Book 1

The Story of Gabrielle, Mother to Maria, Grandmother to Anna

Gabrielle could barely sit still. She tapped her feet, pressing forward every few beats to peer her eyes over the seat in front of her, not looking at anything in particular. She pushed her thumbs against each other until one bent and then the other, moved them up and down together, swirled them faster and faster around each other. She picked up the in-flight magazine, breezed through every page, seeing bright colors flashing before her eyes but never registering a single word, put it back in the seat pocket, then picked it up again as if she had never seen the thing before. Maria, seeing her mother’s nervousness and knowing it had nothing to do with being on a plane, tried to talk to her. About Miami. About all the new opportunities for the whole family there. Getting Anna into a good school, sending her to college someday, all things she had brought up a thousand times before. Gabrielle usually went along with her daughter’s fancy even though she had more pressing matters on her mind, popping in with ideas like running a little café that specialized in empenadas with many, many various and wondrous fillings. Today, though, she barely knew her daughter was there. Only nodding and mumbling affirmatives when she noticed pauses in her daughter’s speech. Today was the day she had waited for, been moving toward for oh so long, and she could think of nothing else. She played all the possibilities out in her thoughts, her nervous ticks, their outward voice. Anna, sitting on her mother’s lap, giggled at her silly Gran. It went on like this the entire flight to Caracas.

Gabrielle asked Maria if it would be okay if she visited the grave alone. She had never known this man and yet she owed everything to him. He had given her life. His death before she was old enough to crawl, before her mother had moved them back to Barquiesimeto in the winter of 1942, had shaped who she would become. That and all her mother’s stories. He was such a wonderful man, she would say, so thoughtful and giving, not like all the other young men running the streets of Caracas. There was one story her mother loved to tell. Her aunts always groaned when her mother got those weepy eyes of hers, sighed and started in on the tale, but she would tell it just the same.

“Ah, Trinidad,” she would start, “Your dear, sweet Papa. He was a very poor boy when I met him. Running the streets with all those other fools, but he knew better. He was just young and having fun with mischief as boys are want to do. He had a good head though; would have done great things. And sweet. You know what he would do? When he was courting? Not just at first either, but all through? Well, I worked at a little shop just off the square. I assisted the apothecary with his measurements and keeping track of inventories; we also sold salves and other healthful items. Anyway, everyday, without fail, the time might change, but everyday, your sweet Papa would bring me a single flower, smile and then run back out that door. It was a real flower, too. I always have liked paper flowers, but he insisted. He said I was too good for paper. Daisies, lilies, roses. Everyday a new flower and a smile. I never knew where he got them, but…”

And she would trail off. Her eyes that much more weepy for the story, and the groans that much louder from her aunts. For this story and others like it, Gabrielle, loved this Papa she had never known. She lived to please him. His memory. All of her actions were geared toward pleasing him, for she knew he must be watching, and she knew that all of her movements were leading back to him, to his grave. Where she could sit with him for a time and tell him everything, just as she had every night of her life, since she was but a small child, in her prayers. She would sit on the grass covering his grave, lay a single flower at his stone and feel right, feel complete.

Which is why when Maria began to speak more and more of the possibility of moving to Miami, Gabrielle did not deter her. Gabrielle’s mother had never wanted to go to the grave, though Gabrielle had asked her to many times. Gabrielle assumed it was because her mother had already said her good-byes, and there was no use in bringing up that pain again. But Gabrielle needed her time, and this seemed like her chance. It is true that Gabrielle would have preferred to live out her days in Barquiesimeto, but the thought of seeing her father in Caracas on the way to Miami, was well worth the chore of moving. She even thought that he would be proud, being so selfless as to move away from the only place she ever knew, so that her daughter and granddaughter could have more opportunities. She knew it was what he would want; what he would have done.

Maria agreed, nodding with her big eyes closed as Gabrielle walked slowly away from the running taxi. Inside she wanted to run, but her body had long since stopped such behavior. Her eyes filled the urge. Darting and scanning every tombstone she passed. She exhausted the engravings, names, dates, kind words of honor to and from past loves and children and friends. After fifty or so yards and around a craggily half-leaved tree, her eyes relaxed then went wide. She trembled briefly at the foot of the grave then fell sharply to her knees, bruising and cutting them badly on the unkempt mess of gravel and weeds that covered the bones of her dead father. Small exasperated gasps made it to Gabrielle’s lips then went back down and up again. She crumpled farther to the ground until she was a fetal ball sobbing, her head inches away from the tombstone that read simply:

Trinidad Vargas Requena

1923 – 1964

As she lay there, almost convulsing and hyperventilating, small but growing thoughts made it into her mind, all concerning her Mother. Had she made up everything? Were any of her stories real? Or had they been hopes or wishes? Or just taken from those stupid romance novels she used to love to read? She began to pray rapidly, over and over, for understanding, for meaning, but there was no longer belief behind her prayers. These thoughts, these lies, her empty cadence, consumed her quickly, and the wonderful Gabrielle that I had only known briefly, was gone forever.

Maria, had seen her Mother collapse, and rushed over to her crumpled mass. She began to ask what was the matter when she saw the tombstone and cut herself off. This possibility or the possibility of something like this had not escaped Maria, and she gathered her Mother up quickly saying all the things we say when there is nothing good to say. After several minutes, Maria was able to get Gabrielle to her feet, brush her off, and walk her unsteadily back to the taxi. They had a flight to catch.

Nothing changed for Gabrielle in Miami. She prayed relentlessly; empty, catatonic prayers at all hours of the day, sitting alone in her small, back bedroom or with Anna playing at her feet in the main room. She rarely ate or bathed, only doing so when Maria’s pestering grew too loud for her to concentrate. She wasted away to where even her hair became sparse and brittle. Then, on April 30, 2007after about eighteen months, on the eave of another hot Miami summer, Gabrielle gasped mid-prayer, fell to the floor and died.


Chapter 3

It was four hours before any rescuers arrived at the crash. The plane went down high and deep in the mountains. There was no way to get vehicles up there. There were helicopters circling almost immediately, but I am sure to them it looked like everything was dead, and that there was no need to rush down, risking their own lives to look for survivors. That was how it looked to me and that is how I would have behaved.. By the time the first rescuers arrived on the mountainside one could barely make out the outline of the plane, and what there was, was twisted black and smoldering. I sat there for those four hours, sitting legs-crossed on the hiking trail and stared into it , watching what there was become less and less. I became tired, and curled up with my head resting on the seat back. I was roused by a very stunned group of Venezuelan paramedics and firefighters. I don’t remember a thought that ran through my head in that four hours.

I have a tendency to have very wide eyes. I am amazed by just about everything, even things I have seen countless times. I also don’t talk much, except when around those that I find comfortable. My behavior at the crash was no different. Perhaps more acute, but no different. The rescuers took this as a clear sign of shock. Logical, I suppose. But I was all there. From when they woke me up I was amazed by all that I saw. If you have never seen a horrific disaster, and you can find a way to orchestrate one where no one gets hurt, I highly recommend checking it out. The shear destruction that a plane causes when hitting anything other than a runway is remarkable. Hundred foot trees, deep and thick underbrush are clear-cut as if with a giant sheath. The slope of that sharp mountain was even leveled a bit. And all the people. In bright florescent uniforms with jobs to do, that although they have trained for them endless hours, seem woefully unprepared. Running in every direction, carrying hose and axe and whatever. It is a riot. But then your eyes adjust, like minutes after walking out into a bright, sunny day, and you see everyone knows their parts. It’s a dance. A play. The smoldering carcass of the plane is washed down, making it safe to enter. Trees dangling dangerously upon cracked trunks are roped and cut down safely . Bodies and body parts are marked at landing and gathered up for a count. Photos are taken. Thousands. This sort of thing must be understood. And I was not in shock, I was just watching what was going on. Those people whose job was me, asked me how I was, ?como esta? Are you okay? “Bien. I am fine,” I said quietly. Their same question continued and my answer always the same. Shock, for sure. Then, as I was being whisked anxiously to a helicopter to get me down for medical care that I did not need, we went by close to the plane, and for the first time I thought and then I said, “My friends are dead. Mis amigos estan muerte.” And they all stopped. You could almost here the music playing. Tears entered their eyes, and you could feel their mix of pain and pity. But my words did not have such meaning behind them. They were just words. To me, my tone was matter-of-fact. Admittedly, it was odd that I just noticed, but I was just pointing something out, making an observation. But I was a hurt animal to them, a lost child, and after that pause we kept moving no one saying anything. They would be happy to hand off their job to the people waiting in the helicopter.

The Story of Carlos Gomez

By the time the plane had cleared the line of mountains surrounding Barquisemeto’s airport, Carlos was already well into his list for the day. Get on the plane (written and then immediately crossed off). Get off the plane. Take cab to work. Check email messages, returning any important ones. Call five clients to check if they need any supplies; do not take no for an answer from at least three. Morning constitutional. Send out order requests from the at least three who purchased supplies. Call five more clients…

And so it was for Carlos and his lists. He made a list for the day, everyday. He also, sometimes at night, always on the weekends, made long term lists. These usually included goal dates. The goal dates often changed. These lists included get married, have a child (a boy), have a second child (a girl), buy own home, take a vacation, retire…These lists, both the long-term and the day-to-day were often made in classic list form with bullet points, but he also built box matrices because it felt good to Carlos to put a big X through some goal he accomplished; even if it was just getting on the plane. Unfortunately for Carlos, he rarely got to make those big X’s. In his daily lists he maybe got through half of his goals, and those mostly in the morning, and he never made big X’s on his long term lists.

Little happened for him in his life beyond his lists. Carlos looked and acted much the way you might imagine. He was thirty-eight years old and he was getting softer and balder by the day. He was miticulous in grooming, but his style was awful and that neat, little mustache he had taken to wearing was the stuff of fodder when Carlos was not in the room. Carlos was still in sales even though he had been with his restaurant supply company for fifteen years. He took his current sales job in Caracas, leaving his job in Barquisemeto, because he thought it was a step up in the company; a step toward management. Of course, what everyone in the Caracas office knew was that these were the accounts of restaurants that were notoriously hard to deal with, were in the worst of neighborhoods, or placed orders that were barely worth the time of the account representative. Carlos still did not see this, even after four years flying back and forth between Barquisemeto and Caracas. He held out hope that with every sale he made he was one step closer to meeting every goal on his long-term lists.

Yes, Carlos was a stereotype. What was sad was that deep down he knew it. He knew he did not fit socially, at work. He knew he did not fit in his life, but he did not know how to leave it. He did not know how to change the way he looked, he did not know how to engage in proper small talk, and every joke he attempted stepped over some line of poor taste. He knew all this, but was helpless against himself. It was almost like a compulsion, his mind running on autopilot during a nosedive. And at other times it was like an out-of-body experience he could see himself doing or saying something, he could see the cringes or the laughs of those around him, but he could not make it stop. Carlos just continued on and on.

This is how it was for the two weeks I knew Carlos. On that Monday, exactly two weeks after the flight from Barquisemeto to Caracas, on December 11, 2006, Carlos was visiting a restaurant that was past due in payment for an order of napkins, straws and the plastic wrapped packs of utensils. Leaving the restaurant without money, but with a stern talking to by the owner to never come down here again, Carlos was grabbed from behind and dragged into the alley where he was stabbed three times in the back and gut by a busboy at the restaurant he had just left. The busboy took his wallet, his watch and a gold-plated cross he wore around his neck, and then went in the back door of the restaurant, returning to work. Carlos died within the hour, but was unconscious from the moment he fell to the ground. No thoughts crossed his mind in that hour. No goals. No lists made. And then I did not see Carlos any more.

The plane crashed rather matter of factly. No great build up or suspense. No time to pray to God or tell someone you loved them. No crosses kissed, signs made, hands squeezed or knowing glances exchanged. The takeoff was fine; it was very smooth actually. There was no sudden lose in pressure or altitude, no engine failed and there was no human error. When they collected the mangled black box, no cries for help were heard, no concerned voices from the pilots. Indeed, all that could be heard were the very regular numbers and coordinates and checks and whatever else pilots say as a plane takes off.

There was nothing more to it, though everyone wanted there to be more. They wanted to understand something that made no sense. But there was nothing to make sense of. The plane simply took off, flew for a bit and then crashed into the side of a mountain. Everyone on board was simply alive and then they were dead.

I could have easily grabbed a bag of pretzels from where I was sitting. Maybe even have grabbed one of those half-sized sodas, made to look even more odd and misshapen because of the metric system. I sat in a single seat opposite the flight attendant station on a 55-seat plane. Eighteen rows of one seat to the left of the aisle and two to the right, and then me. It was strange, I admit, that I had this seat as there were only 18 passengers, though I doubt as many of my remaining friends and family members and the friends and family members of the others would claim, that it was divine intervention.

18 passengers, two pilots and two flight attendants. It was the early flight, 7:05 am, which is why it was so empty. The 8:05 am flight was always a full ride as many workers made the 45 minute commute from Barquisimeto to Caracas for their jobs in some business or another or in the government. It was the train from Fairfax to DC. If this flight had been a train derailment on that run, it would have been more tragic and received more media coverage. The more people who are negatively effected by something, the more tragic that something becomes. If I am being completely honest, the only reason it was more than a thirty second story on the six o’clock news here in the U.S. was because of us Americans on board. All the news outlets got a good week and a half out of that little, unexplainable crash and then it lingered on in our collective consciousness for decades to come for obvious reasons. It certainly didn’t help matters that the media explained the unexplainable crash anyway, chalking it up to the unsafe nature of third-world travel at first and then speculating that the crash was a terrorist attack, possibly orchestrated by Chavez, himself. Some historians now even go so far as to inversely analogize that senseless plane crash to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.

I was in Venezuela over the long Thanksgiving weekend, flying down on Wednesday and Thursday and flying back on Sunday and Monday. Cincinnati to Miami to Caracas to Barquesimeto and back and back and back. You still can’t fly directly to anywhere out of Cincinnati all these many years later.

I was down there for my childhood friend’s wedding. It was really the second wedding. Same girl; one marriage; second wedding. One for his people up here in the U.S. and one for her people down there in Venezuela, but those who knew both or were particularly close to one went to both weddings. The wedding was as outrageous as one could hope. A remarkable spread, and enough liquor for all involved to forget. After some parading around in masks there was a dancing competition I still wish I had had at my own wedding. I went to both because my friend had been my friend for almost ever, and because I was the only one of his friends who was there to see him fall in love. That is a big thing. You carry those people with you forever; those who were there to see you at your happiest, at your best, at your most true and revealed self.

We grew up together as part of a group of six friends, not in Cincinnati, where I lived at the time of the flight, but in Newark, Delaware where all six of us spent the first eighteen years of our lives. I then left and the rest stayed. Joseph, my marrying friend, would be the only other one to leave, moving with me on a whim when we put the names of a bunch of cities in a hat and pulled out Madison, Wisconsin. This, of course, is where he met the girl he would marry in Barquesmeto a day before the plane flew into the side of a mountain. After meeting her, courting her, and engaging her, he took her back to Delaware. I left Madison a little before they did; walked a couple thousand wooded miles of the Appalachian Trail, found love on the AT, walked with her, laid done with her in fields and high plateaus, and then went to Cincinnati with her. We didn’t have much money so she did not come to Venezuela with me.

When planes take off I like to look out the window and watch things get smaller. My wife, she would always close her eyes and hold my hand; tighter with every shift and lurch. I followed my routine on that flight, only without my wife’s hand. The ground and the town became small quickly and the sky was turning a lighter blue. Then green crept into my view in a way that seemed out of place. I turned to look out the windows on the other side of the aisle. I saw brown and green and then felt the mountain. The plane split open right at the line of the wing and the cabin, hitting with such force that what was back went forward. This included me. I don’t know how my seat was ripped free. No one else’s did. But the metal base ripped free and clean and the angle the plane hit the mountain shot me out head first through the gaping hole in the side of the plane. I kept slowly flipping, while racing forward. By the time I hit the ground I was perfectly angled for landing with my seat back parallel and then touching the dirt of a narrow hiking trail surrounded on either side by massive trees and boulders. I flew perhaps fifty yards and skidded another fifty, finally coming to a stop only seconds after looking out at a light blue sky and thinking about those pretzels and those funny little cans. I wish I could explain it better, but that was all that happened.

OK. I am going to try writing a novel or two (I will switch back and forth if I get stuck on one–this will happen often). It, they, are probably going to be bad, but that is fine by me. I just want to see if I can write something, check that, finish writing something. Critiques are absolutely welcome, though please remember before you go too harsh, that this is a first draft in its truest form (alright, I have and will spell-check the thing before handing it over to you). I hope you find this interesting or, at least, tolerable. All rights reserved!