Airplanes, all he had were airplanes.
We were at the beach lying on plastic lounge chairs behind the wooden, shacked cabana where I spent my summers. Its address was G 14, but we just called it "The Cabana." Like always, I wasn't working a summer job. I spent my time a hundred or so yards from the Atlantic Ocean, doing nothing. I smelled like Coppertone 30. It didn't have the same scent as the 10 or even the 15 that all the bronze Baby Boomers wore. There was no tropical coconut or piña colada seeping from my skin. The smell was noticeable. Even when the smell had lessened, you could still tell, by my glimmering white body, that I was wearing it. Steve didn't believe in sunblock. He sat shirtless, ball cap pulled down over his eyes, smoking a cigarette, enjoying his day off.
"I can't believe you woke me up this morning," I said.
"Morning- It was noon!" He retorted.
"I was still sleeping. That means it was morning."
"Sorry to inconvenience you, but I've been up since six-thirty."
"Wow," I said sarcastically, "you're my hero . . . Why didn't you go to work anyway?"
"And I'm sure you had nothing to do with that."
"I didn't," he said defensively.
"Just like you didn't have anything to do with the three fire alarms the last week of school."
Steve worked summers at the elementary school in our town and he hated it. Even worse, he hated not having money. So he worked and his mother yelled because he wasn't taking it seriously. She yelled because he was out until four in the morning, and about how he slept on the job and because he never washed his dishes, and because his flight books were all over the basement. Everything she yelled about was true. Most outstanding were the flight books. They were everywhere; in front of the washing machine, in shoeboxes, in the stairwell and all the way up the staircase to the door. They were stacked three and four high in some places scattered in others, but all in immaculate condition.
"TWA, DC-10 going to Tampa," he said.
"Up there, you see the red tail?"
"That's how you tell it's a TWA."
"Well, it has one jet engine on each wing and one on the tail, which could be easily confused with the MD-11, but that hasn't been introduced into commercial fleets just yet, therefore making it a DC-10. And it is 2:58; there are TWA flights to Tampa at 7:38, 10:15, 2:42, and 6:12 every day from JFK. It was probably delayed a few minutes, but it is definitely going to Tampa. If it left at three, I would say it was going to Miami. They leave every four hours on the hour starting at 7:00 o'clock."
"Who are you?"
I had no idea if he was right or not, he might have been making the entire story up. Tampa at 2:42, LAX at 9:28, my mother's house at 5:45, I would have believed it all. He was ardent about planes. It wasn't so much the make up of planes, or the physics of flying, but where they were going and what time they were leaving. He had no desire to learn about jet propulsion or hydraulics, it was simpler than that.
"I slept for three hours at work yesterday. I found an empty classroom and went to the back, put my head down and slept. One of my buddies, this guy Mike, he found me and told me the boss was making rounds so I had to get up."
"Didn't he get pissed off that you were asleep?"
"He didn't care. He told me he used to do it back when he was my age."
"Back when I was your age . . . " I mocked.
"Shut up, he's a cool guy."
"What is he pushing eighty?"
"He's like fifty, maybe a little older. He has two kids. One's at Buffalo and the other's at Nassau. He's been working as a custodial engineer fo-"
"A what? A Custodial engineer?" I laughed.
"They're not janitors anymore, they are Custodial Engineers and they get pissed if you call them janitors," he responded.
"Well, shit then, I'm an Aquatic and Solar Enthusiast."
"I'm going swimming," I said and went back into the cabana to grab a towel.
"You coming?" I asked.
"No, just gonna chill here."
"All right, see you in a few minutes."
He didn't really hate work. It was a perfect job for him. He slept when he wanted to and got paid. He even had some scheme to steal computers and TVs, but he would never go through with it. The job got him out of the house, away from his mother, but I think there was something about it he feared. He didn't want to be like Mike, mopping floors to put his kids through college. It was fine for summers, but for a lifetime, well, he wanted something better.
The water was cold and the waves were large. The television reports said there was a tropical storm coming up the coast. It saltwater pickled my lips as I jumped the waves. There was a rumbling overhead. It echoed the waves on the shore. I looked up at another airplane flying overhead.
"Must be Miami," I said thinking of Steve sitting by himself.
The ocean wasn't that much fun alone and the undertow was stronger than I had expected, so I headed back toward shore. I had drifted a little, not that much, but enough to notice the lifeguard tower was now on my right instead of my left. I swam until the water was waist high and then walked the rest of the way, flicking the saltwater out of my hair.
If you were to wade through the stacks of flight books, you would see, in the back of Steve's basement, a ping pong table up against the wall covered with hundreds of little airplanes. It was a miniature model of JFK Airport made of Legos. Steve had it separated: domestic, international, and cargo. He had everything from Air Morocco to Swiss Air, to Delta. There must have been at least five or six Federal Express planes, there were DC-10s, 747s, 777s, props, and on and on. To add to this fixation, sitting on the corner of the green table were four sheets of paper listing every departure and arrival for the day. The amount of planes on the table corresponded with the schedule, so at 2:42, if he had been home he would have removed a TWA DC-10 from its passenger bay and placed it in one of the shoeboxes he had next to the table. He was like Rainman about the whole thing.
Steve didn't realize that I had come up behind him until I shook the remaining saltwater from my hair onto him.
"Thanks asshole, now I'm all wet."
"That was Miami, right?" I asked sitting back down.
"Nope," he said smugly.
"It had the red tail though," I said.
"Yeah, it had a red tail, but it was Virgin, not TWA," he said.
"It's 3:05. You said that the TWA flight to Miami leaves at 3:00."
"True, but Virgin flies from London Heathrow to JFK, landing at 3:10, Eastern Standard Time, and it's a little known fact that Virgin tends to arrive earlier than scheduled, while TWA, as we saw from the 2:58 departure has been delayed sixteen minutes. Plus, the plane you just saw was going west, landing. The Miami plane would have been going south, taking off. Thus, destroying all possibility that that plane was going to Miami?" He explained.
"Thus?" I said mockingly.
"Yes, Thus," he retorted.
"But why would the Tampa flight affect the Miami flight?" I egged on.
"I guess you're right, can't argue with airplane boy," I said as I adjusted the towel that I had hung on the back of the chair. "You going out tonight?"
"Umm, I don't know, my mom's being a bitch again."
"She yelled at me this morning because I came home too late. She says she can't go to sleep 'til I get home."
"I don't know, she's paranoid. I guess she thinks that if she's awake nothing will happen to me, something like that. The worst part is when I stumble in half-cocked and leave all the lights on. She goes crazy about that, 'cause then she's got to go downstairs and shut them all off. She's fuckin' out of her mind."
"So, just ignore her or crash on my couch. You can borrow the alarm clock. I sure as hell don't need it."
"Naw. Whatever, I'll just come home late and deal with it. You know she doesn't even cook me dinner most of the time, and she says it's because I 'come and go as I please and have no respect for her,' she sucks. That's Miami. See its going south."
"3:15. You're a minute off," I said looking at my watch.
He despised his home. There was no balance, his mother drove him nuts and he hadn't seen his father since his first communion. I didn't know Steve then. I just met him last year. We were in gym class together, he was always making a scene and I egged him on. He was an only child so all burden was placed on him, she tried to make him "the man of the house," he said. He just wanted to play football. Maybe there were times when he was happier, Little League baseball or something, but ever since I've known him, smiles have come sparingly. I don't know if he wanted to see his father, he didn't talk about that kind of stuff. He just said he wanted to move out. Live in an apartment. Get away from his mother. That was the real reason for his summer job, he was saving.
I woke up sunburned. The 5:53 flight to Zurich was leaving and black storm clouds were rolling in. It seems SPF 30 doesn't work that well after you go swimming. I think it mixes with the pollution of the ocean and dissolves in the semi-toxic tides of the great Atlantic. There's probably a three-eyed Bluefish out there that is impervious to the sun's rays.
"HO-LY SHIT, you got red," Steve laughed.
"Thanks, Einstein. It's gonna rain soon, you want to jet?" I said.
"You are so red," he repeated.
"Okay. Let's go, though, my wipers don't work well."
We started packing our gear. We shook out the towels and moved the lounge chairs. The storm rolled in more quickly than we had expected and we decided to stay in the cabana, waiting out the heavy rains with games of dominos and chess. There was no television, only a radio and a freezer full of frozen hamburgers and raspberry ice-pops.
We listened to the radio and Steve drank my dad's Coors Light. I found a deck of cards and we played Gin. I won eight dollars and he smoked a cigarette. I looked in a cabinet for some Solarcane, but there wasn't any.
"Hell of a night," I said sarcastically.
"Just think, it could be worse if we were sunburned- Oh, wait, that's right, you are," he said sipping his beer with a chuckle.
We invented a new game, I bet Steve the eight dollars that he owed me, that he couldn't throw one of the frozen hamburger patties into the pool, which separated my cabana from the ones on H-court. We alternated throws. We stood at the open doors and launched them like frisbees. For the most part they fell short, landing on the concrete patio surrounding the pool. By the time he finally got one in, the rest of them had started to thaw. I said I felt sorry for the lifeguards. He gave me a smile and we started a new game of chess. Steve wanted to be white, because he wanted to go first. He made his move then went to the backdoor of the cabana to relieve himself. He said he tried to write his name in the sand, but the rain just erased it, then he sat down and finished another beer. I found some frozen hotdogs in the back of the freezer and they followed the path of the hamburgers. I won my eight dollars back. It was like a fourth grade sleepover party, except for the beer. We ate ice-pops till our tongues turned blue.
The rain let up around 11:30. We locked the cabana and headed towards the car. I held my T-shirt in my hand because it hurt too much to put it back on. I took my sandals off too. I hated the way my flip-flops kicked wet sand up onto the back of my legs. The drizzle felt great on my burnt body. The rain picked up again half way home. You could smell the humidity as it was drawn through the air-conditioning vents. The radio station said that heavy rain and lightning would persist throughout the night. I pulled up to Steve's house. It was now a downpour. Looking up through the moon roof, he said, "I guess there were a lot of cancellations tonight," then opened the door and ran into his house, turning on the lights.
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