Down to Seeds and Stems Again

Sarah Estime

Everything was
dashed with snow. The wind dusted most of it off of the windshield but the
weather was still bitter and unbearable. Nikols hadn’t worn her parka—she
thought the fleece would suffice. Her arms and legs shivered underneath her
uniform. She regretted not wearing long johns as well. She ran her thumb over
her ring finger, remembering she didn’t have it on.

Staff Sergeant
Teague was just wrapping up a twenty-minute story about how he became eligible
for upgrade. A few airmen awed around him. Master Sergeant Fennelly rolled his
eyes, moving dip around his cheeks and gesticulating for Sergeant Teague to
hurry his career summary along. The hissing on the tire was slowing to a hush
and the jacking point was ready to be jacked. Nikols felt the wind gust her on
the face, her cheeks becoming icy and blushed. She rubbed the back of her
fingers on her jawbone and then rubbed her palms together.

“So that’s why
they chose me. As an AGR, you guys don’t get to work on the aircraft like I do
so it might be harder for you to get your upgrade. But don’t worry—I’ll get you
where you want to go. That’s only if you show me dedication, first.”

“Alright,
alright, alright,” said Master Sergeant Fennelly, “Are we gonna change this
tire or what?”

Nikols feared
her body was going into shock. “I’ll start,” she piped. She leaned over the
toolbox and grabbed a ratchet screwdriver, duckbill pliers, two bits, and one
crisp cold rubber glove. She put her safety glasses on and started for the hubcap.
Sergeant Fennelly gripped her around the arm, inspecting the tools in her hand.

“No, no, no.
What you’ll want is the brace. And where are your cutters?”

Nikols returned to the toolbox. Her
eyes moved around quickly. Snowflakes flared her in the face.

“Do you know
what it looks like?” he called. She didn’t answer. “One of you boys go help
her.”

She snatched the
brace and the cutters from its cutout.

“Good, good,”
Sergeant Fennelly said, “Gloves? Good.”

Nikols didn’t say anything. She
bent down in front of the tire and began unscrewing. The wide rotations were
making her tired but her body was warming especially with the help of the wheel
well surrounding her.

“Why didn’t you
just use the ratchet?” an airman standing over her shoulder asked.

“This is gonna
be easier,” Sergeant Fennelly answered for her.

She pulled the
hub cap off and handed it to someone standing over her shoulder. They held it
near her face. She tore two fingers of the glove off trapping it underneath her
boot. She unplugged the anti-skid transducer, covered it with the glove finger,
and dropped it into the hub cap. Her fingers were becoming smudged with grease.

“Where are your
gloves?” Sergeant Teague asked.

Sergeant
Fennelly laughed loudly, “She wants to go home and tell her husband she worked!
‘Look, hubby, I got dirty today!’” he mimicked.

The other airmen
laughed with him. Nikols didn’t respond. She moved along quickly with the hopes
that they’d be released on an early lunch. Her wiry fingers and taciturn nature
promised that.

Sergeant
Fennelly apologized, “Haven’t had my sensitivity training!” He patted her on
the back laughing louder, his throat thick with phlegm, his voice raspy and
sore. She stuffed the other side of the transducer into the hole. Then she stood
up, winding one end of a cargo strap around her fist.

“Wait, wait,”
Sergeant Teague said, “We’re skipping a step.”

Nikols sat on
her thighs with the cargo strap across her lap. She stared into the sparse
forest outlining the flight line. The snow brimming the pine trees looked
pretty from afar. They swayed a blast of frost onto the ground. Slowly and
meticulously, he read a Warning out loud. Nikols, instead of rolling her eyes,
glared blankly at the trees waiting for him to be done.

“Now, why do we
have to mind that?” he asked the group. No one answered. “Nikols, why do we
have to mind that?”

“I don’t know,
sir. But I can find out,” she said.

“Well, why don’t
you find out now?” he said.

She hauled
herself up and stepped back into the wind. She took his place in front of the
ToughBook with him overlooking her. She spat out three answers she knew he
would reject. He always gave her three opportunities to say what he was
thinking verbatim saying what he was thinking verbatim. He talked about the
proper way to lift and the dangers of blowing your back out for five minutes
and then said “Okay?”

“Okay,” Nikols
said.

Two scrawny
airmen insisted they remove the wheel. “We’ll take it from here.”

She didn’t argue. They grunted and
huffed and she watched with her arms crossed. Sergeant Fennelly rolled the new
wheel around peeling the plastic label off and crumbling it into his pocket. He
lined the hole up to the axle and brushed the rubber with his big burly hand.
He began to appear to be rubbing it in an arousing way. Nikols was affected.

“Wait, wait!
This is my step right here,” Sergeant Teague said flailing his arms, “This is a
critical seven-level step that I have to perform.”

He moved through
the airmen with a divergent presence. They made way for him. He leaned over the
axle with a flashlight and a keychain magnifying glass.

“Only seven
levels can perform this step right here but why do we—as in ‘we’ as a
team—because we are still a team—why do we have to inspect the axle?”

No one knew.
Nikols began brainstorming three wrong answers.

“To prevent
corrosion which would prevent damage to the aircraft,” she said.

“Right!” Sergeant
Teague said. She was surprised he gave her the credit. “But what could happen?”

“The axle could
literally break off like a twig,” an airman said in question-form.

They laughed
making explosion noises and snapping gestures.

“That’s right,”
Sergeant Teague said, “And it’s not funny.”

He clicked his
flashlight off and waved his palm over the naked axle for them to proceed.
Sergeant Fennelly rolled his eyes and summoned an airman to help. They hauled
the wheel on, wiggled it into place, torqued, backed it off, torqued again.
Nikols shifted her feet back and forth. And then they all went up into the
cockpit to annotate the forms. They debated guns in a language Nikols didn’t
understand; Sergeant Teague began talking about the Section Chiefs organizing a
two-week trip to Spain. Zulu time was nineteen hundred. Finally, they were sent
away for lunch.

Nikols drove
home and sat in the parking lot of her apartment for a moment. She took a deep
breath and then went inside. No one was home. The fridge activated, running
loudly. She jolted at its suddenness. She plopped into the couch staring at the
time on the cable box. She was to be back in thirty minutes, which meant lunch
was fifteen minutes. She watched the seventeen turn into eighteen and the
eighteen turn to nineteen. At one-twenty, she shimmied her phone out of her
pocket.

“Thank you for
calling Sleepy’s. This is Jo-Ann. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I’d like a
quote on a queen-sized mattress, please. I know it’s on the website but I
figured the website only shows blanket prices. I was curious about any local
deals or sales you might be having.”

“Well, queens
usually start at three hundred/four hundred but if you’re planning on getting
the specialty foams or the pillow tops, that price will rise significantly.”

“Do you have a
military discount?” she asked.

“Why yes, we do.
You’ll have to make sure your husband shows his ID in-store though.”

“Or I can bring
my military ID, right?”

“Or you can
bring yours. That’s perfectly fine,” she stammered.

“Thanks,” Nikols
said and hung up.

The two o’clock
feeling overwhelmed her. She shut her eyes for a second feeling the silence
engulf her. She opened her eyes and shot up. She went into the bedroom and
shuffled through some cardboard boxes. She hated wrenching the bulky uniform
off of her. She loosened her shoe laces with each of her hands and pulled her
boots off. She realized her socks were moist. She ripped her belt open and
wriggled her pants off along with her socks. She set the pants on the ground,
the socks still braced by the blousing looking like a marionette. She pulled
her longjohns on, snapping it up above her stomach. And then she dressed
herself in the hefty pocketed pants and the heavy shirt. She tied her shoelaces
tight and tucked them into the collar of her boot. She found her parka in a box
labeled “Either/Or.” A Post-It note instructed Danny to go through the pile and
pick out what was his or what he wanted to take. An assortment of socks, PT
gear, and photo booth photos sprinkled through the box. She slipped the parka
on and left the apartment in a hurry.

A handful of
flight line personnel lounged around the breakroom. Fire Extinguisher training,
Cyber Safety training, Sexual Harassment Sensitivity training were being
conducted via online quizzes and 2D graphic games. She fell into a
crumb-ridden, Honey Bun-smeared, oil-stained lounge couch. Conversation
speckled behind her—men talking about foreign beer and their dumb wives and tribulations
of rolling over when their newborn babies cried at night.

“But fatherhood
is great, man. Ain’t nothing like it.”

“Ain’t that the
truth,” someone cosigned, “My boy told me the other day he wanted to be just
like me. Told him it ain’t easy being a man. Told him to stay young and
innocent as he is.”

Some
rambunctious Vin Diesel movie played on the television. Nikols sighed to herself.
She exited the room and strolled around. The sleek, cold hallway smelled like
coffee. She followed the scent into the Orderly Room. Tender doughnuts were
permeating from there, too. She found Master Sergeant White. He greeted her
with a smile. He asked her how her husband was. She told him they were fine.

“I’m just
wondering if there are any enroutes happening soon. I overheard Sergeant Teague
talking about a trip out of the country in July. Was wondering if I could get
my hands in that.”

Sergeant White
stared at her worriedly, “Oh, well you’d have to ask him about that. I don’t
know what goes on out there. I’m just a paper pusher.”

“Nothing in the
papers about a trip to Spain in July?”

“Not that I’ve
come across,” he said assuredly. “Anyway, don’t you have a baby?” he asked.

“No,” she said.

“Didn’t you just
get here?” he asked.

“This’ll be my
last year, sir,” she answered.

Sergeant White continued
to think to himself and then shook his head. He registered his focus back to
her and, again, suggested she ask her supervisor about it. She agreed cordially
and left his presence. She lingered around the doughnuts for a moment but
rejected them, remembering that she had to be “fit to fight.” Massive picture
windows cornered with snow and fog reminded her of the season. The Orderly Room
was a stuffy warm but she didn’t work in there. She ran her finger around her
bare ring finger again. She didn’t even have the mark anymore.

She decided she
wouldn’t look at the clock again so that she didn’t feel the day dragging on.
She remembered she was hungry. She bent over and slipped her fingers down into
her lower pockets. She felt her CAC card, her debit card, and a pair of
earrings—no dollar bills. She considered owing the Snack Shack back but was
anxious about a misunderstanding dubbing her a thief. She decided not to think
about being hungry either.

She was
beginning to get hot. She went back into the breakroom. Her steel-toed boots
squished on the waxed ground. A couple of the guys had left and a girl sat idly
in the corner. She had short pixie-cut hair and stubby calloused fingernails.
Nikols approached her.

“Just get here?”
she asked.

She took note of
her German name. The girl’s voice was low and shy. Nikols offered her hand. The
girl leaned over with her elbows on her knees and shook it. Nikols asked her
where she was from. They talked for a while about what they were accustomed to,
how Grissom was different, entertainment around Indiana. Nikols checked the
time. Even conversation made the day unmoving. She shared that she was married
and asked the girl if she had family nearby.

“Definitely not
married!” she laughed. She stretched and yawned and rested her elbows back on
her knees. Her legs were spread protectively, her fingertips touching. She
glanced up at Nikols with a faded smile. She opened her mouth underconfidently
as if she wanted to say something else. Nothing came out. The girl itched her
nose and sat up with her ankle on her knee.

Nikols asked her
if she liked the job. “Aw, yeah!” she sprouted, “I’m constantly doing work on
my Corvette. I got it for super cheap because the ECU was busted. I’m pretty
much rebuilding it myself.”

She was sitting
up dignified with an arm hung over the back of another chair. Nikols watched as
the chair tipped and thudded. Back and forth, the girl played with the chair as
she beamed about engines and speed. Nikols was trying to focus but she had no idea
what she was talking about.

“Me, too,” Nikols
said, “I like the job, except for when I get made fun of for breaking a nail.
Contrary to cliché belief, breaking a nail is fucking torment. I’ve bled over
that shit.”

The girl smiled
awkwardly. Nikols tried to think of something relating to cars. She had
nothing. A boy clicking around on the computer beside them asked her how fast
her car was. She gave him a number, a cheesy smile pasted across her face.
Nikols broke away knowing what she might have wanted to tell her.

Sergeant Teague rushed
in with a walkie in his hand. His steel-toed boots squished on the waxed
ground. “We’re going back out,” he told her, “Charlie One, Delta Five—pickup,”
he said into the talkie, “Go get the toolbox. Another tire change.”

Nikols toted the
tool box, her body completely leaned to one side. Her wrist ached so she
switched hands. The rickety truck swung by. Sergeant Teague slid the door open.
The door thundered, slamming metal to metal. He took his seat on the bench behind
the driver. Nikols dumped the dense box onto the stairs, stepping up two feet
at a time, both hands clutching the handle. She placed the box by the bench across
from Sergeant Teague and took her seat.

“Door!” the
driver shouted.

She leaned over
and pushed it shut. She unloaded when they got to the aircraft—she stuck the
deflator into the tire, called for a jack, and pulled herself up the narrow
stairs. The flight deck was quiet. She heard the ringing of silence mixed with a
distant whimpering wind swirling around the aircrafts. A power cart buzzed a
few spots over. The planes were significantly colossal from far away. Up close,
they were intimidating—its big, huge nose and peering windshield eyes
anthropomorphizing. As she learned about its nooks and cranies, however, she
learned that the plane wasn’t that big at all. They were parked in their spots,
their tails sixty-five feet up in the air. She basked in the solitude for a
moment; the forthcoming solitude bereft of marital arguments brought upon by
militant obligations. Her eyes were closed. She snapped out of it, set the
parking brakes, shot out of the pilot’s seat, and trampled back down the wobbling
stairs.

Sergeant
Fennelly had rejoined them. He had a team of young airmen with him drooling
over his cavalier demeanor. They marveled with questions about the aircraft but
Nikols knew he really needed them. Sergeant White greeted them from a distance.
His boots crunched in the slush. The three men opened their arms, smiling like
they were getting ready to sit at the same table at lunch. She unscrewed the
bolts, unclipped the safety wire, and removed the hub cab. She raised the hub
cap over her head for someone to hold it while she deposited FOD into its bowl.
An airman stumble-stepped over and took the cap. He placed it on the ground
next to the toolbox.

Sergeant White
pointed at her with his pen, “What you’ll want to do next time, honey, is keep
the hub cap next to you. You could throw all the FOD in there and then toss it
into the FOD bag in one shot. That way you’re not walking back and forth to the
toolbox, do you know what I mean?”

Nikols kept her
eyes on the tire. “Yes, sir.”


Sarah Estime is  an Aircraft Mechanic in the Air Force. When not working at the day job, she is composing works related to literary fiction. She has been published by the “African American Review,” “O-Dark-Thirty,” “Burner Magazine” and “Pif Magazine.” She currently writes for Blogcritics and Litro Magazine.

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