I. Scott Proehl and his Hard-To-Pronounce-Last-Name
When Fisher Pinckney leaned forward for a better view of the commotion at the front of the line, he saw a tiny kerchiefed woman wagging her wrinkled brownspotted finger menacingly over the counter. He strained to hear her gravely measured words: “Then may this plane drop from the sky like a stone!” His eyebrows arched reflexively as he studied the agent’s unblinking stony reaction. Into the silence the computer terminal gave a plaintive bleat from behind the counter. The blue-suited gate agent managed a pinched professional smile and said, “Apparently we do have a seat for you after all, Mrs. Trismegos.” The woman just ahead of Fisher kick-shoved her lumpy carry-on bag one step toward the counter, saying in a low tone, “Don’t they have to treat that like a bomb threat or something? That woman gives me the creeps.”
For Fisher, air travel brought with it a luxurious sense of abdication. Against all expectation, it was a temporary suspension of worldly hassle. The aluminum airframe had a womblike embracing appeal: for the duration of a flight he was completely, blissfully beyond reach. There was nothing else to do except read a book, perhaps drink a beer or two while mysterious forces conducted him through the air. Flight delays troubled him very little, because it just meant a little more off-line reading time. More so than ever, he wasn’t looking forward to the end of this flight. He had made up his mind to break up with Molly once and for all once he got back to Baltimore. He could picture her waiting for him at the end of the exit ramp. What reaction would he give? What emotion should he project, must he betray? When would he break open his bottle of poison? He felt so sick and bleak that the thought of spiraling from the sky because of the kerchiefed woman’s curse had a certain tragic appeal.
As he was preparing to board Flight 817 to Baltimore, his ear picked a familiar southern drawl from the airport noise: “Not Prole. P-R-O-E-H-L, like Prail.” He turned to see, at the checkin desk, Scott Proehl, his high school classmate and one-time best friend. Fisher caught a clear glimpse of him: heavier, balder, and very tired. Then he gave his ticket to the attendant and moved down the jetway.
II. Controlled Flight Into Terrain
Scott and Fisher had played in a band together in high school. Scott was the more talented of the two, and Fisher later learned that he had gone on to some musical success in college. Fisher had played in a college band too, the Sad ClichÃ©s, but when he realized they had fanatical groupies despite the fact that they were extremely bad, it depressed him so much that he had to quit. Now as he moved to his seat, he fretted over whether or how to greet Scott.
Fisher found himself four rows behind Scott Proehl and in the same row, but just across the aisle from, Mrs. Trismegos. Her mouth was drawn in a taut, stitched line of concern; her hands clutched what Fisher supposed was a crucifix. He made a point of smiling at her. Whether it was friendly and encouraging or smug and baiting he couldn’t be sure. His emotional compass, never reliable, was off its bearings entirely recently.
The flight, as it happened, was extremely bumpy and chaotic. At one point, the flight attendent lurched to prevent being knocked to the floor, sending a spray of Diet Coke over Fisher. She cried out with a sharp expletive, then, flustered, hurried the drink cart back to be locked down. Fisher met eyes with the kerchiefed woman. “Young man, do you think we are going to die?” He smiled again, though queasiness drained his voice of real confidence. “No, we’re not going to die. Weather like this almost never knocks down planes. If a plane crashes, it’s usually because the pilots don’t know any better and fly straight into a mountain, BOOM!” He smacked a fist into his other hand forcefully. “But we’re way up high. It’s uncomfortable, but very safe.” She nodded blankly, then stared out the window and crossed herself. After a few seconds she chuckled in a deep, chronic-smoker sort of way and turned again to look at him. Her gaze was piercing but surprisingly calm and warm. “Yes yes,” she said slowly and distinctly, “Never fate, only blindness. That is true.” Soon after that, despite continued turbulence and flashes of lightning, Mrs. Trismegos fell soundly asleep.
III. No time to lose
After the plane had landed, Fisher stood in the crowded aisle and debated his next move. Though it was avoidable, he decided he had to say something to Scott. It had been a long time, after all. As he started forward he called forward, “Scott, it’s me, Fisher Pinckney. Remember?”
“Well hey, Fisher. Long time no see.” The last time they saw each other was at the beach immediately after high school graduation. There had been an awkward drunken fight, the kind of fight that middle-class kids who never fought before have. Before that moment, Fisher would have described Scott as a close friend. Since that moment, they had not spoken. Because they went to different colleges? Because they hated each other? Scott looked oily and overweight.
Scott said, “You got a mess on your shirt, there, Fisher.” Fisher said, “Turbulence.”
Fisher asked a question. Scott said, “I’m a sales engineer for DPM. We make electrical connectors.” Fisher asked another question. Scott said, “Yeah, two little boys. Lynn and I just had our seventh anniversary.” Scott didn’t ask a question. Fisher didn’t say, “Fuck you for how you treated me. Fuck you for never apologizing.” Scott said “Okay, then. Well…!” as though that were an ordinary way to say goodbye. Then he turned slightly to indicate that the conversation was now over. His face wore an absent transaction-completed smile. They waddled off the plane and through the umbilical connection to the terminal.
Fisher walked slowly, so slowly, toward the greeting area, pulling himself from the unhappy past into the cruel present. He looked up, expecting to catch sight of Molly, and was amazed to see the tiny Mrs. Trismegos talking animatedly to Molly and gesturing toward him. By the time he reached Molly, the old woman had moved on.
Molly wore a long purple dress. She carried a single rose, but it drooped to one side. Instead she offered him a card.
“What did she say to you?” Fisher asked.
“She asked me to give this to you. She said you were her friend. Do you know her?”
“We talked for maybe two minutes on the plane. Why would she come up to you like that?” He examined the card. It was a business card labeled “M. Trismegos, Tarot, Palmistry.” Then in italics next to a bad drawing of three candles and a rose: “No time to lose.”
“Did she say anything else to you?”
Molly hesitated. “She said I was very beautiful.”
Surprised, Fisher looked up from the card and into Molly’s flushed, anxious face, saw her shining eyes. “You are very beautiful,” he said quietly. She looked down at her sandaled feet and moved closer to him, uncertain whether to hug. She looked up again.
Then: the intercom said, “Mr. Scott Prole, please meet your party at the baggage claim.”
Fisher felt strangely light, like a tiny bubble of carbonation spiraling upward in a glass of Diet Coke. He realized he was surpressing a tiny grin.
Molly said, “What’s that on your shirt?”
Fisher said, “Let’s get out of here.”