Fiction

Left-hand Seat

How could an airlines pilot be happy flying a mop? Pete had to get back in the air or their marriage would crack up

STEVE McNEIL December 1 1947
Fiction

Left-hand Seat

How could an airlines pilot be happy flying a mop? Pete had to get back in the air or their marriage would crack up

STEVE McNEIL December 1 1947

Left-hand Seat

STEVE McNEIL

PETE had to admit that it was beautiful. It was everything that Connie had said and more. He stood on the porch of the little house Connie’s folks had turned over to them and looked out over the lake. The hills were timber-covered and the lake was clear and as smooth as a dish of cream. He had never seen so many trees. Wonderful place for a dog, he thought wryly, but W'hat in thunder am 1 doing here?

He shook his head slowly and dug a cigarette out of his pocket. A week ago he was the pilot in t he left-hand stmt, of a four-engine airliner and now he was standing on the poçch of a little house that looked out over Paekwood Lake, having committed himself and the nine thousand dollars Connie and he had saved.

Connie came up behind him and put her arms around his neck. “Isn’t it. wonderful!”

Pete said, “Yeah.”

“You’re happy, aren’t you, Pete? You’re glad we did it?”

“Sure.”

“You don’t sound happy.”

“I was just thinking.”

“Pete,” Connie said. She took hold of his arms and looked up into his face. “You don’t know what this means to me. For the first time in two years I can take a deep breath. I can look at you without wondering whether it will be the last time I’ll ever see you. I can look out the window and say, ‘Isn’t it an awful day!’ without thinking of you up there fighting the weather, and I can listen to the radio without expecting a news broadcast that will tell me you’re overdue.”

“Statistics prove—” Pete began.

“But you’re not a statistic!” Connie said. “You’re my husband! I know you’re safer in an airplane than you are in a bathtub and—” She stopped and kissed him. “Anyway, we’ve done it and I’m glad.”

Pete looked at her. In spite of the fact that his feelings were draped around his shoelaces, he smiled. He would never get over the wonder of seeing her and of knowing that she was his. Her hair was as black as the inside of a wolf and her eyes were grey and if you wanted to be detached and clinical about her figure you would say that she had good bone structure. And if you wanted to be personal you would say, “Wow!”

Yes, Pete admitted bitterly, they had done it. At first he had scoffed at the idea. He didn’t want to go to Paekwood Lake and go into the resort business with his father-in-law and that was that. Only that wasn’t that. He should have known. Arguing with Connie was like beating your head against a wall. All you got out of it was a headache.

How could an airlines pilot be happy flying a mop? Pete had to get back in the air or their marriage would crack up

Not that Connie’s folks hadn’t made it attractive, because they had. They were old, they said, and they wanted him and Connie to come out West and learn the ropes and then take over when they retired. “Get that flying notion out of your head,” they said. Pete thought back over the experience that it took to sit in the pilot’s seat of a four-engine airplane and take it from here to there, and concluded that it constituted something more than “a notion,” but here he was.

CONNIE’S folks had been swell. Her dad almost broke his hand when he shook it and had looked at Pete as if he had been raised on skimmed milk, which wasn’t peculiar since Pete weighed 140 to Papa Masterson’s 220. They had suggested that Pete and Connie take a week to get settled and have a little fun before Pete started learning the resort business.

The name of the place was “Masterson’s Retreat,” which sounded to Pete like something out of a history book. There were 20 cabins and a small store for light, groceries and fishing tackle and there was a boathouse

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and a float. “We need about 10 more cabins,” papa had said, “and some more boats, but mother and I hesitated to go ahead, getting along in years the way we are.” He had left it at that. He had not actually said that Pete and Connie’s $9,000 would go into the business but there had been tacit agreement, Pete knew, that something more than their presence was required of them. Well, Connie’s mother and father had made money and Pete supposed that when it came time for building the cabins he’d put up their $9,000.

“And tomorrow,” Connie said happily, “we’re going to the ocean for clams. There’s a minus tide at Kalalock.”

“Oh—a minus tide. Fine,” Pete said, unimpressed.

“The lowest in 10 years. Gee! I can hardly wait. Get up at four and get a good breakfast and—”

“—get up when?”

“At four.”

“Four!” Pete shrieked. “Why?”

“Because that’s when the tide is lowest.”

At four o’clock the rain was coming down in pencil-sized drops and bounced when it hit. Pete looked fondly at the warm bed he had just left and said, “You’re not going out in this stuff, are you?” He indicated the rain.

“Pooh!” Connie said. “This isn’t rain. It’s just a little clearing-up shower.”

“Clearing up is right,” Pete said darkly. “If it doesn’t quit it’ll be clear up to your neck.”

It was a 30-minute drive and a fiveminute walk to the ocean and when they got there it was raining harder than it had been when they first got up. It was not his fault, Pete felt, that he caught cold, but everyone seemed to think he had done it on purpose. He got slight sympathy except from Connie, who relented and babied him satisfactorily when they got back, probably, Pete suspected, because he had finally dug his limit. She made

quite a point of the fact and Pete was certain she was trying to make him appear more rugged in the eyes of her father who, Pete believed, doubted that he could walk across the road without getting run over. Pete wished that once, just once, he could get papa in the back seat of a training plane.

In the days that followed Pete did nothing to endear himself to Connie’s father and mother, or to Connie eit her, for that matter. He tried hard. But be cut his foot splitting wood. He went for a hike, got himself mildly lost and also got himself mixed up in poison ivy. He went fishing in the lake and came stalking into the house with a string of fish as long as his arm, but it developed that the fish were Dolly Vardens, good enough for tourists, they said, but not highly regarded around there except by the cats, who got Pete’s catch.

That night he lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. Pete felt that he was not a complete idiot, but so far everything he had done had turned sour. Never, to his certain knowledge, had he ever dreamed of running a summer resort, and the only reason he had come out here in the first place was that Connie loved it and wanted him to love it too. It was hard to love a place though, when the place resisted so hard.

“Pete,” Connie said quietly, “you asleep?”

“No,”

“You’ll learn to love it here— honestly you will.”

“Will I?” Pete said.

Connie was silent, then. Presently she said, “You hate me, don’t you Pete, because I talked you into giving up flying?”

Pete wanted to do what she wanted. He wanted to turn, take her in his arms and tell her he loved her in all the extravagant ways he could think of— as he used to do, but he didn’t. He didn’t hate Connie and he didn’t hate Packwood Lake—yet. But he

knew that he would someday hate the resort business with a deep, dull hatred. He would hate it even more because he wouldn’t, by that time, be able to fight

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it. So his hatred would turn and centre on Connie because he could hurt her, and because she had made him give up flying.

“Don’t he nuts,” he said. “You know I don’t hate you.”

“But you don’t love me very much either, do you?”

“Of course I love you, Connie.” He remembered too late that, you never said, “of course” to your wife when she asked you if you loved her. It implied a routine answer and that wasn’t what she wanted.

“Not very much,” she said flatly. I know you want to fl\. I know you’re eating your heart out for it. But I’m right. It’ll take time, Pete, but you’ll forget because this will he home to you as it’s home to me.”

Pete reached over and squeezed Connie’s hand. This is Connie’s home, he told himself, and where she wants to he. All right—who wants to fly? Who wants to sit there in the left-hand seat with the engines running smoothly as maple syrup and look over and grin at your co-pilot? Who wants to do a job he knows and loves almost as much as he loves his wife? Who wants to have people look at him with respect in their eyes because he’s doing something that takes a lot of doing? Don’t he silly, Pete, he told himself.

“Sure, Connie,” he said. “It takes time, that’s all. I know you’re right.” Connie turned to him in the darkness and kiased him and he went to sleep with her cuddled up against him, and everything was all right.

BUT IN the cold light of the morning there was still the resort, and there was still Connie’s dad expecting miracles and there was still Connie, being bright and cheerful and an eager heaver for his benefit. That day Pete was introduced to the business. It developed that when people moved in, the cabins were clean, and when they moved out, the cabins were dirty. So before the cycle could be complete, someone had to make (he dirty cabins into clean ones. Pete attacked the cabins with broom and mop and rag and had visions of Papa Masterson coming around with white gloves.

When Pete finished his first, cabin he stood just inside the door with mop and broom in hand and watched Connie as she inspected his work. She looked at him with eyes shining and said, “Oh, Pete—they’re wonderful! They’re a lot cleaner than the ones I did. Wait till mother and dad see them.” She went flying out of the cabin and Pete ' heard her calling her father and mother.

He relaxed and lit a cigarette, reflect -■ ing that at last he had done something I right, even if it was only with a mop and broom. When Connie and her mother and father came hack he beamed at them.

Connie’s mother walked into the cabin and said, “Oh, look!”

Papa stuck his head in the door. He beamed at Pete. “Now that." he said heartily, “is a clean cabin ! ” He clapped Pete on the back.

After Pete got his breath back he smiled at them and they observed him fondly and somewhat curiously, as if he had displayed unusual and hidden talents. It seemed a small thing over which to blow a fuse. He wondered if they were pleased because they had doubted that he could perform even that menial task to their complete satisfaction.

Pete had no idea there were so many things to do around a resort. Cleaning cabins was elementary hut important. There were many other things—important and not at all elementary. Pete found out that he was expected to he a plumber, electrician, boat builder.

grocery man, meat cutter, outboard motor mechanic, fishing tackle expert and laundryman. He was also supposed to have at his tongue’s tip, accurate information on a variety of subjects including fishing, swimming, mountain climbing, aquaplaning, golf, tennis and clam digging. Nobody ever asked him anything about flying an aircraft.

He and Connie were so tired they didn’t have fun any more. During the day she seemed like just any ot her girl who worked around the place. She was crisp, efficient, and at times impatient. She watched Pete closely to see whet her lie showed signs of forgetting that he was a pilot and was now a resort man and enjoying it. She’d pass him during the day and say, “How’re you doing?” lightly, casually, but Pete knew what she meant. She meant, “Are you starting to love it? Does it. seem like your home yet?” and Pete would say, “Okay,” and try to look happy and pleased because it made her happy.

They worked late at night because tourists seemed to have insatiable desires and curiosities. Their privacy was infiltrated hy the nature of the business. That, rankled Pete particularly since flying was essentially a personal and private matter, which was the way he wanted it. If he settled down with a book a new guest was certain to dive in. if he were writing a letter someone was sure to want, a boat for a night ride on the lake. Pete, who loved to linger in a shower bath, now rushed through his showers because someone was sure to want something.

In spite of himself he became nervous and irritable—he, who had never had a nerve in his body. He had trouble sleeping. Sometimes at night he got out of bed, dressed, and walked down to the lake and sat on the float, smoking cigarettes and trying to figure a wav out, hut. there wasn’t any. He realized with a frightening certainty that he and Connie were steadily pulling at their marriage until it threatened to come apart at the seams. The knowledge was terrifying— even more so because he couldn’t say to her, “It’s no good. Connie. I’m going back to the airline." He knew what would happen. Connie would say, “Go ahead and go hack hut don’t expect me to go with you.”

SHE didn’t go with him the day he went in for the motor for the washing machine. No one had checked out of the cabins so there wasn’t any cleaning to do, but Connie had to stay and help her mother wash some pillowcases since the washer had broken down.

“When you get to town you go to t he bridge,” Connie said, “and turn left. You follow that road till you come to Eddy’s Electric. About half a mile,

I guess.”

“Okay,” Pete said, kidding her, “Turn right at the bridge and

“No!” Connie said, with a vehemence that was surprising, “Turn left !” Pete kissed her and took off. glad of the chance to get; away. He was even glad that Connie couldn’t go. He wanted to be alone, not because he felt sorry for himself, but. because he needed to collect, his thoughts.

When he reached town he turned left at the bridge and drove for half a mile and his foot came down on the brake so hard it. nearly went through the floorboard. Beside the road was the County Airport. Without thought lie drove in. parked hy the office and got out. There were two C-4 7’s by the one hangar and there were four or five light planes staked out.

He walked into the office, thinking that, he might rent one of the light planes for half an hour. A man was sitting behind the desk with his feet

on top of it. He was propped at a perilous angle. Another fellow was asleep on a long bench that ran the length of the room and another was lustily kicking a Coke machinethathad, according to st rong language, taken his last nickel.

“Look out, you’ll spin in,” Pete said to the guy behind the desk.

The guy leaned back another inch. “Who cares?”

“Who owns the C-47s?” Pete asked.

“We do.”

He didn’t look happy about owning them. Pete thought he might cheer him up. “How about renting one?”

“You a pilot?”

Pete nodded. “Ferry Command and United & Western Airlines.”

The Coke-machine kicker turned round and the sleeper woke up. “An airlines guy!” he said. “I bet lie’s got some dough.” He came to Pete and said, “I’m Jerry Mosely and this character,” he said, pointing to the one behind the desk, “is Eddie Dooley and t his is Stanislaus Manovich, but we call him ‘Manny.’ ” He surveyed Pete and said, “What in the devil are you doing out here in the country God forgot?”

Pete shook hands with them. “Pete Jacobsen,” he said. He had no intention of telling them what he was doing for a living. Cleaning cabins. They’d knock themselves out laughing at him. “1 don’t know,” he said. “I must have holes in my head.” He was so glad to see someone who spoke his language that he grinned at them foolishly. “What you guys doing with the airplanes?”

Jerry Mosely winced. He nodded to Eddie. “You tell him. I haven’t the heart.”

Eddie grinned ruefully. “We bought these crates and we got ’em certified and ready to go, and now we haven’t, got anything for ’em to do.”

“Fine,” Pete said. “Then why did you ?”

“Don’t tell me,” Eddie said. “We shoulda thought of that before we bought them. We had a good deal. We were going to fly Dungeness crabs and clams and Quinault salmon—stuff like that -seafoods in season—back East. They pay a terrific price. 'Then in apple and fruit season we were gonna fly fresh fruit to Alaska.”

“Hut we ran outa dough,” Jerry said.

“Well,” he said. “Tell me about this deal—all about it.”

Eddie stood up and leaned forward. “When you walked in here, I knew you were looking for some place to put your

loose change.” He put out his hand. “Shake, partner.”

Two hours later he started back. He was afraid to face Connie, hut 1 he lead was gone from his stomach and his heart was singing. He had to tell her that he was going to fly south, over the border to Yakima, and pick up a plane load of apples and fly to Anchorage. He dreaded telling her, but he could hardly wait to get off the ground. His conscience and his desire played tug of war until he got hack to Paekwood Lake and as he drove in, he remembered that he had completely forgotten the motor for the washing machine.

He was thinking of that when he got out of the car, and it made him smile. Connie came out of the store and took one look at him, ran to him and hit him with the full force of her rush, threw her arms round him and clung tightly, sobbing, “Oh, Pete—Oh, darling, you’re back with me again!”

Pete’s brow corrugated as he tried to figure it out. He hugged her and then held her off at arms’ length and looked at her. “I didn’t get the motor for the washer,” he said.

She started laughing. “Oh, Pete, I know you didn’t!”

“You know I didn’t! How did you know?”

“Was Jerry Mosely happy?” she asked, her eyes amused.

“Jerry Mosely!” Pete yelled. “What do you know about, Jerry?”

“Oh, Pete,” Connie said. “I was raised with Jerry. I’ve known him all my life. He was out here last week, and he told me all about his airplanes and how they were short, of money. So I gave you directions to get. to the airport. 'There’s nothing wrong with the washer. See!” She pointed.

'The clotheslines were filled with sheets and pillowcases.

Pete shook his head. “Women!” he said.

“It’s nice having you back with me again,” Connie said. “1 could tell what had happened from the look on your face. It’s such a different, look, Pete.

I knew you were miserable and I was unhappy because you were. You were away from me for a long time, hut now you’re hack.” Connie kissed him enthusiastically.

“Rut I’m not back,” Pete said. “I’m going to Yakima and then Anchorage.”

“I know,” Connie said, “but you’re hack in the left-hand seat and you’re hack in my heart and that’s all that matters.” it