An Inch of Life
– Fiction by Christine Sinclair –
Markus stood by the closed gate. The airport had been busy that day. He had arrived in plenty of time, gone to the lounge, read the paper. He held open the same page far longer than it took to read it. He called the desk twenty minutes before take off. After he hung up, wheely bag trailing behind him, he turned and walked in the opposite direction of the gate, admiring the midday light as it sluiced over aircraft onto the faces of flyers, frequent or not. When he reached the coffee shop at the end of the airport, he turned and walked in the other direction, until he had made it to his own gate. By then it was closed, a temporary ghost town between rushes of spirits.
He glanced at his watch. The flight was due to leave in five minutes. His copilot would be performing the checks, in conversation with air traffic control about where Markus could possibly be. Unlike him, yes. He’ll be here, I saw him in the lounge. Minor hiccup. You’ve been bumped down to twelfth in line. Sandy would say a-ok and inside, Markus knew, an avalanche of anger was a-tumblin’. Markus smirked. He would buy Sandy a bottle of scotch when this was all over.
Markus scanned the crowd. He saw people rushing, but not the right person, so far. He had a feeling he’d know when he saw him. He’d be older, tired in the eyes, giant breaking heart thumping through a sweater vest. Markus had conjured the image that morning when Carla had told him the story. Carla, his wife of nine years, had been working the booking desk for longer than that. She was always discreet. But something about this guy had made her think that Markus would like to know. A story she wished wasn’t a story at all. The call had come in just as her shift was ending, the man’s voice cracking, sincere. Carla told Markus about it in the kitchen, his back turned to her as he buttered his toast. It sounded like she was trying to be careless, like it was nothing. Maybe the man had sounded familiar to her. He sounded like it to Markus. Anyway, the guy – the grandfather – will be on your 1pm. He stared at his hand on the marble counter. Studied the hairs on his knuckles, the way they curled around the thick white gold of his ring. His hands were strong. The same as his father’s. He’d always hated that.
Traffic had been terrible. A crash on the expressway had sent the off-ramps into standstills, and all the obvious alternate routes were thick and sluggish. He took the full ninety minutes to get to work. He hated that part. At least in the sky, there was less competition for space. You could just go through the clouds. He wondered if the physics of entanglement could somehow mimic cloudness in objects to ease congestion.
The story had stuck with him. Even in the car, he couldn’t quite take the whole thing at once. Fragments filtered back to him, mirrored from where he’d locked them years ago. The therapist, and Carla, had been trying to loosen the sinew that bound those doors shut. He’d said no thanks. He’d said it wasn’t safe. He’d said he’d dealt with it, there was no good in dragging that all up. None of them, including himself, believed him.
The boy was – is – six, Markus. Markus sees a lopsided cake with candles in it, shakily coming towards him. He is excited for the cake, he doesn’t get to eat cake, not ever really, so this moment is special. He feels guilty though, all the trouble his mother must have gone to. The expense of the candles. He sees the cake smashed on the floor, hears his mother’s cry. He almost misses his exit. An exit he’d been inching towards since the dawn of time. He pulls to a stop at a red light, drumming his fingers on the wheel. He sees his ring again. The thick fingers. He sees the thick fingers curled into a fist, hanging at his father’s side. He presses his foot on the gas, the light had turned green. Within an inch of life, was the phrase that was used.
Passengers were being called to gate fifty-nine, beside him. The line-up formed instantaneously. Markus checked the time again. Three minutes to go. He’d worked for this airline for almost fifteen years. He knew the owners, golfed with them once or twice a year, went to their Christmas parties, they had come to his wedding. His second wedding that is. He knew how much this was costing. Thousands of dollars per second. Carla wouldn’t have risked it. She would be fired for it if she did. He reckoned he had about a 40% chance of pulling this off and keeping his job, and that seemed about right. He didn’t think of himself as someone who made a difference. He made a living, a career. Almost never mistakes, not at his job. This wasn’t a mistake. He was 90% sure of that. Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission. It would be a harder, longer discussion if he called now. He was not known as a man who wavered, it was something his boss respected. He was a firm man. That had cost him, a great deal. His first wife. His relationship with his own boy.
He’d tried hard not to think about Jackson on his drive here. He hadn’t seen him face to face in four years, it was coming on nine months since he’d spoken with him. He was a grown man now, or almost, probably with those same knuckles. Markus remembered Jackson’s tiny hands when he was born. Holding onto to Markus’ finger with all his tiny might. Trying to walk in their backyard on Jarvis. For a while, Jackson needed you to place your hand on the side of his face for him to fall asleep. Markus never told anybody how that made him cry. He couldn’t understand how something so beautiful could be seen as so despicable. Jackson was the spitting image of Markus as a boy.
Markus knew the man had checked in. It was late, the desk was closing, but the ladies had said they were worried he’d have a heart attack he was so winded. Tiffany usually didn’t have patience for that kind of mumbojumbo, but a string of customer complaints had put her on notice, and the airport being so busy today, she would likely have factored in all the witnesses and the vulnerability of the old man. For all her flaws, Tiffany was not dumb, nor did she figure she was easily employable, not in this market. Aging out of flight attending fast, Markus guessed she wasn’t that good at saving, taking a look at the jewelry and the car she drove. Markus also knew she was single, and a heavy drinker, and had come up poor, like him. It had been the only real and honest conversation the two of them had ever had.
Nobody in the regular line at security got fast tracked, regardless of when their flight was supposed to have left. They were training a whole new crew today, making no bones about doing the whole stand and dance again if the trainee did something wrong at the beginning. Markus would have been enraged if he’d been subjected, but he had a nexus pass, and commanded the kind of authority that they didn’t dare test with a newbie. Although his physical build gave him an advantage, Markus still had to build that authority. He’d hardened his shell, his face, his arms. He took an elevated reverence for ceremony, opening doors, helping the elderly, tipping appropriately. It sent a message. I’m from another time, don’t come at me with something flimsy. People rarely did, these days. What Markus could and couldn’t abide.
They’d called the man’s name on the loud speaker. Arthur Mclure. Didn’t seem real when Markus repeated the name to himself. Like a ghost, whose last traces winowed through the concrete statement of an airport. Markus checked the time again. They were supposed to have taken off 1 min 36 seconds ago. Sandy could use a shoulder rub around now. Markus wondered if Liz would be obliging. She was always terribly obliging with the pilots. And although Sandy wasn’t her favourite, he was the only one on board, and therefore her favourite at the moment. Markus was never rude with women like that, but always clear. Flight attendants liked him. It was easy to end a marriage with one, if you weren’t careful. It was easy to start a marriage with one too, but he’d been careful, at least the second time around. His marriage with Carla was a good one. She was a good woman, a solid, stable, beautiful woman that did not make unfair demands, even if he liked to pretend they were, as a kind of foreplay. After all this time, he was still so tender towards her. He saw in her face a gentleness that he recognized and he’d be moved, almost to tears sometimes, wanting her to be safe. The way he’d wrap his entire body around her after love making, her head resting on his arm or chest, feeling her breath between her bones. And then this morning, as he kissed her goodbye, the bloated and bloody face of his mother, on the ground, bulged eyes staring not staring, fingers twitching drifted up and Markus squeezed the bridge of his nose. These pictures had been buried deep, and this story was a geyser. Even though he knew he was doing the right thing, he did wish this Arthur Mclure could run faster, old bugger.
It was the mother’s live-in boyfriend, Carla had said. Who knows how long the boy had suffered, Markus thought. That man could have “lived” with them since the child was a babe. Maybe the kid didn’t know what he looked like without bruises, didn’t own a shirt without sleeves or a pair of shorts. Never went to a swimming pool. Knew how to use make-up. Six years old. He had just started grade one, he was making friends. Markus had never used make-up but it was a different time when he was coming up, teachers expected kids, especially boys, with bruises and cuts. They probably deserved it.
She hadn’t described the injuries. They rarely do, with children. What specifically was killing him. Only that time was of the essence. The kid was in a coma and they couldn’t or wouldn’t keep him on life support. Markus did not know the boy’s name. Few would, ever. The mother, who had pushed him into life, would never forget it, but who knows how long she had after this. The boyfriend would probably never say his name. Arthur Mclure would hold that boy’s name in his heart with every beat it took, but he too, might not have much left after something like this. How things slip. How we’ve killed each other a thousand times and we call it a life. This stuff happens all the time. Our skin is burnt with it. Arthur Mclure was the only piece of the puzzle that Markus could touch – today.
How we’ve killed each other a thousand times and we call it a life.
Markus wasn’t looking at what he was looking at. The kid only has a few hours, a day, tops. He drummed his hand on the desk as he leaned on it. His crisp uniform, his formal cap, he was an emblem. He stood for civility, direction, dependability. He knew his craft, and from the outside, himself. He had been beaten so many times he couldn’t recognize himself when enough time had passed after the last fight. He had stood in the bathroom unsure of what was different. He was in his mid-twenties and his first wife had put it to him straight – I’m leaving you if you don’t stop this. No more bar fights, no more bars, we have a baby on the way and beaten or dead was no way to raise a child. Markus had assumed a man like him needed to fight, he needed those harmless (except to skin and bone) fights to not fight her. He said he’d try. He didn’t think it would work. He tried hobbies. One half-knit scarf, two broken ping pong paddles, a chess board tossed at the wall. He tried tennis. He got good at it. An aging and alcoholic coach took him on in exchange for some light chauffeuring duties and the occasional minor fraud. He got better. In a tournament he played against a pilot and won. The man impressed him. They spoke in the locker room, sweat still winding down their scalps. The man invited Markus to come fly with him that weekend, a short jaunt in his cessna down to London. The experience in the cockpit changed everything. He never missed fighting after that.
The anger didn’t go away. It probably did end that marriage, but it never went back into his fists. He buried and crushed a lot of it. He used some of it to be commanding. Some he perverted into illicit affairs. A drop or two went into his impressive backhand and then golf swing when he traded sports, centuries, and class status. And these days, the rest propped up the silence and distance between that son he had promised to be a good father to. For all his trying, today had been a hard day to not think about Jackson.
His son had brought him such delight once. As the years turned and his marriage soured, Jackson picked sides, and Markus supposed he was bound to. He’d never physically hurt the boy’s mother, but he hadn’t done right by her either. He could see that now, although he had no interest sharing that thought with anyone. As he grew, Jackson choose to occupy himself with fewer and fewer things that Markus could respect. He was on the dance team in high school and took to the streets when he could, occupying some park for months instead of going to college, investing what money he had in piercing his body and learning to juggle things that were on fire. At best Markus was silent on the phone, which only set Jackson off more. Markus had tried talking to his ex about their son but she wouldn’t hear it. The boy was a prodigy, a second coming, if you asked her. The last time Markus had seen him, Jackson had shown up at midnight at his house and asked to spend the night. He looked out of it and wouldn’t answer when Markus asked how he’d gotten to his suburban home. It had gone downhill from there. By three am Jackson was gone, and Markus was alone in his silent hallway, the lingering smell of adolescent and the crush of loss abutting the slam of the closed front door.
They’d stopped calling Arthur Mclure’s name. Now, eight minutes after the plane was supposed to depart, they would be calling Markus’ phone, then Carla. None of that was on the loudspeaker though. He was paid to be here, and for that privilege, he got some privacy. The line at fifty-nine had thinned, and the less anxious and late walked up to the desk to get their boarding passes scanned.
This gate was at the far end of the longest arm of the terminal. Boarding at gate sixty-one across the hall was just being called, and fifty-eight was about to be. Two of the moving walkways to get here were out of service, and judging by the mass of people crowding the gates, the other two walkways would be jammed with sticky-fingered children stickying-up end-of-rope parents, disposable coffee-cupped wheely bagged travelistas, and some loud all-inclusive crowds already adorned in floral print and cheap flip-flops. Arthur Mclure would be trapped if he got on one and miles away if he didn’t.
Markus had turned his phone on silent, and slipped into his back pocket. He didn’t want his resolve shaken. He just wants to see his grandson, just one more time. He imagined how he would handle the lay-off. He’d negotiate a package. He would have a hard time finding commercial work, especially after a stunt like this, so he’d probably go private, rich people liked him. He’d been perfecting that act since the tennis tournament locker room. He was an excellent pilot. Carla would be supportive, although perhaps ill-equipped to change her lifestyle. This might make Jackson proud though, cotton candy for brains sometimes. It would have made his own father furious. Would have punished him righteously for this one. Markus smiled. And fuck you too Dad, he thought to the blurry and slurring drunk figure he conjured, an image imprinted and faded from his last fight and flight from the demon. His father had slammed the screen door open crashing it into the vinyl siding, and screamed after his son, who turned back only once to look at the man. Markus didn’t say anything. His father didn’t chase him either. Something they both knew, that one time. There was no point. Markus tipped his almost finished and certainly cold coffee to the imagined apparition. And out from behind it, appeared a balding and sweaty white man, barely breathing, with the frantic look of the prey. He had one small black bag in his hand and a sweat-soaked ticket in his other.
“I’m too late,” he choked. “I couldn’t get –”
“Arthur Mclure?” Markus asked.
Arthur could only nod.
“I’m the pilot of this flight.”
Arthur looked at him with all his messy thoughts inside him spilling around, sloshing with the heaving of his breath. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve.
“This plane does not leave without me.” Markus looked Arthur in eye. “And I don’t fly that plane without you on it.”
Arthur took a deep breath. Markus nodded. They turned, and walked down the gangway together, in silence.
About the Author – Christine Sinclair
Christine Sinclair is a social worker, yoga teacher, writer and freelance editor. She lives in Toronto, Ontario with her little family, making messes nobody is very interested in cleaning up.
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