Audio excerpt courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio from The Silence by Don DeLillo, read by Laurie Anderson, Jeremy Bobb, Marin Ireland, Robin Miles, Jay O. Sanders and Michael Stuhlbarg. Copyright © 2020 by Don DeLillo. Used by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Words, sentences, numbers, distance to destination.
The man touched the button and his seat moved from its upright position. He found himself staring up at the nearest of the small screens located just below the overhead bin, words and numbers changing with the progress of the flight. Altitude, air temperature, speed, time of arrival. He wanted to sleep but kept on looking.
Heure à Paris. Heure à London.
“Look,” he said, and the woman nodded faintly but kept on writing in a little blue notebook.
He began to recite the words and numbers aloud because it made no sense, it had no effect, if he simply noted the changing details only to lose each one instantly in the twin drones of mind and aircraft.
“Okay. Altitude thirty-three thousand and two feet. Nice and precise,” he said. “Température extérieure minus fifty-eight C.”
He paused, waiting for her to say Celsius, but she looked at the notebook on the tray table in front of her and then thought a while before continuing to write.
“Okay. Time in New York twelve-fifty-five. Doesn’t say am or pm. Not that we have to be told.”
Sleep was the point. He needed to sleep. But the words and numbers kept coming.
“Arrival time sixteen-thirty-two. Speed four seventy-one mph. Time to destination three thirty-four.”
“I’m thinking back to the main course,” she said. “I’m also thinking about the champagne with cranberry juice.”
“But you didn’t order it.”
“Seemed pretentious. But I’m looking forward to the scones later in the flight.”
She was talking and writing simultaneously.
“I like to pronounce the word properly,” she said. “An abbreviated letter o. As in scot or trot. Or is it scone as in moan?”
He was watching her write. Was she writing what she was saying, what they were both saying?
She said, “Celsius. Cap C. It was someone’s name. Can’t recall his first name.”
“Okay. What about vitesse. What does vitesse mean?”
“I’m thinking about Celsius and his work on the centigrade measurement.”
“Then there’s Fahrenheit.”
“What does vitesse mean?”
“Vitesse. Speed,” she said.
“Vitesse. Seven hundred forty-eight K per hour.”
His name was Jim Kripps. But for all the hours of this flight, his name was his seat number. This was the rooted procedure, his own, in accordance with the number stamped on his boarding pass.
“He was Swedish,” she said.
“Did you sneak a look at your phone?”
“You know how these things happen.”
“They come swimming out of deep memory. And when the man’s first name comes your way, I will begin to feel the pressure.”
“To produce Mr. Fahrenheit’s first name.”
She said, “Go back to your sky-high screen.”
“This flight. All the long flights. All the hours. Deeper than boredom.”
“Activate your tablet. Watch a movie.”
“I feel like talking. No headphone. We both feel like talking.”
“No earbuds,” she said. “Talk and write.”
She was Jim’s wife, dark-skinned, Tessa Berens, Caribbean-European-Asian origins, a poet whose work appeared often in literary journals. She also spent time, online, as an editor with an advisory group that answered questions from subscribers on subjects ranging from hearing loss to bodily equilibrium to dementia.
Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk free-floating. All these hours over oceans or vast landmasses, sentences trimmed, sort of self-encased, passengers, pilots, cabin attendants, every word forgotten the moment the plane sets down on the tarmac and begins to taxi endlessly toward an unoccupied jetway.
He alone would remember some of it, he thought, middle of the night, in bed, images of sleeping people bundled into airline blankets, looking dead, the tall attendant asking if she could refill his wineglass, flight ending, seatbelt sign going off, the sense of release, passengers standing in the aisles, waiting, attendants at the exit, all their thank-yous and nodding heads, the million-mile smiles.
“Find a movie. Watch a movie.”
“I’m too sleepy. Distance to destination, one thousand six hundred and one miles. Time in London eighteen-o-four. Speed four hundred sixty-five mph. I’m reading whatever appears. Durée du vol three forty-five.”
She said, “What time is the game?”
“Do we get home in time?”
“Didn’t I read it off the screen? Arrival time whatever whatever.”
“We land in Newark, don’t forget.”
The game. In another life she might be interested. The flight. She wanted to be where she was going without this intermediate episode. Does anyone like long flights? She clearly was not anyone.
“Heure à Paris nineteen-o-eight,” he said. “Heure à London eighteen-o-eight. Speed four hundred sixty-three mph. We just lost two miles per hour.”
“Okay I’ll tell you what I’m writing. Simple. Some of the things we saw.”
“In what language?”
“Elementary English. The cow jumped over the moon.”
“We have pamphlets, booklets, entire volumes.”
“I need to see it in my handwriting, perhaps twenty years from now, if I’m still alive, and find some missing element, something I don’t see right now, if we’re all still alive, twenty years, ten years.”
“Filling time. There’s also that.”
“Filling time. Being boring. Living life.”
“Okay. Température extérieure minus fifty-seven F,” he said. “I’m doing my best to pronounce elementary French. Distance to destination one thousand five hundred seventy-eight miles. We should have contacted the car service.”
“We’ll jump in a taxi.”
“All these people, a flight like this. They have cars waiting. The huge scramble at the exits. They know exactly where to go.”
“They checked their baggage, most of them, some of them. We did not. Our advantage.”
“Time in London eighteen-eleven. Arrival time sixteen-thirty-two. That was the last arrival time. Reassuring, I guess. Time in Paris nineteen-eleven. Altitude thirty-three thousand and three feet. Durée du vol three sixteen.”
Saying the words and numbers, speaking, detailing, allowed these indicators to live a while, officially noted, or voluntarily noted—the audible scan, he thought, of where and when.
She said, “Close your eyes.”
“Okay. Speed four hundred seventy-six miles per hour. Time to destination.”
She was right, let’s not check our bags, we can squeeze them into the overhead. He watched the screen and thought about the game, briefly, forgetting who the Titans were playing.
Arrival time sixteen-thirty. Température extérieure minus forty-seven C. Time in Paris twenty-thirteen. Altitude thirty-four thousand and two feet. He liked the two feet. Definitely worth noting. Outside air temperature minus fifty-three F. Distance de parcours.
The Seahawks, of course.
Kripps was a tall man’s name and he was tall, yes, but noncommittally so, and had no trouble meeting his need to be nondescript. He was not a proud head bobbing above a crowd but a hunched figure blessed by anonymity.
Then he thought back to the boarding process, all passengers seated finally, meal soon to appear, warm wet towels for the hands, toothbrush, toothpaste, socks, water bottle, pillow to go with the blanket.
Did he feel an element of shame in the presence of these features? They’d decided to fly business class despite the expense because the cramped space in tourist on a long flight was a challenge they wanted to avoid this one time.
Eye mask, face moisturizer, the cart with wines and liquors that an attendant pushes along the aisle now and then.
He watched the dangling screen and what he felt was the nudge of dumb indulgence. He thought of himself as strictly tourist. Planes, trains, restaurants. He never wanted to be well dressed. It seemed the handiwork of a fraudulent second self. Man in the mirror, how impressed he is by the trimness of his image.
“Which was the rainy day?” she said.
“You’re noting the rainy day in your book of memories. The rainy day, immortalized. The whole point of a holiday is to live it outstandingly. You’ve said this to me. To keep the high points in mind, the vivid moments and hours. The long walks, the great meals, the wine bars, the nightlife.”
He wasn’t listening to what he was saying because he knew it was stale air.
“Jardin du Luxembourg, Île de la Cité, Notre-Dame, crippled but living. Centre Pompidou. I still have the ticket stub.”
“I need to know the rainy day. It’s a question of looking at the notes years from now and seeing the precision, the detail.”
“You can’t help yourself.”
“I don’t want to help myself,” she said. “All I want to do is get home and look at a blank wall.”
“Time to destination one hour twenty-six. I’ll tell you what I can’t remember. The name of this airline. Two weeks ago, starting out, different airline, no bilingual screen.”
“But you’re happy about the screen. You like your screen.”
“It helps me hide from the noise.”
Everything predetermined, a long flight, what we think and say, our immersion in a single sustained overtone, the engine roar, how we accept the need to accommodate it, keep it tolerable even if it isn’t.
A seat that adapts to the passenger’s wish for a massage.
“Speaking of remember. I remember now,” she said.
“Came out of nowhere. Anders.”
“The first name of Mr. Celsius.”
“Anders,” he said.
She found this satisfying. Came out of nowhere. There is almost nothing left of nowhere. When a missing fact emerges without digital assistance, each person announces it to the other while looking off into a remote distance, the otherworld of what was known and lost.
“Children on this flight. Well behaved,” he said.
“They know they’re not in economy. They sense their responsibility.”
She spoke and wrote simultaneously, head down.
“Okay. Altitude ten thousand three hundred sixty-four feet. Time in New York fifteen-o-two.”
“Except we’re going to Newark.”
“We don’t have to see every minute of the game.”
“I don’t,” he said.
“Of course you do.”
He decided to sleep for half an hour or until an attendant showed up with a snack before they landed. Tea and sweets. The plane began to bounce side to side. He knew that he was supposed to ignore this and that Tessa was supposed to shrug and say, Smooth ride up to now. The seatbelt sign flashed red. He tightened his seatbelt and looked at the screen while she went into a deeper crouch, her body nearly folding into her notebook. The bouncing became severe, altitude, air temperature, speed, he kept reading the screen but saying nothing. They were drowning in noise. A woman came staggering down the aisle, returning to the front row after a visit to the toilet, grabbing seatbacks for balance. Voices on the intercom, one of the pilots in French and then one of the attendants in English, and he thought that he might resume reading aloud from the screen but decided this would be a case of witless persistence in the midst of mental and physical distress. She was looking at him now, not writing just looking, and it occurred to him that he ought to move his seat to its upright position. She was already upright and she slid her food tray into the slot and put her notebook and pen in the seat pocket. A massive knocking somewhere below them. The screen went blank. Pilot speaking French, no English follow-up. Jim gripped the arms of his seat and then checked Tessa’s seatbelt and retightened his. He imagined that every passenger was looking straight ahead into the six o’clock news, at home, on Channel 4, waiting for word of their crashed airliner.
“Are we afraid?” she said.
He let this question hover, thinking tea and sweets, tea and sweets.