It was when the patch of shit appeared on the pilot's cream rump that Richard knew for certain that all was not well. This patch of shit started life as an islet, a Martha's Vineyard that soon became a Cuba, then a Madagascar, then a dreadful Australia of brown. But that was five minutes ago, and no one gave a shit about it now. Not a single passenger, true, had interpreted the state of the pilot's pants as a favorable sign, but that was five minutes ago, that was history, and no one gave a shit about it now, not even the pilot, who was hollering into the microphone, hollering into a world of neighing metal and squawking rivets, hollering into the very language of the storm - its fricatives, its atrocious plosives. The gods had put aside their bullwhips and their elemental rodeo and were now at play with their bowling balls clattering down the gutters of space-time. Within were the mortals, starfished from white knuckle to white toe-joint, stretched like Christs, like Joans in her fire. Richard looked and now felt love for the publicity boy, his sleek, shaking, tear-washed face.
This would end. He reached for Gwyn's hand and said, loudly, in his ear, "Death is good."
"Death is good." Here in America he had noticed how much less he cared, every time, whether the plane he was in stayed up. There was so much less, every time, to come down to. "Death is good."
"Oh yeah? "
Richard felt he had won. Because of his boys - because of Marius and Marco. Gwyn had a wife. And Richard had a wife. But who was your wife? She was just the one you ended up with who had your kids. And you were just the one she had them with. Childhood was the universal. Everyone had been there. He said, "I'll survive."
"We'll survive. We'll survive."
No, not you, he thought. But he said, "The world liked what you wrote."
"Who fucking cares? No. Thanks. I'm sorry your . . . Gina loves you. She just . . ."
"What? She just what?"
Now came a thousand camera flashes through every porthole. The parting shots of the paparazzi of the storm. With rolling deliberation the sky gathered them into its slingshot, wound and stretched them back ("Death is good," he said again) and fired them out into silent night.
You could sense the presence of the peninsula, and see the lights of the airport. Some lights were fixed. Others moved.
"Avoidance apron," sobbed the pilot into his mike. "Avoidance apron . . ."
The passengers unwrapped their voices and sank back, harshly purring. Richard offered his handkerchief to the publicity boy, who accepted it.
"Avoidance apron. Avoidance apron!"
"What's he mean?" said Gwyn, jerking around in his seat. "What's the avoidance apron? Where you crash-land? Is the landing gear down? Is it gone?"
It didn't seem to matter and no one else seemed to care. They were getting nearer to their own thing, the ground, the earth. Not scored and seared by another thing, the fire, not covered and swallowed by another thing, the water, not plucked apart by another thing, the air.
Provincetown Airport was a baby airport, meant for baby planes, and it was shy about the fuss. With his case and his mail sack Richard had plonked himself down on a patch of grass - over on the civilian side of the airport's main bungalow. He patiently chain-smoked, and from a plastic bottle with a plastic tube patiently drank the brandy given to him by a sympathetic medic. On the airfield a scene of human and mechanical confusion was approaching its completion and dispersal point. There was a handsome fire engine, and two blue-cross station wagons on the lookout for custom (into one of which an elderly passenger had been levered, clutching his pacemaker) and a couple of cops creaking about . . . The pilot had left the plane last, attended by ground staff. He was wearing a shiny black mid-length skirt or pinafore. Two other passengers, slumped on chairs in the airport building, attempted to give him a cheer; but he shuffled on through, with marked modesty. Gwyn was in there now, with the publicity boy and a gesticulating young journalist from The Cape Codder.
He closed his eyes for a while. Someone took the cigarette from between his fingers and drew on it with audible hunger. He looked up: it occurred to him that they were both in a state that had a medical designation, because Gwyn resembled no one he had ever seen before. And maybe he didn't look that hot or that cool, sitting with his shoulders shaking on the frosted grass, and steam coming up all around him - animal vapors. But he laughed his tight laugh and said, not ramblingly anymore,
"I worked it out. You know the pilot? We thought he was shouting avoidance apron. But he wasn't. I heard one of the ladies here. He wanted a - voidance apron. She called it a shit-wrap." Richard laughed stealthily, under the cover of his shaking shoulders. He did think it was kind of great. You wouldn't want to radio ahead for a shit-wrap. That would offend the passengers. So you radioed ahead for a "voidance apron." And the passengers can remain unoffended as they prepare to crash-land or mass-eject onto the airport latrine. "A voidance apron," he said. "It's kind of great, I think. You were saying? About Gina?"
Gwyn stood over him.
"She loves me?"
"Despite everything. Which is saying something. Oh, you know. Despite you being a failed book reviewer who comes on like Dr. Johnson. I can see why you think death is good. Because then you and I are the same. But I'm alive. And I'm going to go on doing what every man would do if he thought he could get away with it. Everything's changed." Gwyn knelt, his hands folded on his thigh, as if for a knighthood. "Let me tell you the interesting thing about the star system. It works. You want to know what silicone feels like? It feels good. It feels better. Because of what it says. Whither fellatio? you ask. Well that's changed too. I'll tell you whither. I can sum it up for you in one word. It's noisier." He straightened up again. With a sudden apprehension of disgust he flicked the cigarette away and said, "You know what bloody near killed us up there? Killed you, killed me?"
Now he stepped forward and gave the mail sack a careless kick - and Richard was holding it close, like a boxing coach with a punchbag, feeling the force of the contender's right.
"Your lousy book."
The publicity boy came out of the building with his mobile phone and told them that they had three choices. They could go straight to the hotel and rest up. Or they could go to P-town General or wherever for checkups and the usual post-trauma bullshit. Or they could go to the party.
They went to the party.
At dawn the next morning the two writers checked out of the Founding Fathers and, traveling by limousine, made the six-hour journey to New York in unpunctuated silence. When the chauffeur was pulling off FDR Drive, Gwyn said,
"While you're here . . ."
From his briefcase he took out the copy of Untitled that Richard had given him, back in London, a month ago. They both looked at it. Just as Amelior, in Richard's judgment, could be thought remarkable only if Gwyn had written it with his foot, so Untitled, as an object, could be thought passable only if its maker had fashioned it with his nose.
"You might as well sign it for me."
"I've already signed it."
"Ah. So you have," said Gwyn. "So you have."
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