Authors: Terry Bisson
“Bisson’s work is a fresh, imaginative attempt to confront some of the problems of our time. It is the Bissons of the field upon whom the future of science fiction depends.”
—Washington Post Book World
“With his sharp accuracy and sharp humor, he seems to me the Mark Twain of science fiction.”
—Kim Stanley Robinson
“Terry Bisson is one of the sharpest short story writers in science fiction today.”
—Sacramento Book Review
Voyage to the Red Planet
Bears Discover Fire
Pirates of the Universe
In the Upper Room
The Pick-up Artist
Numbers Don’t Lie
Planet of Mystery
The Left Left Behind
(PM Outspoken Author)
Fire on the Mountain
(PM Spectacular Fiction)
Tradin’ Paint: Raceway Rookies and Royalty
Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader
Ona Move: The Story of Mumia Abu-Jamal
Terry Bisson © 2011
This edition © 2011 PM Press
P.O. Box 23912
Oakland, CA 94623
Printed in the USA on recycled paper.
Layout: Jonathan Rowland
who put on a shirt his mother made
and went on the air
’m a TVA baby. My father was a Yankee, from Michigan I think, one of those educated engineers who came down here to dam up the rivers and bring electric lights and indoor plumbing to the bedarkened South: FDR’s potlatch. Then they all went off to the War and some returned and others didn’t. It’s Destiny that decides such things.
I fly a lot. I slept through the takeoff from Nashville and woke up just in time to hear the man in the seat next to me say, “There’s the Mississippi, Ned.”
“Ned,” the Ned he was talking to, was a boy of about eight in the window seat. I was in the aisle seat. I looked over them both, out the little oval window, and saw a long lake laid out like a coonskin, running north and south, with skinny legs of muddy water extending east and west.
“That’s Kentucky Lake,” I said. “Or Barkley, not the Mississippi.”
“Excuse me?” he said.
“Kentucky Lake is the Tennessee River,” I said, “dammed up by TVA. Barkley Lake is the Cumberland. Both run into the Ohio here, only twenty miles apart. We’re still a hundred miles east of the Mississippi.”
“Who is he?” asked “Ned,” the kid.
“Some nosy A-hole,” said the man. He was about forty with a flattop and an Opryland T-shirt.
“I was just trying to be helpful,” I said. “You got it wrong. It’s against the law to mislead children!” It should be, anyway.
“Can I help?” asked the stewardess. “Please don’t shout.”
“Sorry,” I said. I almost never shout. “I’m a TVA baby. This ignoramus in the middle seat is so ignorant that he thinks Kentucky Lake is the Mississippi River!”
“I am a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy,” he said. “On vacation, and I do believe I know a lake from a river.”
“I can see how one could make that mistake,” I said. Though I couldn’t help adding: “Though I am dismayed to learn that a U.S. naval officer could be so ignorant as to the geographic layout of the country he is supposedly supposed to defend.”
“Don’t pay any attention to him, Ned,” the man said. “He’s crazy.”
I hear that a lot. I wanted to kill him. I usually carry a gun for just such occasions, but they are no longer allowed on commercial flights, so I rammed the heel of my hand upward, into his nose and drove the bone into his brain, such as it was.
Well, then, all hell broke loose. So to speak. First of all, there was the blood; you hardly ever see blood on a commercial flight. And then he was making this honking noise, trying to breathe and spraying blood all over the magazines in the seat pocket, and the back of the seat as well. Then he jerked once and died, but it was too late. All the other passengers were standing up, trying to get out of their seats, which are all jammed together, economy class wise, so it was like a little mini-riot. And here was the stewardess, excuse me, flight attendant, back again.
“Sir, sir,” she was saying, meaning, of course, me. One only gets called “sir” by cops and such, so I got alarmed. Sureenough, there was a big guy behind me, trying to grab my arms and waving plastic handcuffs.
You can imagine the chaos. I figured it was time to split. The big guy wasn’t so big with a fork in his carotid; even a plastic fork will do if you know how to wield it. I jammed him face down between the seats to bleed out and grabbed the gun out his ankle holster, and there’s nothing like a gun, even a little one, to cool things out. It’s like waving a magic wand. Everybody got real quiet.
Even the kid was quiet. The “Ned.” He was watching me like a hawk or maybe an owl, all owl-eyed.
The gun was a big help. I used it to direct the attendant to the back of the plane. The aisle was clear. Everybody was sitting down again, watching me. I stopped on the way to get my carry-on out of the overhead.
“Open it,” I said, pointing with the gun at the Emergency Exit door. They’re good for pointing.
“Not not not allowed,” she said with a combination of words and almost illegible (is that the word?) gestures, but I wasn’t about to take no for an answer. Only authorized personnel are allowed to operate Emergency Exits, so I made her pull the big handle Out, then Up (as instructed by the decal).
It opened with a big “whoosh” that ripped the door right off, no surprise: it’s windy out there at 500+ mph. She was still holding on, so she went with it, spinning like a top. Anybody could see everything up that short dress. Meanwhile, the kid had left his seat and was holding onto my leg as if he were trying to tackle me, for dear life, so he went with me when I dove out after her.
He was wearing an Opryland T-shirt like his “dad” and trying to bite me, so I shook him off. He could have stayed in his seat, and should have, but he didn’t. We fell side by side for a minute or so (or so it seemed; it was probably less) with him reaching out for something to grab, while I unzipped my carry-on, and then he was gone.
How many guys carry a parasail in their carry-on? If that question was asked of, say, a studio audience, only one peson in the audience could raise his hand legitimately.
That would be me.
I could see the flight attendant getting smaller and smaller below as I adjusted my parasail for the optimum glide angle. The kid, too. I never saw either of them actually hit, but I figured it had to be bad. Meanwhile, it was cold and it takes a certain concentration to fly those things, even though it looks easy. It’s the things that look easiest that are the hardest, often.
I descended in big circles. That way you can study the scene below and look for a good place to land. There was Kentucky Lake and Barkley Lake, side by side, and the Ohio River to the north. It felt good to see that I had been right all along, even though I had never doubted it. It was nice to know that my actions had been justified all along.
I concentrated on my glide angle, and when I looked down again there was only one lake in sight. I didn’t know which one, not that it mattered; they are both just alike.
I was trying to decide whether to land on the water oron the shore, which was all stickers it looked like, when I saw the boat.
It was barely put-putting along, a houseboat with a flat roof. I made a pretty soft landing, and almost “stuck it” except for getting my feet tangled in a plastic rope somebody had left up there. But no big deal.
I must have made a “thump” because two people came out of the cabin, onto this little deck in back, and they were staring up at me. One of them was a girl in a bikini. The other was this fat hillbilly type guy in one of those free hats they love, only this one had a gold anchor on the front, like that made him a sea captain or something. He looked pissed. I could see that this was going to be one of those days.
“Hey!” he said.
“Hey yourself,” I replied, and I shot him purely as a precaution. It was the first time I had actually fired the gun. I thought I had missed, because he just sort of sat down, and I was about to shoot again, but then I saw the blood spreading all over the front of his shirt like a map, and I clicked the safety on. I had no idea how many shots were in the gun. I didn’t even know what kind it was! You know how it is when you get busy, and I was still in action mode.
I took a moment to examine it. It was a Glock nine, so I figured if the clip was full (and why wouldn’t it be?) there were still six or seven shots left. No point in wasting them, though. I climbed down to the rear deck on a little ladder that was there just for that purpose and almost kicked over a tackle box that was at the bottom, like a step. All the shit inside was rusty but there was a knife, of course. There is no such thing as a tackle box without a knife, in my experience.
Though how they ever cleaned fish with that one is beyond me. I had to use it like a saw to open his throat.
Then I realized that the girl was gone. How unlike me to forget a girl in a bikini! The door to the cabin was glass and I could see her inside. She was holding a shotgun in one hand and opening drawers with the other, like crazy. I figured she was looking for shells. The door was locked but I kicked it till it splintered and smashed my way in and took the shotgun away from her, and just in time—there were the shells, in the last drawer.
I scooped up five and loaded the shotgun, a Mossberg 500, and stuck the pistol in my belt. No point in waving both around. She was backed up against a little orange couch and I sat her down, with a push, just to let her know who was now in charge. Now the Captain, as it were.
Meanwhile, the houseboat was going in circles, so I took the wheel and straightened it out. I had had enough of circles descending! It was a little wooden wheel with spokes, just like a ship would have, only much smaller. An aftermarket add-on, no doubt.