Sunday, June 27, 2021

Flight to Lima



Flight to Lima

J.T. Jefferson




        Those incessant screams are enough to make me want a drink, and I’ve been a teetotaler for all of my forty-seven years, Valarie thought while fighting the urge to cover her ears.

        “How childish would that look?” she whispered into the air. A middle-aged Hispanic woman pressing the palms of her hands against her ears as if she were an eight-year-old child blotting out the sounds of an accordion. The infant’s screams reverberated off the Mexico City International Airport’s rafters. Valarie prayed, and said, “God, please don’t let that baby be on my flight to Lima.”

        Valarie had survived her share of mothering. She had no children, and was never married, but being the oldest of five siblings came with parenting responsibilities. Both her parents worked two jobs to provide her and her siblings with a comfortable life. They were raised in Mexico City and attended private schools. Valarie saw the work that went into supporting a family and wanted no part of it.

        Teaching history at a local public high school afforded Valerie opportunities to indulge her passion for archeology. During school holidays and summer recess breaks, she visited ancient Mayan ruins throughout Mexico and Guatemala. All the guides at the ruins were multilingual and usually spoke English to accommodate the majority of the tourists. Valarie enjoyed going into more depth with the guides in Spanish, their shared language.

        This trip to Lima was the first leg in her long dreamed of exploration of Peru and the ancient Inca civilization. She was especially excited about touching the stones of Machu Picchu. All of that awaited her if she could survive the cries of that baby.

        Valarie was grateful that her brother, Guillermo, was a pilot for Aeromexico Airlines. This gave her discounted flight privileges reserved for the families and friends of airline employees. Valarie took full advantage of this benefit, and the stamps of many nations on her passport were proof of that. Being on standby status was the only drawback to discount tickets. Full-fare customers were seated first, and if there was space on the plane, standby passengers were seated by priority-ranked order. Guillermo had worked for Aeromexico for a dozen years, so Valarie was sure she would get an unsold seat.

        “Valarie Hernandez to Gate 52 please,” an airline employee called over the terminal’s P.A. system. The announcement was first spoken in Spanish and immediately repeated in English.

        Valerie smiled as she watched the mother try to comfort her baby by rocking the child in her left arm, while simultaneously struggling to screw the cap on a bottle of formula with her right hand.

        One of the many prices people pay for sex, Valarie thought. She stood, stretched out her slightly plump five-foot-three-inch body, grabbed the handle of her red carryon suitcase, and rolled it over to Gate 52.

        Another perk to being related to an employee of Aeromexico was the empty first-class seats that were allowed to be filled by those with employee discount tickets. Today, for this five-hour-and-forty-six-minute flight from Mexico City to Lima, Valarie was assigned to seat 1A. As soon as she stowed her luggage in the overhead bin, and before she could adjust her seat for maximum comfort, a male flight attendant asked if she would like something to drink. Looking at the eight-ounce bottle of water in her cup holder, Valarie said, “I’m fine for now, thank you.”

        Relieved she was not bumped from this flight due to it being sold to capacity, Valarie began to relax while the remaining passengers boarded the plane and took their seats. She checked out the in-flight entertainment options. To her surprise, many classic movies and television shows were available to watch: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest starring Jack Nicholson, the original Twilight Zone series hosted by Rod Serling, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The mere thought of sitting back and enjoying a movie or two made her hungry. Lunch would be served as soon as the plane reached its cruising altitude, so Valarie took a peek at the menu placed neatly in a gray net attached to the wall in front of her.

        The last group of passengers to board the plane included the woman with the agitated baby who had been screaming in the terminal. Seeing them, Valerie was thankful that the baby was now ravenously sucking on the nipple of a bottle of cream-colored formula. That sight caused Valarie to turn her attention to the lunch menu in her right hand. With the index finger of her left hand, she began scanning the list of meal options. Her long, pointed red fingernail stopped on the only vegan dish being offered, Vegan Enchilada. Valarie thought it sounded delicious.

        Moments after the lighted seatbelt signs were turned off, the flight attendants began going from row to row jotting down the meal choices of passengers seated in first class. The process was a bit cruder in the economy section of the cabin. Two stewardesses pushed heated carts through the aisles and offered each passenger one of two choices: chicken parmesan or spaghetti and steamed vegetables. Back in first class, Valarie ordered the vegan enchilada and a can of cranberry juice.

        The steward who took Valarie’s order also phoned into the cockpit and began writing down whatever he was being told over the phone. Sitting in the front row gave Valerie an idea of what her brother’s work environment must be like. Since the pilots’ door remained locked during flights, there was a two-way hatch alongside the cockpit door that allowed food and drinks to be delivered to the pilots safely. Valarie wondered if there was a bathroom in there as well.

        Thank God for first class, Valarie thought, as she slowly chewed her last fork full of enchilada. She had poured the remaining few sips of cranberry juice from the can into a glass. She swirled the bright red juice in the glass, pretended it was fine wine by giving it a whiff under her nose, and swallowed a gulp to wash down her lunch.

        “Delightful ,” Valarie said so quietly that no one seated nearby heard. At home, lunch was always followed by an hour-long nap, planned or unplanned, so Valarie decided to wait on watching a movie until she awoke.

        Before long, Valarie was jolted awake by the all-too-familiar wailing noises. From somewhere back in the economy section, the infant was at it again. For Valarie, fingernails scraping a chalkboard would have been preferable to that baby’s cries. The passenger sitting next to her in seat 1B appeared to be fast asleep. How could anyone sleep through this noise? Valarie wondered. Perplexed by the absence of movement around her, she unbuckled her seatbelt to stand up and have a look around.

        There was no movement anywhere on the plane. No flight attendants roamed the aisles, no one was standing to stretch their legs, and no one was heading to or from the bathrooms. Valarie noticed that two of the flight attendants were seated in their pull-down seats, and they slumped over each other as though they had passed out from too much alcohol. The baby screamed again, and Valarie headed down her aisle in the direction of the baby’s cries. Valarie was also beginning to realize that people were slumped over in every seat.

        “Hello, wake up! Can anybody hear me? Wake up!” she shouted in a shaky voice.

        Valarie found the baby lying in the aisle near the back of the cabin. The infant’s white face had turned pink from the work of her mighty vocal cords. Yellow vomit coated the white bib, and her pudgy arms reached up reflexively toward her mother. Valarie knelt on the floor and began rubbing the baby’s belly with her right hand and shaking her seated and dangling mother with her left hand. The mom’s body felt cold and clammy. Valarie jerked her left hand away and stared at the mother’s body. The chest did not rise and fall. No breathing sounds escaped from her mouth or nose, and her skin was ashen.

        “Oh, God!” she blurted out. The other passengers seated around the baby’s mother looked similar. “Everybody’s dead!”

        Valarie picked up the now cooing baby and hustled back to the front of the cabin. She held the baby against her with one hand and banged on the cockpit door with the other.

        “Help! Help! There’s been an accident. Everybody’s dead!” she shouted as she hammered away at the door.

        From the right side of her peripheral vision, Valarie saw a piece of paper slide down from the two-way hatch alongside the cockpit door. The paper landed on a small counter littered with similar pieces of paper. Looking closely, Valarie could see that they were meal check-off sheets. The flight’s captain had chosen chicken parmesan, and the co-pilot had the spaghetti and vegetables. Reading the other sheets, Valarie found only one with a different meal choice. Circled in red, for seat 1A, the meal choice was vegan enchilada.

        The realization of their predicament was numbing. Valarie carried the baby over to seat 1A and slowly lowered herself back into the seat. The baby’s huge black pupils stared up at her without blinking. “Can you fly this plane?” she asked the baby. The baby smiled at the gentle sound of Valarie’s voice. Ignorance is truly bliss, she thought .

        Valarie began humming a lullaby to keep the baby soothed as she stood up and placed the baby in the seat. She continued humming when she opened the overhead bin above them to retrieve her cell phone from her carryon bag. The large black smartphone made her smallish hands look tiny. She turned it on by pressing a side button with her right thumb. In a few moments, the phone’s screen came to life. Maybe Guillermo can figure this out, she hoped.

        Using the WhatsApp feature, Valarie sent a message to Guillermo. She communicated with her siblings with the app to avoid getting lost in anyone’s long list of texts or full voicemail boxes. She typed, “HELP!”

        “What’s going on?” Guillermo replied.

        “Flight AM46 to Lima is in trouble,” she responded to him as specifically as possible. She did not trust the app to keep them connected while she was in flight.

        “What do you mean?” he asked.

        “The food was poisoned. I was the only one who ate the vegan dish, and there’s a baby alive as well,” she typed her answer with tears welling up in her eyes. A tear landed on the phone’s screen, and she watched it drip down.

        “Did you say there’s a baby alive? Does that mean everyone’s dead?” he asked.

        Not wanting her brother to think this was a sick joke, she typed, “YES! YES! YES!”

        After a long pause, Guillermo replied, “The Peruvian authorities are aware of a problem. The pilots had not reported in as required. The plane is on autopilot, and will fly beyond Lima and over the Pacific until it runs out of fuel.”

        Valarie wanted to type, I love you, but their connection was lost. She looked away from the phone to the baby now sleeping in seat 1A. “You won’t sleep for long, will you?” she whispered. Valarie walked back to the baby’s mother to get the bottle of formula. Upon returning, she stood at the food counter littered with the slips of meal choices.

        “This time, I’ll choose the spaghetti and vegetables,” she said with a coy grin. Before putting the meal into a knee-high oven, Valarie placed a small portion of vegetables into a blender used for mixing drinks. “That bit will be for the baby.”

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Outhouse



The Outhouse


Milton Porter’s great grandfather, Mitch, built their farmhouse during the late 1800s. Milton could not be sure of the exact year it was completed, but he did know that it took on a few additions over the past century.The house was not wired for electricity, so oil lamps and candles provided light in the evenings. However, the original homestead was modern for its time. It did not have the traditional fireplace; instead, an oil-burning furnace emitted heat through metal vents, each a foot in diameter. There was no plumbing for a sink, a toilet, or a bathtub. Water was drawn from a well a few feet from the stairs out back, and an outhouse sat even farther back, partially hidden from view by a relatively young, twenty-foot-high beech tree.

Over the decades, the Porters’ home increased in size to accommodate the growing family and modern amenities. A storage room was built onto the back of the house; next to that, a kitchenette and a bathroom were added. A water pump was installed in the basement, and a screened-in porch was attached to the front of the house. The old well was sealed shut by heavy planks of wood, but the outhouse was left untouched. Even with a growing brood of Porters playing, working, and leaving the farm, no one ever acknowledged that the outhouse was still there.

One of Milton’s youngest children, Madison, would be the first to take a look into the outhouse since the 1950s. Madison’s heartthrob, eleven-year-old Katie Carter, would stop by with her mother to get a jar of homemade applesauce from Madison’s mom. Madison knew that Katie would only be there for as long as their moms could hold a conversation, so Madison sought a place close by to have a moment of privacy with her. Katie’s thick and wavy red hair framed plump dimpled cheeks lightly sprinkled with freckles. Madison longed to kiss her full lips while getting lost in her hazel eyes.

The barn would not be a good place since dad was acting as a nurse for one of their sick heifers. The other outbuildings were in clear view from the front of the house, and there would not be enough time to go into the woods. Madison gingerly walked around to the back of the house while looking at the ground. Madison took notice of the graying wooden base of the outhouse. Maybe that’s a good place to kiss a girl, Madison thought hopefully.

Uncut grass, reaching three feet tall, browned in the sun in front of the outhouse door. Shade from the beech tree only covered the south side of the structure. Scattered among the grass were milkweed plants, whose green leaves and white, pink, and red flowers added splashes of color to the drab appearance of the split and cracked wood slats that the ancient shitter was made from. A host of monarch butterflies danced around the milkweed perennials. Madison took this all in before taking a deep breath and opening the outhouse door.

It was unremarkable. A rectangular wooden handle dangled from a rusty orange nail. The door was cut short on both the bottom and the top by two inches. When Madison swung the door open, it creaked and nearly fell off its two rusted triangular hinges. There were no windows, and the roof was pitched at a forty-five-degree angle. The floor consisted of packed-down dirt with the feel and color of slate. Although there was no smell, Madison’s nose crinkled at the sight of the long bench with a circular hole in its center. “This would not be the place to kiss a girl,” Madison said quietly; at the same moment, the outhouse door swung shut with a loud bang and rattle.

***

“Aagh!” Madison screamed and jumped when the door slammed, and connected with both butt cheeks in the process. While one hand rubbed a sore behind, the other pushed open the outhouse door. Madison’s jaw hung slack, with an open mouth and pink tongue quickly becoming parched by the sudden grip of the dry heat. Brown eyes bulged from their sockets while looking in every direction with confusion. “Whaaaat...the...freak happened?” The Porter home and the Vermont countryside were gone!

The greenery that provided an endless background color to the world that Madison was familiar with was replaced by shades of brown and red everywhere. Not one bush or tree was in sight. Rough tan sand at the edges of a winding river melded into jagged brown and red rock cliffs that rose to extraordinary heights before leveling to plateaus. Looking around, Madison could see that the giant cliffs created walls along both sides of the murky green river that displayed white froth when the waves struck rocks. This is grand! Madison thought, only then realizing that the outhouse was gone.

Not knowing what to do or where to go, Madison began following the river downstream. Sweat evaporated instantly, so with drying skin, Madison considered wading into the water. “Who opened the oven door?” Madison asked the empty sky while marveling at the variety of natural rock edifices. High up and not too far ahead, the edges of a few cliffs formed the appearance of an eagle spreading its wings. Wow, that’s neat! Madison thought just before turning around to the sound of splashing.

Approaching in a canoe, dressed in traditional Hualapai tribal clothing, was a girl about Madison’s age—eleven or twelve. She was standing as she paddled. She was only around four feet and ten inches tall, so Madison initially thought that she was sitting. Her dark brown skin made her facial features hard to see against the brown background of the environment. Thick black straight hair extended to her shoulders, with bangs touching her eyebrows in front. Madison eventually made out her round face, puffy cheeks, and full light brown lips. “Gam’yu,” she said, while bringing the canoe to a stop.

Madison’s ears never heard the language she spoke, but it was clear from her smile that she was saying hello. When Madison spoke, the Hualapai language flowed fluently. How did that happen? Madison thought that maybe, the outhouse was the opposite of the Tower of Babel. “Hello. Who are you, and where am I?” Madison asked.

“I am A’Dora Whatoname,” she exclaimed proudly. “This is the Hakataya,” A’Dora said while nodding toward the river. “You are on the lands of my people, the Hualapai tribe,” she finished with a confused look on her face as she noticed Madison’s clothing. Madison was wearing ratty blue Pro-Keds sneakers and blue jean overalls atop a dingy white t-shirt. Dried manure splatters were caked onto the legs of the overalls.

“I’m Madison from Vermont. It’s so hot here. Aren’t you burning up in those clothes?” Madison asked. A’Dora wore a full-length light blue dress with yellow, orange, red, and black stripes lining its hem. On top of that was a light blue blouse with the same colors waving around the edges. If that was not enough, what Madison thought was a red blanket was wrapped around her shoulders.

“Today I will take part in the Maturity ceremony,” she replied.

“What’s that?” Madison asked.

“It’s what girls do to become women,” A’Dora answered, a bit surprised. “I will do the bird dance today,” she stated proudly while raising her arms to show off her intricately designed outfit.

“Will there be water to drink at the ceremony?” Madison asked, while gripping one side of the canoe to remain steady.

Looking more closely at Madison, A’Dora said,” You look pale. You must be thirsty and hungry.” She held out her left hand and said, “Come onto my canoe. There will be a lot to eat and drink at the party. You can watch me dance, too.”

Madison took her hand and stumbled into the boat.

***

Madison’s head bobbed to the rhythm of the drums and the chanting of the musicians, who provided music for A’Dora and three other girls performing the bird dance. Having guzzled plenty of water and gorged on baked beans, cornbread, and soup, Madison regained strength with the energy of the celebration.

The sun was setting as the girls stomped and spun, with their arms outstretched and their dresses whirling in the cooling air. “This is so awesome!” Madison shouted just as an unknown ingredient in the recently consumed soup kicked in. Sitting with legs crossed, Madison closed both eyes, and the next forward bob connected Madison’s head with the ground.

***

“Ouch!” Madison yelled when the outhouse door connected. With a shaky right hand checking for bleeding or swelling of the forehead, Madison’s left hand pushed the door open. Tall grass scraped against it. A monarch butterfly that had just landed on a pink milkweed flower when Madison entered the outhouse was still there. The shadows on the south side of the outhouse had also not progressed.

Madison ran past the well, through the farmhouse shed, and into the kitchen. “No running in the house,” Mrs. Marie Porter reminded her child. She was sitting at the kitchen table with Mrs. Carter and Katie. They were drinking homemade iced tea. Normally, the site of Katie would have stopped Madison cold—but not now.

“Hi, A’Dora,” Madison greeted Katie and then sprinted upstairs to get to a computer.

“Who’s A’Dora?” Katie called up the stairs.

“Work today, please,” Madison begged the Apple computer. Internet reliability in rural Vermont was fair at best, so praying to the sleek silver machine with a black screen was commonplace. Madison’s right index finger slid over the built-in mouse pad, Madison clicked on the Google Chrome icon and then typed “Hualapai” on the search field. What came up caused his dimpled cheeks to smile broadly. “Yes!” Madison cheered.

There on the screen was Eagle Point—the rock formations on the cliffs of the west rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. I was really there, Madison thought. Scrolling down the screen, Madison saw pictures of a river winding through the Grand Canyon. “That’s Hakataya!” Madison said out loud to an empty room, except that on this webpage, it was called the Colorado River.

Scanning through all of the attractions on the Hualapai reservation made Madison want to return. There was a Sky Walk with a glass floor hanging high above the canyon. There was a zip line, a ranch that hosted mock gunfights, and helicopter rides. Afraid of helicopters, Madison was happy that mom and dad would not pay for a ride if asked. However, everything else seemed to be so much fun.

Scrambling onto the floor, Madison reached under the computer desk for a mayonnaise jar stuffed with dollar bills. “This time, I’ll be prepared,” Madison promised while stuffing money into the deep pockets of the overalls. “Outhouse, here I come,” Madison proclaimed when exiting the room and zipping back downstairs.

***

The chipped and frayed door was ajar. Madison skipped forward more hastily, hoping that the magic of the place was not somehow broken. Two palm-sized green and white hummingbirds flew out from the outhouse. Madison did not notice them. Birdwatchers familiar with the Green Mountains of Vermont would have known immediately that the hummingbirds were far from home.

With white teeth showing through a wide smile, Madison stood inside the outhouse, looking out toward the farmhouse. “Goodbye home, and hello Grand Canyon,” Madison said, pulling the wooden handle to shut the door. From the outside, two stranded hummingbirds heard a human voice saying, “One, two, three, here I come…”

In Vermont, the outhouse stood silent with its door closed. No child from Vermont appeared out of nowhere at the Grand Canyon. Instead, when Madison pushed open the door, a lush green jungle awaited.

***

“Whoa!” Madison said in mid-step. Pro-Keds were about to run along what was supposed to be the Colorado River, but two steps would have sent Madison falling down a cliff one thousand feet or more high. Green tree-covered mountains pierced the powder blue sky and appeared scattered upon the earth as if they were the remains of a giant’s jagged teeth. A narrow man made trail replaced the outhouse floor. It was packed-down dark brown dirt, with river stones lining each side. The trail extended downward to the right and vanished at a sharp corner. To the left, the trail seemed to ascend to the heavens. A bright light awaited up ahead at a natural rock platform.

This place was not as hot as the Grand Canyon, but the temperature must have been in the eighties Fahrenheit. After just a few steps, Madison was sweating profusely. Yuk! I almost prefer the dry heat, Madison mused as salty sweat dribbled into each eye, causing them to itch and burn.

A man and a woman came up the trail. Both wore tight green hiking shorts, standard tan Timberland boots, knee-high white socks, and khaki green short-sleeved shirts. Water bottles were attached to the belts of their shorts, and the blond, sleek, blue-eyed woman carried walking sticks. The green-eyed gentleman with her had red hair and was about the same age. Madison figured that the couple were in their twenties, just a bit older than the eldest Porter sibling, nineteen-year-old Dennis. “Excuse me,” Madison slowed the couple’s speedy trekking. “Where are we?” Madison asked.

With an Irish accent, the man responded, “This is Camino de Inca or the Inca Trail; both names are correct.”

“We are in the Sacred Valley on our way to Machu Picchu,” the beautiful blond woman added. Madison was surprised that she did not have an Irish accent as well. She sounded like an overly cheerful Valley Girl from California. In any case, she was definitely an American.

“Machu Picchu?” Madison giggled. It was such a funny-sounding place.

“You see that light up ahead?” the woman asked. Madison nodded to acknowledge the obvious. “That’s the Sun Gate. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth,” the woman said gaily. Her Irish companion put his palms together in mock prayer. “See, that’s Kevin’s way of saying amen,” she explained.

Madison followed the couple up the trail. The river stones increased to cover the entire four foot-width of the trail. The air became refreshingly cooler as the path opened to a magnificent view of acres upon acres of ancient ruins. Every tourist present stood in silence, awed by what they saw and subconsciously knowing that words could not adequately describe the scene.

Curious about this never-before-heard-of wonder, Madison listened to a tour guide, who began explaining the history of Machu Picchu to his clients. Looking at the white name tag clipped to the guide’s shirt, Madison saw that his name was Charlie. Charlie explained to his group that he was a direct descendant of the people mistakenly called Incas by the Conquistadors. The Spaniards heard the people saying the word “inca” in their native language, Quechua, and thought that they were referring to themselves, but that was their word for king. Madison began to wonder how much of the history taught in school was wrong.

Charlie went on to explain that the fifteenth-century kings of the Andean Mountains of Peru, and beyond, did not always conquer by force. Alliances were made, and the king took concubines from all regions of his kingdom. This was the reason why the Conquistadors had such an easy time taking over the empire. It was not their guns and diseases, but the fact that they came upon an empire dwindling from civil war. This civil war was caused by the half-siblings born to a now deceased king’s wife and concubines. These half-siblings were fighting each other for control of the empire.

A storm was brewing. Initially, Madison thought that the cool breezes were solely the result of being high in the mountains, but clouds were becoming more noticeable on the horizon. Charlie went on to explain that Machu Picchu was a university. The best minds from all over the empire were brought there to study astronomy, physics, agriculture, and more. Madison marveled at the buildings made from intricately cut stones placed against one another at specific angles that did not require cement. More amazing was how the structures were aligned with the sun and the stars. It was only when raindrops began weighing down Madison’s overalls that Madison realized that Charlie and his tourists had moved on.

Madison began running back down the Inca Trail to find cover from the showers. The sheen on the trail’s river rocks should have read “Slippery when wet,” but it was too late for Madison. Instead of gripping, Madison’s right foot began slipping, and Madison tumbled off the trail and into the abyss. This will take awhile, Madison thought while plummeting to what Madison believed would be sure death, but the fall ended abruptly.

***

Staring up at the angled ceiling of the outhouse, with a sore back, is how Madison’s fall from the Inca Trail ended. First my head, now my back. These trips will kill me, Madison thought. This time, while Madison was exiting the outhouse, Madison’s mom was standing next to the well, placing trash into a metal garbage can, to be burned there. The can had rusted to brown over the years, its rim blackened by the frequent flames.

“So, there you are,” Mrs. Porter snapped, arching her eyebrows and frowning. “You know, little Katie came here to play with you, and you just ignored her. You didn’t say hello to Mrs. Carter, and you called Katie A’Dora,” she continued while shaking her head in disbelief.

“I’m sorry, mom. I’ll call them right now to apologize,” Madison said with all honesty.

***

To Mrs. Porter, Madison had just run past her, entered the outhouse, and exited within a few seconds, drenched with sweat.

“Is that your new playhouse?” she asked, glancing at the outhouse.

“Oh, I was just checking to see if the wood could be used for something else,” Madison lied. To avoid any more questions, Madison said, “I better call the Carters,” and ran inside the house.

Next to the narrow yellow rotary phone affixed to a kitchen wall was a list of neighbors and their phone numbers. The list was neatly handwritten on a white lined sheet of paper. All of the dairy farms on Cross Creek Road were listed in order of address, not alphabetically. This was done purposely. Madison remembers mom saying that when her children reached the age of four or five, they could name every family on the road, but they could not yet read well enough to spell their neighbors’ names. Madison recalled her concern that with accidents common on farms, all of her children needed to know how to identify neighbors’ numbers on the list as if they were walking along the road.

Madison thought that it was cool to use the old rotary phone. Sticking a finger into a numbered hole, rotating it to a metal stopper, and releasing it to zip back into position was kind of musical to Madison’s ears. No need for the list, Katie’s number was known by heart.

Mrs. Carter picked up the phone on the first ring, “Hello.”

“Hi, Mrs. Carter. It’s Madison. I’m sorry I didn’t say hello earlier,” Madison spoke quickly. Those now soggy overalls were becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

Mrs. Carter laughed politely and said, “It’s only been a few minutes, honey. I just got back home. Marie’s applesauce will be such a tre...”

“Oh, is Katie home?” Madison interrupted. Knowing that Mrs. Carter was talkative, and wanting to prepare for the next outhouse adventure, Madison forgot about being patient.

“No, sweetie. I left her at the Hucks’. She’s playing with Anna right about now,” Mrs. Carter replied.

“Thank you. I’ll catch her later. Have a good day, Mrs. Carter,” Madison finished.

“You too, dear,” said Mrs. Carter.

Madison did not hear Mrs. Carter’s goodbye, having hastily placed the handset back in its cradle and bolting upstairs to change clothes.

***

Madison was now wearing hastily tied dark brown generic work boots, black shorts, and a black t-shirt with a picture of a singer named Prince on the front, sitting on a motorcycle with “Purple Rain” written in purple above his head. “I wonder where I’ll end up this time,” Madison said, while reaching for the wooden handle on the outhouse door. The next three seconds would provide answers.

***

“Egypt!” Madison yelled. Madison stood up jerkily and nearly fell off of a boat. An attractive Muslim woman wearing a hijab steadied the young American stowaway. Her name was Marwa. She had golden skin, large brown eyes, and a medium build. Marwa was neither tall nor short, but she was assertive. Madison was aware that Marwa noticed the unaccompanied child appear on the river taxi, she immediately patted the seat beside her and beckoned Madison to sit. Now, no longer unaccompanied, Madison read the Arabic letters on the boat’s bow, saw the name “Nile,” and became exuberant.

Madison had just completed a research paper on ancient Egypt. Initially terrified at the prospect of having the no-nonsense Mr. Scher as a history teacher, Madison now greatly appreciated him. Madison still had much to learn, but being able to explore Egypt as if an educated archeologist or anthropologist was better than a dream come true.

The prospect of touching the stones that ancient craftsman molded, feeling the sands of Africa, and maybe riding a camel all contributed to an anxiety attack. Madison began to wheeze with each breath. The wheezing intensified, and Madison grabbed Marwa’s arm. Madison looked her in the eyes, and silently mouthed “water” through trembling lips.

“You must be King Narmer,” Marwa joked as a more relaxed Madison sipped on a bottle of water. “The first ruler of ancient Egypt has returned home, nearly fainting with joy,” Marwa continued her teasing as the boat docked in the greater Cairo area, only a stone's throw from the Giza Necropolis. They disembarked from the boat, with Marwa holding Madison’s left hand protectively.

“I’m alright,” Madison insisted. “If I led an army out of southern Africa to create an empire that lasted several thousand years, I can walk without a mom holding my hand,” Madison said, a bit embarrassed. Marwa withdrew her hand but maintained a keen eye on this overly confident guest in her country.

The Necropolis required a means of transportation to see all of the major sites. Taxis, camels, and horses were available at the entrance. Madison huddled near a German family and snuck into their van when it was time to explore.

The family noticed and kindly smiled at Madison.

The mom said, “Nice shirt. My husband and I are big fans of Prince, you know.”

Madison ignored the caution tape in order to touch the stones that had fallen from the Great Pyramid of Giza. This behavior was repeated at the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure. Maybe the stones will bring good luck, Madison hoped. The camel poop and vendors hawking cheap trinkets were minor distractions. The last coveted Giza location to see was the Great Sphinx. To Madison’s surprise, only the back of the Sphinx’s head could be seen from the nearest pyramid. It appeared small. Every published image of the Giza pyramids and the Sphinx together made it seem as though the Sphinx was a humongous structure, in league with those giant stone triangles. Madison was miffed.

Madison encountered Marwa again on the way to the Sphinx. She was just about to mount a camel, and Madison hustled over to her. “Can I join you?” Madison asked with puppy dog eyes.

“You want to be seen with a mom?” Marwa replied sarcastically. Just then, the camel swung its head toward Madison and spat all over Prince. Marwa began laughing hysterically. Feeling bad for the little King Narmer, Marwa said, “Okay, climb on.” Madison’s face lit up as Marwa reached out her hand.

Stomach spasms joined along with the awkward sway of the camel, Madison held tightly to Marwa’s waist, for fear of becoming nauseous and dizzy and falling. As the humped-back Prince hater neared the Sphinx, Madison noticed a lot of trash littering the grounds. Speaking directly into Marwa’s right ear, Madison asked, “Why is there so much garbage here?” Marwa explained that light shows, fireworks, and concerts were held during the evenings, with the Sphinx as a backdrop.

The camel was stopped in front of the nose-less Sphinx. Madison got off first and then helped Marwa down. While Marwa was paying the camel’s owner for the ride, the camel turned its head toward Madison’s face and spat.

***

Water splattered Madison’s face from a crack in the door of the outhouse. “Hey, what’s this?” Madison asked while pushing the door open. Madison’s sixteen-year-old cousin Harry was spraying water from a hose connected to the back of the farmhouse. He was aiming directly at the seams in the outhouse door.

Harry laughed and said, “I saw you go in there a few seconds ago. Aunt Marie told me that you were inspecting the wood. Is that true? You want to build something?”

Madison thought about his earlier lie. Maybe it could become the truth.

Who wants to be knocked on the head, fall on one’s back, and get spit on the face? Also, what if the next trip is to Antarctica or the moon? I can freeze to death or suffocate in outer space, Madison thought and shivered. “Yeah, I want to build a cover for the snake pit behind the barn,” Madison told Harry.

“What snake pit?” Harry asked.

Madison realized at that moment that the mysterious area behind the family’s barn was not universally known. Similar to the outhouse, it was there, but went unnoticed. Could it also be a portal to other places? Madison’s eyebrows rose at the thought of this.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Lunch with Ron and Stephen



My Lunch with Ron and Stephen



       On a recent Sunday, the usual dread of returning to the workday grind was absent. Replacing it was a giddiness last felt in my spirit on a Christmas Eve when I was a child of about seven years old who still believed in Santa Claus. Dimples on my cheeks appeared as bookends to a broad smile that revealed thousands of dollars’ worth of dental work. “Oh, I can’t believe this! I really, really can’t believe this!” my internal voice repeated.
       A small handsome Hispanic boy, who was being practically dragged onto the down escalator by a frantic young woman, smiled up at me as I exited Penn Station onto Eighth Avenue. He must have seen the child in me as I skipped by. In November, my birthday will mark half a century, but on this January morning, I am a kid on his way to a candy store.
       Taking the “3” train to 14th Street would have been the quickest way to get to The Butcher’s Daughter Juice Bar & Cafe on Hudson Street, but the walk down Eighth Avenue would calm my nerves. Since the age of 15, anxious excitement has triggered head-splitting migraines for me. Exercise releases those calming endorphins that are desperately needed when having lunch with two American icons: titans in their respective industries. “Deep, slow breaths, Jon. Deep, slow breaths,” I coached myself while my feet placed Madison Square Garden farther behind me.
       The Butcher’s Daughter doesn’t take reservations, so I planned to arrive 30 minutes early for my noon lunch date with Ron and Stephen. Hopefully, I could secure a table and bullshit with the waiter or waitress until my guests arrived. Even now, in his mid-60s with male pattern baldness leaving only a curtain of red hair around his head, Ron still looks like Richie Cunningham from Happy Days and Opie Taylor from The Andy Griffith Show. On first sight, only millennials and younger see Ron as a renowned director and producer. Today, I look forward to sharing with him how growing up middle class in Queens during the 1970s and 1980s was reminiscent of the 1950s Milwaukee of Happy Days. There were tree-lined streets that cast shadows on single-family homes with late-model Detroit steel automobiles in every driveway. My childhood summers were spent on a farm that harked back to Opie’s Mayberry and its more “innocent” times.
       “Oh my God! There is so much I want to talk about. I hope I’m not struck dumb with awe when I meet them.” An elderly Asian man with white slip-on sneakers looked at me questioningly as I approached 23rd Street. I realized my last statement was spoken aloud. If my brown skin could blush . . .
       As I waited to cross the next street, I discreetly placed my nose next to my left armpit and took a sniff. “Still fresh and clean,” I sung out while the blinking white walking symbol gave the all clear. Midway between 22nd and 21st streets, my legs began to shake. A wave of emotions nearly paralyzed me. Nervous sweat tingled beneath the surface of my skin. “No, please, no,” I whispered through trembling lips.
       My subconscious was reminding me of the extraordinary impact Stephen King’s novels have had on my life. After struggling to read until fourth grade in 1980, I was motivated to read Pet Sematary in 1983 when I saw the book on my mother’s night stand. That summer, while at my family’s old rundown farm in upstate New York, I completed the scary tale; my first novel. From that point forward, until her passing in 1999, I read every Stephen King novel published as soon as my mother had finished. It became our tradition. Every Mother’s Day, birthday, and Christmas, I would present my mother with Stephen’s latest offering. My mother and I were both captivated by horror stories. Years before Stephen King novels entered our lives, my mother would attempt to coax me into behaving by telling me fables about awful creatures who carried away naughty children.
       Gathering myself as I neared the intersection that gently curved from Eighth Avenue to Hudson Street, I reflected that voraciously reading novel after novel prepared me for the four college degrees I eventually earned. During the nearly 20 years since my mother’s death, I have kept up with just about all of Stephen’s books. However, as my eyes grow weary, audiobooks have become my go-to version.
       There is one author who I still turn pages to read. Secretly, I think Joe Hill now edges out Stephen as my favorite writer. I met Mr. Hill in Manhattan during a book signing for The Fireman. I asked him to write “I can’t wait to read your wicked shit.” on the inside of my copy. He was unaware that my “wicked shit” is an homage to Stephen, and it is the first and only novel I have completed.
       Nearing the entrance to the restaurant, I decided not to share with Stephen that I have a flame for another author. There were more pressing issues that I wanted to discuss with Ron and Stephen. Subjects that were worthier of their time.
       The Butcher’s Daughter’s interior appears as an elegantly repurposed barn. A short chipped white ladder hangs on a wall with potted leafy green plants on its slats. Each table is made of polished wood that could double as a large butcher’s block. As a party of four got up to leave, I hustled over to stake my claim on the table. A hefty black waiter looked at me, his eyes shifting to the dirty dishes in front of me. “It’s fine,” I said. “My friends are running late anyway.” It was just a little lie.
       Table secured, I had about 20 minutes to focus my thoughts. From Stephen’s tweets, I knew that he was appalled by the dealings of the current White House and much of Congress. His recent novella, Elevation, honestly illustrated the pointlessness of judging people by their differences.
       Once upon a time in the United States, citizens spoke proudly of being the world’s “melting pot,” liberating Europe from Nazi fascism, and tearing down the “iron curtain.” Many now ask, “What is this country coming to?” Fear and hate are at all-time highs. Fear of black people trying to live ordinary lives, fear of Muslims, fear of Hispanic immigrants. Men who abuse women being rewarded with lofty positions, and mass shootings being perpetrated by white men in suburbia: not by Muslims or blacks.
       Stephen’s critical political tweets, essay titled “Guns,” and voluntary discontinuation of the sale of his story Rage are evidence of a person who cares about his fellow man. And I cannot think of a human condition that has not been filmed by Ron. I had no doubt that they would provide pointed insight to my urgent question: “Where are our better angels?”
       I will share with Ron and Stephen this truth. In the early 1970s, a Harlem-raised African-American couple with eight children living in Queens bought an old farm in rural upstate New York. Each summer, until 1985, their children played with white farm children as earthy as Huckleberry Finn. They engaged with a burgeoning Amish community, and everyone treated them with respect. This happened in a unique place in the American tapestry. Hammond, New York, is no bigger than Mayberry. I was the seventh of those eight children—everyone knew my family, where we lived, and probably our frailties as well. Sharing with neighbors in times of abundance, and caring for neighbors in times of need, was simply part of being human. Hammond provided me with the most wonderful experiences of my life, which are memorialized in my memoirs. If I were to pitch our story for a television series, I would simply ask, “What if the Waltons were black and on Little House on the Prairie?”
       A yellow cab pulled up in front of the picture window. I was surprised at my calmness upon seeing his gruff red beard and partial red halo as Ron leaned in toward the driver before turning for the entrance. As soon as the cab pulled away, and before Ron entered the restaurant, a black Suburban took the cab’s place. A tall, lanky white man in his early 70s stepped out from the rear door of the Suburban. He wore simple glasses and had mostly gray hair with hints of black fading fast. It was Stephen. I took a deep breath and a sip of the water that the waiter had placed before me. “It’s time for lunch.”


1/14/19


Jonathan T. Jefferson is a school district administrator in Long Island, New York, and author of:
Mugamore: Succeeding without Labels — Lessons for Educators
FriesenPress 2013
Echoes from the Farm
FriesenPress 2017

Flight to Lima