In the Chopper
As Reed Haflinger shivered near the door in the Beverley airport lobby, he promised himself he would never let Dan talk him into this again. The early morning shift. No damn way. Global warming can’t happen soon enough, he thought, trying to warm his fingers by wrapping them around the tiny cup of bitter, tepid coffee he’d gotten from the machine in the lobby. Where the hell was Booker?
When the pilot arrived—a full twenty minutes late—it was not Booker, the ex-Afghanistan Marine, but some kid Reed had never seen before. Dan had given him what looked like a teenager: some idiot kid wearing a hoodie and skinny jeans, probably just out of flight school. Someone who wouldn’t inspire confidence even if he was behind the wheel of a Schwinn ten speed, let alone a news helicopter.
“I’m Rabbit,” the boy said, extending his right hand. Reed hoped the bike messenger bag over his shoulder had flight plans in it.
“You’re twenty minutes late. We’ve got a story to cover.” For a moment he debated just letting the poor kid sit there, but then relented. “I’m Reed,” he said, shaking hands. “You’re going to freeze your ass off in that copter. Every bit of wind is going to go right through you.”
“It’s okay,” said Rabbit. Was that his real name? What kind of parent names their child after an animal that most of the world wants to eat for lunch? “I’ve got a silk thermal layer on underneath. I’ll be fine.”
Silk thermal layer?
Haflinger wanted to laugh.
An hour and a half later, as the sun finally began its laborious climb out of the Atlantic, the chopper hung high over Boston as if it were an insect-collection dragonfly pinned to the perfect blue sky. In all the years he’d been in the news copter, he’d never gotten tired of that feeling of being weightless, above everything, as close as possible to being birds as man would ever be. That was about all he loved though. Mostly he was the camera for traffic snarls and fender benders, not the stuff he’d dreamed about in journalism class, where idealism eclipsed practicality. Back then he’d imagined being a war reporter or investigative journalist. Then life had happened, and suddenly fifteen years slipped by. For such a piss cold day, not much had been going on traffic-wise. A rollover on I-95 had closed two lanes out of three, traffic barely inching by. A mattress had flown off a truck north of the city. But that was it so far. He wondered what Laurel was up to, trying to remember the last time they’d had dinner together or gone out somewhere.
Then Channel 7 News requested something from over the Fenway Park stadium. Haflinger flicked the intercom.
“Rabbit, bring us over the ballpark. Need a shot with the sunrise for 7 News.”
“Sure thing,” the kid replied, banking the bird. Reed worked the camera controller panel in front of him, getting a last all-channel traffic angle before switching his attention to the upcoming task.
“Bring her in from the southeast. I’ll need a couple good feeds there, then swing her around so I can get a view from the north.”
The helicopter’s nose dipped and the machine picked up speed, heading towards the iconic Citgo triangle, just barely visible out of the thatch of brownstones and university buildings that crowded the edge of the Charles River. Soon the stadium was visible, and Haflinger readied his position on the controls. The biggest challenge of being the helicopter cameraman was timing: arrive even a second too late and there’d be black fuzz on the TV screen when the anchor cut to a view from the chopper. It was one of the last arenas where television was still live.
Reed hit the intercom. “That’s good. Hold it right here. Let’s wait for the cue.”
Haflinger turned on the camera and focused in on Fenway Park. Without zooming in, the baseball field looked like a little green bathmat. Yet with the push of a button Reed could see the numbers on individual seats in the stand. He’d been doing this for almost a decade and still felt lucky every time he got to fly. Even if the rest of the day sucked, he’d done something incredible for part of it.
A light on the controller panel turned from amber to red: the signal was live. Any poor slob who was up at 6 a.m. with their television on was seeing a few seconds of Fenway Park splashed by morning sunshine. All courtesy of Reed Haflinger and the rest of the Saber Traffic Team.
The light went from red to amber. The shot was complete.
Reed pushed the intercom.
“Got it. Now let’s try a shot from the north.”
“Roger,” said the kid.
But instead of the usual dip into a new direction, the chopper’s nose dropped like an elevator with the cable cut, descending so quickly that the heavy control panel in Reed’s lap flew up and smashed him in the forehead. His cup of coffee splashed on the roof, and anything not bolted down was suddenly floating: pens, candy wrappers, the flashlight, papers. All of it suspended in the cabin, the chaos of an uncontrolled descent.
At the same time, instead of holding tight to the northeast compass point where it should have been, the nose of the copter turned a full three hundred and sixty degrees, stopped, reversed and did another full three-sixty. Instead of seeing Fenway Park below him through the bottom-mounted camera, Reed Haflinger was staring at it directly through the cockpit window.
Is this how it happens? was what came into his mind. Is this how it happens? Instinctively, he hit the intercom.
Nothing but the hiss of a live microphone feed.
This is how it happens.
Reed could see the kid through the Plexiglas fighting with the controls. He saw Boston. What a beautiful city. He wondered if he and Laurel could have made it work out somehow. He thought about whether she’d put him in his folks’ plot or somewhere else. He saw the sunlight scintillating over the mouth of the Charles and wished he’d found a way to let Laurel teach him how to swim. The kid they’d almost had; the kids they’d never had since. The rut they’d been in. Everything he’d let slip by thinking there’d always be time. Things popped into his head faster than he could process them. Not sadness but just an overpowering sense that everything had happened too fast.
Then: “I got this!” Rabbit’s tone, a note or two below sheer panic, made it clear that even Rabbit remained unconvinced. “I got this! I got this!”
The helicopter’s rotors howled as they struggled to gain purchase against gravity, and slowly, slowly, the trajectory of the chopper shifted away from vertical. The heavy control panel slammed down again onto Reed’s thighs. He saw the readout. Only a few seconds had passed.
“We’re good,” Rabbit yelled again, as they began to rise, so close to the rooftops that Reed saw laundry strung on clotheslines and newspaper pages curled into rain gutters and a collared calico cat that hadn’t thought to look up quite yet. He rubbed the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand and saw it was covered in blood.
Another news request came in and the nose of the helicopter dipped, they veered, and headed off to get the next live shot for Saber Traffic network.
* * *
When they landed back in Beverly, Reed stood on the tarmac long after the rotors had wound down and stopped, pressing a piece of oily rag onto the gash on his forehead and watching Rabbit walk all the way back towards the terminal, cinching up his hoodie against the cold. Just a kid, he thought. Just a poor fucking kid.
The sun hadn’t burnt off any of the cold, but Haflinger allowed himself to shiver, relishing the sting of the cold air. Winter on its way. These sensations. Being alive.
Finally, inside, still shaking, Reed took out his cellphone.
“Reed,” Dan said, answering before it even rang. “What can I do you for?”
“I’m taking some time off.”
“What do you mean? When?”
“Now. Next two weeks. Hell, maybe three.”
“You can’t do that. Saber Traffic needs you.”
“We had a goddamn tail rotor malfunction. Almost died. We were so close to the rooftops the pigeons were getting out of the way.”
“Don’t be melodramatic. You’re still here.”
“I mean it, Dan. And I’m not flying if I’m not with someone who’s dealt with a couple crash landings under enemy fire in some Asian desert somewhere.”
“Rabbit’s green, but he’s got potential. He was top of his class.”
“At Acme Flight School? I want to see his log.”
“Give him a chance.”
“Rabbit almost turned us into stew.”
Then a spontaneous call to Laurel. Voice mail. Which could mean anything: she was still sleeping, she was on the T, she was avoiding him, anything. Which wouldn’t matter any other day, but something depressed him about leaving a message. He kept it short.
“Laur, call me back.” He waited, willing words to come. “Something happened today and it gave me a crazy idea. Let’s get away for a couple weeks. I know you’re busy and there’s a zillion things that you need to do but don’t think it to death this time. Just say ‘yes.’ Pretend it’s old times.”
He hung up, staring out the plate glass at the brown leaves scampering across the asphalt. Even the Cessnas, wrapped in tarps and chocks on their wheels, looked cold.
Moments later, he redialed.
“I’m thinking Mexico.”
The 737’s wings dipped on final approach into Cancún International, waking Reed from shallow, in-flight half-sleep. He rubbed his eyes, shifted position in the soft leather seat, and looked over at Laurel. For a moment, in that drowsy distance between dreams and waking, he saw his wife’s legs as a complete stranger might: how impossibly toned they were, taut and sensual, too long even for the added room of business class. That the modeling career she’d seemed born for never quite materialized still seemed unjust to him, to both of them; it was criminal to keep those legs hidden away beneath the Channel 3 anchor’s desk all day. She had draped herself across the window area with the entitlement reserved only for the dangerously beautiful, and—just for an instant—he saw those legs and felt a flicker of hope. That she’d agreed to come at all on such a last minute trip seemed like winning a small lottery. That she’d juggled her schedule and gotten the time off had to mean he wasn’t the only one wanting to find a way to reconnect. The deep discounts thanks to it still being hurricane season were what clinched it for her. Even Laurel, thrifty to a fault, agreed they were too cheap to refuse.
These marriage issues were pushed back by something less important but more immediate: Laurel had closed the shade and fallen asleep soon after take-off, and now that the seat belt sign was turned on there was no chance to get up and look out from another part of the plane. Despite his fear of the water, or perhaps because of it, Reed had been imagining what the Caribbean would look like from above. With Laurel’s pillow tucked against the opening, any attempt to lift it would involve waking her up, and waking her up would not end well.
Risking a reprimand from the flight attendants, Reed unbuckled his seat belt and lifted himself into an awkward crouch. Balancing so as not to bump his wife and disturb her, he reached toward the window shade until he could just barely hook two outstretched fingers onto the handle. If they’d been in coach it would have been simple, but the seats here were huge, and reaching over without placing a hand on Laurel or her chair took care and concentration.
With the slowness of someone defusing a bomb, he began to slide the plastic panel upward, behind his sleeping beauty’s pillow. A horizontal beam of searing bright light cut the cabin air like a blade, little dust particles dancing in and out of it. He pushed upward again and the shaft broadened.
Laurel’s face flickered, and she shifted position slightly. Reed froze. The awkward half-crouch he’d maintained was making his thighs hurt, but he stayed perfectly still until he saw her face drain of expression and relax back into whatever dream was drifting there beneath the eyelids.
This time Reed got the panel halfway open in one smooth push, enough that he could actually see something outside. As his pupils adjusted, the view below faded into focus like a photograph taken on Polaroid film. Reed leaned in over Laurel, and let out his breath so quickly that it was almost a gasp.
The plane hung only a few hundred feet above a spectacular swath of green-blue water with coastline so close he could count individual palm trees. The sand was smooth as a sugar cookie, its caramel edges crumbling into water too turquoise to be real. Vertigo swept over him. He inhaled sharply, as stunned by the brilliant azure below as by the chilling sensation that he was falling down into it, that he was somehow already underwater, sinking, down and down and down.
Craning his neck, Reed could see a long line of high-rise hotels lining the peninsula, the size of shoe boxes. Moments later he picked out the gold-and-black lion symbol that was the Grand Medallion’s trademark. A sudden gust rolled the plane to starboard, sending a crew member apologizing into a surprised passenger’s lap. Reed lost his balance and bumped Laurel’s empty cocktail cup. It fell off the armrest, scattering the half-melted cubes. The blue plastic swizzle stuck to the carpet like a broken compass needle.
Laurel sat up. “I was sleeping.”
“Look,” Reed whispered, pointing outside. “Our approach is going right over our hotel!”
She glanced out, disoriented. “That one? The pool looks tiny.”
“No, the other one, the one with the three big circles.” He laughed. “It looks like a big turquoise bio-hazard sign. Large enough to warn aliens away from space.”
“Fitting description from someone who will avoid it anyway.”
“I’m going to take swimming seriously this time. Learn to enjoy it.”
“You’ll treat it like it’s a puddle of Ebola.”
“You’ll be proud of me.” Reed let his hand drop to his wife’s thigh. He began walking two fingers gently toward her lap. “And who says we have to spend all the time at the pool, anyway?”
Laurel let the hand linger long enough to get his hopes up, only to dash them by flicking it away. She nestled back into the chair, closed her eyes, and readjusted herself against the leather. “Wake me up when we land.”
Reed closed his eyes and let the ocean’s electric blue linger in his retinas. Laurel wasn’t wrong to laugh about him learning to swim. How many times had he made that promise? Every trip to see her parents in Florida. Every visit they’d made to the Cape. Every time he signed up for the community adult education classes at the Y. Each time was going to be the time he learned to swim. But she didn’t know what he knew: this time would be different.
The plane seemed to rise up for a half-second, and then the tires screamed against the tarmac. The blue faded as the plane revved itself to a stop.
They were actually there.
As the plane taxied to its place on the tarmac and Laurel stabbed at her eyes with a mascara wand, Reed checked his cellphone, pleasantly surprised to see bars. He expected something from Dan already, the urgent scoop that only he could cover, but for once there was nothing. Maybe even his boss understood that he was serious about being here. Reed put the phone away and waited until the cockpit bell signaled it was okay to stand up.
As passengers filed out of the cabin, Reed pulled their Coach Boston bag from the overhead and put it on the seat between them. He wrestled it through the narrow aisle to the doorway and stepped onto the gangway into heat so intense that a restaurant kitchen at the peak of summer would have seemed refreshing. The air was a near tangible wall that smelled of citrus and cinnamon and flowers and salt and sunshine, so hot that it seemed to suck the air right out of his lungs.
“Oh. My. God,” Laurel gasped.
Holding the rail in one hand and the carry-on in the other, Reed descended and stepped onto asphalt that had the give of gummy bears. Passengers walked toward the customs entry in single-file groups of twos and threes like a line of Hawaiian-shirt-clad ants. Before they’d even reached the building, Reed broke into a sweat. He was glad when they opened the door and stepped into the polar chill of the air conditioning.
In the customs line, Laurel pulled out her phone and started reading Cosmo. Then she surprised him: She slipped her hand into his and gave it a squeeze.
Reed smiled and looked at her, trying to assess whether the warm hand in his palm meant they’d be making love at some point this week or if it was just familiar habit. They were in Cancún, after all. The most romantic place in the world. How could they be here for a week and not find a way to get a little crazy? The longer the hand stayed in his, the more he wondered if this was where they’d turn the corner and get beyond it all, get somewhere new and different and—he searched for the word—close. That was it. He hadn’t felt close to her in years.
As Laurel buried herself in the phone, Reed picked up a pamphlet about adopting from a table with piles of info on tourist visas, time-shares, and customs forms. Reed wondered what it would be like to just swoop in and save one of these disadvantaged children. They had thought about that once, years ago, before Laurel’s career took off and she’d decided on that over being a mom. Interested parties could call Sonrisa Children to set up an appointment. No commitment was necessary.
“Honey,” Reed said. “Look at this. They have an adoption agency right here in Cancún.”
She raised one eyebrow and stared at him.
“We could think about it,” he said.
“Let’s at least just make it to the pool, okay? Before we do any thinking.”
“I’m not saying we have to do anything.”
“Then fine,” she said. “Take the brochure, but don’t get any grand ideas.”
Reed folded it in half and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
When they’d gotten their tourist cards signed and passports back and collected their luggage and weaved their way through the horde of taxi touts offering “free” rides or timeshare opportunities, a young man in a crisp starched uniform was waiting for them outside the gate. He held a placard with their names on it, and in moments he’d ushered them through the crowd into the hotel limo-van.
He sat next to her for a few minutes, then slid to the other window where he could look outside at the town of Cancún as the van bumped and bounced toward the hotel zone. Busty women in bright colors led skipping daughters along the crowded sidewalks. Teens laughed or lounged on corners. Old hunched men in cowboy hats with toothless faces made their way in the hot sun. Dogs panted in the shade. A scantily dressed lady with too much makeup stood in the threshold of a door. A grandmother laughed as she held the hand of a toddler. As the van pulled up to a stoplight, a young boy balanced a soccer ball on his knees, looked up and caught Reed’s eyes, and waved, never letting the ball hit the ground. Reed waved back.
“Don’t,” Laurel said, “If you make eye contact, people will ask you for money.”
“Friendliness is part of the culture.”
“So is asking tourists for money.”
The van pulled forward and turned onto a wider, cleaner road. High-rise hotels towered in the distance. A manicured median strip separated the going and oncoming traffic with fifty feet of lush Kentucky bluegrass. Signs in English. Tourists with wide-brimmed sun hats and khaki shorts bumbled along the sidewalks, none of them looking happy or comfortable. As the vehicle pulled into the hotel’s parking circle Reed felt as if the trip to Mexico had already ended, and they’d arrived in Florida instead. He wondered if the adoption clinic was buried somewhere deep in the heart of Cancún proper and not in one of the hotels. Visiting would be a good excuse to see the real city again, if only from the window of a taxicab.
“Welcome to the Grand Medallion Cancún,” said the driver. “Let me get your bags.”
“Finally,” Laurel said, as they got out and entered the lobby. “I will be so glad to get into the pool.”
As the young man at the desk handed them two freshly minted keycards and a lovely young lady brought them each a welcome margarita in an ocean-blue, salt-rimmed glass, Reed felt a sudden ache for something undefinable, as if he were a caterpillar feeling for the first time that inexorable yearning for wings.
Acknowledgment gratefully made to Barrel Fire Press for permission to publish this excerpt. For more information on both author and novel, visit SunsetsofTulum.com.
Photo “Sunset Helicopter” by Marc Dalmulder; licensed under CC BY 2.0
- Sunsets of Tulum - July 8, 2016