by Faith Brynie
Ramona Ramirez nudged a wisp of coarse, gray hair away from her forehead and tripped the lever that popped the lid on her long-handled dustpan. With deliberate slowness, she wielded her broom with one hand and her dustpan with the other, trapping in the dustpan's dark vault yet another cigarette butt, one of the rare unfiltered breed this time. The butt left a meandering trail of black ash across the vinyl floor she had scrubbed and polished to a diamond shine only hours before.
Ramona let her dustpan close with a clank, then shuffled forward, her soft-soled slippers sliding soundlessly along the frictionless surface beneath her feet, the hem of her cotton skirt grazing the ground as she stooped to gather candy wrappers and cardboard cartons too large for her dustpan. Her thin, walnut shell of a face wrinkled in concentration on her task. As she bent, she nestled the palm of her left hand--still balancing the dustpan--into the small of her back where muscles scarred from years of bending and lifting protested yet another enactment of the offending posture.
She jammed the trash into her pocket and trudged on, seemingly oblivious of the bustle of air travelers scurrying about her, though a careful observer might have noticed how her sharp, darting black eyes surveyed with studious attention every passenger who rushed past toward the spoils of business done or the battles of business undone.
Above the rumbles, hisses, groans and whispers of a hundred idle conversations, a hundred tearful farewells, a hundred joyous reunions, and a hundred protestations of late flights, poor service, and unimaginative food rose the whine of the airport's public address system. A disembodied female voice flowed clear as spring water, announcing, "Last call for PanSouthwest's commuter flight 1749 to Salt Lake with intermediate stops in Pueblo, Gunnison, Montrose, and Grand Junction. All passengers should now be aboard the aircraft in its final boarding from Gate E-11. Passengers are reminded that only one item of carry-on luggage may be taken aboard the aircraft."
Ramona grinned crookedly around some missing teeth and chuckled to herself at the image that gripped her mind: all those impatient men, harassed women, and fretful children clutching purses, shopping bags, baskets, briefcases, backpacks, sleeping bags, knitting totes, books, flowers, cakes, garment bags and computers--all boarding PanSouthwest's flight without question despite the announcement of carry-on limitations. The airline broadcasted the same warning every day for every flight. And every passenger and every smiling, solicitous flight attendant ignored that same warning every day on every flight. That's how things were. Day after day. Year after year.
Ramona should know. She'd cleaned Concourse E every day (except a few holidays) for the last six years and Concourse C every day (except a few holidays) for twenty-three years before that.
She knew what to expect.
She knew her job inside and out.
The airports public address system crackled to life. "Mrs. Sandringham, Mrs. Jennifer Sandringham, arriving passenger from Chicago, please go to the nearest white paging telephone. Mrs. Sandringham to a white paging telephone please. Final call."
There it was: the "final call" announcement Ramona had awaited. Mrs. Jennifer Sandringham had been paged twice before and, as Ramona had known she would, failed to answer either previous call. The third and final call meant it was very unlikely that Mrs. Sandringham was in the airport to hear her page. Ramona felt a growing certainty that Mrs. Sandringham was nowhere near the airport.
Ramona tucked her broom and dustpan into the corner behind the water fountain and made her way silently along the wall toward a nearly empty waiting area. Once out of the main flow of humanity through the concourse, she leaned her forehead against the cool tile of the wall and closed her eyes. She bent her elbows behind her back and clasped her hands at her waist. She pressed her eyelids tightly together and focused for seconds that stretched past a minute, though time had little meaning to her then. The handful of travelers straggling into the waiting area ignored the skinny, little cleaning woman in the thin, cream-colored cotton blouse that had once been white and the faded bandanna tied around her unruly iron-gray hair.
Ramona's awareness widened and she knew. Mrs. Sandringham was not in the airport. She is still in Chicago, Ramona realized. She missed her flight after a business meeting that ran too long. She is having trouble arranging another flight. May not make it home until tomorrow. May not call home for hours until she knows her plans.
Ramona turned away from the wall and let her focus return to her visual sense before she slipped noiselessly to the white telephone mounted on the wall only yards away. Her piercing black eyes darted from side to side, taking in all the details of activity on the concourse in one concentrated scan. No one noticed her pick up the phone and say, in a patrician tone quite unlike her own heavily-accented English, "This is Mrs. Sandringham, Jennifer Sandringham. You have a message for me?" Her tone was polite, business-like, cool, controlled, just as she knew Mrs. Sandringham would be.
"One moment, please," the airport message clerk answered mechanically from her perch in a glass-enclosed, eagle's nest of a control booth a half-mile away in the main terminal. The clerk left Ramona listening to Barry Manilow for a few seconds, then returned abruptly in mid-chorus with a staccato, "Hold the line please for a call."
The phone clicked and popped in Ramona's ear, then seemed to go dead before she heard yet another click and pop and--at last, as she knew she would--the sound of a tiny, wavering, scarcely audible voice whimpering "Mommy, Mommy, is that you, Mommy?"
Ramona could feel him completely now that the connection had been made. He was young, very young, no older than five. He was thin, almost fragile--especially for a boy--and ghostly pale. Very blond hair and eyes gray as storm clouds. He was vulnerable, confused, and paralyzed with fear.
Ramona could feel it all because she was part of him now.
The boy clutched the phone in that bright, clean, modern, safe living room, aglow with crystal vases brimming over with anemones and tasteful mirrors reflecting the muted illumination of shaded, peach-toned lamps and the sculptured forms of formal wing chairs upholstered in silver-flecked jacquard.
The boy clutched in one trembling hand a beige telephone--the portable variety with an antenna that must be raised. The phone was his lifeline. It was keeping him from sinking into panic. Ramona could feel his control slipping beneath the churning waves of terror. His fear had an atavistic taste of stagnant ponds and sea salt.
At the boy's feet lay a crumpled figure. She was scarcely middle-aged, her brown legs smooth-skinned and heavy-muscled, the pupils of her liquid, brown eyes dilated beneath lids fluttering against the pile of the plush beige carpet. The crimson stain was growing wider like a halo about her head as blood pumped rhythmically from the gaping wound at her temple.
It had happened when she tripped over the boy's toy truck. The silvery, polished chrome corner of the glass coffee table had ripped deep into the flesh just above her eye and severed an artery. The nanny's breath had been knocked from her lungs when she struck the floor, so she lay dazed, semiconscious, unable to move, while her life's force spurted from her in rhythm with her rapid, pounding heartbeat. The boy had comprehended little, but he could see bits of torn skin and drying blood marring the perfection of the table's shiny metal trim. He had stood staring, wordless, nearly breathless for minutes before he had punched the preprogrammed button on the telephone that automatically connected him with the paging service at the airport. His mommy and daddy traveled a lot. Mommy was at the airport. He knew it. Marta had said so only minutes before.
The picture came to Ramona not as a patchwork but as a piece of whole cloth. As her concentration increased, she could feel it all with perfect accuracy because she could feel everything the boy felt. Through every nerve, tendon, and muscle she could sense his position, his movement, his terror. His physical space was hers now, and his physical sensations were hers now also. No longer was she part of him as she had been moments before. Now she was him. With every cell and tissue and organ of his body and her body dividing and contracting and metabolizing and beating together, she lived his terror.
"Listen carefully," the woman who sounded like Mommy said, and the boy listened, never realizing he had given no description of his plight, never realizing he was himself and more.
The boy who was Ramona nodded and the woman at the airport who was Ramona understood the nod, though the boy never spoke.
"Mark, go get two big pillows off the couch. Put them under Marta's head and shoulders. Lift her head as high as you can. Get her sitting up as straight as you can. That will slow the bleeding."
Quadriceps and sartorius muscles within pale, skinny thighs tightened and released in perfect, alternating rhythm as the boy bounded for the sofa. Biceps in upper arms contracted to lift the pillows. Elbows and knees bent, and arches and toes pushed against the carpet as the boy gained enough leverage to wedge the pillows under the nanny's head and shoulders. The elevation had the desired effect. The pulsing of the blood continued, but the volume of each spurt diminished. Ramona and the boy felt pleasure at the result.
The boy cradled the phone against his ear once more. Fresh auditory impulses traveled along sensory neurons from the phone to the left side of his brain, where both he and Ramona heard the words that the woman at the airport spoke.
"Good, Mark, now run to the kitchen and get a towel--a big one-and press it against the cut on Marta's head. Push it hard, Mark, as hard as you can so you stop the blood."
The woman did not ask if he understood. She knew he did, because every ligament, tendon, and muscle they shared possessed the knowledge that propelled the action.
Gastrocnemius and tibialis flexed for the journey, ligaments pulled over elbows and knees, and the joints of the bones of the boy's tiny hand hinged so he could pluck the towel from its rail high above him. More running. Then the sinews of his puny upper arms tensed with a strength he alone did not possess as he pushed with more force than he alone could exert against the scarlet stream jetting from Marta's head.
Minutes passed in the penthouse apartment. The same minutes passed at the airport as travelers moved by, heedless of the drab, little cleaning woman with unblinking eyes clutching the paging phone with such force that her knuckles pushed white against the nut-brown skin of her liver-spotted hands.
As quickly as it had begun, it ended. Ramona could see and feel through the boy's eyes and hands that the bleeding had stopped. As Ramona slid methodically away from him--fiber by fiber--she could feel his fear receding like the evening tide. His stomach leapt not with fear now but with relief as Marta's eyes fluttered and she spoke to the boy, "Mark."
Without listening to the woman at the airport again, the boy knew in some way he would never understand even in his years as a grown man what he must do next. Returning to the telephone, he broke the connection with the airport and pushed the instrument's programmed, rapid-dial button marked with the bright yellow sticker. It said "Ambulance." Mark knew his name and address. It was enough.
Ramona knew it was enough before she returned the telephone handset to its wall mount and trudged unsteadily back to the main concourse to retrieve her dustpan and broom. Another cigarette butt lay ground into the vinyl flooring just past the water fountain. This one had burned for a while before being trampled underfoot. It had left a tiny, acid yellow scorch mark on the shiny surface. She swept it up and shuffled ahead a few feet more to capture yet another like it. She tucked a strand of her wiry gray hair--very damp now after the exertions of her phone call--back under her bandanna. It refused to stay there and fell down across her forehead again in seconds.
Ramona didn't notice the errant hair this time, nor did she take steps to correct its wandering ways. Something else consumed her attention now, something faint and distant but powerful. Very strong. Compelling. More compelling even than the boy had been. With him, the knowledge had expanded gradually. The connection afforded by the telephone line had made his needs simple to discern, simpler still to meet.
This new union was different. Sudden. Complicated. Unsettling. Ramona had tasted the boy's fear, as she had tasted the fear of many others like him before. But this fear was new and somehow different. It was the terror of the one for the many.
Ramona hid her tools behind a large, potted plant and turned quickly toward the wall of Concourse E, locking her arms behind her as she had done before, pressing her forehead against the cool tiles as before, letting her focus spread and soften as before--but spreading a wider net now. Instinctively, she searched in ever-expanding concentric circles. Instinctively, she sought some essence distant and moving away, some hazardous reality growing in intensity, some fear so palpable it could invade her with waves of cold that caused her skinny body to shiver despite the heat of the concourse. Whatever it was, wherever it was, it was here. It was now. It was with Ramona, part of Ramona, becoming Ramona. She gave herself to it.
The first shared kinesthesia she experienced then was, remarkably, with the aircraft itself. Ramona had never felt at one with a machine before, but she found it a surprisingly pleasant experience. It was the PanSouthwest flight that had taken off moments before, the commuter flight scheduled to bounce its way over the Rockies and end up in Salt Lake City if all went according to the flight plan. Ramona sensed that the plane itself, a nineteen-seat Beechcraft 1900C Airliner, was not the source of the fear. All along the plane's length of nearly 60 feet and its wing-span only slightly less, Ramona perceived the steady hum of the Pratt & Whitney engines as effortlessly as she felt the steady pumping rhythm of her own heart. The plane was performing perfectly, its tabbed elevators and rudders trimmed precisely for level flight, its cabin pressurized, air-conditioned, heated, and ventilated for the total comfort of its one-man crew--the pilot--and the fifteen passengers aboard. Ramona pulled out of her union with the bonded construction, aluminum alloy airplane, but the sense of high velocity motion stayed with her as she shifted her focus, searching once again for the terror that she knew was near.
The jolt of shared kinesthesia--achieved this time not with a machine but with a man--was both sudden and forceful. There was no slipping in this time as there had been with Mark, no chance for host and symbiont to adjust to one another, no time for assessing situations and weighing options. The man at the controls of Flight 1749 had a plaque of cholesterol big as a black-eyed pea plugging one of his major coronary arteries. The tissues fed by arterioles and capillaries beyond that point were dying, suffocating for lack of oxygen. The pain in his chest was unbearable, and, now that Ramona was one with him, the two experienced the blinding, searing agony of it as one.
Except one of them clung to life and the other did not. His breath still rushing from his lungs, his skin still warm with blood that had ceased to flow, the pilot slumped against his shoulder harness, his hands motionless at the controls. The door between the cockpit and the cabin was closed, and Ramona could feel now, through the fading sensory apparatus of the pilot, a grave loneliness: solitude orchestrated against the steady drone of the engines. That and nothing more.
Ramona reached into the depths of her gift, reached as she had never reached before to achieve a fused kinesthesia so complete that more than just the senses of environment, motion, and position could be shared. She stretched past any limits she had known before in order to share life itself. For a little while. For long enough.
Ramona Ramirez could not fly a Beechcraft 1900C. Ramona Ramirez could not fly any plane. Ramona Ramirez had never taken a flying lesson in her life. If the truth be known, Ramona Ramirez had never even ridden in an airplane. The only thing Ramona had ever flown was kites, and those none too well if childhood memories could be trusted. Ramona Ramirez--both the woman in the airport and the woman in the cockpit--knew nothing about flying and landing any airplane.
But the pilot had known. He had known plenty. He had known enough to fly commuter flights for PanSouthwest four days a week. He had known in his brain, which had given up its functions now. But he had known also in his bones and in his muscles, in every sinew and tendon, every ligament and joint, in every axon and dendrite of every motor neuron that innervated every contractile cell in his ropey, sunburned arms and legs. Still stored in the memory of his muscles were the manipulations needed to turn and land an airplane. Still lingering in practiced contractions of his vocal chords were the words to say to the air traffic controllers. Still pulsing in the memory of his fingers was the knowledge needed of the correct buttons to push in the correct sequence. He knew in the balance centers of his inner ear and the retinas of his eyes the look and the feel of every tip, tilt, slip, and slide that little Beechcraft could make.
Flying an airplane is like pole vaulting or diving or riding a bicycle or playing the piano. The body learns and the brain goes along for the ride.
Ramona found herself taking that ride. She knew she must use what the pilot knew even when he no longer knew it. She knew she could do so only so long as she kept their union complete enough to let the memory in the pilot's muscles do its job, but not so complete that his still heart and emptied lungs became her own.
Ramona did not decide to accept such a risk. The risk simply became one with her as all else did when she fused. The risk was with her as all risks were when her kinesthetic sense merged with another being. Always before, however, she had shared life with life. The feel of the pilot's lifeless body was new to her, and producing movements in muscles not fed by rapidly flowing, oxygenated blood required effort beyond any she had exerted before. Despite the impedance of the pilot's uncooperating weight, Ramona pushed, letting memory flow from the man's body into knowledge of the required action and its execution.
The pilot's hand lifted the microphone from its slot, simultaneously pressing the button for transmission. His low-pitched, trained voice intoned conversationally, after the requisite pause, "Denver Tower, this is Pan Southwest one-seven-four-niner. Medical emergency aboard. Request precautionary forced landing, east-west runway. Over."
Tiny bones deep within the pilot's unhearing ears vibrated in harmony with the reply from the Denver tower, which acknowledged the transmission and granted permission as requested. Ramona understood little from the instructions that followed, but she didn't need too, nor could she have spared the energy even if she had. All her concentration was focused on the memories stored through the pilot's kinesthetic learning from times past. His hands and feet knew what to do. Ramona's only task was to keep those memories operational in those hands and feet for the time...how long? five minutes?... it would take to turn and land the plane.
The plane had taken off toward the east but had not yet turned south for the first leg of its journey when the pilot's heart muscle had ceased its contractions. The pilots first task then--Ramona's first task, she knew without words or explanations--was to turn the plane back toward the west and place the plane into a normal glide toward the runway. Ramona felt the flawless coordination of the pilot's hands and feet as he applied the left aileron and the left rudder together, smoothly and gradually effecting a steep bank. As the bank increased, his muscular forearms tensed to exert steady back pressure on the wheel until the bank became even steeper. Then his practiced arms and legs neutralized the ailerons and rudder, holding the back pressure steady for as long as the plane was in the bank. Having turned the aircraft a full 180 degrees, the pilot's bones, muscles, and tendons continued to work in flawless cooperation applying the right aileron and right rudder. As his plane's bank decreased, the man's contractile tissues eased off the back pressure only slightly, exerting just enough to keep the nose of the plane slightly up for a long, shallow glide. His hands and fingers, arms, feet and legs all moved in the proper sequence, performing the proper moves. Ramona lived each motion. The pilot did not.
Following a prelanding checklist performed so many times that the skeletal, muscular and peripheral nervous systems held the memories, Ramona saw through the pilot's visual cones and rods the fuel selector valve, which indicated that the plane was using fuel from its nearly-full left tank. The pilot's hands reflexively dropped the landing gear and adjusted the fuel mixture, while his functioning optic nerve sent a message to his unresponsive brain that the propeller speed registered adequately high on the RPM gauge. Nearing the airport, deft hands depressed the flap control to extend the flaps. At the same time tutored arms and legs lowered the airplane's nose to maintain both airspeed and a shallow landing trajectory. Ramona felt tense arms trim the plane until the wheel force against pressure receptors in the pilot's hand registered zero, the position that kinesthetic memory told Ramona was perfect for a landing straight and true. When only feet above the runway, the pilot's limbs manipulated the controls to break the glide by gradually easing the wheel back to stall the airplane. The timing was faultless. The plane achieved a perfect power-off stall just as the rear wheels of the tricycle landing gear touched down. Within seconds, the natural friction of the air against the plane slowed the aircraft's speed and the nosewheel dipped silent as a whisper to kiss the asphalt runway.
In the passenger cabin, fourteen impatient men, harassed women and fretful children clutched purses, shopping bags, baskets, briefcases, backpacks, sleeping bags, knitting totes, books, flowers, cakes, garment bags, and computers. They queried and they cursed. Why, oh why, they asked, had their journey ended before it had scarcely begun. It was some time before they got their answers.
All along Concourse E rumors spread like brush fires fanned by what one had heard, another seen, another only guessed at. As speculation mounted and excitement bubbled through airline employees and passengers alike, the miraculous story of the brave pilot who hung on to life just long enough to land PanSouthwest Flight 1749 was told and retold. It grew from gossip to folk tale to legend within the hour. Within the week, it would be forgotten, not having been carved into the shared memory of a people who paint the names of their heroes not upon cave walls but upon slates of liquid crystals.
Chattering passengers hurrying by never noticed Ramona Ramirez shake her frail body damp with perspiration away from the cool tiles of the walls of Concourse E, take up her broom and dustpan, and resume her trek down the length of that seemingly interminable tunnel. They took no heed as she nudged a wisp of coarse, gray hair away from her forehead and tripped the lever that lifted the cover on her long-handled dustpan. With deliberate slowness, she wielded her broom with one hand and her dustpan with the other, trapping in the dustpan's dark vault yet another cigarette butt, one of the common filtered variety this time.