Let the Dog Bark
The rear section of the American Airlines Airbus, flight 214 from New York to Chicago, ETA 10:50 am, is nearly empty. The man sitting in 34F, a window seat, leans his head against the pulled-down shade. He has slept only fitfully, in short spurts, during the last forty hours—an uninterrupted journey spent on foot, on buses and trains, two taxis, two plane rides.
He has spoken three words in all that time. Just before takeoff, the pretty flight attendant asked if there was anything he needed. “Nothing,” he said. “Just sleep.”
An hour into this flight, sleep still eludes him.
He is concerned about being appreciated and feeling relevant. He is worried, like you and I would be, during an extended layoff, about when and if he will work again. During these periods, his mind folds in on itself, and he loses contact with his surroundings. After the job in Kabul, before his scheduled departure, he stumbled—but did not fall—over a fruit cart while crossing Seh Aqrab Road, when there was hardly any traffic! This sort of post-job disorientation is not uncommon in his line of work. He is not clumsy, however. His athleticism, even as he approaches his fiftieth year on earth, allows him graceful recoveries from what might cause a less fit man to tumble.
The vendor mistook his meanderings for drunkenness, shouting something in Pashto. This misunderstanding is also common, which the man in 34F attributes to people’s lack of awareness as to the true nature of the world. It’s better they don’t know, he says on the rare occasions when he and his colleagues speak to one another (complex jobs, multiple tasks, coordination with others required).
He keeps his seatbelt fastened so as not to invite the unwanted interaction of a request to fasten it, should the sign illuminate with its delicate ring.
He does not accept the diagnosis of depression, which has been offered by well-meaning associates more than once. Have you been saving your fees? Investing? You could retire. What’s it been for you, twenty-plus years? But he knows his own mind, even if he cannot control it during these periods of inactivity. He knows retirement will dull his senses, weaken him, make him vulnerable—a target.
He hears his father’s voice, the Rottweilers barking in the cages behind the house.
Sometimes it’s better, his father tells him, gripping a bottle of O’Hara’s Irish Stout with one hand, and the back of his son’s neck with the other, to let a dog bark until it tires.
His mind has been busy sorting through an array of visions—which he compartmentalizes during work, but which emerge in the dull stillness that blooms after every job. The images do not plague so much as irritate him, though they might horrify you or me. They hold as little moral significance as the tilted-back seat in front of him, pressed uncomfortably close, forcing him to pull back his knees, because the overweight man who was sitting there failed to return the seat “to its original upright position” after moving across the aisle to occupy two empty seats. He assigns no blame. Then there is the hiss and feel of the air stream above the unoccupied center seat next to him, mis-directed annoyingly to the right; or its proximate overhead light, also angled peculiarly in his direction and left on after the last flight; these were undoubtably oversights by the pre-flight cleaning crew. He would not have missed those minor details, but what practical purpose would be served by complaining? These external, undifferentiated annoyances slip into the stream of images the way errant thoughts find their way into the mind of a child who is being read a book, who is having the pages turned for him, who is having the story read to him.
In this sleepless and formless reckoning, as the fast-moving rolodex exposes his past, a part of his mind knows this is just the necessary house-cleaning that has always followed a job. He knows it will end, but he is powerless to end it.
The soundtrack is always the same:
The dog’ll stop his incessant barking eventually. The trash bin overflows with bottles his father has tossed after drinking. Every yelp a narrow spike thrust into his eardrums. The back of his neck is raw where his father has squeezed the skin. Let it go. He’ll soon tire.
His eyes open just as the pretty flight attendant passes, but he does not look at her. The plane begins rattling, heaving up and down, and he hears the ping of the “fasten seat belt” sign. She leans across the seat closest to the aisle, maneuvering to observe if his seat belt is fastened. She would do this for any passenger, but his eyes are open, and she is curious.
He stares straight ahead and says, calmly, “Blue.” A fourth word. Early in his career, he had the discipline to keep his mouth shut. He remains excessively self-critical, but only about the work. The pretty flight attendant abruptly withdraws, unnerved. How could he have known what she was going to ask him? She feels strangely violated, as if he had made an unwanted advance, which in a way he has. With those eyes, muscular build, dark, short-cropped hair and thin, strong nose—he is movie-star handsome, which has helped more times than he can count. When you are handsome, they think you must be the good guy. He knows from experience that, during her brief glance, she fantasized some kind of romance-novel lovemaking scene, perhaps on the plane in the cramped bathroom, perhaps in his or her hotel room. She knows his lack of interest is not a personal affront, but nonetheless chides herself—he can see the change of color in her cheeks—for having allowed that moment of fantasy, and her return to the dull routine of a flight attendant is jarring.
He can see all this in her expression, as she walks away from him.
The man in 34F—because the images stopped momentarily during the encounter—entertains the idea of making small talk with her when she passes by again. He has no facility for this, however. There is his work—the jobs—and there is the time between jobs. If he could make small talk like a normal person, he could quiet his mind. But I am not that person, he concludes.
The last good sleep he had was the night after this job had been completed; before the plans for his exit had been certified; when the possibility of another job, with hardly any down-time, still existed. That was a week ago. Fatigue begets fitfulness, anxiety begets depression, so the shrinks have told him, over and over. For the first few days after every job, he is exhausted, and sleeps as much as twenty hours straight. So too, with this job. But after the exit was called, and with no new directive, sleep became elusive.
With his head resting against the grey plastic covering the plane window, he closes his eyes—squeezing the lids tight to keep the barking in the background—as image after image parades in the foreground. Images that would make you or I gasp in fear or repulsion:
Corpses with bloated necks and bulging eyes, skin with various degrees and signs of necrosis from poisons or deadly medicinal cocktails; bodies with entry wounds of various sizes: if from bullets, the differences accounted for by caliber, by metallic make-up, by density; if from knives or other sharp objects, the differences accounted for by angle and force of thrust or slash, by type of edge—serrated or curved, clip-, needle-, drop-, or spear-pointed—and thickness or bevel; corpses crushed by single impact, by falls from a great height or, as from an earthquake, between concrete slabs; or multiple impacts as from a climbing accident; and corpses sundered by explosions, rendered into pieces, some large, most small, edges where skin is peeled back like thin wood veneer.
To describe them like this suggests that the visions are the result of an overactive imagination or the residue of post -traumatic stress.
They are neither.
They are a catalogue of his achievements.
They are his past, curling like a ruptured tendon into the bulge of the present. They are who he is, what he does. He is the door behind which lurks the polar opposite of our humanity, the worst of our inclinations. Still, he resents, and rejects, the term psychopath: he is no more indifferent to human suffering than a surgeon who, in order to operate, must staunch the gut instinct to identify with the silent body beneath his hands.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the flight attendant coming down the aisle again. He is prepared for her to intrude, despite his earlier reluctance to engage. But she passes by him, pulling a cart which another female flight attendant is pushing.
You got to wait awhile after he stops, his father’s voice sizzles beneath his scalp, to be sure he ain’t fixin’ to start up again. The barking continues.
The airplane’s jet engines hum powerfully ten rows in front of him, muted by the double-plated windows and foot-thick metal skin of the cabin. The vibrations initiated by the turbulence continue, and tease him with the possibility of sleep, as if he were a baby being rocked to an irregular rhythm. If sleep comes, he envisions waking up to the sudden jolt of the landing gear contacting the runway. If sleep comes, when he wakes up, he will forget his dreams, if he dreams at all. Everyone dreams, the doctors say, but the man in 34F does not believe this. He has also heard that people who do not remember their dreams are so repulsed by them that the subconscious mind eliminates them immediately upon awakening.
As he closes his eyes again, with the images of his past work fading, he wonders: How little C4 or Semtex might it take to tear the metal skin off the cabin, just sufficient enough to cause it to rupture and disintegrate at 600 mph? The problem occupies his mind with mathematical equations and diagrams of placement, shaping, and detonation options.
Within minutes, the barking stops, and he is asleep.
Peter Hoppock has published numerous short stories and articles, including the novella “Land of the Free,” which appeared in the March and April issues of The Write Launch in 2018. He self-identifies as a “re-writer” more than a “writer,” since that is how he spends the majority of his time. Other publications include ‘Missing Person” (Curbside Splendor, #4, Fall 2012), ‘Terrible Blue’ (Adelaide Literary Magazine, 2018) and many more. Most recently “What To Keep,” (also The Write Launch, October 2020.