Upon Impact

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Upon Impact

Little Gracie sat curled in a booster between her parents, with her head pressed against a pillow and a metal armrest.  Asleep at last, though not without a fight, the toddler had surrendered consciousness to her mother’s combing fingertips.  For Eldon Fletcher it looked all too peaceful, deep and enviable.  He started feeling sorry for himself.  He fought back the urge to shake his daughter awake.

The trip home from Palm Beach had proven too long for his liking.  Now in the final hour of the cross-country plane ride, he much preferred their usual holiday jaunt to Ojai or Santa Barbara.  But this spring his wife insisted on visiting her brother in Florida, something she hadn’t suggested in all the five years of their marriage.  Eldon couldn’t remember why he had agreed to go in the first place, but whatever the reason, certainly compromise had something to do with it.

“It was nice seeing Tommy,” she said to him over their child’s sleeping body.  “I think Gina could be the right girl for him after all.”

Eldon rolled his eyes at this, but subtly so that his wife wouldn’t notice.  He knew that Edith hated Gina, and there was nothing she could say to convince him otherwise.  He always had a knack for extracting truth from the female disposition.  It was a gift he found useful almost on a daily basis in Hollywood, where as a senior vice president of casting for the world’s largest television production company, he was constantly interacting with women who put up a front for the sake of getting ahead.  What they didn’t know was that he had the innate ability to see through their bullshit.  So often fellow colleagues would watch him crush the hopes and dreams of a young ambitious woman and later wonder aloud if he lacked a sensitivity gene.  They showed their respect and awe by nicknaming him The Hammer.

“It seemed like you and Tommy were getting along well,” Edith said.  “The two of you played tennis almost every day.”

Again Eldon gave little in terms of a response.  He flipped down the tray in front of his sleeping daughter, and moved his Bloody Mary on top of it.  Then he pushed up his own tray so that he could pull the airline magazine from the seat pocket in front of him.  The monthly publication, by this point wrinkled and ripped, had that oily feeling a magazine gets whenever too many fingers have touched it.  With a disgusted sneer he peeled through the pages until he landed on an article about a new spa that had opened up in California’s wine country.

“Tommy seems really happy now.”  Edith turned back from the window.  “I don’t know if it’s because of Gina or his job, but he seems really happy, the happiest I’ve seen him in years.”

“That’s because you haven’t seen Tom in years,” Eldon pointed out.  Not Tommy, but Tom.  His name was Tom.  Eldon refused to call her brother anything but Tom.  Even in the presence of Edith’s father, he dared not separate the two of them with a superfluous ‘y’.  The distinction may have been necessary when her brother was five, but for Eldon, the idea of a grown man calling another grown man by his family’s pet name was more humiliating than accommodating.

Edith sighed.  She moved her glass of chardonnay to her daughter’s tray, and then closed her own so that she could reach her handbag stowed under the seat in front of her.  She pulled out a magazine and began flipping through the pages.

“But didn’t you have fun?” she asked her husband.  “Were the games at least competitive?”

“We were pretty close to being even.  Tom has a good serve, but it didn’t take long for me to get used to it.  He takes lessons from the pro at the club.”  He glanced over Edith’s shoulder.  “Is that a real estate catalogue?  Where’d you get that?”

“I picked it up on Worth Avenue.  I’m curious about prices, that’s all.”

Prices?” Eldon said.  “We have no business living in Palm Beach.  I’m in entertainment, not retirement.”

“Not everyone in Palm Beach is retired.  Look at Tommy.  He’s built up a nice operation for himself.”

“Tom doesn’t work.”

“I resent that.  He works very hard for his money.  His success is entirely his own.  Don’t sink to the level of calling it nepotism.”

Eldon stuffed his magazine back into the seat pocket, and then crossed his right leg over his left knee.  He felt his groin stretch as he contemplated the condition of his bare ankle.  It looked good, better than ever, in fact.  Tan… smooth… masculine…

“Here’s one,” Edith said, “selling for just under four.”  She tried showing the listing to Eldon but he had no interest; he sat captivated by the beauty of his ankle.  She thought he was staring at his new pair of loafers.

“Are those Gucci?” she said.  “They do look nice on you.  You should buy a few more pairs when we get back home.”  She took this as an opportunity to examine her husband, head to toe.  “And I like your new shirt as well.  I’ve always thought pink was your color.  And those pants… I love your whole outfit.  You look very refined, I have to say.”

Eldon considered this nothing short of an insult.  He knew what she was up to.  Surely it was all a part of some master plan – for her brother to have taken him to his favorite clothing store so that Eldon would feel ‘more at home’ among the glitz and glamour of the Sunshine State.  More at home… It all made sense now.  Watching his wife scrutinize the possibilities of them moving to Florida was enough to make him want to vomit.  He moved his eyes to the window in an effort to calm his straining gut.

“Why are we still in the air?” he said.  “Why haven’t we landed yet?  It feels like we’ve been sitting in the same spot for twenty minutes now.”

Edith glanced out at the blue sky and the lapping ocean below.  “We’re probably in line.  LAX can get like this every so often.”

Eldon shook his head, then straightened his legs to relieve his groin.  “Well, I’m not doing this ever again.”

“Doing what?”

“Coach,” Eldon grunted.  “I don’t care if we get back sooner.  Next time we travel across the country, I’m not giving up a first-class seat for the world.”  His aggravation was starting to boil over.  “Jesus Christ,” he said, throwing up his hands.  “Can someone tell me why we’re not moving?”

“Calm down,” Edith said.  “I finally got Gracie to sleep.  I’m sure we’ll be moving in a minute.  You should be thankful that we got this far without one of her tantrums.”

“That’s what life is all about these days – tantrums.  Whenever we fly, whenever we go out as a family, whenever and wherever…”

“She’s three, Eldon.  Try to give her a break.”

A slim flight attendant with an assertive gait passed their row on her way up the aisle.  Eldon studied her ass all the way to the front of the plane.

He watched her stop at the intercom and lift the receiver to her full pair of lips.

“Attention passengers,” she said with a fragile voice.  She sounded nervous and unsure of herself.  “We’re sorry for the delay.  It appears that we may have -” She stopped when one of the co-pilots peeked through a crack in the cockpit door.  He said something to her.  She nodded and then cleared her throat before re-pressing the button.

“It would seem,” she announced, “that we are, ah, experiencing a small – a small electrical problem.  Ah, it’s nothing to be worried about.  Please stay in your seats with your seatbelts buckled.  We’ll be sure to, ah, ah – we’ll keep you informed.”

Quickly she let go of the button and dropped the receiver back on the cradle; she slipped her thin, tight body behind the cockpit door.

“What was that?” Eldon said to his wife.  “An electrical problem?  This is a commercial jetliner, for Christ’s sake.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Edith said with little hesitation.  Returning her focus to the magazine, she ran one finger back and forth across Gracie’s forearm.

Nothing? Weren’t you listening?  She had more static in her voice than most of the girls who read for me.”  He searched the plane for another clue.  A soft chatter among the other passengers served as a kind of validation.  He tried eavesdropping on the two men sitting across from him.

They were strangers, clearly, urged into conversation by what they had just heard.  The elderly man’s voice boomed across the aisle.

“It’s the landing gear,” he said.  “They can’t get the goddamn landing gear down.  If the gear’s stuck and they can’t get the sucker open, they’re gonna have to perform some aerial maneuvers to force her to lock.”

The younger man in the middle seat said something that Eldon couldn’t hear over the plane’s humming engines.  But it didn’t matter.  The elderly man replied, “I used to pilot helicopters in Vietnam.  They train you for this kind of shit, but every incident is different.”

Eldon, upon hearing this, leaned over his daughter to his wife’s ear.  “Did you catch any of that?” he whispered.  “The guy across from me is a pilot.  He thinks they’re having problems with the landing gear.”

Edith dropped her magazine, but kept her other hand attached to her daughter’s arm.  She bent forward to judge the man sitting across from them.  “He does look like a pilot,” she said.  “You should consider him for that new show you’re doing.”

“Very funny.”

If her joke was intended to lighten the quiet intensity that had overtaken her husband’s face, it didn’t work.  Eldon, having always considered himself an observant person, internally chided himself for not noticing the man’s potential first.  Edith was right.  He would make a perfect onscreen pilot.  The silver hair… the distinguished features…

“He probably doesn’t have a SAG card,” he guessed.  His eyes fell to his daughter who was still asleep in her booster.  “We should probably wake her up, don’t you think?  She needs to be awake in case of an emergency.”

“Are you crazy?  We will have an emergency if she opens her eyes.  She needs her sleep.  You wouldn’t want to be around if she wakes up.”

“I’m not saying we should wake her up right now.  I’m just saying that if this does in fact become an emergency, we had better wake her up so she can be aware of her surroundings.”

“Do you realize how stupid that sounds?  Aware of her surroundings? The last thing I’d want is for someone to wake me up to tell me I’m going to die.”

“Well, wouldn’t you want to say goodbye to her?  Wouldn’t you want to tell her you’ll see her in Heaven… or wherever?  Seems like the very least we could do for her, if you ask me.  We’re her parents.  It’s our job to reassure her of those things.”

“Listen to you,” Edith said.  “Since when have you become an expert on all things sacred?  Weren’t you the one preaching to me the importance of keeping religion out of dramatic television?”

Reality televison,” Eldon corrected.  “I was talking about reality television.”

“What’s the difference?” Edith said, not looking for an answer.

“The difference is that reality television relies entirely on product placement, meaning it advertises within the show.  So if you were to have any religious connotations expressed within that framework, the producer would be, in a sense, endorsing those beliefs.  No show can afford to take that kind of risk, and neither can a network.”

“That’s silly.  It makes the public out to be a bunch of morons, like we can’t tell the difference between advertising and our everyday existence.”

“Sorry,” Eldon said with a shrug.  “You think Pepsi would invest millions of dollars if sales didn’t skyrocket every time their soda can appeared on TV?”

“Who cares?”

Edith snubbed her husband by going back to her magazine.  Choosing real estate over their conversation, Eldon knew, was her way of rejecting him as an expert of anything.  He could feel his jaw tighten as the flight attendant reappeared from behind the cockpit door.  She looked flustered, even worse than she had just moments earlier.  Her cheeks were red, and her eyes were glossed with worry.  Gripping the intercom, she turned her back to the rest of the cabin, all in an effort to regain her composure.

She pressed the button.  “Attention customers,” she said.  Her voice was quivering uncontrollably.  “I mean, ah, passengers.”  Once again she returned the intercom to the wall, but instead of disappearing back into the cockpit, she hid inside the kitchen nook where the food and beverage carts were parked.

“She’s in trouble,” Eldon realized.  He looked around at the many passengers violating airline regulations by using their cell phones.  “Poor girl, she’s lost all sense of authority.”

He unbuckled his seatbelt and rose from his chair.  Before Edith could say anything, her husband was halfway up the aisle.

Spite boiled inside him as he passed the first class cabin on his way to the front of the plane.  He denied the privileged passengers any eye contact.  He punished them with a false indifference.

Tamara was her name and she was startled when Eldon walked up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.  Her glossy eyes notwithstanding, the flight attendant tried her very best to do her job.

“Sir,” she said, “the seatbelt light is on.  We are in the process of landing.  You need to return to your seat.”

“Save your breath,” Eldon said.  “I’m here to help.  You need to listen to me.  You need to do exactly what I tell you.  Do exactly what I say or else this whole plane is liable to go ape.”

“I don’t understand,” Tamara said, scrutinizing his dress.  “Are you a terrorist or something?”

“My name’s Eldon Fletcher.  You can trust me – I’m a casting director.  I got a few tricks up my sleeve that should help you with your delivery.”

“My delivery?”

“Shut up and listen.  First, what I need you to do is focus on your breathing.  Breathe in, breathe out… In through the nose, out through the mouth…  Good, just like that.  Now, the next thing I need from you is to imagine the biggest fear you’ve ever had in your life.  Can you do that for me?  Stay focused.  Eyes over here.  Tell me what your biggest fear is.”

“My biggest fear?”

“Yes, your biggest fear.  Out with it.  We don’t have all day.  What are you scared of?  What scares you more than anything in the entire-”

“Sea turtles,” she almost shouted.

“Sea turtles?”

“I can’t stand them.  Last spring, my ex-boyfriend insisted we visit the Cayman Islands.  They were all over the place.  I couldn’t set foot anywhere near the water.”

“Okay, fine – everything’s fine.  I’m here to tell you that after we land this plane, you and I are going to the Caribbean to go swimming.  Sorry for the short notice, but you don’t have a choice.”

“What??”

“Just work with me,” Eldon said.  “Set your mind on the prospect.  Pretty frightening, isn’t it?  Much more frightening than what you’re encountering right now, am I right?”  He started nodding in hopes of having an impact.  Soon she started nodding too.

“You see?” he said.  “It’s all a mind game.  You just gotta learn how to get control of those nerves.  Now go pick up that intercom and give us passengers one hell of an update.”

Tamara kept nodding as she wiped away the tears in her eyes.  Eldon, showing little compassion, handed her the intercom.

She cleared her throat, straightened her posture.  “Attention passengers,” the flight attendant announced with never-before-heard conviction.  “We are having difficulty releasing the landing gear.  The pilot is in direct communication with the tower, and they are working diligently to get this problem solved.  In the meantime, a flight attendant will be walking through the cabin to collect all drinks and trash.  Please remain buckled in your seats, with your trays and seatbacks in the upright position.”  She smiled at Eldon who was smiling at her.  “Please do not be alarmed.  This is not,” she ended the announcement by saying, “an emergency yet.”

She let go of the button and Eldon gave her two thumbs up.  “That was terrific,” he said.  “Fantastic!  I knew you had a great performance in you.”

“That did feel good,” Tamara said, “really good.  Sorry if I seemed a bit skeptical at first.  It’s just that, well, your clothes… You don’t look like you’re from Hollywood.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Tamara smiled, relieved.  “Thanks for all your help.  I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you.”

“It was my pleasure,” Eldon said.  “I loved every second.  It was like lightning in a bottle.  I felt such a strong connection.  Did you feel it?  Tell me you felt it.”

“I think I did,” she said.  “I definitely did.”

As they smiled at one another, the cockpit door opened and that same pilot from earlier gestured for Tamara to step inside.

“Now, if you would please return to your seat,” she said to Eldon with her newfound confidence.  “All passengers must be buckled in for us to safely commence with our landing procedures.”

The door closed behind her, and the satisfied casting director strutted back to his row in coach.  Gracie was still sleeping and Edith had put away her magazine; he felt like celebrating, but his Blood Mary was gone.

“Why are you smiling?” Edith said.  “You’re gloating.  What have you done now?”

“I helped the stewardess with her performance.”  Eldon pointed to a cabin speaker.  “What’d you think?  Pretty dynamite, wouldn’t you say?”

“Tsk.”  Edith was incredulous.  “More like explosive – She just freaked out the entire plane.  It’s not an emergency yet?  A flight attendant should know better than to say something like that.”  She glanced out the window, where the natural derision her husband was so accustomed to seeing on her sunburned face suddenly dropped and contoured itself into a less familiar expression.

“What’s wrong, Edith?  What’s the matter?”

She hushed him.

“What is it?” Eldon checked to make sure his daughter’s eyes were still closed.  They were.  “What are you worried about?” he said to his wife.  “Gracie’s sleeping like a baby.”

“Shhh!” she hushed again.

Eldon had no idea what the problem was.  As he turned away from his wife, he overheard the retired pilot speaking.

“Christ, I think we just lost an engine.”

“I’m sorry?” Eldon said.

The old man looked across the aisle, just as the seatbelt and no smoking lights began to flicker; then the humming stopped and an unexpected silence overtook the entire cabin.

A baby in back started screaming.

Eldon looked down at little Gracie asleep in her booster.  He reached out to shake her, but his wife blocked his hand with her own.

“Don’t you dare,” she told him.

“But I have to,” he said.

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

The quiet plane was coasting, dropping, and picking up speed.  Edith, holding and squeezing her husband’s fingers, looked him square in the eye.  Eldon felt a sudden burst of energy.  He watched her cheeks tighten, her lips purse, just as they had in the moments leading up to her horrendous audition.  She was pleading her case, tearful words welling in her eyes: Please, Eldon, I’ll do anything. Please…

“Beautiful,” he whispered.

Through her face he looked out the cabin window.  The ocean and sky were blurring into one.