The San Jose Airport recently added a west runway that ends one hundred yards from our back door, and now we must endure the unbearable cycle of airplanes taking off and landing. All day the cabinets rumble. All night the ceiling screeches above the bed. The air traffic lulls between 9:45 and 10:15 in the evening, so we tape the six o’clock news and replay it then. That’s when we learned that a woman flying into San Jose had jumped at two thousand feet. She was on a commuter with other DE Crane Aircraft workers flying back from El Segundo. A co-worker tried to prevent her from jumping, but she bit his hand. Authorities are still searching for her body somewhere around San Jose. My husband Raymond wonders if she jumped out of an airplane that she helped to build.
Raymond and I have lived near the airport for twenty years in a split-level with an adjoining garden. Raymond is devoted to planting historically significant vegetables like the giant Mangel-wurzels, a British variety of rutabaga. Each year on November 5, Raymond carves them into Guy Fawkes heads to celebrate the defeat of the man who tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605. He grows purple potatoes from the Aztecs, red and green striped butter beans brought by slaves from Africa, Lady Godiva Pumpkins, and Good King Henry Goosefoots that Raymond prefers to spinach. Raymond has a formidable plot of Jerusalem artichokes said to have been a favorite of the Sunni Muslim warrior, Saladin. Raymond has always found solace in his garden. These days his gardening is ruined by jet engines rumbling in his hoe handle and vibrating in his chest like a gong. Huge metallic airplanes arise from the garden in an illusion that Raymond likens to the ancient Egyptian Phoenix rising out of its own fire and ash. Cross-shaped shadows sweep warm wind across the lawn and over the roof. Raymond is certain that one morning we’ll wake with propeller blades chomping our feet.
“Don’t you mean to say jet engines?” I ask.
“Nevertheless,” Raymond says.
I tell Raymond, “Mathematically, the odds of a plane nose-diving our feet are less than the chances of our winning the lottery.”
Raymond says, “Somebody wins the lottery every day, Livia.”
Hearing about the woman jumper hasn’t helped Raymond’s nerves. He is gravely concerned that people hell-bent on self-destruction will fall from the sky in disproportionate numbers.
“Statistically, only one in every billion people jumps out of an airplane. Otherwise, you’d hear about a jumper every day,” I tell him.
Raymond says, “Imagine falling from that height.”
“A blur,” I tell him. “A woman falling from two thousand feet will reach terminal velocity in four seconds after jumping. She fell to earth in less than twenty seconds.” I show Raymond the numbers on my notepad.
“The Law of Falling Bodies,” Raymond says. “Galileo, 1590.”
“She didn’t land soft as a feather. Her bones will be pulverized into thousands of fragments, some as tiny as sand.”
“An hourglass figure gone to waste?” Raymond asks.
I change the subject. “Didn’t Galileo write about the natural descent of bodies in free-fall after dropping some melons from atop the Leaning Tower of Pisa?”
Raymond went to pull weeds from among his rutabagas the next morning. That’s when he found the woman who jumped out of the airplane cratered into the Mangel-wurzels. A dozen decapitated heads had popped out of the ground and scattered. The woman wore an orange jumpsuit. Her stocking-feet oozed. She had landed face up, but all distinguishable features had been erased by her fall. She had turned dark and smelled like a bag of wet compost.
The authorities came to take the woman out of Raymond’s Mangel-wurzels. They stepped gingerly among the Goosefoots as they took pictures of her body from high and low angles. A photographer straddled her, and took pictures toward the sky in an attempt to reconcile the airplane’s position with the time of her departure.
“The odds are one in a trillion that another woman will jump from an airplane and land in your vegetables,” I reassure Raymond.
Raymond is not convinced. “History repeats itself in strange ways.” Raymond points toward the giant belly of a 747 springing up behind the squared yellow tape cordoning the dead woman. First comes the scream of metal, then the sweep of hot breath. The airplane noses upward, ablaze in the sun’s reflection. Two hundred feet above us people wave from the airplane windows. They look like a row of potted seedlings straining toward the light. The bright bird bears them above the horizon, then turns toward Los Angeles, white plumes streaming the sky.
Tamara M. Baxter’s collection of fiction, Rock Big and Sing Loud, won the Morehead State and Jesse Stuart Foundation’s First Author’s Award for Fiction, and was published by the Jesse Stuart Foundation Press. In his introduction to Baxter’s collection, Robert Morgan says that Baxter, “…has given us the stories of some of the most afflicted and addicted, the most failed and failing, individuals on the planet, and also some of the strongest and most enduring people we are ever likely to meet.” Her short fiction, poetry, and essays have been widely published in journals and anthologies. Baxter has been recognized nationally and regionally with awards in both fiction and non-fiction. She lives and writes in Upper East Tennessee.