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Vol. 4, No. 3, 2005
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Rochelle Gurstein




Liam Durcan was born and raised in Winnipeg and now makes his home in Montreal where he works as a neurologist. His fiction has been published in The Fiddlehead, Zoetrope, The Antigonish Review, and Maisonneuve. He won the 2004 QWF/CBC Quebec Short Story Competition, has been nominated for the Journey Prize, and was featured in Coming Attractions ‘03. Nightflight appears in Durcan's A Short Journey by Car, published by Véhicule Press (2004).


Raymond knew something was wrong when the taxi driver asked him if they were getting close. He had been roused from a light, semi-drunken stupor to hear the words trailing off and he paused to think for a moment, as though some sober authority inside him was verifying what the driver had said.
Raymond tried to speak but started coughing instead and needed to sit forward. “The Bellcroft. I said the Bellcroft Inn.” He looked out the side window into the rippling darkness of Vermont countryside.
“I told you I didn’t know where it was,” the driver replied, his eyes meeting Raymond’s for an instant in the rear-view mirror. His head jerked nervously, as though he were trying to make his point face-to-face with Raymond.
“You took me as a fare,” Raymond said, sitting up on the edge of the seat and trying to peer through the darkness. It made him feel ridiculous. “How long have we been driving?”
“About forty-five minutes. You were going to tell me when we got close.”
“Oh, Christ. Stop the car.”
The driver’s head toggled in position as though he had heard the command but the car continued at an unchanged rate down the road. Raymond’s anger and confusion gave way to fear. The command to stop was as harsh a denunciation as a taxi driver could ever hear and now the man’s twitches seemed not pitiable but ominous. Raymond couldn’t even remember seeing an illuminated sign on the car’s roof, he had just got into the next car in line once the reception was over. In the back seat, an expanse of vinyl as wide as a park bench made him feel small and easily ignored, and he was not particularly relieved to finally hear the indicator’s tocking as the muted green light pulsed in the darkness of the dashboard. No one was on the roads at this time of night, he thought, and the act of signaling had an odd deliberateness to it, something pathologically calm, and it froze him. He began to panic profusely, imagining a frenzied chase through the whiteness of the headlights followed by this lunatic, feeling the underbrush tear him as his lifeless body was dumped into a ditch. Vermont could be deadly.

“Stop the car,” he said again, calmly, as though talking someone back from a ledge.
The driver pulled the car off to the side of the road. He sat motionless with both hands on the wheel, the correct ten and two positioning. Raymond cleared his throat, unsure what came next now that the vehicle had stopped and the threat of volatility seemed passed, or at least less imminent. The indicator counted a heartbeat half of his own. The driver put his head to the wheel and for a moment more Raymond thought about his options, of just opening the door and leaving, of becoming that type of person who simply leaves cabs. There were, however, subsidiary issues: night-time navigation in rural Vermont, hindered by an extra vodka-rocks and complete spatial disorientation, the embarrassment of the thought of death by exposure, the hundred graceless exits of an autumn night in the back-country. The door remained unopened however, as Raymond found himself leaning forward to touch the driver’s shoulder. The man was weeping.

“Look, it’s no big deal, we’ll come to a crossroads and then we’ll have our bearings. Besides, I think the Bellcroft is on the road to Hyde Park.” The man was unconsoled.
“It’s not that.”
Well then, Raymond thought, taken aback at the curtness of the driver’s correction, what the hell is it? Is this therapy, then? Some sort of work-release program for aspiring taxi drivers?
“Look, bud…”
“Allen. Get to your dispatcher and just ask him for directions.” The years of living on the Upper East side—and the inherent, constant exposure to taxi-driver personality disorder—was paying off for Raymond, easing him into survivalist mode like it was a default setting.
“I don’t have a radio. This is a private car. I just do this part-time.” He pinched his nose with a tissue that he peeled off a larger wad. He honked and wiped.
“Do you know the area?” Raymond asked.
“No. I’m from Rutland.”
Raymond sank back into the seat. He was exhausted. His muscles ached mysteriously, as though effort had been extracted without his consent. The night had not gone well; Lorraine had left for their bed and breakfast hours ago. God only knew if she got home. And the celebration of his parents’ anniversary, with the ostentatious expanse of the tent and the jazz band, only worsened his mood. He felt alone at the party, and once Lorraine left he found himself looking at his parents as they sat at the head table until they seemed to him like imposters, wearing familiar masks, incorporating mannerisms flawlessly, but somehow not his mother or father. After his parents moved to Vermont and restored their Federalist cottage, they seemed to change, appropriating lives from architecture magazines and home gardening shows, seamlessly indoctrinating themselves into a genteel cult life of fresh air and artificially distressed chairs. His father took to wearing plaid shirts and stopped registering, or at least expressing, contempt for those around him. His mother seemed happier too, developing an almost Buddhist calm as she considered every angle of their tiny new box house, a fraction of the size of the one they vacated in Westchester. They were happy now, after years of recriminations and a trial separation when Raymond was a sophomore at Cornell. They stayed together, and it seemed as though the years of difficulties and conflicts had polished them into, if not identical, then complimentary, placid partners. And yet their newfound happiness seemed so false that Raymond had difficulty visiting them, which was just as well as the restored house could barely contain the happy couple and led them to concoct the idea of the tent for their thirty-fifth anniversary celebration. He hated tents: the probationary atmosphere, the marquee tawdriness, and tonight he chafed at the canvas swaddling him like a shroud. The gaiety was oppressive, with relatives wagging flutes of Veuve-Cliquot and talking of summer places with restricted access. The tent had been full of family: cousins, aunts and uncles, all variations on a genetic theme. He could detect among many in the crowd the common features of eyes a touch too close and the prognathic Irvine profile, among the other traits of overdrinking and morbid self-reflection. He was only too happy to have his older sister Didi give the toast; by that time Lorraine was long gone and he had committed himself to a more advanced regimen of vodka tasting. His frequent trips to the bar, along with the night air, imparted a roguish vigour on him. Didi told him he was stinking and asked him where the hell Lorraine was. Maybe his legs hurt from all that walking to the bar. He remembered the relief at seeing some unfamiliar faces and smiled at some of the young women gathered at tables near the periphery of the tent. Outside one of the portable toilets he side-stepped his cousin Michael, who had been busy all evening announcing the windfall he made investing in a technology company whose product or function no one, including the investor himself, seemed able to explain. Back inside, the band had started another set. People danced through the amber light of the tent.
“I’ve been to Rutland.” Raymond said to Allen, almost reflexively.
“Oh yeah? You ski?”
“No. It was on business.”
On a clear October afternoon, the landing gear of a small plane had clipped the very tops of a cedar grove that lined the Rutland Municipal airport. The pilot brought it in too low, that much could be surmised from the height of the clipped trees and where the plane eventually hit. It was one of Raymond’s first assignments and because of this he was given the grunt-work assignment of doing the measurements. He stood out in the rain, tape measure in his hand, and put the distance at three hundred and forty-six feet five inches. The pilot—Caucasian male, thirty-five, good health, toxic screen negative—had less than fifty hours of solo experience. The conditions that saw the single-engine plane try to recover before ceding into a bank, then a roll, and then into the ground, were ideal. As far as Raymond could recollect they signed out the case as pilot error.
“Who do you work for?” Allen asked, gaining composure.
“National Transportation Safety Board.”
“Is that Civil Service?”
“Yeah. I suppose.”
The admission made Raymond uneasy. People still had certain preconceptions about civil service jobs. When he was more specific and told people he was a crash investigator, they would simply nod, thinking that he was the man they saw on the news, holding up the battered flight and voice-data recorder for the television cameras, that all that was necessary in an investigation was to open the black boxes and listen to the final minutes of something gone terribly wrong. He usually didn’t take the time to explain that he was a small craft specialist, and that the light planes flying into the smaller airports had no black boxes or tower surveillance so that any crash was essentially an examination of evidence at the crash scene. He and his team, two other investigators and technical backup at the NTSB regional laboratories, would be dispatched to the site where they would collect information about the weather conditions surrounding the crash and the pilot variables. Next, they would examine the plane, essentially performing an autopsy on the craft, removing the gauges and display lights and dissecting the mechanics.
At one time he had been determined to become an aviator. When he first started flying lessons he thought about the different careers and found the solitary life of a bush pilot the most appealing to him. He pictured himself night-flying float planes through the wilderness of northern Quebec, with the glow of the avionics equipment and hum of the engines as his companion. He read St. Exupéry and studied the maps that showed the early mail delivery routes that stretched from Paris to Dakar and then across the ocean to Patagonia. Even phonetically, ‘aviator’ had something that ‘pilot’ lacked. You could pilot a shopping cart around the aisles of a super-market. A dinghy could be piloted.
Things were different now, though, and by the time he had his pilot’s license, the only jobs left to consider were in the shadowy corporate world of the small air carriers. Since deregulation in the early eighties, small transport companies had multiplied and made obsolete the single plane operations so that Raymond’s dream disappeared as suddenly as St. Exupéry over the Mediterranean. He had no interest in hauling for the smaller carriers who he could see were cutting costs to preserve a margin, because he knew what the cost would come to. The move to the NTSB was natural once the planes began to disassemble in midair for lack of anyone paid to see to their maintenance. The work fascinated him in a way that made it seem almost perverse to sift through failure to find a cause for something that every pilot feared, something quite possibly beyond their control. There were other satisfactions—more than would be expected from simply closing the book on an accident, or drawing attention to insufficient industry standards—and it was something that his parents or Lorraine or Didi could never fully appreciate. He had difficulty explaining to people how the job changed him, how it allowed him to see that every disaster had a starting point and a trajectory, that there was a series of events that led to a moment of irreversibility and complete failure. A rivet loosened, a flange flapped, and a complex machine began to unzip itself, by degrees becoming what it was, assuming its native state and a condition of lower energy, returning to the ground.

The engine idled and Allen appeared to be searching for something. He was a big man, judging from the size of his shoulders and his posture in the driver’s seat. Raymond patted his jacket, thinking that he had his cell phone in a pocket but nothing was there.
“Where do you think we are?” Raymond asked.
“No idea.”
“Should we just keep going? We might find a phone booth.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Allen said, turning off the indicator and putting the car into gear.
The road passed under them like the back of a great animal, writhing in and out of the headlights. The stars were visible from the passenger window and Raymond thought he recognized a constellation as he glimpsed collections of stars through the tops of the trees. He hoped that Lorraine was safe and felt uneasy about letting her go back to the B & B earlier that evening. She had been tired after the trip up from New York and after the dinner, when the conversation between their table-mates faltered, she yawned. Raymond happened to be watching her at this moment and the sight of his wife yawning terrified him. After she took her hand away from covering her mouth, he noticed how the lower lids of her eyes glistened with the tears welled there. He could not tell her but he felt an inexplicable fear, not a sense of foreboding but something deeper and less random. He felt it was a moment that he could see her, a moment of clarity, and in this moment she seemed completely inured of him. She smiled and told him that she was going to take the car back to the bed and breakfast and he, alarmed by the casual gesture with which she declared boredom with her life, could not tell her that he needed her to remain there.
He hoped he would feel better once she was gone but his discomfort only worsened, the vodka having the opposite effect and heightening his senses. The tent crackled with sound: words he could not make out, voices billowing into white noise. He closed his eyes but saw his wife with her hand to her mouth.
“You okay now Allen?”
“Sure. Yeah. Hey look, I’m sorry about everything.”
Now hitting a long stretch of straight road, Allen turned around. His eyes were red-rimmed and the lower lids puffy; to Raymond they looked like auxiliary mouths, little ones, each holding a great gumball of an eye. Raymond shrugged and then lifted his chin to indicate that he would appreciate Allen’s full attention being focused on the asphalt ahead of them.
“Why are you so upset?” Raymond asked.
Allen looked at him through the rear-view mirror. “It’s nothing.”
“I’m sorry. That was a personal question.”
Lorraine often chastised his tendency to ask questions of complete strangers, which he took as a compliment. Once, after attending the funeral for his wife’s aunt, Raymond left the crowd milling around the doors of the memorial chapel and wandered off to find two men digging a grave. He stopped and asked them how long it took to dig a grave properly and if they really had to go six feet down. At first the two men thought he was a wise-ass or someone from a government agency, but they soon realized that he was genuinely interested. One of them, a huge black man with a right eye made milky by a cataract and who introduced himself as Clyde, told Raymond there were strict rules about depth, state regulations; and that while the job was generally enjoyable, it was more difficult in the winter when the earth cooled and became rock-hard. The other man, who did not bother telling Raymond his name, bragged that he had just helped exhume a body for the coroner’s department.
“It’s funny though,” Allen said, as though he wanted to continue talking.
“When I said. “It’s nothing’, it’s sort of true,” Allen said, now staring ahead as they passed a sign directing them to North Hyde Park. “I got a depression. The doctor says it’s due to nothing in particular. He said that depression is different now and it doesn’t have to be because of something anymore.”
“Oh yeah, like brain chemicals and stuff.”
“Exactly. Hey, you depressed too?”
“No,” Raymond replied.
“I was waking up at four in the morning and I wasn’t eating and I was anxious all the time,” Allen said, and Raymond wondered what sort of low-balling HMO he had if he was forced to continue driving private cars around and weeping at the wheel. “It still gets to me, now and then. Less since I’ve been on antidepressants.”
“Yeah, you better now?”
“I think so. It’s slow, though. I thought something would be at the bottom of it, but there wasn’t anything there.”
But Allen was right, he thought, it was odd, and frightening in a way, that something as black and enveloping as depression could just descend without a cause. He looked at Allen’s head. Somewhere in Allen’s brain something had happened: a memory, a chemical, a sadness blossomed. It would push him to wake up early or stop talking or step off a bridge. It happens. Raymond had, at one time or another, considered his mother to be depressed; she was a woman given to periodic and lengthy turns in bed followed by over-enthusiastic appearances at charity functions, forever with a glass in her hand. His father, if he was depressed, sought solace in the therapeutic effects of battering his family with the volume of his voice, and serial infidelity. Now they lived in Vermont and were happy. He could not dispute it nor for a moment comprehend it.
Parts of the road now seemed familiar, a ridiculous notion to Raymond as the darkness and the speed of the car made everything fade and shift and nothing could be recognized. He longed to be in a strange bed with his wife, with someone who inexplicably loved him and whom he loved, someone who slept, waiting for him. For a moment he felt as though he were above the trees and the rural roads and in the air again, quiet under the stars, engines shut off and simply drifting. He thought of Lorraine lying in bed, of the body that shared space with his, and he yawned. The road was familiar, he knew they were close. His eyes followed the thickets along the side of the road—dark and undulating, without break or variation—until suddenly, two stunning green points of light appeared in the underbrush and then a flash of white rose up and out of the darkness to take the form of an animal rushing over the car and past his head. He looked back but saw nothing.

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