Later that day, someone would claim to have seen a surface-to-air missile strike the plane. Another witness on the ground would claim two or three missiles, he couldn’t be sure. But they were disregarded because, if such a weapon had hit Flight 371 while flying over farm country, where would it have come from? Besides, it was snowing hard and the plane was above the clouds, and investigators doubted anyone could have seen the plane from the ground. The captain had been talking to the control tower at Buffalo International about runway conditions when the aircraft disappeared from radar and crashed into a field of frozen corn stubble in New York State, fourteen miles north of the Pennsylvania border, raising such an enormous cloud of smoke and dirt and snow that some locals thought an asteroid had struck. The actual cause of the crash would not be made public for several days: A homemade bomb mailed as a prank by two geeky Cincinnati boys, and meant to go off in the girls’ dormitory of a tiny private college near Syracuse where the sister of one of the boys was studying piano. It was meant to smoke and stink up the place and drive the girls out into the snow in their nighties, not to bring down a plane. Yet, even after that, the missile theory persisted on talk radio.
Madeleine Weeks had boarded the flight at Minneapolis about one o’clock that morning. The day before, slouched at a desk in a St. Cloud bungalow where she was house-sitting, she’d called a travel agent and booked a ticket after trying for hours to figure out where Attica Prison actually was and, after realizing there was no commercial airport anywhere near the place, trying to decide what city was closest. Must be Buffalo, and she even rode her bicycle into town in the ten degree weather, wearing a snowsuit she’d found in a closet, to hand the agent the Visa card she’d found in a box in the back of a desk drawer in the owner’s office room for a furiously fast trip—one day up and the next day back. She figured if she heaped Howlin’ Wolf’s dog-dish with enough Ken-L-Ration and filled his water bowl to the brim, and cleaned up all the poop and piss when she got back thirty-six hours later, there’d be no harm done and the owners of the house would be none the wiser. Provided Wolf didn’t chew the hell out of the couch while she was gone. She had to go. She didn’t know how not to go. What’s the big hurry? the agent had asked. Life is brief, Madeleine Weeks replied.
After boarding she dozed in her seat until she felt the plane jolt into motion. As it picked up speed her eyes skimmed the frozen runway concrete the way she used to drag a finger in the water when she’d ridden in her father’s motorboat as a child. No changing her mind now, the plane was lifting off. She slumbered back into her dreams.
The plane stopped in Cincinnati about 3:30 a.m. Snow was falling hard, and it kept the plane on the ground for more than two and a half hours during which time the captain kept promising they were about to take off and forbidding anyone to get out of their seats. When they were finally airborne again, Madeleine’s bladder felt like it was about to burst like the balloons she used to fill from a faucet when she was a girl, filling and filling until they exploded and soaked everyone dumb enough to stand too close. The plane hit turbulence, banging up and down like the universe was about split its seams. When the captain gave the word to unbuckle, a mad dash for the toilets ensued by half the people on board. Madeleine waited in line while the plane shook sadistically.
“You waiting too?” asked the woman standing behind her, apparently hoping some of the people in line were just standing there for the excitement, and would soon sit down and leave the woman a clear path to the pot.
“Of course,” Madeleine snapped. She regretted it momentarily, then remembered she wasn’t a nun anymore. No more Sister Clara, no more Sister Nice-guy. She could snap now like a bear trap if she wanted.
“Sorry,” said the woman.
“It’s all right. They never put enough toilets on airplanes.” She actually wasn’t sure this was true, since she’d been on a plane only a few times in her life, shuttled off to relatives when she was a girl so her parents could take vacations. This was her first adult flight, since nuns don’t fly much.
“What do you do?” the woman asked, and Madeleine thought that was a startling question given that almost nothing mattered now except pissing. But she realized that the woman was simply trying to be friendly, grace under pressure.
“I’m a professional house-sitter.”
“I’m a nurse.”
“Really. I was a nurse once.” A nun RN, actually, as well as a choir director, and a counselor, and a janitor on Tuesdays, and the Thursday through Sunday breakfast cook.
“I’m on my way to my nephew’s funeral in Buffalo.”
Now Madeleine turned around and looked at the woman who was a good three inches shorter than herself, a bit of a tub, actually. Most of the sisters Madeleine had lived with had turned into tubs exactly like the shape of this little woman. They liked to eat, those girls. Not that Madeleine didn’t, but she’d always been wired a little hot, had stayed lean, and had gotten out while her hair was still red.
“Sorry to hear that.”
“I never liked him, he was a meanie. Beat me up all the time when we were kids. But I’m still sorry he’s dead.”
The plane shook so violently that little screams came from the coach seats. Followed by another great shake. Children cried. The captain’s voice came on again. A little turbulence, he said, I’m going to have to ask everyone to take your seat again. Or words to that effect. But no one was going anywhere. Let the damned plane shake its wings off.
“Do we really have to sit down?” asked the woman.
“If you don’t want to piss your pants you’d better keep your place in line.”
“I can’t hold it like I used to.”
“Where are you going?” the woman asked.
Madeleine knew that question was coming. But she didn’t have an answer she could say out loud. She couldn’t say, I’m going to meet an inmate at Attica Prison. He’s getting out this morning at 10 o’clock and I’m going to meet him there. I used to visit him when he was at Sing Sing when I lived down that way. That’s another prison. But the last time I went he’d been transferred the night before to Attica and he had no way of letting me know. So I sat there for hours waiting before somebody bothered to tell me he was gone to Attica. He’s a gentle beast, a little like an ox, maybe. Oh yeah, and he’s older than me, too, by a decade at least. I’ve fallen in love and I’ve decided to marry him. Now, don’t get me wrong, you fat little puppy, I didn’t come to this decision lightly. I’ve thought about it, I’ve sat up till dawn some nights thinking about it. And yes, I’ve prayed. God still does listen to me, even if I ran away from Him. Anyway, I’m going. What plans? You mean like, when we’re going to tie the knot, where we’re going to live? Well, I’m going to fly him back to St. Cloud. Then maybe we’ll head south where he’s got people. Or maybe we’ll just go someplace and screw.
A few more shakes and the captain begged people to sit. Flight attendants pleaded with them.
When the woman realized Madeleine wasn’t going to answer her question, she said, “This is my first time on a plane. Funny, it would take my nephew’s death to get me up in the air. Though I never knew it would be so scary. Are flights usually like this?”
But Madeleine barely heard her.
How do I know he’s really getting out this morning? Another good question I couldn’t answer if the snoopy little bitch asked. Yes, I know how prison administration can jerk you around. They could say, Whoops, we gotta keep him another six weeks. But according to him, he’s maxing out, meaning he’s done his whole twenty years and a few months, and flunked all his parole hearings that could have gotten him out earlier. So, maybe he’s been a behavior problem in the pen. Maybe he’s one of those guys that I’ve read about who throw shit through the bars of their cells at the guards when they’re delivering dinners. That’s usually a sign of intelligence in kids, I don’t know what it means at his age. What’s he going to do for a job when he gets out? I’ll be damned if I know. Is he going to housesit with me? Are you out of your mind? When I marry him my house sitting days are baked and burnt. We’re going to rent a house somewhere and sit there and figure out what the hell to do.
With the next big shake the woman behind Madeleine was in tears, hanging onto the back of a seat. Some children were crying. The line was moving so slowly that Madeleine suspected people of dallying in the toilet, painting fingernails and checking make up, and so forth.
“Are we going to die?” asked the woman. “Level with me.”
“Not before you pee, I don’t think,” Madeleine answered.
Then the woman laughed. Madeleine would have laughed too, but it might have made her piss her pants.
“What’s his name?” the woman asked.
Huh? Madeleine thought, did I just do all my thinking out loud? “What did you ask?”
“I asked, what’s his name? Since you didn’t answer my previous question, I figured there must be a man at the end of your trip.”
“Albert,” she said. Buick Albert Carr. His father had thought Buick was a cool name to go with Carr, but as soon as the old man disappeared from the family he began calling himself by his middle name. At least, that’s how he told the story to me.
At last it was Madeleine ’s turn in the stall. A couple years back, when she was still Sister Clara, she would have let the poor woman behind her go first. But not now. In the stall she dropped her jeans and yanked down her panties and sat down heavily on the sticky seat. She’d held it so long she didn’t know if she could let go of it now. She took a deep breath.
A great boom happened beneath her, deep in the cargo hold of the plane. Holy God. Yes, an explosion, loud as a freight train hitting a bulldozer at a crossing, and she had just enough moment to wonder what it was when another boom followed so loud its sound was visible like a shaking rainbow of lights. But the final sounds she heard inside the plane were shrieks outside the bathroom door, then she heard nothing, but knew she was being sucked down the toilet, as if nature’s Hoover had her in its jaws, taking her down so fast she was outside of the plane in a second.
Now she was out in the air, somewhere over America. If she had remained conscious she would have seen her legs above her head, her jeans and panties around her ankles, and her purse floating as if she had flung it in a moment of ecstasy. She was above the snow clouds, and if she was still conscious she would have thought they looked as though she could walk across them—like a vision she’d had as a child of the road to heaven that she’d walk some day if she finished her life faithfully as a nun, and God would be holding her hand. But in fact now she was falling through those clouds some three quarters of a mile west of a great blue chunk of falling ice that was the chemical concoction of excrement that had burst from the plane’s septic holding tank when the explosion had occurred, and which had, like her, frozen almost instantly in the high altitude. In fact, her last thought was frozen on her brain the way the outline of a breath freezes on a window, and the thought was, Albert will never believe this. Albert will never—