Phone, says Austin. Phone, phone!
She really was quite a woman for her time, Anne continues. Not every 19th-century woman marries a man twice her age and then shoots herself in the thigh to bail out of the marriage. You got to hand it to her.
Mm, says Todd, wetting an index finger to turn the page of his sports magazine. Griffin’s having a helluva year. Free agency, wonderful thing.
Austin, what’s with the phone thing, honey?
Austin rocks in his seat as if in the grip of a death-defying carnival ride, perhaps the Crusher or the RollerWhirl or the Kingda Ka, in turn rocking his mother and father and three other passengers who have the bad fortune to be seated in the same bank of black vinyl chairs.
Phone, says Austin again. Phone, phone, phone!
Stop jerking around, son. Stop it now. And stop with the phone business.
Oh, says Anne, watching the foot traffic as it outpaces the languid moving sidewalk, I get it. You’re counting cell phones, aren’t you, honey?
Phone, says Austin, abruptly becalmed. Nineteen. Twelve people without one.
An airport cop walks by, bristling with sidearms and handcuffs and a bulletproof vest, his fingers rummaging in a bag of chips like a baseball fan at leisure. Austin’s eyes track him with curiosity, examining every detail of his gear. Walkie-talkie, he says conclusively. Kind of counts.
So, says Anne, as I was saying. She marries this aristocrat at age sixteen and moves out to his Scottish estate, but won’t consummate the marriage. That must have taken guts. I mean, he had all the power, right? He was in the power structure. But she said no. Good girl.
Would King Adjei please report to the podium at Gate 21? King Adjei, please see me.
Phone, says Austin, rocking again. Phone twenty-one. Twenty-two.
Anne raps her knuckles against her husband’s leg. Look at that, she says. Todd looks up to see an apparition rise before him: on the other side of the departure gate a tall young man with blue-black skin, loose African clothes in a riot of colors and a talking drum tucked under his lanky arm floats to his feet and begins strolling toward the podium. The gate agent looks up without a trace of surprise.
Mr. Adjei, she says.
King Adjei, replies the traveler in an unhurried way. Everybody call me that.
The woman hands him a boarding card. Center seat okay for Cincinnati, Mr. King Adjei? It’s all I’ve got.
Phone! says Austin, watching a businessman hurry by in jeans, tasseled loafers and a rumpled dress shirt. A kid with a yarmulke and white fringes flying out from under his Got Freedom? tee-shirt zigzags past, chasing his brother through the crowd.
Whoo-ee, says Anne, there really are some types here.
I heart New York, says Todd without taking his eyes off the magazine. It’s a real circus. Wild animals and everything.
In the mean time King Adjei smiles broadly at the airline agent, pirouettes on one thin leather sandal and gracefully transfers the same smile to the little boy who sits rocking between his parents a half dozen yards away.
Todd, says Anne, rapping her husband’s knee again with her knuckles. He’s looking straight at Austin.
Todd flips another page. Sure it’s fine, he says.
Bothers me, Todd.
You got something I can blow my nose in?
Phone, says Austin. Thirty-two.
Not kidding, Todd. Look over there.
King Adjei settles himself directly opposite the family, ignoring several open seats and gliding crosslegged to the floor with the grace of a falling leaf. He nestles his drum in beside him like a cherished infant and looks over at Austin with a spacious smile. His teeth are wondrous, his hair braided into perfect plaits.
Look, Todd. It’s National Geographic sitting right there.
Really need something to blow my nose in. I’m going to go and find the head.
Todd! You’re leaving us alone here?
Anne, what the hell. He’s just some African guy. He won’t bite.
Phone, says Austin. Phone phone.
I wish he didn’t smile like that.
You want people not to smile? I’ll be back.
In response Anne sits up straighter, taking her son’s hand in a punitive clutch and watching Todd shamble off.
Phone, phone, phone.
Stop that, Austin! And don’t look at that man. And quit rocking.
They sit silent for several long minutes, watching the parade of tinsel-hatted tourists and rushed pilots and bearded Indian men with projecting bellies and black-hatted Orthodox grandfathers and whippet-thin gay men. All the while King Adjei regards mother and son with a pacific expression, not a trace of the world’s frenzy on his face. Anne makes a point of not looking at him. Todd is gone for a very long time.
How many are you up to? she asks Austin.
Forty-four. Plus five walkie-talkies.
At this moment an aqua cloud passes before them, a shapeless mass of color that resolves itself into an elderly man with a spreading chest that has been imperfectly buttoned into a pale blue guayabera shirt.
Oh-yo, the old man says, looking down at them. Oh-yo, little lady and little man.
Anne notices that there is a yellow smile-face button pinned to the man’s breast pocket and, alarmingly, a fist-size stuffed giraffe suspended from a shoelace around his neck. He walks in a strangely mechanical way, swaying from side to side as if to evenly blend the contents of his insides, and as he walks the stuffed giraffe rolls to and fro across his aqua chest.
So, the old man says, leaning toward Anne with a glassy look, I had a clogged toilet and you know what I did? I called the Über-plumber, Hans Goldman.
Then he wags a finger at Austin and says, You can always call Hans, young man.
With this he wanders off toward the fast food court, arms swinging behind as if only provisionally attached to the large torso.
Across the aisle, King Adjei is shaking his head in amusement, sending Anne and Austin a conspiratorial look as if to say, It takes all kinds. The smile won’t let up.
Phone phone phone phone, says Austin.
Stop it! says Anne, swatting him.
But at this moment the African takes up his drum and begins to tap out a hypnotic groove, his eyes retreating quickly into an inner place, perhaps a place of large shiny leaves and ochre dust.
Oh! says Anne, scanning the concourse for her husband.
Phone, says Austin.
He is coming back at last, gargantuan bags of candy in his hands and a newspaper under his arm. When the African’s quiet drumming comes to his attention he raises a brow at Anne.
You certainly took your time, she says coldly.
They’ve got the game on at the bar. Bottom of the eighth, but I was afraid you might be eaten by the cannibal so I beat it back.
Phone, says Austin, beginning to rock again.
Should be boarding pretty soon.
Gun, says Austin.
You’ve got the boarding passes, right? Anne asks.
Todd taps his pocket.
A moment later the gate agent announces the start of boarding with the usual rigamarole—women with strollers, infants and so on. Austin is on his feet instantly, though it has been some time now since he was small enough to give his family the gift of early boarding. King Adjei stops drumming, then draws a cell phone from the depths of his dashiki and places a call. Quickly the smile turns to a rigorous frown, the sort of frown that should be reserved for genocide or plague.
Time to go! says Austin.
Cool your heels, young man, says his mother. We’re not till group four.
The African is gesticulating now, overwrought, lecturing someone on the other end of the line as if urging the immediate commutation, before it is too late, of a death sentence. The language he speaks is percussive, unhinged, the perfect antipode of his gentle English. It rolls across the aisle in jumbled breakers, the leading edge of a squall that might turn dangerous.
Trouble on the Dark Continent, says Todd, nudging his wife.
They watch as the agitated conversation plays itself out, and with the deliberation of a president launching a nuclear weapon the African holds the cell phone out in front of his chest and depresses the off button with a long index finger. As the gate agent calls for boarding group four he rises from the floor without need of hands—a tour de force worthy of Baryshnikov—and taking up his drum begins to saunter toward the boarding door, suddenly at ease. Come on, says Anne, taking Austin by the hand, and the three of them slot into line, the African falling in behind them. Austin begins to turn and look but his mother says Eyes forward, young man! and takes his small hand in a tight grip.
Phone times three! says Austin, watching a trio of businessmen walk onto the jetway as they talk on their phones.
Looking forward to seeing Grandma, son? asks Todd.
Sure. Why not.
Boarding passes scanned, they move onto the jetway with its ads for white beaches and turquoise waters and gaunt women with flowery drinks, Austin towing his Green Hornet roller bag behind him just as his mother is towing him. As they near the end of the jetway—the white metal skin of the plane frighteningly touchable where the accordion passageway rests against it—he sees the handsome captain emerge halfway from the cockpit and smile directly at his mother. Austin feels the pressure of her grip relax and then vanish entirely, her hand lifted in a tiny wave as she steps tentatively onto the airplane.
Austin hears a voice behind him say, Green Hornet. I love that Green Hornet. You know we have Green Hornet in Ghana? I had a Green Hornet shirt when I was a boy your age. My favorite.
Stealing a look over his shoulder, Austin sees the generous smile of the African nestled deeply in the long black braids, all its serenity returned. Ahead, his father is bantering with the flight attendant and his mother with the tanned captain, her genial and attentive host. The captain must be saying something funny, because suddenly she is braying in a loud voice, filling the jetway and probably the entire aircraft with the sound of what Austin will come to recognize, in a matter of some years, as entirely false amusement.
Your mother, says King Adjei from behind him, she got a sense of humor.
Not really, says Austin.
Then why she laugh like that?
It occurs to Austin that perhaps he should not be talking in such detail with an exotic stranger. Now it is his father laughing, up ahead in the front galley of the plane, and it seems to him that his parents have completely forgotten him.
I don’t like it when she laughs, Austin says, and the King bends down with hands on knees.
Not everybody know how to laugh like they mean it. It doesn’t mean they don’t have joy in their heart, my friend. You can’t blame your momma. You honor your momma always.
You a real king?
That’s what they say.
Austin is the next to board, but the line has stopped for some reason—some passenger who can’t find a place for her bag, perhaps, or perhaps it is only that his parents are wasting everyone’s time chatting up the crew. Austin shifts from one foot to the other at the lip of the jetway, waiting to be given permission to step over the threshold onto the plane. He can feel the African hovering behind him like his own elongated, late afternoon shadow, familiar but also out of proportion to his small body.
You love your momma, don’t you? King Adjei asks.
The question makes Austin shiver, makes him want to run away, but there is nowhere to go. It is then that his eyes fall on the little bank of controls that operate the jetway, and without a moment’s hesitation he knows what to do. The key is already in the lock; he turns it clockwise and a square green button lights up. He pushes the button and feels something engage with a small thud. Ahead, in the cabin, he sees a flight attendant look quizzically in his direction, but her gaze flies right over his head, warily searching the faces of the adults around him: she does not see the small hand on the controls.
Austin has the little joystick in his grip now, a familiar feeling from all the hours he’s spent maneuvering two-headed avatars through peril-fraught galaxies and G-men through Capone’s Chicago and Navy Seals through torpedo tubes and the Green Hornet and Kato through Tong gambling dens in Chinatown. As the jetway breaks contact with the airplane, retreating back toward the terminal and then weaving right like a blinded thing seeking cover, Austin hears shouting from behind him and a piercing scream from the receding cabin: his mother is trapped there like a terrified woman doomed to watch her only child float away into the maw of the sea on a piece of ship’s wreckage, a mysterious African looming over him and grinning with delight.
Austin! she cries, Austin!
In the next instant the young master of the jetway sees the flight attendant snatch a phone from the wall of the aircraft and speak tersely into it.
Phone! says Austin, and a drum begins to beat behind him, a lively rhythm that makes him nudge the joystick forward a little more. The needle on the speedometer flickers and subsides and flickers again as the great beast explores the tarmac, a man in headphones frantically waving his orange batons below. The jetway extends its snout into empty air, grinding in a slow shimmy to the rhythm of the drum, and something in Austin is dancing and free and afire with the heat of pure joy until a broad hand covers his and removes it firmly from the joystick, stopping the forward motion of the jetway with a sudden lurch. The big machine halts in its tracks twenty feet from the airplane, felled by the press of a small red button.
In the commotion that follows, all Austin can see is his Green Hornet roller bag toppled against the curved wall of the passageway and a powerful thigh in navy-blue uniform pants planted before him. Holstered against the thigh is a black snub-nosed revolver that swallows the light.
Gun! says Austin, his high voice cutting through the commotion like the bleat of a horn.
In an instant a powerful hand grips his arm. Passengers are scrambling now, desperate to escape the narrow confines of the jetway. Somewhere in his mind Austin hears his mother screaming her special scream, the one he’s heard her use only once before, on the day when his father shoved her down the deck steps and cursed at her with every bad word Austin knew and many he didn’t.
Where’s the gun? demands a hard voice behind him. Where’s the gun!
The policeman tightens his grip on Austin’s arm, hitching it up until Austin squeals in pain. Then the policeman whirls him around toward the gate. For a suspended moment Austin meets King Adjei’s eyes and notices a faint yellowish tint around his pupils as the drumming shifts into a lower gear.
Let go of my son! Austin hears his father thunder across the chasm separating airplane from jetway.
He’s the one that made him do it! his mother shouts. The African! He’s the one you want!
A moment later a hand quells the joyful drumming and suddenly the African is on the floor in front of Austin with a businessman’s knee pressed between his shoulder blades. To the surprise of everyone the businessman produces a pair of handcuffs from beneath his suit coat and locks them onto the African’s wrists in a single fluid motion.
Son, where’s the gun? the policeman asks more quietly, relaxing his grip on Austin’s arm and bending down to meet his eyes.
Gun! Austin cries, pointing at the officer’s own weapon. And with this Austin begins to sob, not even hearing his mother as she frantically calls his name from the distant hatchway of the stranded airplane. The contrarian sun emerges from a dull white cloud bank and floods the open mouth of the jetway as the policeman’s face softens.
I’m sorry, son, he says, crouching beside Austin now, but you just can’t go saying gun in a place like this. You understand?
Gun, replies Austin in a voice so low that only the two of them can hear it.
But there is no more time for talk. Two more policemen arrive, barreling down the jetway, and haul the handcuffed African to his feet. His eyes have gone flat and black as if to shutter out the world. But when they see Austin accepting his roller bag from a kindly-looking woman, the broad face relaxes into a smile of simple delight, a smile that is perhaps stolen from another world, one that Austin has not visited for a very long while.
The Green Hornet strikes again! says King Adjei triumphantly, and with a shove from behind he starts his journey back into the world of men.
About Edward: Edward Hamlin has been writing fiction, poetry, and drama for many years. Since moving to the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado five years ago he’s focused exclusively on fiction, both short and long. Recently, he’s had stories published in the Bellevue Literary Review and nominated for the Pushcart Prize; his story “The Release” was selected as a finalist, from among more than 800 entries, for the Colorado Review’s 2012 Nelligan Prize. Another piece, “The Italian Afternoon,” appeared in the December edition of In Digest Magazine. The story published here, “Phone Phone Gun,” was presented theatrically in November 2012 as part of the Stories on Stage series. Mr. Hamlin has also completed a novel, Sleeping with Her, about dream life and the unconscious in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.