Ike Warton was clinging to life and waiting for an angel in the airport terminal. He was also waiting for the 10 a.m. flight. Originally slated to leave at 7 o'clock, Ike had mustered enough foresight last night, even while drinking himself blind, to change to the later departure. This was a wise decision, because at 7 o'clock he had been careening around his bedroom, vomiting in every container that would hold water (and some that wouldn't).
On the way to the airport, he told his sister that he got sick before this flight as a result of ``some kind of bug.'' His breath smelled of tequila, cigarettes, 69-cent burritos, and stomach lining. It could have attracted bugs. She could see that he was actually frightened, though, and had asked him, ``How can you, of all people, be afraid of flying?''
``I'm not afraid of flying,'' he replied. ``I'm afraid of crashing.'' This was followed by a weak smile that was supposed to show courage, but instead showed some bit of burrito.
This fear of crashing was a recent development. When he was an infant, Ike was the baby tipping over in the highchair or tumbling down the stairs, laughing all the way. As a youngster, he was the jackanapes leaping from the roof with an umbrella or riding his bike off the diving board into the empty swimming pool. In his teen ages, he was the fellow urinating on the third rail or voting for Mondale. He loved flying in jets and would giggle with glee when they hit pockets of turbulence or the pilot bounced the plane several times while landing.
``Nice landings!'' he would yell to the pilot, then slide down the emergency exit headfirst.
He was flying more than he had ever hoped, but now his confidence was gone. He wanted to have his inner peace back, but he was afraid he would be getting inner and outer peace, for good. He glanced around the terminal nervously. If angels were going to help out with this flight, they should certainly be showing up by now.
In missing the 7 a.m. flight, Ike had gained recuperation time but lost a more peaceful traveling environment. If this had been the earlier flight, the waiting area would be a paradigm of cool competence. Steely-eyed businesswomen would pour over spreadsheets, muttering to themselves when they spilled coffee on their laptops or on the tops of their laps. Serious-minded businessmen would be quietly speed-reading The Journal and speed-smoking cigarettes. They would then board the plane in an orderly column, like an elite Republican Guard in dark blue, pinstriped uniforms. Each soldier would carry one briefcase with a computer, a phone, and scotch for sterilizing mental wounds. Strangely enough, this scene would have calmed him.
Unfortunately, waiting for the 10 a.m. flight was like waiting for the gates to open at Disney World, only worse because they were all going to pile into the same ride, and at best it was going to last four hours. In fact, most of the families in the crowded terminal looked like they were returning from Disney World; they were armed to the buckteeth with Mickey Mouse ears, Donald Duck pants, Goofy hats, and goofier parents. The children were as obnoxious as rabid, incontinent monkeys. Ike glanced around, wishing that Gregory Peck would show up and shoot them.
Every family had a tremendous amount of bulky and silly luggage with them. He knew they would soon board the plane in a panicked rush, yelling to locate each other and jamming their packages, boxes, and bags into every crevice of the plane. Ike remembered the bus rides he took in rural Mexico during the agave worm hunting expedition. Those buses were more orderly, despite the fact that more live chickens were involved.
Last month's trip was where he learned about the angels. As he closed his eyes and tried to relax, his thoughts slipped back to that revelation. He and his hombres were packed into a bus going down a mountain pass. When the tires skidded around the corners, he yelled with approval. When the driver used the brakes, Ike cursed him. The driver lost his head too; perhaps he had been drinking as well. His intensity increased as the speed increased, past the point where the brakes would be effective, even if they were applied. They skidded at the cliff's edge, then careened back to the wall on the right, then caromed across to the edge again. Many of the women and chickens cried out. Some of the crates smashed on the bus floor. The back of the bus actually slipped off of the gravel road, and Ike felt the familiar stomach-drop followed by a peculiar rise. There was silence for a moment.
Then the thump of the tires landing back on the road. Somehow. Everyone else's faces showed fear, and some crossed themselves. Ike felt elated, as usual, but a little guilty for contributing to that close call.
When they unloaded the bus several minutes later, some of the women were still crying. Children tried to calm the distraught chickens. A man who looked like an itinerant farmer strode right up to Ike. The man's skin was black with dust and his clothes were filthy. Ike looked at the expression on his face and thought the man was going to punch him. When he looked at the eyes, though, he knew that he was seeing an angel. And he could hear words as clearly as if they had been yelled at him:
``That's the last time I'm going to save your ass, Warton.''
Whatever joy he might have gotten from seeing a divine being was swamped by the realization that he was doomed. He understood then that he had been supported all of this time despite his sins, and that the supports were being knocked away. With 30 more years, he could swing himself back around to a gravel road of grace, but not in the little time left.
Ike opened his eyes again and looked out the window at his plane. It was completely not aflame, not rolling unpredictably, not smashing into the side of a mountain. This could be a thin illusion, covering the fundamental nature of things.
You might think that the more you flew, the more natural flying might become. You would think that the more you knew about the planes, the more confidence you would have. You might and would be wrong, however. Cause and Effect had left, giving their seat up to Divine Intervention.
Angels were starting to appear around the jet. Although this was an exciting development, Ike knew better than to call others' attention to them. A small angelic group was smoking and talking near the fuel truck. A few just sat along the edges of the plane's wings, dangling their legs and swinging them back and forth. Ike went to the window and waved. A couple of the angels near the fuel truck looked at him, then at each other, then shook their heads. He realized then that they were not angels, but dominions. They wouldn't be going on the flight.
He sank back into his chair and sighed. He felt sick again. Others might make it through this trip, but this was probably the end for him. Ike was going to be claimed, not through divine desire, but through divine disinterest. What random end would be allowed to reach him? Wind shear? Heart attack? Lightning? Wind-shear-induced heart attack in a lightning storm?
A young flight attendant approached him. ``Captain Warton?'' she called, poking his patience with each perky syllable. ``We've got to board pretty soon! Are you ready for the preflight check?''
Ike pushed himself out of the chair with great effort. His body seemed too heavy to be his own. ``I'm as ready as I'll ever be.''
(Thanks to E.G.D. for the ``landings'' line.)