It was a year or so after their first encounter that the President sounded Mel out about heading the Federal Aviation Agency. (It was an Agency then, an Administration later.) Sometime during the Kennedy second term, which everyone assumed would be automatic, the incumbent FAA Administrator, Halaby, would move on to other things. How did Mel feel about implementing, from within, some of the measures he had advocated from without? Mel had replied that he was very interested indeed. He made it clear that if an offer were made, his answer would be yes.
Word filtered out, not from Mel, but through others who had had it from the top. Met was “in”–a dues-paid member of the inner circle. His prestige, high before, went higher still. The Airport Operators Council re-elected him president. His own airport commissioners voted him a handsome raise. Barely in his late thirties, he was considered the Childe Roland of aviation management.
Six months later, John F. Kennedy made his fateful Texas journey.
Like others, Mel was first stunned, then later wept. Only later still, did it dawn on him that the assassin’s bullets had ricocheted onto the lives of others, his own among them. He discovered he was no longer “in” in Washington. Najeeb Halaby did, in fact, move on from FAA–to a senior vice-presidency of Pan American–but Mel did not succeed him. By then, power had shifted, influences waned. Mel’s name, he later learned, was not even on President Johnson’s short list for the FAA appointment.
Mel’s second tenure as AOC president ran out uneventfully and another bright young man succeeded him. Mel’s trips to Washington ceased. His public appearances became limited to local ones, and, in a way, he found the change to be a relief. His own responsibilities at Lincoln International had already increased as air traffic proliferated beyond most expectations. He became intensely occupied with planning, coupled with efforts to persuade the Board of Airport Commissioners to his own viewpoints. There was plenty to think about, including troubles at home. His days and weeks and months were full.
And yet, there was a sense that time and opportunity had passed him by. Others were aware of it. Unless something dramatic occurred, Mel surmised, his career might continue, and eventually end, precisely where he was.
“Tower to mobile one–what is your position?” The radio enjoinder broke through Mel’s thoughts, returning him abruptly to the present.
He turned up the radio volume and reported. By now, he was nearing the main passenger terminal, its lights becoming clearer, despite the still heavily falling snow. The aircraft parking areas, he observed, were as fully occupied as when he left, and there was still a line of arriving aircraft waiting for gate positions to be vacated.
“Mobile one, hold until the Lake Central Nord crosses ahead of you, then follow it in.”
“This is mobile one. Roger.”
A few minutes later, Mel eased his car into the terminal basement parking area.
Near his parking stall was a locked box with an airport telephone. He used one of his passkeys to open the box, and dialed the Snow Desk. Danny Farrow answered. Was there any fresh news, Mel inquired, about the mired Aéreo-Mexican jet?
“Negative,” Danny said. “And the tower chief said to tell you that not being able to use runway three zero is still slowing traffic fifty percent. Also, he’s getting more phone complaints from Meadowood every time there’s a takeoff over there.”
Mel said grimly, “Meadowood will have to suffer.” Community meeting or not, there was nothing he could do to eliminate overhead noise for the time being. The most important thing at the moment was to reduce the lag in operations. “Where’s Joe Patroni now?”
“Same place. Still held up.”
“Can he make it for sure?”
“TWA says so. He has a phone in his car, and they’ve been in touch.”
“As soon as Joe gets here,” Mel instructed, “I want to be notified. Wherever I am.”
“That’ll be downtown, I guess.”
Mel hesitated. There was no reason, he supposed, why he need remain at the airport any longer tonight. Yet again, unaccountably, he had the same sense of foreboding which had disturbed him on the airfield. He remembered his conversation earlier with the tower watch chief, the line of waiting aircraft on the ramp apron outside. He made a spontaneous decision.
“No, I won’t be downtown. We need that runway badly, and I’m not leaving until I know positively that Patroni is out there on the field, in charge.”
“In that case,” Danny said, “I suggest you call your wife right now. Here’s the number she’s at.”
Mel wrote it down, then depressed the receiver rest and dialed the downtown number. He asked for Cindy, and after a brief wait, heard her voice say sharply, “Mel, why aren’t you here?”
“I’m sorry, I was held up. There’ve been problems at the airport. It’s a pretty big storm…”
“Damn you, get down here fast!”
From the fact that his wife’s voice was low, Mel deduced there were others within hearing. Just the same, she managed to convey a surprising amount of venom.
Mel sometimes tried to associate the voice of Cindy nowadays with the Cindy he remembered before their marriage fifteen years ago. She had been a gentler person then, it seemed to him. In fact, her gentleness had been one of the things which appealed to Mel when they first met in San Francisco, he on leave from the Navy and Korea. Cindy had been an actress at the time, though in a minor way because the career she had hoped for had not worked out, and clearly wasn’t going to. She had had a succession of diminishingly small parts in summer stock and television, and afterward, in a moment of frankness, admitted that marriage had been a welcome release from the whole thing.
Years later, that story changed a little, and it became a favorite gambit of Cindy’s to declare that she had sacrificed her career and probable stardom because of Mel. More recently, though, Cindy didn’t like her past as an actress being mentioned at all. That was because she had read in Town and Country that actresses were seldom, if ever, included in The Social Register, and addition of her own name to the Register was something Cindy wanted very much indeed.
“I’m coming downtown to join you just as soon as I can,” Mel said.
Cindy snapped, “That isn’t good enough. You should be here already. You knew perfectly well that tonight was important to me, and a week ago you made a definite promise.”
“A week ago I didn’t know we were going to have the biggest storm in six years. Right now we’ve a runway out of use, there’s a question of airport safety…”
“You’ve people working for you, haven’t you? Or are the ones you’ve chosen so incompetent they can’t be left alone?”
Mel said irritably, “They’re highly competent. But I get paid to take some responsibility, too.”
“It’s a pity you can’t act responsibly to me. Time and again I make important social arrangements which you enjoy demolishing.”
Listening, as the words continued, Mel sensed that Cindy was getting close to boiling point. Without any effort, he could visualize her now, five feet six of imperious energy in her highest heels, clear blue eyes flashing, and her blonde coiffed head tilted back in that damnably attractive way she had when she was angry. That was one reason, Mel supposed, why, in their early years of marriage, his wife’s temper outbursts seldom dismayed him. The more heated she became, it always seemed, the more desirable she grew. At such moments, he had invariably let his eyes rove upward, beginning at her ankles–not hurriedly, because Cindy possessed extraordinarily attractive ankles and legs; in fact, better than those of most other women Mel knew–to the rest of her which was just as proportionate and physically appealing.
In the past, when his eyes had made their appreciative assessment, some two-way physical communion sprang into being, prompting each to reach out, to touch one another, impulsively, hungrily. The result was predictable. Invariably, the origin of Cindy’s anger was forgotten in a wave of sensuality which engulfed them. Cindy had an exciting, insistent savagery, and in their lovemaking would demand, “Hurt me, goddam you, hurt me!” At the end, they would be spent and drained, so that picking up the skein of a quarrel was more than either had the wish or energy to do.
It was, of course, a way of shelving, rather than resolving, differences which–Mel realized, even early on–were fundamental. As the years passed, and passion lessened, accumulated differences became more sharply accented.
Eventually, they ceased entirely to use sex as a panacea and, in the past year or so, physical intimacy of any kind had become more and more occasional. Cindy, in fact, whose bodily appetites had always needed satisfying whatever the state of mind between them, appeared in recent months to have become indifferent altogether. Mel had wondered about that. Had his wife taken a lover? It was possible, and Mel supposed he ought to care. The sad thing was, it seemed easier not to be concerned.
Yet there were still moments when the sight or sound of Cindy in her willful anger could stir him physically, arousing old desires. He had that feeling now as he listened to her excoriating voice on the telephone.
When he was able to cut in, he said, “It isn’t true that I enjoy demolishing your arrangements. Most of the time I go along with what you want, even though I don’t think the things we go to are all that important. What I would enjoy are a few more evenings at home with the children.”
“That’s a lot of crap,” Cindy said, “and you know it.”
He felt himself tense, gripping the telephone more tightly. Then he conceded to himself: perhaps the last remark was true, to an extent. Earlier this evening he had been reminded of the times he had stayed at the airport when he could have gone home–merely because he wanted to avoid another fight with Cindy. Roberta and Libby had got left out of the reckoning then, as children did, he supposed, when marriages went sour. He should not have mentioned them.
But apart from that, tonight was different. He ought to stay on at the airport, at least until it became known for sure what was happening about the blocked runway.
“Look,” Mel said, “let’s make one thing clear. I haven’t told you this before, but last year I kept some notes. You wanted me to come to fifty-seven of your charitable whingdings. Out of that I managed forty-five, which is a whole lot more than I’d attend from choice, but it isn’t a bad score.”
“You bastard! I’m not a ball game where you keep a scorecard. I’m your wife.”
Mel said sharply, “Take it easy!” He was becoming angry, himself. “Also, in case you don’t know it, you’re raising your voice. Do you want all those nice people around to know what kind of a heel you have for a husband?”
“I don’t give a goddam!” But she said it softly, just the same.
“I do know you’re my wife, which is why I intend to get down there just as soon as I can.” What would happen, Mel wondered, if he could reach out and touch Cindy now? Would the old magic work? He decided not. “So save me a place, and tell the waiter to keep my soup warm. Also, apologize and explain why I’m late. I presume some of the people there have heard there is an airport.” A thought struck him. “Incidentally, what’s the occasion tonight?”