After graduation, after a divorce, after an election
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Her mail kept coming for several months.
This was a problem for Gavin, who would not read it and could not, in good conscience, throw it away. It assailed him every time he opened the mailbox; it accumulated on the kitchen table. The utility bills — all in her name — were the worst. When he’d called the phone company to have the name on the bill changed, they had wanted to know who he was. If Sharon wanted service canceled, they had told him, she would have to put this in writing. Explaining his relationship to Sharon had always been a problem. Telling them that she was dead had been more than he could bear.
There was insurance money too; a lot, it turned out. The idea of being a beneficiary — the word rang hollow in his head — was another irony.
She had called from the airport in Minneapolis-St. Paul to tell him she’d be late. He’d been busy, irritated, which was not unusual. All he’d wanted was the new flight information. They would meet in the usual place. He would call the airline before leaving the house to confirm that the flight was on time.
Did he love her?
He’d said he did and hung up.
Before heading to the airport, he had called to check on the flight. He’d dialed the 800 number and punched in the flight, but instead of an arrival time, the synthesized voice on the other end had told him to hold for an attendant.
“You’re calling for information on flight 229N?” a woman’s voice had asked him brightly. Then she had softened, become a bit more tentative. “Did you have a relative on board?”
Gavin had lied without a moment’s hesitation.
He had phoned her parents immediately, something he’d never done before; had called her mother Mrs. Sloan, another first. That and the tone of his voice was all it took.
“Oh, my God,” Sharon’s mother had whispered. “What’s happened?”
The plane had come terribly close to a safe landing. But what had gone wrong was never adequately explained. They had circled for fifteen minutes before heading into the airport from the east, over the Hudson, across the turnpike. They should have come in from the north or south.
“They were off the glide path,” her father had muttered for months — which was true. Ninety degrees off, which was difficult to comprehend.
Sharon’s last view must have been the Jersey meadowlands at night, a sea of lights, thousands of filaments burning hot in partial vacuums, red marker lights along the highway.
Although the black box was never recovered, the flight recorder never played, the voice of the pilot lived in Gavin’s head: a gravelly voice, vaguely Southern, calm, avuncular, just short of bored, reciting the weather in the New York metropolitan area, anticipated time of arrival, information for people with connecting flights, our thanks for your patronage. There must have been more, just an addendum of explanation: we’re a little backed up this evening, ladies and gentlemen, been having trouble getting runway clearance, and she’s awful heavy; just gonna set her down on the turnpike here, taxi in the rest of the way, nothing to be concerned about, really. That and then contact, plowing across sixteen lanes of traffic into a tanker truck: Exxon, super unleaded.
The question was: Why? It echoed and rolled, waking Gavin up at night with sounds and shapes, mistaken silhouettes, her name spoken while he was still groggy from sleep.
Is that you? No. You’re dead. Still.
There was a lot of insurance money: a quarter of a million dollars. Even after he gave half to Sharon’s parents, there was still over a hundred thousand left — enough, he was sure, to last him five years. There would probably be a class-action suit, too. There was a series of investigations: the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board, lawyers for relatives; everyone wanted a piece. There were questions: about maintenance, about the fitness of the pilot and copilot, about the air-traffic controllers and what had been going on in the tower. It didn’t appear that anyone had been in charge, that regulations were being enforced, or that there even were clear regulations for anything.
Gavin listened to the radio, sorted through his life. On the radio the news was of junk bonds and corporate takeovers.
He gave Sharon’s clothes to the Salvation Army, keeping an India-print skirt that she had worn mostly to outdoor concerts. He gave her books to the library. As he got rid of her things, he pared his own down as well. Fewer books, fewer records, fewer papers: their nostalgic value somehow eluded him now. Why had they kept these things? What could they have been thinking of?
He dreamed of fires. Sometimes he could see Sharon smiling at him through the flames, approving, reassuring. But sometimes he panicked. On the turnpike, he waded through lane after lane of twisted metal, safety glass bubbling in the heat, his lungs too seared to scream, moving toward the fuselage, toward the driver of the fuel truck, who, his body ablaze, was doing jumping jacks to keep people back. The plane was like a sausage on a grill about to split its casing. He could see through it, walk through it — he couldn’t really stop himself. Inside there was no sound, as if his ears had suddenly been filled with warm oil. Charred bodies, skin reduced to red and black ash, writhed and struggled in the aisles. He was never able to find Sharon.
The radio became his constant companion. From somewhere in the swamps of Secaucus came the grating yet reassuring voice of Byron Armond and his nonstop call-in show, “Let’s Hear It,” on WIQB. His callers were angry people venting spleen: hard-core unionists railing at the government, conspiracy theorists from the wilds of New Jersey — comrades in an invisible network. Gavin listened. Now and then, he nodded.
There was the temptation to talk back to the radio, but he fought it. He was tempted to call in himself, but he fought this, too. Lunatics do that, he thought. They’re all out of their minds.
There was a total of four monthly dinners with Sharon’s parents. But what did they have to say to each other? He and Sharon should have gotten married; they would have — it had been scheduled for the nonspecific future. Then he would have had a dead wife to grieve for, and the connection to her parents would have been solidified. He would have been legitimized. That was what he lacked.
On the radio, they were talking about a shakeout in the airline industry, competition, consolidation. What did this mean? Prosperity. Growth. Vigor. All for the best. Of course, there were futile acts of resistance, strikes and strike breakers, pickets and scabs. But the airlines were being deunionized. It was easy: Chapter 11 and out of the contracts; back in business under a new name, or the same name and new management, or the same name and management but new employees — no more union rules to slow things down. Make the maintenance people hustle. Good for the economy.
Periodically, amid the nonstop cleaning exercise that Gavin’s life had become, amid the unaccustomed leisure time that felt nothing like the way he had ever imagined it would be, people would ask him, sometimes with concern, but increasingly with a hard edge to it: So, what are you going to do? The question put him in mind of high school, of being jostled in the cafeteria or menaced in the locker room: So what are you gonna do? So what are you gonna do?
On the radio, people made suggestions: rallies to attend, petitions to sign, causes to support.
Sharon’s father said it was the FAA. It was the fact that Reagan had fired the air-traffic controllers, that the ones who remained were overworked and undertrained. It was the union busting and the relaxing of safety standards. It was murder.
“This whole country,” Gavin said to him, “is off the glide path.”
“Yeah,” Sharon’s father said softly. “Way off.”
Gavin went to the Mail Shoppe and picked up an overnight envelope, one of the big ones. He bought an overcoat, an orange shirt, black pants, and a baseball cap to match. Then he went home to plan, although he already knew in minute detail what he was going to do. He rifled through the phone book, burrowed into road maps.
Then he was on the turnpike, driving north, going faster than he should, the radar detector chirping on the sun visor. Near the airport, there were new steel-and-cement dividers, band-aids slapped over the wounds that flight 229N had opened up. At the speed he was going, they were only a blur. It was hard to tell anything had happened here. Hard to feel, beneath the wheels of the speeding car, the seams where new asphalt had been laid to replace the old that had boiled and evaporated in a black plume of smoke visible as far away as Delaware.
It was dark when he left the turnpike. Slowly, the smell of the refineries was replaced by the smell of the Jersey swamps: part brackish water, part garbage. In the distance he could see a tower spangled with red warning lights. He drove toward it.
The WIQB office might once have been a warehouse or a small factory. All corrugated metal, it could have been an airplane hangar. The antenna tower was in a field less than a mile away. The parking lot held only three cars.
“OK, OK, OK,” Gavin reassured himself before getting out of the car. He pounded on the steering wheel twice, like a football player slapping a teammate’s shoulder pads. Then he gathered his overcoat around him, tucked the overnight envelope under his arm, and walked stiffly into the building.
Brandishing the envelope like a security pass, he swept through the door and past the secretary. She called behind him. “Sir? You can’t —”
“Rush letter,” he called back. “Armond —” He could see the broadcast booth just off to his left, a glass cage, a lighted sign: ON THE AIR. “Need a signature,” he said over his shoulder. If he got into the booth before she got to him, he’d be all right.
“Sir —” the secretary said again, this time closer. But Gavin’s hand was already on the doorknob. Then he was through, closing the door quickly and quietly behind him. The secretary glared at him angrily from the other side of the glass. In front of him, a cigarette poised in his hand like a conductor’s baton, shirt sleeves rolled up, sweat stains at the armpits, was Byron Armond, nodding as he talked into the microphone. Without pausing or looking up, he waved dismissively in the direction of the glass, sending the secretary back to her desk.
“You’re right,” Armond said into the microphone, throwing a switch that cut off the caller. “And now we have to go to a break.” He threw another switch, slammed a cartridge into a slot, pushed the microphone away, and dragged deeply on his cigarette. Then he swiveled to face Gavin, who was leaning against the wall near the door.
Armond’s hair was jet black and curly, just going gray in the front. There were bags under his blue eyes and his face was pouchy.
“OK,” he said neutrally.
Gavin had let the envelope fall to the floor. Even over the cigarette smoke and the accumulated odors of the broadcast booth, he could smell his own sweat. His voice was less cooperative than he had hoped it would be. “I want . . . to talk.”
Armond dragged again on his cigarette. In the background, the commercial was winding down. He gestured for Gavin to sit and turned back to the console. Gavin warily complied.
More switches, the stubbing out of the cigarette, a slow exhalation of smoke. Armond pulled the microphone toward himself, his eyes back on Gavin, and then, changing his mind, inserted another cartridge into the slot. He pointed the microphone toward the floor, as if to say they were off the air, shrugged his shoulders, and pushed his chair gently backward to give Gavin room.
Softly, sympathetically, with only a hint of the irony that usually imbued his speech, he asked, “And what do you want to talk about?”
“Deregulation,” Gavin said, almost inaudibly. And he began to cry.
Donald N. S. Unger