Fiction · 01/14/2015

Thirty Thousand Feet

The skies were sunny and clear on that spring morning, perfect weather for flying. It was to be a quick, simple flight that Martin Crane had taken a half dozen times. One big city to the next, two states apart. Flying time: eighty-five minutes.

Martin’s single carry-on bag contained the daily newspaper, a paperback book, a folder with notes for his business meeting, and a small container of prescription valium. Somehow, his two-year-old son’s one-year-old teddy bear wound up in the bag as well.

“Have a pleasant flight,” the clerk said with a warm smile as she handed Martin his boarding pass. “Gate 33, to your left.”

He passed through security without a hitch, though the removal of his shoes was an annoyance as usual. He always meant to slip into a pair of loafers before traveling, but force of habit fooled him again. The laces of his black patent leather shoes had to be untied, and the shoes needed to be removed, then put back on, then walked in for what seemed like five city blocks to the gate. Still, he made it with time to spare.

Martin was one of the first to board the plane. (Flying business class had its advantages.) A slender white-haired woman in a pale pink tailored suit smiled politely as she took the aisle seat next to Martin’s window location. She seemed to belong to another era when passengers dressed elegantly to rise through the air and zoom through the clouds.

Take-off was smooth as could be. Martin peered out the little window and watched the world become smaller and smaller until the houses below resembled plastic pieces of a board game.

Martin closed his eyes and tried to relax. He was the kind of person who could fall asleep on a bed of rocks, so he managed to doze off for a short while. When he woke up, he reached for the newspaper and perused the first few pages. It was a dull news day; nothing earth-shattering to demand his attention. He placed the paper back in his leather bag which he then stowed under the seat in front of him.

Ten more minutes passed. Then ten more. When fifteen more minutes had gone by, he casually asked the white-haired woman next to him, “Shouldn’t we be landing soon?”

“Pretty soon,” she said in a pleasant tone. “It’s not a long flight.”

“Right,” he responded.

Martin was sure that if he started a conversation with this well-dressed passenger, there would be no end to it. She would grab her purse and proudly show him pictures of her numerous grandchildren. (He assumed she was not adept at using a cell phone to display photographs.) Detailed stories about the adorable grandkids would accompany the visuals. There would be photos of birthday parties, barbecues, school activities, family road trips and cute, colorful Halloween costumes. Martin would then have to reciprocate by sharing pictures of his own two-year-old son and relating precious stories. He decided to keep his mouth shut.

Martin checked the time on his phone. By his estimation, the plane should have been landing any moment. What seemed like another ten minutes flew by, and then another. Sweat gathered on his forehead and under his arms. “Excuse me,” he said to the septuagenarian as he rose from his seat. She turned her legs to the left, allowing Martin to pass. As he headed to the rear of the plane, he noticed that all the passengers were dressed beautifully. Not one T-shirt, not a single tank top. The men were in suits or sport jackets, the women were in dresses that could’ve been worn to a chic dinner party. Martin had never traveled on an airplane carrying such perfectly attired people. At the rear of the plane, Martin found two flight attendants, one short, one tall, chatting nonstop as they tidied up the area messy with cups, napkins and empty soda cans.

“Sorry to bother you,” Martin said, “but when are we supposed to land?”

“Very shortly,” the tall male attendant told him. He was stern, unfriendly.

“Please return to your seat,” the woman ordered. “The fasten seatbelt sign is on.” She meant business.

“Yes, right,” Martin replied. He returned to 29-C and settled back in his seat, expecting the pilot to make an announcement about the plane’s imminent landing. But there was no such communication. What seemed like a full fifteen minutes slowly passed, and then another. The white-haired woman was now texting on her cell phone with surprising ease. After several minutes, she clicked off.

“Smooth flight,” she remarked to Martin. “Not even the slightest turbulence.”

“You’re right, no turbulence,” he said. “But we should’ve landed already, don’t you think? We haven’t even lowered our altitude.”

“Don’t worry, dear. We’re in safe hands.”

Martin checked the time on his cell phone. The plane should’ve landed forty minutes earlier. He wondered if his mind was playing tricks on him.

When another half hour had gone by and nobody seemed the least bit bothered, he reached for a valium. Twenty endless minutes later, the plane was still cruising at thirty thousand or so feet. Forty-five excruciatingly long minutes after that, the situation remained unchanged.

All of sudden, Martin missed his wife and son desperately. He tried to reach them on his phone but couldn’t make the connection. He considered standing up and shouting to his fellow fliers: We should’ve landed over an hour ago! Isn’t anyone concerned? What are they not telling us? But he resisted, assuming such an outburst would cause a major ruckus resulting in his hands being cuffed by a Federal Air Marshal, if one happened to be onboard. If not, a group of feisty flight attendants would escort him to the back of the plane where they’d likely tie him up and gag him. He opted to remain seated and silent.

Without looking out the window, Martin knew that the sun had disappeared, making way for complete darkness. He closed his eyes and attempted to doze off, but his nerves were too jangled, and the valium didn’t seem to be doing its job. White shirt wet with perspiration, all he could do was sit and wait for instructions. Sit, wait, and wonder.

Martin reached for his carry-on bag and removed his son’s teddy bear. He put this deliciously soft item in his lap and held onto it tightly.

He sat. He waited. He wondered.

+

Garrett Socol’s first collection of short stories, Gathered Here Together, was published by Ampersand Books. Prior to that, his short fiction appeared in several dozen literary journals including The Barcelona Review, 3:AM Magazine, Hobart, PANK and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. As a playwright, his work was produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Pasadena Playhouse. As a producer in cable television, he created and produced Talk Soup, among many other series and specials.