Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Seventeen

Mr. Barbicane closed his eyes after eating, but he did not sleep. At least he didn’t think he slept. The cabin attendant with the plum colored lipstick served him his filet mignon and scalloped potatoes and when she offered Mr. Barbicane indulged himself in a glass of wine, a modest but pleasant Cabernet Sauvignon which was the same variety of wine Vivian Teller’s aggrieved lover threw in her face more than twenty years ago, but not the same quality. He had a second glass and when the cabin attendant took away his tray he folded his table into the seat back in front of him, turned off his reading light, wedged a pillow against the plastic inner shell of the fuselage near the darkened window and closed his eyes.

He listened to the sounds of the cabin, which felt different at night although there was no reason for this. Perhaps you simply hear things differently after a certain hour, when the day has started to catch up with you. He could hear his own breathing now, slowing. The wine relaxed him, brought the pleased grin to his lips the first drink always brought him. Mr. Barbicane drank little, but he always enjoyed what he drank. He savored the feel of something warm moving within him. It permitted him moments of uncensored satisfaction with his life. He hadn’t done so badly, all things considered.

Then he heard a woman’s voice. Not close, but very clear, saying one word: “Later.”

Mr. Barbicane opened his eyes and turned to the voice, but saw nothing. He thought he was awake, but perhaps he’d drifted off. There was no one in the seat next to him and looking across the aisle he realized those two seats were empty as well. He couldn’t remember seeing anyone in them before take-off, but he couldn’t swear they’d been empty.

He had dreamed someone said “Later” to him. A woman.

Mr. Barbicane was trying to remember the voice, trying to identify the speaker based on the one word when he noticed he couldn’t see anyone else on the airplane. The seats he could see clearly were all empty, and he was in the last row of the first class cabin so a curtain obscured the coach seating. The larger seats in first and his being against the window made it impossible for him to see if there was anyone in the seats in front of him. It was late, the cabin services were finished and everyone was asleep. That was clearly the case. But he wished he could see someone else. A wedge of shoulder between the seats in front of him, or one of the cabin attendants moving up the aisle on some errand. But there was no one.

And the longer he considered this the more some part of his brain started to whisper to him that there was no one to see because there was no one else on the airplane. That, in fact, Mr. Barbicane was alone.

This was, of course, absurd. Mr. Barbicane knew this and yet he was suddenly unable to take the very simple step of leaning across the open seat next to him and looking down the aisle to the front of the cabin where he was certain he would see one of the cabin attendants either standing in the galley or resting in one of the jump seats. Even if he did lean across the seat and look and even if he didn’t see a cabin attendant, that didn’t mean he was alone on the plane. It simply meant that coincidence had conspired against his seeing anyone at that particular moment. He knew this, but he still didn’t move.

And then he started to wonder if the plane was actually moving. He could feel the vibration of the engines, but he had no sense of motion. This is not unusual with clear weather and a moonless night, it was a trick of the darkness. But in that moment it only served to add to Mr. Barbicane’s sudden sense of unreality; that he was sitting on an empty plane that was not in flight, that might be on the ground or suspended in someway.

This was an example of how Mr. Barbicane’s imagination was often at odds with his best interests. Throughout his childhood and even later he was able to undermine his own well-being by thoughts that really couldn’t stand up to the test of logic but still had the power to rob him of sleep. There was, of course, the ability to find suspicious shapes in a darkened bedroom, and there were the dreamt encounters with a mischievous, cone shaped troll named the “Crumb-bum” who lived under the kitchen sink. There were also the poisonous and ambulatory Triffids who stalked outside his bedroom window after he saw the science fiction movie in which the sinister trees played a titular role. Then there were the small gray aliens who existed at the extreme edge of your vision, diminutive and implacable. These were particularly frightening because you knew they were there and were afraid to turn and see them, as if they wanted only to watch and would be provoked to attack if caught in their spying.

He was thinking of aliens and Triffids and the Crumb-bum from his childhood when the curtain from coach split and a cabin attendant made her way forward to the galley and the reasonable world snapped back in place around Mr. Barbicane. A moment later his friend with the plum colored lipstick came by to tell him they were just short of making their initial approach to Pittsburgh and did he want any more wine before they buttoned up the galley. Mr. Barbicane declined.

When the cabin attendant straightened from her lean in to talk to Mr. Barbicane, he looked out the window again and below could see a grid of suburban lights crawling beneath the plane. There were people on board and he was in motion. Good.

The pilot came on the public address system and formally announced their approach to Pittsburgh and apologized again for the delay as he announced the local time to be one a.m. He requested that the cabin attendants prepare the cabin for arrival.

Mr. Barbicane’s friend with the plum colored lipstick and curly air set about her duties of securing the galley. She took the opportunity to remove a small plastic bottle of vodka from the drink cart, crack the seal and, her back to the cabin, poured the contents into her mouth. She swallowed, put the empty bottle in her apron pocket, pushed the drink cart into its storage location and locked it in place. The vodka glowed within her as she touched the corner of her mouth and checked her lipstick in the small mirror attached at eye-level to the upper bulkhead cabinets.

Later inventory of the liquor would be taken by a service representative for the airline and the vodka count would come up two short. If someone were to compare these records with flight crew lists they would find a corollary between unaccounted for bottles of vodka and late night flights on which Mr. Barbicane’ friend with the plum colored lipstick served. However, this particular airline did not correlate those two pieces of information and remained unaware of this particular cabin attendant’s sense of entitlement toward drinking at the end of a flight on those nights when delays kept her working beyond what would have normally been the end of her shift.

She reapplied her lipstick looking in the mirror and feeling the vodka move through her far more rapidly and to greater calming effect than Mr. Barbicane’s Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Cabernet Sauvignon that was thrown in Vivian Teller’s face by her dancer/lover in an apartment in New York more than twenty years earlier had been brought to the party by a young man named Dexter who was in the process of failing as a playwright and would soon leave Manhattan, return to his hometown in the Florida panhandle and take over his father’s Toyota dealership. Every day he would put on a suit and go to the dealership and extol the virtues of the small, economical cars. Between sales and attempted sales he sat at his desk in a cubicle of the showroom and wrote plays which he showed no one.

One day, Dexter stepped out onto the lot and approached a young woman in stretch pants and a DisneyWorld baby-doll t-shirt, and wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses which concealed a black eye. Dexter told her about the finer points of the new Tercel. He got the sense that the woman was either flirting with him or was possibly a little drunk. It was eleven o’clock in the morning and he hoped she was being flirtatious. He was fascinated by her, by her long, straight blonde hair and the way she kept worrying the simulated leather strap of her shoulder bag. He promised he would remember these details and write them down in his notebook when he got back into the show room with the thought of using them in a play some day. After ten minutes, the blonde woman thanked Dexter and said she’d think about it. He returned to the showroom where he was distracted by some botched paperwork executed by the agency bookkeeper who was also his father’s mistress and never got around to writing down the details of his encounter with the young woman who, upon leaving the Toyota dealership, went to an appointment with her doctor at which she would learn that she was pregnant with the baby who would grow up to sneak vodka on airplanes when no one was looking. She would name the baby Diana.

The world around Mr. Barbicane was spun with similar webs of connection, but he was as unaware of them as the rest of us are.


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