Fiction writer Manuel Gonzales reads from the story "Pilot, Copilot, Writer," from his debut short story collection, The Minature Wife and Other Stories, published in January 2013 by Riverhead Books.
Pilot, Copilot, Writer
We have been circling the city now at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to our best estimates, around twenty years.
I once asked the Pilot—this was early into the hijacking, maybe a week—how we were doing in terms of gasoline and how he planned to refuel, but he did not tell me. He laughed and patted me on the shoulder as if we were good friends together on a road trip and I had just asked him how we were going to get there without a map. Back in the cabin, I asked a man who was an engineer if he knew how we had managed to stay aloft for so long, and he gave me a complex explanation, most of which I did not understand, centered around a rumored “perpetual oil.”
“Is there such a thing?” I asked him. “Perpetual oil?”
“Well,” he said. “I’m not sure that there isn’t.”
The Pilot called my name over the intercom a number of times before I realized it was me he was calling for. By the time I figured it out, the other passengers were leaning into the aisle and stretching over their seats to see who it was being summoned. I stood up and a low murmuring passed through the cabin. I suppose everyone assumed I was being called to be executed, since the hijacking had just happened a day or two before and we hadn’t been told anything else by the hijacker since. There had been speculation about demands, about actions, about executions, but nobody knew, really, what was going to happen. I didn’t blame the others for thinking that I had been called in to be the first casualty, as I had assumed the same. But why me instead of the man in front of me or the woman across the aisle or anyone else on board, one of the flight attendants maybe? A woman grabbed my arm as I walked toward the front of the plane and shook her head, entreating me with her eyes not to go, to sit back down, but I didn’t want to make the Pilot mad, so I pulled myself free and made my way.
When I knocked on the Pilot’s door, I heard his voice say in a singsong way, “Come in.” He turned to look at me as I entered his cabin. “Sit, sit,” he said, gesturing to the seat next to him, the copilot’s seat.
I sat and he smiled and, without looking at me, said, “So you are the writer.”
Unsure of what else to say, I said, “Yes. That’s me.”
“My name is Josiah,” he said. “Josiah Jackson.” He handed me a pad of paper and a pen. “Write that down,” he said.
I wrote on the top of the sheet of paper Josiah. And then, for good measure, underneath that, I wrote Josiah Jackson. I tore the sheet off the pad and gave it to him for his inspection.
He laughed as if I had made a very good joke, and then he said, “You are no less than what I had expected you to be.”
We sat next to each other in silence for a moment, then two moments, until fi nally he said, “Okay. You can go now.”
Feeling a certain amount of relief knowing that I wasn’t to be executed and feeling confident in having made him, for whatever reason, laugh, I asked him why he had hijacked the plane and why we were still circling Dallas. At this he gave me a stern and serious look. “I do not usually answer questions, but since it is you: We are circling because I only know how to fly to the left.” He looked at me and then laughed again, and said, “No, no. I’m only kidding.” Then he turned back to look at the sky, which was now growing dark, and said no more.
The plane was full. The overhead compartments were full, too. The woman next to me had somehow managed to board the plane with more carry-on items than are normally allowed, but as she and I had been the last passengers to board, she was forced to cram as much as possible under the seat, and then, noticing that I had not carried much with me onto the plane, she asked if she could place just one or two items under the seat in front of me.
“Just this small bag and this other small bag,” she said. “You can just kick them out of the way, if you want. They’re nothing but dirty clothes.”
I told her I didn’t mind, but in fact I minded a little, and after we had taken off and the seat-belt light was turned off and she left for the restroom, I did kick one of the bags, but it wasn’t filled with clothes and I heard, or felt, something break. I was waiting, after she came back to her seat, for the right time to tell her that I had accidentally broken whatever it was that had been in her bag, but then the hijack happened and nobody thought about anything like their bags or their connecting flights for a long time, and then, as she was an older woman who became even older as the years passed by, she eventually forgot about almost everything else and passed away in her sleep before I was ever able to apologize.
Reprinted with permission by Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Miniature Wife and Other Stories by Manuel Gonzales. Copyright © 2012 by Manuel Gonzales.