An excerpt from Panorama (Little, Brown and Company)
TEXAS, MIDAFTERNOON on New Year’s Day, about to add another sad chapter to its history.
A commercial airliner on approach to Dallas–Fort Worth International, at that moment the world’s fifth-busiest airport. Bathed in the strobing winter sun, the plane’s fuselage glittered, a futuristic costume jewel left over from the night before. The passengers took in the perfect day, and the cabin crew, who put faith in technology above observation, scanned the associated readouts that provided scientific proof of what they saw outside their windows. Doppler radar confirmed the forecasts: no threat of microbursts, wind shear, thunderstorms, or sudden crosswinds. The temperature was nearly seventy, and visibility matched the prospects for the New Year — unlimited.
The plane took its numbered position in an orderly conga of incoming aircraft. Panorama Airlines Flight 503, as indicated on the strip placed directly underneath the oscillating screen of approach radar, the relevant details written on a piece of paper denoting the airline, flight number, type of equipment (a 727-200 with nearly four thousand hours of service), seventy-seven passengers and six crew, scheduled for arrival at 2:18 p.m. Central Standard Time, all in the heavily abbreviated jargon of flight control. Flight 503 was about to be shepherded from regional traffic control to the tower, and the controller offered the sort of unscripted good-bye that was against regulations: “This is TRACON passing you over to DFW tower control. Godspeed, 503, and happy New Year.”
The pilot responded with a snippet of song — “Should auld acquaintance be forgot” — in a clear and steady tenor, surprising even himself; the tower controller and copilot joined in, every- one’s headsets on that particular frequency filling with song.
Nearly one-fourth of the commercial-service airliners in the skies over Texas that afternoon were variations on the 727, but the one that wavered on approach to DFW seemed to the eyes of its captain a venerable lady, a dance-hall matron, filled with the kind of erotic flaws that could be appreciated only by old men wistful for lost chances. She might have been past her prime — the assembly line that built her was now devoted to making her unsightly and bulkier successors — but this old lady was a once-famous chanteuse known in nightclubs from Paris to Saigon, a celebrity slowly going to seed.
Dallas control signaled final approach, and Panorama 503 circled, two hundred miles out, beginning its final descent from flight level two-six-zero, twenty-six thousand feet.
Visual landing indicated.
The passenger in 3B was deadheading, a second-seat pilot returning to DFW to work an evening flight to Washington National. She slept soundly.
3E and 3F were colleagues of convenience, a developer and a moneyman intertwined in an elaborate plan to convert midrange apartments in the North Dallas exurbs into condominiums; they had spent the nearly two hours since boarding going over ad copy that promised a luxury lifestyle, the banner that hung from an overpass on the Thornton Freeway and swore, If you lived here, you’d be home by now.
4E, remembering his most minor assignation from the night before, a kiss with a stranger. He thought languorous thoughts — why had he never acted on his feelings for men before last night? The mere prospect of touching another man’s skin left a taste like metal high in his throat.
5B, an accountant from a Big Six firm, admired the shapely legs of the woman across the aisle in 5E, who had removed her shoes and was stretching, pointing her stockinged toes in a variety of directions. Through the sheer hose, he could see that her toenails had been recently painted a brownish-red reminiscent of dried blood, a color 5B associated with the lips of a specific type of pale, raven-haired women. He was dreaming of what it might be like to sleep next to a woman with immaculately kept feet, all the calluses and corns soaked and shaved away with an array of potions and small tools. Then he waited for the shame, the self- admonishment that came whenever these mildly lewd thoughts entered his mind. This wasn’t a middle-class longing. Even to his therapist, he could not admit the depths of his desire; he thought he might like to try being a submissive, and here in the aisle beside him was a pair of feet that practically demanded his worship. His wife, home in Plano, had tremendously ugly feet, like she’d spent twenty years as a cop walking a beat. Her toenails had gone yellow-gray with a persistent fungus.
In the window seat of the first row of coach, 6A felt the peculiar discomfort of travel, that pressing sensation in his bowels that meant, after three days of red wine and red meat, he desperately needed a good shit.
6C slept the dreamless sleep of a Xanax zombie.
7D turned to observe his children, a row behind (8A–C) and wondered how they could have possibly gotten so fat. 8D was the beleaguered mother enduring the withering glances of 8F, the unspoken signifiers that clearly spelled out his desire for the children to shut the hell up.
9A and C looked silently over the same in-flight magazine, promising themselves a dinner at one of America’s top-ten steakhouses.
9D waved for one last drink; 9E hissed at 9D, “Do you really need another?” before slumping across the empty seat to her right and staring out the window at the Texas flatlands.
The in-flight entertainments pumped out popular music. Six people on board (10A and B, 13C, 17A, 20D, and 28F) chose a meditative program of classical favorites, but it was 17A who began to daydream once he recognized a familiar theme from Debussy’s Doctor Gradus; it wasn’t so much a specific memory as an image of his sister, the way months of experience get con- densed into one picture: she’s at the piano bench, her long, straight hair parted in the middle (she would have been about eighteen, and this would have been the midseventies). She tried her best to teach him Debussy’s wandering left-hand movements, the rollicking song for children, but he’d been impatient. An image of himself then, age seven, at the top of the stairs, listening to his sister practicing her scales on their modest upright piano. His own music room, in a five-bedroom house in the north Dallas suburb of Addison, had been designed around a seven-foot baby grand, but its keys had never felt more than the insistent banging of his unschooled children, the occasional riffing of “Chopsticks.”
13F stared out the window and contemplated the mail he knew would be waiting for him, the latest settlement proposal in a series of divorce negotiations that had now lasted longer than the actual marriage; he scribbled figures on a yellow pad, added and subtracted various columns, and was resigning himself to giving his estranged wife everything she asked for, no matter her rationale. Arms-control agreements had taken less time. 13F was tired of arguing, tired of revisiting decisions he’d made two or four or even eight months ago, all for the purpose of deciding who owed what, who would be held responsible. He’d always been the one responsible for this relationship, responsible for its ill-considered beginning, responsible for the whimsical decision to get married, responsible for sitting his estranged wife down at the dinner table to tell her he wanted out. He was guilty of laughing a bit too hard at jokes about overbear- ing wives, nagging mothers-in-law. Now it was going to cost him, and he could use this legal pad to put together an actual dollar-cost estimate. The result of his analysis: he wanted out at any price.
14D dreamed of another trip, something that had nothing to do with the persistent movement required of him as a soldier of middle management, a week of repose poolside, dangling his feet into the edge of an ocean of warm, greenish water.
Row 16 was filled with four consultants in seats A, C, D and F, each irritated that their frequent-flyer miles and platinum status had not gained them entrée to first class.
In 23A, a businessman pressed the buttons of his control panel indiscriminately, flipping through each channel until he settled on channel 14 to eavesdrop on the cockpit chatter, Flight
503, cleared for final approach to DFW.
Three people on the plane, moments apart, stared into the expanse of blue at flight level two-four-zero, each thinking that the color of the sky was the same azure tint that haloed Mrs. Kennedy as she descended the steps of Air Force One and waved to the assembled Love Field crowd on that sunny November day.
27C was a retired lieutenant who had joined the Dallas police force at the beginning of that November; thirty-six years and change since the morning he’d shaken the hand of an officer named Tippit, a no-nonsense crewcut type who for almost forty years now had been nothing more than history’s trivia question.
25D debated whether to use the lavatory now or wait until he was off the plane and headed to the gold-status area of his preferred rental car company; he wondered which ubiquitous sedan waited under the yellow-green marquee that flashed out his last name, misspelled.
28D was knitting a six-foot scarf in blue-and-white wool.
30D, seated closest to the aft lavatory, wondered who he might complain to about the stench — stale wine, the ammonia of household cleaners and stray urine, even, he thought, the acrid smell of burning plastic.
The purser counted four-dollar miniature liquor bottles. The head flight attendant counted days until her retirement. The second flight attendant sipped bottled water and read a copy of Shape magazine.
Given a following wind and the anticipated movement of the jet stream to a southeasterly flow, the in-flight computer told Captain Grady Williston, fifty-five, of Westlake, Texas, that he could shave twenty-one minutes off the flight time. From the flight deck, he had already reported the prospects for an early arrival, but now, waiting for a vector for final approach, he began to regret it; Dallas was packed with end-of-season travelers, people heading home from Christmas with the family, which usually meant a crowded approach, having to take a sky lap or two before landing. Landing slots thirty-six seconds apart meant rush-hour traffic in the skies. Yet his own plane was only two-thirds full. The copilot had certified the count: seventy- seven passengers and six crew.
The navigator — Chuck Belk, forty-eight, of Chula Vista, California — confirmed a fuel reserve of nearly three hours, ten minutes, enough to circle Dallas four dozen times, enough, should events warrant, to allow for a diversion to Phoenix Sky Harbor, New Orleans, Sioux City. In the event of an actual emergency.
The rhythm of working with this familiar crew meant Captain Williston did not worry about the minor issues that bothered the flight attendants: passenger complaints about the seats, the assignations that led to entry in the mile-high club, an end-of-the-day shortage in the count of miniature liquor bottles. He feared the unpredictable: sudden turbulence, clouds ex- ploding in microbursts, wind shear, bird and lightning strikes, runway incursions, and, as had happened last month on a long haul from Kennedy to Buenos Aires, a drunk and unruly passenger shitting on top of the beverage trolley; he worried about handheld missiles and passengers carting aboard Semtex- loaded backpacks, and, even though it had not happened in more than twenty years, he worried about an idealist brandish- ing a comically tiny handgun and demanding an audience with Brother Fidel, afternoon tea with Qaddafi. Captain Williston did not worry about the equipment itself.
Neither did the airline. After two more months of routine short hops, point to point between Salt Lake and the hub in Dallas, the plane was headed to a maintenance facility in Phoenix, where the logos and identifying marks and registry numbers would be sandblasted away, the skin of the airframe taken down to bare metal before repainting. The airline’s business plan included pawning off the problems of this particular jet, known and unknown, to the Guinean national airline. Twice a week, the plane would fly its most glamorous route, triangulating between Conakry, Beirut, and Dubai. The retrofits and hush kits that quieted the voracious wail of the tri-engine jet had been stopgap measures at best.
The crew heard the broadcast on their headsets, air traffic control reporting to Flight 503, “Traffic in the area,” an observation confirmed by first officer Bill Zimmer with a lackluster “Check.”
Navigator Belk chimed in from the third seat with his response, heard only on the flight deck and duly recorded on the cockpit voice recorder, “Duh.” Belk, a former Marine, Annapolis graduate, took pains to get his work space squared away, stowing charts, filling out checklists. Only a small accident, dropping his pen, made him bend to the cockpit floor and, as he rose upward, notice the indicator light. An amber dome of plastic; replacement cost seventeen cents. A problem with the hydraulics. He pointed at it, and the captain gave it a quick series of taps with his index finger before the light flickered out.
How then to describe the sound of steel cable snapping, its pieces ricocheting against the aluminum skin of the airframe, tearing holes in the tail assembly, severing the hoses that fed the actuators of the hydraulic controls, those hollow pings and re- ports that meant total system failure? Or perhaps it is best to describe noise by the absence that preceded it, the only sounds in the cabin the sharp, simultaneous inhalations of seventy- seven passengers and six crew, the short, automated trill of the Fasten seatbelt tone, the latches of galley compartments and lavatory doors boinging open, followed by the vacuum rush of rapid cabin decompression, the theatrical opening of the over- head panels that hid the plastic oxygen masks.
The flow of oxygen did not start, which meant that the level of pressure required to spring the masks from their housing was never achieved, but not a single passenger on Flight 503 reached to remove the mask manually. Whatever it was, it would be over soon.
Captain Williston tried to coax the wheel, but the sound of engine response, he knew, was wrong. He had always thought of his planes as living beings, objects of desire, things he could cajole into their best behavior. The noise of the plane in flight, level and steady, should have been as natural as the quiet murmur of blood flowing past the eardrums.
They all wished they had paid closer attention to the flight attendant’s instructions, closer attention to where the nearest exit was located, closer attention to the emergency instruction card located in the seat-back pocket in front of them: the six friends across row 19, the husband and wife in 20A and C, the young couple and their unticketed infant in seats 24D through F, and especially the young man in 26F, making an emergency pilgrimage to see his hospitalized mother. Warren Ashburton — My friends call me Ash — braced against the molded plastic wall nearest the window, now thinking not of his mother but of another time he almost died. He must have been seventeen. A winter’s rain had blanketed the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex with a persistent coating of ice, the kind that brought the milk, bread, and toilet-paper panic to grocery stores all over the city. He’d spent the afternoon at a girlfriend’s house, lost in the faux romanticism of black-and-white films on VHS cassette. He was expected home for dinner — family rules — but the roads were nearly impassable, and he’d pressed on as if nothing were different, no accommodation to the weather were required. His fingers now dug into the armrests of both 26E and F, but he was smiling at the memory, the cocksure arrogance of his teenaged immortality. Of course, he’d hit a spot of something he couldn’t see; the car felt as if it had hopped sideways on the black ice, and then he was airborne. He remembered a doctor next, discussions of surgery for a fractured humerus and scapula, a compound break of the collarbone. His mother then, the hands he knew as comfort, holding his uninjured hand and making jokes — he’d do anything to get out of family dinner, wouldn’t he? — the staleness of the hospital and the doubt he heard in her laughter scarier than anything else that had happened to him that day. The car had been a total loss. Doctors patted his legs after their cursory examinations and uttered the word lucky again and again. Indeed, he’d always been lucky. Admitted to law school on the wait list (he remembered the surprise of the admissions counselor, the way she’d told him that people as far down on the wait list as he was never made it in). He’d met Sherri in line at the campus bookstore the following month, their love the kind of bolt from the blue mythologized in fairy tales. He knew now there would be no happy ending.
The sounds of the plane’s distress intruded. The nearly industrial soundtrack of man-made materials exceeding their mechanical limits, popping and cracking, the urgent scraping of metal against metal. He should be thinking of Sherri, but it was his mother that became his primary concern, and why wouldn’t it be this way now that he was going to die? The ways in which his mother depended on him had always been a source of tension in his marriage, and now his sense of duty, of fealty, had brought him here to the very end of his time.
All these passengers with thoughts circling around one common idea — What on earth? What is that noise? — followed by a collective sense of relief as the plane leveled at flight level seven- zero, seven thousand feet, and the first officer announced that oxygen masks were no longer necessary. In the chaos, no one had told him that the masks had never deployed. Ash took a moment to chastise himself for being so dramatic.
* * *
A flurry of activity at the head of the cabin, the following of well-ordered procedures from a trio of memorized checklists. Navigator Chuck Belk shouted, This is Panorama 503 declaring an emergency! Tower control asked something about the stick, and Captain Williston did not hear the question; he focused only on his duty, announced they would try for runway 13L. Belk realized the captain hadn’t transmitted the request to land, so he asked for clearance, told the tower to have the fire trucks lay down a marshmallow of foam. We’re coming in hard and heavy, Belk told flight control, and even he didn’t know what he meant.
Bill Zimmer, first officer, fought with his stick, interpreted the warning lights and the cacophony of alarms to mean total hydraulic failure. He exhaled audibly, the noise picking up over the microphones of the flight-deck headsets. Runway 13L was the short one. Captain Williston made some quick calculations about the glide path and, realizing that Flight 503 was still too hot and powered up, pulled the stick back hard. The plane gave faint response, enough to suggest hope. “We’re going to be fine, ladies,” he said. Zimmer exhaled again, the sound amplified through his headsets, and Williston knew that he was trying only to control his physical response to pressure. All three of the cockpit crew had learned certain coping techniques in the military and would do anything to keep their blood pressure down; in the quick drop, they’d all probably taken three Gs, enough to force all the wind out of your lungs and even make you empty your bladder if you were caught unawares. Williston tried to match Zimmer’s metronomic breathing, a short inhalation, a deep, cleansing exhalation. On his second inhalation, the stick began to respond, and Williston exhaled hugely, with a cough, in premature relief. The unmistakable sound of popping rivets, little staccato explosions, followed immediately, then sudden sideslip, the plane taking a hard and unplanned bank to the left.
For Mary Beth Blumenthal, in 26C, there would be no sudden realizations in this moment, just a gradual awareness, as if Death had taken a seat in 26B, produced from its attaché a package of cheese crackers with peanut butter and begun with the kind of small talk so familiar on airplanes, the who-are-yous and where- are-you-froms and where-you-headeds. Now only the sounds of a plane reaching its mechanical limits and, in the cabin, a woeful silence. Time took on its well-reported elastic qualities.
Mary Beth began to pray. She had not managed Mass or the confession of her sins in a decade. She interrupted her own prayer to try to calculate the last time she had set foot among the good offices of the Catholic Church. She was thinking she might say whatever she could remember of the rosary. The words themselves, their unsettling familiarity, surprised her. She found in them comfort, as they had been the mantra that ushered her to sleep for the first twenty years of her life. How logical, then, that the prayer she repeated was the Hail Mary, because mothers, whether through history or experience, are inexorably tied to their children.
Through her sweater her fingers sought out the ampleness of her gut. She pushed her hands under the thin fabric to touch the small stretch marks that surrounded her navel in an almost symmetrical radius, like the darker green stripes in a summer watermelon. Now she dragged her hand across her stomach, just above her waist, the same places where Gabriel’s feet had kicked her from the inside, the striations where her abdomen had grown impossibly elastic and inflated. Richard had come to the hospital and fed her ice chips and wet a washcloth for her head and had generally performed the duties of her absent husband, and she wished now that she had taken his hand and placed it there, on her belly, encouraged him to follow the high- ways that appeared on her lower abdomen, asked him to rub lotions into the marks to tame their angry redness. Where her brother was concerned, there were a lot of things she wished she’d done. Then and now.
She’d been just old enough to regard him as a nuisance, a thing to be tolerated. As a boy, he seemed to have so little to protect him from the world other than his brains, and she told herself then that it was not her concern if he were to head out into the world unarmored. Then Lew was dead, and everything turned, as if the entire family could be identified only by their relationship to the deceased. And now the same thing would happen to her son. Now, she thought only of who might tell Gabriel about it, and here for the first time she thought the words: the crash. Someday he would stand in a field and gaze upon the site of his mother’s death. Richard would bring Gabriel here and hold his hand; they would come to the site like accident reconstructors, like the assassination buffs who climbed to the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository and squeezed off shots from an imaginary Mannlicher carbine. Richard would have to put his boots on the ground. She knew her brother that well.
Now she was thinking of her son, his six years, those early days with his persistent fussing, the vocalizations that she had to learn to decipher. Her brother had been in the birthing room, not her husband. He’d rested a hand on her stomach through the paper-thin dressing gown. He’d been the first to hold her son. She could picture them both, Richard’s unruly hair flopped across his forehead, the same undulating cowlick that would poke forward in Gabriel’s thick mop.
* * *
The pilot’s stashed briefcase escaped from under the jump seat. The navigator tried to heel it back into place.
Captain Williston knew the jet’s slide to be uncorrectable now — they would die — but still he worried only about work. Figuring out the cause was a job for later. He didn’t have adequate training for this, and there was certainly going to be a lawsuit, though it would have no bearing on him. Part of the mantle of responsibility meant that every time he was in the first seat, he knew there was a chance that he might make a mistake, that his epitaph, as written by the various investigating authorities, might be reduced to two words: pilot error.
He couldn’t think of any possible explanation for what was happening, the loss of power, the rudder swinging like a barn door, left, then right, then left again. As the airframe reached its maximum tolerance for stress, it suddenly became imperative to Williston that he develop a working theory of his own death. Cause and effect. Meanwhile, Captain Grady Williston, fifty-five, of Westlake, Texas, was about to become the only person onboard Panorama Airlines Flight 503 mentioned by name in every news article, every initial bulletin of the crash.
The noise then of metal being stressed, then the final severing of steel control cables. The fan disk of engine three, mounted on the tail assembly, broke from its moorings, and its shrapnel penetrated the cowling, the fuselage, shearing the last pinions that kept the rudder secured.
The head steward worried about his dog, ensconced in a kennel out in Plano — certainly none of his friends were ready to adopt an Airedale with a curmudgeonly disposition and fur like a well-handled Steiff bear. 3A rattled a set of turquoise worry beads.
4A had a mortgage nearing foreclosure, 5E admired the color of the polish on her toenails (Decadent Rose), 8C scratched under his arm, 9D and E kissed feverishly, 11C worried about his recent loss of bladder control, 14A looked out his exit-row window and imagined himself on the tarmac, guiding passengers down the deployed emergency chutes.
16D was scheduled to have a pacemaker implanted on Thurs- day morning, 17E wished he had not been stuck in the middle seat between two corpulent seniors who smelled of moldy bread;
24A and B, two men traveling separately, held hands and whispered prayers without self-consciousness or embarrassment.
One of the flight attendants sitting in the rear galley secured the bathroom doors, while the other ducked around a cabinet, avoiding the sharp edge of the open door, and braced herself in the space behind a beverage service cart. On VFR approach, in the warmth of the early afternoon sunshine, conditions ideal, visibility unlimited.
The deadheading pilot in 3B imagined the stick in her own hands, heard a voice (the navigator’s) shouting, Up, up, go around. Full power. The captain’s hands fought against the stick shaker, its vibration part of the built-in safety measures against stall. A quintet of overhead compartment doors on the right side of the aircraft sprang open, scattering a few bags, foam pillows, blankets. The plane began a sudden leftward roll. A collision alarm and a stall alarm sounding in unison. The aircraft, left wing low, headed for slapdown. The cockpit voice recorder, from an area microphone, captured the inelegant last words of the first officer: “Oh, shit.”
Seventy-seven passengers and six crew.
Now and at the hour of our death.
Steve Kistulentz is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Florida State University. His fiction has appeared, among other places, in Narrative and a special issue of Mississippi Review on emerging writers guest-edited by Rick Moody. He is also the author of two books of poetry: The Luckless Age, which won the Benjamin Saltman Award, and Little Black Daydream. The director of the graduate creative writing program at Saint Leo University in Florida, he lives in Tampa and is currently working on a second novel.
Excerpted from the book PANORAMA by Steve Kistulentz. Copyright © 2018 by Steve Kistulentz. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.