This story is by Kimberley Ash and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The taxi brought him home for the last time. He paused for a moment, as if he’d forgotten why he was there. The driver looked around at him expectantly. So he opened the door and unfolded his tall frame, stepping onto the sidewalk in front of his house.
He was still in uniform: crisp midnight blue suit with his captain’s stripes on the sleeve, white shirt, black tie tightly tied even after fifteen hours of wearing it. It was expected; he’d known he was an ambassador for the airline even when he wasn’t flying. His neck felt swollen, now, from air pressure and salty snacks, his tie tight, but in a few minutes he could take the tie off and he would never put it on again. He smoothed his collar points anyway.
The driver, perhaps influenced by his attire and his innate sense of authority, uncharacteristically got out and went around to the trunk to take out his suitcase. He didn’t help the man. He thought of servants in Dakkar and housekeepers in Myanmar, boys in Khartoum and the military waving him away from the entrance to the hotel in Senegal. Big white smiles in dusty light brown or shiny dark brown faces, ready to do anything for the American dollars he carried.
“Get you car, sir? Best car, sir! Very reliable, sir. Want girl, sir? Very good girls, very clean.”
“No, thank you,” he’d say to the last offer, though he was alone for months at a time. But sometimes, if his layover was more than a few hours, he and his crewmates would take a car and see the sights. There was a lot of dust; the creases around his eyes had begun thirty years ago, squinting against the sands of Morocco and Algeria. Back when he was young and had his pick of routes. Now his skin could be considered ruddy itself from the layovers in the desert or the tropics. He’d bet his last dollar that he’d sweat as much as the men loading the luggage by hand in Delhi. The time he’d been stationed in Kenya there’d been no air conditioning and two years of drought followed by three months of rain. His athlete’s foot had driven him mad there.
Shame, how that was the first thing he thought of when Kenya came to mind. Not the beautiful landscapes, or the safaris with his ex-pat friends, the stories and the hours spent making and drinking their own liquor, just to pass the time. Their jokes about colonialism and how the Americans had won in the end, because they were in a Jeep and not a Land Rover.
A good man, Benson. Went on to Qantas, got promoted and retired at fifty-five.
He wasn’t so lucky. Still, he had achieved something with his life. This, here, was it. The house. The wife of thirty-five years; a garden he’d designed and sown, and she’d kept going. They’d had hours of conversations over the phone about that garden: the berry bushes that had rotted when the stream overflowed, the beans that had died on the vine when she’d come out to see him and the neighbor’s kid had forgotten to water them, the bumper crop of tomatoes she’d had to pickle. It sometimes occurred to him that they might have talked more about the plants than the children. The plants were easier to discuss, less fraught with landmines.
There had been that jaunt during the war. He hadn’t talked to her much about that, either. They’d issued gas suits—not just masks, because the chemicals being dropped would melt your skin right off your bones—and told them they “probably” wouldn’t need them but if they’d just be good chaps and totter off to this area which may or may not be in the hands of the enemy that day, that’d be super and they’d be able to send twice their usual pay home. And Jeremy was seventeen and needed a car. So you held your breath and drove past the landmine warnings. You prayed to a God you’d seen in too many permutations to believe in that the guide taking you to the airport knew where he was going. You thought of this house and the people in it.
He put on his uniform hat, hiked up his still-buttoned suit jacket to reach his wallet in his trouser pocket (it messed with the line a little, but he’d put on some weight over the years and he was kidding himself if one little wallet was the problem with the line of his suit) and paid the taxi driver. The man put his hand up as if about to touch his forelock to him. He smiled. The driver realized what he was doing and covered it by scrubbing his hand through his tough gray hair instead. The suit did that to people. And the hat. He was a glorified conductor, really, with the technology used to fly planes these days, but the uniform always garnered respect. He would miss it.
As this thought flickered through his mind, a wave of longing, the one he’d been fighting since he’d been told he’d failed his last physical, swept over him. The taxi driver got in the car and slammed the door, and for a second the pilot had a wild notion to turn on his heel, get back in the car, and demand he be driven back to the airport. To anywhere. Anywhere other than this new reality. The one where he wasn’t a pilot.
He didn’t know how to live in this world, and that was the thought that had kept him up for fifteen hours on the flight last night and several nights before that. This was her domain.
They’d agreed this. They’d bought the house together, back in the early, halcyon days when he’d been with the big-name company, before it had divested routes, before he’d been lured away from its precarious future to a startup that had then folded, forcing him into less and less desirable routes, more and more months spent away from this world. And he’d missed her and the kids, sometimes with an ache that left him sobbing in the shower, the rush of water protecting the sound from thin walls.
But in the end, who was to say that those routes had been less desirable? He’d been away from what he still called home for so many years, he didn’t know where “home” was. Was it here, in the country of his birth, where he’d dreamed of flying, of leaving? Or was it out there, in those dusty, “foreign” countries, where he’d learned to adapt to the culture as quickly as he’d learned where the expats hung out? The coins that he’d bring back to his children, small toys, sweets they’d never heard of and would never sample again, because the countries stopped being places they could visit: these gifts were exotic, exciting, a novelty, and so was he when he bore them home. Now he was staying, becoming just another retiree, another man pottering about his house, trying to find something to do, getting under his wife’s feet…
Anywhere but here.
But no. He’d told himself this over and over in the last few days. Even had a conversation with a colleague that touched on it. “You belong there, too,” she’d said. “You built it. It’s yours. With every hour you spent in the air, you built it. Those children, that house. Remember.”
She’d been a nice woman, that other captain. Looked out for them all that way. But her husband was a congressman and her children were raised by nannies. His wife held sway in this house, and after years of absolute autonomy, he was going to have to fit into her world.
Not that his wife had said as much. No, she was able to see the long game, she always had, and she knew their future together rested on how they shook out these next few days, how he adapted to “civilian” life, how much space she gave him to do so. The garden, he hoped. That would be his refuge. If she just gave him control of that, and maybe let him fix some things around the house—after some of the plumbing he’d faced on his travels, he knew a thing or two—he thought he could make a go of it. Become a father again, maybe a grandfather one day. Be important in someone’s life by being there every day, instead of merely an abstract idea and a monthly check.
He was unconvinced. But the door was here, ten steps away. The taxi had gone. He had to enter this new country, learn its customs, amuse its children. All things he’d done before. Surely it was possible again.
The door opened. His home rushed out to greet him.