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Important Things That Don't Matter: A Novel

Chapter One

Up Late with Dad and Shirley

Dad will be waiting at the gate.

That was the plan. It was late, well past midnight, like the latest I'd ever known the world with eyes open. Me and Mom were exhausted from the flight, me letting loose these dizzying yawns every twenty seconds as the plane taxied in, the whites of Mom's eyes all stained with bloodshot tributaries. The tendons in my hand still stung from Mom's squeezing it the second the landing gear opened up -- she didn't let go until it was clear we were down, clear no one around her was burning to death. Mom hated takeoffs and landings, was convinced we all got only so many. You'd see this in her eyes at times, and not just when planes were involved -- this fear-stained look, like something tragic was coming right at her, right there nipping at her earlobes.

I leaned my head on the little oval window, checked out the flat landscape: runways and windsocks, these sparks in the dark, going from two- to three-dimensional, thanks to the pinpoint flashing lights of white, green, blue, red. I looked at the lights until my eyes watered up, the colors blending inside them, forming these wild shapes. Then I'd have to blink and start over. Out in the distance you could see Dulles, all whitewashed and glowing, its roof like a frozen wave begging to crash.

The plane stopped now, completely, fasten-seatbelt signs binged off, the overhead fluorescents flooded the cabin, making everyone's face tough to stomach: all green-yellow, pasty. Their eyes were gray. People getting their bags out from the overheads now, the silence was broken up by the cracking of knees, fingers, shoulders, toes, elbows, necks.

"Sit tight, honey," Mom was saying, getting our things in order, putting my Crayolas back in their box --

"Do you want to hang on to the red?"

"Yes." I had a thing for carrying the red one in my pocket.

-- and now my He-Man coloring book, now my die-cast Corvette Stingray and the G.I. Joe sniper expert who was into using the car as a skateboard. All shoved into her purse, next to her how-to-make-your-business-work book, or her how-not-to-stress-out-while-making-your-business-work book, or whatever she was reading, which always had something to do with self-improvement.

I kept busy by smashing my forehead against the plastic window, feeling my nose turn to Play-Doh. I pretty much thought about half the universe in terms of Play-Doh then. In school we'd started playing with it, making Play-Doh alphabets, each of us assigned one letter. Twenty-five of us in the class, my name starting with an A, I got to do A and Z. This made all the kids wish I was dead, but really, I could've cared less about the letters -- I just liked eating the stuff, how it got all salty. You know, like ocean-flavored bubble gum.

"Stop that," Mom was saying.

I was now pressing my open mouth against the window, inflating my cheeks. Drawing smiley faces on the plastic with my tongue.

"I want to be home."

"Well, licking that filthy window's not gonna bring home here any quicker," Mom pointed out.

- - -

Now Mom was saying come on, let's go, said we're ready and took my hand, led me out into the aisle in front of her. Mom kept her hand on my head as we skittered down the aisle, having to stop every second for old people, who all had to look at me with the same glazed empty smile. The stewardesses looked as sleepy as Mom standing in the doorway, their makeup starting to flake off, smeared like someone sent them through a carwash by mistake, waving good-bye, sleep well, bye, bye now, good-bye. To me one went --

"Sleep tight."

-- and the other, squatting down, went --

"Don't let the bedbugs bite, you cutie."

-- which always freaked me out, that little rhyme. I mean, do you know anyone who has any idea what bed-bugs are? And, say you're asleep, how can you make sure they don't bite you? It's funny how when you get older, you realize half of what adults tell you as a kid is meant to turn you into a crazed insomniac by the time you hit twenty. I'm twenty now, so trust me. I know what I'm talking about.

- - -

The tunnel leading to the gate was even brighter than in the plane, and cold. We'd been in Florida, so this was my first time feeling cold in about a week. At five years old this is a substantial chunk of time. We'd been visiting a friend of Mom's, some lady she knew in high school who was stuck in Florida because her dad was about to die. You know, because old people are always going down to Florida to die. It was all sad, I know, but I didn't really understand. Every time we went to the hospital to visit the dad I'd be stuck in some room with a thousand other kids my age, some day-care center run, as they all are, by a psychotic old lady. Not that I cared -- there were enough crayons and construction paper in there that after fifteen minutes I'd have no idea where I was.

"Oh it's cold," I was saying.

"I thought you told winter to go away before we got back," Mom said, taking me by the hand.

"I did."

"Are you sure?"

"I did, I swear."

"Then why's it still cold?"

"I don't know. When are we going to be home?"

"I know, sweetie," she said, all patting my head. "Real soon. I'm tired too."

Important Things That Don't Matter: A Novel
by by David Amsden

  • paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060513896
  • ISBN-13: 9780060513894