The Last Word
“Although I never speak directly to the passengers, I’ll make an exception. But only this once. And only because our pilot, unfortunately, has developed chronic laryngitis.
“...What’s that?—‘Why’, you ask?
“...Because he was out in a bar last night. Because the temptation to participate in karaoke again was not so easily ...
“ ...What?—Oh, ‘Why do I not speak to the passengers?’
“...Well then, that’s something different entirely, isn’t it? I suppose it’s because passengers are nearly as forthcoming as the crew when it comes to having something to say, each and every one of you vying for more ‘air time,’ so to speak, offering your two cents worth. So you can understand my reluctance to fraternize, to intermingle, to put myself in that awkward position of listening to your complements and criticisms, your incessant advice and indispensable ‘tips’ on how to proceed.
“...Perhaps. But it’s not without good reason that there’s a solid partition between cabin and cockpit, which is why I found it surprising, discovering you here as I did, fiddling around with the controls while the crew slipped into their uniforms. But anyway, since no harm’s been done, I’ll answer your question.
“It always starts out the same way. I’m either daydreaming or thinking about something that happened yesterday or a long time ago. Or maybe I’ve awaken from a nap or a really good sleep, but, regardless...there I am! I’ve arrived at what often becomes a point of departure. I never know how I got there and it really doesn’t make any difference. I’m there and somewhere between a week and a year—less than a month in this case—you’re here as well, arriving with ticket in hand, ready to go, with who knows how many others.
“For this particular excursion, I’ve come to a small airfield on the outskirts of a city. It’s remotely familiar, though I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I’ve been here before. Entering an enormous hangar—it has to be large to accommodate my objectives—I discover that the parts are scattered all over the place, just like they always are. And I do mean all over the place: strewn across the floor in no particular pattern, jammed onto tables and workbenches, dangling from long wires attached to the ceiling. Sometimes I duck just in the nick of time, avoiding some kind of thingamajig suspended in mid-air; sometimes I don’t, banging myself in the shoulder or head. Sometimes I stop short, just on the verge of tripping over some sort of whatchamacallit; and of course sometimes I don’t, falling flat on my face. It’s a hodgepodge, helter-skelter, hurly-burly of a situation when I first arrive, believe me.
“The first step in the process entails the segregation of components into...
“...Okay, here I come.
“Sorry—I’ll be back in a moment.
“...No. There’s no cause for alarm. The pilot has everything under control—with the exception of his voice, of course. Besides, I’ll be back before you arrive at the next...
“See? I told you. I’m back and everything’s under control just like I said.
“...Well, yes, it’s a bit unusual to deviate from the flight plan but...okay.
“A digression: It’s my daughters. That was Kate, my youngest. I heard her put the cereal bowl in the kitchen sink and walk toward the hangar door. She needed a ride to the church on Dearborn Street because she’s involved in a crop walk today. And, I might as well tell you as well—soon, at eight-thirty, I’ll have to step away to wake Meg so she can get ready for work. And Cheryl might be calling later to confirm our trip to Boston this weekend—we’re driving up on Saturday morning to...
“But I better stop before I go any further because otherwise we’ll arrive at a destination other than what’s printed on your ticket. In fact, from this point forward, I’ll take care of any extraneous details seamlessly—between the lines, so to speak, continuing on our course without digression.
“So, as I was saying before, the first step in the process is the segregation of components into categories. This is never an easy process because there could be anywhere from a couple of thousand to several hundred thousand parts. While a large number of articles can be readily identified and grouped accordingly, there are other things that demand a more thorough scrutiny.
“What I try to do initially is to locate things that are structurally related, things that suggest some idea as to what it is that I’m attempting to assemble. For example, when I first arrived at the hangar, I came dangerously close to striking my head on an object that was swinging ever so slightly. It was a propeller. That’s when I discovered a notion of what I was to construct—an airplane—and what enabled me to deduce initially that, yes, I’m probably situated inside a hangar, at an undisclosed location. This all happens, of course, well before the necessity of soliciting the services of a crack pilot. But still, the fact remains: until I’ve determined exactly where I am, and precisely what I am to construct...well, the propeller could just as easily have been the propeller of a battleship, in which case, the hangar would be a manufacturing plant near a shipyard by the harbor, and the pilot would have been a captain in the navy. Or, another possibility: the propeller could’ve been a part to a high-speed hovercraft or—to stretch the imagination a bit—the blade assembly in a newly developed, high-tech, wind turbine, of the kind that you might see in the desert outside of Palm Springs. It could have been the cutter of an industrial-sized lawn mower or part of the cooling system for a giant bulldozer, tractor, dump truck. In either case, I would have found myself in some sort of warehouse, discussing the next stage in the process with a shop steward. You just never know for certain until all the parts are assembled into an unmistakable unity.
“Anyway, now that I’ve discussed the identification and consolidation of parts into groups, I suppose I should mention...redundancy and...and exclusion. I’m sure it’s against my better judgment to reveal this tidbit of information, but...well, there are all those parts...all those parts that are left over, scattered from one end of the hangar, or the plant, or the warehouse, to the other. Parts of all shapes and sizes and materials. Parts that have been identified and classified, more or less, but for one reason or another just didn’t fit into the scheme of things...
“...Oh, maybe about eighty or ninety thousand or so...
“...They’re back in the hangar of course because...
“...Stop screaming, for crying out loud! There’s no reason to panic!
“...Parachutes? Of course there’s parachutes! What do you take me for—a cadet?
“...There! There’s your parachute, for crying out loud! Now, if you don’t stop screaming long enough for me to explain...
“...If you don’t shut up this instant, I’ll have you bound and gagged before you can say, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’...
“...’Umpatiltkin?’—Yes, well, it’s a bit too late for that now, isn’t it. I’ll remove the gag only after you’ve listened to the explanation. Is that clear?
“...Just a nod of the head will suffice.
“Okay—good. Now we can continue.
“Broadly speaking, of the total parts inventories available for use, two inherently distinct groupings are apparent. There are functional components and there are cosmetic ones. And although it might seem easy enough to recognize the difference, it’s not always the case. At the risk of being too technical—of slipping into a pedagogic persona, you might say—functional components represent those items that are critical to the operation of the vehicle. In the design and construction of the airplane, for example, specific parts are designated exclusively for the electrical, the mechanical, the propulsion and the structural systems that are required for its operation. Without integrating those components, the airplane would simply not function properly.
“I hasten to add that the notion of ‘function’ extends well beyond what might be considered as obvious. The parachute that you so rudely grabbed from the stewardess, frenetically strapping it about you, would be perceived—namely, by yourself—as a functional element. Just as the strip of duct tape, effectively secured across your mouth, and the cords of nylon that bind your hands and feet are objects which I, certainly, deem as...as conventionally imperative.
“The other grouping—This is moving along nicely now, isn’t it?—The other grouping, comprised entirely of cosmetic parts, is useful in terms of revealing the characteristics, the qualities, the aesthetic nuances in which construction of the airplane might be achieved. As you no doubt speculated, the craft is of mid-1930’s vintage, having a pronounced Art Deco flair. As such, it is sleek and highly stylized, with the same geometric motif echoed in the fabric of the seats, the carpet, the lighting fixtures, the lovely wooden panels that separate first class from coach.
“Did you know that each propeller was hand-tooled from a single piece of zebrawood by a lost tribe of Pygmy craftsmen?
“...Don’t try to talk. Just nod your head one way or the other.
“...No?—‘No, you didn’t know’ or, ‘No, you don’t believe me?’
“...’No, you don’t believe me.’
“...Well, they are wooden and...and maybe I did stretch it a bit—one of the risks of incorporating hyperbole which...which may have momentarily unsuspended your disbelief, but...I know for a fact that at least one small person was involved in the tooling. I know because his nickname was...well, they called him, ‘Shorty,’ if you must know. Incidentally, you may have noted that I deliberately refrained from selecting the part, ‘midget,’ which is obsolete, out of date, a term to be shunned because of it’s negative connotation. Incidentally do you remember when parts that were labeled with ‘chemical’ and ‘additive’ and ‘preservative’ tags were actually regarded favorably? Now it’s ‘organic,’ ‘green,’ ‘natural’...
“But I’m going down the wrong path...Where was I?...Oh, the parts inventories: functional components and cosmetic ones. The reason I brought the whole topic up anyway was to draw the distinction. Before—when I said that eighty or ninety thousand parts or so were left over after the aircraft was completed—I was referring only to cosmetic parts. Parts that were ‘pretty,’ ‘serpentine,’ ‘archaic,’ ‘anachronistic,’ ‘historical,’ ‘Byzantine,’ ‘Egyptian,’ ‘Siberian,’ ‘bovine,’ ‘oviparous,’ ‘germinal,’ ‘vegetative,’ ‘nutritional’ and so forth. Parts that were ‘glued,’ ‘pasted,’ ‘nailed,’ ‘shaped,’ ‘dyed,’ ‘painted,’ ‘sculpted,’ ‘photographed,’ et cetera; parts that were made ‘inconspicuously,’ ‘incoherently,’ ‘inaudibly,’ ‘arguably,’ ‘alphabetically,’ ‘arrestingly,’ ‘excessively,’ ‘endemically,’ ‘frenetically’... No—‘frenetically’ was in fact one of the parts that I used.
“But does that make sense now? Does that clarify the confusion? It’s only a surplus of unnecessary cosmetic parts that are left behind.
“...Just nod your head, please.
“...‘Rahmoof ma gug gug ease?’ What the...Oh, you want the gag removed.
“Okay. There—but the ropes stay until I’m sufficiently satisfied that you won’t jeopardize our flight pattern. Understand?
“...Well, you’ve lost no time in finding your voice, I see. But that’s a bit of non-sensical language, isn’t it?—‘Finding your voice, I see.’ At any rate, I am glad to see that the pilot’s condition—his laryngitis—isn’t something contagious. Otherwise, it might have been silent-running from herein out...Or should I have said, ‘hearin’ out’?
“...What about the FAA?
“...Ha, Ha! Sure. Be my guest. You can tell them what you damn well please. I’m not certified anyway.
“...My, but...but you’re as white as a ghost...
“Speaking of which, I have to make a slight change to our flight pattern. It’s coming up shortly and I want to make sure that the pilot knows that he’s to circumvent it.
“...You won’t even notice it. Things like this are always plotted into the flight plan—allowances, time differentials to enable us to accommodate a special circumstance. We’re not supposed to fly over certain places—installations such as military bases, nuclear plants, Fort Knox, Wal-Marts and so forth, though usually we...
“...Yes, I know. Danbury might have its mint, but otherwise Connecticut isn’t where you would normally find Fort Knox. No, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s something else and being as...as sensitive as you are, I’m sure that you’ll appreciate the consideration.
“Can you see down there?
“...Down there—on the ground. What do you see?
“...The coast of Connecticut...Yes...Brilliant! What else?
“...Ha, Ha! Long Island Sound. Oh, but that’s a good one...Yes, you can see the sound. Sorry, I’m in a quirky mood today. What else do you see?
“...Buildings, cars, parking lots, pools, baseball parks—yes, yes. But do you see the...shadow?
“...Yes—the shadow of the airplane. It’s moving—obviously...fortunately, I might add...but it’s moving across the Connecticut landscape slightly ahead of us. In the original flight plan, the shadow of the craft would have intersected a...a parcel of land, north of New London.
“...No. It’s not an air base or a nuclear facility...Although at one point in time, there was a secret laboratory complex along the Thames River—God knows what’s buried there. But anyway, the plot of land that I want to avoid is a cemetery. If the shadow of the aircraft, moving slightly ahead of us, were to cross the plot, then permutations...unforeseen developments could be anticipated as the result of the...the foreshadow, you could say since it’s running ahead of us...
“...It’s a moot point since we’re avoiding it altogether. You’re not going to start screaming again, are you?
“...Okay, good. But you still look kind of pale to me.
“...I’m writing in my flight log, of course.
“...Sorry but, no, passengers are not permitted to write notations in the flight log. Aside from the breach in convention...I mean, really! It’s a monolog for crying out loud!
“...What about the pilot?
“...His credentials are impeccable. He flew with St. Exupéry in Night Flight and Flight to Arras, with Malraux in Man’s Hope, and then later, with Jack Hunter in The Blue Max and the Canadian chap who wrote The English Patient. He never deviates from his course unless he’s instructed to do so by his navigator, which of course, is me.
“...No, I always personally interview them myself. For this trip there were six candidates so I had a nice cross-section of talent. But sometimes you never know what you’re going to get. I had one about...oh, about six years ago and everything was moving along according to plan, all the pieces falling into place when I discovered that...not only was he lying to the crew, but he was lying to me as well, for Christ’s sake! He was a pathological liar! Well, it reached a point—and by the way, we were on a yacht, off the coast of Atlantic City then—but it reached a point when I would ask him something really simple and he would lie about it. No explanation, no apparent reason—he would lie just for the sake of lying. I remember shouting up to him from below deck: ‘What’s the weather like up there?’
“He replied: ‘Blue as Curacao in a late night jazz club.’
“...I know. And he had a deep, velvety, sort of ‘blue as Curacao’ voice to go with it. But you know what?—The yacht was rocking all over the place so I peeked above deck. He had us in the midst of a raging, tropical storm. Twenty foot swells with winds clocked in at more than forty knots. The whole crew was seasick for two days afterwards.
“...I fired him on the spot. And who knows? Maybe he’s still drifting somewhere in the mid-Atlantic in that little dinghy that I dumped him into, the lying bastard! And I hope all his skies are that same ‘blue as Curacao’ too.
“...Both the pilot and myself conduct the interviews. It works well since we both have a vested interest, but different perspectives on what it is exactly that we’re looking for. Aside from characteristic prerequisites and functional mandates, the pilot’s usually concerned about diction, enunciation, accent, the tonal inflections of their voices whereas I’m more inclined to bring someone onboard because of their capacity to perform designated tasks; or, their appearance; or, on occasion, simply by the way that they smell or...
“...No, really. I have hired crew members strictly on the basis of their fragrance.
“...Yes, she’s quite...quite voluptuous, isn’t she? You can certainly see why it made sense—why it made all five senses, for that matter—but you can see why I hired her on the spot, regardless of her lack of experience.
“...I’m not surprised. She consented to become a stewardess because it gratifies her passion for flying, for visiting different places. Otherwise, she’s off making movies or modeling for that French perfume company, which is why you’ve probably recognized her—the advertisements are splashed, like perfume, over billboards, the pages of magazines.
“...Luxurious?’ Yes, you could say that about her fragrance. It was certainly one of the sensations that I experienced when I interviewed her for the position. A sensation of ‘luxuriousness’...
“...And so it is. It’s the Newport Bridge. If you look over there—where the harbor curls into that broad comma of green, the rolling lawns punctuated by a white, spacious gazebo—that’s King’s Park, which isn’t very far from...from the hangar...
“Kate would have finished the crop walk by now. Meg’s off to work and nearly finished her shift in fact. Cheryl’s already called and
“...‘Lay over?’ What do you mean, ‘lay over?’
“...No. You’re mistaken, I assure you.
“...Logan? But that’s the Boston airport. Surely you haven’t...
“...But this isn’t flight #2362—that’s another flight entirely. This is #2264. It’s a non-stop, one-way flight to Newport, Rhode Island.
“I’m at an utter loss, believe me...Who checked you onboard?”
“...Oh well, that explains the mix-up, doesn’t it? Elizabeth. We’ll have to implement some sort of precautionary measures to prevent this from happening again. And as for Elizabeth...well, we’ll have to come up with a development plan, consigning to Elizabeth some sort of ‘functional utility’ that’s beyond what is merely cosmetic...but...my God! Those eyes! And that fabulous smile that kind of melts you away when she...
“...That’s wholly uncalled for. I mean, you’re the one who took the first step. Nobody twisted your arm to board this particular airplane. You did that all by yourself. So, if you don’t mind, please refrain from referring to us as a ‘fly-by-night’ operation. I don’t like it.
“Anyway, regarding Boston, we’ll see if we can make other arrangements —an air shuttle, ground transport. Boston’s only about an hour or so north of us by car so I’m sure that you’ll have ample time to make your appointment.
“...Yes, it’s the control tower. I always like to buzz the tower first, to make sure that everyone’s fully alert and on their toes. I don’t want anybody napping when we bring this baby in.
“Why the big rush for your appointment anyway?
“...I see. And then you’re off to the convention center.
“...Yes, I can understand that...
“...What? What did you say? ‘Marketing trends’ and ‘promotional initiatives’? What kind of business are you in anyway?
“...Wait a minute! That’s how you finagled yourself in here, isn’t it? You edited your way into the cockpit.
“...Stop screaming! We did not hit the control tower! If you only had a bit more confidence in the pilot...and the navigator...
“...Yes, the hangar’s rather small and, no, it’s not especially designed to accommodate an airplane of this size but...
“...Sorry, but the gag stays this time because when all is said and done, I will—thank you very much—have the last word.”