Page 51 of Airport

“Hi,” Mel said. “I was passing by. How have things been?”

Keith shrugged. “I guess, all right.”

“Coffee?” Mel had picked up two take-out coffees from one of the airport restaurants on his way. They were in a paper bag; he offered one of the cups to Keith and took the other himself.

“Thanks.” Keith was grateful for the coffee as well as for the break. Now that he was away from the radarscope, if only briefly, he realized that his own mental tension had been accumulating again within the past hour. He observed, as if watching someone else, that his hand holding the coffee cup was not entirely steady.

Mel glanced around the busy radar room. He was careful not to look too obviously at Keith whose appearance–the gaunt, strained face with deep hollows beneath the eyes–had shocked him. Keith’s appearance had deteriorated over recent months; tonight, Mel thought, his brother looked worse than at any time before.

His mind still on Keith, he nodded toward the profusion of radar equipment. “I wonder what the old man would have thought of all this.”

The “old man” was–had been–their father, Wally (Wild Blue) Bakersfeld, stick-and-goggles aviator, stunt flier, crop duster, night mail carrier, and parachute jumper–the last when he needed money badly enough. Wild Blue had been a contemporary of Lindbergh, a crony of Orville Wright, and had flown to the end of his life, which terminated abruptly in a filmed Hollywood stunt sequence–an airplane crash, intended to be simulated, but which turned out to be real. It happened when Mel and Keith were in their teens, but not before Wild Blue had inculcated in both boys an acceptance of aviation as their way of life, which persisted into adulthood. In Keith’s case, Mel sometimes thought, the father had done his younger son a disservice.

Keith shook his head without answering Mel’s question, which didn’t matter because it had been only rhetorical, Mel marking time while wondering how best to approach what was uppermost in his mind. He decided to do it directly.

Keeping his voice low, Mel said, “Keith, you’re not well; you’re looking damned awful. I know it, you know it; so why pretend? If you’ll let me, I’d like to help. Can we talk–about whatever the trouble is? We’ve always been honest with each other.”

“Yes,” Keith acknowledged, “we’ve always been that.” He sipped his coffee, not meeting Mel’s eyes.

The reference to their father, though casual, had moved Keith strangely. He remembered Wild Blue well; he had been a poor provider–the Bakersfeld family was perpetually short of money–but a genial man with his children, especially if the talk was about flying, as the two boys usually wanted it to be. Yet in the end it was not Wild Blue who had been a father figure to Keith, but Mel; Mel Bakersfeld who possessed the sound sense and stability, as far back as Keith remembered, which their father lacked. It was Mel who always looked out for Keith, though never being ostentatious about it, or overprotective as some older brothers were, robbing a younger boy of dignity. Mel had a facility, even then, for doing things for people and making them feel good at the same time.

Mel had shared things with Keith, had been considerate and thoughtful, even in small ways. He still was. Bringing the coffee tonight was an example, Keith thought, then checked himself: Don’t wax sentimental over a carton of coffee just because this is a last meeting. This time, Keith’s aloneness, his anguish and guilt were beyond Mel’s fixing. Even Mel could not bring back to life little Valerie Redfern and her parents.

Mel motioned with his head and they moved to the corridor outside the radar room.

“Listen, old chum,” Mel said. “You need a break from all this–a long one; perhaps more than a break. Maybe you need to get away for good.”

For the first time Keith smiled. “You’ve been listening to Natalie.”

“Natalie’s apt to talk a lot of sense.”

Whatever Keith’s other problems might be, Mel reflected, he had been outstandingly fortunate in Natalie. The thought of his sister-in-law reminded Mel of his own wife, Cindy, who presumably was still on her way to the airport. Comparing your own marriage unfavorably with someone else’s was disloyal, Mel supposed; at times, though, it was hard not to do it. He wondered if Keith really knew just how lucky–at least in that important area–he had been.

“There’s something else,” Mel said. “I haven’t brought it up before, but maybe now’s the time. I don’t think you’ve ever told me the whole of what happened at Leesburg–that day, the accident. Maybe you didn’t tell anyone, because I’ve read all the testimony. Is there something else; that you’ve never told?”

Keith hesitated only momentarily. “Yes.”

“I figured there might be.” Mel chose his words carefully; he sensed that what was passing between them could be of critical importance. “But I also figured if you wanted me to know, you’d tell me; and if you didn’t, well, it was none of my business. Sometimes, though, if you care about someone enough–say, like a brother–you ought to make it your business, whether they want you to butt in or not. So I’m making this mine now.” He added softly, “You hear me?”

“Yes,” Keith said, “I hear you.” He thought: He could stop this conversation, of course; perhaps he should stop it now, at once–since it was pointless–by excusing himself and going back to the radarscope. Mel would assume they could resume later, not knowing that for the two of them together, there would be no later.

“That day at Leesburg,” Mel insisted. “The part you’ve never told–it has something to do with the way you feel, the way you are, right now. Hasn’t it?”

Keith shook his head. “Leave it alone, Mel. Please!”

“Then I’m right. There is a relationship, isn’t there?”

What was the point of denying the obvious? Keith nodded. “Yes.”

“Won’t you tell me? You have to tell someone; sooner or later you have to.” Mel’s voice was pleading, urgent. “You can’t live with this thing–whatever it is–inside you forever. Who better to tell than me? I’d understand.”

You can’t live with this… Who better to tell than me?

It seemed to Keith that his brother’s voice, even the sight of Mel, was coming to him through a tunnel, from the distant end, far away. At the farther end of the tunnel, too, were all the other people–Natalie, Brian, Theo, Perry Yount, Keith’s friends–with whom he had lost communication long since. Now, of them all, Mel alone was reaching out, striving to bridge the gap between them… but the tunnel was long, their apartness–after all the length of time that Keith had been alone–too great.

And yet…

As if sorreone else were speaking, Keith asked, “You mean tell you here? Now?”

Mel urged, “Why not?”

Why not indeed? Something within Keith stirred; a sense of waating to unburden, even though in the end it could change nothing… Or could it? Wasn’t that what the Confessional was all about; a catharsis, an exorcism of sin through acknowledgment and contrition? The difference, of course, was that the Confessional gave forgiveness and expiation, and for Keith there could be no expiation–ever. At least… he hadn’t thought so. Now he wondered what Mel might say.

Somewhere in Keith’s mind a door, which had been closed, inched open.

“I suppose there’s no reason,” he said slowly, “why I shouldn’t tell you. It won’t take long.”

Mel remained silent. Instinct told him that if wrong words were spoken they could shatter Keith’s mood, could cut off the confidence which seemed about to be given, which Mel had waited so long and anxiously to hear. He reasoned: if he could finally learn what bedeviled Keith, between them they might come to grips with it. Judging by his brother’s appearance tonight, it had better be soon.

“You’ve read the testimony,” Keith said. His voice was a monotone. “You just said so. You know most of what happened that day.”

Mel nodded.

“What you don’t know, or anybody knows except me; what didn’t come out at the inquiry, what I’ve thought about over and over…” Keith hesitated; it seemed as if he might not continue.

“For God’s sake! For your own reason, for Natalie’s sake, for mine–go on!”

It was Keith’s turn to nod. “I’m going to.”

He began describing the morning at Leesburg a year and a half before; the air traffic picture when he left for the washroom; supervisor Perry Yount; the trainee controller left in immediate charge. In a moment, Keith thought, he would admit how he had loitered; how he failed the others through indifference and negligence; how he returned to duty too late; how the accident, the multiple tragedy of the Redferns’ deaths, had been solely his own doing; and how others were blamed. Now that at last he was doing what he had longed to, without knowing it, there was a sense of blessed relief. Words, like a cataract long damned, began tumbling out.

Mel listened.

Abruptly, a door farther down the corridor opened. A voice–the tower watch chief’s–called, “Oh, Mr. Bakersfeld!”

His footstcps echoing along the corridor, the tower chief walked toward them. “Lieutenant Ordway has been trying to reach you, Mr. Bakersfeld; so has the Snow Desk. They both want you to call.” He nodded. “Hi, Keith!”

Mel wanted to cry out, to shout for silence or delay, plead to be alone with Keith for a few minutes more. But he knew it was no good. At the first sound of the tower chief’s voice Keith had stopped in mid-sentence as if a switch were snapped to “off.”

Keith had not, after all, reached the point of describing his own guilt to Mel. As he responded automatically to the tower chief’s greeting, he wondered: Why had be begun at all? What could he have hoped to gain? There could never be any gain, never any forgetting. No confession–to whomever made–would exorcise memory. Momentarily he had grasped at what he mistook for a faint flicker of hope, even perhaps reprieve. As it had to be, it proved illusory. Perhaps it was as well that the interruption occurred when it did.

Once more, Keith realized, a mantle of loneliness, like an invisible thick curtain, surrounded him. Inside the curtain he was alone with his thoughts, and inside his thoughts was a private torture chamber where no one, not even a brother, could reach through.

From that torture chamber… waiting, always waiting… there could be only one relief. It was the way be had already chosen, and would carry through.

“I guess they could use you back inside, Keith,” the tower watch chief said. It was the gentlest kind of chiding. Keith had already had one work-break tonight; another inevitably threw a heavier load on other people. It was also a reminder to Mel, perhaps unintended, that as airport general manager his writ did not run here.

Keith mumbled something and gave a distant nod. With a serise of helplessness, Mel watched his brother return to the radar room. He had heard enough to know that it was desperately important he should hear more. He wondered when that would be, and how. A few minutes ago he had broken through Keith’s reserve, his secrecy. Would it happen again? With despair, Mel doubted it.