James Hannaham

in memory of j.d.

Think of two women who graduated from the same college in the same year. One of them, by the end of the decade, becomes a well-known artist who makes elaborate sculptures and drawings, some of which seem like explosions suspended in time—tiny fragments of assorted shrapnel and paper, numerous ordinary objects like ladders and lamps disassembled and turned every which way, connected to swirling wires strung from the ceilings of capacious atria in art galleries.

The other woman, a soft-spoken estate lawyer originally from the U.K., dies in a well-known plane crash near the end of the decade, one that turned out to have been caused by a spark from an exposed wire in a new entertainment system that ignited a horrifyingly flammable insulation material called metalized Mylar. A standard procedure for dealing with a fire of unknown origin caused the captain to flick a switch that turned off a fan that trapped the blaze in the ceiling above the cockpit. The fire intensified and disabled the plane’s control panel in several minutes, rendering the plane unflyable. But no one in the main cabin could tell that much was amiss.

The plane hit the ocean at 345 mph. At this velocity, 350 g of force atomized the fuselage into at least 2 million pieces… in one-third of a second, the tail of the plane was in the nose of the plane. Think of aluminum, diamonds, bodies, water, fire, paper, steel, paintings, wires, insulation, plastic, cushions twisted by unfathomable forces into a confused spume on a dark late summer night. Only one body, of 229 onboard, remained intact. Whose?

During the inquest, which took four years, the investigators reassembled what they had of the wreckage, hanging it on a plane-shaped frame. They did not have much that they could place in the correct location. A Picasso worth millions and a cache of diamonds valued at $300 million also went down with the plane. These valuables must have disintegrated.

I wonder if these two women, both of whom I knew, whose fates, though diametrically opposed, seemed to rhyme somehow, ever crossed paths at school. Sat in the same aisle at a student production. Accidentally bumped into each other while hustling across campus. The one who survived now teaches at the university where the other studied law. Does the universe make these connections? Does the mind? Is there a difference? Does it matter? We must live life forward and attempt to make sense of it backward. So we fail in both directions.

James Hannaham is the author of Delicious Foods, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award. His next book, Pilot Imposter, is a multigenre book of responses to poems by Fernando Pessoa, which will be followed by a novel, Re-Entry, or What Happened to Carlotta.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021


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