Maree Spratt is a writer from Queensland, Australia. She lives in Brisbane and studied creative writing at the Queensland University of Technology. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Rex, One Book Many Brisbanes and Award Winning Australian Writing 2012.
The Graveyard Shift
Commended in the 2012 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
Shortly after I dropped out of medical school (I was good with the books but couldn’t stomach the blood) an eight-year-old pilot from somewhere near San Francisco announced that she was going to fly across the United States of America. Her name was Melanie Something-or-other, and in the weeks leading up to her flight she appeared on almost every talk show in the country. The first time I saw her she was sandwiched on a sofa between her father and her flight instructor. Both men were aged a little over fifty, but while the flight instructor had an ordinary, sexless kind of aura, the father looked like an aging soap opera star, with silver hair he’d saved from thinning and teeth that shone like a row of freshly laundered tennis whites. Melanie looked like any other child her age: soft skin, full lips, brand new. She wore a navy blue baseball cap that was several sizes too big for her head. It tipped forward and covered her eyes when she nodded in response to questions like ‘has it always been your dream to fly coast to coast?’ and when one presenter asked if maybe eight years old was too young to be flying a plane she shook her head so vigorously that the cap flew off and landed in her flight instructor’s lap.
‘I don’t believe you can ever be too young to follow your dreams,’ she said, hovering her hand over the baseball cap before deciding, quite sensibly, to leave it off for the rest of the interview. ‘I know there are a lot of kids out there who want to be pilots when they grow up. I’m lucky because my parents aren’t making me wait until I grow up. I get to be a pilot right now, and I have to say it feels amazing.’
The audience broke into a round of applause. Melanie straightened her posture and smiled for the camera as though she was posing for a class photograph. She’d answered the question with a mechanical rhythm – almost like she was reciting a poem for a school competition – and now she appeared both proud and relieved to have made it to the end without forgetting any lines.
‘I have absolute faith in Melanie’s ability to complete this trip,’ her father said, his voice loud and stirring enough to silence most of the audience. I realised he was less like a soap opera star and more like a TV evangelist. ‘When my daughter told me she wanted to fly coast to coast, that was the proudest day of my life. I’d raised a kid who wanted to live, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to stop her.’
The camera panned slowly across the faces in the audience. A third were weeping, a third were applauding, and the rest were doing some combination of the two. Melanie hunched her shoulders and smiled. You could tell she wasn’t used to this kind of attention. Her classmates probably cleaned their erasers and stared out the window when she talked about her flying lessons each week during show and tell time. When the applause continued for longer than expected she lowered her gaze and started to fidget, sliding her hands underneath her thighs and kicking her legs against the front of the sofa. I got the feeling she was willing them to grow a little faster, so her feet could join everybody else’s on the ground.
While Melanie was flying across America I was waiting tables at a 50s themed diner near a small rural airport in Nevada. I won’t describe the area because in the end it doesn’t matter: the middle of nowhere looks the same everywhere. The diner was like a fish tank, low-slung with lots of windows, and when you sat in any of the kitsch red dining booths – or cleaned glasses behind the counter, like I did most days – you got a panoramic view of the aeroplanes as they taxied down the runway, all of them en route to some place much more interesting. My duties there were fairly minimal. I had to wear an A-line dress like I’d just walked out of Grease, and once I’d dealt with a table – taking away their over-sized menus and making sure they were okay for cutlery – I had to swan back ten minutes later to ask if they were enjoying all their meals. It was the sort of job I used to think the world reserved for happy idiots, and it was humbling to think I actually had to lie about my qualifications to get it. Restaurant managers aren’t particularly impressed by college degrees: incomplete ones, even less so. Fortunately the place never got busy enough for my alleged experience in a ‘crowded café’ to ever be put to the test. Most days the girls and I spent more time cleaning glasses than serving customers, and it was common practice for whoever had the graveyard shift to sit in the booth that gave the best view of the television and give up the pretence of working entirely.
I was nursing a cup of filtered coffee and watching the twenty-four hour news channel the night that Melanie walked in with her father and her flight instructor. I didn’t notice them enter at first. I think I heard the door swing open, but I was feeling so tired and disoriented that my response was to turn and stare out the window. It had been raining heavily all night, and through the water-streaked glass the world looked like a painting by Monet. For a second there I saw a woman – a plain-looking one, with lank brown hair – but then I realised that she was drinking coffee too, and when her fingers wrapped around the mug I felt the warmth flow through my own hands.
‘This place open?’ a male voice called from over near the bar. I dropped my mug back onto the table with a clatter. A wave of black coffee spilled over my hands and onto the cream-coloured counter top. I dumped a handful of napkins over the stain and quickly rose to greet the customers. The three were dressed in navy blue windbreakers, the small girl practically drowning in hers, and when they turned around to face me I realised who they were right away.
‘The sign outside says you’re open twenty-four hours,’ the father said, his voice as stirring and assertive as it was in the media interviews. ‘So we assumed that you must be open. But we came inside and couldn’t see a single person. You don’t have any bell to ring for service either.’
‘I’ll talk to our manager about getting a bell tomorrow,’ I said, setting three heavy menus down on the nearest dining table. The trio took off their windbreakers and shuffled obediently into the booth. ‘Can I start you off with some hot drinks?’
‘A coffee with creamer,’ the father said, drumming his fingers against the cover of the menu. I looked at the flight instructor.
Melanie pressed her face against the window so her open lips grazed the cold glass. She breathed out a circle of frost, then pulled back and drew a star in the centre with her finger tip.
‘That’s unhygienic,’ her father said. He tapped his hand against the table until she sat back down again. ‘Tell the lady what you’d like to drink.’
‘Coffee with creamer.’
The father stared at her.
‘Please,’ she added.
He ran a hand through his silver hair. ‘Just make it a hot chocolate,’ he said.
I didn’t tell them that I’d seen them on the TV. It would flatter or upset the father, and I didn’t want to do either. He raised his eyebrows when I told him that we only did short orders after eleven: our cook went home three hours ago, so I’d have to prepare it. He and the flight instructor ordered Elvis Presley grilled cheese sandwiches. The girl, a bowl of Buddy Holly fries. Usually I’m not very interested in celebrities – and these three weren’t even that famous – yet as I moved about the kitchen I felt a small stirring of excitement inside my chest. I knew the other waitresses would be interested in what was happening. I left a note on the counter for them to find in the morning. Serving seven year old pilot: the one we keep seeing on the morning show! Dad is grumpy. Kid is cute. I didn’t say much when I brought them their meals. It felt like some rare, endangered birds had flown unexpectedly through the window, and I had to tread light around them or risk scaring them away. I cleaned glasses behind the counter and watched them while they ate. Although I stole short glances at first, in time I allowed myself to stare. It was almost like the dining booth was the Morning Show sofa, and a screen still separated the three of them from me.
Naturally their performance was not as polished as the previous ones I’d witnessed. In fact it seemed like the men were trying hard to conceal an argument. The flight instructor leaned across the table imploringly, the father sat upright with his fists against the table top, and even though the volume was kept to a whisper I got the feeling they were spitting angry words at each other. Maybe they noticed me watching them, because after a while they picked up their windbreakers and took the conversation out into the rain. Melanie looked smaller the instant they left. Her windbreaker sat across her lap like a blanket and her wet hair clung close to her skull. She kicked her legs against the front of the dining booth, as fast as she could, so the echoes filled the silence. I put away my tea towel and walked cautiously towards her. After all, ten minutes had elapsed.
‘Are you enjoying your meal?’
She responded with a brisk nod: the sort that made her cap tip forward in the media interviews. Since her fries were hardly touched I wondered if she meant it. Outside her father and flight instructor were yelling at each other with their windbreakers held haphazardly over their heads. The rain drowned out their voices. It was like watching a TV drama on mute. I took a deep breath and slid quietly into her father’s spot. The fact it was still warm made me feel uncomfortably close to him. I pushed aside his half-eaten cheese sandwich and smiled at Melanie in a way that I hoped was reassuring. She picked up a french fry and pointed it directly at me.
‘Do you want to hear a secret?’ she asked.
I told her that I’d love to. For a moment I felt a pulse of excitement, like I used to when my classmates in second grade uttered the same words. She lowered her voice and leaned across the table.
‘I can control the weather,’ she whispered. ‘I know how to make it move for me.’
I tried to look impassive, like she’d said something perfectly reasonable. ‘Do your parents know you can control the weather?’ I asked.
She did the brisk nod again.
‘My Mom was the one who first noticed I could do it. When I was a little kid – really little, like four years old – I really wanted to go to the park, but Mom said that we couldn’t because it was raining. She said we should just a watch video instead, but I said no, I’ll make it stop raining. So I stared out the window and I thought really hard and before long Ta-DAAA! the sun came out and we got to go to the park after all. It was amazing. Mom said she never saw anything like it. As I got older it got even easier and I could make the weather good for me without even trying. It’s always sunny when I want to go swimming. And it’s never rained on my birthday.’
‘The weather isn’t too good today,’ I said.
‘I know.’ She picked up another french fry and pointed it at the men outside. ‘That’s what Dad and Bill are arguing about right now. Tomorrow we’re meant to meet the Morning Show in Wyoming. But Bill doesn’t want to leave just yet because he heard there’s another storm coming. He doesn’t know the secret I just told you, about how I’m able to control the weather. I think my Dad is probably trying to explain it to him now.’
She picked up a bottle of ketchup and squeezed it frantically over her fries, like she was scribbling out a pattern in red crayon. I tried to imagine myself piloting an aircraft when I was eight years old. I found that I simply could not see it.
‘I used to be scared of storms when I was your age,’ I said. ‘My big sister told me that God had a gun, and thunder meant that he was firing shots at the ground. I was scared of getting caught outside in a thunder storm because I thought God might see me and try to shoot me.’
‘That’s a pretty dumb thing to believe,’ she said. ‘Do you want to hear another secret?’
‘It’s a bad secret though, not a good secret.’
‘I’d still like to hear it.’
‘Well, we had to fly through a storm on the way here. Dad said it was only a little storm but I found it really scary. I’m not even sure how it happened because the weather usually moves for me. Anyway, the plane started going like this’ – she shuddered theatrically in her spot – ‘and inside the three of us started going whoosh smack whoosh smack’ – she threw her body into the table, unsettling the cups and the cutlery – ‘and I found the whole thing so scary that I couldn’t even move for the rest of the flight.’
She froze still in the style of musical statues. This is how children speak, I thought. No forced smiles or hackneyed sayings: just amateur dramatics and onomatopoeia.
‘Anyway,’ she said, breaking out of the pose to take a sip of hot chocolate. ‘Here’s the bad secret: Bill had to fly us here using his set of controls. Dad says it’s okay, that’s why we have Bill, but now I feel like I’ve cheated and the whole thing doesn’t count anymore. I don’t think we’re going to tell the Morning Show about it. You have to promise not to tell anyone about it.’
She extended her little finger across the table at me. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had asked me to perform a pinkie swear. Our fingers were latched together when her father and flight instructor returned to the dining booth and told her it was time to go. I unhooked my pinkie and rose from the table. ‘Do you have something to give the lady?’ her father said. She reached into her backpack and pulled out a navy blue baseball cap. A large letter M was stitched across the front. ‘We got them especially made,’ she said. Her father leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. She took a napkin from the table and filled it with the remainder of her sauce-soaked fries.
‘You can’t take those with you,’ her father said.
‘I’ll eat them on the way.’
‘You should have eaten them here. They’ll get wet.’
She wrapped another napkin around the bundle and pushed it into the front compartment of her backpack. The father looked at me and rolled his eyes. I bent the brim of the baseball cap and threaded my ponytail through the loop at the back. ‘It looks great!’ Melanie said. She dipped into the front of her backpack and pulled out a handful of fries. ‘Sure does,’ her father said, although he didn’t sound that enthused. I wondered if he’d forgotten to tip, or if he thought the hat meant he didn’t have to.
Some people say I should have tried to talk them out of leaving. I could have recommended a nearby motel, or offered them use of our telephone. It never occurred to me to do that. My job was to make sure they enjoyed their meals. It’s easier to say what should have been done when you have the benefit of hindsight anyway. When I saw the footage all over the television I decided that I wouldn’t tell anyone about our conversation. Honouring her wishes was the right thing to do, and I was too shaken up to talk about it anyway. Most of what she told me found its way into the news bar on its own: inquest reveals flight instructor was in control of aircraft, plane overloaded with custom-made baseball caps, girl’s mother convinced that ‘weather would move for her’. The atmosphere was heavy when I next turned up at the diner. The manager touched the bottom of my elbow and whispered ‘we read your note’. The girls sat me in a dining booth and poured me a cup of hot tea. They watched me bring the cup to my lips, and listened as I placed it gently back onto the saucer. I felt myself at the quiet centre of the story the whole country was talking about.
‘I thought we ought to do some kind of memorial,’ the manager eventually said. ‘We could cut out some pictures and put them on the notice board. Everyone can write a message and stick it up there too. Not just staff. We’ll leave some pens and coloured paper out for the customers too. It’ll be a good, healthy way to process what’s happened. And I think you could say we have a duty to do something. They ate their last meal here. Here of all places. It’s kind of incredible, when you think about it.’
©2012 Maree Spratt
Read 'The Life of Brian (or lack thereof)', winner of 2008 State Library Young Writers Award
Read 'Thomas & Louise', winner of the EJ Brady 'Very Short' Story Competitions
Purchase Award Winning Australian Writing 2012, containing work by Spratt