Holding Pattern

by Joshua Unikel
Holding Pattern by Joshua Unikel

I was the first person in my family to get a flight to my grandfather. Though, I couldn’t keep my thoughts on that fact. I stared at the dress clothes of the middle-aged executives in the rows around me instead. The men wore bold-colored polo shirts, pastel button-ups, and various shades of khakis. The women had on black boat-necked dresses, Prussian blue business suits, or light blouses with black dress slacks. The businessman who had the middle seat in my row was up in a huddle with two of his colleagues. They stood with an older female flight attendant by the bulkhead row. The flight attendant, in her navy blue Delta Airlines blazer and crimson ascot, was tanned and leathery but somehow pert. As if always coming or going from Vegas or Boca Raton. She listened mostly. In the huddle, she struck me as the lead among the two other flight attendants: a thirty-something brunette up in first class and a curly-headed, overexcited guy named Jake or Phil or Greg.

The lead flight attendant nodded and looked back over the crowd around her. She looked back at a man across the aisle and one row back from me. He sat there in a clementine polo and light khakis, his head in his hands during our ascent. His hands were lean and tan and nearly reached his wavy gray hairline. He didn’t say anything, just shook his head slightly from time to time or sighed.

The flight attendant never said anything about all of the executives up and about in the cabin despite the weather everyone knew was in our flight path. Despite the lit fasten-seatbelt sign and the turbulence and the drops in altitude we were warned about. I looked out my window at the cloud cover and thought about how many people would have to be buried that night. How impossible it would be to bury them because of the rubble and how torn-up the ground was.

There were over one hundred tornadoes and super-cells moving across the South that night. It was a record, one newscaster on CNN said. Though, it wasn’t a record meant to thrill or remotely impress. I watched a flat-screen TV near my gate in the Quad City/Moline airport, waiting for my connection in O’Hare to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson.

I watched the same radar forecast that most of the people on the plane had probably watched. A neon green pixelated swath that moved across Arkansas then Alabama then northern Georgia. It reached the coast then froze then started over. The following day all of the news stations reported that the final count of those who died because of the weather was 285, though I could not, and still cannot, imagine that number in any concrete way.

That evening in the Quad City/Moline Airport, I watched the hurricanes and super-cells happen again and again and again as that green radar swath. I stopped listening to whatever newscasters or tornado experts or meteorologists said to accompany the map’s forecast. I already knew like everyone else in the Quad City/Moline Airport, and everyone on domestic flights going anywhere near the South already knew. Still, we watched CNN or HLN or CNBC because seeing that map, that green pixelated swath helped somehow. We all knew over-abundantly about the weather but knew we had to fly anyway.

I read flight handbooks I found on the FAA’s website in the months after that flight. Chapters on instrumentation and holding patterns and the risk ratios of landing versus takeoff, cloud structures and runway semaphores. I studied figures in units of measure I had no reference for, like KIAS (Knots Indicated Airspeed) and MSL (Mean-Sea Level). The more specialized and overly exact the information was, the longer it took to understand but the more comforting it felt to read and re-read.

In The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, I read that, “Meteorologists have estimated that wind in a tornado vortex can exceed 200 knots.” That fact felt imperative yet reassuring: “a tornado vortex can exceed 200 knots.” There was no handholding in the aviation documents that I found online. Documents with flat, immediate titles like The Instruments Flying Handbook and The Advanced Avionics Handbook.

Now I recognize that I read those flight documents for the same reason I read in-flight magazines: as an unlikely yet effective source of comfort. Though the handbooks, unlike the in-flight magazines, were a kind of protection as well, a salve. “Information,” or so Joan Didion wrote, “is control.” Information filled the void of not knowing, kept me from filling it in with my anxious, overly imaginative panic. Even if the content of the information was catastrophic, the feel of it was somehow steady.

“When tornados are forecasted, atmospheric conditions are favorable for violent turbulence,” The Pilot’s Handbook said. “An aircraft entering a tornado vortex is almost certain to suffer structural damage.” We didn’t enter a tornado vortex and didn’t suffer structural damage that night. Our original flight-path was re-routed several times so as to avoid what we all eventually called, simply, “the weather.”

But at least we had been prepared for the weather. Early in the flight, the pilot came onto the intercom and said, “Our scheduled flight-time here from Chicago to Atlanta is just around two and a half hours, not too much longer than originally scheduled, but I can assure you that it’s going to feel a whole heck of a lot longer with the weather we have ahead of us, folks.” His voice was too caffeinated and too much like an improv comic, I thought. We all pulled our seatbelts tighter. At least the overly tan lead flight attendant was flip and sarcastic.

During her demonstration with a seatbelt, she laughed and said, “This is not going to be the smoothest flight in FAA history.” She muttered it to the bulkhead row but said it loudly enough for everyone to hear. People laughed and some made jokes about free cocktails or kissing their asses goodbye. Though, everyone seemed to brace themselves, pressing against their armrests and the backs of their seats. Everyone prepared for the weather except those executives in my row and the rows around me. The man in the clementine polo, still with his head in his hands, was the least affected of their group.

Personally, I wasn’t afraid of turbulence or drops in altitude. I wasn’t afraid of the height, per se, or even crashing. What made me afraid instead was being in an airplane and seeing it go transparent. It happened to me on that flight and most other flights I took. It happened, I supposed, because of my anxiety, something I’d been diagnosed with as a teenager.

Usually on flights during cruising, I watched the transparent windows extend and cover the curved walls then the wings and tail then the floors and landing gears. I watched the cloud cover below and the busy minutia of streetlights and traffic patterns so far below us. I knew I was afraid of planes going transparent, but I couldn’t stop it much.

I often watched the overhead bins and the luggage inside go transparent as well. When we all sat there alone in the transparent cabin with just our chairs visible, I tried to focus on solid, opaque things. The seatbacks of all the upholstered chairs. I stared back toward the lavatories at the half-wall of compact metal cabinets with ruddy metal latches. The thick, locked metal door up the aisle that led to the flight-deck.

I imagined the flight-deck with its dense splay of instrumentation panels, altimeters, yaw switches, and digital horizon compasses. I focused on solid things like these because it kept me from focusing on all of us in our rows of uncomfortable chairs with nothing but air and clouds and cities below us. Though, everyone else sat there neatly or dully or completely asleep.

When the plane went transparent, I was made aware of how much engineering and machinery it took for us to defy basic physical principles. How little we actually knew about it. How deeply whimsical human flight was. I’d close my eyes, breathe deeply, and think of air travel as more solid than it was. On so many airplanes that went transparent, I told myself to think of traveling from airport-to-airport-to-airport as taking place within one solid and movable building. Instead of seeing it as unknown, I saw it as a building that Cedric Price might have designed in an unthinkably big, partially airborne architecture.

The bald businessman was back in his seat next to mine. The huddle he was in with his colleagues and the lead flight attendant had disbanded. He rumpled through the latest issue of The Times, and I sat staring out my window. I stared out over the wing of our plane at the lightning that just flashed: without thunder or much rain, just that silent and violet-white light.

“Do you want any of this?” the businessman said in a Southern drawl, parsing out the front section of the paper and holding the rest of it out toward me. “Want the Sports Section? Or the Arts?”

“Not really,” I said, laughing a little at his quick change from sports to arts. Probably after glancing at my tight black V-neck and form-fitting jeans. He shifted his weight in his chair, reaching across his stocky frame toward his collar but not touching it. Whatever reason broad-shouldered, middle-aged men did this for, I didn’t know.

“Yeah, tonight I don’t really care if this Casey Anthony killed her kid or not,” he said, paging through the front section. “And I really couldn’t care less if some French politician got friendly with a prostitute either.” He laughed, and I knew that I was supposed to laugh. I stared at him instead, realizing who he reminded me of. “You see that older guy back there?” he said. I looked where he was looking as if I had to, as if I hadn’t been trying to memorize the man in the clementine polo for most of the flight. I nodded.

“See he was our host up in Chicago, where we all just spent a long weekend. He has this property up there just outside the city where we all stayed. We all work together at this firm down in Richmond.” He looked at the woman in a black dress on her iPhone across the aisle and all the others who were talking quietly to one another. Similar Southern accents. “His company is a major seller of office supplies, and we’re a sizable client of his, so he invited our group up there to show us around Chicago and whatnot.”

I wondered how an office supply supplier could have an estate outside of Chicago. I tried to imagine the size of office supply orders that the man in the clementine polo must’ve overseen. Eventually, I gave into the fact that someone must run a company somewhere that sells enough office supplies of enough types to fund flying a whole team of people to Chicago for a long weekend.

I looked back again at the man in the clementine polo. His tan face was out of his hands, and he just looked blankly at the seatback in front of him, muttered inaudible little things to no one exactly. I stared at the stitched logo on his shirt for a brand I didn’t recognize. A little sky-blue whale that just sat there.

“Well, it’s just—see just before we boarded at O’Hare he got a call from his younger son that his wife just—well, she succeeded at killing herself,” he said. His phrase was odd to me: “succeeded at killing herself.” The phrase made suicide seem more related to the Protestant Work Ethic than it was. “His younger son called and said that his older brother had found her.”

I don’t remember what I said in response. I don’t remember a lot of what I should about that flight. I remember thinking about the call I got that afternoon about my grandfather, and I remember looking at the businessman while he talked, the shine of his reading light against his bald head, thinking he looked like an older version of Albert Camus.

“I just want to get on the ground so we can get him home to see his boys and make whatever arrangements he needs to for his wife,” the businessman said. I imagined the man in the clementine polo’s wife with brown, shoulder-length hair. She had a jogger’s build and small, firm hands with nails filed short, squared-off, usually polished in clear coat.

Now, months after that flight, I don’t know why the businessman confided in me at all, and I don’t know why anyone confides in anyone else on airplanes either. I don’t know what it changes or what good it does. Few places in our lives strike me as more like the waiting room in No Exit or a hospital in an unfamiliar city than the cabin of a domestic flight on United or Delta or JetBlue.

The businessman reminded me particularly of Albert Camus in the photograph taken by Cartier-Bresson. The photograph is black-and-white. Camus is in a wool overcoat with his pointed collar flipped and against his neck. He was only thirty-four when the photograph was taken in 1947, already with lines sunk into his forehead. His brown hair, translated into a medium gray, is already receded. Still, his hair is slicked back like a more professorial version of Clark Gable. He looks alert but unimpressed by the photographer and even less impressed by the fact that he’s being photographed.

He has more important places to be. “By then, the invincible summer of his Algerian boyhood was already hampered by the dark, mechanized killings of post-WWII Europe,” Germaine Brée writes in her critical study. Camus is on his way somewhere else in the photograph. Perhaps through the dark, blurred gate in the background—as if he barely has time to stop or pose. He has one of his notorious Gauloises cigarettes hanging from his barely open, skeptical-looking mouth.

In photographs, especially this one, Camus appears to want to simply get where he’s going. Wanting to get there but always getting held up on the way. That wanting never leaves the photographs, that almost or about to be. Like Kierkegaard’s “verge” at the edge of the Known.

But unlike Kierkegaard or Sartre, Camus wanted mostly in his writing to struggle with everyday problems. He didn’t want to be famous or a leader or a revolutionary, didn’t call himself a philosopher or an Existentialist. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,” he opens The Myth of Sisyphus, and I want to collapse his entire body of work into the opening of that book. “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—come afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.” Beneath everything else, whether we can feel the question or not, we’re first answering to “whether life is or is not worth living.”

The late-night quiet had made its way into our row on the plane. By then, the flight crew had turned off the cabin lights. A few people, the businessman and I among them, had their reading lights still on. I read an article in Delta’s in-flight magazine Sky called “One Day, Five Ways in Buenos Aires.” I took comfort in reading magazine’s like Delta’s Sky and Continental’s Hemispheres and AirTran’s Go whenever I flew somewhere. I liked the airport maps in the back most, those boxy gray abstractions. I always tried to memorize the concourses of airports I would likely never connect in: George Bush International in Houston or Seoul’s Incheon.

“She’d tried once before but didn’t succeed,” the businessman said. “But he told the doctors he didn’t want her put anywhere, so he signed papers saying that someone would watch her all the time. Her sisters or their sons would stay with her while he was away on business.” The distance didn’t make sense to me. Why would someone leave their spouse in Richmond to host a group of white-collar forty-somethings and fifty-somethings all the way in Chicago? It didn’t make sense then it did make sense. I leveled with the man in the clementine polo. I thought about what it must have been like to live with a spouse who barely had an interest in being alive, let alone married, then the distance made more sense to me.

“Apparently she tried it before with gasoline,” he said. “She swallowed as much gas from a can in the garage as she could. She nearly tore a hole in her throat doing it.” I didn’t know what he meant precisely: did he mean that the damage to her throat was as severe as it could be without being fatal, or did he mean that she almost physically bore a hole through her throat? I wondered if the latter was possible. I told myself to research the layers of the human throat and the corrosiveness of gasoline after we landed, but I never did. Instead, I read flight handbooks and Existentialist philosophy, biographies of Albert Camus and Germaine Brée’s book.

Sometimes I tell myself that the man in the clementine polo’s wife didn’t use a jumper cable and the garage-door frame on the ceiling of their three-car garage. Sometimes I tell myself that her older son didn’t find her at all. Maybe he found the door between the laundry room and the garage locked. Maybe he could smell the humid astringency of one of the cars in the garage running and running but at least he couldn’t see her there.

No. The jumper cable feels too massive not to be fact. The heavy ends of it in her palms. The relief of not having to tie the right kind of knot, and the way the crimson and onyx ends of it reminded her of chip clips or the beaded string on a dentist’s bib. She shook her head at the thought, looked over at the gray concrete floor and the two remaining cars and the quiet of the garage. The hum of a light bulb somewhere. Her husband had taken the Infiniti to the airport. Its vacant spot on the far side of the garage and how vacuous that patch of concrete felt.

Albert Camus’ car crash had more to do with shoddy engineering than suicide. Some theorists and philosophy students like the idea of Camus killing himself. They say that the official biographies are wrong. They say that he meant to crash that car. They say that he is a clear mismatch to his philosophy of choosing life and happiness even in the face of nihilism.

They say these things, but they never say that Camus wasn’t driving the car he died in. Camus sat in the passenger seat of that stylish, unruly Facel Vega while his close friend and editor Michel Gallimard drove across a snowy dirt road in Villeblevin, France. The car belonged to Gallimard. Camus was not fond of fast cars or speeding like many French intellectuals of that era.

That afternoon, Camus had a train ticket in his jacket pocket that would have taken him home to his family in Paris just after the holidays that early January. Camus accepted a ride in his friend’s Facel Vega instead. Perhaps Camus wanted to get to his family with a similar kind of tumbled urgency that so many of us had in flying to the South that night.

The Facel Vega was known for its powerful Chevy Hemi engine, its streamlined chassis, and its notoriously poor handling. The Facel Vega was a car to be seen in and a car that had to be fought constantly. Not like a Buick Park Avenue. The Park Avenue was wide and comfortable and reliable. The car my grandfather drove. He paid extra to have a two-tone horn installed so that whenever he blared it, his Park Avenue sounded like a Peterbilt and an entire lane of traffic would clear in front of him. It was one of the only inessentials he ever bought.

My grandfather would’ve hated the showiness of the Facel Vega, but as an engineer he would’ve known how to improve it. Because of its unwieldiness, the Facel Vega was manufactured only between 1959 and 1961. Only five hundred were made. Ava Gardner owned one and so did Ringo Starr. The king of Morocco owned one and so did Danny Kaye. The editor Michel Gallimard owned one, and Albert Camus was in its passenger seat when the car skidded, and Gallimard compensated but couldn’t brake hard enough or turn wide enough before a tree was too close.

We entered a holding pattern during our flight toward the weather in the South. The pilot came onto the intercom and said, “After being re-routed quite a bit by Air Traffic, we’ve been cleared for a holding pattern here, which we’ll enter momentarily.” We listened to him, and many of us nodded. We nodded but didn’t know what a holding pattern was in any actual way. “Our re-scheduled arrival time for Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta is now just about twelve forty-five. So about a three-and-a-half hour delay there in all. On behalf of everyone at Delta and the Delta Star Alliance, we do apologize for the inconvenience, folks.”

The businessman checked his thick silver watch, making a joke about flying the plane himself. “If I go up there into the cockpit and get in the pilot’s seat so we can just get this thing on the ground, are you up for flying co-pilot?” His drawl made the whole thing sound more like a rodeo than it was. I smirked, laughing in the quiet of the plane. I told him that if he could get us into the cockpit, I’d give co-piloting my best shot.

Though, that night I knew as little about piloting as I did about holding patterns. I thought, like most might have assumed, that a holding pattern happens above the destination city. I thought that it was something like driving around the block just in an airplane at 30,000 feet. I read in The Pilot’s Handbook months after that a holding pattern happens at a pre-determined point, or “fix,” after which the pilot makes a slow 180-degree turn away from the flight-path. The turn begins an elliptical “racetrack formation.” The turn is to the right in a “standard” holding pattern or to the left in a “non-standard” holding pattern. After the initial turn, the pilot then levels the plane and flies along a course parallel to the flight-path but in the opposite direction. This is the “outbound leg” of the pattern. This is technically when “holding” occurs. After holding, the pilot makes another 180-degree turn and assumes the same flight path as before, just miles back. The entire pattern lasts an average of four to five minutes in moderate flying conditions, six to seven minutes in severe conditions.

The Pilot’s Handbook goes on to explain that multiple holding patterns can occur in the same airspace but not at the same altitude. As soon as a plane is assigned an altitude for its pattern, the plane reserves that altitude. Other planes may be approved by Air Traffic to fly holding patterns above and below the first plane but not at its altitude.

I fixate on that fact for whatever reason: the thought of one Boeing jet above the next above the next in synchronized, parallel formations is comforting to me for some reason. I like to hold that image in my mind: those planes making their slow racetrack patterns in the dark, too high to be heard from the ground.

In the three-car garage, the man in the clementine polo’s wife tried not to look too long at the little rows of metallic teeth on the clamps of the jumper cables. The teeth were rusted and dull. She was afraid that those teeth would somehow puncture the cable itself. She thought it would bite into the bundled strands of wires.

She looked up at the garage-door frame attached to the ceiling. Stared at the thin silver metal with its steady row of holes. She looked at the metal frame and worried that the whole thing might electrocute her instead somehow. She could handle the thought of hanging but not the idea of an electrical current making its way through her body, overloading her electro-chemistry and her thoughts with whatever it wanted. She couldn’t handle the fractal shapes or pictures that that much electricity might make her imagine.

I stared out my window, trying to think of what the weather below us looked like. I stared out into the dark cloud cover, and I wanted to know what all of those tornadoes looked like from above: congregations of airy, darkening circles. I tried to think about what all the different air currents surrounding our plane would’ve looked like if they were visible. I wondered what a kidney looked like and wondered if its movements changed when the body’s blood was being siphoned instead through a dialysis machine. I wanted to know if kidneys moved or stayed still during dialysis, and I wondered who designed the first dialysis machine and what my grandfather, the engineer in our family, thought of the machine.

I wanted to know if the rest of my family, my mom and two siblings all flying down from Pittsburgh International, were in a holding pattern as well. I wanted to know what city they were holding over and if they were holding in a standard or non-standard pattern. “Information is control.” Pulling my seatbelt tighter against my waist, I thought about the sky-blue whale on the man in the clementine polo’s shirt and tried to imagine only that little whale. I wanted to look back at the man in the clementine polo again but couldn’t. I couldn’t look at him again, couldn’t take the thought of him muttering, staring through everything in the plane, and I didn’t want the plane to go transparent again. “Information is control,” Didion wrote, but she wrote it after finding her husband on their living room floor in cardiac arrest. She called 911 and let the paramedics in, but she was otherwise fairly helpless.

I looked at the businessman next to me and said without exactly wanting to, “I’m trying to get to my grandfather. I got a call from my mom saying he’d taken a turn for the worse. That I needed to get on the first flight I could, get in a cab and tell the driver I’d pay him double or triple if he drove to Saint Joseph’s as fast as he could without getting pulled over.” The businessman looked back over at his colleagues across the aisle. He looked down at the silver button on the armrest on the other side of him, thumbing it, then looking over at me. “My mom said that she booked a flight for her and my siblings, but it was taking off much later than mine, so I should just go. She said my grandma would already be in bed because it was too late for her to still be at the hospital. I had to get there so that someone was.” The businessman shook his head and said he was so sorry. He stopped thumbing the button on the armrest and scratched at his pinstripe dress pants instead, and I wanted that gesture to mean more than it could.

Staring at the crisscrossed netting on the seatback in front of me, I looked at the copy of SkyMall held inside. I pulled at the netting, let it snap back against the SkyMall catalog. “My mom told me he was too weak for dialysis for the second time in four or five days. She said that he would never get strong enough for it, so nothing could clean his blood anymore and after that it was just hours, a day or two maybe. She told me that when I got to Saint Joseph’s I had to make sure that no one tried to keep him alive. He was DNR, Do Not Resuscitate, so I had to just be there with him, that was all I could do. She said to just sit next to his bed and make sure he was comfortable.”

Just sitting somewhere, just being anywhere, especially in a hospital or on an airplane just sitting—it was the last thing someone as anxious as me was capable of. Though, I hoped that saying what I did to the businessman would somehow help. I hoped that returning the admission would help me not to be as anxious, not to think about the nothing I was supposed to do when I got to the hospital. Selfishly, I hoped that saying what I did would make my mom and siblings get to Saint Joseph’s in time so that I didn’t have to be there alone. I didn’t want that responsibility, those moments, that sitting. I knew that there was nothing I could do for him, nothing anyone was allowed to do. “Just be there with him.”

I wanted saying what I did to the businessman to have so many more consequences than it could. Helpful or obstructive or both. I hoped that it would make the weather clear long enough for us to land our plane at Hartsfield-Jackson and get where we needed to go, and I hoped that it would help my family’s plane land there too. I hoped it could somehow make Camus use the train ticket in his jacket pocket to get home to his family instead of getting in that Facel Vega, and I wanted it to keep Didion from ever finding her husband on their living room floor. I hoped that admitting what I did to the businessman would somehow stop the man in the clementine polo’s wife from ever swallowing gasoline from a can in the garage and keep her from ever picking up the heavy ends of a jumper cable at all. I hoped that we got rerouted because we were running low on fuel and had to land in Richmond so that the businesspeople could get the man in the clementine polo home and so that I wouldn’t have to be by myself in the hospital with my grandfather. I sat there in my window seat as we flew in our holding pattern, watching the violet-white lightning that just flashed, and I hoped that saying something to the businessman next to me would at the very least let us hit the weather we’d been promised, give us the turbulence and sudden loss of altitude we were desperately bracing for but never got.

Joshua Unikel has an MFA from the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Currently, he serves as the assistant editor of the Seneca Review. He is also an MFA candidate in the University at Buffalo's Visual Studies Department. His writing has appeared recently in Sonora Review, [PANK], and Fugue.