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 on his aviation years at a Christmas party. 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.
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 Messina 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 P-47 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?”
“I’m talking about things that really matter,” Sam shot back. “Forget politics.”
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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