Why I Never Look at Men’s Pants in Airports


(image arrangement, Wyatt McMaster)


The captain comes on the speaker and says we will have to make an emergency landing in Chicago.  The plane lands quickly.  My dad, who once drove a fighter jet, squeezes the armrests and shuts his eyes tight.  I know what all can go wrong here, he says.  Once we are grounded the stewardesses—including the male stewardesses—bring forth many rounds of free alcohol to appease the grumbling adults.  The cart laps the plane again and again, bestowing me with so much ginger ale I can’t tell a sip from a burp.  Then we are herded out into an airplane terminal where, out the glass wall, a small black spiral grows bigger in the purple-green sky.   It looks like someone scribbled it on a page and is holding it up with shaky hands.  The scribble seems to be moving up and down as much as forward.  Tornado! Tornado! The adults exclaim, but jubilantly.  The alcohol has given the terminal—with its giant panes of glass that might at any minute shatter in and impale us with shards—a festive air.  No one seems to question the safety of our window-front view.

Look, my sister says, pointing.  A man stands to the side wearing white pants, and underneath them his boxer shorts are blasting polka dots.  The dots seem as big and red as the ones on a Twister sheet.  I watch the man worrying out the window, while the people around him laugh and chat lightly.  He shows no signs of being a person who would start his day by stepping into polka dots.  But even I know whatever you wear under white pants or shirts will show through, so he must have done it on purpose.  Is it a coded signal to strangers, or to someone he knows?  I decide If he just did it as a style statement then I like him.  A lot.  If he were to laugh I might even love him.   Around me the murmurs and exclamations have grown louder, but the polka dots are hypnotic.  I can’t look away.  I can’t decide who he is.  And just like this I miss my one chance to see a tornado up close.  

Someone said the tail of it flipped and flopped like an animal’s when it blasted by.        


We are standing in a long lineup to board a plane in LAX.   I’m eight years old and in no hurry to leave California, where the people talk so much more than Ohio.  They go on about their feelings and they ask questions that aren’t polite and they bounce around dramatically, which I can only figure is because they aren’t tied to pastures by their roots.  I am taking back sand in my socks from the beach that morning.  Just ahead of us stands a guy with dark hair, dark glasses and black leather everything: boots, pants, and jacket.  Around his neck is both a silver cross and a collar of sharp silver spikes.  He’s a black shadow, the opposite of beachy, and to better stay inside my sunny holiday I don’t look at him.  But just before he steps up to hand the agent his ticket, a tall woman with long silky blonde hair runs up from the side, full speed.   She’s fast, even in high heels.  When she gets to him she falls to one knee on the carpet and presses her face to his butt.  She kisses the black leather there for so long you can blink and shake your head and look away but it will still be happening.

When she pulls her face away I exhale, Whew.  But then she opens her mouth and leans forward again, clamping down her teeth.  She takes a big bite of the leather, his butt under it.  And the man isn’t yelping or screaming at her to stop.  He’s laughing.  When she pulls away I expect her to have a torn piece of black leather between her teeth.  But no, she’s laughing too.  And then she rises to her feet and runs away, just as fast as she appeared.  It all happens in about ten seconds.  I can’t say I’m traumatized by it, but I will say it feels like I’ve been hit by a crow bar.  Is it so disturbing because I’m eight?  Or is it because I’m from Ohio?  I realize this too must be part of California–a part I might never be ready for.  I’m not even ready to look at his butt again, though I really want to see if there are any little holes in the leather.             

When the seatbelt light dings off at altitude, my oldest sister says she’s going to go get his autograph.  I ask who.  She gestures about seven seats up, to the edge of first class, where his black leather is darkening an aisle seat.  He looks to be sitting comfortably on his bite. My sister tells me he’s in a famous heavy metal band, and he once bit the head off a bat during a concert.  A bat, I repeat.  Biting through the neck of a bat makes a human butt seem like nothing, just a marshmallow.  I imagine my sister returning with a mangled earlobe, holding a pen studded with frothy toothmarks.   But when she sits down again she says he was nice.  Nice, I repeat.  She shows me the autograph she got for a boy at school.  What does it even say, I mutter.  She answers: Ozzy Osbourne.  I have to admit his cursive looks cool.  Like you could sculpt the two names out of wire, mount them on bases, and people would buy them, just for their perfect shapes.   I’m almost tempted to spy on him.  But instead I turn to the oval porthole, which is filled with sky so pure and blue it must still be California sky.


Among Aliens



I grew up surrounded by aliens.  They gathered in the street, just like we gathered.  When the hedge apples fell they clunked loudly, heavy as heads, and rolled to a stop along the gutters.  Green orbs with creepy, gnarled features.  They were somehow both wizened-up and puffy, like we imagined shrunken heads would be.  And they were so solid you could injure your foot if you kicked one the wrong way.   A boy up the hill—the one who always had a new cast on another body part—pulled out a pocketknife freckled with rust, telling us the milk of a hedge apple was as sweet and delicious as a coconut’s.  He cradled one in his palm and sliced cleanly to the milky white center.  The fibres gave a wet smack as they pulled apart.  Then the air got cooler, like the knife had released an icy wind that had been trapped inside the hedge apple.

Here, have a bite.  

No way.

C’mon, It’s an apple.   

My cousin from California did try some of the pulp.  I only insisted because I adored him, his brown face and his white teeth and his faded surf t-shirts that smelled of laundry detergent.  His shiny, straight hair that always fell right back into place after he sprinted.  When we looked for fossils in the creek he talked about the ocean.  When we walked along the street he wished he’d brought his skimboard, to try out along the watery gutters.  Ohio was so strange to him that he believed me when I said we ate those gnarly apples.  I smashed one open on the curb, lifted a chunk of wet pulp out to him.  I called it the heart.  I said the heart was the sweetest.  When he gagged and raised his face to me, it was an eerie replica of the fruit: puckered and green, leaking a thin milky trail.    

I dare you, we used to say, hoisting a hedge apple with both hands.  After rain when the worms curved, pink and ripe, in shallow gutter water.  Dare you to bowl dead more worms than me!

In spring we shouted above the bird songs:  Dare you to ride your bike over that hedge apple!   It is one thing to slip and fall over your bicycle.  it is another to find your cheek knocking into mushy, milky pulp that seems to be peeing, or sweating.

Kids would dare each other, too, by subbing in hedge apples for balls.  A long bomb to the head could kill you.  Or you could hit a homer and break both wrists, but it would be worth the amazing sound of the wet-smash, the slime fireworks.  A croquet mallet worked okay, but the lopsided hedge apples didn’t roll very well.  One neighbour boy took a swing at a hedge apple and his father’s golf club snapped instantly and easily, a mere toothpick.  The girl across the street had a tennis racquet with its strings torn open in the middle from a hedge apple, and the effect was of a secret porthole some lucky ball would get to pass through, breaking forever-there barriers.  And how, so changed, would the tennis ball go back into a sealed can afterwards?  How would it do squeezed among others who merely tapped resignedly on entrances, taking them for walls?  I twirled her busted racquet around and around in my hands, wondering.       

Some kids said the hedge apples were radioactive.  That they glowed in the dark.  One night I placed a hedge apple on my bedside table, pushing the book and Aqua Man figure far away from it.  It looked to be glowing a little.  Maybe.  No.  Yes?  I couldn’t sleep.  The hedge apple began to hum.  It emitted a faint chemical smell.  It was like trying to fall asleep with a mess of brains doused in fertilizer on your bedside table.  The other-worldly presence of it, so close to my head, turned my thoughts in strange ways.  What if you cascaded a garbage bag full of hedge apples into someone’s bed and then spread it back up, hammering down the length of the blanket?  What if beneath my bedspread one night rested a whole other spread of slime that waited, in little sucks, like a breathing thing?   Did kids make hedge apples evil, or did hedge apples make kids evil?  At last I got up and carried the hedge apple to my closet.  I buried it beneath a jumble of shoes.  Even back in bed with the closet door snugly shut, I kept staring at the slat beneath it.  At any moment the crack would blast with electric green light.  How completely this little piece of nature could take over the house, starting with my closet.   I imagined my favorite sneakers beside it growing rubbery green warts, their laces wilting into strings of pulp.

One morning some older kids placed a line of hedge apples in the path of our school bus.  Last time I looked, a long scar still streaked the pavement at the spot where the bus used to stop for us.  Seeing the scar I saw again the bus driver’s face, a stark white oval framed inside a black window.  But no expression you would want to frame, that contorted mix of fury and panic.  Time stopped and stretched in the bus’s wild glide.  The hedge apples beneath the wheels seemed to grow muscle and lift the bus in little bounces.  When they broke, their thick sheets of slime steered the bus with stronger force than the wheel.  You could say that for about five seconds the hedge apples drove the bus.  Though no one was hurt, the kids who lined up the hedge apples were made to walk to and from school for a week.   I remember thinking they should have to grip a hedge apple in each hand for the mile walks.  But it was not about the hedge apples.  That is what one adult said.  I thought without saying:  yes it is.  And now, all these years later, I still think that.  I’m so far from a single hedge apple now, but I can clearly see the fissured green surface of one from behind closed eyes.  And my empty open hand feels the craggy weight of a hedge apple so exactly that it droops a little.  I don’t know how a thing so gross and weird and menacing can work its way into your best memories, until it becomes your best memories.  But there it is, and here I am, still thinking about them, still thinking yes.  Yes it was.  It was all about the hedge apples.