Josh Green’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The MacGuffin, Atlanta Magazine, The Adirondack Review, New South, Lake Effect, The Midway Journal, Eclipse, and elsewhere. By day, he’s a freelance magazine writer and award-winning crime reporter with a metro Atlanta newspaper. By night, he’s shopping his first collection of short fiction, a 2011 finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award.
“Did you know,” asks Joe in seat 17 C, “that penguins can swim thirty miles per hour?”
Hank Obelisk doesn’t know how to respond. Of course he didn’t know that. Or perhaps he could’ve guessed, having seen that special on Antarctica before dozing off the other night, the half-smoked joint a tarry nub in his fingertips, his Crown Royal drained. On television the penguins seemed awfully stupid. Hank had wondered why some massive, glacier-prowling shark didn’t rip them all apart, a chummy stew of penguin meat in the icy abyss. Too quick for sharks, the penguins, he concluded. Then he passed out again on the couch.
Before replying to his son, Hank looks out the cabin window. There’s a thick haze over Georgia, a smoggy dome above the black-green carpet of rolling hills and pines—down where his wife must be, somewhere. From twenty thousand feet the topography bears contrast to the checkerboard Midwest, back where the land’s cut in sections he could easily search and catalogue. From this altitude he knows the Southern forest is a hopeless expanse.
The kid pulls Hank’s sleeve, exhibiting his impatience with a piercing whine. Hank crushes his empty soda can and smiles, his teeth big and white as mini-marshmallows.
“The world record for fast swimming was set by a swordfish,” Hank quietly fibs. Joe, a precocious seven-year-old and only child, stores each word as undisputable fact. “One near Cuba went a hundred-fifty.”
“This one time.”
“Dang,” Joe says, satisfied. “That’s like Corvette fast.”
It warms Hank’s heart to see his son decked out in Chicago Cubs gear. The soft blues and reds are friendly shades in Hank’s eyes, the colors of his own childhood bedroom, a cramped space bedecked with aerial shots of Wrigley Field. He’d move his son back to where they’d just left, the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, if it weren’t for the apocalyptic winters. His family visits up there never last long enough, and returning to Atlanta has become painful for him, a procession ending in the stark realities of single-parenting. After a few days, the convivial rhythms of the South weave back into Hank, and his longing for home dissolves. In moving to Georgia, he’d spoiled himself with temperate climes, and now his son wears the same thin skin. The boy has never seen the Lake frozen and probably never will. Hank would hate to taint his notion of the northern beach, to paint gray the emerald crescents of Lincoln Park summers. He thinks it best to leave good memories alone.
“Dad,” the boy says. “Is this going to be a bad landing like last time?”
“To be honest, that’s highly doubtful.” Hank suppresses laughter and then guilt for wanting to laugh. “Don’t worry so much.”
The boy tucks his book of sea-animal pictures in a carry-on backpack. He burns his father with the quizzical stare that tells Hank he’d better be on his game.
“About the landing,” Joe says. “How do you know? Did they teach that in the academy?”
“No,” Hank says. “Firemen know jack about planes.”
“Because our last three landings were bad.” Hank opens his hands like airplane wings, yaws them. “The law of averages is in our favor.”
“Just trust me,” Hank says, palming the boy’s shoulder. “This’ll be like landing in a giant tub of butter.”
The fasten seatbelts sign clicks on: bong. The middle seat is unoccupied, so between Hank and Joe lies a pile of travel accouterments: bottled water, Skittles, peanuts, taffy, a Sports Illustrated, and three twisted action figures. The boy’s getting so big his knees bend fully over the airline seat, his calf muscles growing like balloons above his skinny ankles. Hank marvels at the simplest things his son does. The way he turns book pages, smiles back, bumps fists in greeting, laughs at fairly complex jokes. Nothing pleases Hank like seeing the boy learn.
“I’m afraid this time,” Joe says. “It’s like I don’t trust the pilot.”
“I told you, there’s nothing to—”
“I know, but how would you know?” the boy says. “You said you never flew a plane. We’re way up in the sky.”
“I know how to survive things,” Hank says. “I know when we’re safe, when there’s no need to worry. This is one of those times.”
Hank shuffles the magazine around and looks across the aisle to the lone woman in the row. By habit he examines her hands, two sun-bronzed swans, elegant and cappuccino. No ring. He wants to smack himself for looking.
“Look, big man, I’ve heard of this pilot, heard great things,” he says, leaning over Joe to maximize his authority. “He’s so good they call him the Air King, or something like that.”
“Liar,” the boy snaps. “You lie. You make things up so much.”
“Don’t talk to me like that.”
“I’m worried,” Joe says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know why this time and not other times.”
“It’s okay,” Hank says. “When we get to the condo, we’re off to the pool. I’ll let you do backflips.”
“It’s not okay.”
“Breathe, buddy,” he says. “Put your seat up. Breathe in and out. This is a natural reaction.”
“No,” Joe says, “not natural.”
The boy can be stubborn, pigheaded even, crunching his forehead into little ravines to telegraph his displeasure. Hank knows the attitude isn’t from him, and he can’t recall Joe’s mother acting this way. As a child, Hank was easygoing to a fault, borderline indifferent—hardly a budding emergency responder. The last time he saw his own father, Earl was behind the wheel of a Lincoln Continental, the lone passenger a blind neighbor named Scratchy. Southward the men bolted toward Gary, Indiana, the bookie and the blind man. Not exactly cowboys and sunsets.
Joe clenches his armrest, kicks his sandals off. Nearby passengers slyly watch. Hank unclips his seatbelt, clears the middle seat, and hops over. He holds Joe.
“They call this claustrophobic stress,” Hank says. “You’re reacting to prior experiences, and we all do this in one way or another. Just remember that not all landings are bad.”
“You might not think much of me right now, but I know what I’m doing,” Hank says. “Sit still.”
“Please,” the boy says. “Don’t touch me.”
Hank met his wife in a barbershop called Johnson’s, a few blocks from his firehouse in Glenn Ellyn. She was in town canvassing the area for a marketing firm with aspirations of branching out of the South, and she was lost.
At first she was a curvy silhouette, her cat eyes lost in backlight. Johnson’s dirty windows stood behind her, behind that kids running in the street, and beyond it all a picturesque baroque hotel. She asked for directions to Briar Street. The old pervert Johnson asked for her name.
“Athena,” she said, pulling the latter half into syrupy drawl. “Like the town in Georgia, or almost.”
“No,” Johnson smiled. “Like the goddess.”
Another barber had just finished Hank’s trim and lined up his neckline with a razor. Had Athena walked in twenty minutes prior, with his sideburns and temples like bushy hives, she would have left alone. She would have lived. But Hank could feel his swagger coming on, a hot rush of confidence.
“I’ll point her there,” he told the guys. “I know Briar Street. Let me pay for this haircut, miss, and I’ll get you on your way.”
They stepped into the street. A lake breeze pushed clammy air across Chicago’s suburbs, gulls whistling overhead. Athena’s lipstick was mauve, not red, a dead-on match to the pumps she wore. That impressed Hank. Everything about her was refined, a contrast to the sports-pub floozies he’d been dealing with. Athena’s ears were hidden under shimmering, curlicue locks, and Hank worried the ears were humongous, like his. He worried about his worrying. They walked to Briar Street and chatted, mostly about baseball. He took a chance and asked her to dinner. She blushed like a flattered child and said okay, what the hell.
The next night, over linguini in the Gold Coast, Athena had swept her hair in a ponytail, confirming that her ears were borderline perfect, Hank thought, like tiny conch shells from the Keys. She’d be in town only three days. He felt rushed. Over dessert, he slipped her his business card, proud to have his fire company’s emblem in her dainty hand.
“It doesn’t turn you off, what I do?” he said.
She poked her tiramisu.
“The long hours?” he said. “The dangerousness?”
She sipped cabernet and swayed to a slow violin. The lights dimmed and the room—quaint, shadowy, and dripping with velvet—took on an underwater quality. Hank worried he was out of his league.
“Tell me,” she said, “are all women crazy for big-city firefighters?”
He liked the question, found it easy to deflect. “My only dates lately have been with five-alarm warehouse blazes.”
She didn’t laugh. He worried she was examining his response, combing it for proof that he was a lothario, perhaps his whole firefighting story a shtick.
“I grew up on the Georgia-Florida line, where dad was a volunteer,” she said. “He didn’t know a damn thing about fighting fires. I’d imagine you’re as professional as they come.” She nibbled the dessert, a dusting of cocoa powder around her lips. “I have a question.”
“Okay.” He filled his mouth with wine and swallowed fast.
“You won’t get mad?”
“With all due respect, what kind of name is Hank Obelisk?” she said, napkin to her lips. “I’ve never heard such a funny last name.”
He exhaled without meaning to. “My great-grandfather translated it from something unspeakable,” he said. “Not in a bad way, but something not ready for English. He came here from Russia, an engineer fascinated by elevated trains. Believe it or not, ‘obelisk’ was the first English word he’d learned, other than the essentials. Of all the damn ugly words in the language—”
“But I like it.”
At ten thousand feet the stewardesses have vanished. Hank presses the overhead HELP button twice but nobody seems capable of responding, the descent so extreme. He keeps cool for his son’s sake. He hopes his composure will shine favorably on the woman in the next row. She wears a pantsuit that from ten feet away looks like seersucker. He shakes his head, expelling thoughts of her at a time like this.
“We’ll be laughing about this in an hour,” he tells Joe. “You’ll see how silly it was, and we’ll stuff ourselves with pizza. Think about the pizza.”
Joe breathes himself dizzy. He fiddles with an action figure, a grimacing soldier in desert fatigues. He downs the last of his bottled water.
“Did mom ever have this problem?” Joe says.
Hank leans the opposite way, toward the window, watching the plane pull a steep bank around the city, a great bird changing its mind. He sees the canopy and hills. A few carved gaps for shopping centers and major business districts, but otherwise a green abyss, a global cashmere sweater.
“No,” says Hank. “Your mother is a cool lady. Wherever she is, she’s being cool there.”
“Did she like to fly?”
“She loves to fly,” he says. “What’d I tell you about talking in past-tense?”
“Sorry,” Joe says. “It just kind of seems right.”
“Right?” Hank says. “You mean appropriate?”
“Yeah,” Joe says. “Doesn’t two years kind of make it okay?”
Hank crosses his arms in his best authoritative pose, his grade-school principal. “You’re not as smart as you think sometimes. You should learn when to bite your tongue.”
“Dad,” Joe says, “I’m going to puke.”
Seven hundred miles, an hour and twenty minutes in the air, the distance between cities was bearable. The first winter, Hank and Athena racked up hundreds in cell-phone overages to compensate. The second, Hank hoisted a white flag on his bunk at the station, declaring himself southward bound. The boys threw him a party befitting his captain rank, and by Christmas he was gone.
The day before he drove down, she called him at home to say her period hadn’t come. “Three weeks late,” she said. “I have a test stick in my hand that reads positive. It’s the third positive since yesterday.”
Hank dropped the phone and nearly buckled at the knees, the realities of adulthood draping over him like a plastic sack. He told her issues like pregnancy are best discussed in person, though he knew frighteningly little about what he said. When he hung up, he poured a gin with lime wedges, and well past midnight was still writhing in bed.
At daybreak he gave up on sleep and started the Ryder. He brewed a thermos of black coffee, pushed his keys in the drop box, and roared away. He saluted the Drake Hotel and the soaring Amoco Building as daylight unveiled them, whooping as the truck spun fresh snow down Lake Shore Drive.
Joe heaves in the airline vomit bag as if inflating a raft. Hank runs his nails over the boy’s head, taps his fingertips lightly on his back. The passengers who sneak glances are met with disdainful stares from Hank. To think his sick boy is that interesting pisses him off.
“Doing good, buddy,” he says, purposefully loud. “Nobody’s watching.”
Joe got sick like this a few nights after his mother’s abduction, in the first frantic days when Hank couldn’t bear to stay home. They slept at an extended stay hotel beside the interstate with hookers roaming the garden suites. Oddly, Joe would wear nothing but his father’s clothing, and when running to the bathroom his shirt trailed like a parachute. The nausea resulted from constant microwave pizzas, soda, and Twinkies—a clueless father’s specialty.
“All done?” Hank says now. “You’ve put a hurting on that bag.”
“How much longer?”
“We’re almost there,” he says. “I can see our place now.”
“Okay, that’s exaggerating . . . but we’re close.”
Hank tucks the bag under his seat, hopeful the sandaled feet he saw beneath him earlier aren’t still there. The boy cranes his neck to see out the cabin window. Without the baby fat his jawbone is sharp, Hank notices, the cheekbones high, eyebrows straight and persuasive like his mother’s. He offers the boy a stick of gum. Joe declines and scoops sweat from his eyes.
Athena liked to put the formula in a bowl in front of the baby, let him dip in his hands and catch the runoff with his mouth, a primitive feeding method that struck her as hilarious, her husband not so much. It made a mess of their 1940s bungalow, filling the kitchen with sour fumes.
“He looks like an animal or something, eating like that,” Hank said. “Like a sea otter.”
The couple relied on one car, a clunky Toyota Corolla, no small feat in a city of sparse public transit. When people worried aloud that the car was dangerous, Hank shot back: “Our mortgage rate made me do it.” He’d been hired at Station 14, though lower on the totem pole than he liked, and his work was five miles away; the MARTA train stop was seven blocks. It went without saying that Athena would do the walking, even when she had to work late, which in winter meant a dark walk home.
“It’s my thinking time,” she’d say, optimistic even when she hated to be. “Good for clearing the lobes.”
When Hank’s schedule allowed a weekend off, they’d spend it making love. Long bouts all over the house—often the kitchen, sometimes the hallway, once the screened porch. They broke a barstool and ripped a swag curtain.
“This,” Hank said one afternoon, “is the pinnacle of living.”
“That,” his wife teased, “was cheesy.”
Athena got promoted to regional manager. They celebrated with champagne, a candlelit dinner of grilled salmon and steamed asparagus on the porch. She was tipsy two sips in. Along with the position came managerial tasks, longer hours editing press material written by her underlings, other menial headaches.
“If it comes down to it,” she suggested, “there’s no shame in being a stay-at-home dad these days.”
“Not in five million years.”
The longer Athena worked, the darker her walk home. She walked faster, developing blisters, scabs. She took shortcuts down Boulevard without telling her husband.
The plane rattles through a low patch of clouds, and all eighty passengers gasp. Two genteel ladies in business class demand drinks, but the crew politely declines. Joe chews on his fingers.
“Flight crew,” the pilot cracks, “prepare for landing.”
Joe drains the last of his water and quietly belches. Hank points out rooftops visible between the trees. The nearness to earth eases the boy’s tense face.
“Mushrooms,” Joe says. “Or barbeque chicken pizza, with pineapple.”
The afternoon sun heats the cabin, fills it with a cantaloupe hue. The woman in the next row draws down her plastic blind, and Hank mimics her, trying to catch her attention while avoiding Joe’s. He hates to draw comparisons, especially physical ones, but she has wonderful hands.
Joe turned five, entered public school, and Athena got blunt. She asked her husband one morning to leave the fire department, to find something with steady hours. She complained that her feet felt arthritic, and she wanted a consistent ride. Hank kicked his feet onto a flea-market ottoman and tossed his newspaper aside.
“It’s more than a car you’ll be buying, and we don’t have cash in these walls,” he said. “How much is parking downtown, by the month?”
“I have no idea.”
“Hundreds,” Hank said. “I heard it’s hundreds.”
“Listen,” he said. “There’s going to be overtime in the next few months. I’ll work every minute of it. We’ll get you a car. In the meantime, if you want to use the Toyota, I’ll take the train, end of story.”
“That’s not sensible,” she said. “I can wait.”
She kept walking.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, the babysitter rang Hank at the station. The call itself was unusual, but Jackie, the sitter, had troubled him with trivial inquiries at work before. Only this time Jackie was angry, perturbed that Athena had worked late without calling. Nearly eight o’clock and not a text, email, nothing. Hank knew she wasn’t working late. His gut told him something was gravely amiss.
Hank entered what families of the missing call a cacophony of negative thinking, an otherworldly knowing that the cosmos is somehow off-kilter. He hung up the phone and told his lieutenant someone would need to cover for him because he felt ill. He left without hearing definite approval.
En route home, he called Athena’s cell phone, then her office. A janitor said it was a ghost town, nobody there but him. Hank tried the cell phone again. Straight to voicemail: “Hi, y’all!”
On Freedom Parkway the streetlights hung in gauzy yellow mist. Hank glimpsed his home’s clapboard exterior, and it occurred to him his wife might never be there again. The thought struck him as bizarre. He stopped at the Boulevard light, a truck and two taxis preventing the final right turn.
Crossing Boulevard, he saw it, and his mind went ballistic, a thousand directions at once. Athena’s ladybug umbrella—caught between a bus-stop vestibule and a garbage can—rolled in the night breeze.
“Drug gangs!” Hank told the responding officer. “They’re holding her for ransom. I’ve heard the stories. They work the Quick-Mart and that pizza shop farther down, work it in shifts. They roll drunks and rob people for groceries. There’s no time—”
“Have a seat, sir,” said the cop, a thick-wristed Hispanic man with strands of white in his sideburns. “Let’s start with a timeline.”
“Her cell phone,” Hank said. “I’m calling it right now. I know how these things work. Trace the call by how it pings off cell-phone towers. I’m calling her, right now.”
“Put the phone down,” the cop said. “You don’t want to alarm anyone, if something did happen. But I’m sure she’s just hung up somewhere, or lost.”
Hank walked the officer to his porch, away from Joe, who sat on the couch, awed by his frantic father. Hank thought it strange his son didn’t cry.
“Don’t ask me how I know this,” Hank said on the porch, “but she’s in a bad way. I know you handle these cases a lot, but I’m begging you to go after this, with everything you can expend, tonight.”
“About that timeline,” said the cop.
“Fuck the timeline,” Hank said.
The cop grabbed him by the wrists. “Shut up,” he said. “C’mon, brother, think.”
“I’m giving you leads,” Hank said, shrugging him off, “and you’re standing there.”
“Think logically,” the cop said.
“Watch the boy,” Hank said. “I’ll walk these blocks myself, you worthless son of a bitch.”
The cop radioed for an investigator and watched Hank vanish, a wet vest and two militant arms swallowed by the shadows of Glenn Iris Drive.
Joe bites his lip as the landing gear spreads. He sits on his hands and squirms, tucks his head between his knees. The wheels touch gently, their connection with sun-baked asphalt barely noticeable, a shallow pothole on a country road.
“I told you,” Hank smiles. “Hot butter.”
They taxi slowly across innumerable lanes and Joe unbuckles prematurely.
“Can we keep the barfing a secret?” Joe asks.
Hank winks and puts his forefinger across puckered lips.
The disappearance made waves with regional media for several weeks. The newspapers grew particularly excited when a team of horseback searchers from Texas descended on the Old Fourth Ward, a band of cowboys on the urban frontier. The umbrella was the eerie touch that editors pine for, and Athena’s eventual life-insurance payout lent the story an unfounded layer of mystery.
Hank, once cleared by police, became something of a folk hero, a decorated firefighter whose want of answers outshone his inability to fund a private investigation. His screw-the-police subversion won him favor with hipsters and college kids. The ones Hank took the time to meet would channel him baggies of high-grade weed, which he said aided his sleeping.
“Keep it coming,” Hank told one kid with sleeves of skull tattoos. “They don’t have the balls to drug-test me.”
On local TV broadcasts, and once on the radio, Hank decried the efforts of police—“Quotas! The PD’s got one thing on their minds, and that’s arrest quotas!”— which, of course, prompted his termination from the fire department. Political science students at the downtown college picketed city hall for three days.
Donations in blank envelopes made their way to Hank’s porch, and hardly a street post in the Old Forth Ward was bereft of a reward poster. Neighborhoods came together to cull traces of the career woman who went to work and never came home.
But there was nothing left of Athena.
The investigation stalled and the case was quietly shelved. Hank sold the home to her family, a joint purchase between several sympathizing aunts and uncles. He got fifty thousand over market value and poured forty into newspaper ads. Not a single tipster called.
“People don’t care about the vanished after a year,” Hank said on the last television broadcast he was invited to. “I take issue with the attention span of police and the city at large. I take issue with the public’s forgetfulness in general.”
Hank bought a cookie-cutter condo in the sky, a home off the street. In the tiny living room stood a telescope; on the balcony hung expensive binoculars. Hank would invite Joe to the balcony after homework, when the smoke had cleared. Together they'd watch the day conclude.
“Look at that sunset,” Hank said one evening. “It’s like red sheets, ripped off the city and pulled out west.”
Joe cocked his head, his eyes in philosophical squint. “I bet mom liked sunsets.”
“Likes,” said Hank. “She likes them.”
At the gate, a stewardess speeds through her final, uninspired spiel. Businessmen activate cell phones. Hank tilts back his head, enjoys the overhead fan one last time before the heat. He stands up and gathers their bags.
Hank thinks of the progressions they’ve made. For the first time in a year, he can sleep without too much dope, and Joe can now tolerate pitch-dark rooms. It shames Hank to feel any sense of recovery, but a guy has a life to live, two mouths to feed. A self-pity hibernation of booze and smoke is no option.
The woman in the other row pulls a purple snakeskin bag from the overhead compartment. She flashes curious eyes at Hank; he gives her a dismissive nod and turns around to help his son. He pulls the backpack straps over the boy’s chest and pats his head, corrects the alignment of his Cubs hat. He knows there will be a time for women with cappuccino hands, but now is not that time.
“ I came to write this story after finishing another one that can only be described as lurid. I wanted to focus on something pure and benign, like the bond between a father and son. Given the other story's content, this one felt like a cleansing, though it deals with this macabre notion of a kidnapped and likely murdered woman and mother. At my day job, I'd just interviewed this suave old magnate who'd come home one day and found his trophy wife's throat slit from ear-to-ear. It was a powerful interview. The murder remains unsolved. The magnate has since died. But he'd spoken about this almost otherworldly knowing that something was wrong, minutes before he found the body. I wanted to explore that in a fiction narrative as well. ”