Sally didn’t respond for a long minute. “Were you with him when he … died?” she finally asked.
“Yes, Ma’am, I was. He was giving me verbal landing instructions over the Interphone when it happened”
Her eyes went hard and he heard her snuff back a tear.
“Can I trust you?” she asked, her voice little more than a whisper.
“On my mother’s grave.”
“Okay. I’m taking you at your word, Zeke.”
He heard the click as she cocked her revolver and a chill ran up his spine. Then he heard the safety chain sliding in its track. The door swung open a few more inches, and he caught the pungent scent of fresh coffee mixed with that of frying bacon. How long had it been since he’d eaten? It seemed like a distant memory and his stomach growled. She’d turned the tables on him. He was now the skittish one. The notion of surviving a year in Vietnam and then getting shot a few hundred miles from home unnerved him. As the seconds ticked he grew more anxious. The urge to be gone from here grew larger than life.
“I’m setting your stuff outside,” he called through the opening. Then he turned and started for the highway, suppressing the urge to flee.
“Zeke,” she called after him before he had covered a hundred yard.
“What?” he replied without turning.
“Have you had coffee this morning?”
“I’ll get some in town.”
“How are you getting there?”
He didn’t respond.
“I have a fresh pot brewing. I’ll share it with you.”
Zeke turned. Sally stood in the doorway, her arms at her sides. Dressed in loose blue jeans and a button up shirt that might have belonged to Dan before he was drafted, she closely resembled Dan’s picture. Except for the weapon. He hesitated. Dan had never discussed her personality. He wondered if she was just being careful or if she was a paranoid gun-freak. With mixed emotions, he started back for the hangar.
Upon seeing his change of mind, she gathered the things he’d left. “I’ll be inside pouring you a cup,” she called over her shoulder.
Moments later, he stepped into the hanger, but he remained standing. She was busy at a small, three-burner range that might have come from a pickup camper. A refrigerator of equal size occupied a place to the right. A small kitchen counter sat further to the right was where Sally had moved the aluminum percolator, allowing it to settle down.
Pick a place, she said, indicating an out-of-style kitchenette with chrome pipe legs and a yellow Formica top that had survived the Elvis era.
“Thanks,” he said, pulling out a chair while his eyes roved the hanger. Two yellow Stearman bi-planes occupied most of the remaining floor space, drip pans beneath their engines. She brought two plates bearing scrambled eggs, six strips of crisp bacon, and four pieces of wheat toast. A moment later she returned with two cups of steaming coffee. The aroma conjured a fleeting image of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
“There’s sugar and cream,” she said, waving in the general direction before digging into her own breakfast. “Where did you and Dan … meet?” she asked between bites. Zeke heard her voice break toward the end of her question, and she avoided eye contact.
“In California. We were both in SAC – crew chiefs, he on B-52Gs and me on KC-135As. We were roommates. Vietnam was making our job harder, sucking up all the aircraft parts like a giant vacuum cleaner. There was always one tanker that wasn’t scheduled to fly. It got picked clean, stealing parts for those that were flying. Then someone would put it on the flying schedule we had to cannibalize from a different one and put that one back in the air again. There was always a shortage of maintainers. Then one day a bulletin announced a severe shortage of helicopter pilots in Southeast Asia. They were training qualified men from the enlisted ranks for those slots. We jumped on it, not stopping to wonder why there was a shortage.”
She finished her breakfast without interrupting him. Then she shoved her plate back, and wiped her mouth on a paper napkin. “So what’s your plans now that you’ve looked in on me?”
“I just got off the bus an hour ago. I hadn’t planned that far ahead. Bringing Dan’s stuff to you was a primary goal. I guess I‘ll head on up to North Dakota and help my brother farm his wheat.”
“You’re retired military, aren’t you?”
“And you have an A&P license?”
“Airframe and Powerplant? Yes, the military version.”
She smiled for the first time and then reached for the coffee pot.
“Why not. Thanks.”