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I don’t fly any more. I used to. In fact, I used to be a pilot. But I don’t fly anymore.

Last year, I flew on the Concorde for the first time. Beautiful plane. Makes great time. Incredible altitude. Incredible speed. On the return trip, I had a window seat. Once you’re up in the clouds or above, there’s not much to see, but looking out at the canyons of clouds and the wispy white air and the pale sunshine brought back memories for me. Then, about midway over the Atlantic, I saw her. She was standing on the wing of the plane, wind whipping her long hair and her blue and white gown all about her. I could see that she was crying, her arms crossed in front of her, her hands clenched against her breast. I saw her say my name. Then I closed the blind and left it down till we were in our landing pattern. By then she was gone.

I know. I saw that episode of “The Twilight Zone” too. On the TV show and in the movie. That’s not what this was like. Plus, of course, I’d seen her before.

Thirty years ago, I was a test pilot posted to an Air Force base out west. It’s still being used and it’s still classified, so I can’t say more. We flew a lot of junk, and we flew a lot of good planes too. Men died flying some of those planes. The nearness of death drew all of us pilots closer together. We joked about “gremlins” and had all the usual flyer’s superstitions. Kinda like sailors do. We’d joke about seeing wind spirits. Cloud riders. Air angels. The usual bullshit stuff – mostly produced by problems with the oxygen mix. But that particular day, my commanding officer took me aside. That day, I was going to be testing an updated design of a tried-and-true spy plane. I would hit altitudes I’d never been at before – maybe no one had except the astronauts, and they were stuck in a tin bucket that was just tossed in the air. But there should be no surprises. The basic plane had been around for a while. And I knew the dangers of altitude and the G-forces that plane could generate. But that’s not what the CO was talking about that day.

“Watch out up there. You never know what you’ll see,” he said. I figured he was joking, but he didn’t crack a smile. He had flown the first prototype of the plane years before, and he looked dead serious. “If you see anything… out of the ordinary… get your ass on the ground pronto. Don’t fuck around.” I tried to ask what he meant, but he walked away fast, and I had to get in the plane.

I was out for an hour before I hit top altitude. Nothing peculiar had happened. It was all fairly routine. I was just banking to come about and reduce altitude when I saw her. She was floating off to my right, looking in at me. She seemed to be swimming slowly in the air, but she was keeping up with me, so she was moving at more than twice the speed of sound. I saw her touch the glass and tilt her head. I figured I was having an oxygen problem and fiddled with some valves to adjust the flow. But when I looked up, she was still there, gazing at me with huge sky-blue eyes. I could feel those eyes on me, as though she wanted to tell me something. Her hair was whipping about in slow motion, long and blonde and perfect. She seemed to be hanging effortlessly by that cloud of hair, that the long tendrils of hair themselves kept her airborne, like angel’s wings. Then, for a split second, I glanced down at my controls to check my altitude. When I looked up again, she was gone.

Needless to say, seeing a beautiful blonde outside my cockpit in the middle of a test flight was not part of my report. I liked my job, and I wanted to keep it. But for the next couple of days, I could see the CO looking at me strangely. “See anything up there?” he asked one day. “Nope,” I said. I could feel him reading the lie in me. I did my best to forget what I saw. Since I didn’t really see it – it was just the altitude, I figured.

Three days after that flight, I was driving to the base along a quiet desert road. I passed a girl standing by the side of the road. She was dressed in white and blue, her hair tied up neatly in a bun on top of her head. When I looked back at the road, there was a huge log in my way. I jammed on the brakes and barely stopped in time. The girl ran up and asked if I was OK. I looked at her close and thought I recognized her from somewhere. I didn’t know where. Then I looked back at the road. How did a log get in the middle of the road in this desert?

The girl seemed to read my thoughts.

“Must have been that windstorm last night,” she said, looking at the log.

The night before there had been a tremendous storm. No rain or hail, but wind whipping down from the north, tearing up earthbound matter like I’d never seen before. I was incredibly lucky. My place – which was isolated way out in the middle of the desert – wasn’t damaged at all. But there was debris everywhere else you looked.

I began to back up to drive around the log. The girl was still looking at me.

“Can I give you a lift somewhere?” I asked.

“Yes, thanks.”

Her name was Maria, she said. But she pronounced it with a long “i” sound, like that singer Mariah Coffey or Casey or whatever her name is. I don’t really know where Maria was headed that morning. The day was mostly kind of a blur after that. She came to the base with me and was allowed into the more public areas on a visitor’s pass. And from that day on we were almost inseparable. For a little while. But some things I do remember. When we passed the base barber shop….

I guess it’s not something I really knew about myself before that day. The short hair thing. Many years later, when I was married, my wife Margaret was walking with me past that same barber shop. We were just sauntering along, doing a few errands. Things were pretty rocky between us at the time (her affair with my best friend didn’t help our relationship much), and she was trying to be extra nice. On her best behavior.

“How about I go in here and get my hair cut just the way you’d like it. You can pick the style.”

I assumed she was kidding. The clientele of the base barber shop was 99% men and 1% bull dykes. Margaret was very particular about her hair, and I knew she wasn’t going to let Sam or one of the other barbers actually touch it.

“I doubt you’d like your hair done the way I’d like it,” I said.

“Well, let’s just see.”

Margaret went inside, and I followed. The shop was empty except for Sam. He had been the base barber for lots of years. She sat down in the leather chair and crossed her tanned legs. Sam looked over at me, but I just shrugged. This was her show.

“What can I do for you, ma’am?” I remembered when I had heard Sam say those words the first time, years before. Déjà vu.

“Cut it the way he wants it cut, please,” she said, hiking a thumb at me.

“Well, Sam. You know what I’d say.”

“I sure do,” he replied. “But does she know?”

“I don’t care,” Margaret said. “Just do it.”

It was Sam’s turn to shrug. Margaret had a chin length bob, center part, always very precise. It suited her thick black hair perfectly. Sam fiddled with his instruments, his back to Margaret. When he turned around, she saw the big black clippers in his hand. Before she could say anything, Sam snapped the clippers on and began working on the right side of Margaret’s head, clippers over comb. Seven inches of black hair hit her right shoulder and spilled to the floor. Sam worked methodically and quickly, lifting and shaving, lifting and shaving. Less than 1/8″ of hair was left under the comb. As he reached her nape, Sam didn’t bother with the comb and shaved Margaret’s hair down to the skin, lifting the blades as he brought them up for a neat taper. First there was a short short “W” of black hair outlined on her nape. Then, Sam’s clippers erased it, a mat of black hair wadding at the clipper blades. Margaret’s eyes had been as big as saucers when Sam started his work. But she never said a word, and she never shed a tear. She was tough.

Sam kept working and working, a mass of black hair building on the floor.
From the back of Margaret’s head, he kept the machine running up over the top. I thought she was going to lose it when the first wave of black hair came pouring down in front of her eyes, landing in her lap. But she held steady. Sam was very skillful, and the crewcut that emerged from under the clippers was expertly precise. This wasn’t one of his “boot camp buzzcuts” where he just runs the naked clippers over some dumb kid’s head. Every pass of the clippers was carefully measured. Sam kept a slight grade from the closely buzzed back of Margaret’s head to the longer hair in front, and squared off the front to follow her hairline. The end result was a great short crewcut – tapered to a shave on the nape but lengthening to a dark brush at the front.

When Sam whipped off the cape and tossed all that black hair onto the floor, I thought Margaret was paralyzed. She just stared at her reflection in the big mirror. Then she began to rub her hands over her head, up from the nape and over the crown. “I love it,” she said. She climbed out of the chair and took my hand. We paid Sam and continued our walk. But I couldn’t help but stop and kiss her dark, shaved nape, with the white neck showing through her black fur. The feel of the stiff short soft hair on my lips and cheek as I rubbed against her brought back memories. I caressed her head in my hands, feeling the soft skin and dense shaved hair under my fingers. We barely made it back to the house. Margaret kept her hair in a crewcut for about a year, and even now will surprise me with a fresh-clipped one after her hair has grown out. Sometimes we buzz it at home. In any event, from that day on, things were better between us. We’ve been happy and together ever since.

But I digress. That day I picked up the girl, only two things stand out in my memory. One was the look on the CO’s face as we passed him in my Jeep. Partly it seemed like shock and partly like something he expected. The second thing was what happened when we passed the barber shop.

“Please stop here,” the girl said. I pulled the Jeep over and parked.

“I have to go in here,” she said, pointing to the shop. I just nodded an “OK” and followed. Just as he would be years later, Sam was alone in the shop. The girl paused for a half-second and then sat down in the barber chair.

“What can I do for you, ma’am?”

“I need my hair cut short please.”

Sam was a bit taken aback. It seemed like he didn’t know where to begin.

“We’re not really good at female hairstyles, miss,” he said.

“I just want it cut like his.” The girl pointed at me. And at the time, I had a short military crew, not more than 1/4″ long anywhere on my head. Sam’s jaw dropped.

Finally, after seeming like he was frozen in place, Sam squeaked out an “OK” and began taking the pins out of the girl’s bun. After the first couple of pins came out, yards of fine blonde hair floated to the floor. That wavy amber hair reached from her head and touched the floor as she sat in the chair. Sam and I just looked at each other.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Please.”

Sam began his dance around the chair, wielding his largest shears. First, he began cropping away the hair at shoulder length, straight and true. As he worked his way around, several feet of shorn hair tumbled into his way. Once he had gone all around, there was too much hair on the floor, and Sam had to pause and grab a broom to clear a path. Next, with a smaller pair of scissors, he began lifting the hair with a comb, grabbing it with his fingers and dry-cutting it short. He was working from the forehead backwards, cropping the shoulder-length hair down to an inch or two. The scrunch-sound of the shears was loud. At least to me. And after every scrunch-sound, you could hear a torrent of hair slide to the floor with the sound of a gentle breeze. Once all the shoulder-length locks had been scissored off, Sam slapped at the girl gently with his barber’s brush, clearing the way for the clippers to come. I almost couldn’t watch as the blades began chewing into the hair at her nape. But I had to. I had never seen anything so exciting in my life. I was mesmerized, seeing the already short blonde hair feed into the blades and float off to the floor. I loved the super short fur left behind, the shaved area growing and growing, up over the ears and up the back of her head. The clippered-off hair seemed weightless as it flew off the blades, hanging in the air like fine feathers.

The girl was silent and seemingly unmoved. Her face showed little expression – perhaps just a slight satisfaction appeared around her lips and the corners of her eyes.

The clippers moved up over the back of her scalp, up over the crown, revealing her fine small head. Hair bundles tumbled and rolled onto her shoulders, draping her in a blonde scarf of clippings. In front, Sam was careful to give the crewcut shape and texture, sculpting the hairline skillfully with the naked blades. A veil of short hair fell in the girl’s face, leaving a trail of super-short remains.

Finally, Sam took a step back, leaned in for a last masterful pass around the ears and turned off the machine. The girl stood up without seeming to look at herself. “Thank you,” she said. I expected her head to look naked – somehow deprived of something. Instead, she was radiant. Her huge sky-blue eyes looked even bigger. Her long neck was as graceful as a swan’s. At that moment, she looked like an angel. That’s when I remembered the thing outside the plane. The girl staring in at me at mach 2. This girl looked the same – but somehow different too. I thought I was going crazy.

But I rationalized it finally. You can rationalize anything if you really try. I told myself that I didn’t really remember the girl by the plane. How could I when she wasn’t really there? So now, I was projecting backward, “remembering” this girl’s face back into my hallucination. It seemed simple. So long as I didn’t think about it too much. Or indulge the very clear clean memory of that face looking in the cockpit window at me.

She came home with me that night. As we kissed, my hands caressing her crewcut head, she said she had two things to ask me.

“First, I have to keep my hair this way. I hope you don’t mind.” No, I assured her. I loved it that way. I loved running my hands up around her nearly naked ears, up the back of her head, rubbing the hair back against the grain on her crown.

“Second, I may need to go out some nights. Please, never, never follow me and never, never ask why.”

“OK,” I said. I thought it sounded easy. Certainly the first part was. I bought a pair of clippers for her hair. Sometimes I would clip it myself. Sometimes I would just watch her give herself a crewcut, guiding the machine over her head with her small hands.

But the second part started to be a problem. I’m a sound sleeper. But every so often, I’d wake up, and she’d be gone. I’d try to stay awake for her return, but I always fell asleep again. And in the morning, she’d be there.

One day my CO took me aside again. He knew Maria and I were together. He’d seen us plenty of times after that first day in the Jeep. He just said, “Don’t fuck up.” That’s all. “Don’t fuck up.” At the time, I had no idea what he meant.

After a few weeks with Maria, I couldn’t stand not knowing where she went at night. Finally, one night, I had about four cups of strong coffee right before bed. I was determined to stay awake. Around 2:30, I peeked over at her. She wasn’t asleep. Just lying on her back, looking at the ceiling and rubbing her crewcut with the back of her hand. We had just buzzed it again that night, and it was extremely short except for a slightly longer fringe in front. She liked it short. Then, as I watched, she got up noiselessly and moved to the door. I waited to hear her go downstairs, but she didn’t make a sound. I gave her a few seconds and followed as quietly as I could.

She had gone out the front door and was impossibly far ahead of me by the time I got outside myself. It was a warm, clear, windless night. Then Maria
stopped out in the still, quiet desert and raised her arms slightly, wrists cocked. I hunkered down by a boulder and watched. Nothing happened at first. Then I noticed a small breeze kick up. It swirled around, making a few dust devils waltz together on the desert floor. It seemed to get stronger and stronger as Maria raised her arms higher and higher. And as the wind blew harder, I saw Maria herself rise up off the ground, borne by the building wind. And from her head, hair – long blonde hair – began sprouting and spreading out behind her. The wind was getting to dangerous levels, but Maria wasn’t being moved at all, except to rise up higher and higher – even as wind-whipped debris began flying around her. I had to press myself down into the dirt even lower behind my rock to be safe. And just when it seemed that the wind couldn’t get any stronger, it seemed to double in its rage and then double again. Maria was outlined in the moonlight ten or so feet off the ground, the hurricane blowing about her, filling her with a pale cool light, like the kind of sunlight you see when you’re flying far above cloud cover.

Suddenly, the wind circled behind me, and I began to realize that it could actually physically move me if I weren’t careful. I tried to get a grip on the rock in front of me, but I must have moved wrong and the wind caught me and blew me out from behind the rock. Just at that moment, Maria turned her head and looked down at me. The light seemed to go out of her face, and, despite the howling gale, I heard her say, “Oh, John. Why?”

Then the wind got stronger, almost tornado force, and I dug my fingers into the ground. I caught a quick glimpse of Maria in the midst of the storm. The wind lifted her like a kite, her nightclothes and restored hair billowing out around her as she sailed up into the night sky, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t tell what was Maria and what was a star in the heavens.

My CO seemed to sense that something was wrong the next day. I was standing in his office, waiting for my next assignment. He could tell as soon as he looked up from his desk at me.

“You fucked up, huh?” he said. He didn’t say it mean. He was trying to be nice. I nodded.

“That’s just human nature, son. We all fuck up some time.”

Then, for the first time, I noticed on the wall a small picture, tucked away almost in a corner. It was my CO as a much younger man, standing with his arm around a beautiful girl. The girl wasn’t his wife (she had died only a few years ago), but she looked familiar. Like she could have been Maria’s sister – same small build, same blue eyes. And, once you looked close and saw her hair wasn’t pulled back tight, same short crewcut.

I never saw Maria again. Until that trip on the Concorde. But I’m married now, and, like I said before, things have been good with Margaret for a long time. And on windy nights, I close all the windows up tight, and I don’t listen to the lonesome sounds of the whistling wind. It always sounds like it’s saying “Oh John. Why?” Over and over. And I still don’t have an answer.

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