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From The Madison Review, Vol. 20, #1

This was the day of that plane crash about a year ago, or the bombing or missile-hit or possible terrorist event as the news crews liked to call it, or whatever it was where the plane leaving New York burst into sudden flames and sizzled down into the ocean. Several people saw it happen, someone videoed it, the weird jiggly clip was shown across every station for about seven weeks looking like a scene from some homemade Bomb Squad with the jerking camera and black nighttime sky and then zwooping in real fast on a flare of light way off in the distance that didn’t look much bigger, even in close up, than a match’s quick flicker before vanishing, presumably in the ocean.

“Over two hundred people were on that plane,” my mother says, as we sat watching God knows what replay. I had come home from school even though it was a Sunday because I had skipped some classes the week before which wasn’t an unusual thing for me to do but this time I got caught which was unusual because very few of the teachers really cared whether you came late or not at all but I made sure I got caught because I wanted detention because I knew that Dragget Griddly had the same punishment. Drag is my boyfriend. Well not any more and not really then or perhaps he had just become so because things worked out even better than I had planned and he and I actually skipped out of the detention that Sunday, that is, never went in and instead we got stoned in the parking lot and eventually drove with his cousin to Prentice Falls where kids hang out swimming and diving off the rocks and we got stoned again and Drag and I ended up having sex on a towel in the woods. Well we didn’t really have sex, not in a technical sense, not that time, although afterwards we did so much that it began to seem strange when I thought back on it that we hadn’t on that first day but we didn’t, technically, and I still hadn’t technically or any other way because Drag was the first boy who had expressed the appropriate interest and so up to that point I was a virgin pretty much any way you looked at it. But we fooled around a lot, I mean enough so that I was sort of hoping he was my boyfriend by the time I got dropped off and, still somewhat dazed by the sun and weed we had smoked, joined my mother on the couch to watch the plane crash.

“Over two hundred people.” She swirled ice-cubes in her glass. “Is it horrible?”

I said, “Um.”

My step-father came home from playing golf or tennis and walked into the living room still talking on his cellular phone to his boss, I gathered, who was also his mistress (although nobody was supposed to admit that fact even though everybody knew it to be true) and my mother left me alone to watch Leather-Head as my brother calls him pace around the room and argue with his mistress, which isn’t a terrible way to pass the time since my step-dad has this somewhat intriguing face that indeed is scarred and leathery since he’s had so much work done on it but I prefer to think of him as Vinyl because with all the fake tanning and the hair-transplants and his practiced expressions that really are practiced, all the time, in front of any surface that will hold still long enough to display his reflection — all of it combines into something that I feel belongs only in a Seventies sit-com rerun where all objects are polyester and plastic. On that day he caught me watching him and squinted and offered this half sideways smirk that was supposed to be sexy like Harrison Ford but made him look instead more like a stroke victim, and wagged his eyebrows at me as though we shared a secret against his mistress or maybe against the whole rest of the world because my step-dad believed and probably still believes that because I watched him all the time I had a teen-girl crush on him and he made numerous verbal allusions to this fact and one time stuck his tongue in my mouth, none of which could in the end, horrible though it was, discourage me from staring at him, especially when I was high.

So next to arrive was my brother and my step-dad momentarily put down the phone even though by this time he was in a pretty serious and what sounded to be losing argument with his mistress and I wonder if he just used my brother’s arrival as an excuse to regroup but either way he put down the phone to yell at my brother because we have this thing, or at least we did… now it’s pretty much been forgotten or ignored or revoked since my mom and step-dad are getting divorced, but back then we had this rule that on Sundays everyone had to be back in the house at six PM to spend Sunday evenings together, as a family. I know it sounds absurd but my mother had this notion that on that one evening, each week, we would do this. She thought it was healthy. That it would create a strong family unit or something lame like that.

Anyway my step-dad puts down the phone to yell at my brother but my brother, even then, was completely fearless of my step-dad and pretty much everything else except maybe my mom who usually remained removed from the process of disciplining leaving that to my step-dad who disciplined almost exclusively by yelling, but every once in a while my mom would snap — only with my brother — and beat him to tears. It was quite an event, when that happened, because my brother has always been tall, much taller than my mom or me or everyone in my family except our real dad who isn’t really our real dad but was the dad we primarily grew up with, that is before Leather-Head, and so we think of him as our real dad even though our real real dad, our biological dad, lives in an expensive jail for corporate criminals. But to see this tiny, vegetable-fed woman frenzied, wielding a plate or a knife or a cutting board or one time a bicycle wheel, out of her mind with some deep-seeded wrath and pounding my uncommonly gangly tall brother into submission — that’s something that sticks with you. But as far as my step-dad went, or goes, my brother could be completely impervious, just sitting on the couch while my step-dad bellowed at him ruffling his hair with the volume and closeness of his yelling — and my brother would just sit there, unperturbed, watching TV or reading or whatever just like nothing out of the ordinary was happening around him. So he comes in that day and stands there, in front of my step-dad, calmly eating an apple while my step-dad yells. It’s not all that dramatic of a confrontation because Vinyl is still on the phone after all and only half concentrating on my brother, probably mostly trying to think how to slither his way back into good graces with his mistress and eventually moves off, my step-dad, down the hallway, glaring back and forth between the phone and my brother and me, as though suspicious that we’re all in cahoots, in some conspiracy to make him miserable.

“My sister the slut,” says my brother to the TV. I wasn’t surprised that he knew already about my relationship with Drag but I was surprised that he would care enough to comment. I pretended not to notice but inside I felt that giddy rush that I felt every time I remembered that I had a boyfriend and that I would continue to feel for a few more weeks whenever someone mentioned it at school and that I felt even more strongly when I got pregnant but not ever again after I had the abortion. “Drag’s bi-sexual,” my brother continues to the television. “He’ll probably give you AIDS.”

After this neither of us spoke for a while. My brother took out a stub of cigar from his pocket and broke it open and began scraping the tobacco onto the carpet. I tried to concentrate on the falling packed clumps of tobacco, on the way they clotted on the carpet and I made up a little story in my mind of getting the maid fired by telling my mom that she was to blame but I couldn’t get much out of the fantasy because on top of it I knew that I wouldn’t say anything and that the clumps of tobacco would lie right where they were until they were Hoovered up the following Tuesday or maybe not if the maid didn’t notice them in which case they would just lie there for another week, maybe getting ground in permanently and forever. Then I tried to concentrate on the passing commercials on the television — one a bunch of kids on skateboards, one a man on a plane held like a child in his mother’s arms, but that made me think of the little flaring light falling into the ocean.

“I hope I do die?” I said.

My brother, busy packing his blunt with more pot from another bag, didn’t look at me. “Yeah,” he says. “You and the rest of the world.”

“No,” I said. “I really do. I swear to God!” 

I really didn’t but it felt good to say it, to pretend that I didn’t care or even better that I did care and that I cared so much that I was perhaps figuring a way to do it, but really I didn’t want to die because I had a boyfriend.

My step-dad comes back into the living room clearly reconciled with his girlfriend and he’s all chipper and I’m-not-just-your-parent-but-also-your-best-friend, actively ignoring my brother’s drug activities and, instead, pacing the living room and listing our options for the evening, although it isn’t so clear if he’s speaking to us or to himself because he invests the majority of his energy to bobbing and weaving with his reflection in the picture-glass.

So I end up going out to get my mom who is sitting lotus on the cement skirt beside the pool, dressed in her black leotard, her eyes closed and her gin-glass erect in her lap and when I nudge her she jerks and her eyes snap open and she looks around, confused, and then focuses on her glass and lifts it to drain off whatever remains around the ice-cubes.

“Roger wants to go to a movie?” I said. This was all we ever did together. Our Sunday family night excursions consisted exclusively so far (maybe four times) of movies. One time we went to dinner but that was a disaster and we ended up at a movie.

My mother nodded and then smiled, rolling her shoulders and lifting her hands to her abdomen to help with her Batoise breathing exercises. I watched her for a while, her strange little bird body wracked with by these great snorting expulsions of air and then she noticed me watching her and stopped. “Come here,” she says. 

I reluctantly sidle over and let her stroke my stomach and hips, looking up at me with that bleary woozy expression which means she’s had too much to drink and might get sappy. “It was a bad crash,” she said. “Is it scary? Are you scared?”

“Roger wants to go to a movie.”

Vinyl’s Mercedes reeked of sex. The smell was thick and musky as swamp-gas and came pouring out all over me as I opened the door although certainly not all of it poured out because there was plenty left to settle over our skin as we all climbed in with a stench so heavy that I almost gagged and slid down my window as soon as the ignition kicked expecting everyone else to do the same but Vinyl began bitching about the air-conditioning so I rolled it back up mildly amazed that we could all just sit there in this rank, hot car, surrounded by the stink of adultery and not acknowledge it but that’s exactly what we did with my brother beside me wearing his Walkman and probably oblivious, slouched in the seat with his head tilted slightly to keep his gelled spikes from grazing the ceiling, and up front my step-dad gripping the wheel and glaring grimly at the road and my mother, beside him, her head averted, gazing, absorbed, at the passing world. After a while my brother shifted his position and looked at me, puzzled. He flared his nostrils, sniffing and I realized that he was even more stoned than I was and that he legitimately hadn’t until just now noticed the odor. He waggled his jaw as though testing the air for palpability and sniffed some more, utterly perplexed, and then his face broke into radiant recognition. “Sex,” he murmured, and then, mouthing the words intended only for me and no doubt silent in his own mind but broadcasting quite clear to the rest of us in the external Mercedes’ world with only the dull distant hum of the air-conditioner and the thin chords from his head-phones for competition: “Poon-tang!” he declared, and without ever realizing the public nature of this announcement he shut his eyes and returned to thrashing his head in relative time to the thin metal-music that filled his brain and overflowed to the rest of us. But nothing changed. It didn’t really matter that he had said what he said because we all knew it anyway and had already silently agreed never to acknowledge it not even if Vinyl’s mistress/boss/girlfriend popped out of the glove-compartment fully nude and stroking herself with a dildo.

My brother runs into some friends at the theater and disappears while Vinyl is buying tickets and when he reappears a few minutes later it’s clear not only by the fertile moldy reek almost visible like a haze around the lot of them as though the smoke was trapped and emanating from dreadlocks and flannel but also from his glazed reddened eyes that he managed to get even higher than he already was.

“Keep me away from Pie,” he hisses while in line for concessions, not too loudly considering he’s still wearing the active headphones but loudly enough for everyone in the vicinity to look at us or maybe they’re looking at us because of the pot-stink or maybe just because my brother is so fucking weird looking but either way it’s a confusing statement since we’re in line for concessions and I didn’t know my brother had such an aversion or even that they sold pie in the glass cases and I picture the round home-baked tins oozing raspberry and blue goo beside all the clinically shrink-wrapped and brightly labeled packets of Goobers and Sno-Caps and Twizzlers but then my brother partially clears the confusion with, “I hate his faggot ass,” and I remember dimly some mention of a friend named Pie who even perhaps stayed the night some years ago at our house then on Pine Street and spent most of the evening wrestling with me and trying to take off my pajama bottoms which was not an entirely unpleasant activity for either of us even though when he finally got them all the way off he immediately lost interest. 

At the door of the theater we reconvene — my brother loaded down with two buckets of pop-corn, a Haagan-daz bar, and an extra-large soda of some indeterminate flavor and with his wrap-around bug-eyed sunglasses he somewhere managed to put on and his spiked platinum hair and the limp bills of his change still clutched between his lips he looks like a mutant bingeing Scandinavian tennis star; myself with only the Twizzlers and a Diet Coke since I have a boyfriend now and even though I’ve never had one before I’m far from stupid when it comes to social protocol and am happily aware of what is now required of me in the way of personal starvation; my step-dad in his deep fake tan and sky-blue Polo shirt with the collar up, talking on his cellular phone, smoking a cigarette; my mom pacing back and forth shaking her arms and legs the way she does before she runs a marathon and we all enter the theater together, more or less like any real family. Some of my brother’s friends meet him at the door and one of them might be Pie but he’s wearing a lot of eye-shadow and has a big knitted hat like a huge multi-colored balloon with his dreadlocks piled in it on top of his head and I really can’t tell and regardless of how much my brother hates his faggot ass he chooses to sit all the way in the back with the bunch of them instead of with us which doesn’t seem to bother anyone except Vinyl who gestures irritably but doesn’t stop talking on the phone and isn’t one to complain because he, too, chooses to sit three rows back and several seats to the left, and me and my mom are the only ones in my family who end up sitting together, that is, side by side. I offer my mom a Twizzler but she doesn’t notice, absorbed as she is in peeling the first of several oranges she will eat during the movie, their surreal citrus scent somewhat combating the otherwise stale popcorn odor of the theater and the occasional mist from the peel falling lightly and distractingly across my skin.

“I’m going to need some skirts?” I say, edging my mom’s VISA out of her purse.

“All they can do,” she says, “is hope to find the black box.”

It takes a second for me to connect from the theater to the black box to the plane crash and when I do I feel slightly nauseous so I lift her credit card and sniff it hoping for some reassurance from the oily plastic.

“Because everything that happens on the plane is recorded and if there was any unusual activity it might be indicated on this little machine. It could provide clues, is what they’re saying, to what actually happened.”

“So I’ll just, like, give this back in a day or so? Okay?” I give her one more chance to object before I slide the card into my own purse and when she doesn’t I don’t have to feel guilty because I clearly announced my intention which is more than my brother would have done or even than I would have done on another day or even on this day if it weren’t for the fact of her going on and on about the dead people and the plane and any brief nourishment I got from the card wears off and I feel ill again and slide way down in the seat and begin to wish that I sat in the back with my brother.

This movie is about a group of terrorists who go around the city blowing up public places in an attempt to cause the maximum degree of civic mayhem and at the same time lure an aging cop out of retirement because it turns out that the cop and the terrorist share the same mother but were separated at birth and the terrorist has always blamed the cop for being good and therefore making him, the terrorist, by comparison, bad. Toward the end the terrorists kidnap the cop’s beautiful twelve year old grand-daughter and there’s a lot of rape threats and suggestiveness in that direction but other than some squirming and one glimpse of her underwear that plot twist goes disappointingly unexplored and the cop ends up killing the terrorist and saving the city and his grand-daughter. The situation is a stretch especially since throughout the movie several people around us continue to talk on cellular phones and the rest of the theater is filled with the shouts of my brother and his friends in the back row, some of whom have seen the movie before, yelling out snippets of approaching dialogue and generally doing their best to tell the story before it happens but I still think it’s a good movie because the city depicted is our own and it reassures me to see that I live in a city that is important enough to make a movie out of and also I like the movie because the characters are so real and easy to understand.

“The final irony is the sharks,” says my mother, in the car, on the way home. She’s smoking a cigarette with her little body folded on the seat with her knees drawn up to her chest wrapped by her other arm and her face averted as though she’s talking to the night and not to my step-father hunched grimly over the wheel and certainly not to my brother who was nowhere to be found after the movie and probably won’t come home at all tonight or maybe ever and the next time I see him will probably be on the back of a milk carton which is kind of a running joke between us because we always agreed that if we ever disappeared it would be highly unlikely that either our mother or whatever husband or boyfriend might be supporting her at that time would ever summon the energy to go talk to the dairy people or whoever is responsible for arranging those things, and I doubt she’s talking to me either because I’ve had the feeling since we left the theater that neither of them is aware that I’m in the back seat at all even though I’m right in the middle and blocking any rear-view angle that Vinyl might have of the road behind us which doesn’t matter because he only uses that mirror to look at himself. 

“You survive a catastrophic mid-air explosion,” my mother’s unstoppable, wound up and spitting this crap out like the Energizer bunny, “and you find yourself swimming in cold ocean water amid floating torn apart bodies and wreckage but you’re alive and surely help is on the way because the plane barely just took off so you must be still near shore and certainly someone is aware and someone must care enough to come don’t you think? To come to rescue you but then you feel something brush your legs under the water.”

“Can you possibly shut up about this,” says Vinyl. He’s fumbling with his car phone, keeps punching buttons with his thumb, glancing back and forth between the phone and the road.

“And it’s quite large and you sense intuitively that it’s a shark and everything you’ve heard and read about sharks comes back to you — about staying still and not bleeding but the water is thick with blood. I mean it’s black, you can actually see–

“But can you shut up?” Vinyl abandons the phone, rapping it on the steering wheel in frustration, turning all his attention on my mother. “Is it possible for you to just shut up about it?”


“Because nobody wants to hear it.”

“But why don’t they?” My mother tilts her head toward him, just as calm and puzzled as could be.

“Because…” Vinyl gropes around in his mind for some plausible explanation but of course he comes up empty and so they just sit there on opposite sides of the red glowing interior of this huge humming Mercedes both of them perhaps thinking what to say next but to me it looks as though they’re pondering how they possibly got to this point in life and how in God’s name to proceed from here.

Back at our house I call Drag. There’s nobody home and the phone rings and rings and finally his machine answers and I hear his voice, recorded though it is, and I picture that maybe he’s actually there, listening, screening the call or maybe even there with another girl and maybe they’re having sex and so I tell him I love him and then right on cue I begin to cry.

Like I said, things worked out pretty well for me in terms of my relationship with Drag. We went out for almost two months and I lost my virginity to him in his apartment, on his bed, and it was more or less exactly as I expected it to be with the only difference being that we both wore headphones and listened to two different tapes on two separate Walkmen which was something that he said he had learned from a movie although in the movie they apparently listened to the same tape on the same Walkman but Drag didn’t want to do it that way and I didn’t really care. Music is music, right? And it didn’t hurt too bad, I mean it wasn’t like I hadn’t had things in there before, just never a penis, and we continued to be boyfriend and girlfriend at least to the capacity that we had a lot of sex and I was faithful to him until I got pregnant.

They never did find out what happened with that plane. I mean, they found the black box, sure enough — they had to eventually I suppose because those things are built to withstand absolutely any calamity and are completely watertight and could sink to the bottom of the ocean which is exactly what happened in the instance of this one and of course they can find it because they have the means and the technology and that’s what they did. They found it. But it didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know although you can be sure that the news crews had a field day with the pilot’s voice just before the explosion sounding just like any other pilot’s voice just listing some numbers but the numbers seemed different, even to me, knowing what was about to happen, and then the explosion itself which came out as just this minor staticy pop, more or less on par with the distant visual flare of flame which is, I suppose, as it should be, but there wasn’t any screaming, no threats, no Arabic voices raised to their God, and eventually what the consensus seemed to be although the news crews didn’t like it much and did their best to hang on to any alternate theory for as long as they possibly could but eventually pretty much everyone had to agree that there was no missile, no terrorism, that it was just an accident. Something just went wrong.