—for Kevin Malone
When I was a kid I’d fall asleep in any moving vehicle at the drop of a hat. There was this one time when I was in my parents’ Chrysler, leaned up against the door and I was out cold when they took a quick turn and I banged my head on the jam, gave myself a black eye, but I didn’t budge. Maybe I faked being asleep for fun, I don’t remember, but at least most of that story is true so that’s a good thing.
Anyway, now I can’t sleep on airplanes either which has its up and downs—like the time I flew to New Zealand (first from Philadelphia to Los Angeles then on to Auckland and finally to Christchurch on the south island) and I was awake for 21 hours, not to mention the ten I was up the day before, rough shit—so I’ve had to get good at self-medicating on Bloody Marys, bourbon, and Benadryl to the point that the time crawls by fast enough and I fall into this state of mind where all I do is stare at the other snoozing passengers, memorizing their tiniest details, sharpening my brain as fast as I’m burning it down.
So there was this one time I was taking a red-eye from Spartanburg to Burbank and figuring I’d slowly go insane, I started throwing back drinks at a Ruby Tuesday, switching between coffees and margaritas for about an hour, before getting on the plane. They started boarding around two a.m., and I picked a seat in the row that has the over-wing exits, not because I think I can handle the responsibility of assisting in an evacuation (though I lie and say I can to the flight attendants every damn time) but because there is just that much more leg room. I sat down and started contemplating what I’d order once we’re up in the air when I looked over to the guy sitting by the window and it was none other than the painter Thomas Kinkade.
I shit you not.
Every time I visited my grandmother’s and I took a leak in the green bathroom in the hallway, I would stare at this cookie tin she kept potpourri in and one of Kinkade’s cabins and evening scenes was on it. She also had a series of his sunrises and bible quotes on ceramic plates, so I was familiar with his work. I didn’t like any of it, but I could pick it out of a line up, all that gooey pink pastel crap.
Finally the plane took off and naturally I offered to buy him a drink when the attendants started taking orders—this all happened before his DWI. I wouldn’t have felt right doing it otherwise; I didn’t hate his work that much. Tom seemed to appreciate the gesture and after we polished off two Wild Turkey and soda waters apiece, we settled in to this nice banter about our respective dating histories and the Mayans. We slowed down a little bit and by the second hour we moved to our third drink, scotch on the rocks, and because the plane was damn near empty—ten other passengers, all of whom were asleep—and we felt like we could stretch out and walk around without disturbing anyone.
Despite the fact he had a gut on him and plowed through two bags of Corn Nuts, he really couldn’t hold his liquor, not that I was doing any better, but when I get a good buzz going (like I was on that flight) I tend to go quiet because I slur my words. So, he was doing all the talking.
First he was going off on the shade of green used on highway signs (how sterile and unearthy it was), mentioned something about his faith, which—upon hearing that—I changed the subject to energy bills and why every one of his cottages he painted always had every damn lamp on, People can’t afford that, Tommy, think about it, and then he got on his soapbox about light (which I was surprised it took him that long to get on).
Then we got up and walked down the aisle of the cabin. He went up to this woman in her 20s: out cold, midcabin, crossword on her lap, top two buttons of her blouse undone so you could see the lace trim of her brassiere. He leaned over and held his opened left hand three inches from her breasts, and slowly moved it over her shoulder, then raised it to muddle the light, fingers apart, the bulb beams falling in odd shapes across her. Look at this and tell me how you can’t fall in love with the illumination nestling against her heaving chest? Even with this neutral glow, you can still make out the subtle pinks and even a little fuchsia in her skin. See the faint shadow of her nipples quietly poking through the paisley print? It’s all because of the light, my boy. The light!
Tommy calmly stood up and finished his drink. I got a whole series of nudes I did of my wife in my basement. I’ll have to have you over sometime to see them.
A drop of condensation fell from my glass on her bare knee before I turned around to head back to my seat. She didn’t move.
The rest of the flight was quiet. I’d run out of steam and Tom had passed out against his open window, the blinking wing beacons occasionally outlining the silhouette of his head. I don’t know if he was actually asleep or faking it because he had nothing else to say, but he wasn’t snoring. Whatever the case, the plane landed and we parted ways—him bee-lining for the bathroom and me forgetting to ask for his number. That morning, though, when sunrise broke the hills and filled baggage claim, I wondered if a little pastel might not be a bad change for road signs.
Mark Jay Brewin Jr is a graduate of the MFA program of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Southern Poetry Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Hollins Critic, Copper Nickel, Poet Lore, North American Review, Greensboro Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.