In the summer months before 9/11, my co-pilot told me of
a World War Two veteran who had disappeared the past winter in a small Cessna
over the Atlantic. The man, Sam Messina, had taken off from a Florida airport
and, most likely, had stolen the plane. My copilot knew Sam and was receiving
firsthand accounts from the veteran’s son, who still maintained his dad’s business
in aircraft sales along with his brother.

The
co-pilot and I were paired for several long tours that summer and spent much of
our time reviewing the stories, contacting other pilots–aviation being a small
community–and learning about the lives of several very passionate people.
Sam Messina dreamt of living forever,
believing that scientists were close in achieving that medical victory. But
when Sam was fired from his neighborhood post as recycling czar, he took the
next best route to immortality–a road trip to Florida with a beautiful young
woman. However, in West Palm Beach, his lover of many years, Ruth Peyton, was
praying for another kind of "eternity," while an aging hitman, caring only for
the ‘here and now,’ was plotting to finally snare Ruth, the woman of his
dreams.

By autumn my notes had turned into a narrative, and my
co-pilot had hunted down a recording of Sam giving a talk at a Christmas party on his years in aviation. After listening to Sam’s voice, and reflecting on the
collision of lives, I shaped the dramatic sequence of events with dialogue. We
both agreed to call it
The Pilot, the
Witch and the Hitman.

Chapter postings will be at the beginning and
middle of each month.


1
The Pilot


On
Friday morning Sam Messina faced off with Crestwood Estates four-member board.
He knew Gabe, the others were acquaintances Sam ignored or traded a hard look
for their smug ones. At six feet tall, Sam was bald except for a ring of thin
white hair around the temples. His granddaughter had begged him to shave the
remaining hairs and get an earring, but he preferred the adult look that had
accompanied him for decades of successful aircraft sales.


The
office where they sat was a model home for prospective buyers, doubling for
board meetings. A large, aerial view of the 200 acre development hung on the
wall behind the four men.


"Too
many complaints, Sam," Gabe said. "You can’t pound on people’s doors at seven
a.m. when you don’t see the damn bin at the curb. I’m still getting calls from
Marge Holloway. You’ve woken up her and Ray a half dozen times. And what’s this
crap I hear, you going through people’s kitchens, rummaging through their
garbage?"
Sam ran Crestwood’s recycling project for the association’s 150 homes.He
dove into the work after his wife died, proud that he was squeezing every last
pop can, plastic wrapping and old newspaper from the residents. "I had a simple plan with blue and black bins–blue for recycling, black for landfill; not hard to figure out."

"You’ve
gone too far," Gabe insisted, waving a hand in the air, looking at the other
members for support and receiving only a few weak nods.
"I
haven’t gone far enough. We need a third bin, a green one for compost for
everyone to keep alongside the garage. It’s the right thing to do."

"For
heaven’s sake, Sam, you expect people to load up their food scraps in a
separate container and let it sit rotting for months? People like being able to
just throw out their garbage. They sure as hell aren’t going to spend their
evenings separating bones from the plastic wrap their roast came in."
Sam
shrugged. "I expect people to do something for their kids and grandkids, like
we did fighting the Germans and the Japs. That Thunderbolt I flew was made of recycled
metal and rubber. Recycling makes us safer, stronger."

"You
need your head examined." Gabe scowled and the other men sank in their chairs,
uncomfortable with conflict.

"Look
here, the Holloways finally got it figured out. I haven’t been there in weeks.
And any other door I’ve pounded on usually got the message. I give a little
nudge; teach them something about recycling." He pointed a finger. "We went
through a Depression and a war, Gabe. Let’s remember who we are–that we still
got some balls here. Recycling’s important.
We’re taking care of the future–"

"How
the hell can we take you seriously? We just elected some asshole Texan, who’s set on destroying our Social Security, and you’re upset over
recycling?"
"Forget politics," Sam shot back.

He
had never noticed until now that the hunter-green walls, maroon leather
furniture and gas fireplace copied the funeral home office where he had
arranged for his wife’s burial. The fire raged on the high setting.

"Turn
down that damn thing."

Gabe
picked up a small remote, aimed it at the fireplace and the flame disappeared.
Magic, Sam thought, a wand destined for greater miracles. He remembered a movie
where a wand healed a gravely ill person, accomplishing something more
important than switching on and off the TV or a gas fireplace. For a moment his
attention fixed on the small device, imagining it as a gift from a kind,
ancient superior race.

The
room was still too hot and Sam was ready to bolt. Last night he had jumped out
of bed suffocating, having left the thermostat up. He hurried to the front
door, flung it open and stood in his pajamas, relieved by the cold air. He
never went back to sleep. Without Gracie to comfort him, he stayed up and paged
through magazines and had his coffee at five am.

"I’m
sorry," Gabe said, looking squarely at Sam. "We’ve decide to put Dale," he
jerked his thumb, "in charge of recycling. He starts Monday."

"Great,
that means I can leave early for Florida. So listen, don’t pester me with your
questions before I go. I’ll be very busy. Besides, you’re a smart fella, Gabe,
you’ll figure it all out." He leaned forward, gripping the arms of the chair.
"Pickup’s at eight sharp on Monday, bin at the curb, the black bin. Eighty percent of the folks here get that bin out on
time. When I started it was a fraction of that. You better not lose any
ground."
"No
reason to get angry, Sam."

Sam
jumped to his feet, heart racing, light headed, and nothing to hold on to.

"I’ll get worked up if it means a better world for my grandkids. I took on this
job because I knew I could make a difference and I did. I want the world to
stay big and beautiful for these kids." He started to weave and immediately
straightened himself. "There’re a thousand things done with recycled trash, and
if we were truly the greatest generation we’d understand that, but we’re not
anymore–we’re the wasteful-ignorant-stingy generation. None of you really give
a shit about your kids and grandkids–you use ’em to show off with pictures or
drag ’em in front of a bunch of old codgers to be fawned over. If you had an
ounce of real love you’d understand exactly what I’m saying. All I see are four
old guys staring into the headlights ready to get run over."
In
one long stride Sam reached the desk, staring down the men, who looked to Gabe
for help.

Gabe
rose from his chair, eyes locked on Sam. "You’re talking crazy talk–you go
threatening anyone here I’ll have your ass in jail for Christmas. You sound
like some crazed tree hugger."


"Tree
hugger? What the hell are you talking about? Act like a man, Gabe. You’re
getting an earful because you deserve it."

"Shut
up and get out!"

Sam
swung his coat over his shoulder and turned his back on them. He shook his
head, wondering why so often it was the frightened men who ran things. Before
leaving he turned and pinned them one last time with eyes that once scouted for
enemy aircraft in the Pacific theater.

"Find
your balls. It’s not too late."

Outside,
it was snowing hard and Sam slid his arms into the heavy jacket, pulling up the
collar.

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