Superman Considers His Obligations
Superman ambled onstage in his flip-flops, old holey jeans, the tattered sky-blue work shirt. He squinted into the blaze of lights with an uncertain grin, like a stagehand who has wandered past the wrong curtain to find ten thousand people standing and cheering for him. Superman Willis was famous, and so was that shirt. He had worn it for years, at every concert, in every album-cover photo. It was part of his image, indelible as the ink stains under the breast pocket.
His fans thought he must have a whole closet full of sky-blue shirts, identically tattered and stained, but in fact he had just that one. He never took it off unless his wife made him wash it, then he'd hang around bare-chested in the laundry room waiting for it to dry.
One time after a show in Milwaukee, a moon-eyed young girl offered him five hundred bucks for the shirt. "Sorry, darlin'," he said, "Superman's got no powers without his shirt," but when he saw her little-rich-girl disappointment he put on his most charming smile. "Tell you what, though, I believe we could make a deal on these pants."
He was part of the folk-rocker wave that rolled over America in the years just after the Beatles, when rock and roll wore itself out and people started buying the poetic crooners like Jackson Browne, Jim Croce, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and . . . Superman willis. He got his big break at Monterey, 1969. For three years now he'd been hot, hot. The single of "Superman's Revenge" sold four million copies, a triple-platinum smash. "When Time Stands Still" won the Grammy for Song of the Year. Newsweek put his face on the cover with the words the new super-poet of pop spelled out on his cheek.
His nickname came from "Superman's Revenge"--not his best song, but the biggest hit of his career so far. The fans had started it, chanting "Su-per-man!" between encores. The name carried its own momentum. Entertainment-page editors couldn't resist writing headlines like "superman" soars at sold-out coliseum show.
He bought a mansion in Encino and a Beechcraft Baron B58P twin-engine six-seater airplane. He went to pilot school and began flying himself on his concert tours, high over America, one show at a time.
At first he loved being famous, loved the money and applause and drugs and girls and the fun. After a while it got to be the same fun over and over, and then it became the opposite of fun. There were only so many drugs and girls you could do in one lifetime--at least that was the theory, and Superman had been testing its limits for quite some time now. The only thing that got him truly high these days was to be up in the sky by himself, flying.
He would fly to someplace like El Paso, ride a limo to town, get up onstage in his sky-blue shirt with his Gibson twelve-string around his neck, and sing his twenty-two songs. When he was done, the local promoter would hand him a paper sack with ten or twelve thousand dollars in cash. Then it was back to the limo, fire up a doobie, and ride to the airport on a cloud as big as his head.
His real name was Ben Willis, but he wasn't Ben anymore--he was Superman, even in his own mind, when he was alone. Hadn't he learned how to fly? Wasn't he certain, on nights when the show went well, that he could deflect bullets with his bare hands? On those nights he felt invulnerable.
Tonight was not one of those nights. Superman had been on the road for six months without a break, riding the wave of his momentum. He was exhausted. His songs sounded forced and juvenile. He sang them with about one-tenth the effort he had put into writing them. He cheated his audience, and they didn't even notice. They danced in the aisles and sang along with the hits as if he were putting on one hell of a show up there. They transformed the darkened arena into a star field of cigarette lighters, each flame signifying the enthusiasm of one human being.
The only one not having fun in the El Paso Civic Auditorium was the man in the pool of white light at downstage center.
His life would be perfect, he thought, if he could disappear right now--keep the money, give up the career, and walk away from all the people: the fans, the band, the producers and handlers, promoters, roadies, groupies, hangers-on. His wife.
He knew it was a cliché to work so hard all these years and finally hit the big time, only to find himself with this restless desire to get the hell out of Dodge. But stardom was not at all what he thought it would be.
When he started out, he was Ben willis, a solo act. Each day contained at least one private moment of joy, a glimmering instant when he paused to reflect on his growing good fortune. Now, after all the years of hard work, those moments were much harder to come by. He was Superman, with
an entourage of thirty-three people--always a crowd around, never a moment alone unless he was up in his plane. Even then he'd be sailing along at nine thousand feet, over the heads of white clouds, and just about the time he got to feeling nice and alone, he'd remember the busload of obligations trundling along the highway, toward the next gig.
His wife Alexa was on that bus. Her fear of flying was one of the main reasons he had learned to fly. Alexa was a beautiful woman, a blond Louisiana beauty queen who had turned herself into a hippie-chick to please him. She would never win a prize for intellectual achievement, but she was lovely and long and so very blond. Everyone said they made a great-looking couple, which meant Alexa looked great and Superman looked better standing beside her. She had been at his side for most of his long grinding climb to the top, so she considered it her duty (and her reward) to be present for every moment of glory. She followed him to every city on every tour--always there, always watching him sing from just beyond the speaker tower. He rarely had a moment out from under her relentless gaze.
Alexa wore Puma Indian beads and tiny Janis Joplin glasses. She had this earnest way of nodding her head while you were talking, as if she agreed with every single molecule of what you were saying. Every so often Superman would gently suggest that she go home to Louisiana, take care of Ben Junior awhile, give her mother a break. That would start her crying--he didn't really love her, if he loved her he would ride on the tour bus with her instead of flying when he knew how it scared her, on and on like that nag nag boo hoo until deep in the night.
He knew this was only one of her acts, and not the best one. Underneath the sensitive hippie exterior, Alexa would always be Doris Marie French, the former Miss Southwest Louisiana, a woman of unanswered ambitions and strong jealousies. She was convinced that the moment she let Superman out of her sight he'd be helping himself to one of the succulent young things at the stage door. And she was right about that.
The Baron burst through a layer of fleece at ten thousand. Superman tweaked the dial. "Phoenix center, Baron four nine four Alpha Delta."
A burst of static was the only answer.
The popping and snapping warned of a big fat thunderstorm straight ahead to the west, in the ominous darkness beyond that curtain of blue velvet light.
Superman worked through the low-band frequencies, announcing himself to thin air. In this lonely corner of New Mexico, nobody seemed to be home.
The first flicker of lightning brought his eyes up from the panel. He stubbed out the joint, squared his shoulders, filled his chest with the air of serious purpose. Flying in weather was not the way to have fun. More than once he had put down at some hicksville airstrip and disappointed an auditorium full of fans to keep from flying through weather. He considered himself a good pilot, but down deep inside he was not absolutely certain of his invulnerability. Twenty minutes in a serious thunderstorm can make any man wonder about that.
Flight service in El Paso had not mentioned weather along the route to Phoenix. Or maybe they had, and he hadn't been paying attention. He'd been in a hurry to get out of there. There was a girl waiting for him in Phoenix. A waitress in the coffee shop at the Airport Hilton. Becky. Red hair. A mouth like molten lava.
"Phoenix center, Baron four niner four Alpha Delta. . . ."
Lightning unfolded a spidery hand across the sky. Airspeed one hundred eighty-five knots. In five minutes Superman would be swallowed by that towering darkness, surrounded by pitching thermals and lightning and sheets of rain. He eased the nose down to take a look below.
This part of New Mexico was a wasteland, not a road or a glimmer of light anywhere. He fished a chart from the pocket behind his seat, smoothed it out on the panel.
The air through the vents became suddenly cooler. A green smell of rain.
He could turn around and let the storm chase him back to El Paso. Or try to plow through it, west toward Phoenix. He could go north a hundred miles and land at a dot of a town called Sanderson, where the chart showed an unlighted thousand-yard strip. Or he could turn southwest over the Mexican border, toward that clearer patch of darkness, and try to fly around the line of storms.
He thought of Alexa on the tour bus, peering anxiously up at the clouds. She was always talking about Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Patsy Cline, all of whom fell to pieces at the height of their fame. She was always having bad dreams about Superman in his plane, relating them in vivid detail--as if she didn't know that was the worst kind of luck.
He banked over south, into Mexico. He hoped he wouldn't have to put down there, didn't have a passport, never had felt the need to leave the good old U.S. of A. But he had the cash gate from the last three nights, forty thousand dollars in a Kroger sack under the seat, and that should be enough to get him out of any situation. . . .
Except maybe this storm. Big mama. Lightning revealed a huge line of thunderheads rising to twenty-five, thirty thousand feet. He flew south for a long time, skirting the eastern edge of the storm wall, trying to find some place to punch through. The VOR signal faded. It was humbling to fly along in smooth air, hardly a bump or a wiggle, while all that vast energy churned the sky off his starboard wing.
For the first time in a very long time, Superman was the only one on earth who knew where he was.
His spirits began swelling up like the heads of those clouds. Flying south to Mexico, flying away from you. . . . He felt a tingle in the back of his neck. A song coming on, or something major about to happen. He remembered this sensation from his early years on the road: this is how it feels to have an adventure.
Now and then a cluster of lights slid under his wing, some lonely hamlet. He was surprised to see that the Mexicans had electricity. He'd never thought about it before, but if he had, he'd have guessed they all lived in mud pueblos lit by candles or something.
He flew over a ridge of high mountains into a valley spread with the lights of a fair-sized city--and hello there thank you Yes, in the top of the windscreen, glowing blue about five miles ahead, a nice little airstrip all lit up and glowing for him. He tuned to 122.8 and keyed the mike. "Howdy, Mexico, Baron four niner four Alpha Delta, how y'all doing down there, over."
The radio crackled something in Spanish. Superman didn't have a clue. "Okay well, I didn't get that so I'm coming in, over and out."
Gear down, three green, a notch of flaps. He banked left to line up with the runway, feeling out the angle of descent, just as Mr. Pawley had taught him. He could feel Mr. Pawley's plump hand on his shoulder, props forward, ease back on the throttle, don't slip it, keep that airspeed up, steady on the throttle, thataboy. . . .
He set down the mains with a solid thump. A fine landing.
The moment he congratulated himself, the nosewheel bounded back up into the air.
He wrestled it down. The smooth runway he'd seen from the air was in fact a collection of invisible chuckholes and ruts. Somehow Superman managed to scratch to a skiddering stop, ten feet before the pavement ran out.
He slumped back in the seat, blowing every last little bit of air from his chest.
A little brown man stood watching from the doorway of a tin shack.
Superman tossed off a salute to demonstrate that the landing had not freaked him out. He taxied around potholes toward a fuel pump in the weeds beyond the shack. He leaned the mixture, cut the engines.
Silence roared in his ears.
He popped the door and stepped out on the wing.
The brown man was missing two teeth from his smile. He let out a stream of words that didn't mean a thing in the world.
"Hey, good to see you!" Superman hopped down to shake hands. "You speak any English?"
The man laughed and nodded, and let out a long string of Spanish.
"Look, man, I'm Superman." He tapped his chest with both hands. "Me. Superman." Surely if they had electricity in Mexico, they had radios, and pop music.
"Superman," the man said, "hahahahaha."
"No, really. I am. Superman willis. On the radio. You know radio? Ray-dee-oh." He made hand signals for a radio, for listening, for listening to the radio. He was never much good at charades.
"Superman," the man crowed, only he said it funny, like "Soo-pedde-mon," and held his arms out, like the comic-book Superman flying. Superman saw it was no use pursuing this line. All he needed was fuel, and to find out where he was. He'd flown off the bottom of his chart a while ago.
He pointed to the pump, then the plane. By some miracle, the man understood. While the gas was pumping, they stood by the wing grinning at each other.
"Where am I, anyway?"
The man nodded: yes, yes.
"Okay. We're here." He indicated the ground. "Us. Here." He shrugged and raised his hands, acting out puzzlement. "where are we?"
The man grinned and pointed to a sign that said bienvenidos.
"Bienvenidos? Never heard of it. I guess it doesn't matter . . . listen, man, I want to get back to America. You know, America? It's straight back that way, right?" He waved his hand. "To the north, right? El Northo?"
The man nodded and said a bunch of stuff, yappida-yippida-yap.
"Bad storm between here and New Mexico," Superman said, making noises of thunder and wind. The delighted man set about performing his own imitation of a thunderstorm.
Superman waved him off and waded into the weeds to take a breath of the Mexican air, and the nice leisurely piss he'd been dreaming about for the last two hours.
It might be good to come back down this way sometime. The people seemed friendly. You didn't really have to speak Spanish; you could make yourself understood. The night air was pleasantly cool, a sweet smell of something blooming in darkness.
He zipped up and went back. The little man was tucking the nozzle onto the pump. The dial on the pump said 242. Superman pulled three one-hundred-dollar bills from his wallet.
The man stuffed the bills in his pocket as if Superman might try to take them back.
"No that's fine, keep the change." He squatted to check out the landing gear. "Brother, I tell you, it was a mighty good thing to see your runway lights all the way down here, wherever the hell I am."
They shook hands again. He clapped the man on the shoulder, and climbed into the cockpit.
He needed to twist up a couple of joints for the return trip. He didn't know if it was cool with the man standing there watching, but decided to take a chance that it was, since the man was missing two teeth, and most weed comes from Mexico to begin with. He fished the tin box from his flight bag, took out his stash and Zig Zags.
The man's eyes widened. He cackled, and lit out running for the shack.
Superman had a paranoid flash--he's gone to call the Federales!--but in a moment the man came waving a joint and talking up a storm. From his gestures it was clear that he wanted to swap his brown joint for a white one from the tin box. In the spirit of potheads the world over, Superman agreed.
"Superman, marijuana," the man said, grinning.
Superman was amused to find the word for marijuana was the same in Spanish as in English. He traded joints with the man, shook hands for the fifth or sixth time. "Goodbye, goodbye, adios," he said, "gotta hit the road." He latched the door, waved bye-bye, yes, goodbye now, stand back from that propeller, little brown smiling man, or you're gonna get sliced like a
little brown tomato.
The engines whined and kicked over, a sputter that grew to a nice solid Continental roar. He stuck the joint in his teeth, released the brake, flashed thumbs-up to the windswept man huddling with his shirt blown up over his face. The plane trembled and jolted across the uneven pavement.
He opened up one engine, then the other: testing them, letting them yowl, feeling that particular vibration that told him everything was just swell. He was pleased to hear the engines sucking up that Mexican fuel without the first cough or sputter.
He sat at the end of the runway, smoking the doobie, running down the checklist in the dim cockpit light. It was good stuff in that joint. Real sweet.
He didn't know just how good until he opened the engines all the way, thundered jouncing down the strip, and lifted off just at the moment a great sizzling rush exploded in his brain.
He burst out coughing, stars whizzing past his eyes.
It was all he could do not to pull an aileron roll. Somehow he got the nose up and climbed and kept climbing until his body came back into the plane, his head came back down on his shoulders, his eyes rolled back into his head.
Holy Mother of God, that stuff was strong. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the blue lights of the airstrip receding, a smudge of white light from the shack, where the little man was probably firing up the joint from his tin box. If this was what that man was used to smoking, he was headed for a genuine disappointment.
Superman was so busy appreciating the head-rush that he forgot to make the banking turn to the north. when he remembered, and glanced at the compass, it turned out he had made the turn after all and forgotten he'd done it.
Man. He was too stoned to fly. He licked his fingers and pinched out the joint.
Soon he was leveled off at eight thousand feet, heading due north. He switched on the autopilot and sank back in the seat to enjoy the deep velvet sky full of stars. The thunderstorm must have swept past while he was making his visit to Bienvenidos. He pushed Jimi Hendrix into the eight-track, and relaxed into the howling guitar.
There was something so pure and clean about listening to Jimi while soaring between the stars and the dark, silent earth. Dim towns passed under his wings, and the black shining faces of lakes.
He flew and flew. He dozed off for one second, shook himself awake. Should not do that. He cranked the air vents wide open. Mr. Pawley: "The autopilot is not a substitute for the pilot."
He ate a Payday from his flight bag, smacking the gooey candy around his teeth. That one tasted so good he ate another, then fired up the joint again. Hendrix played on and on, winding the melody around himself, uncoiling, spinning around, shaking free.
Sometimes Superman got to thinking he was pretty damn good at this rock-star thing--easy to think when you've got thousands cheering you, four nights a week--but an hour or two in the company of Jimi Hendrix always restored his perspective. For Superman, making songs was work, hard and grinding lonely work. He sweated and scratched out verses, went back and put in what he'd cut, changed it all around and returned to his first idea, threw the whole thing out and started over. Whereas Hendrix just picked up his ax, plugged in, and let go. What came out was pure feeling, expressed as a musical line.
Superman was just thirty-four--too young to be stuck in the path of his life, greeting every new day as a series of obligations to be dreaded and got through. Maybe it took him too long to become an overnight success. By the time it finally happened, he'd been wanting it for so long that he didn't really enjoy it.
Already the thrill of adventure he'd felt flying south was beginning to fade. A quick stop for gas, and here he was flying due north again, back to a life that was boring him out of his mind. Why couldn't he be like Jimi Hendrix, wild and free? Where, inside himself, were the limits that prevented him from plugging into the great godhead amplifier and letting fly with such beauty and perfect pain?
Maybe Jimi felt this way too. Maybe he got up in the morning and scratched himself and made coffee, and felt just as irrelevant as anybody else. Maybe that's why he died in that slummy hotel with the needle sticking out of his arm.
Maybe, if Jimi'd had an airplane and had learned how to fly, he'd have gotten the hell out of there before that happened. Maybe he'd have flown off to someplace where he could have saved his own life.
Some of us are Jimi Hendrix, and some of us are not.
Superman dug down in his shirt to scratch an itch. He thought of the night he shook hands with John Lennon, backstage at a Badfinger concert, Madison Square Garden. John Lennon was the biggest star in the world, and the unhappiest-looking man in the world. All the life had been sucked out of him. Something very wrong with that picture. Superman began to question his own ambition. why would anyone want to be a star, if that was the final result of the best-case scenario?
Then again, if Superman hadn't become a star, he would probably be dead or destitute by now. His ambition had pulled him out of some very dark holes on the way to the top.
Any minute he would be crossing the invisible border to America. The land of the free, and the unfree.
If he was a free man, he would turn this plane around and fly to Jamaica, mon, or to Africa, or back to Bienvenidos. Somewhere far. Take a break. Get a new life. Tell all those people waiting for him they would just have to wait.
It was shocking to think he could fly away from his life like that. Leave Alexa and feel not a twinge, not one inkling of regret. He had really loved her once upon a time, but he'd spent the last several years finding ways to get away from her. He did not think he would really miss her.
Ben Junior he would miss, or at least the idea of Ben Junior. They didn't know each other all that well. Ben Junior had the bad luck to be born about the time Superman's career took over his life, so they had skipped that whole father-son thing.
Other than that, there was nobody. His folks were dead, and Kirby Cook, his best friend from high school. Aunt Tolly, who used to sing him to sleep with "Were You There When That Great Ship Went Down?" The rest of them he could live without.
Hendrix started in on "The Star-Spangled Banner" for the eighty-third time. Superman ejected him and punched in the Everly Brothers--an unworthy substitute, to be sure, but the rest of the tapes had slid back out of reach.
The land below was lost under heavy clouds. The moon was hiding somewhere over his shoulder.
"Phoenix center, this is Baron four niner four Alpha Delta, come in."
He released the key. A low, steady hum.
He tried the 121.5 mhz emergency frequency. "Phoenix, El Paso, hello anybody, Baron four niner four Alpha Delta. Somebody talk to me."
He heard a faint static. Tried again. Nobody home.
As he worked down the frequencies, his gaze happened to fall upon the face of his watch.
He blinked, and looked again. The watch said 4:45.
That would mean he'd been flying for, oh, about eight hours since he left that Mexican airstrip.
The fuel gauge showed three-quarters full.
Whoo. He shut his eyes and gave thanks. His watch was screwed up.
He opened his eyes. The sweep-second hand kept sweeping around.
He tapped the crystal, pressed the watch to his ear. Like John Cameron Swayze's watch: still ticking.
How very strange.
"Dreeeeeeeam, dream dream dream," sang the Everly Brothers. Superman ejected them and swore out loud.
If his wristwatch was okay, then the fuel gauge was lying. After eight hours he would be down to--what, twenty gallons?
And he would be somewhere over the Upper Midwest. Minnesota, perhaps. Wisconsin.
He fought the swell of panic. He remembered that moment when he dozed off. He'd been certain it was just a moment.
Maybe it was longer. That was some really amazing dope in the joint from the Mexican man.
He was wide awake now. By instinct his hand started working the radio dial. Apparently every radio operator in the U.S. of A. had packed up his headphones and gone home for the night.
A piece of stray information tugged at his brain--something Mr. Pawley said. In the event of control panel malfunction. . . . A circuit breaker reset. A toggle switch. Which one?
Behind the instrument panel. Behind the hydraulics gauges, right there. He felt with his finger, and flicked it. The panel lights winked off.
For one long moment, flying in that overpowering darkness, Superman was completely alone in the universe. He didn't believe in God, but he saw a pretty clear outline of what God might look like, if you did believe.
He said a little prayer, and flipped the switch. The gauges flickered and glowed.
"Yes, sir," he said, "thank you sir." The fuel-gauge needle began climbing from zero . . . and stopped. Ten gallons, maybe.
He glared at the quaking needle, trying to will it higher--but his eyes were drawn irresistibly to the other gauges resetting themselves. The compass, for instance: the Haynes Magellan F-45 Electro-Gyro compass, the latest thing in aviation technology. That expensive red needle swung north, right past where it had been hovering all night, and kept on turning past due east, on around the dial until it was pointing due south.
And there it remained.
Superman began to comprehend the gravity of his situation. From a point somewhere in Mexico, he had been flying south for eight hours at an airspeed of one hundred eighty-five knots.
Which would put him somewhere over . . . the Caribbean? Central America? Assuming the compass was now telling the truth and he'd been flying due south, not southeast or southwest, which would put him somewhere over the ocean--Atlantic or Pacific, take your pick.
He smacked the window. The sting in his hand made him sit up and try to get hold of himself. Temper will get you nowhere, Ben Willis, said a hectoring voice. It's your own fault getting stoned woozing out with the stick of an airplane in your hand. A real airplane, you know, not a Disneyland ride. And you, Ben willis, are not Superman after all. You can fall just as fast and as far as any other man.
But okay. Deep breath now. Nobody's falling. You are at altitude in a smooth-running plane, with time enough to find a place to land.
His first impulse was to duck under those clouds and see where the hell he was. when he gripped the yoke a picture loomed in his mind: green Central American mountains poking their heads up into the clouds, trying to get a look at him.
Better to wait for sunrise. He searched the horizon for the telltale softening of the void.
Maybe he should turn around and fly north. But he was so rattled he didn't know which of his instruments was lying to him.
If you are lost in the woods--he remembered Boy Scouts, the scoutmaster Mr. Jones, a tall sad-eyed man--if you are lost, you walk in a straight line until you cross a stream or a road, then follow that line back to civilization. But this knowledge was worthless at six thousand feet with a thick layer of clouds below.
He cut his airspeed to save fuel, and thumbed through the Air Pilot's Manual.
There was page after page of advice on how to keep from getting into a situation like this. But if you went past all their red lights, buddy, you were on your own.
He tossed the manual away. Any fool would know what to do--find someplace to land, find fuel, a telephone, a map. Then fly home.
He was nine hours overdue in Phoenix. How long before they would start looking for the wreckage? He wondered if they'd told Alexa yet. For about twenty minutes she would be useless, a puddle of tears. Then she'd collect herself and go straight to the lawyers to get her hands on the money.
He gazed out the port window into the starless night. In the space of an eyeblink, the blackness turned a deep shade of blue. The sun flashed its tiny mirror from the way farthest edge of the earth.
So he was flying south after all.
This must have been his secret desire. He had grown tired of his life. Somewhere deep inside he wanted to have an adventure. The plane's circuits had sensed his wish, and brought him to wherever the hell he was.
The dome of the sky lifted, fading. The sun glanced off his wing.
A fluffy blanket of clouds stretched forever in all directions, obscuring
the earth. It was like flying over the top of heaven. He wasn't even stoned anymore.
This would be a story to share with Ben Junior someday.
He didn't see the heads of any mountains, only a solid mattress of clouds turning pink in the sun. Time to find out what was underneath.
He lowered the gear to dirty up the aerodynamics, descending until his wings raced through the wispy froth just above the cloud layer. The plane sank into the feather pillow. Warm moist air washed through the vents.
The wings flexed. The plane started rocking and rolling, put the nose down, just so, blind in the white whirling air, then he flashed down from the clouds and realized, altogether too late, that the altimeter was the most badly mistaken of all the gauges in the Baron that day. He'd been flying at eight hundred feet, not eight thousand. That layer of clouds was a fogbank lying just over the surface of the sea.
Before he grasped this, before his arm had time to jerk back the stick, the plane kissed the face of a wave.
A crunching jolt rocked the fuselage--the impact of water at one hundred twenty-five knots snapped the landing gear like pieces from a model airplane. The plane groaned and staggered back into the air.
Superman fought to straighten the wings, get his head back up over the fog. A demented symphony shrieked in his ears: pure fear, and also relief thank you God for the ocean! If that had been solid earth he would be dead burnt-up pieces Right Now.
He flashed through a fog-ridden blur of gold light and out into dazzling clear air: the loveliest vision of his life. An island, dead ahead. Green jungle mountains marching down to the sea, a white skirt of sand beach. Craggy rock islets speckled the ocean offshore.
He hammered the throttle and climbed up to circle around for a look.
If a man had some wheels on his plane, he could land on that slender white beach. Sure as hell. If a man only had him some wheels.
Superman could fly, but he could not land.
The surf rolled in brilliant white lines. A matched pair of green mountains held their arms around a slender stretch of sand. The air sparkled with blue tropical sunlight.
He could keep flying. That was some sort of mainland across the channel, or a much larger island. Maybe he had enough fuel to find a town with an airstrip.
But what good is an airstrip to a man without wheels?
Not a soul on that beach. Oh wait--maybe, yes, were those people up under the trees?--were they waving?
No. That was driftwood or something, a shadow.
Without thinking it, Superman realized he would put his Baron down in the water, right here. He didn't know where he was, but this was a beautiful place. The water here was bound to be as soft as water anywhere. Maybe there were people up in the shade of those trees. Maybe if the plane tumbled end over end they would swim out and try to save him.
At the moment he realized he was going to die, his mind began clouding over with regrets.
He wished he hadn't thought such unkind things about Alexa.
He wished he hadn't smoked that joint from the Mexican Man.
He wished he'd had a record go all the way to Number One, but that grotesque Australian songbird Helen Reddy held the spot for ten consecutive weeks with "I Am Woman" and ruined his one decent chance.
He wished he'd gotten to know Ben Junior a little.
He wished for many things he did not have. A parachute. Life jacket. Wheels.
He circled the beach, imagining just how fine that hot sand would feel on his back, while the sun beat down on his eyelids.
He reached between his feet for the tape. Jimi, my man, we will go in together. "The Star-Spangled Banner," yes all right. He cranked it up loud. He put fire to that last inch of killer smash weed. Thank you Mexican Man, and congratulations. You have killed Superman with your kindness. You have given him the fatal dose of Kryptonite.
He wished he could have lived long enough to become a legend, like Jimi. He'd amused a few people, that's all--never changed anyone's life. Just the mere fact of dying does not turn you into a legend.
But it would be a big story, for a few days at least. They'd track him as far as the Mexican Man. Someone might even write a book about his disappearance, like all the books about Amelia Earhart. That idea gave him a peculiar satisfaction.
He put the plane into a steep banking circle, pointing his wingtip at the island. He needed to dump the remaining fuel before he went in, but no reason to hurry on that item. He could circle right here for a while. Maybe someone would come to the beach to watch him crash.
Wedging fingers into the crack of the seat, among dust-bunnies and sticky coins, he came up with a fine-point Magic Marker. His mind was rolling in clear, steady waves now, rhythmic and purposeful as the surf rolling onto the beach. No panic. No more regrets.
He needed something to write on, something to prove who he was.
He lifted the tail of his shirt and tried to tear off a strip. The sky-blue cotton was strong. Even after all these years this was the best shirt a man ever had.
He put the tail between his teeth; thought, Watch out don't break a tooth; then reflected with a bitter inward smile that a broken tooth is no big deal when you're dead. He managed to rip off a hand-sized piece of blue cotton, smoothed it on his knee, and wrote a hasty note. The ink blobbed in places, seeping through to his jeans.
In the pocket behind the copilot seat he found a Jack Daniel's bottle with an inch of whiskey still in it. He uncapped it, drained it off. The sweet hot explosion spread like pleasure through his veins.
He reached into his flight bag for the Polaroid Swinger he had loaded and ready for redheaded Becky in Phoenix. He pointed the viewfinder out the port window at the beach, pressed the button, grasped the brown-paper tab, and pulled out the film packet.
He held the camera at arm's length, aimed at himself. He worked up a smile, pressed the button with his thumb.
He circled the beach while the sweep-second hand traced a full sixty seconds. He peeled back the gooey chemical paper from the photographs.
Not bad. The shot of the island was very crisp. The one of Superman was blurry, but you could tell it was him. Nice smile.
No time to spread the lacquer with the sponge applicator. He would have to put his faith in Polaroid. He slid the rolled-up pictures and the scrap of blue shirt through the neck of the bottle, and twisted the cap on tight.
Grasping the T-grip emergency release, he gave a yank that nearly dislocated his shoulder. The hatch popped open and fell away.
Wind howled in, slamming him sideways in the seat. Dust and grit and bits of trash went whirling through the cockpit, sucked out in a rush. Hot wind filled his shirt, popping the buttons off spk! spk! spk! so the tails whipped at his flanks and flew up in his face. Jimi Hendrix was lost in the roar of the wind.
He grasped the bottle by the neck and sent it sailing over the great blue ocean. He imagined he could follow it with his eyes all the way to an infinitesimal splash near the beach.
He yanked the shirt over his head. The wind snatched it out of his hands and filled it with air. To his amazement the shirt stood up and began to dance.
For a long eerie moment it danced like a ghost in an eddy of air over the passenger seat--then dove across his lap and dashed out of the plane.
That was a sign, sure enough. Superman's got no powers without his shirt.
He tipped up the wing and drove in for a low pass over the bay, over the schools of rock islands, great whales with backs of jagged rock. Identical cone-shaped green mountains guarded both ends of the beach, joined to the island by delicate fingers of palm-shaded sand. The jungle marched down to the sea. Surf exploded on rocks at the base of the mountains.
All this time circling, and still not a soul had ventured out onto the sand. If Superman put down in the water and knocked himself out, he would drown. If he tried to jump out before he ditched, the impact would kill him.
Better to stay with the plane.
He unlocked the emergency fuel release. For some reason he thought of communion when he was a boy, a silver tray with forty thimble-glasses of Welch's grape juice, tiny glasses tinkling between an old lady's hands as she passed the tray down the pew. This do in remembrance of me. . . . Could this be his life preparing to flash before his eyes?
He flipped the switch. Gasoline hissed out, spraying the tops of the waves. The cockpit filled with fumes.
The smell took him back to a Sinclair service station, somewhere deep in south Alabama. A green dinosaur revolved on a pole. Gasoline fumes came sweetly up into his nose. His father smiled at him.
He turned the plane back out to sea. His idea was to come in low and slow, put her into a stall, belly down in the smooth water near the beach, without cartwheeling, flipping tail-over, smacking down sideways, dipping a wingtip, or slamming into a wave. He would have one chance only.
Of course this was all just an idea in his head. He didn't know if it would work. He wished Mr. Pawley were here. He had a few serious questions to ask.
Banking around the largest rock island, he swept in on a line for the beach, ten feet above the tops of the waves. The engines stuttered, gasping for fuel.
Without knowing he was going to do it, he began to howl like a dog. He unstrapped himself and got up on one knee howling.
All at once he was overcome with a terrible urge to get out of the plane, but too late--the ocean loomed in the windscreen and, beyond it, the beach and a perfect forest of coconut palms. He saw Ben Junior's bright smile. The last thing he thought before the plane hit the water was God, what a beautiful place to die.
Excerpted from Gone for Good by Mark Childress. . Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.