had come across my E-mail address via a search engine a year ago, and we would often exchange thoughts and opinions ranging from the true identity of the Zodiac Killer to the current state of both our writing careers. One of the upcoming projects I was involved with was writing a story about a personal demon of sorts. And I’m not talking about human imps like a self-important has-been writer of whom I can’t name but let’s just call him Rumpelstiltskin who creates new melodramas at every convention circuit or assholes who call me Forrest Gump from the windows of speeding cars, nor something as abstract as an imaginary story about an alcoholic whose D.T.’s had their own set of D.T’s giving them the creeps.
And, yes, these are all imaginary stories, to put a fine point to it, but it doesn’t stop the fact that the plane is making the final approach to the Promised Land. Now I can’t get song riffs from my head; Merle Haggard mourning Elvis and telling us that it’s a long way from Memphis to that mansion in the sky and some alternative rock singer from nearly a decade ago bragging I just took out President George, I’m going to Disneyland. Then, for no real reason I can even think of, the Beach Boys singing about their surfin’ hearse, and it’s not that cherry but it could be worse, their surfing hearse.
No, the hearse makes sense. The plane is skimming tree branches and I’m guessing the leaves fly away from the bark like ocean spray, hell, I don’t know. I am amazed that we are still in the air at all. The pilots are probably standing on the pedals pulling up on the steering gear, maybe ripping it from the cockpit dash in adrenaline rushes, the navigator off to the side like a hell-bent Nascar driver warbling it’s a long way from Graceland across Jordan to the Promised Land with the entire plane fuselage quivering vintage 50s Elvis moves.
The plane seems to level off now but that means nothing at this point. We are too close to the ground and Dallas is too distant, a bronze mirage in the sunset. We will not make the runway and none of the interstates below look like they even stay in a straight line, who freaking designed the roads, I might ask. Someone who certainly didn’t want a 737 with 200-odd souls on board attempting to use I-20 as an auxiliary runway. Souls. Everyone on the plane is a soul but only if the plane is going down. An hour ago, somewhere over Missouri or thereabouts, we were all just a couple of hundred braggarts and catnappers, drunkards, bookworms, and simple rubbernecking tourists, craning for a look at the Mississippi River or Julianna’s ample breasts as she reached across the aisles with complimentary soft drinks and shortbread cookies.
Now, amidst waves of vertigo bordering on euphoria, every single person is screaming or sobbing or swearing or praying and one guy is trying to dial out on one of those phones that are attached to the back of the seats but he’s doing a terrible job of swiping a credit card through the slot and here I am with my mouth touching the cassette recorder that the din might be blocked out. I concentrate hard and I can almost taste the copper battery which runs the machine. For all I know, my gums could be bleeding. But I keep talking furtively, my teeth clenched. In other circumstances, someone watching me would think I was practicing tentative kisses, my lips tasting metal. Practicing for prom night at the meat rendering plant.
The man sitting next to me grips my upper arm suddenly, it is a rapid motion like one might use to get someone to snap out of a trance. Without looking at him, from what I remember he is soft and paunchy, a pie face with a goatee and a cancer mole, wearing a vertical-striped shirt because he believed such fashions truly hid girth from those had didn’t have to worry about their weight, without even acknowledging him at first, or our shared fate, I shrug him away, cruel bastard that I am.
By pushing him off, my head turns to the window. I see the bright orange winged ‘W’ of the Whataburger fast food chain and heartlessly want to point the restaurant out to Pie Face. At what point during our descent did he stop thinking about food, I have to wonder. I’m not thinking about food myself, because, frankly, the meat that Whataburger passes off is on a par with the now-defunct Burger Queen restaurant chain in Kentucky. The one good thing about this whole hamburger paragraph is that the distance from the gabled roof of the Whataburger makes me momentarily believe that the plane is gaining some altitude. Maybe things aren’t so bleak.
My lost soul seat-mate paws at my sleeve again; I swivel my head to glare at him, and can see that he has no understanding towards his doom. He had been calm enough, acting out the role of a white collar professional in whose life everything went right and that there were no surprises. He was like this up until that first unanticipated moment when the oxygen masks starting slapping into our foreheads.
My first big jolt at my own mortality, I explained to Jason as I did to others before him, occurred on a Saturday morning in 1989. March 18th. At the intersection of 55th and Fairfield back in Chicago, a place I will never see or hear or smell again. That day the news headlines were about the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Iditerod dog sled race was on the television screen when I left my doctor’s office, only to be plastered by a Dodge Daytona before I had taken three steps into the sleet. For a decade, I could not watch any single moment of the Iditerod dog race coverage on ABC’s Wide World of Sports without every nerve in my brain cringing and curling.
I was unconscious for twenty minutes, my left arm shattered and blood pooling behind my right eye socket. I awoke to the Pakistani man who owned Knobby’s Red Hots telling everybody “not to touch, not to touch.” Both bones in my left forearms had torn through a hooded sweatshirt and suede padded jacket. But I did not swoon or pass dead out when I saw the sickly white shards against the gray of the street and the black of my jacket at all the wrong angles. No, I would deny my surrendering my consciousness away again, not that I had any choice the first time.
And it is because of what I saw when I was gone those twenty minutes on a windy street under a gunmetal sky. And this takes a bit of a setup, so bear with me, Jay. Jesus. Elvis. Kimble. See, I had this odd theory floating around my head that one’s guide into eternity would be the last person perceived in life. Specifically, I do not mean some recent death, family-wise, nor even that of a public figure who carried religious overtones in life, i.e., the Dalai Lama or Mother Theresa. Here, on this crashing plane in September of 2000, it would be Walter Matthau or a man whose name escapes me, but he developed the ideas behind cosmic rays. Let me explain.
My weird afterlife theory–which primarily originated as a short story idea, and what’s that about life imitating art?-- went along the lines of an individual, in the short time preceding his or her death, seeing a now-deceased person on an old television show, a book by a dead author you have on your night stand or in a faded photograph on the wall next to the light switch you see before the darkness (of course, family might apply then). So it was Kimble I saw. Dr. Richard Kimble of Stafford, Indiana, the self-proclaimed Small Town With A Big Heart.
I don’t read before I sleep, and I take my glasses off before I hit that light, so I really only see a blur from the neon clock in those situations. But I often watch television and eat french vanilla ice cream before surrendering myself to Morpheus. In 1989, Channel 50 was running episodes of The Fugitive nighty at eleven. I was always a sucker for that show, particularly the black and white episodes. It had been a b&w episode that evening, “The Girl From Little Egypt.” Kimble’s alias was George Browning and some lady took care of him after she inadvertently ran him down while he was hitchhiking. Maybe the idea of Kimble in delirium after being hit by a car hit on too many levels for me to not associate with while I was unconscious with my arm shoved backwards into my right eye.
But it doesn’t explain the other guy. It was like this; and even though I am primarily a fiction writer, I will swear on my grave (which I am coincidentally currently in its’ fuselage) that this event, Near Death Experience, hallucination, whatever you want to call it, actually occurred.
I do not even know I have been hit. Witnesses say I bounced off the windshield and spun backward like bad guys do in those chop socky movies. I’m in a black and white arena with no background. It is more Kimble than Janssen standing nearby, my guardian host in a sport jacket and white shirt with black tie, loosened at the collar. He is just standing there on nothingness, watching me focus my eyes. He says nothing at first. Then I smell something, like burnt fabric. Like burnt meat. I think I’m at a cookout waking from a nap. There is a hand on my shoulder and I turn. It is Ted Bundy, the co-ed killer who had finally been executed two months earlier. Black lozenges in his forehead from the electric chair skull clamp still smolder. He is wearing a tattered varsity jacket and he is grinning like we are best drinking buddies. I shrug him off, and suddenly find myself standing, my limbs as light as smoke. I start swaying (if I had to pinpoint a word to describe it) towards Kimble and he holds out a cautionary hand. The Fugitive says to me, and this is all I hear while I am taking my temporary dirt nap, “No. It’s not time yet.” And smiles that crooked smile as he did on his show whenever some famous guest star’s character told him how he looked familiar, and did they ever meet before. On the show, he’d always comment something like he simply had a common-enough face.
The next voice I heard was the Pakistani saying “Not to touch, not to touch,” and I was back. I realized later that the t-shirt I had worn to bed had Bundy on the front and when I got home from the hospital eighteen days later, I threw the shirt in the garbage, and even now my nightwear consists of shirts bearing the symbols of Superman, Green Lantern, or the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office. And in those days that the bones in my arm could not be reattached due to the bleeding in my brain, and, because of my crippled right hand, I learned to dial the phone with my nose and empty my bladder by dangling over the bed head first while balancing a plastic container cupped under my chin because I was too embarrassed to have anyone else help me. Wether I was on Demerol or not, or in physical therapy or not, I thought about Richard Kimble telling me it wasn’t time yet. And I told no one, not even the hospital chaplain.
I had nine operations on my arm in the next fifteen months, eventually missing most of my circulatory system but with part of my right hip bone grafted into my left forearm. Each time I was wheeled into surgery, everything blurry because my glasses were back in the hospital room, I would fight the anesthesia, holding my breath, taking quick blinks with my eyes, looking at everything I could make out. Hating the fact that I am being made to lose consciousness against my own will, I didn’t want to fill my lungs with the cold gases and see The Fugitive or The Co-Ed Killer in another reality I did not want to be a part of. You have to count out loud backwards from one hundred, and once I made it to eighty-two. The gas doctor had to double my dose. A country station was on the radio and a guy was saying on how he heard Elvis singing “Blue Suede Shoes” and then I woke up on fire with my arm packed in ice and hanging above me just like before.
I swore then that I would never cower before Death.
In the last E-mail I received from Jason, we discussed the BTK Strangler of Wichita and if he had ever stopped killing completely after the last Kansas murder in 1979, maybe traveling on or going to jail for something just as bad as torture-killings. Could upcoming DNA testing prove anything, Jason pondered. I know I’m talking in narrative form now, Jason, I’m just tired. Trying to say as much as I can before the end. And wouldn’t it be a pip if the BTK Strangler, still free and unknown, was on this plane right now? Maybe it’s the big plan to sacrifice all of us so that the Wichita killer finally gets to witness the true wraith of God. Oh, hey, here’s a story title I came up with, concerning fallen angels at a beach party. Seraphim, U.S.A. You can have it. Use it or pass it on to someone else, you want to.
The guy next to me is clutching at my wrist now as if he is looking for my pulse. The guy with the cell phone shouts to be heard over the other passengers’ screams, but it reverbs in a tinny sound, like an intercom does. Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard, Father Son, and The Holy Ghost, Burma Shave.
Hey! If someone is using a cellular phone, maybe there’s a laptop on board. I can E-mail Jason! I mean, I can E-mail you, Jason. Emphasize on you. This isn’t a narrative.
Because narratives stop when the narrator dies.
I’m wondering if I need to put the oxygen mask on; I feel giddy, talking in exclamation points and italics...what the hell happened here? The skies were clear. No wind shear, no mid-air collision. The engine just falls apart like a piece of faulty Commonwealth Edison equipment? No one has made any type of announcement about what happened, one stewardess is trying to revive another one who has fainted, several people are making mad swipes for the liquor cart, and the pilots are certainly too busy clenching their teeth and hissing mad proclamations to the D/FW control tower to actually take the time to tell us anything, even out of courtesy. Even a simple Know Your Exits And Prepare For Impact would do. I’m thinking an engine fell off only because its been the cause of so many plane crashes before this one.
The plane does a complete spin now and I think the end is close. The nose of the plane is pointed straight at the ground. I can see the clever newspaper headline headlines. Jet Death Plunge on the front page, Obscure Chicago Writer Positively I.D.d by Spleen Found in Swimming Pool Near Crash Site would be a related story maybe a week from now.
But only if it was a slow news day.
Oddly enough, Jay, instead of feeling nauseous, I feel relaxed. Way too relaxed, if you ask me. My skin is tingling all over, like it does when the dental hygienist pokes around in my mouth, the crisp cuff of her white jacket rubbing against my neck. I milked a story out of that and sold it to Penthouse; did the same after getting a sponge bath in the weeks after the car hit me. The nurse looked like Dana Delaney straight from China Beach, but instead of green fatigues it was that same concise, white linen. After she left me, I leered after her piston ass cheeks as she walked across the hall. She rolled an elderly Lithuanian man over so that he would not get bed sores. The guy was in a coma, delirious and alone in the world. But I always wondered if, in the gray land behind his atrophied eyelids, did he actually feel her touch, the caress of an angel in the morning. The man died later that same day, and as far as I know, no one claimed the body. Funny I should think of that old, old man while the plane twirls towards impact. What do you make of that, Jason? Just curious.
The two guys occupying the seats behind me, one was from Cedar Rapids, and with the middle seat empty they took it upon themselves to yap loudly through the course of the flight, the guy behind me braying with every comment either of the two made. I had been reading an advance copy of Joe Curtin’s Daughters Of The Moon, but had to stop because it was impossible to concentrate the way I wanted to when digesting the novel. Cedar Rapids pontificated on the July 19th air traffic slowdown at O’Hare, the other one, the closet comedian, I could imaging nodding his head sagely at the proper moments. He claimed to be a project manager for a software company he didn’t name. Now the braying has turned into bawling and I’m so relaxed from being rotated that I could pick up Curtin’s book again.
Unfortunately, it’s somewhere else now, maybe three aisles up and slammed against a briefcase or a hand bag. Guy can’t even take a book with him when he goes to see God, ha ha. When I was in the hospital with the head and arm injuries, I had quite a few stories making the rounds to the small press magazines of the times. I thought of my mortality back then, with both arms useless and my head feeling like my eyes were being scooped out with a lemon baller, the cheap kind you buy at the Under-A-Dollar store.
If I had died that March, before the month was out, four magazines would arrive in the mail that had my stories or poems within. The most ironic was GAS#6, which touted itself as the Let’s Laugh At Death issue. After this time, who knows? Haven’t written or sold that much in awhile, most of what I have written will appear electronically. My computer will stay off, downloads from Nightclown or Cousin Slick going unnoticed, my story for Brian Hopkins’ CD anthology staying forever unfinished. How does one’s demise affect cyberspace, Jason? Again, just curious. Maybe I’ll have an answer before you will.
I can smell the fear in the air. Outside the window, the sparse clouds speed by like ghost roadkill, a piece of cellophane hits my wrist. I am surprised that the shortbread cookie supplier lists a website address instead of an 800 number for comments. The fuselage is rattling now, those crying are now sighing resignedly, and my own voice is spoken in quick gasps, as if I am grabbing handfuls of oxygen and now I’m actually chewing on my knuckles. Everything had been going so cinematically slow, just the way I wanted, and now events happen between quick blinks.
8:16 in the evening, Friday, the 22nd of September in the year 2000.
Blurs of green and brown and blue outside. Hairline cracks like marker drawings appear to jump from window to window diagonally, pieces of tissue and cellophane whirlpooling into the crevices. Know Your Exits, I’m thinking. Right now, with uprooted tree trunks visibly bending the bottom of the plane below my feet, I know of only one exit left. The way the floor shakes is worse than being on a city transit bus with bad suspension rods. The movement works its way into the arms and back of the seat and I can feel my fingers going numb and my bladder constricting. Everything around me carries the sound of a tornado.
The temperature rises in the cabin. Blood drips from my right ear and nostril and steams against the recorder molded to my hand. Falling power lines sound like whips cracking and the overhead compartments open and an open laptop shears off Julianna the stewardess’ face like a slice of cheese and it sticks like velcro to the middle seatback in front of me. It looks at me upside down, the blood vessels still attached keeping it tight against the seat’s fabric. The oxygen masks ignite like images in a Salvador Dali painting.
The cockpit door flies from its hinges and bright white light envelopes the cabin. I blink but it is useless, I can see the light on the insides of my eyelids, so I tilt my head forwards with the ultimate curiosity. If what I experienced a decade ago follows through, after I am ash I will see Roberta Kaminski, the woman who was waked two nights ago. She had a kidney removed, then died at home of a heart attack. Her dog found her. But I can’t see the darkness through the light yet, and then my eyelids spark. My lips burn off, my tongue dissolves. But I don’t die.
Worse yet, I’m still talking, again in a normal tone of voice. This should not be. Why is it taking so long to die? More faces are ripped from skulls of the people around me, layering on the seats in front of me. Some are masks of careless tears, and I can only see a forehead above eye holes on the one closest to me. It stares at me, the brow wrinkling, like a living face behind a surgical mask. Then my lungs fill with cold fluids and I die trying to breathe through a hundred holes in my throat and chest.
The plane has stopped moving but I am still flying. I open my eyes and see myself in a hospital bed below. I hear myself talking to Jason in my mind. The plane landed in water near the Naval Air Station. Most everyone survived with cuts and bruises. I was taken from the plane with bits of plastic and metal from the recorder in my eyes and brain. Please come get me, Jason.
I had to see it through to the end, I was so selfish. The doctors have tried intracortical magnetic resonance to stimulate my brain and have electrically shocked my Vagus nerve in my spinal cord, but there is no visible cerebral activity. Tower, are you getting all this? Tower, do you read? I can’t blink. Unplug me!!! Jason, if you can hear me or are reading this in some manner I cannot understand in my current condition, come find me and end my life even if you have to push my hospital bed out the window. You should see the view...
What I can see of the skyline is skewered. I am sitting in Seat 10F on Flight 257 of whatever airline you might want to put me in at the time of my death...

Wayne Allen Sallee
Burbank IL:22Sept-15 Oct 2000