Winter 2011

Table of Contents - Vol. VII, No. 4


Poetry    Translations     Fiction    Reviews   

Nathan Ingham



I watch Atlantic Flight 512 roll towards the boarding ramp. The jet engines hanging under its wings look like grey-white cysts in the plane’s armpits. It is a gleaming young man, hiding disease under his wings. Are we the germs, then? Secret passengers in a deceptive vessel? I am amused, looking around the lobby as I pose these questions. It is a strange assortment, surely. Several different strains, maybe, of the human virus. Some are obviously American tourists, the family buying their boy a large pretzel, baseball jersey and all. Some are returning to England, as I am. Flight 512 will approach Heathrow with a winking smile, sneak up and deposit us all inside. I wonder what my symptoms are.
An elderly man in a green windbreaker sits a few plastic chairs down from me. He hoists his luggage up next to him. I look away as he begins to rummage through it. The plane is firmly attached to the gangway now, but hasn’t begun to empty itself yet. I thumb the pearls of my bracelet with my left hand. Every alternating pearl is real, but the fake ones are identical. The first few passengers enter the airport, looking bemused and befuddled. They do not think they are bacteria. They think they are pearls, grown from oysters, collected out of the deep and placed here, in Cleveland, by the shiny bald ocean diver out on the tarmac. The old man zips up his case, without taking anything out. I can’t tell whether he is American or British. My bracelet is worth two fake-pearl bracelets and one half of a real-pearl bracelet, but I prefer it to either. I like knowing the pattern, without knowing where it begins. The passengers are now streaming from the plane and dispersing into the bloodstream of Cleveland. Soon they will get in cars, trains and taxis, houses and hotels. Some of them were made by oysters, some were made by craftsmen. I wiggle my toes in their polished brown flats. Soon, I and the pretzel boy and the rummage man will be in the diver’s possession, to be lifted out of ocean, to be fashioned into bracelets, to infect the wrists of Britannia.

My seat is the aisle seat, twenty-two rows in. The plane is carpeted deep maroon, with snake lines of black curving up and down the aisle. I have nothing with me but a small travel bag, having checked my rolling suitcase at the counter. It will meet me in London, if all goes well. I sit and buckle the grey belt over my waist. It catches the cabin lights, a quick sheen to its surface. I inspect my fingernails. The man in the windbreaker pulls his luggage along the carpet, ticket in hand. He pauses, double-checks his ticket, then sits directly across the aisle from me. After a few people pass by, he stands again and pushes his suitcase into the storage compartment above his seat. He stands on the balls of his feet to do this, grunting slightly. I cross my fingers over the silver buckle of the lap belt. A woman sits down in front of me. I can see the very top of her head above the seat. Her hair is shiny brown, fastidiously brushed and tied into a tight braid. It looks stretched over her scalp, like a hundred thousand tethers. She is a prisoner of her hair. The hair-tie at the end of her braid is her master, holds her reigns. The safety performance begins.
I cross my ankles as the flight attendants smile broadly and demonstrate procedure. In the event of an emergency, will they still be grinning like this? Flashing their teeth in the orgiastic fervor of a failing engine, their blue eyes glinting? Maybe we are all prisoners of our hair. I have seen this play before, and it seems most of the other passengers have as well. We are looking noncommittal, with some exceptions. A few men look not at her gestures, but at her light-colored hair and uniformed figure. The old man seated across from me is looking at the cracked palms of his hands. It has been some time since I was an ogled woman. If the engines fail, maybe he will look up from his palms at me. But he is nearly bald, and only tethered around back of his ears, where wispy strands of white hair dangle. I would look better in the emergency lighting, I think. Dull red has always been good to me. When I look to the front of the cabin again, the flight attendants are gone, their speech delivered. I uncross my ankles. It is a Tuesday afternoon here in Cleveland. The cushion under me thrums as the engines turn over, the tires starting to crawl towards a runway, and I run my fingernails over the strong grey fabric of the safety belt. When we level off at a cruising altitude, I will slip off my shoes and run my toes over the dark, bristling carpet.

The cabin jostles me awake. It is dark now, faces dimly lit by the screens set into seat backs. I push myself upright, one hand on either side of me. The plane is comfortably warm, but quivering. We have given it a fever, maybe. It sneezes, and the young couple sitting next to me clasp their hands tighter together over the thin fleece blanket. They are no longer intent on the movie playing in front of them. A flight attendant comes up the aisle, stumbling slightly. She smiles to both sides, letting us know this is just a little bit of turbulence, and not to be worried. She would look better in emergency lighting. The plane shakes again, a quick convulsion. I can hear the woman in front of me half-mumble a prayer, breathing quickly. Perhaps she prays to the oyster that made her, that spun filaments over sand, that stitched her hair into her pale scalp. In my sleep, I had pushed my shoes under her chair. Now the captain’s voice comes over the intercom, and it is rich with tension. The plane shakes again as he speaks, and the girl next to me whimpers. Her boyfriend is looking out the window now, seeming somehow calmer than ever. I feel the maroon carpet under my toes. I am now gripping the solid plastic armrests in each hand. I am not afraid, but my fingernails bite into their greyness regardless, and the plane still convulses, left and right, the engines are louder now than before. I arch my back slightly and look up at the small circular fans in the ceiling panel. One is on, and it breathes down on us. The girl next to me is now holding her breath, her eyes closed, and the boy’s other hand slips under the blanket, he clasps her leg just above the knee, and every other one is a fake, but I don’t know where the pattern starts. The captain has stopped speaking, the flight attendant lurches back towards the cockpit. I don’t know when I started biting my lip, but I could feel the downward lurch of the plane in the pit of my stomach, could feel my leg muscles tighten. I can smell the Atlantic Ocean rising below us, coming through the plastic circular fan. It is full of oysters. I roll my chin onto my sternum, and then up again, looking along the lines of chairs, the scalps of us. The plane shudders violently, and then again, softer this time. The engines cool to a low hum, and I drop my shoulders back onto the cushion. I stretch my fingers and arms, lay my head down again. The old man sitting across the aisle from me raised himself from the seat slowly, slipped on his beat up, off-white sneakers, and began walking towards the bathroom.


© Nathan Ingham



Poetry    Translations     Fiction    Reviews   

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