“You know what they called UFO’s in ancient days? Chariots of the gods, that’s what. Your typical ancient saw something weird hurling across the sky, he assumed it was just Apollo or Sun-Ra or Odin or whoever out for a spin. Nowadays no one believes in gods, but lotsa’ folks sure believe in UFO’s from other planets. You believe in UFO’s?”
Rachel believed in an evil force that sat strange, garrulous people next to her on long airplane flights. She decided to lay the blame for this phenomenon neither on religious entities, nor on the airline industry or other demonic national organizations, but on the travel agency.
“Anyway, I was driving my wife and my friend Curtis and me in my pick-up down Highway 77, that’s in southern Kansas, and it was one or two in the morning, and suddenly up ahead of us we saw this big-ol’ UFO hanging in the sky. A big round orange one.”
Rachel’s company was one of the few remaining in America that insisted on using a travel agency, for unknown reasons. The travel agency was staffed by a motley collection of dippy, faceless agents who had names like Suzi with an ‘i’ and Maree with two ‘e’s.
“‘What the hell’s that?’ I said to Curtis.”
When the day began, Rachel had cursed Gerry with a ‘G’ for booking her a flight out of Kennedy Airport. Not LaGuardia. Not convenient Newark. But Kennedy, the long-haul-out-of-town Kennedy, the perpetually-entombed-with-traffic Kennedy, the Kennedy of delays, delays, delays. The travel agent’s logic had been that the Kennedy flight was 25 dollars cheaper. Twenty-five dollars, Rachel repeated to herself. What is 25 dollars to a New Yorker? What is 25 dollars to anyone? The trick to managing in New York City, Rachel knew, was to keep control over as much of one’s life as possible.
“So my wife looked up and said, ‘Oh shit, Hank, it’s a UFO. Turn the car around right now.'”
From experience, Rachel knew that all sorts of strange people flew in and out of Kennedy. Foreigners, mostly. But apparently strange Americans used it as well.
Why is this man on a flight from New York City to Los Angeles? Rachel ran this question through a variety of logical pathways, along with a few illogical ones for good measure. She found no answers. She wondered if the man’s clothing and smell were addling her thinking processes. He was bedecked in a blue denim jacket over a gray T-shirt and blue jeans. On top was reddish-gray hair, thick and tangly, that circumnavigated his entire face, plus a leathery cowboy hat that Rachel guessed had not been removed since the Invasion of Normandy. As for the smell, Rachel assumed it had something to do with cow manure.
“And I said to my wife, ‘Wendy, I ain’t never been one to turn away from trouble. We are going to confront this thing, whatever it is. Just get me my shotgun.’ So I kept driving forward, and this thing got bigger and bigger in front of us, although it was so dark that we couldn’t tell if we were getting closer to it or it was getting closer to us. And Curtis, he was sitting next to me in the front, he didn’t say nothing, but he turned to staring straight out the windshield with this goofy, scared look on his face, and eventually he just shut his eyes real tight and he held onto the arm rest and seat belt for dear life. Curtis had been drinking that night, you understand. Well, all of us had been drinking, but Curtis more than the rest of us. Say, what do you do for a living?”
I represent actors and musical artists, Rachel Zimbler did not tell the man seated next to her. I find roles and land gigs, I negotiate contracts and coddle egos, I hob-nob and make deals and trade favors with producers of movies and plays and owners of nightclubs and theaters, cafes and bistros, and, when appropriate, seedy little bars in which I would not be caught dead otherwise. I do not handle anyone particularly famous, she neglected to add, but that may change as the talents and accomplishments of my clients grow and mature, and as I grow and mature with them. Indeed, I now am traveling on this jet airplane to Los Angeles, California, to negotiate a client to costar in a major motion picture.
April Wells, formerly Angeline Wojkewicz, as Rachel did not continue, came to me as an aspiring actress with a singularly unaccomplished résumé. I steered her toward the casting director of the popular “Beach Thing” series of horror movies. In each installment, a slimy, reptilian, twelve-eyed monster emerges from the ocean at regular intervals and frothily devours young people in various stages of undress, to the accompaniment of screams and discordant orchestral music.
It had been my special genius and foresight to insist that April Wells play the role of “Bikini-clad Girl 3” in the first “Beach Thing” movie, Rachel did not boast, for the simple reason that this character, although marginal to the plot, was one of the few young women in the movie not to get eaten. Thus, April could be invited back for the sequels.
Instead, Rachel said “Um.”
“Me, I’m in construction. Laying down concrete, basic carpentry, dry wall, that sort of thing. Hank Thorson is the name, what’s yours?”
“Alice,” said Rachel. “My name is Alice.”
“Nice to meet you, Alice. Hope my thumb isn’t bothering you.”
Despite her best intentions, Rachel looked up from her magazine. There was her swarthy and aromatic seatmate, displaying for her the thumb of his left hand. The thumb was red and swollen at its base, then black and green and purple and a variety of other colors closer to the top. The nail was partially dislodged, revealing a variety of dirty, fleshy tissue that Rachel opted not to inspect in depth.
“I was hammering snakes in the back yard,” Hank drawled through mangled teeth. “Then my hammer slipped, maybe, and I smashed the heck out of my thumb. I say maybe because I’ve had this hammer for a long time and I don’t think it’d slip off me for no reason. What I really think is a snake pushed it. You want to see it?”
The Kansan reached into an inside pocket of his denim jacket and produced, to Rachel’s profound relief, a mid-sized, well-worn sledgehammer.
“Excuse me for a moment,” said Rachel. She unfastened her seat belt and walked resolutely up and down the plane’s two aisles, eyeing for any sign of an untaken seat, of which there were none.
Hank Thorson slept with his mouth open. He also snored. Yet what amazed Rachel was that he was able to sleep at all. The plane had been bouncing about in a variety of unpredictable directions, like a drunk leaving a cocktail party. The intercom crackled and the pilot’s voice offered sincere apologies for the severe turbulence and announced that St. Louis control had authorized a climb to 36,000 feet. But after the noticeable ascent the severe turbulence turned even worse. The plane pitched and yawed and dropped and dived. Adults groaned and babies wailed. In the row across from Rachel, a man’s coffee splashed all over the white dress of the woman sitting next to him.
“Is everything all right?” someone asked a flight attendant. The flight attendant’s name was Lucy, according to a nametag.
“Oh, of course,” Lucy replied with absent-minded cheerfulness. “It’s just turbulence.”
Too bumpy to write, Rachel thought, but maybe I can read. She opened her briefcase and removed three sheets of paper from three separate tabbed manila folders. One of the papers bore the logo of NBC Television, another of Columbia Pictures.
“Say, whatcha’ got there?” asked Hank, waking up suddenly.
Rachel immediately returned the papers into precisely the same folders from which she had taken them, then snapped close the briefcase and shoved it under the seat in front her.
“Oh, you work for NBC? I bet that’s real exciting.”
“I don’t work for NBC,” said Rachel.
“You know, I have an idea for a television show,” replied Hank. “You ever see that show ‘Cheers’, which takes place in a bar? Well my show is just like that, except everybody meets at a pig ranch! You know, a real, working pig ranch. Instead of a bartender who’s always lookin’ at girls it’s a pig rancher who’s always lookin’ at girls, and instead of a cute blonde waitress it’s a cute blonde slop girl, except maybe we don’t want to repeat things too much so maybe we make her a brunette or a redhead. And instead of customers who drink too much, we have customers who eat too much! What d’ya think, Alice?”
“I don’t work in television,” said Rachel.
The plane lurched violently to the left. The lights flickered off, then on again.
“You know I think I have my script with me! Would you like to read it? It’s in my bag in the overhead compartment. If you could just reach up and get it for me we can look at it together.”
Suddenly the plane dropped, and kept dropping for longer than Rachel assumed it would. Engines whined, children screamed with abandon, newspapers and paper cups flew to the ceiling, and Rachel felt the pit of her stomach leap into the back of her throat. To her left, Rachel saw Hank Thorson staring placidly at her. When the plane finally lurched to a stable level, the overhead bin above Rachel unlatched itself, and as if on cue, its contents came tumbling onto the floor, like a toss of oversized dice.
“Will you leave me alone?!” Rachel screamed. “Will you stop bothering me?!”
Hank’s placid expression did not change.
“You want me to leave you alone?” he asked.
“Yes!” Rachel screamed again.
“Sure, all right.” With a smile, Hank turned his lanky frame on its side, his cowboy hat still cemented to his head, and he went back to sleep.
Eventually, the pilot’s voice crackled over the intercom again.
“Well folks, I wanna apologize again for the extreme turbulence.”
Extreme turbulence, Rachel repeated to herself.
“Anyway, we’re out of the air pockets now, but….” Long pause. “But, uh, we lost some fuel back there, and now we have to land to fuel up again. We’ll be putting down in a few moments at the closest airport, which is, uh, Wichita, Kansas.”
Fine, thought Rachel. That’s just fine.
Lucy the flight attendant scurried down the aisle toward the burst-open bin.
“Oh, it’s nothing to worry about it,” said Lucy as she restowed the scattered luggage. “Happens all the time. It’s nothing unusual.”
The passengers were clogging the aisles, as per custom after a plane docks at the gate. The layover would only be a few minutes, but the pilot graciously was allowing everyone to leave the plane, a chance to walk in open space, to use full-size toilet facilities, and to plant a kiss on solid ground.
“Well, here’s where I get off,” said Hank Thorson, procuring a large, beat-up duffel bag.
The mass departure from the plane proceeded much faster than usual. Well that makes sense, thought Rachel. Everyone is in a big hurry to get out.
No, they’re always in a hurry to get out.
It must be because of the carry-on luggage, Rachel reasoned. Everyone’s leaving their luggage behind.
Except for the hick, who’s taking his duffel bag.
“Don’t want it out of your sight, huh?” Rachel asked him as they walked out the plane together.
“The duffel bag,” asked Rachel. “I see you’re taking it with you.”
“‘Course,” said Hank. “Can’t leave it behind.”
The pair reached the end of the little hallway that led from plane to airport.
“Well, see ya’” said Hank, and he walked off to the right, in the direction pointed by a large sign that said Ground Transportation.
Weird, thought Rachel.
I should never have flown out of Kennedy, she continued.
Well, I’ll be late in L.A. I’ll have to go directly from the airport to the studio, no time to take a bath at the hotel. Shit. That’s life, I suppose. April Wells (aka Angeline Wojkewicz) better appreciate what I’m doing for her. Maybe I’ll take a bigger cut for myself.
Rachel looked around the Wichita airport. It looked like any other airport she had been in.
I bet no one would pay for that hick to fly to Los Angeles, Rachel thought. He belongs in Kansas, good thing he’s getting off here.
Rachel ran through the sentence one more time.
With a whoop and a jump, Rachel bolted down the concourse, ignoring the odd looks of the fellow travelers.
How did you know the plane was going to stop in Kansas? The question raced through her mind as fast as she was racing down the concourse. You did know, didn’t you?
How did you know the plane was stopping in Kansas?
Rachel caught up to her seatmate just as he was about to pass the security checkpoint.
“Well, hi there, Alice,” said Hank. “Hey, you’re all out of breath.”
“I gotta know,” said Rachel, “I gotta know…..tell me….” Rachel wasn’t sure what to say next.
“What happened to that UFO you saw?” she blurted out.
“Huh?” said Hank.
“You know, the UFO,” Rachel went on helplessly. “The big orange one you saw on that road in the middle of the night.”
“Oh that,” said Hank. “You know what it turned out to be? A Gulf station! You know, Gulf Oil? They got these signs that are big orange balls hangin’ over the highway. On the prairie they make those gas station signs real tall and big, you know, so you can see ’em for miles around. It turns out we’d driven way too far south and we were in Oklahoma—we don’t have Gulf stations in Kansas so we’re not used to them. Boy, were Wendy and Curtis relieved, let me tell you. Hey, you better get back. You don’t want to miss your flight.”
Hank started to amble away, past the security teams with their magic wands and X-ray machines.
“How did you know we would land here?” Rachel called out.
“How did you know we would land in Kansas!” Rachel yelled.
Hank yelled something that Rachel could not hear. Rachel thought he saw him waving his hammer at her, his red hair and a broad grin waving as well.
Then Hank threw the hammer.
Goggle-eyed and open-mouthed, Rachel watched the bizarre object speed about the ceiling. It flew toward her, high overhead, end over end, tracing an odd, serpentine path that seemed to avoid both the gaze and actual bodies of the other passengers and airport people in the vicinity. When it was almost within Rachel’s grasp it made an abrupt U-turn, then tumbled and twisted back the way it came. To Rachel’s amazement, the hammer landed in the same muscular hand that had thrown it.
The lanky, red-bearded Kansan smiled at Rachel and tipped his leather cowboy hat, then disappeared quietly as he skipped around a corner.
Rachel stared out the window at the plains beneath her, which she knew would turn into mountains, then desert, then a big hole in the ground called the Grand Canyon. With the Kansan departed, she had moved to the empty window seat. The flight was as smooth as a looking glass.
“Can I get you anything, miss?” asked Lucy, the flight attendant. “Coffee, soft drinks, wine or beer, some pretzels?”
Rachel pictured each item in the list, and found them all wanting. Then she recalled that well-worn sledgehammer, and she imagined its reception at airport security. Assuming that the officials could see it.
“Do you believe in the gods?” Rachel asked Lucy placidly. “Apollo, Sun-Ra, Odin, Thor, that bunch?”
Lucy stared down at the woman in 23A. Like the vast majority of passengers, the woman was utterly generic, a wisp in a business suit. Unlike that lanky mess of a man who had been sitting next to her, the sort of man who struck Lucy as coming off the pages of a romance novel, now that she started thinking of him. Where did that man go? Lucy wondered.
“Yes,” replied Lucy, surprising herself a little. “Yes, I do.”