Admit Nothing, Deny Everything
The pilot remembered his wife weeping in front of the television. She watched their faces thrust out of the windows, gasping for air. Then they would jump. Giant exploding buildings looked like special effects in a movie, but little dots—little humans—choosing to leap were horrifyingly real. His airline’s airplanes were the ones they used. He was new to the company and very junior. He was probably going to get laid off. He had a new baby. He had health care benefits. Not for long, he thought.
He didn’t want to be late for work, so now he was too early. He shut off the engine. He chewed on one of his coffee grounds and slumped into the vinyl of his old truck’s seat. There was nothing to do but wait and sip coffee in the pre-dawn airport parking garage.
A tiny Japanese sedan pulled into the spot next to him. The guy kicked the door open into the passenger side of his truck.
The pilot chuckled to himself. You don’t get a chance like this very often, he thought. He’ll crap his pants when he sees me sitting here.
He waited for the comedy and it never came. The guy wearing a mechanic’s uniform from his same airline stood up, stretched, reached back in for his lunch pail, slammed his door shut and walked for the elevator. Nobody there but him.
I’ll give him ten yards, he thought.
He jumped out and hollered, “Were you even thinking about writing a note?”
The mechanic flinched and spun around. “What?”
“I said: Were you going to write a note?”
“Aw, come on, dude. You hit my truck so hard I almost spilled my coffee.” So what if the coffee was cold? So what if the truck was so old the dent wouldn’t show?
The mechanic watched the pilot clench his fists at the end of his long sleeves. Tie flapping in the wind.
“No, I didn’t.”
Now it was the pilot’s turn. “What?”
“No, I didn’t.”
A couple steps closer, opening and closing his fists. “Yeah. You did.”
The mechanic backed up with a smirk on his face. “I was tired.”
“So? I’m tired, too, pal.”
“Well, everybody hits my car.”
“I don’t,” said the pilot.
The mechanic shrugged and left. He didn’t do it. He was tired. Everybody did it to him. Plus, pilots are prima donnas.
The pilot followed his fellow employee downstairs and into the shuttle bus. He thought he should bitch to the mechanic’s boss. To somebody.
He turned around in his seat and said, “Hey, I want to apologize.”
The mechanic behind him grunted a surly, “Huh?”
“For being unprofessional upstairs. I don’t suffer fools very well.”
The mechanic furrowed his brow at the pilot. Jackass, he thought.
The pilot turned forward and straightened his tie. He needed the work for as long as it would last.
My buddies and I rode our bikes to the bowling alley to play pinball. We spent most of the rainy spring Saturday inside with the clatter of falling bowling pins and blue smoke. I went to the counter to get change.
The lady was a giant wall of flannel with a cigarette stuck in her face. I waved the dollar bill and she threw four coins on the bar.
I thought they were four quarters. We played a few more games, trying to become pinball wizards. I tried to shove my last quarter into the slot and it wouldn’t go. I took a closer look and realized I had a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin in my hand. It slowly dawned on me that could get away with something.
I went back to the counter, barely containing myself, and the big lady gave me four more quarters for my dollar coin. Sucker, I thought, as I shoved them in my pocket and ran out into the cold.
After pedaling home in the mist, I burst into the house and saw my dad sitting there reading a book. I told him how clever and rich I was while I shoved my wet jacket into the closet.
He closed the book, stood up, and said, “Put your coat back on.”
“We’re going back to the bowling alley,” he said.
I sat, staring past the windshield wipers as they parted the fog and spitting rain. I held the 75 cents that didn’t belong to me in my hands. I rationalized the fear away and imagined I was a big man as we got closer to where I’d face the music. I would have ethics and survive.
I put the three coins on the bar.
The giant lady with her moustache and stringy hair and permanent cigarette walked over.
“Ma’am, you gave me three quarters and a dollar coin for change earlier. Here’s the extra money you gave me.”
And now she’ll tell me what a good boy I am, I thought.
Instead, she grunted, slid the coins into her meaty hand, and limped back to the till.
My dad didn’t say anything. We got into the car and went home. I was pissed. Just like adults are when they’re stupid enough to do the right thing.
“Stay buckled in, buddy, this won’t take long,” I said.
My son said, “Okay, Dad.”
I got out to pump the gas. It was the kind of winter night in Duluth where the spitting snow makes you tilt your head into the wind and scrunch up your shoulders. I swiped my credit card. The nozzle felt cold in my hand.
When I opened the door to put my wallet back on the center console, a lady scared the hell out of me.
“You got some spare change?” she asked.
“Uh, sure,” I said. My son looked at me with a blank face, taking it in. Without having to change my stance, I reached into the unused ashtray in the center section of the front seat.
“I need to make a phone call.”
“Okay,” I said, still grabbing some coins.
I turned around and handed her the quarters. She wore a pink quilted winter coat, a long one that reached down to mid-calf. She had the hood up over her head with the faux fur ruff circling her face. The unzipped jacket hung open and the orb of her pregnant stomach stuck out in front covered with a dirty white t-shirt. She shuffled across the wet cement with her winter boats untied.
I sat down inside and slammed the door shut. She arrived at the pay phone perfectly framed in front of us in the windshield. I guess she can’t afford a cell phone, I thought.
“Well, that was nice we could give her some money so she could make a call, huh?”
“Yup,” my son said from the back seat.
Right then, she sparked up a cigarette. Bare handed in the snow storm, leaning back to counterbalance her belly, her breath made steam along with the smoke while she talked into the black receiver. Pregnant and smoking, I figured it was just another opportunity to teach. It was my duty.
“See that lady I just gave money to? She’s smoking a cigarette. See her stomach? She’s pregnant. It’s not good to smoke when you’re pregnant. It hurts the baby.”
Like a parrot, my son said, “Yeah, you shouldn’t smoke because it hurts the baby.”
“Smoking’s bad for everybody, but especially bad if you’re going to have a baby.”
We sit silently and looked out into the night. The pump thumped to a stop. I pushed my tongue between my lip and my lower front teeth. I felt how my gums have receded from fifteen years of chewing tobacco.
I got out and leaned into the wind. The nozzle felt even colder when I put it back in the pump.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Chandler is a husband and father of two, who lives in Duluth, Minnesota. He flies the F-16 in the Minnesota Air National Guard. He’s been to Iraq three times to fly in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His work has been published in Flying Magazine, Northern Wilds, and Silent Sports Magazine.