The Clouds Over Detroit

A short story
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 sentance, 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

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, receeding
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

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.

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.

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, lauging 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 cloudtops,
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.

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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