The sun coughed speckles of fiery blood light through an assortment of darkening clouds as it laid down beyond the horizon of the gulf that evening. Its erratic movement through the wild arrangement of thunderheads shifted hellfire spotlights upon the air strip and on the bluffs that arose distinctively behind it. Its reprehensible and illuminated movement floated along the rolling hillside and danced like demons in the inferno to the music of a fiddler strung out on amphetamines. Their movement, beguilingly hypnotic and ethereally malevolent. Glowing, fireball hiccups of the sun’s decaying light raised long shadows like the growing teeth of vampires across the ground where the doctor tread, as if he was to be sucked dry before he could reach his aircraft, to be swallowed whole by something unto himself much larger than he could ever face truthfully, but could somehow engage with in a theoretical station.
It was to be his last flight. The retired old doctor’s vision was beginning to fail him as he grew into his twilight years. His wrinkles told a story longer than he could recount. Tales of sadness and heroism, loneliness, depression, champion and sorrow. It was against the will of his ex-wife that he bought the Cessna in the first place. And it was because of her continued, yet remarried concern that he was giving it up after tonight. He still loved her. That was certain. He would never again have her. That, also, was certain.
The old Cessna was worn in mileage and frame but not mechanics. As a doctor, he learned early on about the importance of taking care of one’s health. And that translated across the doctor’s life, from residential upkeep to gardening, career to automobile. In fact, it carried over to everything but his marriage. As a successful surgeon from New Orleans, he revolutionized the way doctors looked at heart surgery. As the Chief of the hospital, he revolutionized the way press conferences were held. He had all the time in the world for the things that elevated his status. But he gave his wife none. Notwithstanding, he gave her plenty as he courted her in their younger years. But as hair and skin faded, so did the tender love that once was. Romance replaced by long nights. Love making replaced by early surgery. And so it went.
He was to fly out of a small airfield in Tampa and make his way back to his main home in New Orleans. The sun splashed and painted the dooming clouds before him a rosy hue of dark gray. They hung in the sky like ominous bells ready to ring thunder and clap lightning. The old doctor carried on with his preparations. He was meticulous in every step he took, from wing to wheel to cockpit. From nose to tail. He was meticulous to the extent that there was nothing robotic about his actions, only very cold, calculated and cognitive on each move and inspection. Every now and again he glanced over the gulf to the west and feared not, for he had done this leg dozens of time. Hundreds maybe. He knew what the Cessna could handle and he knew when he must ground and retreat back to his summer home in St. Petersburgh. This was not to be the latter. In fact, he’d seen many thunderheads like this before, by movement and location, and he chalked them up to no more than a light dusting of rain as he trained northwestward, closer to Louisiana.
The inspection had completed and the Amanda I, named after, and better taken care of than his ex-wife, was flight-worthy. As he gazed into the diminishing light to his west where the earth that should curve perfectly bent into strange shapes because of the darkening thunderheads, he began his final, pre-flight ritual. For a brief but indelible moment before the sun made its final, hasty collapse over the gulf’s horizon, the old doctor, if for just a moment, looked young. Strapping. His wrinkles were erased by a flood of light that now reached the cavernous, unseen skin, hidden by age and defined by wrinkles, and filled them with the glow of youth and radiance. He shut his eyes and breathed deeply. For that moment, he became 30 again, filled with the life of a man who had it all before him rather than in his wake. He saw his wife, youthful and radiant, excited to see him, and he to see her. He saw her face, soft and smooth, without the reminder of years gone by. He saw her shoulders, perfect and strong, without largeness or bulk, but shapely and able. He saw her breasts, ample and firm. He saw him holding her after a long day at work. He saw their embrace, both clothed and raw. He saw friendships and career and everything that he had dreamed of. But mostly he saw her.
The great ball of fire dipped suddenly from above Neptune and fell from sight, leaving but a faint glow of what once remained. It disappeared so suddenly and purposefully, it made the old doctor shudder where he stood. And again he was 72 years old. And again, she was gone from his eternity. He opened his eyes and the earth was quiet and still. By the eyes of the old doctor, the great finale of the sunset over the horizon was now but a fading glimpse into the ultimate end of the day. Things were over now, but that did not change his ultimate purpose. In truth, the old doctor preferred to fly at night. In short but unforgettable moments, the meticulousness with which the old doctor lived his life was subdued by something that washed over him and felt greater than what he had become. For, there were but few things that the great doctor hadn’t accomplished that he had set out to do so. He’d become a distinguished surgeon. He’d married a great, intelligent, wonderful beauty. He’d born two, brilliant, Stanford graduate children. He’d become Chief of Surgery. He’d become Chief of the hospital. He’d earned his pilot’s license. On the other hand, his marriage was over, he had plenty of money, but no friends from his old career, his children rarely called and this was to be his final flight.
But if it was to be his final flight, he would ensure that he would see through his final ritual. As he opened the door to the pilot’s seat, he reached around to the back where sat a small, brown leather case with gold trimming. He slid it from behind the seat through the doorway and placed it on the pilot’s seat. He wiped his horn-rimmed Versace spectacles and moved in to open the case. As it sprang open, two perfectly placed items lay beneath his countenance. One: a half-filled 22 year old bottle of bourbon. The other: a slightly stained, but well intact highball glass, with a thin gold rim atop. The monogram on the highball was H for his last name. He filled the glass, three fingers in total, placed the bottle back in the case, returned it to his original location, sat in the pilot’s seat and closed the door.
He peered out over the runway as he sipped the bourbon. Darkness drove and turned the gulf into an endless pit of tar and a swallowing unknown. It scattered across the sea and railed over the old doctor’s sight, becoming nothing and everything all at once, as it descended downward into the lair of monsters and exaggerated beasts that may have never been. He looked behind him to find that the bluff still had small remnants of receding light. Behind him, light remained. Life remained. There was a certainty when things were bright. Perhaps that was why the old doctor preferred to work. Perhaps the light and the sight that once surrounded him gave him hope of seeing what was and would always be. Perhaps in the diminishing existence of the day, as was the diminishing of everything he ever knew or cared about. For it was the uncertainty of the twilight that made the doctor fearful. Not the night. Nor was it the day. But the ambiguity and uncertainty of the in between. Be or be not. Come or go. Rise or descend. One or the other. But it was the stagnant stillness and malaise of it all that jailed and rocked his senses like a rotting, wasted borderland between hell and purgatory.
Through the stampeding darkness of the evening, the old doctor could see the thunderheads roaring and swirling about like hyenas enduring their prey. They thickened like clay and rose and spun. The old doctor was becoming more weary of the patterns that formed before his eyes. He was unsettled as a man who is about to fight a worthy adversary. The innocent and inoculating forms of dark clouds he had seen just moments before were fast becoming ominous warnings of a flight he shouldn’t take. As when dogs sense a weakness in the pack, the old doctor felt as though the clouds could sense his alarm and were now swarming and nipping at his very soul. They mocked and insulted him. They called him, as a bully in the schoolyard. But they were magnetic.
He wouldn’t be beaten. Not this night. He gripped the throttle until his knuckles were white and shoved it forward. The engine growled and barked and spit back toward the impending thunderheads. The old doctor had sized up the amassing storm and was now giving it the opportunity to do the same to him. His velocity climbed. A flash of lightning lit up the gulf to a neon hue of blue which remained briefly for the largeness of the strike. The thunder crashed and pushed against the Cessna just as it overcame Earth’s pull, and shook the small plane from wingtip to wingtip. The storm had shot first. It had certainly shot first. The thunder crackled on beyond the initial boom in a chuckle of yet unjust arrogance. The old doctor squinted narrowly ahead as his jaw clenched and tightened. His teeth grit and his brow furrowed. His fear was gone, replaced with necessity and hatred. He was going home.
The old doctor lifted above the sea, just as they did over a century ago on a North Carolina afternoon. He flew northwest. It was a bearing that he had experienced so many times before. It liquified him. Its familiarity warmed him, even as he watched the burrowing storm gather for the bout. He felt as a pitcher winding up for a fastball. He felt as a lawyer preparing for his final statement. Every move that he made was premeditated, and yet, so adjunct precise that it was as of the blood flow of the body; a deep breath to the soul.
He flew on.
As lightning throttled and thunder choked the rattly old Cessna, brightness came in short flashes and painful bursts. The darkening skies before him lit up in a temporary seduction of impossible reality. The day would never be again, but for a brief ascent, it seemed that it might. As he lifted toward the heavens, he saw and felt the warmth of the resuscitated sun. His flight altered the reality of the day and rebirthed the life that he thought had already come to pass. It brightened. He pulled back on the control, lifting the nose in an attempt to capture even more of the extra-curricular day, to chase the effervescence of life. As he did this, his velocity dropped quickly and it pained the old doctor. He leveled the nose toward the horizon of the gulf, and the within a few moments, the sun had fallen into the night’s coffin once more.
Reality withdrew as he reached the first group of swirling thunderheads. Around him, the massive formation was coughing thunder and belching fire to the abyss below. He saw visions, thoughts and impossibilities. He saw the face of his wife. He saw her clutching the hand of her new husband. He saw so much of years gone by.
Another crash. He could not see the lightning, but witnessed marvelous and enormous flashes of brilliant light each time it struck, as it engulfed him in a bomb of magnanimity. The fierce and irregular winds felt as the hands of God, cruel and angry, as it shook him through the heavens without restraint. Only impulse and animosity.
He flew on. With confidence, he pushed the throttle even further away from himself, just as he pushed on through the hell-sky that toyed with the spec of an aircraft within its fantastical existence. He was but a blip on the radar of monstrosity. A bottle floating helplessly upon an ocean.
He no longer felt afraid. For when he arrived home, and of arriving home he was certain, he would tell his ex-wife something. He wasn’t sure what. Anything. Everything. The affairs he had. The love that remained. The lust that remained. The apologies. The distractions. The plans. The miscalculations. The what may be and the too far gone. He knew it wouldn’t make a difference to her. But it would make a difference to him. He spent his life making calculations and mistakes. Of most of it, he didn’t regret. It just was. But he had to make it matter to someone before he fell into his own coffin; a grave that was most likely waiting for him in one way or another, untemporarily, and very soon.
He had to make someone care and remember. And there was only one person left who would do. His mind began arguing with itself. Is it right to relieve his own worries by adding to hers? Doesn’t she deserve better after everything he put her through? Maybe he would just tell her that he was sorry for everything. And in the end, maybe that is enough. A million mistakes and one recompense. But after it all, and with everything gone by, it would be enough.
He remembered the morning, decades ago, that they made love on the beach just beyond the backyard of their St. Petersburgh home. Then that evening, sharing a hotel room in New Orleans with a woman the old doctor had under his cell phone contacts as “Michael S.” He was sorry for that. He wouldn’t take it back. But he was deeply sorry for it. He recalled the countless times that he volunteered for the double shift at work, telling her it was required of him, which ultimately led to a masterful skill on the operating table and promotions and fortune. But also, led to neglect and fragmenting emotions. And he was sorry for that too. Nor would he change it.
From the outside, before the divorce, the old doctor appeared to have it all. Yet only rarely did he feel that way.
As he searched for the right words for his apology, the sky let out a roar and the bottom of existence fell out from below him. The plane fell, sucking down into endlessness and nothing. As he careened, spinning and slipping and circling with the great exalted power of the storm, thunder rolled and lightning crushed and performed as actors on an epic stage of finality. He was now simultaneously the antagonist and protagonist in last performance of his own biography. Clouds and darkness and hues and light and memories flashed and dragged upward across his blurred vision while he reflected unaghast. The old doctor’s heart never changed. It never changed.
Life and death fades and rises as distinctively and with the same vigor as the tides. The sea may have claimed the old doctor, but that great divide ultimately claims every man. Some are swallowed up and sink into the abyss sooner than others. I wish that I could say that it is the strong who fight the longest and the meek who make an early descent, but that is not always the case. For sometimes the strong encounter a storm. Sometimes the meek find nothing but clear skies. I will leave it to you to decide which the old doctor was. But like the old doctor, it is the sea that we must all attempt to overcome, even in the face of certain pain, agony and blood. For in the minds of men, the sea represents many things. And equally, many things represent the sea. The sea in itself is a vast representation of the multitude of dramas and perils that we, as men, must attempt to overcome. And there may be but a brief time that we can wade or even rise above the vastness that is but a patient, faithful, resting place for all men. But inevitably, we all succumb to the sheer mass and eternal void that awaits us all. But, we must, at least for a time, fight it. Yes, we must fight it.