|[NB: As you know, I generally try to write 1000 words a day; this is nearly 15,000. But I had an idea, and I played with it a little bit.]
Miri had visited the campus in the summer with her parents, toured the dormitory and the dining facility, met with professors in the College of Aerospace Engineering, and tolerated, for the thousandth time, her father’s stories of his days at the university in the 1970’s. He had been a math major for whom college math, even graduate-level math, had come easy. Miri had been excited and confident about the prospects of starting her college career then, but now, two weeks into the fall term, none of it was coming easy for her; she was already struggling to keep up and wondering if she could really do this. Terrible thoughts of the consequences of her failing in college, disappointing her father, wasting all that money and opportunity, were beginning to skirt around the edges of her consciousness. She was able to fight back these thoughts for now.
Unlike high school, where her interest in schoolwork and her ability to do it had made her a star student and something of an outlier; here at the university, she was discovering that everyone was an achiever, and everyone seemed to be better prepared than she was. Her roommate was a thin girl from India with a strange accent who had laughed when Miri tried to pronounce her unpronounceable name. “Oh, just call me Louisa,” she said. “I always loved Little Women, so that will be my American name.” They shared a math class, Calculus of Variables I, and Louisa had spent all of the first weekend with her nose in the book, working problems.
One afternoon, Louisa was in here usual spot, a hard chair, with her head in the books. “Hey, there’s a bunch of girls going to town tonight,” she said impulsively. “Want to come along?” Miri asked.
Louisa didn’t look up, and after a while, Miri thought that perhaps she hadn’t heard her. Just as she was about to repeat herself, Louisa spoke without looking up. “Oh, I’ll be working on this into the evening hours.”
Miri peered over her shoulder and saw that the girl was working out of the textbook in their shared course. “I didn’t know we had an assignment in that class,” she said. “Did I miss something?”
“Oh, no, no assignment,” Louisa said. “I just like working out all the problems ahead of time.” Her voice was strangely musical.
There was a moment of silence as Miri registered this comment. “Oh,” she said, finally.
Louisa’s hand moved smoothly, quickly writing out answers in neat script. Miri had always been good at math, but she could only barely follow what Louisa was doing. She stole a look at the textbook and saw that Louisa was on page 262, halfway through the substantial text. The problems seemed to be something about power substitutions in partial fractions, something that Miri had only a vague awareness of, something that Mr. Seifert, her overextended high school calculus teacher, had said he would show her, but hadn’t; he had gotten busy with something else, as usual, and had forgotten. Louisa seemed to be doing them as fast as she could write. “How many of them are you going to do?” Miri asked.
Louisa looked up as if the answer were obvious. “I’ll do all of them.”
A beat, and then again: “Oh.” Miri felt more inadequate than ever. She gathered the things she would need for her afternoon sessions: cellphone, sunglasses, lip gloss; her books and papers were in her backpack, which seemed to grow heavier by the day. “You know, there’s answers to the odd questions in the back of the book,” she said.
“Hmm,” Louisa responded, still working.
“Uh, okay, I’ll see you later then?” she said.
“Yes.” Her pen traced its precise path along the lined paper, leaving a trail of precisely drawn figures and symbols. Miri picked up the backpack and left the room, closing the door softly behind her.
There were many girls in the hallway, milling around, in and out of rooms, chatting, going about their midday business; she had spoken to some of them over the course of the past two weeks, and some of them had spoken back. Some of them had not. There always seemed to be a crowd of students everywhere she went—the dormitories were full, the cafeteria and various fast-food places on campus were always crowded, and all her classes were filled with mostly serious-looking students who frowned and took notes furiously as the distant professors lectured impersonally. It was the seniors who, convinced that they would, in fact, graduate, got lazy, sloppy—and occasionally insolent. Her Principles of Materials I class was taught by an older gentleman with a patchy beard and thick glasses. Everyone said he was a nice guy, not too demanding. His eyes always seemed to be half-closed, as if he were talking to himself as he lectured. In this class the week before, the girl in the seat next to her—a senior who had apparently put this class off for some time—popped her gum as she sat impassively, and this seemed to wake the professor up. The girl wore gym shorts that were too short and a top that was too small; Miri had seen this same girl sitting on the steps of the Student Union kissing some guy, and then, the day after, sitting on the stoop of her dormitory kissing a different one.
The professor stopped in mid-sentence, looked up at her in the stadium seating, his eyes now open.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he said, “but if you could stop with the gum, I think we’d all be more productive today.”
Miri, sitting next to her, was mortified that by a mistake of proximity the professor might think it had been she who had disrupted his stream-of-consciousness lecture, but then she was rescued: the girl rolled her eyes, sighed heavily, swallowed noisily, and then smiled, her several-thousand-dollar teeth glinting at him as if to say There, it’s gone. Now are you happy?
The professor returned to his lecture, picking up exactly where he had left off. Miri couldn’t believe how disrespectful the girl had been. The next time class met, she noticed that that seat was empty, and the girl was not there. She heard the girls behind the empty seat chattering prior to the beginning of class.
“Heather dropped, you know,” the one girl said to the other.
“Yeah, she told me,” the other responded. “She’s transferring to Dr. Miller’s class, but she won’t let her pop gum in there either.”
“You know, she’s still on probation from last year.”
“Yeah, that girl’s a mess.” They both laughed, and by that time, the other students were settling in for the day’s lecture, and Heather and her problems were forgotten.
Miri got busy with her class routine: furious note taking, flipping in the textbook to keep up with the professor, and then gathering her things and packing up. She always seemed to be among the last to get out of the classroom and get started towards her next class. She exited the classroom, pushed her way through the heavy fire-resistant door at the end of the hallway, and made her way down the stairs and out into the bright sunshine; she slipped on her sunglasses and found herself suddenly comfortable among the throng of students. Everyone seemed to have a place to go and everyone was going to that place.
Miri had become aware that ther was a sort of uniform for the girls: a pattern of dress that everyone followed, or at least everyone who wanted to fit in and make friends—and that meant all of the freshman girls, for whom this experience was still new. The uniform consisted of shorts, sandals, a loose-fitting tee-shirt, baseball cap, and sunglasses. If the tee-shirt was clever, the more the better—Miri’s tee-shirt today was actually one of her father’s, who had been a pilot in the Navy and who was now a mid-tier captain for Delta Airlines. The shirt was blue, with white lettering that said FAA Mission Statement: We’re not happy until you’re not happy. Having had some experience with the Federal Aviation Administration, she thought that was funny.
Miri’s father flew the Atlanta-Milwaukee/Atlanta-San Francisco legs in a complicated three-on, five-off pattern that made it impossible for Miri to keep up with what days her father would be home. Her father’s odd schedule had worked to his advantage—she could never quite predict when he might show up at school or at her part-time job on the weekends at the flea market that was a tradition in her town from Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving. Vendors came from all over to show and sell their goods. It had been her job to issue the booths, collect the booth fees, and make two fire inspections of the booths on Saturday and Sunday. It was easy work, and being out in the sun all summer gave her a healthy-looking tan that the other girls paid good money for at the tanning place.
Her father’s vocation had gotten her interested in aviation as a child, and before she was old enough to work at the flea market, she was flying every weekend in her dad’s old Cessna airplane, a blue and white tail dragger from the 1940s that he had restored over the course of two summers. She soloed in that airplane the summer she turned fifteen, and gotten her private certificate in it the day after her sixteenth birthday, impressing the examiner with her spot landings and her quick and commanding reaction to the required and expected simulated emergency. “She got it right away, Captain,” the FAA man had said, using her father’s title; this impressed him, because although he knew many of the FAA guys, this one was a stranger to him and so there was no reason to believe that he might have gone easy on the daughter of one of his friends. He had been detailed from the Atlanta office to do checkrides on local pilots that day. “I said, ‘Hey, is that smoke I smell?’ and right away, she trimmed the plane to hands off and ran the cabin emergency checklist. When she got to the end of it, she announced, ‘Nope, no smoke,’ and that was that. That girl’s got a confidence you don’t see too much in a low-time pilot,” the examiner chuckled and her father grinned.
“Yeah, I try to pull the throttle on her every other flight or so, and so she’s always watching for it, aren’t you, honey?” her dad said. “I didn’t want to say too much about it, but I’m sure proud of that girl.”
“Yeah,” the examiner said as he completed the paperwork. The little square of paper would serve as her pilot’s license until the permanent plastic one came in the mail. As did all pilots, she would frame that little square of paper and keep it. Her father had his own, a yellowed scrap with fading ink dated June 17, 1979; it was professionally mounted and hung on his office wall at home. Hers would go right next to it, at least until she moved out of the house.
That had been two whole years ago, when things had come easy for her: the pilot’s license, the instrument rating later that summer, the commercial rating in the fall, her straight-A high school career. She had had a couple of boyfriends along the way, and took great pleasure in taking them up in her dad’s old airplane and scaring the pants off of them—figuratively, of course. It was her way to making sure a boy knew his place.
She was a good pilot, good enough to know exactly how far the old Cessna could be pushed, good enough to coax it into a boyfriend-scaring spin, good enough to let it twirl for eight or ten rotations, and good enough to coax it back out again. Sometime she would let the boy handle the takeoff, supervising and correcting with a little pressure on the yoke—but never the landing. She would never forgive herself if some pimply boy cracked the gear on her dad’s pride and joy. But now, all of her aviation accomplishments didn’t seem to mean very much as she struggled to produce quality schoolwork and to keep up with her course workload. And it was only the third week of the term! Miri tried not to think about that.
She had missed her morning coffee that day because she had been too busy putting the finishing touches on the first paper for her English composition course. She made her way through the ever-present crowd of students up to the famous-name coffee franchise on the second floor of the Student Union—the expensive place, the one named for that character in Moby Dick. As she came around the corner, she found herself walking past a line of students, but it didn’t occur to her that this could possibly be the line for coffee; it was too far from the coffee shop for that to seem possible. But as she advanced down the hallway, she finally realized that the line was for coffee after all; apparently many students liked coffee in the afternoon, as she herself did. She would have been able to walk away from it this afternoon if she had had her morning fix, but as she hadn’t, she was craving a nice sweet vente skinny vanilla latte, so, resignedly, she turned around and headed back down toward the end of the line to take her place there.
Now that she was turned around, she could see the faces of the people who stood in the line—most of them were down into their cellphones or engaged in conversation. She noticed one young man who seemed out of place. He wore a plain white baseball cap and did not have a cellphone, nor was he engaged in conversation. Instead, he was holding a sign; she immediately saw that it was a ping-pong paddle that someone had glued pieces of white cardboard to. He was standing sideways, holding the sign upright at waist level. He looked like one of those people she had seen when arriving in some large city by plane who held signs for people who were getting off the planes to see: they always seemed to say “Dr. Michaels” or “Patterson Reunion” or some such.
This sign didn’t say that, thought: in neat lettering that looked a lot like the precise letters that Louisa had been making in her notebook as she did the calculus problems were the words Spot in Line $2. Miri stopped and looked at the young man—boy, really; he was Vietnamese and somehow didn’t look like a college student. What he looked like an eighth-grader. He was small and thin and the plain shirt he wore was too big for him.
The line was moving slowly. As Miri watched, a tall, attractive woman, perhaps twenty, certainly not a freshman but wearing the obligatory uniform—her tee-shirt had a picture of a smiling, 1950’s-era woman, with text above that said Well, of course size matters, silly!—approached the sign-holder and extended her hand towards him. Miri could see that she had some paper money folded in her hand, and as she gave it to the young man, he dropped his sign and stepped away. She stepped into the empty space, and he slowly turned and walked down the line.
Miri followed him, and as he took his place at the end of the line, she got in behind him. He flipped his sign over so that the other side was showing and held it up to his waist again. On this side, in the same neat letters: Spot in Line, $1.
“Excuse me,” she said to him, “what’s that sign mean?”
He looked at her puzzledly for a moment. “Well, I’ve got a spot in line here, and I’m selling it. Not to you, though,” he added quickly. “I can just give you this spot, if you like.”
“No, no,” Miri hurried to reply. “I was just wondering. And the other side of your sign, it says $2, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, that’s right. When I get closer, the price goes up.”
Miri laughed and shook her head. “That’s really a good idea. Do you get many takers?”
“Oh, yeah,” the young man smiled, brilliantly white teeth flashing. “I make a couple of hundred bucks a week doing this.”
“Whoa! You’re kidding!” Miri said. “That’s amazing.”
“Yeah, I’m here in the mornings and I have some regular customers. Then I go over to the caf for lunch. Dinners I follow the crowd, you know. I try to see where everyone’s going and go there.” He said. “The cops won’t let me do this downtown, but the school doesn’t mind, as long as no one complains.”
“Are you a student here?” she asked. They shuffled ahead slowly as the line moved.
“Yeah, business major,” he replied. “As a matter of fact, this is my graduate project.”
“You’re a graduate student?” she asked incredulously. “You look so young.”
“Yeah, I get that all the time,” he said. From behind them, someone called: “Hey, Carlo!” The young Vietnamese entrepreneur turneda round. “I’ll be right there, let me get that spot from you,” the voice said.
“Yeah, yeah, Bunkie, I got ya,” he replied. He dropped the arm holding the sign to his side.
“Bunkie?” Miri asked. “The guy’s name is Bunkie?”
“No, his name is Chandler. That’s my old roommate. I call him Bunkie,” Carlo replied. “Engineering student, sports star, sort of,” he said. “Bunkie’s on his fifth year now.”
“I’m in engineering too,” Miri replied. She stuck her hand out. “I’m Miri.”
He took it. “Carlo. No offense, nothing wrong with engineers. I’m sure you’re really smart. Maybe you could help Bunkie, he’s not so good at math.”
“Well, maybe,” Miri said. She looked unsure; she hated to say no immediately to this person whom she just met. “I’m kind of having a little trouble keeping up with everything myself.” she finished.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, you’ll adapt pretty fast. Engineering, huh? Let me think…electrical?”
She laughed again. “No, aeronautical. I’m going to be building airplanes.”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, I guess I might be selling them at some point.” Bunkie had returned, and Carlo took the dollar from him. “Hey, Bunkie, this is Miri,” he said. Just as before, Carlo stepped away and his customer stepped into the empty spot. “See you later,” he said to Miri as she turned to go back to the end of the line.
“Yeah, see you,” Miri said. “That’s your friend?” she said to Bunkie. He was tall and tan and wore a uniform of his own: carpenter shorts, flip-flops, a loose-fitting jersey, and the dirtiest baseball cap she had ever seen. His long forearms extended out from the edges of the too-large jersey, forearms that sported sinewy veins of the sort seen on the legs of horses. He was wiry, all arms and legs, but she observed that he moved with some degree of grace.
“Yeah, that’s my old roomie. Smart little bastard, I’ll tell you that. Son of a bitch makes more money by accident than I do on purpose.” He smiled at her, and Miri thought Well, he’s got some potential. The first thing would be to clean him up.
“I can’t believe he’s selling spots in line. The college lets him get away with that?”
“Sure,” he said, his voice overly loud. After all, she was standing right there, but he sounded like he was addressing the room. “Hell, if they could figure out a way to do it, they’d be doing it themselves.” He was smirking now, and it was much less attractive to her. The line had continued to inch up, and now the counterman was nodding to Bunkie, ready to take his order. “Yeah, let me have a quadruple espresso and a large coffee, and put some ice in the bottom of the cup before you put the coffee in.” A couple of patrons had noticed his unusual order and had turned to look at him; he noticed and seemed to revel in it. Turning to Miri, he saw her looking too, and responded: “What? I need a little pickup, you know how it is.” And again, that smirk.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said, laughing. She was amused by him, but her female intuition, always sensitive and mostly accurate, screamed Danger! Watch it! This one’s capable of anything…. Then it was her turn and she ordered: “Vente skinny vanilla latte, please,” she said politely, as she had been taught to do.
“Vente skinny vanilla latte. Name?”
“Miri,” she said. The high frequencies of her voice got lost in the noise of the crowd.
“Mitzi, got it,” the counterman repeated as he wrote on the side of her cup. It was too much trouble to correct him and people were waiting, so she moved on. How many Mitzis could there be, anyway, she thought. Bunkie’s order would require the complex operation of some of the specialized equipment behind the counter, but hers had been a simple one, and the counterman filled it himself. He moved deftly about behind the counter and then held out a cup.
“Skinny vanilla latte for Mitzi.”
She took the extended cup from him. “Okay, you know my name’s not Mitzi, right?” she said to Bunkie, who was still standing next to her.
“Yeah. It’s Mabel,” he said, his face serious. A beat, and then he smiled. “No, I know your name. It’s Miri. Let’s see, that would be short for Miriam, wouldn’t it?”
She was amazed that someone actually knew that—especially this silly boy-man who drank quadruple espressos and wore filthy baseball caps. “Yes, Miriam. Nobody ever knows that.”
“Hey, I’m smart. Ask anybody,” he said. Then he pointed. “Well, don’t ask him.”
“Shut up, Bunkie,” the stranger responded. Then to Miri: “That’s a real fifth-year loser you’re talking to there,” he said. “You don’t see them in the wild that much anymore.”
“Your mom’s a fifth-year loser,” Bunkie responded automatically; his tone was so polite and cordial that Miri wasn’t sure she had heard him correctly.
“Yeah, well, you’re mom’s going to be paying your loans for a long time, Bunk.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bunkie replied. Despite the words, the two appeared to be on friendly terms. “I’ll see you later, Cowboy.”
“Not if I see you first,” the stranger replied. He and his companions, who had been listening to the exchange with rapt attention, snickered and went back to talking among themselves. Miri took a step after Bunkie because there was nothing else for her to do, and besides, it was only a few minutes now until her next class, and she would have to thread her way through a crowded campus to get to the engineering building. She had found out that it took longer than she expected to get from Point A to Point B during the first week, when she had been late to two classes. She hated coming in late; it turned her into such a spectacle, clunking through the door with her backpack, interrupting, having to take what was often the last available chair in the least preferable spot, having to tolerate the pained look of an annoyed professor. She promised herself that she would never be late for a class again, and she intended to keep that promise. She passed Carlo on the way out; he was still in line, holding his sign, turned to the $2 side now, and he nodded to her as she passed.
“See you, Carlo,” she said.
“Yeah, see you,” he responded. She walked quickly, sipping her coffee carefully, navigating between students here and there, and made her way to her next class, where she sat down, minutes to spare, and the rest of the day passed in a flash.
Miri arrived at her afternoon class on Friday—it was her last class of the week—only a minute or two before it was scheduled to begin; the first thing she noticed was that Heather was back in her old seat, right next to where Miri usually sat. Her first thought was to sit somewhere else so as to avoid a reoccurrence of the gum-popping incident two weeks ago, but the room was already crowded with students in their places ready to start the session, and so in an instant, Miri decided no—she would sit in her usual place, right next to the dangerous Heather. She made her way up the rows of seats; hefting the heavy backpack off her shoulder, she sat down, placing it on the floor beside her. Glancing over at Heather, she made another decision: she would say hello. She had been making a conscious effort to greet people in order to make friends and fit in, and, for the most part, it seemed to be working. There were a few of the girls in the dormitory who snubbed her, but that was all right. She wanted to make the effort anyway.
“Hello,” she said.
Heather smacked her lips, grimaced slightly, and sighed. “Hey,” she said, rolling her eyes.
The girls behind her, the ones who previously had been eager to discuss Heather’s supposed withdrawal from the course and her continuing probation, giggled as they saw this lowly freshman—and a plain-looking one at that—attempt to engage with Heather, to whom they referred as The Princessas a result of her long train of boyfriends and her success in wheedling various and sundry items out of them—clothes and carnations, as they said. One of them had even given her a car, but that act of generosity hadn’t generated any sympathy in Her Majesty; she had dumped him unceremoniously a week or two after that, and was still driving the car around, or what was more usual, the Princess’ Boyfriend of the Week would drive her around in it. She insisted on being dropped off at the door to wherever it was she was going, and parking was Boyfriend’s problem.
On those occasions when she was between boyfriends, she parked the car herself, but her sense of entitlement worked against her in this. She had dinged the car here and there getting it in and out of parking spots around campus.
The girls behind Heather giggled again; Heather’s head swiveled around, expensive coif swirling, gave them a look, and laughed a little too, as if to say Yeah, isn’t she pathetic? Then class was beginning and Heather sighed heavily again as she adjusted herself to a sideway pose in the narrow desk chair, crossing one mostly bare leg over the other one and folding her arms over her chest. Her body language screamed You can’t make me learn which, of course, was the case. She had enjoyed her week’s respite from this particular professor, but the other class was already four or five people over its published maximum, and Heather’s presence in this one was the only way she would be able to finish her degree on time and avoid turning into a fifth-year loser herself.
“Last week, you will recall, we were looking at the compressive and tensile properties of common materials,” the professor was saying; he wasn’t wearing his glasses today, but his eyes were still half closed, as they always seemed to be—except when he was asking insolent students to stop with the gum. He paused, and hearing no response, he continued. “Now, we’re going to take a look at the electrical properties. This is an area that has taken on a new significance recently as…”; at this point, for Heather, the professor’s voice descended into a staticy haze against which her interior monologue would play itself out over the course of the next hour and fifteen minutes. This monologue would consist primarily of he said and then she said and then I said repeated ad nauseum, accompanied by what her mother’s psychiatrist would have called strong feelings of persecution and an overinflated sense of self-importance. Miri, though, was already taking notes, using a set and system of abbreviations that she had developed over the course of her high school experience.
Her system had started before high school, actually; it had started in her first year of middle school. Her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Cornell, had made an impression on Miri throughout the course of that year. She recognized Miri’s potential and steering her toward reading and writing. One day long after third grade, when Miri had advanced to the middle school, up the hill from the elementary school, she crossed paths again with Mrs. Cornell, who was there that day on a mentoring visit with a new teacher. Miri was passing by the library, and through its open door, she saw Mrs. Cornell, instantly recognized her, and came running over to say hello.
“Hello, Mrs. Cornell,” she said excitedly. “It’s me, Miri!”
“Well, hello there, Miss Miri,” Mrs. Cornell had replied, pleased to see the child. Miri had been one of the ones to whom Cornell, who had never had children, had been drawn. In the moment it took Cornell to recognize her, she recalled the girl’s family situation, which had not been good in that year as her mother had struggled with a depression which a new baby had seemed to worsen. Miri hugged Mrs. Cornell, and she hugged back; she was a hugger, at least with the children, so many of whom had no one to hug them at home, as she knew very well. Eleanor Cornell had a doctorate in early childhood education, but had never used the title in her work at the elementary school. That said, all of the young teachers at the middle school—and the not-so-young ones at the high school and the local community college, where she was on the board of advisors—called her Doctor, or Ma’am.
“Oh, Mrs. Cornell, I’m in the sixth grade now!” Miri had said. “Look at what I’m working on!” She turned to the table, plopped down the binder she had been carrying, and flipped it open, exposing page after page of carefully written text. “See? I have my notes here from Mr. Steve’s history class, and over here—” she turned to the next section in the binder— “I have my work for Mrs. Brewley.” Miri was staring at the page she had just exposed and so she didn’t see it, but at the name Brewley, Cornell’s mouth tightened; Patricia Brewley was her rival who had been given a placement in the middle school to satisfy her many complaints about Cornell and about the elementary school principal for whom she and Cornell both worked. Like Cornell, the principal was a forceful, strong, opinionated woman who saw no point to pulling punches when it came to assessments of teacher effectiveness, and this had not gone over well with Mrs. Brewley. The principal was decades younger than Mrs. Cornell, but she admired the way she ran her ship.
“Yes, I see, honey,” she said. Unlike many teachers who worked with small children, when Cornell said I see, she really did make an effort to do so. What she saw on Miri’s paper was line after line, sentence after sentence, of material apparently copied out of a book and which must have been, she surmised in an instant, a lot of trouble to do. “Miri, why have you copied this out like that?” she asked.
Miri shrugged. “Mrs. Brewley said to. She has us copy stuff out of the textbook as our notes.”
Oh, my God, Cornell thought. This little darling is subject to that hack. She ought to be arrested for child abuse. But she smiled at the young girl. “Listen, honey, you know you can write down what you need to remember without having to write every single word.”
“Really?” Miri responded.
“Yes. Look.” Cornell reached for the pencil she kept behind her ear; it was a habit formed in college. “Instead of write the, you write a little line, like this.” She drew the Gregg shorthand symbol for the on Miri’s paper. “That means the, see?”
“It’s like an abbreviation,” Miri said.
Smart girl, Cornell thought, but she didn’t respond; Miri’s comment had been a statement, not a question.
“You can do the same thing with other words as long as you know what it means,” Cornell said kindly.
“Know what it means,” Miri repeated; the habit of repeating the tail ends of others’ sentences was an echo of her mild and undiagnosed autism.
Like many mildly autistic people, she had a sensitivity to noise, an affection for repetition, and a predilection for music. Cornell had recognized her symptoms on the first day, way back at the beginning of third grade, when the skinny girl with brown hair in a ponytail and the big blue eyes had first sat down in her classroom, in the second chair back from the front in the middle row. She knew children’s challenges and problems better than any medical doctor. But Cornell also knew there was nothing to be done, and raising the issue would in almost certainly result in a crippling label being applied to this sweet, bright girl, with resulting assignment to special education classes and a resultingly poorer education. Cornell knew she could do better with the child right in her class—and that she had.
“That’s right. Now you run along and tell Mrs. Brewley that you saw me today, okay? Tell her I said hello” she said. That should annoy her, Cornell thought with pleasure. “Sure was good seeing you, you’re such a big girl now.”
“Yeah. Bye, Mrs. Cornell.”
“Bye, honey.” Miri never saw her again; one day at breakfast not long after that, her mother was glancing at the paper while she fed Miri’s baby brother his oatmeal when she gave a little start, and Miri looked up from her own bowl of cereal. “Oh, honey, Mrs. Cornell died, it says here.”
“What?” Miri asked, spoon stopped in mid-flight.
“Mrs. Cornell. You know, that nice teacher you had in elementary school. Third grade, wasn’t it?” Her mother was reading closely now while Michael, the baby, grew increasingly impatient for the next spoonful of breakfast. He waved his arms around and then, unaccountably, started clapping. “Yeah, it says here Dr. Cornell, but there’s a picture, that’s definitely her,” her mother continued. “I didn’t know she was a doctor.” She continued to read. “Holy cow, she was seventy-seven years old. I had no idea she was that old.”
“Let me see,” Miri said as she reached out for the section of newspaper and spun it around. Yes, that was definitely Mrs. Cornell; her precise smile, more like a grimace, was captured in the head-and-shoulders shot. The newspaper had used one of the yearly school photographs that are taken, although this particular one had been taken long before Miri had arrived at Stephen Foster Elementary School. In fact, it had been taken before Miri had been born. But despite this fact, Mrs. Cornell looked in it largely as she had always looked. “Oh, no,” Miri said, her eyes welling with tears. “Mom, I just saw her a couple of weeks ago in the library.”
“Well, that’s too bad. I’m sorry, honey,” her mother had said. She had returned her attention to the baby, who had stopped clapping but was pleased to once again be the recipient of her attention. By the time she looked up, Miri had tears streaming down her cheeks, although her face had a completely neutral expression on it. Dr. Cornell would have recognized this as a symptom of autism too, although the tough little girl had never cried in her presence. “Oh, honey,” she said.
“How could she die, Mom?” Miri asked; her voice was clear, but the tears were still rolling down her cheeks. Her mother had recognized the strange way that Miri had of crying when she was only hours old; her face would be unclenched, unlined; it would lack any hint of red—and yet, she would be crying silently, eyes streaming. It was as if her eyes were leaking. She had mentioned it to Miri’s pediatrician, a nervous young woman out of residency less than a year who had become a doctor only because of her own father’s expectations. He had died the week after she graduated from medical school.
“Well, it says she was seventy-seven, that’s pretty old, you know,” Miri mother said.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Miri replied. She wiped her eyes, first with her fingers and then with a tissue her mother held out, which she had plucked from the box she had brought to the table to wipe up the mess that little Michael would make of his breakfast. “Thanks.” A beat while she continued reading. “It says here that she was from California. I never knew that.”
“Me neither.” Michael started in with the yah-yah-yah! that Miri’s mother knew meant I want down!; he would soon enough develop the ability to make his desires known more succinctly, but for the time being, he expressed himself with yahs and gestures. When that didn’t work, he had an unfortunate tendency to throw things. Miri had done that too, but in her case it had been out of frustration with the enormous difficulty she had had in learning to speak in the first place—another autism-related issue. But Miri had worked it out, and by the time she was in kindergarten, she had mostly caught up to her age group, and what progress was still lacking was blamed on shyness.
Michael didn’t seem to have any of these problems; he was progressing toward speech right on schedule. He would progress even faster later, skipping both the fourth and the sixth grades. Miri’s mother had been against letting the boy skip grades, but his father had been all for it.
“There’s no sense keeping him down there with the boneheads,” the proud Delta captain had said. Boneheads—that was his word for other children generally. “If we were in Japan, he’d be in college by now.”
“Well, we’re not in Japan, Jerry, and I don’t want them not having friends,” she had responded. She had had trouble making friends, and even as an adult often felt uncomfortable around people. Miri was like her mother in this regard. Miri’s social circle in high school had been limited to just a few girls who were likewise somewhat awkward socially—at least until Michael had come along. His presence in the neighborhood and then later at school, surprisingly, elevated Miri’s social standing considerably. Even as a toddler, Michael was extroverted, and his natural charm and social ease worked to both his and Miri’s advantage. He had never been annoying the way most young children are, and seemed to instinctively know and respect the line between cute and obnoxious. From the time he was first toddling around the front yard under the close supervision of his mother, who read a book in a lawn chair while Michael practiced and perfected what she would later call his schmooze on passers-by, on all the neighborhood kids and even the adults. They all loved Michael, and when he went to school, his charm and popularity increased Miri’s status despite the fact that she was much older than he was. All the kids somehow seemed to know Michael; he had a movie-star quality about him. Everyone seemed to want to be around him, and everyone was quick to compare how great he was in comparison to their own little brothers and sisters, who were all annoying to various degrees. Miri agreed completely—there was no doubt about it. Michael was the best brother. Their nine-year age difference eliminated the possibility for any sibling rivalry, and he had always been her little doll.
From the time that he could manage to get out of the crib at night, he had had a habit of crawling into her bed, and she enjoyed that. He was like a big puppy, and the way he snuggled up to her and fell asleep almost immediately was just so cute. He dreamed vividly nearly every night, kicking and thrashing and moaning. Sometime she would wake him in the middle of one of his dreams. “Mikey, wake up. Wake up! What are you dreaming about? Can you tell me?” His eyes would roll around and he would be unable to respond. For some minutes, he would seem not to know where he was or who she was. When he finally regained his senses, he would have forgotten the dream.
This little habit of his persisted until he was about four or five and her mother finally put her foot down about it. “No! He’s not a baby anymore, and I don’t want him in the bed with you,” she had said. Her mother rarely yelled, but she was getting close now. “No more! I mean it, young lady. No more.” Those words—young lady—were her mother’s code for I’m not kidding. “And you stop closing your door at night, I don’t like that either,” she continued sternly. “It makes me think robbers are in the house.”
“Oh, Mom,” Miri had said, rolling her eyes. But she obeyed. One night not long after that, Michael came padding down the hall in the darkness and his fumbling to get into bed with her woke her up. “No, honey, you can’t sleep in here,” she had said, turning him around and pushing him toward the door. “Mama said no.” Sleepily, he had resisted, and finally, confused and half-asleep, he started crying, and a few minutes later, her mother appeared in the doorway.
“Miri, what’s going on in here?” she asked, her bathrobe tied tightly across her midsection. Michael was sitting on the floor in Miri’s bedroom, rubbing his face with his hands.
“Mom, he won’t go back to his own bed,” she said, shrugging. “He’s afraid. Can’t he stay with me just this one more time?” It was late and she was tired; they all were. Miri had thought she would relent, but to her astonishment, she scooped the boy up with a grunt and stepped off down the hallway toward his little bedroom. He started crying as soon as he was out of Miri’s room, and the crying soon turned into an awful wailing. Her mother put him in his bed and then sat herself down in a chair in his room.
“No! You stay in that bed, mister.” He obeyed his mother and remained where he was, but he screamed the scream of the dying. The intensity of it first shocked Miri and then it scared her. She started crying too, only a little at first, and then more as the child’s screams intensified. He got up and padded down the hallway, standing outside the boy’s room. She saw her mother sitting there, strained, and saw that tears were on her face too. Miri suddenly realized that the whole thing was her fault. She had been selfish; she had wanted the baby to herself, and now the boy and her mother were paying the price for her selfishness. She sat down on the floor next to her mother’s chair and took her hand.
“Oh, Mama, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know it would be this hard for him.” Michael had been occupied with screaming and thrashing, but as soon as he realized that Miri was in the room, his screaming went up a notch, and he sat up, his little arms reaching out for her.
“Miri!” he screamed, sobbing. “Mi-i-i-i-i-i-r-ri!”
“Oh, no you don’t,” his mother countered strongly. “You lay your butt back down there and go to sleep!” Then to her daughter: “It’s all right, honey. Go back to bed. He’s just got to get over it now.”
“Mama, I can’t stand it,” she said, fresh tears streaming down her face.
“Neither can I,” her mother responded. She blew her nose on a tissue she held in her hand. “Just go back to sleep, honey. It’s best that we let him work this out now, while your father is away.” Miri went back to bed, but she didn’t sleep, and after what seemed like a lifetime or two of slowly dwindling screaming punctuated by several strong refrains, there was finally blessed silence from the little room down the hall—just as the sun was coming up. Miri lay in bed feeling terribly guilty, wondering what would happen now, and then there was a soft knock at her door. “Honey, are you awake?” her mother asked.
“Yeah,” she said, and she started crying again. She wanted to tell her mother how sorry she was, but she couldn’t speak.
She sat on Miri’s bed and sighed. “Well, he’s sleeping now. Let’s see, it was about one-thirty when this started, and it’s nearly six now, so he should sleep for a while.”
“I’m so—” she started, her voice husky, and that’s as far as she could get. She turned over and wiped her face in the pillow.
“I know, honey, but it’s not your fault. It’s my fault. I should have stopped this a long time ago.” She stood up, stretched, and then sat back down and stroked her daughter’s quaking back. “You’re a good sister, honey.” At this, the quaking increased. “I know you just want him to be happy. But he’s got to get over this. You don’t want him sleeping with you when he’s twenty-seven, now do you?” She smiled at her little attempt at humor, then she stood up again. “I don’t want you to go to school today, honey,” she said. Miri was so surprised that she turned over to see if that was what her mother had said or not.
“Go to school today?” she repeated; again, the echo of her autism.
“You sleep for a while,” she said. There was a whimper from down the hall.
“Thanks, Mama,” she responded, and turned over toward the window.
All that went through Miri’s mind in a second or two, and then she realized that she had missed several sentences of the professor’s droning lecture, so she looked back up, stretched her neck from side to side quickly, and tried to get her attention back on the lecture. She continued taking notes, trying to follow the professor’s line of thought, and she suddenly became aware that Heather was looking at her.
She glanced up at her as she continued to write.
“Jesus, what are you doing?” Heather said in a stage whisper.
“Taking notes,” Miri said. She almost added I can give you these later, if you like, but she didn’t; it was her nature to offer to help, but in this case, she not only feared an eye-rolling rebuke from the Princess. And skirting around the edges of her consciousness was the idea that this princess ought to be taking her own notes.
“Oh, my God,” Heather commented after a moment or two, but she noticed that what Miri was writing was not the sort of regular English words and numbers as she herself might have been writing if she had been interested in the material or in getting anything in return for the thirty-eight hundred dollars that her banker father was paying in tuition for the course. Let him spend his damn money, she often thought when she considered the eventual consequences of her halfhearted attempt at learning something over the course of the nearly four years she had spent at the school. What Miri was writing was novel enough to catch her eye—squiggles and lines, and occasional number or circle. “What the hell is that you’re writing?” she whispered.
“Notes,” Miri responded, not looking up. The professor had noticed them, but continued to speak; having long ago decided that babysitting was not part of the job description of an undergraduate professor, he maintained an awareness of the exchange only to assess the degree to which it interfered with the other students, who appeared to be attending to his discussion. He shifted his brain to another gear: Just keep screwing up, Missy, he thought to himself while he continued to vocalize the thread of thought he had been discussing. I’ve been watching you for four years now and you haven’t learned a damn thing. He turned, gesturing to punctuate his comments; he had delivered this material so many times, he could do it on automatic pilot; he could do it without thinking, as an actor might deliver lines after several thousand performances. But you, young Miss, you might have some potential, he thought, referring to Miri. He glanced up in her direction to see that she had her head down, writing. I’ll keep my eye on you.
Heather made no comment to Miri in response, but she continued to watch, and the professor wrapped things up—just exactly on time. He prided himself on his well tuned and practiced ability to deliver exactly 48 minutes’ worth of material, within fifteen or twenty seconds, time after time after time. He made it a point to use every moment of the class time; it was good for the students, and it spared him from having to tolerate their annoying tendency to start putting their books and papers away before the period was over, which they would do if not kept busy for the entire time. Pack up on your own time, kids, he often thought.
“Okay, next time, then, we’ll transition to heat transfer in common materials, and that’s it for today,” he said, wrapping up.
Miri continued to jot cryptically in her notebook, and then she looked over at Heather, who was still watching her. “Wow, that went by so fast today,” she said.
“Are you kidding me?” Heather responded. “Jesus, I thought it was going to last forever.”
A pause. “Yeah.” Miri said noncommittally. She closed her notebook and slid it into the backpack. “Well, I’ll see you,” she said, standing and hoisting the backpack onto her shoulder. She took a step down to the next lower level and then another step.
“Hey, wait a minute,” Heather said. “I want to ask you something.” Heather was putting her own things away in her own backpack, and Miri surmised that she meant to walk out with her; She probably imagines she doing me a favor, Miri thought, but she stopped and waited while Heather packed up and caught up to her. They walked out and then through the open door and down the hall together, Heather naturally taking a position to the left and slightly forward of Miri—the leader position. Miri let her have it. She thought being deferential to Heather might be a good way to warm up relations between them, and she was willing to meet the sometimes rude and often thoughtless senior halfway. The hallway was crowded, and they walked silently together until things thinned out a little bit. “Yeah, so I wanted to ask you about your note-taking, what was that stuff you were writing?” Heather was only half-listening; she nodded and smiled to people as they approached and passed, and she seemed to know everybody.
“Well, it’s a little system. Mostly, it’s Gregg shorthand, but there’s some of my own symbols in there, and—”
Heather cut her off with a squeal, then Miri noticed that another girl, who had been approaching them, was now squealing, and then the two of them hugged and jumped up and down, squealing. Passers-by registered this display but kept moving, some of them rolling their eyes at the scene. Heather and the girl came apart and chatted enthusiastically, overlapping, and just as quickly as it had begun, it was ending as the girl begged off, explaining that she was late and assuring Heather that she would call her right away. Heather adjusted her backpack and stepped off to continue, popping her gum. ‘Now, what were you saying?” she asked, not looking at Miri.
“I said it’s mostly Gregg shorthand,” Miri said.
“That’s pretty interesting,” Heather said unconvincingly. And then it became apparent what Heather wanted. “You think I could have a copy of those notes?”
“Sure,” Miri responded automatically—but again, the nagging question: Why aren’t you taking your own notes? Miri decided that in the interest of making friends, which on its own merits was a good thing, but which also, in this case, presented the additional advantage of forming a contact with a person who, despite her flaws, was clearly an influential person on campus.
Miri and Heather stood on the tarmac just outside the briefing room; Miri was looking up at the clouds, comparing what she was able to see with the weather report she had just received. A line of Cessna aircraft faced them: very small C-1S2s, which Miri disliked flying because they were just a bit too small, and the larger C-I72s, which, in theory were four-seaters, but were actually only just large enough for two adult-sized people to be comfortable on a flight of any duration, plus room in the back for a bag or two so that those people would have something to wear once they arrived at their destination or, as in Miri’s father’s case, golf clubs to swing.
Miri often described the size of these aircraft to non-aviators by comparing them to cars. “Oh, you don’t want to go in a 152,” she would say. “That’s like riding in a go-cart. You want at least a 172, that’s more like about the size of a Honda Civic.” Her father’s old airplane, a C-140, was actually a bit larger than the more modem C-152s that she had access to here at the university’s flying club. Miri could tell that Heather was excited about the flight; she had shown a degree of interest in the charts Miri used to do her meticulous flight planning, and for once seemed to be focused on something other than herself or on whatever men were wandering around.
“Okay, it looks pretty good,” Miri said. “The wind’s coming from the north today, so we’ll use Runway 10 to take off.”
They stepped off towards the line of aircraft. “Oh, this is so cool,” Heather said as they stepped off towards the line of aircraft on the ramp. “I can’t believe you know so much about all this.”
“Well, sure,” Miri said. “It’s not that hard, really. We’re flying seven-seven today, I like that airplane.” Miri refered to the one they would fly by its tail number: seven-seven was a short form of 65-0477, which was painted in orange letters on the tail. Miri suddenly stopped, and Heather stopped beside her. “Okay, what we do while we’re approaching the aircraft is to pay attention to it,” she said, suddenly much more business-like in her tone. “We’re looking for anything that might be obviously wrong with it. Did it get hit by a truck? It is missing a wing? Does it look normal? We’ll do the preflight together, get it started and warmed up, get our clearances, and then we’ll be on our way.”
“Sounds okay to me,” Heather said.
Miri walked up to the left side of the airplane, opened the door, and dropped her headset on the seat. “Go around to the other side and put your headset on the seat,” she said, “then come along and do the preflight with me.”
“Okay.” Heather walked around the front of the airplane, ducked under the wing, and opened the door. “Oh, my God, it’s tiny!” she said.
“You ought to see the 152’s, they’re really small,” Miri laughed. Heather had joined her on the left side ofthe plane, and they started the preflight. “Okay, first we look at the undercarriage.” Miri squatted down. “See how the tires look half flat? That’s just how they should be. And see this on the nose gear?” She pointed out an expanse of bright silver chrome coating that covered that part of the hydraulics which was exposed. “That’s just about right. If there’s a lot of chrome there, more than about an inch and a quarter, it means we’re aft-heavy, and that’s really, really bad,” she said.
“Did you say ass-heavy?” Heather said, her tone communicating that she really thought Miri might have, uncharacteristically, said that.
“No, aft, a-f-t,” she spelled it out. “The aft is the rear of the airplane.”
“Ah,” Heather said, smiling. “Aft. Okay.”
Miri stood back up. “Now we look at the fuselage, looking for any ripples, missing rivets, anything out of the ordinary.” Miri moved slowly along the body of the plane, her thin hand sliding along the metal surface. Then she was at the leading edge of the tail. She slid her hand along its curved front edge. “Here, we’re looking for dents and dings, anything that might interfere with the smooth flow of air up and over the tail surface.” She had moved around the tail now, and had grasped the moveable panel on its trailing edge. She moved it up and down gently, all the way through its travel. “This is the elevator,” she said. “We’re looking here for smooth and easy movement, and we also check to see that this counterweight is in place.” She pointed to a thin ribbon that ran the length of the elevator. “I like to check the cotter pins too,” she said, pointing to clips that held the hinge in place. Heather was following her along, attending closely. She reached up and moved the movable vertical surface. “This is the rudder, just like a boat has. We check here for smooth movement and we check the pins here and the cable attachments.” Miri continued to speak, providing Heather with a running commentary of the things she was doing and checking as she continued her trek around the back end of the airplane.
When they arrived at the passenger-side door, Miri helped Heather get in the airplane and stood outside the open right-side door while she settled herself into the narrow seat. She untangled the seatbelt straps and held them so Heather could get her arms into them; they crossed over the chest and snapped to the lap belt, which then buckled into a receptacle at her hip. “Tighten those up until they’re snug,” Miri said. “You can slip your shoes off too, and we’ll put them in the backseat.”
“Okay,” Heather said. She used the toe of one shoe against the heel of the other, and since Heather was already buckled in and could not reach them, Miri grabbed the shoes and put them in the back floorboard behind her seat. “Now, just keep your feet on the floor. When we get airborne, you can put your feet on those pedals and I’ll show you what they do. Comfortable?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Heather replied.
Miri adjusted the volume setting on Heather’s headset and turned it around so that Heather could put it on. “Okay, let’s get this on you,” she said. She held the headset ears open and Heather put her head into it; Miri adjusted the microphone so that it rested on Heather’s chin, just below her lips. “Fool around with that until it’s comfortable for you,” she said.
“Yeah, okay,” Heather said loudly; the headset had an effective seal around the ears, and Heather had to speak loudly to hear herself.
“Okay, now, don’t touch anything.” Miri smiled, and she closed Heather’s door firmly and walked around to the other side of the airplane. She deftly got in and strapped in, her headset on her lap, and she reached over Heather to grab the plug at the end of the wire extending from her headset, plugging it into a receptacle, and then plugged her own in. “You ready to start up?” she asked.
“Yeah!” Heather said. She was excited. “I can’t believe you’re really going to fly this thing.” Miri smiled and closed her own door. She reached down to a blue-knobbed lever extending from the bottom of the instrument panel, rotated it counter-clockwise until it stopped, then clockwise a quarter-turn. Then she pushed the red-knobbed handle next to it fully in and then fully out. “Okay, starting now.” She looked left and right, and then leaned her head out of her door, which was still open. “Clear!” she yelled firmly. A moment pause, then she turned the key and the propeller rotated three or four times. The engine fired, caught, and roared to life. Miri pushed the red-handled knob inward delicately, her attention fixed on one of the several gauges on the front panel, and she settled the engine down at about 700 revolutions per minute for warmup.
Heather was amazed at how loud the engine was, even through her headset; she reached up to adjust the seal that the flexible plastic made against the skin around her ears, and this reduced the roar somewhat. Miri’s door was still open, and her headset was still in her lap; this was a trick she had learned from her father. With the headset off, she could hear every noise the engine was making as it started up, and she knew that by listening carefully, she would be able to detect engine trouble and abort the flight here on the ground, where it would be safe. But the engine sounded fine, the gauges were correct, and so she slipped on her headset and flipped a couple of switches on the panel. “Heather, can you hear me?” she said into her microphone. Heather heard Miri’s electronically-amplified voice in her ears.
“Oh, yeah!” she responded. “Oh, I can hear myself too,” she said.
Miri reached over, grabbed Heather’s left hand, and raised it up to her headset, placing Heather’s fingers on a small knob there. “This is your volume, turn it up or down if you need to.”
“Oh, I got ya,” Heather responded. ‘Test one two, test one two,” Miri said, providing sound for Heather to adjust her volume against. “That’s cool,” Heather said. Miri made a throttle adjustment as the engine was warming up, and she closed her door, locked it, then reached across Heather’s lap to activate the passenger-door lock.
“Okay, I’ll do up a little flight briefmg, okay?” Miri said. “FAA requires it. I’ll be the pilot in command for today’s flight. Ifwe need to evacuate the airplane, release your restraints by pulling out on this knob right here,” Miri tapped the knob on Heather’s lap belt. “Your primary emergency exit is your door there, pull up on the handle and push out to get out. Your secondary emergency exit is my door, pull up on the handle and push out to get out. There’s no smoking at any time on this flight. Ifwe have an emergency, follow my directions. Any questions?” she finished.
“No. This is so cool,” Heather said. “Great. Now, you’ll be able to hear ATe on the radio, and when they say stuffto me, I have to respond,” she said. “Just stop talking when I’m talking to them, okay?”
“Yeah,” Heather responded. “Okay,” Miri was tuning the radios now, and making small adjustments on the panel; she set the altimeter, she adjusted the throttle and the mixture, and did a few other things to make their departure smoother. “Now, let me listen to the ATIS for a moment.” Heather didn’t know to what Miri referred, but as she turned the radio’s volume knob up, she heard an automated voice in her ear; ” … winds zero one five at eleven, visibility unlimited, two five thousand scattered, temperature seventy-four, dewpoint twenty-seven, altimeter two niner niner five, departing runway one zero, all departures contact clearance delivery on one two one point niner five. Advise controller on initial contact you have Information Oscar …. ” Miri turned down the volume and continued to make adjustments on the panel. “What was that?” Heather asked. “It’s routine information that pilots need to get out of here,” she said. “They record it once an hour so that they don’t have to say it over and over all day long. Okay, you ready to roll?”
“Yeah, I think so.” “Okay, let me get our clearance.” Miri reached up and pressed a button on her headset and held it while she spoke. “Ground control, Cessna zero four seven seven, ramp, one zero for vee eff are departure.” A pause, and then Miri and Heather heard a young male voice in their ears. “Cessna seven seven, ground, taxi to one zero via Charlie.”
Again, Miri’s hand reached to her headset. “Taxi to one zero via Charlie, roger.” Then to Heather: “Okay, here we go,” she said as she advanced the throttle and moved her feet on the rudder pedals. Heather noticed immediately that although Miri’s hands were in her lap, she did appear to be steering the airplane. Heather’s impulse was to grab the yoke, which flopped lazily as the airplane turned into the wind, and she put one hand on it. “No, Heather, don’t touch that,” she said. “I’m steering with my feet. Put your feet on the pedals and steer along with me.” Heather did so, and she moved as the pedals moved, left and right, making adjustments as the plane rolled forward. Miri was still making small adjustments to the instruments as they rolled along, the nose wheel following a painted yellow stripe on the ground.
“Oh, I see,” Heather said. “Oh, this is so cool!”
They continued rolling along the yellow stripe, passing what to Heather were mostly incomprehensible signs. They arrived at the run-up area, and Miri pressed the left pedal all the way to the floor, turning the airplane until it faced back toward the taxiway they had just come down. She stopped the airplane. “Okay, now we’re going to do the run-up. This is a procedure where we check a couple of things before we take off,” she said. “I’m going to set the engine at 1700 rpm, and then check my magnetos, this will take just a second.” She pushed against the brakes and advance the throttle; the engine roared and the airplane shook as the needle on the tachometer settled to 17, and Miri quickly but smoothly clicked the key to first the left magneto, then the right, confirming that the slight decrease in engine speed was less than 200 and that the two magnetos were within 50 rpm of each other. Satisfied, she pulled the throttle back and the engine settled back down to 700. “Looks good,” she said, and then she grabbed the yoke and smoothly rotated it all the way left and right, and pulled it all the way out and in. “Controls are free and correct,” she said automatically, and then she smiled at her friend. “You want to do the takeoff?” she asked.
“Me?” Heather said.
“Yeah, it’s easy. Come with me on the yoke, and I’ll show you.” Miri reached up and pressed the button on her headset.
“Auburn control, Cessna seven-seven, one zero at Charlie ready for departure,” she said crisply. The controller responded at once, as if he had been waiting for her transmission. “Cessna seven-seven, you are cleared for departure.” Heather heard the controller over her headset too; she didn’t know much about airplanes or about how they are operated, but she knew what cleared for departure meant, and her heart accelerated a little. Until this moment, she hadn’t really been convinced that this plain, mousy-looking little girl who didn’t even know enough to get into the good campus parties and who seemed clearly overwhelmed with college was going to launch this little plane into the stratosphere-and with her in it. Until this moment, she halfexpected for the whole thing to be a joke. But it was no joke, and she suddenly wondered if she was in any real danger.
“Okay, let’s line up.” Miri pushed the throttle in again and the plane rolled out on the enormous-looking strip of concrete. Miri let the plane roll along and then she turned it so that it was pointed straight down the runway. She lined the airplane up on the white dashed line painted down the center ofthe runway. Heather stared at it; she was amazed at how large it was. It was like seeing a traffic light close up–it was much larger than she had imagined.
“Ready to fly?” Miri asked her. Without waiting for an answer, she pushed the throttle in and the little airplane shook with acceleration. Heather was scared; this was different than the silly breathlessness she had when she was at the top of the tilt-a-wheel at the state fair, with a football player’s arm to hold on to. This was the unknown. Heather stated straight down the runway, gripping the armrest on one side and the front edge of her seat on the other. Miri reached up deftly and pushed her press-to-talk. “Auburn contol, seven-seven is on the roll.”
“Seven-seven, roger,” the controller responded crisply.
“Get on the yoke with me, Heather,” Miri asked her again; she was just about to apply the firm back pressure that would force the plane skyward, and she wanted Heather to be part of that. Miri glanced over and saw Heather’s wide eyes and tenseness. “Come on now, don’t you trust me,” she laughed. And then Miri rotated, and the nose wheel broke the ground. Heather had managed to get her hands on the control yoke in front of her, which was geared to Miri’s and moved in tandem with hers; she gripped it with both hands. “Easy there, easy!” Miri said sharply. “Just hold it loosely, and don’t fight me, okay? Just do what Ido.”
Heather relaxed a little, and with Miri guiding her, she continued to apply backpressure and the main wheels left the ground.
“Co-o-o-l,” she said softly.
“What?” Miri said; Miri had heard her say something on the headset. “I said cool!” Heather replied. She was gripping the control yoke, but wasn’t interfering with Miri’s movements on it. “Cessna niner seven seven, Auburn departure, radar contact, fly runway heading, climb and maintain three thousand five, good day,” the radio crackled. The controller spoke quickly, clipping his words: to Heather’s ears, it sounded incomprehensible. “Departure, niner seven seven, runway, climb maintain three thousand five,” Miri responded efficiently. “Okay,” she said to Heather as she pointed at the airspeed indicator, “see this dial right here? See how the needle is at sixty-five? Now, let me show you something.” Miri put a little more backpressure on the yoke and the plane, which was already climbing, started climbing a bit fasterand the airspeed needle fell a little bit. “See how when I pull back, the needle goes down?”
“Yeah,” Heather said, watching carefully. “Okay, so if! relax the backpressure, the needle goes up, see?” Miri did so and the aircraft reduced its climb rate, with a resulting increase in speed. “It’s like driving up and down a hill, the faster the plane goes up the hill, the slower it goes.”
“Oh, so that’s the speed there?” Heather asked. “Yeah, it’s our speed through the air. So what you do is you just hold enough backpressure on the yoke to keep this needle at 65. You got it?” Miri let go of the yoke, and Heather yelped. “Don’t worry, you just keep it level and keep that needle at 65 using your back and forward movement.” Miri laughed to see Heather concentrating so hard; she was already chasing the needle, which Miri herself had done on her first few flights with her father long ago. Miri quickly learned that chasing the needle-that is, pressuring back only when the needle rises and pressuring forward when the needle falls-is an awkward way to fly an airplane. Miri learned that the correct way is to anticipate what the needle will do and correct for it before it happens. It was the difference between knowledge and experience. “Now, just keep it at 65 until this instrument,” Miri pointed at the altimeter, which was next to the airspeed indicator, “reads three thousand five hundred.” It was winding up and just passing through two thousand.
“What?” Heather asked. She had her hands full just keeping up with the airspeed.
“Forget it, just keep climbing. You’re flying, how about that?” Miri said, laughing. “Damn, Miri, this is a lot of work,” Heather said. While they had been climbing, Miri had kept one ear on the radio chatter. She had not been addressed directly, but she was keeping a mental picture of what was going on around her based on what the controllers said to the other airplanes. Then she heard her own callsign.
“Cessna niner seven seven, Auburn control, traffic at four thousand, four miles at your two o’clock,” the controller said.
Miri knew the drill: aviate, navigate, then and only then communicate. Immediately on the controller’s word traffic, she had scanned the sky around them, and now she focused on the two o’clock segment. She scanned that slice of the sky vertically and then saw the other airplane. At this distance, it was only a speck, but she would keep an eye on it for the few minutes that it would take for it their paths to diverge. She reached up for the press-to-talk. “Control, niner seven seven, tallyho.” Heather’s head swiveled around. “Did you say tallyho?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Miri replied, putting a little down pressure on the yoke to correct Heather’s sloppy climb hold.
“That’s what we say when we want to tell the controller that we see the other airplane.”
“What other airplane?” Heather asked.
“Well, did you hear the controller give me the traffic call? He was telling me that there’s another airplane nearby so I can keep an eye out for it.”
“Another airplane?” Heather was craning her neck, looking around; she seemed to expect that it would be right up next to them. “Where?”
“It’s over there, about four miles. You probably can’t see it.”
“Oh,” she said. “This is really cool,” Miri was flying the plane now while Heather looked out of the window on her side. “We’re approaching our altitude now, Heather,” Miri said. “Let me show you something, okay? I’m going to turn the airplane towards your side now, don’t get nervous.”
“Okay,” Heather said, and again, her hand gripped the armrest on the door. This time, though, her other hand, the one on Miri’s side, came up to the top of the instrument panel. “Ready when you are.”
Miri pressed the right rudder pedal, applying a bit of back yoke pressure at the same time to ensure a coordinated turn, and let the airplane lean over; she banked about 35 degrees, such that out of Heather’s window, where there had been roughly equal parts of sky and ground visible below the wing, there was now only ground. “Whoa!” Heather said as she stared out of her window. “That’s incredible!”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” Miri said. “We’re too high to see much of anything. When we get to the practice area, I’ll come down a couple of thousand feet and you’ll really be able to see stuff.” Miri completed the turn, coming to zero nine zero degrees, due east, and established straight and level flight at her assigned altitude of three thousand five hundred. She trimmed the airplane for hands-off flight, set the throttle to maintain 115 knots, cracked her fmgers, and put her hands in her lap; her feet were still on the pedals, making slight adjustment here and there to maintain heading.
“Uh, shouldn’t you be flying the plane,” Heather asked. She seemed much more relaxed now that they were established high above the ground. “I am flying the plane,” Miri responded. She put her hand on Heather’s shoulder. “I’m really proud of you for going with me today.”
“Oh, I’m loving it,” Heather said.
“Yeah, it’s a beautiful day for it.” Something on Heather’s side far below caught the sun and sparkled, and Miri pointed towards it. “That’s Lake Martin over there,” she said. “We’re still about twenty miles away from it, but we’ll get low when we get there and take a look.”
“No way!” Heather said. “My dad’s got a boat in a slip there, I wonder if we could see it?”
“How high are we right now?” Heather asked.
“You see this dial?” Miri said, pointing again to the altimeter. “This tells how high we are. It’s sort of like a clock, but there’s three hands instead of just two. That thick short one tells thousands of feet, that longer one tells hundreds, and the real skirmy one tells feet.”
“Yeah?” Heather said, puzzling at it.
“So can you read our altitude right now?”
“Urn, let’s see,” Heather was studying it carefully. “That’s three thousand, and then five hundred more, and then it looks like about twenty or so.” “That’s it exactly,” Miri said. “It’s really not hard. You get to where you can read it instantly, like you read a clock.” Miri saw that they were, as Heather had noted, a fraction off their assigned altitude. Miri’s estimation was 3514; not far enough away from 3500 to get excited, and besides, the instrument was a pressure one, not an electronic one, and thus was subject to a variety of error.
“This one is our airspeed, you already know about that,” Miri said. “What’s our speed right now?”
“Urn, looks like about 115,” Heather responded. “That’s miles per hour?” she asked.
“No, it’s knots, nautical miles per hour. 115 knots is about 130 miles per hour, that’s how fast we’re going right now.”
“Really? It seems like we’re hardly moving.”
Miri laughed. “Yeah, you’re right about that. Well, we’re going 115 knots through the air. lfthe air’s blowing backward at,say, 10 knots, then our groundspeed will be that much less.”
“Like a fish swimming in the water,” Heather said.
“Yes, exactly,” Miri responded, impressed. Many-most-ofher friends in high school who had flown with her had taken a lot longer to warm up to that idea. Several weeks flew by, and without really noticing it, Miri suddenly felt herself relax a little. Now she knew where every building on campus was and their relation to each other. She had come to understand that her professors in her classes-contrary to what Heather had reported-wanted her to succeed, were eager to help her with her work, and would make Sure she had what she needed to do a good job in the classroom. The difference between Miri’s experience in that regard and Heather’s was that Miri plainly was engaged and made an honest and energetic effort to do the work, whereas although Heather might have been willing once, long ago, her present affect, as demonstrated in Dr. Armstrong’s class and elsewhere, was one of entitlement and disgust with authority. Miri had come to enjoy the spectacle of Heather in the class that they shared, having become comfortable with the idea that she would not be blamed for Heather’s behavior simply because she was seated next to her and plainly had some relationship with her. Miri had also come to know the shortcuts around campus and the ways to avoid the crowds at lunchtime-although from time to time she sought out those crowds, looking for Carlo, and invariably, she found him, holding his little sign. On this particular bright Wednesday afternoon, Carlo was standing at the larger ofthe two Mexican fast food places on campus. The larger place meant more students, and longer lines, as Carlo well knew. He was standing in one ofthose lines as Miri approached; his sign was turned around to the $3; apparently, he had crossed whatever mental threshold it was that distinguished exactly what it was that the market would bear. For this market, however, he may have been over-optimistic; several students seemed to be eyeing him, but none approached, and he continued to shuffle slowly toward the front of the line.
“Hey, Carlo,” Miri said.
“Hey, Miri,” Carlo, replied. For a split second, he brightened; she had surprised him. Then, as ifhe were catching himself, he returned to his neutral expression. “Are you going to eat?” he asked. “If you are, I’ll step back there with you.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. She hadn’t intended to-she really didn’t like Mexican food, but Carlo had been sweet to offer to go back to the back of the line with her, and she didn’t feel like she could refuse. “Okay.” He dropped his sign and started his slow walk past the many students who had not been interested in paying for Carlo’s spot in line, not at the $2 level or the $3. He wore his usual plain, unadorned baseball cap, but was wearing a button-up shirt and khaki pants with leather lace-up shoes.
“What are you all dressed up for?” Miri asked as they continued past the faces. Miri knew a couple of them, and she nodded as they went past. She had continued to make the effort to speak to people, and was now recognizing faces everywhere she went. Although at first, she had first been amazed at Heather’s apparent knowledge of every single person, student, graduate, or faculty, on campus, she saw how after four years at school-or five, in Heather’s case-one could get to know lots and lots of people. Heather was of course at an advantage in this area. She was not pretty in the classical sense, but almost no one is. She was attractive; she presented herself well; she made the maximum use of makeup, hairstyle, and clothes, and her youthful and athletic body at once captured the attention of all of the male students-boys, really-on campus. Heather was not a particularly kind person; her relationships with the boys and her friendships with the girls suffered as a result of this. Knowing people casually, knowing people well enough to say hey as they passed on the commons or in a hallway somewhere was Heather’s forte, but she herself privately considered that she really didn’t have any “friends” the way others did. Miri, on the other hand, could sense that she and Carlo were becoming friends in this sense, or at least, she sensed that Carlo thought so.
“So, how are things going?” Carlo asked her as they took their place at the end ofthe line.
“Good, how about you?”
“Hmm.” He shrugged. “I’m not getting much business here today.” Carlo had turned around and was facing front, and so he was unable to see the two approaching campus police; they were in dark uniforms with patches and stripes here and there, heavy boots which squeaked on the polished floor as they walked-but this did not distinguish them, because everyone’s shoes squeaked on that floor-and a variety of equipment hung on loops and belts here and there.
Campus security did not carry firearms, but each of them had a baton and handcuffs and a small bottle of pepper spray, which were typically needed only when drunk students staggering home from parties late at night refused to quiet down or to cooperate when asked to produce identification. From time to time, there was real crime on campus-theft, typically; mugging from time to time. There had been a rape on campus several years ago. It was a well-kept secret that the campus security department had no authority to arrest students, but they did have a great relationship with the town’s police department, who were only a radio call away-and they certainly could and did arrest university students. Bunkie, in particular, was known to them. While he generally was cooperative even when drunk, he also angered easily, having been arrested early one Sunday morning after having tussled with an equally overgrown, sinewy, and inebriated underclassman whose opinions on a particular hockey team hadn’t been to Bunkie’s liking. He had been up drinking all night; he had been to two parties off campus and was staggering home as the sun was coming up. The two of them exchanged loud words, which quickly advanced to blows. Just Bunkie’s luck-his opponent had learned to box at the Boys and Girls Club, and competed as an amateur for a couple of years before college. Bunkie had bitten off a little more than he could chew. After getting pounded in the face several times, Bunkie saw the better part of valor and walked away; he was apprehended on his trek back to his dorm. He was easily identified by the blood that covered his shirt and the front of his pants. He was actually dripping blood as he walked-the Red Wings fan had bloodied his nose, which had contributed significantly to the mess on his shirt, but it was his busted lip that Bunkie couldn’t get to stop bleeding.
Squeezing it-which was about the only way to stop the bleeding-hurt so much that he just let it bleed as he walked along, wiping the blood off of his chin with his hand from time to time and then wiping his hand on his shirt. Campus security had received a report of a fight outside of the dining facility, where staff were already on hand preparing for Sunday morning breakfast, and they pulled up alongside Bunkie as he walked. Bunkie looked up to see a bright flashlight shining in his face.
“Having a little trouble this morning?” the driver of the car said as he kept the beam of the flashlight on Bunkie’s face. It was light enough now to see that his clothes were streaked with blood. Bunkie, for his part, had been too self-absorbed to notice the car as it had quietly pulled alongside him, and he was surprised to respond. The security officer stopped the car, chuckling to himself as he put it in park and flipped on his blue lights. No siren-it was too early in the morning for that-but the lights would communicate to all the other security personnel in the area who might come along that he was apprehending someone.
“Have a seat for me, buddy,” the officer said, stepping toward Bunkie.
He was still too surprised and drunk to respond, and then, all of a sudden, he realized what was happening, and he sat down heavily on the curb. The light was still in his face, and Bunkie’s wheels began to turn as he sat there: How can I get out ofthis?
“Got any ID?” the officer said. He peered more closely at Bunkie’s face, trying to ascertain just how badly he was injured. There was a lot of blood; it was caked all over his face and chin. “How bad is it?” he asked.
“Not bad,” Bunkie responded, making an effort not to slur his words.
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“I dunno,” Bunkie responded dully. The officer reached up to his epaulet, pressed the button of the microphone that was clipped there, and spoke. “Three fiftyeight, Code seven north of the dee eff,” he said efficiently. Bunkie did not know the codes that were used by the campus security, but he knew it didn’t sound good. In actual fact, the officer had just identified himself to the dispatcher, stated that he needed an ambulance on the north side of the dining facility; the code seven meant that the ambulance should come with all deliberate speed but the aural siren should be silenced, given the hour and the location. The officer knew from his training that while lights could be used without attracting too much attention, if a siren was turned on, there