600 Seconds



The pilotís voice is calm and soothing. Itís the voice of Sunday morning radio shows - the quiet gospels, blue note jazz, and when the voice tells you that you are falling now, that the aircraft cannot recover, that in ten minutes you will be attempting a difficult water-landing, you think to yourself that itís more than just a voice suited for cockpit banter, and control towers and passing mentions of spectacular canyons below, itís a voice that reassures a wife somewhere that he will fly safe, itís a voice that reads to children in a dimly lit room, itís a voice that tells an old family dog to lie down. Itís a marvelous voice. Itís God-like. Youíre lucky to have such a voice deliver the news that in ten minutes itíll all be over. Youíll likely feel no pain.


The voice from the cockpit, leaves an emptiness inside you thatís soon replaced by a voice of your own. You are transfixed by it and amazed at how clear it all suddenly becomes. Youíll never hold your daughter again. Youíll never kiss your wife. Youíll never look into their eyes or feel their skin, or hear them laugh. Never. Youíll never own that muscle car or turn your face into a warm breeze off the sea. Your toes have wallowed on their last sandy shore and you know that everyone around you is thinking much the same. To your right sits a perfect stranger, not weeping, as youíd expect, but smiling, holding your hand. She tells you that sheís widowed and childless. She has nothing left to care for, nothing to miss but the act of missing. And this is the worst part of living in the minutes before you die.


You remember a baseball glove you once owned. You remember the cool, slippery feeling of a small, brown snake. You remember the cold air in the high Sierras, your misty breath almost blue as you wake atop Half Dome with the vastness Yosemite stretching out below, shrouded by a violet haze as elusive and fleeting as the fabled green flash of the sun. This is what you do when youíve accepted death. You remember strange things. You remember an owl pellet with a mouse skull buried inside, and a certain seashell you kept on your bedside table, and a well-coiffed woman who stopped in the middle of traffic to check the identity of a dead cat in the road. You remember the soft music before the commercial break while your mother watched General Hospital on the days you stayed home sick from school. Fishing with your father off the side of the little sloop named Topsy, and how youíd breaded them and fried them in a blackened cast-iron pan over a cook fire on the beach. You remember the whisper of wind and the warm and mazy Sundays of your youth, macaroni and stickball. You see these things like photographs. They blow like leaves before your eyes. Leaves caught in the wind.


In ten minutes itíll all be over, and at this speed itíll be painless and quick. Itís not the impact that scares you, itís the wait. The unspoken.The unrealized. The unkept promises, your hopes, your dreams, your pledges to God, all have exceeded the limit of this fragile craft, all have over-reached. What remains is simply forgiveness and absolution. But your sins cannot be atoned in ten minutes, no matter how many Hail Marys you recite. And how many would that be, in ten minutes? If you pray quickly, you can say it in ten seconds and there are ten minutes left. Ten minutes. Six hundred seconds. Sixty Hail Marys at most. Not enough. Not nearly enough.


Six hundred seconds. The time it takes to smoke a cigarette. The time it takes to nod off in the backyard hammock. In six hundred seconds you can run a mile, cook an omelet or row the little dinghy to the other side of the lake. It takes six hundred seconds to cook the macaroni al dentť, your mother told you, and six hundred seconds to read your daughterís favorite book aloud if you do all the pirate voices, and the little boyís too, and allow for natural pauses so that it sounds real and wonderful like an old time radio drama, so that she yearns for stories and craves more books and becomes a reader like you were as a boy, and perhaps a writer, as you had hoped to become, not so that you could make money or be famous, but so that you could simply read your own words back to yourself and wonder at them the way she wonders when you read to her at night on the side of her bed with her tiny fingers around your forearm and her eyes glued to the pictures, reciting the story from memory and smiling at herself because she knows how it pleases you.


Six hundred seconds. Now there is much less than that but your mind is fixed on that number. Into the valley of death rode the brave six hundred.

††††††††††† Daddy, can you play with me?

††††††††††† Give me ten minutes sweetheart, ten minutes.

You walk out of restaurants if the wait for a table is ten minutes because youíre hungry now, so why should you wait ten minutes? You take a detour to work in order to save ten minutes sitting in traffic in your air-conditioned leather appointed car. You leave ten minutes early so you wonít miss the first ten minutes of the ball game. You set your watch ten minutes fast so you wonít be late for meetings or trains.

Sweetheart, ten more minutes and then youíre up to bed.

Daddy, I donít wanna go to bed.

Ten minutes, honey. Ten, and I mean it.


Now the praying begins in earnest. How many Hail Marys do you have left? You say the Hail Marys because itís always been your favorite from the time when you were a boy in the catechism, from the time when you took the papery host with a clean conscience because you didnít even know what a conscience was, from the time when you went to confession and all that you had to suffer was a boyís guilt from candy store thievery and swear words and forbidden fondling in the woods. You say the Hail Marys because you can pray to a woman more easily than you can pray to a man and because hers is a face you can see as clearly as your own motherís, and a voice you can hear as clearly as the voice of the pilot on the intercom.

††††††††††† The Lord is with Thee.

††††††††††† So you say the Hail Marys because theyíre all you have left now and thereís no judgment from her. Sheís a woman and understands pain in ways a man simply cannot. A woman gave you life, and a woman raised you so itís fitting that a woman receive you unto death. Sheís not God but sheís the most blessed of any mortal being and in your mind you have created your own brand of faith in which she, the Virgin Mother, receives both your gratitude and desperate pleas for forgiveness, delegating each to its appropriate Heavenly agent. You believe that she can intercede on your personal behalf. You believe that she can soften your sins, and explain your weaknesses to the heavenly father and thus lessen your punishment the way your own mother would defend you when you were a boy.

Donít worry sweetheart, Iíll speak to your father.

And she, the Virgin Mother, can speak to her son Jesus Christ, to grant you both protection from your weakness, and forgiveness for your sins.

Youíre his older brother. You need to look out for him.

And she, the Virgin Mother, holds the Holy Ghost in the palm of her hand and thus the power to change things, to fix things, to make things right again and to set you back on the path from which you have always strayed and will stray from again.

Itís a simple faith you have constructed for yourself. The faith of a boy. And itís fitting now that you return to it, just before you leave, and that you return to boyhood itself where the only thing that mattered was a properly oiled baseball glove, where your biggest concern was finding a candle-stub so that the runners on your Flexible-Flyer would glide smooth down Old Glory, which youíd take it again and again until well after dusk, with your toes numb and the cuffs of your Leviís frozen and the sound of your motherís voice calling you to dinner over the hills of snow. And you hoped it would be pasta on those nights. You hoped it would be macaroni.


Of the six hundred seconds you know not how many remain. Not many though. Thereís no screaming on the aircraft, and youíre surprised youíve taken it so well, and that they all have. Some are quietly weeping. One man has a bible open and the widow beside you has a rosary in her hands. Some stare at photographs in their wallets. You hear prayers spoken in other languages. A Muslim man is singing something old and beautiful. Outside the tiny window the surface of the sea shines like ice. The sea rushes beneath the plane and it rises up, a great swell, the tip of the wing titled slightly and blazing white like the wing of an ocean bird, like the wing of a gull, and you remember how those fine birds would glide along so close to the gunwale of the little sloop that you could reach out and almost touch them but of course you never could for they would bank off and swoop away from you and the jib sheet would slip from your fingers and youíd spill out all of your wind.


The wind. The drone of the engines is like the rush of the wind, an urgent rushing, fast and fierce, like a whole life blown invisible. A lifetime. Birth to death in six hundred seconds, ten minutes, plenty of time to brew a cup of coffee, plenty of time to come about in the little sloop and find the wind. And this is where you are again. On the sea. To this you have returned, as you have always done, to the dark, swirling, hammering sea.