Air Traffic Controller’s Strike (2). It’s not likely you would have noticed him, the man standing next to his car on the highway’s shoulder, his arms crossed and resting, with a take-out coffee next to his elbow, on his car’s roof. It’s not likely you would have noticed him because you, safely in your car, or strapped into your coach seat overhead, would have been moving too fast. There he would be, for a moment, then gone.
To him, you would have been extraneous movement, a part of some larger picture. You are the traffic and congestion that surrounds one of the most congested airspaces in the Midwest. If you are anything to him, you are a part of something bigger than yourself, part of a collective, part of what makes up a “them.” In this way, he is referring to you when he asks himself: Do any of them think it’s at all terrifying that they are entrusting their lives to scabs? Do the scabs in the tower even for a second consider the gravity of that responsibility?
The sound is a constant thunder. This is the first day of Labor Day Weekend, one of the busiest travel weekends of the summer. The American Automobile Association estimates that somewhere between four- and five-hundred people will die on American roads and highways, this weekend alone. The sunlight twinkles off the chrome and glass of passing cars, and catches the crystalline contrails of early morning departures as they climb into the cloudless sky. And Ed Finch watches, thinking about prophecy.
When officer Eugene Parsons pulled up behind the parked car, the shoulder’s tiny gravel bits crunching and popping beneath the cruiser’s tires as he slowed to a stop, Ed was watching the planes over MPL again, and mumbling to himself. He took his hat from the dash as he opened the door and, holding his nightstick in place next to his leg with his right hand, stepped out of the car. He straightened his hat and closed the door behind him and moved in Ed’s direction, scanning the traffic and estimating its density with certain trepidation as he did.
“You’ve been warned about parking here, Ed,” he called out.
Ed spat into the gravel. “Jesus, Gene, it’s not even your jurisdiction.”
It was true. He was airport police, and his authority extended only as far as the rusting, razor-wire topped fences. “You don’t want County or State here. They won’t just tell you to move on.”
Ed hung his head and rubbed at his closed eyes with his thumbs. “Goddamnit, Gene. I’m not a goddamn towel-head with a shoulder-rocket.” He looked up. “And if you want to chase down threats, if you’re looking for dangerous people, it’s those scabs in that goddamn tower.” He motioned to the control tower, like a small obelisk in the distance. “You should put them in bracelets before or they drop another plane in the river.”
Gene shook his head, looking at the far off control tower as well. “Gulf War’s been over ten years Ed. And the strike’s even further in the past.”
Ed took a drink of his coffee, hot and dry as it was on a morning as hot and dry as this, and said nothing.
“And besides, if I was thinking in terms of threat, disgruntled airline worker makes it somewhere at the top of my list.”
“You know me, Gene.”
Gene nodded. “But rules are rules. No stopping on the shoulder.”
“I’m not here to do anything.”
“Why are you here, Ed?”
He didn’t answer, but thought to himself the Virgilized Latin of the 78th Quatrain of Nostradamus, which foresaw a terrible Prince rising from the smoky, flinty mountainsides of the East. The Antichrist out of the Orient.
“Well anyway,” said Gene. “My rounds’ll bring me back this way in ten minutes. I want you gone by then.”
He walked back to his idling cruiser. As he opened the door, he looked back at Ed once more. “You teaching today?”
Ed shook his head. “School’s out till Tuesday.”
“Go home then.”
“Alright,” Ed said.
But Gene had known him for a long time now and even if, when he came back, he found Ed gone, he could be sure that he would not be home. “Goodbye, Ed,” he called. Ed raised a hand in farewell, then Gene climbed into his cruiser. He put the car into drive, and slipped into the flow of traffic. He had a certain fondness for the crank Ed Finch. Both of them were too old to still be working, and both were working jobs that should not have been theirs. Ed Finch taught science in some of the most frightening classrooms in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, after fifteen years behind a screen in the control tower at MPL International. Gene, for his part, though he was now a glorified rent-a-cop, had spent the better part of his life with the Department of Treasury, tracking down forgers and bank thieves (it wasn’t as exciting as it sounds). It was like a force had brought them together, something stronger than necessity, but not so all-powerful as fate, whatever it was that took away from you everything that was good, everything that made you feel useful, something that, clearly, there was no standing in the way of, something more important than either of them. So Gene, so far as he was able, did his best to let Ed Finch be.
“I don’t want to see you here anymore, Ed. I mean it.”
“No more. I promise.”
But Ed would be back. That was the rhythm of life, of this job. The airplanes came and went, sticking to their weekly schedules. More flights weekdays, less on weekends—though you’d think it would be the opposite. Just as the traffic didn’t stop, people didn’t change either, and they could never let things go.