An excerpt from Daniel Riley’s ‘Fly Me’
In this excerpt, we’re thrust into the center of the early ’70s flying life of 22-year-old stewardess Suzy Whitman, who’s grown inadvertently involved with a drug-running scheme that clashes perilously with the skyjacking epidemic of the era. A mid-flight emergency leaves Suzy stranded a long way from her home base—the beaches of L.A.—and lands her at a hotel bar in Dallas where she meets a stranger worth keeping an eye on.
Fly Me (Little, Brown), Riley’s debut novel, will be published on June 6.
On the first leg of the out-and-back to New York, the pilot comes on to say they may need to make an unexpected landing. They’ve already been squeezed onto a southern route by weather over the Rockies, but this is more severe, more urgent. My God, Suzy thinks, it’s happening again. She’s in the back of the plane brewing coffee when the announcement splits the silence of the cabin. At once there’s the flare-up of a collective murmur, the sound of a lit stove top. None of the passengers in the back seem to be seeking her attention, but she can’t quite see all the way to the front. The other three girls are near the cockpit, and she makes a line forward, cautiously, pacifically.
“Miss, what is it?” says a woman in a yellow dress. Suzy can tell she’s shaped like a papaya.
“I’m heading up to check. It’s all under control.”
Each row she passes, though, she scans for signs that would suggest otherwise: bags with explosives, overstuffed shirts, shaky hands, sweaty eyes. And yet nothing presents itself ringed in red. There’s an empty seat just before she reaches business class, a window seat she’s sure was occupied. She closes her eyes tightly in an attempt to visualize the manifest, as though the darker she can make her mind, the better the odds of developing an image of the list of names and their associated faces.
But she comes up blank. And so she moves deeper toward the front of the cabin, watches the doors of the cockpit carefully. She doesn’t want to startle anyone should the doors open suddenly. She passes the compartment with her bag. What happens if she fails to make a delivery? She can’t be held responsible under these circumstances, can she?
She’s nearly to the front of the plane, eyeing the compartment, wondering if the hijackers could possibly know about the haul. The run to pay back Billy. There’s quiet up front — the three stews are seated. This confuses Suzy. But her confusion is cut off by the giant whoosh beside her, an imbalance of pressure, the cabin door unsealing, or some such equivalent. It springs her stomach. But then it settles, fizzy still but blushing, too. Someone’s flushed the toilet. Suzy steps aside, out of the way, and the elderly woman belonging to the missing seat returns to her window.
Suzy presses in to the head stew and whispers softly so that the first-class passengers don’t overhear.
“Is everything okay?”
“What?” Marcy shouts.
“Is everything . . . ,” Suzy says at the same unhelpful volume. Then: “What’s going on?”
“Weather,” Marcy says.
“Gulf storm,” Marcy says, shouting still.
“Nothing else, no other problems . . .”
“Don’t look so spooked.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain. . . . ” And he proceeds to explain. A late-season gulf hurricane has slowed its metabolic rate and turned into a mean, doughy central-Texas mess of shit that’s forcing all planes in the area down to the ground for at least an hour.
That’s it. Suzy’s relief is rapidly overwhelmed by her distaste for her own paranoia. Here she was certain that they’d be flying to Cuba to drop off another radical in Havana, like she’d been reading about all summer. A favorite destination. She even heard from a pair of pilots that the government had considered building a fake Havana airport near the Everglades so that planes wouldn’t even have to leave American airspace. A Hollywood Potemkin village for hijackers.
But instead: just standard Texas weather. An hour on the ground in Dallas becomes two. The storm turns out to be so bad, winds so significant, that they clear the runways entirely, rush all planes to hangars. It reminds Suzy of The Wizard of Oz, and she wonders if that one was the first “It was only a dream” in movie history.
From the gate she watches out the windows as a pair of fighter jets taxi right there between the commercial birds. She feels the familiar wistfulness for the claustrophobia of the cockpit. She can make out the red smudge of the pilot’s helmet and finds it to be a shade she might like for herself if she ever races regularly again. After three hours the airline calls it — no one’s getting out until the morning.
Suzy’s put up in a room downtown with the rest of the crew. It’s still light out and not even raining by the time they get to the hotel, and so she walks down by the Book Depository and trudges through mud on the grassy knoll, mud that dries bone-light on her boots. Some of the other girls go out to dinner, but Suzy heads to the bar with another something Mike gave her — a fat one, a weird one, Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel — and orders a rib eye and a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue. And because it’s the same bottle the cowboy at the end of the bar is drinking from, he says it’s on him, a gesture Suzy waves off halfheartedly until he insists, and she gives him an overcooked smile and a double thumbs-up.
When she asks the bartender for another, the bartender says the same guy’s got this one, and the following one, too. They’re already paid for. And so Suzy waves and mouths a thank-you again but returns to her book all the same. She moves through her meal slowly so that she’s not left alone with just the drink. When she re-ups again, the man at the end of the bar stands and ticks off the number of seats between them until there’s just one left. He gives her the space of a single stool.
“You’re eating in a hotel and so I’m gonna assume you’re not from here.”
“You assume right.”
“No, no, wait. . . . Replacement-cheerleader tryouts for the Cowboys.”
“Thank you for the drinks, seriously, but — ”
“Don’t do that. Gimme a clue.”
Suzy throws her shoulders back in mock posture and says “Can I get you anything else?” in an accent with big Texas hair.
“A stew?” he says, puzzled. “You sure don’t remind me of a stew.”
“Because I’m reading a book?”
“Oh boy, you aren’t making this easy.”
“I’m sorry, why don’t I look like a stew?”
“I guess I’ve just never met one out of uniform, is all. It’s like seeing your schoolteacher out on a date or something.”
“Well, voilà,” Suzy says.
He’s tall, with a thick head of close-cropped dark hair, mussed flat by the Stetson that’s resting on the stool beside him. His ears stick out a little and he’s got the nose of a prey bird. His eyes are a blue that seems plugged into a wall, and they’re roofed by a pair of bushy brows. Wranglers and double-pocketed powder-pink shirt and a bolo tie with the regal profile of a Cherokee chief.
“That’s something,” she says, nodding at it.
“This old Dallas wildcatter, this energy man, listed it for real cheap in the Chronicle, over where I’m at, in Houston. Clearing out the estate. Had that hat there and a pair of boots, too. Best I’ve seen. Came over yesterday. Guess how much.”
“How much for what?” she says.
“A thousand bucks.”
“A hundred and twenty bucks,” he says, slapping the bar. “Can you believe that?”
“Those there?” Suzy says.
“Nah, not wearing ’em. For my poppy. He took a new job in New York and he’s missing the Texas stuff.”
“Congrats to your dad,” she says. “And thanks again for this.”
“Don’t mention it. We’re all stuck here together.”
“Didn’t you just drive over, though?”
“You ever driven through east Texas during a storm like this?”
“I have not.”
“I bet it’s not that bad,” Suzy says.
“I bet I could make the drive.”
He narrows his eyes. “Stuck’s fine with me.”
Reports on the Cowboys-Packers game in Milwaukee have been coming in low on the radio, but it spikes now, awash in a debate over injuries, and Suzy’s barmate leans into the news.
When his attention drifts back, he says, “So you’re a stew and I’m a pilot. Bet you didn’t realize how much we had in common.”
“Texas National Guard.”
“You fly in the war?”
“Just Texas Guard. Kept it close to home. Over at Ellington.”
“You gonna go commercial?”
He looks puzzled. “Figuring it out. Taking a break, working on a political campaign in Alabama.”
“Not my primary interest.”
“You’d rather be flying.”
“I’d rather be pitching for the Astros.”
“Wow, you’re all over the place.”
“Astros. Convair F-102s. Alabama senate campaigns.”
“The big show?” she says. “That’s a diverse portfolio.”
“Thinking about business school after that.”
“Keep ’em coming . . . what else?”
“Nah, that’s enough from me. How ’bout one from you?”
“Well, believe it or not, I’m gonna be a pilot, too.”
“They move a lot of the girls into the cockpit?”
“Not as often as they should. I’m in training now.”
“Nothing to it once you’re off the ground.”
“That’s what the boys say.”
She doesn’t even see him order another whiskey, but there it is. He lowers the waterline of his drink with the hand sleight of a pickpocket.
“Say, what’s your favorite stew joke?” he says.
She smiles without her teeth and turns in her seat: “They’re all pretty lame.”
“Wanna know mine?”
“You bought the drinks. . . .”
“So the stew goes up to the cabin and asks the pilot, ‘Coffee, tea, or me?’” He pauses for effect. “And the pilot goes: ‘Which one’s easiest to make?’”
“I really didn’t think that was gonna be the one,” Suzy says.
“That’s the joke even the shrews at stew school feel okay giggling at.”
“Yeah, I like it.”
“How ’bout this one,” Suzy says. “Which do you prefer, sir? TWA coffee or TWA tea?”
“I’ve never flown TWA.”
“Ah, it wouldn’t make sense, then,” she says, chewing a cube so it squeaks.
The man mouths the riddle to the ice in his tumbler. And then he shifts in his seat and smiles, like it’s all gone to plan, like it’s working out just right for him.
“Ha!” he says. “I hadn’t heard that one. T-W-A-T, I like that. . . . I prefer . . . TWA tea.”
She sizes him up all over again.
“You don’t look much like a horses-and-lassos cowboy.”
“You’re picking up on my time back east.” He flashes a gold university class ring, and in the instant she thinks she recognizes the familiar Hebrew letters of the Yale crest. But his hands tuck back beneath his elbows on the bar before she can see for sure. “Odessa, Midland, Houston, before that. Poppy worked in oil. I went away and now I’m back. I’ve gotta say, I missed the clothes.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but when you’re dressed up like it, you kinda have the Jon Voight thing going on, when he steps off the bus in Times Square.”
“Still haven’t seen it,” he says. “But I know the Nilsson tune.”
Suzy smiles and finishes her drink and drops it loudly on the bar. She scrapes the last of her zucchini around with a fork and presses her plate in the bartender’s direction.
“Can I get you another drink or something?” the cowboy says.
Suzy’s got an early call time and she’s the kind of lit that’s one drink too many for a good night’s sleep and one drink short of a sure hangover. She’s making a hard break of the twenty-four-hour rule either way. And here, after thirty minutes with this traveler — this thing before her that’s hogging her field of vision, this shape that the camera in her mind has irised in on, this creature with whom she’s collided and intertwined and that she’s come to regard as the sole protagonist of her recent memory — Suzy’s growing susceptible to the idea that he might very well be the only man left in the whole world. “I’m good,” she says, lifting herself and subtly falling forward toward him. “But listen: you get something else for yourself and put in on my bill. To pay you back. The airline’s got it anyway, you know?”
He looks a little hurt, since things seemed to be going so well — but he has a nice mouth. And the longer he keeps that ring tucked under his arms, the greater Suzy’s conviction grows to see it again.
Suzy slides what’s left of the last ice cube into her mouth and cracks it in half. She steps closer and wraps her painted nails around his bolo tie. For whatever reason, that’s the moment she remembers that there’s freight glowing undelivered in her carry-on, and she feels a fuzzy heat beneath her skin.
“You understand what I’m saying? Room 325, ’kay?”
Daniel Riley is a Senior Editor at GQ Magazine. He grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, and lives in New York City. This is his first novel.