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The Fiction Issue 2008

A Short Story About Drinking, Flying, and Narrow Escapes

'The Air Marshal,' by Clancy Martin

This short story appears in the June 2015 Fiction Issue of VICE Magazine.

After he found the phone bill Paul threw me out. I was living at the Raphael Hotel and going on vacation with Eduard. I was shopping. I had decided it was stupid not to drink, and I drank when I shopped. I had begun to dress differently, in expensive clothes. I was popular with the salespeople. I wrote a story about a man who kills a Mexican prostitute. Then I wrote one about an effeminate old man who falls in love with a 20-year-old. I sent them to my agent, and she placed them immediately. She wrote, "Whatever it is you're doing, don't stop."


I had promised Paul that I wouldn't see Eduard. Eduard and Paul worked together. I knew the most important thing I could do was stay in touch with Paul, but I couldn't make myself call him. I didn't want to lie to him. And it was easier to pretend that my real life didn't exist if I didn't talk to Paul.

But Eduard was always trying to make me call him. He nagged me.

We were at Tinajas, our favorite restaurant in Panama City. It was our last night before I had to go back to Mexico City.

"If he doesn't hear from you, he'll think we're together," he said. "How hard is it to lie, Brett? How many lies have you told Paul in your life? How many has he told you?"

"You don't understand," I said. "He doesn't really lie."

"You think he tells you the truth about everything?"

"That isn't what I mean."

I couldn't say, "I'm afraid of my husband. I'm afraid of what I've done to him. I'm afraid that I've done all this for you, and you don't love me."

I said, "I'd rather tell him the truth. I'd rather everybody just know the truth. Why do you care what I do, or who I tell? You don't tell anyone. You hide me like a secret. You're ashamed of me."

"What possible difference could it make to Paul whether what you're telling him is true or false? One difference. Whether or not you're hurting him. Hurting him and us."

I was irritated by how stupid Eduard was being. He thought he was smart, but he never understood what was being said. I picked up the phone to call Paul.


Our housekeeper, Bella, answered. Bella hated me now. "That Brett," she said, "is on the phone." She gave the phone to Paul, and I felt this strange aversion to him that I didn't understand. I was the one who was cheating, and it made me pull further away from him. I lied to him for 20 minutes. I told him I wasn't moved out yet, I had been with my mother—she was sick. I could hear him hearing the lies. He understood: I was in love with a Mexican banker.


I flew home—back to my room at the Raphael—the following afternoon. I upgraded myself to first class at check-in. Waiting for the plane, I sat in the airport bar, and when the bartender said, "Double margarita?" I nodded. I had three double margaritas. They seemed like light pours to me, but when I sat down in my seat on the plane I felt a bit odd. A middle-aged woman sitting across the aisle from me frowned when I ordered a drink before the plane took off. She was probably about my age, but she was dressed in St. John. The flight attendant brought me a bottle of red wine, and I held it in my lap.

After they turned off the fasten-seat-belts sign I tried to be friendly with the woman across the aisle, but I could hear myself slurring my words. I was probably repeating myself. I thought we were having a pleasant conversation. I suppose I was doing most of the talking. I don't remember what I said, just that she interrupted me. She said, "Would you please watch your language?" and when I apologized, she took an embroidering kit out of her bag and started to needlepoint.


"I like the pattern," I said.

She ignored me.

"Have you been sewing for long? That's quite a hobby." I poured myself a glass of wine and drank it. The bottle was full, so the flight attendant must have brought me a second. "Is that for your mom? Or for a friend?"

She kept on sewing.

"My maid sews a lot too. Beautiful things, she's very creative. My grandmother could really fucking sew. I mean, that's not an insult. She did embroidery. She learned how to embroider by hand a long, long time ago, like, shit, well, I was ten, so not a lot of fucking years ago, you might even have been in on the same trend, I think it was a thing cool ladies did, you know. I'd just sit there and fucking watch her, mesmer—mes—I loved it. I love the craft of it. I used to love to look at all of my grandmother's embroidery threads—the colors—it was like entering a magic… cave, for me. Sometimes I think I loved shit like that more than like fucking… I don't know, it's making a comeback, right? Like this is a totally cool fucking thing to be doing, I admire you for that, I'm not just saying that because, you know, like… Do you want some of this?" I offered her a sip of my wine. She ignored me. She was being rude. I said, "This isn't the stuff they have free. I brought this. This is my wine. I own a winery."

She turned to me and started to say something but then focused on her sewing.

"Of course, when you were young it was probably considered very tasteful, but then it began to be regarded as old-fashioned or like shitty, because you can't clean it, you can't really do much with it. Sew the neck of a caftan, frame it, or it's just some old pillow that sits around and fucking gathers dust. Monograms, I guess, if you're a public defender."


The woman continued to ignore me. I decided I would try to be friendly again.

"It used to be a sign of effluence. Aff—affluence. It still is, I guess, here you are in first class, here we are, two women, having the leisure to needlepoint and drink wine."

The woman put her work down and turned to face me. She said very distinctly, "Can you stop talking?"

That was it.

I said, "I've had enough of you, bitch."

I reached up an arm and pushed the flight-attendant call button. When the flight attendant came, I said, "This woman beside me just threatened to stab me with that needle."

"I'm sorry, ma'am?"

"The woman tried to stab me. Said she was going to take the plane down."

The needlepoint woman protested.

"Ma'am, is there a problem here?"

"She pointed her needle at me. She said she was going to jab me. The needle needs to go. Or she needs to go in back. I mean, one or the other. You pick. She's crazy."

"I don't know what she's talking about." The woman seemed nervous.

"You know, you know. You can't fool these people. They're experts."

"Ma'am, I think you should calm down."

"I am not safe in this seat. I think she should put that needle away or be taken off the plane. I mean, if you need to land this thing, I understand." I gave the woman with the needle a look like, See what you just did? No more first class for you, lady.

The flight attendant was looking at my wine. She left. Then a man in a blue shirt and khakis appeared.


"Ma'am, I'm the air marshal on this flight."


"Ma'am, I'll need you to come with me."

I didn't know where to put my wine bottle. The latch on the seat tray beside me wasn't working. Then my tray wouldn't latch up.

"I'll handle that for you, ma'am," the marshal said and took my bottle of wine.

I followed him up to the galley.

"Ma'am, I want you to understand this is serious."

"I unnerstand."

"The accusations you have made are serious. You do understand that."

"Yes, sir."

"Tell me again. What happened?"

"Yes, officer."

"Tell me."

"Yes, sir."

"Ma'am, you're not answering my question. I'm asking you to tell me what happened between you and the other passenger."

"The needle. She's got a needle."


"She said she was going to take the plane down."

"You're positive? You don't think you might have misunderstood her, or… anything like that?"

"No, sir."

"The passenger next to you in seat 3C told you that she was going to take the plane down with her sewing needle. That's what happened?"

"As far as I can tell."

"OK, ma'am. This is what happens next. So that you are very clear. We are going to have to land the plane. I am going to have to call the Mexican police. They will take each of you to interrogation rooms, and you will both be questioned."

"Do you think she may have been kidding?"

"Well, I wasn't there. I am asking you."

"She looks harmless. She looks like my grandmother."

"Well, ma'am, the charges you made are serious, but I can see you've been drinking, and so I'm just going to put you in the back of the plane. But I want you to know this is not a game. You're on an international flight."


"I'm sorry if I caused any confusion. You know, she's just sewing. My grandmother does it too. She's just sewing. A person should be allowed to sew. On a plane."

"Let's get you back to your seat."

"You can't sew without a needle. She's just. You know. Needlepoint."

"Yes, ma'am."

They moved me out of first class, to the back of the plane. I didn't protest. I tried to order a whiskey, but the flight attendant in economy told me they were out of whiskey. "A vodka? A beer?" He ignored me.


When we landed I was almost sober. I called Eduard from the taxi on the way to the Raphael. "I almost got myself arrested."

I told the story, and I was surprised that Eduard laughed the whole way through.

"You got what was coming to you. She won. She had old-lady magic. Besides, it sounds like you were hammered."

He was in his and Lurisia's apartment. I was getting nearer to asking him when he planned to move out. One of you has to move out first, I reminded myself. I was the one to move out first when I left my first husband, too.

"What's old-lady magic?" I said.

"How they cut in lines, all that."

"She wasn't even old! She was my age. And I wasn't that drunk. I wasn't even drunk enough for anyone to notice."

"Obviously not," Eduard said. But he was laughing with me, and it was nice, to laugh with someone about one of my drunk stories. I'd missed that when I was sober.

Excerpted from the novel Bad Sex, forthcoming in September 2015 from Tyrant Books