by Nathan Hill
At takeoff I imagine the heroic struggle in the cockpit, a severe wind nearly pushing a wing to the ground, the plane rolls, metal scrapes runway in that first moment we're unsteadily aloft, the pilot pulling at the stick and fighting the gust that's driving us slack, urging the machine into the air as they do in WWII bomber movies.
Inches from tarmac, from the heavy pull of earth, inches from friction before we gain altitude and the engines chug, verging on burnout, higher and into the fog, higher and into the vacated belt between clouds, cumulus beneath, cirrus above, higher, full moonlight, wind, and the gaining altitude, the buzzing cabin, the popping ears, higher. When the pilot eases up on the engines it sounds as if they've died. We're gliding now, drunk on physics, we're one-hundred tons heavy with nothing to keep us up but wings.
From above, cities look orange, but they never look like this from below.
Back in coach class I have no metal. My boarding pass has been ripped in two. I am not a threat. Nobody here is a threat. We've been searched, been through the security striptease. Can you take off your shoes. Any metal in your pockets. Are you wearing an underwire bra. Send it through the machine. Can you remove your belt. Your wallet. Send it through the machine. Step through again. Arms out. Come over here please. Empty your change. Empty your keys. Send it through the machine. Arms at your side. Legs up. Shoes off. Like that. Yeah, like that. Take it off. Don't ask questions--remove. Don't hold back--reveal. Where's your metal. Send it through the machine.
Turbulence and the seatbelt ding, the engines work and burn on the verging, I imagine all systems down, everything--the valve-pressure, the wing-bearings, the window-fluid, the turbine-sorter, the engine-stamper, the nose-cone-filling--shaken loose as the pilot invites us to enjoy the free entertainment. Televisions on the backs of seats, the sitcoms, the weather, the news, the commercials demanding you go on your vacation immediately, like right away.
The TV interviews fatigued men at their desert stations, treating them as camo-clad rock-stars. This is your third tour! How's life on the road! Well, I love God I love my country I love the weight of ammo on my belt. And here's the sergeant-major, second time to the gulf, eh? Well, I love God I love my country I love the green glow of night-vision goggles. Please be heroic, please tell us nothing, please move your mouths but make no words.
Back to you!
Was the woman in Justin's new video supposed to be Britney? Was the Justin in Britney's video supposed to be Justin? Was the Justin in Britney's video a Britney? Was the Britney in Justin's Britney a Justin? Was the Justin in Britney's Britney a Britney?
Man next to me is trying to get to Harrisburg, PA. Says he's flying into Pittsburgh. Then going over to Harrisburg. It's between Millersburg and Gettysburg. Where you going?
I am going to die.
A crash so big it can be seen from the news. I imagine the broadcaster at press time, lost radar contact, lost communication, he'll be wearing a red tie and situated very close to flashing lights, the plane went down just minutes after takeoff, no survivors, he'll take the hand-off from the anchors, there will be a graphic, they'll name it Flight Two-Eighty-Five, officials say there's no evidence of terrorism, and he'll be secretly disappointed at this.
Pitch. Yaw. Barrel-roll, the wind and the struggle. Is there something wrong? Should I be worried? Was there something in the news? A threat. A letter. A phone call. A warning. Has the alert status been pushed from yellow to orange? From orange to bright-orange? To rust-orange?
I'm drunk on getting higher, on the immovable stick and the cockpit struggle. I imagine pilots with thick arms, tremendous arms from tugging on so many moving parts, the defiance of gravity, the muscle of overcoming jet streams and wind sheers. I imagine their arms and I'm always disappointed when they hope I enjoyed my trip, see you later now, thank you, fly with us again, itching at a mustache.
Clouds look like smoke kick-up from rocket explosions, they rise in thick middle fingers, they look like violence in slow motion. They don't look like this from below.
I make eye contact with flight attendants during the safety instructions because I think they appreciate it.
Please stow your traytables in their upright and tampering with bathroom smoke detectors is strictly seated in an exit row please leave your seatbelt fastened until we've come to a complete unable or unwilling to perform these duties the pilot has turned off the seatbelt please feel free to move about the luggage may have shifted during the hope you enjoy your local time is thank you for flying with us.
The mercy of solids, of touch-down, of terra firma, the pilot has turned off the freak-out sign--toting my bag and scuttering down the gangway.
You have connections. We understand. You have layovers. You have itineraries. Of course you do. But you cannot leave baggage unattended. Send it through the machine. Your suitcase, your clothes, your folding garment bag, send it through the machine, your hip pouch, your CD case, your money clip, send it through the machine, your wandering eye, your guilty conscience, your shady black hair, send it through the machine, your vitreous fluid, your semipermeable membranes, your blackout periods--on time, on time, delayed, canceled, we don't give compensation due to weather. It's policy. We can't move you to an earlier flight. It's policy. We can't help the vulgar sensation of leaving the ground. It's policy.
Meanwhile, the airport chapel is empty but thick with repentance.
About the author:
Nathan Hill grew up in Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Now he lives in New England, and he loves it. His stories can be seen in The Kennesaw Review, The Albion Review, and in Fiction later this year. He really dislikes flying.