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A Novel

by James Hynes

Hardcover, 308 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $23.99 | purchase

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A Novel
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James Hynes

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Book Summary

Flying to a secret job interview in Texas in the wake of an unsatisfying relationship and career, Kevin Quinn falls for a fellow passenger and obsessively worries about terrorist threats in Europe while spending an ensuing eight hours hoping for personal reinvention. By the author of The Lecturer's Tale.

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A Novel


Reagan Arthur Books

Copyright © 2010 Hynes, James
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316051927

AS THE GROUND rushes up to meet him, Kevin thinks about missiles again. One missile in particular, a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, blasted from a tube balanced on the bump where some guy’s clavicle meets his scapula. What guy—a Saudi? An Egyptian? A Yemeni? Some pissed-off Arab anyway, kneeling in the bed of a dinged-up pickup truck with Texas plates, or crouching on the springy backseat of a rented convertible on a dirt track just outside the airport fence. One of those portable weapons from Afghanistan, back when Afghanistan was somebody else’s problem, called… something, a Slammer or a Tingler or something like that. Kevin recalls that it’s the same name as a cocktail—a Whiskey Sour? A Tom Collins? A shoulder-fired Banana Daiquiri? No, a Stinger, that’s it! Four parts brandy to one part crème de menthe in a cocktail glass, or a fat olive-green tube that farts flame out the back while the missile erupts from the front, its backside trailing a wobbly spiral of smoke until the missile gets its bearings and climbs like a sonuvabitch in a long smooth curve into the heat-hazy Texas sky toward the sleek underbelly of Kevin’s plane, a Pringles can with wings, packed full of defenseless Pringles.

Trouble is, Kevin’s seen his fair share of movie air disasters. Used to be they just shook the camera and Ronald Colman or whoever would grit his teeth and bug his eyes and dig his fingers into the armrests, and then a wobbly model airplane would plow up a miniature of a mountainside in the Hindu Kush, breasting snowbank after snowbank like a speedboat. Now of course they rub your nose in it, and you see planes split apart from the inside: the skin peels away like foil, the cabin fills with flying magazines and gusts of condensation, oxygen masks dance like marionettes. Then there’s the money shot, no movie air disaster these days is complete without it: the awful, thrilling, gut-wrenching cum of the whole sequence when some poor extra still strapped in his seat is sucked out of the plane, or a whole row of seats is yanked as if by cables out the ragged gap where the tail used to be and spins ass over tit into a freezing, fatal darkness.

But now it’s broad daylight, and Kevin’s flight from Michigan is coming down in Austin, Texas. He was even more worried about missiles during their predawn takeoff from Detroit Metro. How could he not have been, what with the security check-in line running out of the terminal all the way to the parking structure, and with every ceiling-hung TV along the concourse tuned to CNN or Fox, still streaming images from the bombings in Europe last Thursday? Crumpled subway cars, rows of bodies under sheets, cops and paramedics in orange vests, deltas of blood on pale, wide-eyed faces. The usual images—for all he knows they could be running file footage from earlier catastrophes: London, Madrid, Mumbai. Not to mention the usual grainy CCTV images of the usual round, dusky, beard-fringed faces of pleasant-looking young men—those people, Kevin can’t help thinking, against his better nature—guys only just out of adolescence, with a death wish and a remarkable talent for synchronization. Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, all within a few minutes of each other. And Bern—who bombs Switzerland? And Glasgow! If the first, botched attempt on Glasgow was farce—a couple of pissed-off professionals torching a Jeep Cherokee, not quite enough to bring Western civilization to its knees—this new attack was tragic, but it still felt unlikely to Kevin. Who knew Glasgow even had a subway system, and now Kevin remembers the name of Buchanan Street Station (a place he’s never heard of before) as indelibly as if he’d ridden through it every day of his life. Creeping in the check-in line through the terminal, he passed a Wayne County sheriff every thirty feet posed like a Cylon centurion in Kevlar vest and riot visor. At the checkpoint itself, he saw the surest sign of Orange Alert, a couple of paunchy Michigan National Guards in fatigues and combat boots, carrying automatic weapons and eyeing Kevin with a caffeinated gaze as he stood crucified in his stocking feet while a TSA drone swept him with a wand. Have a nice flight, sir!

And it didn’t help that Detroit Metro is a ten-minute drive from Kevin’s favorite Lebanese restaurant in Dearborn, where no doubt some deeply disgruntled dishwasher dreams of airliners dropping from the sky like ducks in duck season, or—who knows?—where some Al Qaeda sleeper out of an episode of 24 is waiting tables and biding his time for a chance to sneak out to a two-track behind the airport with a piece of cast-off American ordnance and blow one of his better customers—and Kevin’s a big tipper, he used to wait tables himself—out of the sky. But now, deep in the privacy of his brainpan, in the plane descending over Texas, Kevin feels guilty for thinking this. Those people—what a thing to say! In the cozy, progressive cocoon of Ann Arbor, where he’s lived nearly all his life, you don’t openly speculate about terrorists in Dearborn, not in polite society you don’t, not even four days after a six-city European bombing spree. And if you do, it’s only to concede that it serves us right for looking the other way while our government handed out Stingers to radical Islamists in Peshawar like a corrupt Indian agent handing out Winchesters and firewater to angry Comanches in some glossy fifties western. Read your Chomsky, friend, we’re only reaping the whirlwind, and anyway, Islam’s a big, complicated religion like Christianity, it’s not a monolith, it’s not like every Muslim in the world wants you dead. Apart from the waiters in Dearborn, Kevin doesn’t even know any Muslims, or at least he doesn’t think he does. In college he slept a couple, three times with a girl named Paula who called herself a Sufi, but probably only to épater les père et mère back in Grand Rapids, and anyway that was thirty-some years ago, and who knows where she is now. Probably not shooting down airplanes, is a safe bet.

And those people, it turns out, can be guys just like Kevin. Just this morning, keeping an eye on CNN as he dressed for the flight, Kevin learned that the Buchanan Street bomber, according to the surveillance footage, was a pale, green-eyed, red-haired Celt—another Kevin, in fact, a young white Scotsman named Kevin MacDonald, who’d changed his name to Abdul Mohammed—SLAVE OF MOHAMMED read the helpful caption beneath his grainy visage—and who carried a backpack full of plastic explosives into a crowded Glasgow subway car. The cable ranters are already hyperventilating about the Glasgow bomber’s ethnicity, parsing his motives—whatever they may have been—and either blaming the grinding poverty of his upbringing for his desperation, or blaming permissive Britain for allowing radical Islam to infect the white working class. Kevin, to his mild shame, understands how unsettling this other Kevin is, how each new attack seems to strike closer to home. The first Glasgow terrorists were doctors, for chrissakes, sworn to do no harm, but at least they were, you know, foreigners, or at least foreign to the country they were attacking. Not to mention inept, especially the one idiot who managed to set only himself on fire, thus scoring one for the other team. But how much scarier is it if it’s a guy who looks just like you? Kevin’s half Polack, so this morning he can cling to his mother’s heritage for consolation, but the fact is, looking at the guy’s ID photo on the television as he pulled on his dress trousers, Kevin thought, he could’ve been my cousin on my father’s side, or my nephew, if I had any nephews. Twenty-three years old was Kevin MacDonald, says the CNN caption, and Kevin thinks, hell, if I’d ever gotten lucky in Glasgow—where, thank God, he’s never been—this kid could’ve been my son.

So the lingering images of Buchanan Street, the blunt Celtic face of the Other Kevin, and the prospect of sudden, violent death on takeoff worried our Kevin enough to distract him from his pretty seatmate, a long-limbed Asian American girl some twenty-five years younger than he who had already curled next to the window with youthful limberness, and who had plunged into a fat paperback even before Kevin got on the plane at Metro. He folded his suit coat and laid it flat on somebody’s garment bag in the overhead, and settling into the aisle seat he exchanged a glance and a smile with the young woman, who was reading, it turned out, a mass-market edition of The Joy Luck Club. An Asian girl reading Amy Tan—at first this seemed kind of predictable to Kevin, and then kind of redundant, a coals-to-Newcastle kind of thing. What could Amy Tan tell this girl that she didn’t already know? Then his Ann Arbor brainpan brimmed over with guilt again and he thought, maybe I should be reading Amy Tan, what do I know? He’s never read the book, but he’s seen the movie, a glossy melodrama—he saw it with Beth, years ago—and mainly what he remembers is a series of yuppie young women whining about their jobs and their boyfriends, until they’re flattened by their no-nonsense immigrant mothers, who say things like, hey, you think you got it bad, back in China I had to drown my baby.

But as the plane lurched back from the gate and rumbled slowly out to the runway, thoughts of the Other Kevin and of terrorist Lebanese busboys from Dearborn drove Kevin to ignore the girl and peer anxiously past her instead into the predawn gloom beyond the glare of the runway, where of course he couldn’t see a thing. She glanced at him a couple of times, probably thinking that he was just another melancholy middle-aged guy checking her out, and maybe he was, just a little bit. She wore jeans and a green camisole top with teensy little straps, and she had kicked off her sandals to tuck her heels under the tight denim curve of her rump. While scanning the bright amber-and-green circuit board of suburban Detroit below—I-94 streaming with white lights one way, red the other—for the telltale flash and blinding streak of a shoulder- fired missile, Kevin managed to admire how the straps of her camisole angled over her collarbone, how the jagged cut of her hair brushed the long, smooth slope of her shoulders, and, when she fixed him with a clear, brown-eyed gaze, how the golden nose stud twinkled in her left nostril.

“Do you want to switch?” she said to him in a flat, midwestern accent like his own.

“It’s okay,” he said, forcing a laugh. “It’s just that I don’t like to fly.” Especially not today, he almost added, but why belabor the obvious?

“Then maybe you shouldn’t look out the window,” she said evenly, her thumbs keeping The Joy Luck Club pried apart in her lap.

“Well,” he said, “you’re right.” He shifted his backside in his seat. He folded and refolded his fingers over the buckle of his seat belt. He refocused his gaze down the aisle. “That’s a good idea.”

But now, enduring an ear-popping descent into Texas, where there may or may not be fewer Arab terrorists—fewer Lebanese restaurants, perhaps, but more Middle Eastern students of petroleum engineering—Kevin shifts uneasily in his seat. During the flight, out of Stinger range at thirty thousand feet (or so Kevin hopes, he really has no idea), his imagination had shifted again to the Other Kevin, the baby-faced Scottish jihadist, the freckled Islamo-Celt, and Kevin found himself profiling every person who walked past him down the aisle to the bathroom: every young guy in jeans, to be sure, especially the dark or swarthy or bearded ones, but also pale guys his own age in polo shirts and Dockers, and even the weary blond stewardess with the crow’s feet. Who knows what she might be embittered about? High over southern Illinois or Missouri, Kevin wasn’t thinking of Stingers, but of rogue bottles of shampoo and mouthwash, holding household chemicals that the guy in Dockers could mix in the tiny bathroom sink and then spark with the battery from his iPod or his cell phone, blowing a hole in the plane, sucking everybody out one at a time through the toilet like Goldfinger at the end of Goldfinger. Still, perhaps because the latest bombs in the news were backpack devices in subway cars, Orange Alert this time around hasn’t meant the confiscation of personal grooming products, but in the last year or two, Kevin has been on flights whose passengers were relieved of shampoo, mouthwash, toothpaste, shaving gel, sunblock, cologne, perfume, moisturizer, not to mention any implement for the care of one’s nails: clippers, scissors, nail files, emery boards. On those flights Kevin saw a vision of a new world in the sky, a dirtier, scruffier world with planes full of passengers unshaven, unwashed, unscented, untanned, undeodorized, unmoisturized, and unmanicured, their untrimmed nails inching over the armrests they gripped so tightly.

But right now, descending into Austin, Kevin’s thinking is old school: he’s thinking that whatever gets them is going to be a good, old-fashioned, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, and he glances once more past Ms. Joy Luck and through the sun glaring in the scratches across the little oval of window. All he can see is a dull silver expanse of wing, dinged and dented and streaked, and beyond the wing a little wedge of desiccated brown ranch land sectioned by white dirt roads and fence lines and littered with tin-roofed houses and metallic trailers and oblong stock ponds full of greenish water. Even if the plane splits open like a piñata, he won’t have far to fall. He angles from side to side, wondering what’s the point of these fucking little windows if you can’t see anything, and his heart begins to pound almost as if he’s actually glimpsed the silver streak of the Stinger atop its billowing gush of smoke. Joy Luck was right—he’s better off on the aisle, where he won’t be able to see anything, where he won’t know what’s coming until it’s too late. Even if he were able to watch the entire, fatal, rising arc of the missile, he’s just another Pringle in the Pringles can gliding belly down out of the sky, with no control over the plane, no say over his fate. What would he do if he actually saw it coming? Clutch Joy Luck’s hand for that last moment of human contact? Tighten his seat belt? Put his head between his knees? Pray?

His seatmate lifts her eyebrow at him. She’s barely moved for three hours, except to shift her knees from one side to the other. The thick sheaf of pages in her lap has shifted inexorably from right to left, unread to read. She says, “Maybe you should’ve sat here. You’d have felt less, you know.” She wobbles her hand in the air.

“Maybe,” gasps Kevin. “Maybe not. Partly it’s just…” He curls his arms over his head, evoking the long, enclosed, hermetically sealed tube of the plane. “And the way we’re all…” He pushes his palms toward each other at an angle. Pringles in a Pringles can, he nearly says.

“Yeeaah,” she drawls, sympathetically. “You’re all…”

“Yup,” gulps Kevin, his hands curled in his lap. His heart pounding, his fingers numb, his stomach rolling over and over. He hears the windy thunder of descent, the anxious hiss of ventilators, the electric whine of the landing gear. Down the aisle of the tube he sees the fragile crowns of every defenseless Pringle’s head—black, gray, blond, tousled, kinky, curly, straight, buzz-cut, cowlicked, and pinkishly bald—none of them potential terrorists anymore, but his fellow innocents, the people he’s going to die with. Earlier in the flight, a cherubic infant was propped up in his seat looking back at Kevin with the twinkly, ruddy-cheeked smile of a bemused old man—Winston Churchill without his cigar—and now the kid is out of sight, wrapped up and belted in. Who’s going to save that baby, he wants to know, who’s going to save us all, who’s going to save me from the furious Stinger whizzing closer and closer to the belly of the plane, now only an inch away, now half an inch, now a quarter of an inch? The only thing that’ll save us is Zeno’s paradox—Kevin was a classics major once, for about three weeks—all we have to do is trust in the pre-Socratics and that sonuvabitching missile will never catch up. Though of course if you follow that line of reasoning, the plane itself will never reach the earth, the fat black wheels will come closer and closer to, but never… quite… touch, the tarmac, the fat-bellied plane and the shark-nosed little missile will streak together forever at a hundred and sixty miles an hour, never coming in contact, never coming to earth.

Then they do, or anyway the plane does, the wheels screeching and smoking against the runway as all the Pringles lurch forward against their lap belts. (Some breakage may occur in shipping.) Kevin feels the jolt through his backside and up his spine, and he grunts in alarm. The braking engines scream, the overhead bins rattle, the whole plane shudders with relief. Joy Luck rocks in her seat but never lifts her eyes from the book, and out the window Kevin sees the flat Texas horizon looking greener edge on, while the strange little growths between runways—junction boxes on metal stems and unlit yellow lights like tulip bulbs and arcane little signs that say G3 or E1—glide by. Behind the plane the angry Stinger sputters out in exhaustion, shark-nosed no more, but red-faced with bulging cheeks and eyes rolled white like Thomas the Tank Engine or the Little Engine That Could, only this is the Little Missile That Couldn’t, doubled over gasping in midair, pooting out a last couple of comic little puffs of exhaust, comedy clouds for a cartoon rocket, before it tumbles fuelless and unfulfilled, bent and blunted, end over end down the runway behind the plane. Meanwhile the pickup full of glowering Saudi engineering students simply evaporates.

Kevin sags into his seat like a sack of meal. From the tiny speakers overhead comes the pilot’s syncopated Chuck Yeager drawl: “Welcome to Austin, folks, it’s eight forty-eight in the ay em, we’re juuust a tad early, the temperature is a balmy eight-tee-two degrees,” blah blah blah. Enough with the Right Stuff already, thinks Kevin, just park the fucking plane. All around him the other passengers rustle restlessly in their seats, stretching, collecting, cell-phoning, watch-glancing, yawning, all except Joy Luck, who will not lift her eyes from her book. Beyond the girl’s admirable clavicle he glimpses the low half shell of Austin’s terminal, blanched with morning light, airliners nosed up under the tall tinted windows, an accordion jetway affixed to each plane like a remora to a shark. Thrust up behind, the tail fin of each aircraft shimmers in the heat.

At last, at last, at last Kevin’s plane bumps to a stop, and with the clacking of unbuckled seat belts passengers surge into the aisle. Kevin’s one of the first up, tipping back on his heels from the swing of the overhead door, then rocking forward to snatch his suit coat. Waiting now with chin tucked to breastbone, Kevin finds himself looking down the front of his seatmate’s camisole. She’s already flipped up the armrest and stretched across both seats, her finger still stuck in the paperback, while reaching behind with the other to pull on her sandals. In the cool green shadow where the camisole droops away on its straps, Kevin can see her nipples, and perhaps even the shadow of a tattoo snaking up from under one of her velvety breasts. Her eyes are hidden under her bangs. Now he is the melancholy middle-aged guy copping a look, and as she scootches up onto the aisle seat, tucking one knee under her, Kevin drapes his jacket over his clasped hands and rolls his eyes upward, an altar boy contemplating a prank.

Inch by inch the snake of passengers unkinks up the aisle, making the floor panels thump. Kevin steps back to let Joy Luck ahead of him, and she unfolds herself into the aisle, still holding her place in the paperback. She’s nearly as tall as he is, and she pops open the next overhead compartment and, still holding the goddamn book, effortlessly hoists out a fat, cylindrical, olive-green duffle. It’s so big Kevin’s surprised they counted it as a carry-on, but she swings it over her shoulder and sways up the aisle like a sailor. Kevin treads right behind her, his nose a couple of inches from the bulging round bottom of the duffle. He shuffles up the aisle past the flight attendant with the crow’s feet, and he follows the girl through the gap between the plane and the jetway where the Texas heat leaks in like steam. Then they’re walking faster up the slightly cooler slope of the ramp, where he can encompass Joy Luck from head to toe in one glance. She’s long-waisted and slim-hipped, and she sways up the jetway with one bare arm curled round her duffle and her other arm swinging at her hip, the paperback pinched around her middle finger. The abbreviated hem of her top reveals the matching dimples at the small of her back and the small tattoo of a green apple between them, just over the beltless waistband of her jeans. Kevin cannot help but admire the enormously fetching way she moves, a sort of well-lubricated slouch by which she lets her shoulders droop and leads with her hipbones. It’s not an aggressive catwalk strut, it’s much less self-conscious and much more feral, and as Kevin follows her into the filtered light and cathedral echo of the terminal itself, into the delta of debarking passengers fanning across the carpet and onto the cool marble, he thinks, I know that walk, I’ve seen that walk before. And for one thrilling moment, his heart swells with the possibility that I know that girl! But of course, he couldn’t possibly—she’s twenty-five, maybe thirty years younger than him, he’s never seen her before in his life, and if he had, he’d have remembered. But by God he knows that walk, someone else used to walk that way, he’s felt that walk up close, he’s curled his fingertips around those hipbones from behind, and then his heart fills up again, only this time with honest-to-God, hundred-proof middle-aged melancholy. It’s Lynda, he realizes, Lynda used to slink like that, Lynda used to glide away from his touch just like that. Lynda on the dance floor, Lynda à la plage. Lynda on the railing.

Then something tangles round his ankles and he staggers forward, the fat treads of his shoes sticking at the icy floor. In that pre-accident moment of crystal-clear slo-mo, he realizes that his jacket has slipped off his clasped hands and fallen to the floor between his feet. In a desperate little tap dance he kicks the jacket free, and it slithers across the marble floor like the cloaked shadow of a Ringwraith. He hops and pirouettes and catches himself with both hands on the top of a trash bin, while the other folks streaming out of the jetway step briskly around him as if he were a dog chasing its tail. He’s blushing, he can feel the heat rising off his face, and he pushes himself erect from the trash can, stiffening his back and lifting his chin. Then he stoops to the limp jacket, which is laughing at him from the floor, and jerks it into the air. Of course the carefully assembled contents of his left inside pocket all tumble to the floor: his notebook with a loud slap, the letter inviting him to the job interview gliding like a paper airplane, his pen and sunglasses skittering end to end. Clutching the jacket to his chest, he stoops red-faced again to snatch everything up, smiling sheepishly at no one in particular. A young mother pushing a slack-jawed infant—young Winston at rest—twists the stroller in a sharp angle to avoid him. The terminal’s arctic air-conditioning clamps around him then, and he shakes the jacket out by the collar as if disciplining a child. His heart hammers from embarrassment, his hands tremble a little as he slots the notebook, the pens, the glasses, and finally the letter back into the jacket’s inside pocket. He puts the jacket on and glances around to see if anyone has noticed his spastic little routine, but all he sees are a couple of men dozing in the black leatherette chairs and an old woman paging through a magazine. By now the plane is empty behind him and the rest of the passengers are trailing away down the long cathedral arcade of the terminal through the pillars of light streaming in the windows: silhouettes fat and lean, major and minor, limping, striding, slouching, swinging briefcases, dangling backpacks, towing wheeled suitcases, in twos and threes, or weaving through the crowd, alone. None of the silhouettes ahead is swaying. None of them is carrying a duffle. None of them is dangling a book at her hip and holding her place with a finger. Kevin can no longer see his slinky seatmate, Ms. Joy Luck Club, the girl in the camisole, the girl with the tattoos, the girl who walks like Lynda.

On the concourse Kevin allows himself only one glance at a dangling television, where a soigné, cheekboned überblond on Fox mouths silently over a banner that reads, with characteristic subtlety, 666: IS THIS THE END? Christ, thinks Kevin. Then, worried that he’s going to see the round, abstractly familial face of the Other Kevin once more, which will only rattle him further, he resolves not to look at a TV again, not until he’s back home in Ann Arbor. He has enough to worry about, and anyway, he’s on the ground in Texas, and Austin doesn’t even have a subway. Get thee behind me, Osama.

In a men’s room halfway down the concourse Kevin micturates, his nerves thrumming like wires. As relieved as he is to be on the ground and not in pieces all over central Texas, he’s still anxious about the interview this afternoon. He’s taking a flyer here, after all, applying for a private-sector job he picked almost at random out of the back pages of Publishers Weekly; to his astonishment, they responded by inviting him down to Austin for a brief interview, rather than interviewing him over the phone. “We’ll pay for your ticket,” said the woman on the phone, Patsy something of Hemphill Associates, whoever they are, and Kevin was too surprised to ask if maybe they could put him up for a night in Austin. He knows that businessmen and women fly twenty-four hundred miles roundtrip in a single day all the time to take an hour-long meeting, but this is sort of new in Kevin’s experience. Still, here he is, twelve hundred miles from home at 8:30 in the morning, draining his bladder into a Texas urinal, with no luggage or traveler’s checks, just his interview suit, a little extra cash in his wallet, and a pair of e-ticket boarding passes. Welcome to the global economy.

His middle-aged bladder at last more or less empty, he shakes, tucks, and zips up. Then he takes off his jacket again, carefully, and hangs it on a hook as he washes his hands and face. The dazzling white tiles of the lavatory are studded with colorful intaglios of Texas iconography—an armadillo, a cactus, a bright green jalapeño pepper—and the Muzak here isn’t Muzak, but Texas swing: Asleep at the Wheel, playing “Miles and Miles of Texas.” Kevin was a record store clerk once, back in the age of vinyl, at Big Star Records in Ann Arbor, and peering at his dripping face in the mirror he remembers how, whenever it was Mick McNulty’s turn to pick the music, it was always Asleep at the Wheel, until everybody on the afternoon shift knew all the words whether they wanted to or not, or could imitate the singer’s sleepy bass-baritone drawl. “Ray Benson’s a genius,” McNulty’d say in his own sleepy, midwestern mumble, “the new Bob Wills.” McNulty had a gift for stating the obvious about an artist as if it were revealed truth, though everything he knew was culled from the liner notes. Kevin blots his face with a couple of paper towels, then runs the damp towels under his collar and over the back of his neck. He lifts his jacket off the hook and watches himself in the mirror as he puts it on. Meanwhile the goddamn song penetrates his lizard brain: “I saw miles and miles of Texas”—now it’ll be stuck in his head all goddamn day—“Gonna live here till I die.”

Where’s McNulty now? he wonders as he steps out onto the echoing concourse again. Whatever happened to McNulty? Back when Kevin knew him, McNulty had been in his early forties, a tall, slope-shouldered guy with a round little belly and a slouching, easy, keep-on-truckin’ walk. He had wispy blond hair turning already to gray, which he kept short like a Beach Boy’s, and heavy-lidded eyes, and his manner was part aging stoner and part aging athlete. Improbably, for his age and general lassitude, he was the best player on the Big Star softball team, where he played first base with his glove on one hand and a cigarette in the other. Somehow, whenever the ball wafted into his general vicinity, he managed to pull it into his gravitational field by sheer karma, reeling it into his mitt without even stepping away from the bag. Then he’d put the smoke between his lips, throw the ball unerringly wherever it needed to go, take a drag on his cig, and return to his original slouch. He could make a double play without even losing the ash from his Marlboro. Not a great employee, though, Kevin recalls. McNulty took fewer shifts at the register than everybody else because the manager knew he’d screw up every third or fourth transaction. Instead he spent a lot of time restocking, which he did very, very slowly, with obsessive but idiosyncratic accuracy, lingering for ten minutes at a time over a particularly difficult decision.

“Fairport Convention,” he’d say. “Not really rock. Not really folk.” He’d shake his head slowly. “I just don’t know.”

“The sixties were very, very good to Mick,” the manager told Kevin once, when they were taking a break in the alley behind the store. Though the circumstances of the observation strike Kevin as ironic now—they had been sharing a joint at the time—the disjunction between the remark and its context went unnoted back then. In a hip, regionally famous, independent record store in Ann Arbor in the late seventies—long gone now, of course, strangled by the chains and the Internet and iTunes—reliability and even competence weren’t necessarily the first things you looked for in an employee. Entertainment value counted for a lot, and McNulty had entertainment value to burn. During the long reaches of slow, midweek, midsummer days when Big Star was nearly empty, Kevin would stand with McNulty behind the counter or in the back of the store by the jazz section, and McNulty would smoke and slouch and, from the depths of a heavy-lidded midafternoon coma, relate fantastic stories from his youth.

Like the Battle of Bertrand Russell. In 1960, McNulty had been stationed at Althorpe Air Force Base near the east coast of England, and one day the base had been besieged by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the gate stormed by the cream of the British left: doughty old pacifist women wearing sensible shoes and wielding signs; ruddy, strapping vegetarians who wore socks with sandals and sported fantastic beards like William Morris; humorless, porcelain-skinned Communist girls in black turtlenecks; their scrawny boyfriends with unkempt hair and toggle coats covered with badges; reedy academics in woolen waistcoats and baggy trousers; and in the vanguard the elfin philosopher himself, a wave of white hair atop an elegant black overcoat. The assault had all the menace of a warm spring rain, but the base went on full alert anyway, with klaxons blaring and jeeps roaring everywhere and all personnel recalled to duty. Except for McNulty, who was off duty at the time and didn’t hear the klaxons because he was in his favorite spot at the far end of the runway with his shirt off, vainly trying to get a tan from the pale English sun. As the base, unbeknownst to him, hustled to repel the gentle barbarians of the CND, McNulty alternated between dozing and reading Naked Lunch and watching B52s lumber over his head.

Naked Lunch,” he’d said, his eyes almost shut. “It was a new book at the time.” And Kevin, who was twenty-two or twenty-three when McNulty told him this story, almost swooned with admiration. This was the apotheosis of cool for him, and it still is, even now, as he trudges middle-aged down the concourse in Austin past the food court. It had the all elements to awe an impressionable young dilettante of a bohemian bent: irreverence, contempt for military authority, catching some rays while bombers glided overhead, and the happy conjunction of William S. Burroughs and Bertrand Russell. Even better (at least for the purposes of the story), once McNulty’s inadvertent dereliction had been discovered, he had been busted from sergeant back down to airman, and McNulty had turned the demotion to his advantage, boldly walking in uniform into a local pub (The Frog and the Scorpion) to chat up one of those intense, porcelain Communist girls, telling her that he’d offered up his career in the United States Air Force as a sacrifice to nuclear disarmament.

“Did it work?” Kevin had said, as wide-eyed as a kid. Daddy, tell me about the sixties again.

“God, yes,” said McNulty, almost energetically, and he went into some detail about a bloodlessly pale girl named Judy who had led him through a twisting maze of redbrick houses set close as teeth, each street narrower than the last, the raw night air full of coal smoke, until they came to Judy’s bedsit, where they took off their shoes and crept up the stairs past her landlady. In her tiny, unheated room they grappled silently on her narrow, swaybacked bed while she whispered to him about Althusser and Lukács and E. P. Thompson and he tried to peel off her black turtleneck. She consented at last, not so much out of lust as out of a grim determination to show that she wasn’t bourgeois, but even so she dug her ragged, bitten fingernails painfully into his shoulders whenever she thought the bed was creaking too loudly. She had a point, McNulty told Kevin; the floors were so thin they could hear the landlady snoring directly below them, but once again McNulty made lemonade and turned Mrs. Allenby’s honking to his advantage, murmuring to Judy that as long as her landlady didn’t stop snoring, they were probably all right. Soon McNulty was balling—that was his word for it, balling, Jurassic-era hipster slang—in that lovely, loose-hipped American way the English girls loved (said McNulty).

“But my mind wandered,” McNulty told Kevin, “it always does when I’m balling, I can’t help it.” Propped up on his strong American arms over the self-consciously ardent Judy, he started to think about the names of the streets they’d passed on the way to her bedsit: General Gordon Road, Gallipoli Lane, Sebastopol Row. “Nobody celebrates their own military disasters like the British,” McNulty said, and he told Kevin he’d begun to laugh, right there in the saddle, as it were. Judy looked more puzzled than hurt, perhaps she wasn’t used to laughter during sex, McNulty didn’t know, but he said “Sebastopol” out loud, puzzling her even more, and to make it up to her he began to thrust in a breathless, galloping, Tennysonian rhythm—half a league, half a league, half a league onward, forward the Light Brigade! Judy went stiff as a two-by-four when she came, her eyes wide, her lips a wordless O, and for an awful moment McNulty thought he’d killed her or something, because at the same moment, eight feet below, Mrs. Allenby stopped snoring, and in that instant he seemed to be the only one in the house with a beating pulse. Then Judy melted with a whimper, Mrs. Allenby began to trumpet again, and McNulty collapsed happily in Judy’s pale, undernourished arms. Afterward, she explained Gramsci’s theory of hegemony to him while he stretched out and lit a cigarette and silently recollected how the French called an orgasm le petit mort. Into the valley of death rode the six hundred, thought McNulty, blowing smoke rings at the oppressive floral wallpaper and trying not to laugh.

That’s the coolest story I ever heard, Kevin thinks, and it occurs to him with a pang that he’s older now than McNulty was then. Trudging around the gleaming glass cube of the airport’s newsstand, instinctively ignoring the alarming headlines, Kevin wearily wonders if admiring McNulty has done him any good at all. Back in his twenties, it had never occurred to Kevin to ask what a guy McNulty’s age had been doing working for four dollars an hour in a record shop, where even the manager was fifteen years younger. Kevin cringes at the memory, partly out of pity for McNulty—who knows where he is now, he’d be in his late sixties at least—and partly out of fear that he, Kevin, may not have much more to show at fifty than McNulty did at forty. He has a much better job than McNulty ever did, of course, and a mortgage and a retirement plan, and good friends he’s known since his Big Star days and before. But no kids, no career, really, no overriding passion in his life, and an ex-girlfriend who at long last heaved him over the side to have children with a man younger than Kevin—and certainly no happy memories of balling English Marxists and being the first American in Lincolnshire to read Naked Lunch.

GROUND TRANSPORTATION declares a sign, and a fat arrow points to the left, where Kevin joins a narcoleptic conga line shuffling toward the down escalator. The line is watched by a fierce-looking, heavily armed young woman in camouflage fatigues, another harbinger of Orange Alert. She’s a Hispanic girl with a lot of Indian in her (thinks Kevin), a woman warrior, an Aztec Amazon. She stands with her legs apart, her black jump boots tightly laced, a semi-automatic pistol bulging at her hip. She holds her ugly black automatic rifle diagonally across her chest, the corner of the butt propped on her shoulder, the fierce muzzle pointed at the marble floor. Her fine, inky hair is drawn tight into a bun under her beret, sharpening the raptorish edge of her cheekbones and her nose, making her black-eyed glare even fiercer. While she may be a reservist or a National Guard, this young woman is a real soldier, this woman is no McNulty, she’s no irreverent, Beat-reading shirker, probably no seducer of earnest young Englishwomen (though you never know). No, in work and in play, this young woman is clearly all business; this girl is on the job. This girl would empty a clip into Bertrand Russell without a second thought.

Even for an Ann Arbor liberal like him, Kevin’s glad to see the young woman, especially today. Four days after Buchanan Street—funny how quickly a name becomes iconic and needs no further explanation, like Watergate or Guantánamo—there are no bleeding hearts on public transportation, and he’s grateful for the guard’s sacrifice in that dutiful way mandated by the White House, network anchormen, and country music stars. But even so, Kevin wants to know, is this the best use of her time? Wouldn’t she be more effective patrolling the perimeter of the airport in a jeep, looking for suspicious characters in rented cars, dusky and not-so-dusky guys watching planes take off and land through binoculars? Shouldn’t she be looking for wired-up bottles of shampoo in checked luggage? Mysterious vials of white powder? Stingers in the grass? Not to tell you your job, soldier, I’m just saying, if something’s going to happen, is it really going to happen here, in the terminal? Then the soldier swivels her head and meets Kevin’s gaze, and Kevin jerks his eyes away.

And nearly stumbles getting on the escalator. The corrugated step splits under the soles of his shoes, and he shuffles back and catches himself on the rubbery handrail. But when he glances back, the woman warrior is already watching someone else. Kevin sighs and descends into the cool, gray atrium of baggage claim, into a magnifying, mall-ish echo of voices, an oceanic murmuring. A diffuse crowd mills around the steely hippodrome of a baggage conveyer, and for a moment his heart lifts at the prospect of catching another glance of Joy Luck and her tattoos. But she was already carrying her luggage; she’s long gone by now. Kevin feels like a movie director riding the camera crane down into a crowd scene—he was a film major once, for half a semester—John Ford or William Wyler chewing the stem of his pipe, his feet dangling from his trouser cuffs and showing a pair of tartan socks and a little pale shin. This gives Kevin the momentary illusion of control, the feeling that he could bark at the crowd below and they’d all look up at him as one, waiting for direction. Hey, maybe he’s even some young director, a veteran of hip-hop videos making his first feature, a chunky white kid in a Raiders jersey and a vast pair of cargo shorts and a backward ball cap, watching his milling extras with a critical eye and calling out, “Where’s our star, yo? The fuck’s my leading lady? She in this shot, or what?” Ms. Joy Luck in the role of Lynda—Lynda à la plage, Lynda on the railing. “She’s in her trailer, Mr. Quinn.” Mister Quinn—Kevin likes the sound of that. “Well, go ask her if she’d like to join us this morning, dog. We’re losing the fucking light.” But as the crane descends, the people below become less and less foreshortened, less and less under Kevin’s control, until with a gentle bump the escalator deposits Kevin sole to sole with his own dim reflection in the dully gleaming floor. Now he’s at eye level with everyone else, just another arriving passenger, just another guy in the crowd, just another extra in somebody else’s movie.

He passes through the sliding doors into his first real embrace by the Texas heat. It’s not so bad; the air presses warmly against his skin, that’s all. Plus he’s in the shade of an overpass, under a ceiling of massive rectangular beams held up by squat, square pillars of dirty white concrete. The Texas sunlight leaks in from the far ends, where the passenger pick-up lanes curve beneath the overpass. Vehicles coming out of the glare dim as they roll into the shade, a slow parade of SUVs and pickup trucks inching over speed bumps and braking impatiently for the crosswalks. Beyond a median, shuttle buses with broad foreheads line up nose to tail like baby elephants, and beyond that rises the cliff face of the parking garage, each pier embossed with a big, five-pointed Texas star, just in case the armadillo tiles in the men’s room and Asleep at the Wheel over the public address have left him in any doubt as to where he is.

Truth is, he feels like he’s not just in another state, but in another country. He knows no one in Texas; the folks waiting to see him this afternoon have never laid eyes on him. And no one in Ann Arbor even knows he’s here. He could hardly tell the folks at the Asia Center where he was going, so he took a personal day—annual checkup, he told Mira, the center’s administrative associate and his immediate superior—and to be on the safe side, he didn’t tell any of his friends, either. Even Stella doesn’t know he’s gone. Especially Stella. He plans to be back in Ann Arbor by eleven p.m. tonight, and Stella won’t be back from her sales conference in Chicago till late tomorrow. Unless the folks today offer him the job and he decides to take it, no one will ever know he was here. When he was a young backpacker, feeling invulnerable and immortal, he’d loved the thrill of knowing that he could step off a cliff in Donegal or fall down a sinkhole on the North York moors and no one would ever know what happened to him. But now his anonymity pierces him like a hook and hauls him up short. It’s not too late, he thinks, I could go back inside, change my ticket, and be back in Ann Arbor by midafternoon.

He realizes that he’s stopped walking. Other passengers step around him, the little wheels of their suitcases clacking over the joints in the pavement. He hears the mutter of the PA, first in English—“Due to heightened security, knives are not allowed on planes”—and then in Spanish—“Debido a la seguridad aumentada, cuchillos no se permiten en los planos.” The guttural grind of buses, the hiss and squeal of brakes, the slam of car doors reverberating off the concrete all around. A tepid breeze full of diesel exhaust brushes by him, and Kevin realizes he’s not even in Texas yet. The airport doesn’t count; it’s only an island in an archipelago nation of glassed-in atolls where everybody speaks a sort of English and lives off warm cinnamon buns and day-old turkey sandwiches.

He joins the pedestrians funneled into the crosswalks by concrete security barriers. ( Just because you’re on the ground, says his lizard brain, doesn’t mean you’re safe.) Under his clothes the sweat prickles out of his skin. At the median he joins the queue at the taxi stand, behind a large woman in a broad-beamed pair of jeans and a voluminous shirt who is talking to herself in short, disjointed bursts and with much frantic gesturing. There is nothing in her hands. Time was, on the Diag in Ann Arbor where the homeless congregate, Kevin would circle around someone talking to herself in public, but now everyone does it. He feels aged by the fact that he’s still surprised to see people conducting phone conversations in public.

“I know that,” the woman says. “Don’t think I don’t know that.” From behind, Kevin watches her shake her helmet of hair. “Listen, I’ve been saying exactly the same thing.” She lowers herself into the next cab. “Doggone it, Pearl, that’s what I’ve been saying.” She’s shaking her head as the cab pulls away. “Doggone it, Pearl.”

Kevin approaches a green Chevy Lumina with JAY’S TAXI printed unceremoniously along the side; the cabbie’s already reached back to open the rear door.

“Luggage?” he says hoarsely, peering through the purple tint of his aviator glasses. A long, gaunt face. Scooped-out cheeks, pale, slack skin.

“No,” says Kevin. He lifts his knee to slide into the seat and the cabbie says, “Close that trunk for me, willya, bud?”

Kevin pushes back from the car and walks around to slam the trunk with both hands. Then he slides grumpily into the backseat of the Lumina—the meter’s already running, he notices—and the cab starts to roll even before he’s pulled the door shut. That’s when he sees Joy Luck in the crosswalk, swaying up to a shuttle bus with her duffle on her shoulder and the paperback dangling at her hip, her finger still holding her place.

“Whoa,” Kevin says involuntarily, and the cabbie hits the brake. Kevin rocks forward, and the door slips from his hand and bangs all the way open.

“You okay?” The pale cabbie levels his gaze at Kevin, an edge of irritation in his voice.

“Yeah.” Kevin reaches for the door again. Up ahead Joy Luck stands her duffle on end and shares a smile with the shuttle driver, a bull-chested Hispanic with his uniform shirt tucked into bulging bicycle shorts. He slings the duffle up into the shuttle, and Joy Luck pauses at the door, one long leg bent on the bottom step. She twists her hair one-handed off the back of her neck, just like Lynda used to. Oh Lynda, Lynda, Lynda, thinks Kevin, where are you now?

“Meter’s running, sir,” says the cabbie. “We comin’ or goin’?”

“Go,” says Kevin. He lunges for the door and slams it. Joy Luck is swallowed by the shuttle as the cab hauls away from the curb.

Continues...