The Clouds Over Detroit

by James Norton

My plane was stopped at the gate. My bag was leaning against my legs, and I was eating a
cinnamon roll that had gone cold and congealed well before I had purchased it.

My plane would be flying out of my least favorite place – Wayne County’s Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The windows were hard to see through – the lights were hazy and dim. A vaguely perceptable layer of grime clung to everything, making itself comfortable inside of my head and covering my eyes in the same shade of grey that strangled the window panes.

My head hurt, but I’d already absolved the airport. My guess was this: it was the ghost of cocktails I’d swallowed earlier in the evening.

The spirit gleefully pounded her fists against the inside of my temples, enjoying her short time in our world before fading away, subdued by asprin and time.

My plane was being prepared for take off. In minutes, I’d be inside, reading a copy of the Financial Times and winging my way across Lake Michigan, on my way to Milwaukee, another cold northern city full of bricks and metal grates.

Boarding began. I got up right away, because I was Gold Class. I hadn’t always been Gold Class, so it meant a lot, though it meant less when I traveled with my wife. She was, if nothing else, a rolling ticket to prompt seating.

As I let my feet fall and bring me through the skywalk, it occured to me that I was frightened of flying.

I always had been frightened, and always would be, particularly at the moment of touchdown when the whole winged metal coffin felt as though it could just implode and spin across the runaway, dragging my head into the cement as my legs twitched spasmodically. They would wrestle with themselves, and the seat belt, and the many jagged spinning medallions of flaming debris – this seemed obvious.

Reading the newspaper helped to steady my nerves, to bring me into a world where a recent market adjustment was being heralded as a possible end to the rampant speculation that had made thousands into millionaries. What did I care? My investments were more tangible, and could not be erased so easily.

An air hostess passed me, and I blushed, remembering Melanie, and how easily everything had happened, three days ago. I blushed — I remembered helping Elaine blow out the candles on her birthday cake — I remembered the nurse wheeling her away — and I remembered Melanie, and how we talked for hours about poetry, and what we had done later.

We had done it with very little pretense, and a great deal of relish and zest, which was the advance we received on an indeterminate amount of aftermath.

I got up, leaving my bag unattended, momentarily. I threw out the cinnamon roll, pausing for a sorrowful moment before leaving it where it lay, mostly uneaten.

I faded backward, slipping effortlessly away from the airport, back into a bedroom covered in posters for bands who played music I’d never heard.

And as I looked into Melanie’s bright green eyes, I saw my reflection. I saw a man under sentence, consigned by a constellation of corporate boards, alumni and professional connections to an eternity of
dutiful service and a slow collapse. There would be fits and outbursts. There would be indiscreet moments and drunken episodes. But the decline seemed pretty clear. It wasn’t going to get any better than this, and it already felt fairly stupid.

I had read Melanie the following poem, by D.J. Enright:

No Show

Stripped to the buff the Japanese girls trip on –
One of them wrestling with a torpid python –
Slowly slowly dan-dan they put their clothes on
Even the python stirs – oh the mounting tension!

We read more poetry together, curled up in her futon. It got less and less fun. I found my voice quavering after a while, tripping over the lines as Melanie slowly fell asleep, her body turned away from

Her curves were still interesting to me in the morning — even more so, perhaps, because they were gone. She had taken them with her.

The plane started – the engines made their comforting noise – we taxied, slowly for a while, and then with increasing speed, the sky our destination. It was dark, and so the ghostly blue lights lining the runway kept me company as we struggled into the air.

We climbed – we nosed toward the heavens. Below us, Detroit glittered.

I had enough time to open my notebook. I always carried my notebook with me when I traveled, and had done so for many years. I had written poems in my notebook, next to drafts of memos and rough
calculations based on the latest information supplied by databases and professionals. Sometimes one blended into the other.

I wrote my favorite one while flying to Nashville.

Re: Fourth Quarter Report

Dear team,

It is my distinct pleasure to congratulate you on a stellar fourth quarter. In the course of this letter, I cannot comprehensively summarize all that we have accomplished – and this very fact should, I
hope, remind you of the immense ground we have covered in such a short period of time.

I think it is obvious to all of you – as it is obvious to me – that we have done this thing together, as a
group, and that we should all be proud of each other.

And that we should all understand one another.
And that, perhaps, it is not impossible —
and that, perhaps, we can imagine —
And that, perhaps, when we face one another
we can stare at one another
and see into the other
one atop another, and within each other
and let a hand touch a hand
slick with mystery
but warm — and alive.

After a few minutes, I looked out the window, and realized that Detroit was fading away, and that the plane seemed strangely quiet. It was more quiet than a night flight usually was, which bothered me
instead of comforting me.

Out the tiny window, a star fell — straight down — seeming to accelerate as it plummeted. I tried
to think of a wish, and they all related to my wife, but I couldn’t straighten out the spaghetti in my thoughts before another bit of light dropped from the sky.

This star, dim like the first one, also fell. It fell like a rock dropped by a boy off of an overpass.

At first, it hangs motionless. Then, inexorably, gravity exerts its influence, and it plummets, perhaps smashing a car windshield, perhaps causing a dent, or a death.

Then a few more stars fell. I had not remembered reading about a meteor shower. I enjoyed astronomy. I even owned a telescope that I enjoyed showing to people. It sort of proved there was something inside
of the suit.

Suddenly, it was raining stars, bright stars, all falling beneath the rippling canopy of moonlit clouds and
stripping the sky of its spots.

The engines had stopped, or I had gone deaf.

The plane wasn’t shaking any longer, and the stars were gone. I experienced a moment of pure primal terror, caught suddenly in a scream of darkness that stretched and stretched.

“Attention,” came a quiet voice over the PA. “This plane has crashed. You have been killed. Please remove your luggage from the overhead carrying compartment, and exit through one of the emergency exits near the back of the airplane.”

I looked up, and realized that the aisles were empty. The seats were empty. A fellow traveler had left his martini behind, so I finished it.

For an hour, I paced the plane. The cockpit was silent. The radio didn’t work – or I couldn’t figure it out. Either was a distinct and real possibility.

I could not find luggage belonging to the other passengers, or anything else but a few packets of peanuts,
which I pocketed.

Outside, the sky was blacker than it had ever been, the moon a beacon. The undulating meadows of vapor bounced the moon’s rays back into space.

A brief description of what was going on:

The sun, far away, was transforming hydrogen into helium, and throwing off massive amounts of radiant energy.

The sun threw off light, some of which hit the moon. Some of that light, in turn, hit this lifeless airplane which was stopped over the cloudline in the rolling white deadlands above Detroit.

I threw my carry-on luggage out of the airplane, onto the clouds. It hit the clouds, with a soft, reassuring thump. I put one foot down, gripping the railings near the emergency exit, holding myself up. My
knuckles turned white. My foot touched the clouds near the plane, and the clouds were solid.

I let go of the plane.

I rolled onto the clouds, in the moonlight, my luggage beside me and a couple packets of peanuts gracing the interior of my pockets. With an unpleasant start, I noticed that my wallet was gone. I immediately looked up, hoping to leap back into the plane, to find my wallet — and my identification, and credit cards, and the old picture of Elaine — and I saw only the outline of the dead vehicle, receding steadily into the distance as though it was being pullled on a rope, silently fading into the ridge of grey clouds that marked the southern horizon.

The plane was heading toward Indiana, or Ohio, apparently.

When I finally stood up, my headache was gone.

It was cool, but not uncomfortable, and I had a light jacket in my luggage. I put it on, and began wheeling the luggage over the clouds, walking south in an effort to follow the plane.

The sky was firm, but slightly springy, and cool to the touch, like a flat rock covered by a respectable layer of moss.

After a while I began seeing and hearing things. At first, it was what sounded like a brief bit of Latin, spoken out of thin air. Then — an asian man and woman, walking together, talking quietly in a language I could not understand. It may have been Thai.

Time passed, and Africans appeared and vanished. Once, one of them tried waving at me, desperately pumping his hands left and right to attract my attention. When I spoke to him, he spoke back in something incomprehensible, and then sadly walked away, drifting into a pile of mist. I followed him in, and caught the last part of what may have been an Irish song. Then I was alone, entombed in vapor.

I walked out, unaware of how much time had passed. Apparitions came and went, and I cared less and less – soon, I was affecting the same sluggish, jaded look that most of the them wore like masks.

Once, I had met a woman — and we tried to touch each other’s hands, but she disappeared. I could hear her laughing for a short period of time, laughing more and more softly, before she was gone entirely.

I tried to feel depressed in response, and failed.

Later, while walking, I found a source of light other than the moon. Something was skipping yellow shadows across the cloud tops, and throwing out reflections of itself. It was a tower — or series of bright, abstract tattoos on the skin of the sky — or a collection of rectangles built from yellow light. Walking toward them seemed to do very little, as did walking away. For quite sometime, the rectangles of light walked beside me, miles away, but with me nonetheless.

Later still, I heard a man calling out simple words: “Ni hao!” “Hello!” “Ni hao!” “Hello!”

“Hello!” I yelled back. “Hello!” he repeated. The voice drew closer to me, but there was no body attached. It was clearly one of those things. “Who are you?” he asked.

For while, I didn’t know how to answer. I couldn’t remember what to say at this point, which should have been worrisome. I said nothing.

“I’m a philosopher,” said the voice, hesitantly.

“A philosopher?”

“Well, I’m unemployed. And philosophy is what my degree is in. What did you do?”

“Do you have to use the past tense?”

“Yes, I think I do. That seems sensible.”

“I used to be a businessman.”


“And a poet — of sorts,” I said, suddenly worried that this
self-proclaimed philosopher was going to fade away again.

“Ah. How do you like it here?” he asked me, more cheerfully than I thought appropriate.

“I’m confused,” I admitted. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing toward the wall of rectangles built from yellow light.

“You don’t want to be in that place — God’s there.”

I paused, and let myself stare into the shimmering yellow for a while.

“I thought that was the whole point.”

“No, it’s not,” said the philosopher excitedly. “God is in there with the damned. He is eating the damned. When you go in, you do not come back out.”

“God sounds a lot like a dragon.”

“Yes, that’s pretty much correct.”

We walked in silence for a while, before he faded out again. When I tried to talk to him again, I heard nothing in reply. Then: a snatch of a Chinese song, and then nothing.

I set my luggage down.

I kept walking toward the rectangles of light, which got no closer. In fact, they receded. I set myself down after a while, and let the clouds touch my cheek, and the palm of my hand.

I took off my tie, and dropped it. I took off my coat, and my shirt. I took off my pants, and my belt, and my boxers and shoes and socks, kicking my shoes into the distance, and leaving the socks in a little pile on the concentrated wisps of vapor that were my new home.

I felt warmer as the clothes came off, and warmer still when I let myself be swallowed by an oncoming bank of clouds. I curled up — I faded — and I slept.


James Norton is the editor of Flak


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