Peter Gordon


Peter Gordon’s short stories have appeared in a wide range of publications including The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Yale Review, The Southern Review, The Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, Virginia Quarterly Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. His work has received the Pushcart Prize and numerous inclusions on the distinguished stories list that is part of the annual Best American Short Stories series. His story collection is Man Receives a Letter. The author’s web site is


Growing up in Dallas I had exactly one photograph of my mother as a Braniff hostess. It was a slightly blurry shot of her standing at an open airplane door in a swirly purple dress and waving hello or goodbye, I could never be sure. There are palm trees in the far left corner of the picture but I have no idea what city or continent the shot is from. I was five years old when she died and seven when I started obsessively collecting all things Braniff—dolls, keychains, coasters, pins, postcards, scarves, and anything else I could get my hands on. I crowded my bureau top and wall shelves with paraphernalia and created a special area at the foot of my bed that was almost like an altar with a meter high plastic Braniff air hostess at the center and miscellaneous trinkets stamped with the BI logo radiating around it like hovering angels. As I got older, I arranged things in a more coherent, museum-like order, as in an exhibition, adding full-size posters on my walls including one where a little boy from the sierra was leading a llama on a rope while a Braniff plane flew over a distant mountain peak, and another with a caramel-skinned hostess coming down the aisle with a smile so perfect I used to try and emulate its exact shape and dimensions in the mirror.

I had a “Braniff Careers” brochure on my nightstand the way other people kept stacks of fantasy books or a diary. I memorized every word, the way you would an epic poem, and walked around repeating whole passages and pages to myself. Braniff has finally married fashion and flying, elevating the flight hostess from smiling service giver to a runway model full of glamour, charisma and attentiveness. I did secret dress up sessions by lining up two rows of folding chairs in my room and coming down the aisle dispensing smiles and refreshment, dressed in a getup I was sure captured the spirit of the Braniff look.

When I was old enough to take the bus by myself, I would go all the way out to Love Field and watch the departing Braniff hostesses march through the terminal on their way to some distant city. I tried to get close enough to smell their perfumes and hear the soft jangle of their jewelry.


I had never been on an airplane but that didn’t matter. I knew what went on up there. I knew that Braniff hostesses changed clothing during the flight, that they might be wearing skirts and fitted jackets with epaulets when you got on board but by mid-flight they were all in silky dresses that made the male passengers wish there was a sudden gust of wind. Their footwear could be calf-high two-tone boots one trip down the aisle, glittery shoes the next. Sometimes they had Pucci scarves embossed with the BI logo whirled around their necks. The idea was to change your appearance during the flight, to peel off layers to continually reveal a new you that, as the brochure said, startles and delights the flying customer. The hostess seen serving the first round of snacks was different from the one serving dinner and different still from the one bringing the after-dinner treats—different and yet the same. The hair was worn up high, swept up off the neck, off the face, rising in a beehive, or falling off the shoulders, maybe straight or curly, perhaps sitting regally in a pin-up, sometimes kept under a hat or veil but not so completely that the lovely features were obscured or the contours of an unforgettable smile were lost to the grateful passenger.

Of course the inner and outer beauty part was something you had to bring with you, the one thing the airline couldn’t provide.

A Braniff International hostess is a beautiful person. She is alive for her interest in people for themselves. She is a sister to her generation; a daughter to the middle aged; security to the confused; a friend to everyone who boards her plane; a heroine to little girls; a source of pride and joy to her parents and teachers and mentors.

My Aunt Connie, my mother’s older sister who was a devout Catholic and would have become a nun save for circumstances I never fully understood, came several times a week to clean and cook for us after my mother died. From the start she urged me to get my head out of the clouds and forget about planes and instead memorize the names and learn the lives of the saints, and take upon myself to decorate my room with crosses, pietas, and other religious icons. If I wanted flying forms, I could paste archangels to the walls. When I looked up at the sky, I should only think of heaven. That’s what my mother would have wanted, she said, and what I should want for myself.


My mother flew for Braniff in the early 1960s. She flew around the time they started painting the planes in distinctive, pre-psychedelic colors like chocolate brown, metallic purple, burnt orange, ruby-red, bold turquoise, and lemon yellow. It was dubbed the jelly bean fleet. The interiors were done up in an even wider variety of crazy colors and dizzying patterns, like you were walking into an underground nightclub.

She missed the brief space theme experiment where the hostesses stood on the tarmac in shimmering silver astronaut suits and gigantic bubble helmets to keep their hairstyles in place and the failed nautical theme where they wriggled into fishnet tops that looked more like medieval mail and skintight slacks that flared out mermaid style. She did experience the month where the hostesses dressed up as famous monuments – the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer – but the jagged plastic edges and the outstretched alabaster arms proved to be dangerous to the passengers and themselves.

You have to imagine what my father must have looked like in those days coming across the runway and climbing up the porta-steps. You have to get the full effect of his glistening dark pompadour, finely cut double-breasted suit, and chiseled face that peaked at the cheekbones and tapered dramatically at the jaw. At six feet three, he was tall; he had to duck his head to come aboard the aircraft. If he looked good in a cowboy hat, he looked even better when he doffed it or took it off altogether. Add in his aged leather briefcase, his gold cigarette case, his handmade boots, and the silver threads starting to run through his hair. (Did I mention that he was eleven years older than she was?) My mother picked him out of the crowd and had been waiting for him to board. Her eyes followed him every step down the aisle.

She draws the shade for those craving sleep; she lights the way for those seeking illumination.


Arthur was the first boy whose eyes followed me. His full name was Arthur Milford Harrison. I was seventeen and still in high school, he was already twenty years old. He was a student at Dallas County Community College. On the day we met, he just walked up to me on the street and said that if I didn’t agree to go off and take a coffee or a Coke or a cookie with him, he would shoot himself in the head right in front of me. I looked him over. He had scruffy wooly brown clothes, unkempt black hair with shocks of it sticking up in the back, a long nose, and a hungry look that someone seeing him for the first time would probably think was a little scary.

“Do you even have a gun?” I asked him.

“I can get one.” He smiled and without even wanting to I smiled back.

He took me to a place that was several blocks off the main street, down a set of crumbling stairs, and into a space so dark you could barely make out the outline of a restaurant but there it was with a few haphazardly placed tables with tipped-over chairs resting on their surface with their skinny legs sticking up into the air. We drank Cokes and ate pretzels in the near darkness, and he told me that he was just walking around wondering what to do with the rest of his life, and then he saw me and he had it figured out.



“You don’t even know my name.”

“I don’t care what your name is.” He leaned forward, hunching his shoulders, getting his face as close as he could to mine. “You look unhappy. You look like something is on fire in your brain.”

I didn’t say anything. I was trying to make out the expression on his face thinking the reason he took me to a dark place was because he didn’t want to me to see how full of shit he was. He probably took all kinds of girls here.

“You can tell me.”

“Why would I tell you anything?”

“Because you want to, because I make you want to tell me things.”

“I’m never even going to tell you my name.”

“Fine with me, sweet girl.”

We started going out, always meeting somewhere halfway between the two districts where we lived – in a plaza, by a certain fountain or plaque, at the corner of this and that—and basically just walked around unless he had enough money that particular night in which case we might buy a six pack and a bag of slim jims and go to some rundown park to make out. He was available at odd times anyway, since he slept late if he had no morning classes, and at night he worked as a delivery man for a grocery and dry goods store, taking the company pickup to drop off vegetables and meats and white tube socks to old people in apartments and widows without cars.

After a couple of months he started coming around to our house and sometimes I snuck him inside and let him hang out in my room. I still wouldn’t let him do anything from the waist down. He told me that it was difficult to show how much he loved me when I put all these arbitrary restrictions on him. It made no sense. Why not say he couldn’t touch me above the ankles? he would ask plaintively. Or below my ears? Why did my body have to be like a city that had certain streets roped off that you couldn’t drive down? I told him my father’s hearing had become unbelievably acute since I stopped being a girl and became a young woman because it was his job to make sure no one took advantage of me; he could even hear the rustling of fabric and the friction of sliding zippers.

“Let me lick you all over then,” Arthur said. “He won’t hear that.”

I pretended to be disgusted and pushed him away.

One afternoon we lay on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. Sunlight rushed through a window. He put a hand on my hip. He tried to casually slide a few fingers down the front of my pants and thought he was going to get away with it until I suddenly grabbed hold of his wrist and left fingernail indentations in his soft flesh.

“My father can hear your hands.”

“I’m so smooth, you can’t even hear them.”

He didn’t ask about my Braniff museum of a bedroom until the fourth or fifth time he was in there. Maybe he was afraid of stating the obvious and being like all the other boys who he figured must have made some dumb comment and ruined everything. Then one day he stood in front of a display I had fanned out along the middle row of a bookshelf—in-flight magazines arranged by date, some pins including ones children used to wear as a special memento, a stack of boarding passes. He picked up a First Class Menu from 1959.

“My mother used to give those out,” I said. “Now they’re collectibles. They’re worth money.”

“Was your mother a stewardess or something?”

“They’re called air hostesses.”

Under my bed I had a box no one had ever seen. Inside the box were thirteen separate piles of handwritten letters, every one bundled together with a colored string. Each pile was a year. I showed it all to Arthur. I’d never shown it to anyone before.

“What are these?”


“From who?”

“From me.”

“To who?”

“My mother.”

He didn’t say anything. He knew my mother wasn’t alive; it was one of the first and truest things I told him.

“Lately I’ve been writing her letters about you.”

He grinned. “Nothing too bad I hope.”

“I leave out the parts where you don’t behave.”

He smiled, visibly relieved my dead mother wouldn’t think badly of him.


Arthur decided he wanted to become more worthy of me, whatever that meant. He grew a moustache to look more respectable. Seen from a distance it was a flimsy little feather, barely qualifying of being called a moustache, and up close it wasn’t much better so of course I made merciless fun of it. He also cut his hair and combed it over with this silly old man’s part as though that would invite the world to take him more seriously. He showed me where he had carved a drawing of my face onto the flank of his right leg. He assured me that he had used a sanitized razor blade—he held it for a full minute under hot water—just so I wouldn’t think he was completely stupid. He would get a tattoo of me as soon as he could save enough money for one.

“Suppose we break up?”

“Then I’ll just find another girl with the exact same face.”

The thing about him was, when you first met him he seemed almost funny looking, and then he got better every time you saw him. It’s like he kept putting forward a better version of himself. The texture of his face, seen from very close range, was like polished wood with tiny nicks and dents that only made it more authentic. He had a long fluted nose and thin brittle lips. He had sad, fiery eyes that never seemed to stop looking at me, even when they were closed or far away.


He said all the usual things and made all the typical claims a boy says about the deleterious effects of denying a man’s body its final release. He would get cramps, he would get cancer, his things would shrivel up and die and he wouldn’t be able to reproduce. One day we were in my bedroom and my father wasn’t home and I finally said yes. Arthur didn’t ask any questions, he just stood up and quickly pulled off his clothing like someone stripping down for a run into the ocean. His chest was as smooth as a little boy’s. His shoulders were like collapsed bookends. He barely had any hair, anywhere. A scar ran south from his navel like a dried up river. At one point I had to put my hand over his mouth and despite all his whispered inquisitions as to whether he was hurting me, in the end it was as though I had hurt him. Afterwards, we had to strip the sheets off the bed and peel off the pillow case. Also a white felt frog that sat near the pillows got splashed with blood and had to go. Arthur insisted that he would pay for everything that was ruined but the thing was he didn’t have any money to buy new sheets or a new white frog, or anything else for that matter.


Late the next night he returned with the grocery store’s pickup truck, a loud, rattling, rust-covered thing with a cracked windshield and bald tires and holes in the floor that let you see the rushing road. He rapped at my window and I climbed out noisily to meet him; the fact was that my father’s hearing wasn’t anything special. We took the highway towards the airport. These were the days before you had to go through security checks and they opened the trunk of your car and shone a flashlight in your face and looked you over to see if you might be hiding something dangerous. It was a good thing too because Arthur didn’t look like the kind of person you just waved through barriers with no questions or suspicions.

Inside the terminal area there were blue, green, red, and purple neon lights shining in all directions. Cigarette smoke hung in low clouds. The neon signs of airlines and newsstands and trinket shops glowed like moons.We suddenly stopped in the middle of it all and he wrapped his arms around me and faced me full on. His expression turned all serious.

“I memorized something for you.”


He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “I ache to learn some new games now,” he said. “I've been away too long. To see a new door open I'd go almost anywhere, even backward, if I had the time.” Then he smiled in that way he had where the tip of his tongue peeks out like a serpent’s. “That’s McKuen. He’s a great American poet.”

I didn’t know who McKuen was but I liked the way Arthur said the words.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go see your airline.”

We passed the Pan Am section and the tropical orange and the big blond wooden platforms for Lufthansa. But when we came to the counters and roped-off lines for Braniff, the whole area was dark, like a city under blackout.

“They must not have any flights tonight,” Arthur said.

But I knew they had flights every day to everywhere.

Arthur went up to one of the airport policeman who didn’t even bother to look at him as Arthur talked, gestured, asked questions. He walked back to me with his head down. “He says they’re not here anymore. He says they’re not coming back.”

“To Dallas?”

“To anywhere. He says Braniff is shut down. That everyone knows that. That if we watched the news we’d know it too.”

“He’s a liar,” I said. “You’re a big fat fucking liar!” I shouted at the policeman who had wandered off at this point and by the time he turned around to see who was making the commotion Arthur had pulled me away and was dragging me towards the nearest exit doors.


I asked my father the next day and he told me it was true, sad but true. Braniff was gone; at least it was one thing my mother wouldn’t have to see. I went to the library and found the newspapers that months earlier had reported it right on the front page. The airline known as Braniff International Airways had suddenly ceased all operations everywhere. They showed the planes and photos of unhappy looking men in suits. On the inside pages they had photo collages of the air hostesses in their most outlandish and bizarre ensembles. Some columnist wrote about how the airline was too strange, too special, too beautiful for this world.

I locked myself in my room and destroyed as many Braniff things as I could until the room looked like a bomb had gone off in the middle of it. Or it was like the random stuff they find in the smoldering rubble after a plane crash—the un-partnered shoes, the headless torso of a child’s stuffed animal, the charred stub of a ticket that someone had once clutched with wild anticipation.

One Sunday a few weeks later, my Aunt Connie marched into my bedroom and insisted that I go to early morning mass with her. I tried to go back to sleep—I hadn’t stepped foot in a church for five years—but she wouldn’t give up. After the service she made me sit with her in the pew until everyone else, even the priest, had left. That’s when she told me that she knew about “the boy.” She knew when “the boy” arrived, when he left, what we did together. The whole time she was saying this, she was crossing herself repeatedly with a trembling hand. So here was the thing: I had to promise to stop seeing “the boy” or she would tell my father. I had to promise to honor my mother’s memory. I had to say it there, before Jesus Himself. So I did – I promised Jesus and Connie, the two of them, that I wouldn’t see the boy anymore except one last time to say goodbye.

How elegant the Braniff hostess looks whether in the air or on the ground. How bright are her manifold colors. How beautiful is her smile even as she stands at the portal waving her final farewell.


When I met Arthur in the park to tell him the deal I made, he picked up a rock and threw it at a bunch of birds that were sitting in a nearby tree. He almost hit one of them too. “I’ll stop coming to your house, that’s all,” he shouted. “Your aunt’s just an old maid. She’s jealous of you. Your father probably wouldn’t even believe her anyway.”

“He believes anything she says,” I said. I started to cry. I told him that I was going to pretend he never existed. And then I walked away, not looking back even once.

Of course he didn’t give up. He sat on a high concrete wall and waited for me to walk by after school. I’d make it a point not to look at him but I knew he was there. At night, he stood across the street from our house, his hands in his pockets, shuffling his feet to stay warm. Twice he sent flowers, no card attached. Then one day he managed to jump onto the same bus I’d just boarded and there was no escaping him. He stumbled his way down the aisle and sat right next to me, squeezing himself onto the bench seat I had taken way in the back. I told him that he better get off at the next stop, but he said he had something exciting to tell me—his uncle lent him some money and he had signed up to take flying lessons. Flying lessons! He was going to be a pilot!

I didn’t say anything. I tried looking out the window. He asked me if I heard him, and finally I told him he wasn’t even a good driver—he’d gotten multiple citations for speeding and double parking—so how was he going to be a pilot?

“It’s different,” he said. He explained that a pilot doesn’t have to worry about people cutting him off, or getting flat tires, or having the stupid engine overheat, or some idiot kids siphoning out all the gas while he runs in to a corner store for a pack of smokes.

“You’re crazy.”

“All pilots are crazy. That’s why I’ll be such a good one.”

He asked me to come see him fly. One time. What was the harm? No one had to know. I could take a taxi there and if I wanted, I could take the taxi back as soon as he took off. I didn’t even have to wait around to see if he landed safely.

He handed me an envelope. In it was enough money for a roundtrip cab fare. Also a slip of paper with the name and address of the flying school.

I put the envelope in my pocket and said I’d think about it.


It was a dumpy little airport about seven miles outside of Dallas, set in a washed out landscape with scarred brown hills on one side and sickly looking trees on the other. Arthur was waiting for me when the taxi pulled up. He was wearing his regular dirtied clothes but had a blue scarf flung around his neck and a headset wrapped around his ears, the same headset worn by his instructor who stood next to him and smiled at the sight of me, like he’d heard all about me. The plane itself was smaller than I knew it was possible for a plane to be. The wings looked like they were made out of cardboard. The windows looked like owl eyes.

“Are you sure that thing’s safe?” I asked and Arthur smirked and said that I’d find out soon enough. He told me to go stand under the overhang of the metal building at the far end of the field where the school had its office; there were bathrooms in there and a place to sit if I wanted. After they got in the cockpit, he flashed me the thumbs up sign and they sat there awhile as the instructor pointed at things and Arthur twisted knobs and pushed buttons. At last the plane started to taxi down the bumpy runway, shaking and rattling with the propeller spinning in fits and starts. Then it gained speed and suddenly it was airborne, wobbly at first, not exactly soaring but climbing steadily like a tiny black bug scrambling up a white stucco wall. A bright white line of smoke trailed behind it.

I stood there looking up until there was nothing left to see or hear, no plane, no vapor trail, no engine cry. The taxi driver finally ambled up and asked if he should stay or go—What’s it gonna be, m’am? —so I paid him with the money from the envelope and watched him drive off. Then it got unbelievably quiet and lonely, like no place I’d ever been, just me standing there on the ground and a big empty sky above that seemed to go on forever.