Get Me to the Church on Time

Get Me to the Church on Time

by Terry Bisson

Illustration by Mark Evans

1.

The best way to approach Brooklyn is from the air. The Brooklyn Bridge is nice, but let’s admit it, to drive (or bicycle, or worse, walk) into homely old Brooklyn directly from the shining towers of downtown Manhattan is to court deflation, dejection, even depression. The subway is no better. You ride from one hole to another: there’s no in-between, no approach, no drama of arrival. The Kosciusko Bridge over Newtown Creek is okay, because even drab Williamsburg looks lively after the endless, orderly graveyards of Queens. But just as you are beginning to appreciate the tarpaper tenement rooftops of Brooklyn, there it is again, off to the right: the skyline of Manhattan, breaking into the conversation like a tall girl with great hair in a low-cut dress who doesn’t have to say a word. It shouldn’t be that way, it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. No, the great thing about a plane is that you can only see out of one side. I like to sit on the right. The flights from the south come in across the dark wastes of the Pine Barrens, across the shabby, sad little burgs of the Jersey shore, across the mournful, mysterious bay, until the lights of Coney Island loom up out of the night, streaked with empty boulevards. Manhattan is invisible, unseen off to the left, like a chapter in another book or a girl at another party. The turbines throttle back and soon you are angling down across the streetlight-spangled stoops and backyards of my legend-heavy hometown. Brooklyn!

“There it is,” I said to Candy.

“Whatever.” Candy hates to fly, and she hadn’t enjoyed any of the sights, all the way from Huntsville. I tried looking over her. I could see the soggy fens of Jamaica Bay, then colorful, quarrelsome Canarsie, then Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza; and there was the Williamsburg Tower with its always-accurate clock. Amazingly, we were right on time.

I wished now I hadn’t given Candy the window seat, but it was our Honeymoon, after all. I figured she would learn to love to fly. “It’s beautiful!” I said.

“I’m sure,” she muttered.

I was anticipating the usual long holding pattern, which takes you out over Long Island Sound, but before I knew it, we were making one of those heart-stopping wing-dipping jet-plane U-turns over the Bronx, then dropping down over Rikers Island, servos whining and hydraulics groaning as the battered flaps and beat-up landing gear clunked into place for the ten thousandth (at least) time. These PreOwned Air 707s were seasoned travelers, to say the least. The seat belts said Eastern, the pillows said Pan Am, the barf bags said Braniff, and the peanuts said People Express. It all inspired a sort of confidence. I figured if they were going to get unlucky and go down, they would have done so already.

Through the window, the dirty water gave way to dirty concrete, then the wheels hit the runway with that happy yelp so familiar to anyone who has ever watched a movie, even though it’s a sound you never actually hear in real life.

And this was real life. New York!

“You can open your eyes,” I said, and Candy did, for the first time since the pilot had pushed the throttles forward in Huntsville. I’d even had to feed her over the Appalachians, since she was afraid that if she opened her eyes to see what was on her tray, she might accidentally look out the window. Luckily, dinner was just peanuts and pretzels (a two-course meal).

We were cruising into the terminal like a big, fat bus with wings, when Candy finally looked out the window. She even ventured a smile. The plane was limping a little (flat tire?) but this final part of the flight she actually seemed to enjoy. “At least you didn’t hold your breath,” I said.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

Ding! We were already at the gate, and right on time. I started to grope under the seat in front of me for my shoes. Usually there’s plenty of time before everyone starts filing out of the plane, but to my surprise it was already our turn; Candy was pulling at my arm and impatient-looking passengers, jammed in the aisle behind, were frowning at me.

I carried my shoes out and put them on in the terminal. They’re loafers. I’m still a lawyer, even though I don’t exactly practice.

“New York, New York,” I crooned to Candy as we traversed the tunnel to the baggage pickup. It was her first trip to my home town; our first trip together anywhere. She had insisted on wearing her Huntsville Parks Department uniform, so that if there was a crash they wouldn’t have any trouble IDing her body (whoever “they” were), but she would have stood out in the crowd anyway, with her trim good looks.

Not that New Yorkers aren’t trim. Or good looking. The black clad, serious-looking people racing by on both sides were a pleasant relief after the K-mart pastels and unremitting sunny smiles of the South. I was glad to be home, even if only for a visit. New Yorkers, so alien and menacing to many, looked welcoming and familiar to me.

In fact, one of them looked very familiar…

“Studs!”

It was Arthur “Studs” Blitz from the old neighborhood. Studs and I had been best friends until high school, when we had gone our separate ways. I had gone to Lincoln High in Coney Island, and he had gone to Carousel, the trade school for airline baggage handlers. It looked like he had done well. His green and black baggage handler’s uniform was festooned with medals that clinked and clanked as he bent over an access panel under the baggage carousel, changing a battery in a cellular phone. It seemed a funny place for a phone.

“Studs, it’s me, Irving. Irv!”

“Irv the Perv!” Studs straightened up, dropping the new battery, which rolled away. I stopped it with my foot while we shook hands, rather awkwardly.

“From the old neighborhood,” I explained to Candy as I bent down for the battery and handed it to Studs. It was a 5.211 volt AXR. It seemed a funny battery for a phone. “Studs is one of the original Ditmas Playboys.”

“Playboys?” Candy was, still is, easily shocked. “Perv?”

“There were only two of us,” I explained. “We built a treehouse.”

“A treehouse in Brooklyn? But I thought…”

“Everybody thinks that!” I said. “Because of that book.”

“What book?”

“Movie, then. But in fact, lots of trees grow in Brooklyn. They grow behind the apartments and houses, where people don’t see them from the street. Right, Studs?”

Studs nodded, snapping the battery into the phone. “Irv the Perv,” he said again.

“Candy is my fiancée. We just flew in from Alabama,” I said. “We’re on our Honeymoon.”

“fiancée? Honeymoon? Alabama?”

Studs seemed distracted. While he got a dial tone and punched in a number, I told him how Candy and I had met (leaving out my trip to the Moon, as told in “The Hole in the Hole”). While he put the phone under the carousel and replaced the access panel, I told him how I had moved to Alabama (leaving out the red-shift and the nursing home, as told in “The Edge of the Universe”). I was just about to explain why we were having the Honeymoon before the wedding, when the baggage carousel started up.

“Gotta go,” said Studs. He gave me the secret Ditmas Playboy wave and disappeared through an AUTHORIZED ONLY door.

“Nice uniform,” said Candy, straightening her own. “And did you see that big gold medallion around his neck? Wasn’t that a Nobel Prize?”

“A Nobel Prize for baggage? Not very likely.”

Our bags were already coming around the first turn. That seemed like a good sign. “How come there’s a cell phone hidden underneath the carousel?” Candy asked, as we picked them up and headed for the door.

“Some special baggage handlers’ trick, I guess,” I said.

How little, then, I knew!

2.

Flying into New York is like dropping from the twentieth century back into the nineteenth. Everything is crowded, colorful, old—and slow. For example, it usually takes longer to get from La Guardia to Brooklyn than from Huntsville to La Guardia.

Usually! On this, our Honeymoon trip, however, Candy and I made it in record time, getting to curbside for the #38 bus just as it was pulling in, and then catching the F train at Roosevelt Avenue just as the doors were closing. No waiting on the curb or the platform; it was hardly like being home! Of course, I wasn’t complaining.

After a short walk from the subway, we found Aunt Minnie sitting on the steps of the little Ditmas Avenue row house she and Uncle Mort had bought for seventy-five hundred dollars fifty years ago, right after World War II, smoking a cigarette. She’s the only person I know who still smokes Kents.

“You still go outside to smoke?” I asked.

“You know your Uncle Mort,” she said. When I was growing up, Aunt Minnie and Uncle Mort had been like second parents, living only a block and a half away. Since my parents had died, they had been my closest relatives. “Plus it’s written into the reverse mortgage—NO SMOKING! They have such rules!”

Born in the Old Country, unlike her little sister, my mother, Aunt Minnie still had the Lifthatvanian way of ending a statement with a sort of verbal shrug. She gave me one of her smoky kisses, then asked, “So, what brings you back to New York?”

I was shocked. “Y ...

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