I huddle against the fence, shielding the match with my hand, trying to protect it long enough to light the candle. A pitiless wind snaps it out. This morning’s rain had subsided into drizzle, but now it’s starting back up.
The candle is in a glass jar decorated with a picture of Saint Christopher, the protector of travelers. I bought it in a Catholic bookstore this morning, along with a medallion. I try another match, which flares for a moment and then goes out. Maybe the saint knows I’m Jewish. “It’s for a friend,” I say out loud. Though I only met her a few times.
There’s a picture I keep in my travel bag, printed off a chat website for flight attendants. She’s smiling, looking pert in her uniform, with a silver medallion on a chain.
The last time we flew together was Chicago to Los Angeles, and on to Honolulu. Flight attendants have time to talk on long trips like that, strapped into the jumpseats over the Pacific. We tell our whole life stories, kvetch about the passengers, and dish boyfriends, our own and everyone else’s that we’ve ever worked with. Jumpseat therapy, we call it.
“They tried to give me room 800 at the hotel last night,” she told me. “I made them change it.”
Flight attendants, even those who aren’t religious, practice certain superstitions. You don’t take a room number associated with a doomed flight. Room 800 is one that we all avoid. These days, so is 93. And 911.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I’d have kept it. I think seeing a ghost would be cool.”
“The ghosts of two hundred passengers, all of them pissed off about being dead? No thank you,” she answered. “They’re enough trouble while they’re alive.”
Right on cue, two call lights went off at once, and our break time was over.
We hit a storm over the Pacific. The dozing passengers were jerked awake, and the captain’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker. “We seem to have hit a little turbulence. We’ll be fine, but everyone needs to return to their seats with seat belts fastened, including the flight attendants.”
Which was good and bad. Good because I didn’t have to reassure the passengers. Bad, because there was just a chance that we weren’t fine.
She was sitting next to me, and I watched her hand travel to the medallion. Her lips moved in a silent prayer.
I’ve long since forgotten the prayers I learned during my family’s annual trips to the temple for the High Holy Days. I think there’s probably a God; the universe as a giant accident just seems too improbable. But I don’t really get the point of prayer. God already knows we’re hurtling through the sky in a hollowed-out chunk of metal at hundreds of miles an hour. It’s not like he’s going to say, “Whoops, forgot I’d left that storm lying around!”
Jews have been praying for 5,000 years, at sword point and in cattle cars and while being burned at the stake. It doesn’t seem to do us much good. I’m sure the people on Flight 800 prayed too. Maybe someone’s out there, but he sure doesn’t seem to be listening.
Eventually, even being scared can get boring. She looked at me with a half-smile. “Just think, we could be waiting tables or working in an office somewhere right now.”
“What, and get a decent paycheck and sleep at normal times?” I watched her fiddle with the chain. Finally I asked, “What’s that medallion?”
“Saint Christopher. I think there’s another saint just for flight attendants — God knows we deserve one — but you can’t go wrong with Saint Chris. He protects all travelers.”
“See, Jews don’t need saints for that. We’ve perfected traveling over the last five thousand years. We always keep a bag packed.”
“Wait, does that mean flight attendants are the Lost Tribe of Israel?”
“Could be. But instead of God, flight attendants get the captain, who only thinks he’s God.”
That was March. September of that year collapsed into a single day for me, when I stood frantically ad libbing to the passengers as to why we were landing in Sacramento instead of proceeding to our destination. “There’s a problem at the Seattle airport; they don’t know how long it’s going to take to fix, so as a precaution we’ll be landing for now. For safety reasons, we must insist that everyone stay in their seats with seat belts fastened, and that all cell phones be off.”
I could see them searching my face, trying to divine if something was wrong with the plane. I drew on every poker game I’d ever played, trying to keep my face casual, hoping no one called my bluff.
I prayed that day. Please, let no one get up out of their seat. Please, don’t make me have to guess if it’s a terrorist or just someone desperate to use the restroom. Please, let no one sneak a cell phone call and find out what happened on those other flights. Please, just get us on the ground. Please.
Maybe God gets tired of hearing Please.
* * *
I avoided coming here for a long time. But I’m on an unexpected layover in Pittsburgh, and the rest of the crew will probably come here tomorrow, when the rain’s supposed to stop. Right now it’s starting to pour again, pelting my face and the makeshift memorial.
They say there will be a monument built here. Right now it’s just a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, population 197. Shank: a crude knife, not unlike a box cutter. This was her plane, the last one to go down.
The crash site itself is fenced off. Nearby there’s a plaque shaped like an angel, and 40 smaller angels, each on a stake like a hollyhock vine. They’re all red, white, and blue, inscribed with the names of the 40 passengers and crew members on Flight 93.
The rain has kept most people away today. The chain-link fence is stuffed with flowers, ribbons, teddy bears, and notes. And flags, I didn’t know there were so many flags in the whole country. There are a lot of foreign flags too, visitors paying their respects from Mexico, Israel, France, Australia, Iran. Some of the rain-soaked notes are in other languages, but I don’t need a translator to know what they say: You are not forgotten … God keep you … Peace on earth. Even the stones are inscribed with crosses and Bible verses.
I’m sitting here in the rain, a semi-agnostic Jew with a Catholic amulet in each hand, wanting desperately to believe that someone hears us when we pray, even if he doesn’t listen, even if he lets evil happen anyway. Because that’s still less awful than the thought that we’re alone in the universe, and that brief moment of life was all she got. I want to drag God down here, push his face into the fence and demand an explanation.
A rock leaning against the fence reads “Pray for peace,” as if that was an answer, but I can’t possibly pray as hard as she must have in those final minutes. God, if faith was supposed to be tested, somebody failed the test. Somebody, you or me.
I find the angel with her name, and wrap the medallion chain around it. I want to light the candle, but the matches are soaked by now. I leave it there unlit, helpless against the elements, hoping she knows that I’d light her way home if I could.
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