With a three-hour layover he hadn’t minded the delay. Waiting onboard Flight 1791A from Chicago before disembarking, out on the tarmac for fifteen minutes due to jetway malfunction, someone grumbling about the halcyon days of wheeled staircases. Then to the assigned gate for his connection, a flight just in from Kansas City, passengers emerging from the jetway like miners back to the surface, blinking at the airport, at its unfamiliar configuration, start this way, pause with uncertainty, head that way dragging their rolling carry-ons, other disembarking passengers darting around them impatiently.
He’d flown in from Chicago, from McCormick Place, heading home from a weekend tradeshow, rerouted through Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport from O’Hare on his way back to Dallas-Ft Worth. The disparity in price between flying nonstop or connecting in Detroit had compelled him to arrange his itinerary accordingly. The airline made it worth his while to kill time idling at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, a physician’s waiting room of interlocking seating systems, discarded magazines and newspapers at the gates, overpriced crappy souvenirs (postcards of neon-streaked casinos against the time-lapsed backdrop of the night sky, numbered and appropriately-colored T-shirts, not jerseys, of your favorite Lions or Tigers or Pistons or Red Wings), magazines, bestsellers, newspapers, disagreeable food and a pointless elevated gleaming-red tram whirring from one end of Concourse A to the other, more often than not empty from what he could see, whoever’s job it was to drive the tram content to careen back and forth from one end of Concourse A to the other, passengers or no.
Attending tradeshows was an application of duty to what he did to pay the bills, addressed with half-hearted professional interest. Independent contractors like him were easily spotted among the attendees, the distinguishing characteristics the stated lack of enthusiasm, torpor in the slumped shoulders, bellies that sagged because they didn’t care enough to be six-packs, tired smiles at the overly familiar, the seen-before, the unoriginality of the jokes or the come-on personalities of the caffeinated, happy-angry sales people in the exhibit booths, exhibit areas like temporary movie sets, faux storefronts crowding busy exposition lane.
Given the number of tradeshows he could attend in the industry to which he belonged professionally there had to be money in it, the hosting associations subletting space reserved at the various exposition centers in cities across the nation (and every city had one).
He’d stumbled upon a phonebook-thick compilation of various associations at one of these events, in the unattended exhibit booth of an association of associations, and there were associations for every industry and sometimes more than one, sub-associations of associations, local or state association affiliates of national associations, associations for absolutely everything, from bridal consultants to medical examiners to child photographers to Lebanese industrialists and even Targhee Sheep, presumably for farmers and herders and/or wool extractors thereof and not the sheep themselves.
For him the NRA (the R for restaurant, not rifles), NAFEM, and the National Association of Convenience Store Owners events were the most beneficial. And to show the convenience store owners had a self-deprecating side someone in an Apu Nahasapeemapetilon costume wandering the grounds, the refreshment commons under a Kwik-E-Mart banner, replete with a Squishee machine.
Jet lag, travel stupor, airport malaise, whatever it was, he was mired in it, lethargic and yet not tired or comfortable enough to doze off, slumped awkwardly and irregular from disagreeable food at the trade show and hotel and airport. As apparently others were, or at least one other, and glancing around at those in his vicinity he saw nothing but poker faces as the silently-emitted methane funk not only found him but lingered with the absence of a cross-breeze. The intermittent sound from the jets nosing skyward, the osmosis of sound waves reverberating through the shimmying Plexiglas wall like muddled underwater acoustics, as if either he or outside was contained within a massive aquarium. Planes landing, dropping into the aquarium, back from their long swims in the blue sky among the mountainous white islands shimmering atop with their shadowy, dioxide-sooty underbellies.
The intrusive whine of the vacuum cleaner roused him, pushed by a kid in an orange reflective vest with PROSPECT across the right breast. PROSPECT the first wrung on the ladder to something more, baggage handler or signaler with the glowing, sawed-off orange light sabers directing planes to or from their assigned gates. The PROSPECT with prospects if he were actively cultivating a future at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, as long as he showed up on time and did what was required of him with anything resembling diligence. That he was still a PROSPECT meant these weren’t givens.
Tired of sitting, he got up and wandered, discovering on a screen of arrivals and departures that there was an interim flight to Dallas-Ft Worth departing from Detroit sooner than his prescheduled one, and for the life of him he couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been booked for that earlier flight. The simple fact was he hadn’t been, the online travel arbiter preferring he idle his time away at the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. The gate for the sooner flight was clear at the other end of Concourse C, a concourse over from Concourse A. If nothing else he could kill more time and maybe there was still some availability. He made his way to the center of Concourse A, then down an escalator to a passage that would lead him across to Concourse C, stepping carefully onto a people mover, not content to stand and go at the pace of the people mover, double-timing it to Concourse C.
On either side were changing light streams along the subterranean walls, red then green then blue, and a curiously twisted rendition of Rhapsody in Blue with a manic, jumpy, agitated xylophone accompaniment, initially soothing, but as he got further along the people mover he found himself growing hostile.
The music seemed like an unfortunate oversight, with the flight delays, interminable layovers, misappropriated luggage, malfunctioning jetways, and he wondered how often agents at the gates found themselves upbraided for seemingly minor afflictions. Apparently no one in Airport Logistics saw the connection with this subliminally antagonistic rendition of Rhapsody in Blue.
Up on Concourse C, The Martini Bar & Online Cafe was virtually standing-room only. It was Sunday and the Detroit Lions were playing on the TVs within the various eateries and drinkeries but not on the big-screen TV out on the concourse where more frugal waylaid travelers were left with the Jets vs Chargers on a low-def billboard-sized big screen.
He arrived at the far end of Concourse C and went down some stairs to the gate for the next scheduled departure to Dallas-Ft Worth. Waiting on the gate agent to check availability, patiently at first, but someone was talking to her and it seemed to have gone beyond her helping him with anything. Neither of them noticed him, so he’d have to stand there for as long as the conversation went on, or clear his throat, ahem, or cough loudly, or walk up and interrupt them and she would ignore him and continue conversing, and when she’d eventually get to him she’d be offended and short with him, throw in a few sirs as cover for her indignity.
He spotted another agent and wasn’t going to wait. Al was the name on his name plate, and he huddled over a computer in his navy blue and burgundy airline garb, the glow of the screen lighting his hawk-nosed blade of a face.
“Yes sir,” he said without looking up, as if impatience was something tangible that Al could hear or sense or smell. When asked about availability for the earlier flight Al simply looked at his screen, took his time responding, came up with “I’m sorry sir,” glanced over at another ticket agent at the gate from where the flight would eventually depart, that ticket agent busy collecting boarding passes as people disappeared down the jetway for a flight to Birmingham, Alabama. The glance being the only concession Al was prepared to make toward providing any kind of service to him.
And not just Al, according to his faux brass name tag, Al Q. Really? Why not Al Qaeda? Couldn’t anyone else see the possibility? Was it inconceivable that Al Q could be a saboteur patiently assimilating then infiltrating?
Al Q was young, twentyish, in his suicide-bombing prime. He was fairly obviously Middle Eastern, Arab or Muslim, slight of build with short, dark hair, dark brown eyes under heavy, down-sloping eyebrows that gave him a passively cruel countenance, with the thin layers of a diluted accent.
Al Q on his name tag could have been a pronouncement, a little too out there for him to be an operative of any kind. So out there as to be genius. Who would suspect a young Muslim with a name tag brightly announcing Al Q to the masses? And if he turned out to be an Al Qaeda operative, what a hoot for the terrorists, laughing uncontrollably at the self-indulgent, unwitting complicity. What amount of second-guessing would ensue, that an airline, no less, an airline, had hired a terrorist by the name of Al Q? Why wasn’t Al Q suspected or investigated? Had any background checks been performed? Al Q by himself, frontline Jihadist killing Americans with the domino effects of torpedoing the airline’s stock then toppling its CEO for this catastrophe on his or her watch, for not seeing what was right out there in plain sight, Al Q for God’s sake, how could no one have foreseen the possibility? Bringing under scrutiny the security policies and procedures of the airline industry, the TSA, the entire intelligence community, of the President himself. The President’s opponents could only pine for, only fantasize about, such serendipity.
Al Q seemed wholly unconcerned that his impatience could metastasize into something substantial, an irate, red-faced customer, infuriated not only by the lack of customer service but by Al’s indifference, playing the I’d-like-to-speak-to-a-manager trump card or unleashing a tirade, such a volcano of frustration that Al Q might be forced to call security, and how about that, American security guards protecting a terrorist from an American citizen exercising his First Amendment rights?
Al Q’s apathy could be interpreted as a manifestation of his closeted contempt of airline customers (Americans?), smoldering in such a way as to have an almost peaceful, serene resolve. As if he knew something the airline customers (Americans?) didn’t that sustained him through his forced tolerance of them. Something like the eventuality of a hundred or so of them incinerated at cruising altitude more than 30,000 feet above the deck.
Or had Al Q been tacitly permitted to infiltrate, with at least a suspicion of his furtive intentions if not actual knowledge of it?
Invisible agents scrutinizing his every move, aware of where he was every minute of every day, watching him when he had no idea he was being watched, privy to every conversation, email or text read or translated and read and re-read, every website visited like someone was watching over Al Q’s shoulder as he traversed cyberspace; invisible authorities who would have this under complete control, with the bigger picture of collapsing an entire cell and so allowing an expendable, lower-level operative like Al Q to lead them to bigger fish.
Maybe the “ticket agent” collecting boarding passes for the passengers to Birmingham was really undercover FBI keeping tabs on Al Q. It was conceivable. She was sturdy-looking with her tight curls cut militarily short.
Or maybe Al Q wasn’t anything more than a student from another country, his job as a gate agent covering his living expenses for the time being, his ambitions far beyond collecting boarding passes and looking up flight availabilities, and so Al Q was less than fully invested in his current position. And maybe the belligerent airline customer was such an affront to his cultural mores that he would never know how to respond, since in his culture there was no precedence for dealing with rude, obnoxious airline customers (Americans) who felt entitled by virtue of their having spent money on plane tickets, the airline beholden to them and therefore answerable to any and all forms of behavior.
And maybe because he was Muslim he had more latitude in his dealings with customers, his work-related transgressions more likely to be overlooked, where firing him could be construed as racially motivated or at least inspired, irrational suspicion of him because he was Muslim by the name of Al Q. And if he really were Al Qaeda, he would scoff at the glad-handing equal opportunity, grateful only for the liberty to assassinate infidels and ascend to Jannat al Firdous.
Al Q didn’t look up, busy clicking the keyboard and glancing up at the computer screen.
“Maybe you can help me with something.”
A brief pause and nothing from Al, no acknowledgment other than seeming about to say something.
“Where is Concourse B?”
Al Q looking at him momentarily, as if the question might have some significance that escaped him.
“It seems logical that if there were going to be two concourses they would be alphabetically sequential, Concourse A then Concourse B instead of C. Why skip B?”
Al Q glanced at him long enough to see him silently mouth the word “bomb,” and then say aloud, “This is why there’s no Concourse B, am I right? Implication of the b-word? Wrong consonant. Bad consonant for an airport.”
Back at the gate for his originally scheduled flight, he was sprawled out, inert down to his extremities, the prospect of a quicker return home abandoned. He’d found a third gate agent who begrudgingly checked the earlier flight and yes, there was availability, was he a Gold, Platinum or Silver member? No? Then there would be a $50 transfer fee and she couldn’t transact the change in his itinerary, he would have to call the airline’s 1-800 number and they could make the change as long as he gave them the number of a major credit card. And then the likelihood that when he went back to the gate agent to see if he’d been added to the flight’s manifest she wouldn’t be showing any record of it, telling him, calmly, blithely, easy for her, it takes a little time, give it a few minutes, and he’d be waiting while everyone else boarded, waiting, waiting, last call for all passengers to board flight such and such, and at the last possible minute, here it is, print him a boarding pass and he’d come bumbling onto the packed flight, in full view of all the passengers settled in and ready to go. Excuse me, I’m sitting there, thanks, open a couple of the overhead bins and they’d be stuffed with luggage and no place to put his carry-on and when he went to shut them they’d be overstuffed, slam the doors to the overhead bins once, twice, finally, the plane ready to taxi out to the runway, the flight attendant saying with no-nonsense urgency, here, I’ll take that, disappearing with his carry-on and his reading material, stranding him with the in-flight magazine.
With more time to kill he could pull out the glossy brochures he’d collected at the tradeshow for new products like glass frosters, mug and plate chillers, triple-brush glass washers.
Or he could dive back into his novel, disappearing into the distant past, somewhere in the Indian Ocean, precise latitude and longitude unknown, when someone kicked him in the foot, not the feel of an inadvertent stumble, oops, pardon me, more jarring than that, more like move your fucking foot.
He came back to the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in an instant, a split-second return from halfway around the world and the span of about 170 years back to the present. The perpetrator having a seat three over to his right, a frumpy man in his fifties or so, his hair a nonexistent color somewhere between brown and gray, nondescript reading glasses that had taken up permanent residency down a bit on his nose, his sweatshirt having made the transition with him over time from medium to large and now 2XL. He looked sharply at the kicker and the kicker was oblivious, as if he hadn’t noticed he’d delivered the jarring kick, or he didn’t notice people around him much anymore. His foot had been sticking out, an unwelcome protuberance into this man’s swimming gaga of a lost-inside-his-own-head solitude. His foot could have been a surfaced tree root, a concrete curb or a corpse obstructing this man’s path, a path he was incapable of deviating from, even to the point of stepping over anything in his way.
Onboard the flight home at long last, he saw the crossed feet in the aisle, dead center in the thin aisle dividing two sections of three seats to the portholes. Anyone needing to go to the broom closet of a restroom would have to step over those feet. When he had been watching the passengers boarding, the silent, businesslike procession, he remembered the person attached to those obstructing feet, Converse sneakers, at least a size thirteen, his dark ball cap on backward, BS in cursive, the B overlapping the upper half of the S. Cramming his carry-on in a space not quite big enough and indiscriminately shoving the other carry-ons aside. Complaining to the flight attendant trying to pass with the beverage cart that he had nowhere to go with his legs or feet, then moving to the jump seat that folded down from the bulkhead at the center of the plane. The flight attendant telling him to return to his seat, it was against the law for him to sit in the jump seat, and so there were his feet helping themselves to the aisle, unconcerned with any inconvenience they might cause, because, after all, the designers of this particular aircraft hadn’t spaced the rows of seats adequately enough to accommodate a lanky bloke such as he. If he had to suffer their lack of foresight then everyone did.
The kick needed to be delivered with the perfect impact, hard enough to pass along the move-your-fucking-feet memo. And done as he passed, in his periphery he could see the lanky bloke jolt out of an uneasy sleep, and he was seated quickly, feeling the hostile glare, the challenge, or acceptance of the perceived challenge, but then he disappeared within his own version of lost-inside-his-own-head, solitary confinement. The hostile glare faced down by abject indifference in the place of fear or reciprocated aggression. It could have been an accident even if it hadn’t been. A flight attendant brought him an icy cold can of Budweiser he’d not asked for, leaving before he could fish any money from his pocket.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Biersdorf is a keen observer of overlooked details who has a special fascination with airports and business travel, inspired by personal experience. He reads absurdist fiction and has been published in e-zines and literary press magazines.