Lowell drowsed on the flight home until an impressive chunk of the fuselage broke open and twelve passengers flew away. Attendants and the nugget-sized doodads airlines put food in flapped through the aisle between the carts used to dispense the doodads. The wind made wicked sounds and while the plane jolted, the belongings that had been in passengers’ laps lifted into the air and twirled away. When belongings such as these are in sudden jeopardy priorities suddenly reorient themselves.
Lowell’s airport paperback had gone off; so had his Old Irish on the rocks, complimentary headset and pillow. The relevance of red ant colonies as a metaphor for cutthroat workplace maneuvers; the constitution of decent whiskey when drunk in cheap plastic cups; and smooth jazz no longer mattered. Lowell watched the wind whip them away. The Old Irish may have jumped into his neighbor’s lap, where a puddle now lay. This passenger had represented an ideal neighbor. He slept; sat by the window; and did not pitch his elbow over the armrest. Now the body next to him had become a mounted bust, shot while gnashing its teeth. The man’s nails dug into Lowell’s wrist; the man’s lips skidded around his face, he spit all over Lowell’s cheek, “Tell me your name! Tell me your name!”
Like the book, Old Irish and music, Lowell’s name had become less important. Through his neighbor’s window Lowell saw suitcases breaking open and their insides come thrashing out, visible by the little lights on the wings, pouring into a delta and then fading into the dark. Clearly the better part of the plane had remained sound and therefore the better part of the luggage might come through unscathed. He leaned over the neighbor’s lap and thought he saw his box flying end over end through the air, spilling everything inside into the dark.
Once he thought it might be the box, Lowell felt a sensation he’d known only once, years before. Lowell and his wife had been instructed to sit on little metal chairs with rubber cushions on the opposite side of the Chief of Security’s desk. The man, an eruption trapped inside a beige authoritarian outfit with a badge, used a small screwdriver to scrape gunk from under his fingernails. He flicked a bit from its edge off to the floor. “You say you were at the People Eater?” he said and pointed at a map of the amusement park with the screwdriver. “Here?”
“And you let him go inside by himself?”
“Yes,” Lowell said.
“Yeah, huh?” He began scraping his nails again until he got another bit and wiped the nail against his collar and looked at it.
“Yeah, that’s not a good idea. Need to keep an eye on ’em. People Eater, though. That’s what do you call it. Ironic.”
Fern said, “I had gone to the funnel cake stand. Lowell’s an arachnophobe so Carlos went in on his own and. . . . ”
“Yeah, well you see what happens. Children must be attended at all times. See?” He pointed at a white plastic plaque screwed into the wall behind his desk. Engraved red letters said Children Must be Attended at All Times.
“He has a little thing. A birthmark,” Lowell said fingering his ear. “A little flap of skin on his right earlobe. Like a little bell.”
“A thing on his ear?”
“A birthmark,” Fern said.
“And a baseball cap with a dinosaur.”
“What kind of dinosaur?”
“What does it matter what kind of dinosaur?” Fern asked.
“And light blue eyes. Almost white.”
“This kid’s an albino?”
“What’s the boy’s name you said?”
The phone rang. “Yeah.” He listened. “Yeah.” He rolled his head back and forth and made a puppet mouth yap yap with his hand. “Yeah. . . . All right. . . . I’ll grab something over by the commissary . . . Wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure would I?” He hung up. “One sec.” The Chief of Security cracked his neck and stood. He threw the screwdriver down on the desk and went out of the office.
A while passed and Lowell tried to open the door. The Chief of Security had locked it behind him. A wall next to the door had a large window with blinds. Lowell spread two slats with his fingers. A security guard was handing over a large bag to the Chief of Security, who opened it and lifted out the People Eater’s large orange tarantula-like head and a pair of oversized, white puffy gloves. The Chief of Security turned the mask over in his hands and raised it to his nose. The security guard took a cap out of the bag. The guard was frightened. Lowell sat back down.
The Chief of Security came back in and set a small tennis shoe and the dinosaur cap on the desk. “These your boy’s?” Lowell looked at the shoe’s sole. It said “Carlos.”
On the plane, Lowell stared at his box tumbling out of sight at the far edge of the window and felt what he had felt when he saw the shoe.
Yellow rubber kidneys fell from the panels near the reading light and stewardess buttons; most passengers began tying them to their mouths. Not the crazed steward who had been knocked unconscious by a wild laptop and was being flipped about by turbulence in the aisle. Also not the woman who had jerked hers too hard; ripped it loose; and looked at it in her hands.
Then everything was everywhere. Lowell walked through broken bags, airline seats, curls of fuselage, electronic devices, baseball caps, broken Duty Free bottles of whiskey, peanut packets, an inordinate number of tampons. Columns of steam moved away into the night from scattered hot bits of plane. The co-pilot stood on a rock and shouted through a rolled up magazine. Lowell stepped through the hole and looked up the luggage hull. Small fires burned some suitcases and chests inside. “I’m ruined,” Lowell said.
Lowell’s brown box flew bottom-over-top through the sky until its lid went off in another direction and the folders demanded by the inquest committee flapped open and the wind spread hundreds of documents apart until the pages flapped away from one another and curled down over miles of ocean and the waves wheeled them under into the dark water, which eventually became still and the moon and stars could float on it again.
Lowell’s shoes left dirt and ash from the plane on the carpet where he stood between the parlor doors. “There’s a delivery for you downstairs,” he said. “Tony’s bringing a crate up for you.”
“You’re home.” Fern folded her catalogue and set it on her lap, “that must be my jam. Eileen . . . ”
Lowell crumpled into the other wingback chair without removing his coat.
“And your trip? Did everything go well?”
“Aren’t we all? Eileen! It’s really a disaster, isn’t it? I have half a mind to phone Senator Rorty myself. Who on earth do they think they are? Passing regulations like that? Really. Eileen!
“Ah. There you are. Now . . . Tony’s bringing up a crate. It’s my jam . . . I want you to be sure he’s careful with it. And have him put it in the pantry. And don’t tip more than five dollars.”
“Would you like a drink, darling? I’m having a negroni. Would you like a negroni?”
“Oh have one. I’m having another. Eileen could you? Ah. Eileen . . . Bring us two negronis please.”
“Make sure he’s careful with my jams now.” She returned to her catalogue.
The boy came into the room. “I need money.”
“Oh, Claude. Your father’s home.”
“Don’t you have anything to say to your father?”
“Hey,” he flipped his chin a little at Lowell.
The boy looked at Lowell through a pair of light blue sunglasses. Lowell looked up at the boy who then took off the glasses and looked at his father with intent detachment. There was a ring pierced into the boy’s eyebrow that hadn’t been there before.
“Oh your father’s having his ideas again. Aren’t you, darling? What a stick-in-the-mud you are!” She made a pish-posh gesture at Lowell. “Honestly.”
“I need some money.”
She went to the table by the door. The boy looked threateningly at Lowell, who wore a vanished passenger’s muddy coat, until Fern came back. “Here.” She opened the purse and set bills down on the boy’s open hand and closed the purse and picked up her catalogue and sat down.
The boy looked at the money in his hand. “I can’t have eighty-five?”
Fern sighed and added bills onto the other bills, which he closed up in a fist; put his glasses back on; and went. Eileen brought their drinks. She set them on the little tables to the side of each chair.
“Here,” Fern said and raised her drink. “A toast . . . ” She rolled an eyeball down towards an item in the catalogue while she sipped. “She does a good negroni, doesn’t she?” She squinted. “Is that a new coat?”
Lowell looked at the liquid, shimmering, salmony. He set a finger on the edge of the glass, its tip lightly broke the surface of the drink. “Do you believe in God?”
Fern slapped down the catalogue. “What on earth are you talking about? Honestly. Have you been taking your heart medication like Dr. Lunker told you?”
“My heart’s fine.”
“Did I tell you my reading group is doing The Angel in the Body this month? Dr. Lunker’s going to come talk to the group on Tuesday about his nutrition chapter. Apparently a cup of cashews and a chamomile tea for breakfast is very good for the heart. It’s to do with enzymes. You should come. He’s doing my chart; I’m sure he’d do yours.” She sipped. “Mhn! Did you know his daughter’s a sculptor? She has a show at the Drake next month. And American Artist is doing a profile of her too. They have such a nice family. He sent us an invitation. So, you know. . . . To the Drake opening.” Fern idled through her catalogue, while Lowell let his finger sink along the inside edge of his glass until it came to the bottom. “Oh! What a nice set of shams! Darling, look. For the den. Look.”
Lowell stood. “I’m going to bed.”
“Maybe you should and take that coat off. It’s simply dreadful. I’ll have Eileen bring you some scones and a pot of sleepytime.”
“I don’t want a pot of sleepytime.”
Lowell passed Eileen in the hall on his way to bed. “Goodnight, Eileen.”
Fern had a portrait of a plantation owner with a riding crop propped on a raised knee in front of a horse and thrashing dogs on the wall opposite their bed. Lowell threw himself onto on the duvet cover in his coat and looked into the plantation owner’s eyes. Roland Fitzchamp, His Hunting Finest. Fitzchamp had no pupils and, at close range, the black paint had the texture of little whirlpools. He watched Lowell there on the bed still in his wingtips and glasses bent from the plane crash. “I need to call my lawyer,” he said.
“You don’t have much time,” Roland said.
“They’ll take you away.”
“What happens then?”
“What happened to you?”
“My rifle. She exploded on Buck Head Creek and shredded my arms and face. I lay in the mud with a rock digging at my back until Sherman’s boys came for me.”
“Where did they take you?”
“I wasn’t dead, see.”
The door spread a patch of light across the room and Eileen’s shoes shuffled in with a tray. She set the tray on the nightstand and left. A steam wisp uncoiled from the teapot into the darkness. A dark shine rounded the pot’s belly. It caught the gleam from where the city night outside glowed on the cherry wood nightstand with inlaid oak trim that Fern had ordered from a small firm outside Milan that had been established in 1757 and was, as a result, quite pricey, but Fern said well worth the cost in terms of aesthetics even though eventually it would crack down the middle when it was blown through the conference room wall so the children were free to take the ergonomic conference room chairs scattered here and there, set them upright and make chariots of them and (after moving the loose papers, toppled file cabinets, shattered water cooler and broken plant pots out of the way) jet down Dormer, Dormer and LeBow’s halls past the abstract paintings commissioned by a top-notch downtown artist that had somehow survived on the walls (even if their protective glass had burst and poured onto the floor) after the fireball that rolled across the city, tumbled up elevator shafts; up fire stairs; shattered office windows; stripped carpets and made ovens of file cabinets and turned the contracts, account statements, receipts and inter-office forms inside them into ashes. In the main area of the office other children made a line through the upturned desks, which the fire had thrown over cubicle walls scattering portable radios, monitors, rolodexes, and staplers across the floor like legos. The children, in their nightgowns and jammies and slippers, snaked a line through the debris towards one of the craters in the side of the building where girders and stray wires and drapes clapped against the wind and the city, like a litterbox flipped upside down and its contents combed across the floor so only nuggets here and there were recognizable. On the other side of the hole in the facade, the children hung in the air for a moment, then one by one on the made wings of their legs, and fell down into the city like gulls breaking from the air down at the sea. Holding a cable, Lowell leaned forward through the hole into the wind that crashed through the city in bellyfuls that boomed off the sides of the towers, everywhere full of craters through which the white flakes of children dressed in night gowns and jammies floated towards the street. The gusts pounded his arms and darling shoulders and suddenly he came free and his body darling down through the children blurring past the windows; bleeding a gray paste pouring down the walls, which caught him and shook him and shook him and poked his chest and howled in his ear, “Darling! You’re still in your clothes! No shoes on the bed! No shoes on the bed!” Lowell looked at his wife, pointing at his shoes. “Please. Eileen just had this back from the cleaners.” He rolled over and sat on the edge of the bed. “What’s wrong with you tonight?” He looked behind her and through the window where the city’s lights glowed so brightly into the sky they banished the stars
They processed Lowell; put him in a jumper and shackles; and brought him into the yard where he waited for the train with other men at metal picnic tables. They had called for rain, but the sky was clear and little birds perched on the wire fence that surrounded the pen. The birds sat on the fence around the pen, spaced apart from one another at strangely even intervals, looking the train tracks. The men watched the birds.
A mangy man with a face like a mashed cigarette butt, who sat two over and on the opposite side of the table from Lowell, said “Fuck this shit, man.” He twisted his back and shouted at the guard who had brought Lowell to the table, “I said this is fucking bullshit!” He turned back and quietly looked at the table until he became overwhelmed. “I wrote the theme song to Frankie Hawaii for Christ’s sake.” He saw Lowell staring at him. “You know the show? Frankie Hawaii?”
Lowell stared at him. “Me?”
“Who do you think I’m talking to?”
“I guess so.”
“Frankie Hawaii, man. ’79 to ’84, in syndication since ’82. A man can use that shit. Royalties. Whenever they play the tune I get a check. Play it in the credits. Play it before and after the commercial breaks. Play it at the end of a scene. I get checks for all of it. Some wiseacre DJ out in San Jose uses it every show. Another in Pasadena. Royalties there too. Those notes, see, they’re mine. The music notes.”
Someone else said, “not anymore.”
The composer of the Frankie Hawaii theme looked at a hairplugged head with an upper lip permanently curled into a sneer and a dimensionless nose that a child might have drawn. “What’s that?”
“I said it’s not yours anymore.”
“You’re nothing now. No one gives a damn anymore.”
“A man can’t speak his mind. Is that it?”
“Guy, look where we are.” The man had to gesture with both his hands, because of the chains.
“Yeah what’d you do, buddy? Telling me what’s what. What’d you do before?”
“I was a daredevil.”
A new voice came from up the table. Lowell twisted, but all he saw of the new speaker was a potato chin. “Really? Do I know you?”
“They called me Barnjumper Nick.”
“I’ve heard of you. You jumped the hippos or what was it?”
“Yeah, yeah. I know this guy,” the potato chin said. “You jumped a pile of elephants, right?”
“Holy cow, man.”
“Broke every bone in my body twice.”
“Yeah. I still got some broken bones in there. Doctors couldn’t get to them. Broken bits of bone just loose in there.”
“Wow. That hurt?”
“Better believe it hurts. Bits of loose bone?”
No one else said anything for a while and they brought out another, younger man, and sat him at the head of the table. “Train’ll be here soon,” the guard said, “you boys better not go anywhere.” Then hysteria took him and he lurched away gripping his belly.
The new boy kept his head down; Lowell watched him. He had a familiarity to him.
The potato chin said, “Do you think they’ll feed us?”
“When we get there, you think they’ll feed us?”
“I doubt that.”
“Yeah. They’ll probably just get started, huh?”
“That’s what I think.”
“I heard it ain’t that bad.”
“Yeah, not for you,” the composer of the Frankie Hawaii theme said, “you’ve got broken bones in your body.”
Someone said, “You feel something?”
“So it’s bad?”
“Think about it.”
Everybody sat and thought about it. The ground vibrated and a sound like bookshelves toppling came from the east. Lowell studied the last boy the guard had brought out. He was looking at the birds sitting on the wire looking at the train tracks. The guard came out of the building with the last man. The boy’s eyes, turned up at the birds, were so blue. Nearly white. He had a little bell of extra skin hanging from his earlobe. Lowell leaned forward, squinting. The boy looked at him directly in the eyes. Lowell put him around twenty; twenty-two. He opened his mouth to speak.
The guard brought the last man and put him at the head opposite the boy. He had a hobo beard and a bruise spread across half his face, which had puffed out one of his eye sockets, making it look like an organ pushing its way out of his head.
The potato chin shouted over the rumbling at the new man. “Hey!” The man didn’t look up. “Hey, you!” Except for Lowell and the boy, everyone looked toward the new man. “Who’s that?”
“I think it is.”
“That’s that guy.”
“Shame on you, sir.”
“Are you that governor?”
“The disgraced governor. . . . ”
The man looked up. A patch of his hair had been torn out and his lips were swollen and bruised.
“Everybody on their feet,” the guard said. “On their feet!” All over the yard the men stood at their tables, but awkwardly because of their chains. The train boomed and stopped at the platform. A group of guards pulled the yard gates apart.
Lowell and the boy remained sitting. “Carlos?”
“On your feet!”
The boy’s chest swelled but he didn’t speak.
“Carlos?” he said again.
The guard stood behind Lowell and put his hand on the handle of his club. “Up!”
“Is that you?” The boy stood and moved into line with the other men; he still looked at Lowell.
The man raised the stick and reached around Lowell’s back to grab his throat. “Carlos?”
“Better get up.”
The men began passing through the gate and workers on the platform slid the freight car doors apart. The boy looked away. He passed through the gates with the rest of the men. The guard’s hand closed over Lowell’s throat; it felt both coarse and fleshy. Lowell looked at his hands and the shackles, a slash of his face reflected in the cuff around his wrist. A tightness spread up and down his body from his neck. His eyes began to close. The guard spoke but what he said got to Lowell’s ears as a distant garble of consonants. The guard’s shadow spread over Lowell’s arms and onto the table and then the eyes closed and red stars rose and wheeled in the darkness inside his eyelids.