For Robert and Rachel
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
It rained that night as if Noah and his ark were making a comeback. The first real blast of winter. Sleet whipped in cold and hard off the Pacific, pelting the runway at Santa Paula and raking the corrugated metal roof of watchman Herm Hoversten’s security shack like machine-gun fire. Not that Hoversten noticed, slumped at his desk, porcine nose bent sideways, drool pooling around his splayed marshmallow lips, fast asleep.
He was a doughy man who’d served briefly in the army, long enough for physicians to diagnose that his snoring through reveille each morning had less to do with draftee malingering than some severe, narcoleptic affliction rarely seen before. Granted a medical discharge and excused from combat duty in Korea, Hoversten soon landed the perfect job for the perfectly lethargic, surrounded by citrus groves, guarding a civilian airfield nearly as comatose as he was.
Not even when the door to the shack cracked open and the wind came howling in loud as a jet engine did he awaken. Only after the stranger booted him off his rickety swivel chair and onto the plywood floor did Hoversten come to. Don’t Be Cruel, the new tune from that boy from Mississippi with the lips and the hips, the one all the girls were so nutty about, was playing on the radio. The stranger turned it off. He was wearing a dark woolen watch cap. The left sleeve of his navy peacoat dripped blood. In his right hand was a gun.
“You are armed, yes?”
“Mister, I make thirty-nine bucks a week,” Hoversten said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I couldn’t afford the bullets.”
The stranger smiled and nodded toward his bloody sleeve.
“I am in need for you to move a rather cumbersome object that I myself am incapable of lifting under present circumstances. You will please to get your jacket. We will be taking a short, wet stroll.”
Hoversten couldn’t place the accent. Russian? French, maybe? Hell, it was hard to know. All those foreigners sounded the same anyway. He strained to one knee, then gained his feet unsteadily, eyeing the handgun leveled at his gut.
“I don’t want no trouble.”
“Do what I tell you. You will be OK.”
Hoversten pulled on a greasy yellow slicker.
“I have nothing to lose,” the stranger said. “If you run, I will shoot you.”
“Don’t worry, mister. I ain’t run nowhere in years.”
The stranger gestured with the gun — let’s go — and followed him out the door.
They leaned into the rain, shielding their eyes. Parked on the tarmac ahead of them was a twin-engine airplane made of polished aluminum. It was a Model 18 Beechcraft, with two big radial engines and an amply proportioned fork tail that reminded Hoversten of Marilyn Monroe. He hadn’t noticed the plane when he’d come to work that evening, nor the stake-bed pickup truck parked close by it. In the back of the truck sat a wooden crate about the size of one of those ornate “Italian inspired” nightstands that his wife had put on layaway at Montgomery Ward, the ones she said she simply had to have because they were pure class.
“You will move that box into that airplane,” the stranger shouted over the wind. “If you drop it, it will be the last thing you do.”
Hoversten reached into the truck’s cargo bed. He undid the ropes holding the box in place and slid it to the edge of the open tailgate, struggling to balance it on his thigh while trying to secure a solid grip with both rain-slicked hands.
“What d’you got in this thing anyway,” Hoversten said, “rocks?”
The crate felt to him as if it weighed a ton. His arms turned quickly to jelly. His legs burned. He took baby steps toward the airplane. Somehow, he held on. With one final, straining push, he hefted the load up and through the fuselage door.
“Your help is greatly appreciated.”
“Don’t mention it,” Hoversten said, bending from the waist, breathing hard.
The stranger holstered his gun and turned to climb into the plane. In that instant, a lifetime of memories welled up inside Herm Hoversten’s head, all the taunts and slights he’d ever endured. He was too fat, everyone said, too slow-witted. Even his parents told him he’d amount to nothing. Here was the chance to prove them all wrong. Here was his opportunity to be a hero.
He swept the stranger into a bear hug from behind and squeezed for all he was worth, but the man was strong. Even with his wounded arm, he broke free.
“You’re under arrest,” Hoversten said, reaching into the front pocket of his baggy trousers.
That’s when the stranger fired.
Even over the storm’s fury, Hoversten would remember how loud the gunshot was. He felt no pain, only surprise at suddenly finding himself on the tarmac, unable to move his limbs, the rain stinging his face.
The stranger knelt beside him, extracted handcuffs from Hoversten’s pants pocket, and flung them angrily away.
“Where is the gun?” he asked.
“I told you. I got no gun.”
“I was not going to harm you. I was going to let you go. You are a stupid, stupid man.” The stranger shook his head sadly and stepped into the plane.
Hoversten listened as the engines came to life. Propellers whirled, first one, then the other. He saw the Twin Beech taxi to the east end of the field and turn, then come roaring back down the runway and lift off, vanishing in seconds into the low, scudding clouds.
Come daybreak, after the storm had passed and the skies had cleared, a private pilot hoping to practice his landings before work would find Hoversten where he’d fallen. The guard could offer little information that might lead authorities to his assailant. He couldn’t remember the airplane’s tail number. He couldn’t recall what the stranger looked like beyond his cap, coat, and the blood on his sleeve. The stranger’s accent was a mystery. The gun, whether a revolver or semiautomatic, its caliber or finish, was a blur.
All Herm Hoversten wanted to do, he whispered moments before gulping his final breath, was sleep.
My ex-wife and I were on our way to see the lady doctor.
“I’m so excited,” Savannah said.
“Makes two of us.”
The stoplight at South Bundy and Santa Monica Boulevard was red. She glanced over at me from behind the leather-wrapped steering wheel of her platinum Jaguar.
“You don’t seem very excited, Logan.”
“Are you kidding? My very first visit to a gynecologist? Who wouldn’t be excited?”
Savannah pursed her lips, disappointed by what she perceived was the usual acerbic me, which I swear I wasn’t trying to be. “He happens to be an obstetrician-gynecologist, as well as a fertility specialist,” she said. “We’re having a baby, Logan. It’s supposed to be a joyous occasion. For both parents.”
“I’m filled with joy, Savannah. Bursting at the seams with it. I just have a few things on my mind, that’s all.”
It wasn’t a lie. I was joyful. Truly, I was. But I was also plenty distracted. I was fast approaching the second half century of my time on this planet, a pathetically underemployed flight instructor with a work history that the United States government prohibited me from divulging to anyone in any detail under threat of a one-way ticket to Leavenworth. Home was a converted garage in Rancho Bonita, California, where I eked out a pauper’s existence in one of America’s wealthiest communities while rooming with America’s dumbest cat who, even in his most sociable moments, pretended like we didn’t really know each other. And, at an age in their lives when other guys were pondering whether to buy sports cars and/ or have affairs with their personal assistants, I was approximately seven months shy of becoming a first-time father — with my former wife, no less.