Wylie’s eye was acting up again. That and the wrist he’d broken forty years ago falling out of the back of his father’s moving pickup. He’d been eleven; now it ached whenever it was going to rain, like a goddamn barometer. He squeezed a lime into a Bombay and tonic and looked out into the terminal where the morning business crowd was thinning out. The line at the security check had dwindled to a trickle. As he watched, a fleshy man whose gray suit made him look like an elephant bent awkwardly, removed his shoes, and passed through the metal detector. The security crew in khaki uniforms and latex gloves lounged behind the x-ray machine, chatting as they stacked the plastic bins and waited for the next rush of passengers. Wylie set the drink down in front of his customer, took the money, and rang up the sale. From behind the bar he had a good view of the travelers who streamed in from the ticket counters and passed through the pavilion where his bar stood along with a See’s candy cart, an umbrella stand that sold espresso, a newspaper and gift shop, the La Paz Cantina, and a store that sold gifts for pets. The other end of the pavilion bottle-necked into the security check, where people were shunted through chutes, sifted through metal detectors, and discharged out the other side where they gathered their belongings and disappeared toward their gates.
Wylie’s eyelid fluttered and twitched like a bug was trapped under the skin. Stress, he figured, though he couldn’t think of any particular reason for feeling edgy. An emaciated woman with a too-dark tan ordered a Screwdriver. Wylie counted the ice cubes as he dropped them into the glass, a bad sign. Not five, not nine. Seven. Otherwise, who knew what might happen? He added an extra one, eight, just to spite himself. To short-circuit the syndrome. But just before he served the drink, he took the extra cube out. When disaster struck, did he want his last thought to be I should have stuck to seven? Here we go, he told himself.
Across the pavilion, people waited in rows of black plastic chairs for arriving passengers to emerge from behind the barrier. At this hour, just before ten in the morning, the seats were almost empty. The professional travelers with their crisp suits and heavy smell of cologne, the occasional speck of dry blood on their freshly shaved faces, had flown off to San Francisco or New York. Soon families with whining kids would start straggling in, along with people on their way to weddings or funerals, honeymooners, and foreigners going back to their own countries after seeing Disneyland, Hollywood, the Pacific Ocean. The seats would fill with people who read newspapers and shushed their children as they waited, who looked up anxiously when a stream of people appeared, dragging suitcases and pushing strollers.
“Can I get a drink over here?” a skinny white guy with a head shaped like a light bulb called out. He tapped his money on the bar, one of Wylie’s pet peeves.
“What can I do for you?” Wylie asked, placing a napkin in front of him.
“Dewars on the rocks.”
On the television over the bar, the weatherman announced that a storm was moving in from the north. It would hit late tonight. That explained Wylie’s wrist, but he wondered about his eye. Not that you needed an excuse to feel jittery these days. You weren’t safe anywhere—not in MacDonald’s, Safeway, or your own house. Not at your job or in your car or at school, and certainly not at the airport. The earth could heave and rip open. A plane could be heading for them this very minute, ready to explode in a fireball right here in the bar. Some nut could go ballistic and mow down the crowd with a machine gun. The only time you could relax, the only time you didn’t have to worry about being maimed or killed, Wylie reflected as he poured the Scotch over ice, was when you were already dead.
“Six-fifty,” he said, setting the drink down.
“I didn’t ask for a double,” Bulbhead replied.
Wylie clenched his jaw. “This is a single.”
The guy made a big deal of pulling his wallet out of his back pocket and picking through the bills for the right amount. Just as he was putting his money on the bar, the phone rang.
Wylie took the money. It was going to be one of those days.
He answered the phone, expecting it to be one of the airport maintenance staff calling to say an electrician would be in to replace the light over the register that kept shorting out, or a manager from the concession he worked for wanting to know if he could cover somebody else’s shift. He was surprised to hear Carolyn’s voice.
“Is everything all right?” he asked anxiously. She’d never called him at work before. He pictured his house burned down, his dogs run over.
“Oh, yeah. Everything’s fine, Wylie. I’m sorry to bug you at work, but listen—“
“What is it, then?” he interrupted. Once the scare was gone, he was annoyed. They had their routine.
“Well, listen. I’d like to talk to you,” Carolyn said uncertainly.
A flight crew bustled by like a flock of black birds. The bar was filling up. The Amber Ale had sputtered empty a few minutes before. The sink was full of dirty glasses and the tables over by the big screen TV needed to be bussed.
“Listen, Carolyn. Can I call you back in a few minutes?” Wylie said. “It’s kinda crazy in here right now.”
“Sure,” she said. “Okay.”
“I just need to catch up a little. I’ll call you right back.”
He cleared the empty glasses off the bar and plunged them in the steaming water in the stainless steel sink. He replenished the piles of cocktail napkins and stocked the containers of olives, lime wedges, and maraschino cherries. He liked the fluorescent lights of the airport, the low buzz of canned air, the garish purple and gold carpet. Outside, the sun was fighting to come out. Lurid, milky light streamed through the big windows, turning the people walking by into silhouettes, overwhelming the fluorescent tubes overhead, dimming the screens that listed arrivals and departures. Newspapers and paper cups were starting to collect on the black plastic seats in the waiting area. Big planes nosed up to the jetways, fuel lines dangling from their undersides like umbilical cords.
“Ketel One over,” a guy who looked like a professional basketball player called out. He wore chunky diamond studs in his ears, garlands of gold chains. His buddy was tall and flashy, too. He ordered a Cosmo.
Wylie spotted a handful of potential deathtraps as he made the drinks. The unattended sports bag against the wall, the package on the seat next to glass case where pretzels twirled under heat lamps, the guy with the too big overcoat looking around shifty-eyed as he stood with his hands in his pockets. Meanwhile they were taking away people’s toenail clippers, confiscating penknives and tweezers. What a joke. People here had no idea what it felt like to think twice every time you touched anything, every time you raised your foot and set it down. It had been thirty years since Wylie had been in Vietnam, but he was still looking for booby traps, still keeping an eye out for mines. People didn’t know what it felt like to always be wondering if you were going to lose your legs, your balls, your life. Wylie had seen a nineteen-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma step on a Bouncing Betty, do a double flip like an acrobat, and land gracefully in the limb of a tree.
A small woman with highlighted hair sat down at the corner of the bar where hotdogs rolled on metal rods. Early thirties, Wylie figured. Painted nails; neat, quick features. A little scar on her upper lip. She scanned the bottles behind him, eyed the beer taps.
Wylie nodded a greeting, wiped the counter, placed a napkin in front of her. “What can I get you?” he asked.
“Those what you have on draft?”
“Except the Amber Ale. That one’s not working.”
She touched each corner of her mouth with her fingertip as if to wipe something away. Wylie waited quietly, his hands behind his back. He wondered if he should card her. In the old days, hell. But this was the airport. Everything by the book. Who would have ever guessed he’d end up here?
“I guess I’ll have a margarita. On the rocks, no salt. And a shot on the side.”
“Could I see some I.D, please?”
She rolled her eyes and dug around in an oversized purse. She was twelve years over drinking age. First name Emily. Wylie thanked her and handed back her driver’s license.
She watched him pour the tequila, then the mix. He imagined what she must see: a clean-shaven, average-height guy with a pock-marked face and slight paunch, his brown hair—worn a little long as a nod to his past—graying around the edges.
“I’m not a drunk,” she said when he set the glasses down. “Just afraid to fly.”
He nodded. He saw it all the time. Macho guys with pulses racing like rabbits’ in their necks. Society women sloshing down Chardonnay like it was water. Shots slammed one after another. People stumbling away from the bar like they were headed for the gas chamber.
“Odds are you’ll make it,” he said.
“I know. It’s not rational.” She did the shooter first, just a quick little flip of her wrist like she was downing cough syrup. “Wylie?” She pointed to his name tag. “Like the coyote?”
“Excuse me?” He didn’t make a habit of getting chatty with customers.
“The coyote. You know, from the Road Runner cartoon. Wile E. Coyote.”
She was talkative. Fear could do that to people, he’d seen it happen.
“Oh, that. Wylie’s my last name. People just call me that.”
“What’s your first name?”
“Tom. Thomas. But nobody calls me that. Just my family. Well, they call me Tommy.”
His eyelid flickered. He wondered if he should see a doctor about it. The woman smiled at him and picked up the margarita. Sometimes it was hard for him to remember he was middle aged, forty-nine to be exact, and that women like her probably thought of him as a father, if at all. He picked up the rag and moved toward the cash register.
“I’m headed to Denver see my new niece,” the woman called out. The booze must be getting to her. “My brother’s daughter. She’s the first grandkid in the family.”
“I just hope it’s not snowing there. Or a thunderstorm. Turbulence, you know. It kills me.”
“Naw, it’s a piece of cake.”
Another customer sat down at the other end of the bar. Clean-shaven with very short hair. His skin looked tight, like it would pop if you stuck a fork in it. Possibly military, or maybe a cop.
Wylie put a napkin down in front of him. “What can I get you?”
The guy was too busy checking out the woman to look at Wylie. Sizing her up. Same old story. “What would you like to drink?” he asked more emphatically.
The guy gave Wylie a quick once-over. Summed him up and kissed him off. The uniform probably had a lot to do with it, Wylie thought—the black slacks and putty-colored polo shirt that said “Top Hat Enterprises” over the breast pocket. The guy didn’t know that Wylie had pulled two years as a foot soldier in Vietnam, that he’d gone to college—graduated, in fact—with a degree in political science. He didn’t know that after doing a stint at a small newspaper in Bakersfield, Wylie had hitchhiked to San Francisco, flower power and all that, and had lived in the top flat of a trashed Victorian on Alamo Square. He didn’t know that Wylie had worked in some of the best rock ‘n roll bars on the West Coast, that he’d seen the hottest acts, that he’d married and divorced two women. He didn’t suspect that Wylie could play slide guitar, frame a house, smoke a salmon to perfection. Had no idea that it had been seven years since a drop of liquor or any drug stronger than aspirin had passed Wylie’s lips. Didn’t know and didn’t care. All he saw was an over-the-hill guy with bad skin and a dead-end job.
“JB over,” the guy ordered, keeping his eyes on the woman. “How you doing?” he called to her as Wylie filled a glass with ice.
“Okay,” she said in a bored voice.
For once Wylie was glad for the plastic cap on the bottle that measured each drink. That sucker wasn’t getting one drop more than the standard shot. As he served him, an older couple showed up—a black guy with a fringe of white hair and a white woman with an overbite and thick glasses. Vodka Tonic for him, Bloody Mary for her. By the time Wylie set up their drinks three more people were waiting.
That’s how it was at the airport. They came and they went. The fearful flyers, wannabe actors, losers on the make. Coke heads who’d just burned through the last dime of their paychecks. Businessmen swaggering home after closing a big deal. Couples who’d met at conferences, spent the night together, and who—red-eyed and dazed—shared one last drink before they headed back to their families. In the old days, at the other bars, there were the regulars, the ones whose life stories he knew, who cried and laughed and threatened to crack his skull if he didn’t give them one more drink. Here, with a few exceptions, the people were always new. From Florida, Mexico, or China. The anonymity was a comfort. Wylie worked from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, got on the road before rush hour, made it up to the hills where his rickety house with the pepper tree out front and the two dogs on the porch waited. It was easier this way, now that he’d stopped drinking.
He wiped down the bar and straightened the stools. He needed to call Carolyn back, but for some reason he dreaded it. He made sure the change drawer was full. She wasn’t the type who’d call for no reason. He refilled the juice bottles, promising himself that he’d phone her back as soon as he finished. But then two executive types sat down and ordered Chivas on the rocks. Wylie wished he could shake the feeling that something bad was coming his way.
He was filling a glass with ice when a huge crash exploded on the other side of the bar. Wylie leapt in the air. The glass he was holding smashed on the ground. There it was, the thing he’d been waiting for. Customers spun around. Somebody gasped. Wylie felt the warm pump of adrenaline through his body. Dizzy bars of flashing black and white blinded him until he forced himself to breathe, to fight the urge to throw himself on the floor behind the bar, to cover his head with his hands. Crunching broken glass underfoot, he ran. Out from behind the bar, past the pretzel case, into the bar’s lounge where passengers who had been watching the big screen TV spun toward Wylie as he charged over to the corner where the commotion was.
Seven or eight young people in red T-shirts were bending over something. Wylie pushed into the middle of them. “What the hell’s going on?” he yelled.
A big kid with a face full of acne laughed. “It’s just a bar stool, man,” he said. “There was too much luggage and it tipped over.”
Wylie looked down. There it was, the offending bar stool. Chrome legs, red vinyl seat. A bar stool, just a bar stool. The damn things made a hell of a racket when they went over, though. Like a machine gun, or a bomb exploding.
Wylie jerked it upright, kicked the baggage out of the way, and got in the pimply kid’s face. One thing he’d inherited from his father was a temper. In the old days he would have swung first and asked questions later, but this was the airport, and he was on the straight and narrow.
“Sorry, man,” the kid said, blood draining from his face. He held up his hands, took a few steps backward. “It was just an accident.”
“Jesus, get a grip,” one of the smartass girls in the group said. “A chair tipped over, dude. Big deal.”
Wylie took a deep breath. People at the nearby tables were staring at him. His hands were shaking. The girl was right, he had to get a grip. “All right, then,” he said, picking up a camera case and shoving it toward the kid. “Just be careful.” He made an effort to slow his breathing down, to relax the muscles in his neck and shoulders. He rolled his head. “Take it easy, then,” he mumbled.
He felt everyone’s eyes on him as he walked back to the bar.
“Could I settle up?” asked the woman who was afraid to fly as Wylie swept up the shards of broken glass. She held up a twenty.
Her admirer had managed to maneuver into the seat next to her. “Get you one more?” he pleaded.
She raised her eyebrows at Wylie. “How about a shot for the road, in case it’s a rocky flight.”
“What would you like?” Wylie asked with a smile.
He gave her the premium, since the guy was paying. She tossed it back, shouldered her bag, and walked off.
“Gimme another,” the guy said, tapping his glass.
A women’s golf tournament came up on the sports channel. Amber Ale, Wylie reminded himself. He’d have to go downstairs and hook up a fresh keg before the noon rush. He carried out the empties and made a list of what needed to be reordered. When he ran out of ways to stall, he dialed Carolyn.
“So, can you come over tonight?” she asked.
Here it comes, he thought. The where-is-this-thing-headed talk. He’d hoped with her it might be different. What he’d liked was her independence, the fact that she seemed just as happy with the whole arrangement as he was. She had her own life. A good business renovating furniture that she picked up at garage sales and flea markets that she stripped, painted, reupholstered, and sold for big bucks to people in West Hollywood and Santa Monica.
“Well, today’s Tuesday,” he said. “We’re still on for tomorrow, right? Can it wait until then?”
She cleared her throat.
“Are you sure everything’s all right?” he asked, blindsided by the old fear. Panic that he’d done something he couldn’t remember, that he’d blacked out and was about to be told the things he’d done and said, things he just couldn’t believe. He had to remind himself that he didn’t do that anymore, that those days were over. Now there were no surprises.
“Nothing’s wrong. I’d just like to talk to you. I need to tell you something.”
“Oh, Jesus. That sounds bad,” Wylie groaned, running his hand through his hair. “Just tell me.”
“No, not now. Don’t worry. Just come over, will you? It’s no big deal. But could you drop by?”
He glanced around the bar. Customers were glaring at him, tapping their money on the counter.
“Yeah, if you can.”
“Okay, I will. What, around seven or so?’
“Yeah, that’s fine.”
“Okay. Look, I gotta go. A lot of thirsty travelers are here, giving me the evil eye. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Okay, see you then.”
Something in her voice made his heart pick up, like the split second before you’re rear-ended by a car.
“Are you sure everything’s okay?”
“Depends,” she said with a laugh. “It depends.”