Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Sixteen

When Mr. Barbicane’s plane left the gate all that remained of Vivian Teller’s storm extended shift was to complete the paperwork on the departed flight. This she did and said goodnight to her fellow counter agents and left the departure area. She used her security key to unlock an anonymous door leading to an employee lounge and locker room where she claimed her coat and comfortable shoes then headed out of the lounge and out of the terminal to wait for the bus that would take her to the employee parking lot located out beyond the hangers used by the carriers of freight.

It was not raining when she reached the shuttle stop, but there was rain in the air. There was also a mist of sorts, water picked up by the tires of all the cars orbiting the terminals and kicked up into the air while all the time making that sound somewhere between a “shush” and the tearing of an endless piece of paper unique to cars in the rain.

Mr. Barbicane’s plane was next in line for take-off when the shuttle arrived and Vivian climbed on board for the ride to the parking lot. The MD-87 waited patiently, if such a large machine can be said to wait, then turned into position and was lined up with the runway markers. Clearance was given, throttles applied and Mr. Barbicane once again felt the thrilling inertial hand pushing him back in his seat, as if gravity and the Earth were reluctant to let him go. He smiled at this contest of such great forces concerned with someone as relatively unimportant at himself.

Mr. Barbicane could see the lights of the terminal in the distance and watched as the building and the ground it was on tilted then dropped away as the plane left the ground and climbed. Below him he saw a curious thing. He thought, for a moment, he saw a lake. A square lake just past the edge of the airport. A square lake filled with small boats all docked very closely together. There seemed to him no room on the lake for these boats to go if they ever left their moorings.

Mr. Barbicane had no way of knowing that what he was looking at was the employee parking lot. The drainage system for the parking lot had been overwhelmed by the storm just as the one at the airport proper. But here debris continued to block the grates leaving the parking lot with about four inches of standing water, which accounted for the impression of a lake Mr. Barbicane received when he flew over it. The tightly packed boats were, of course, parked cars.

Vivian Teller had to make her way through the trapped water in order to reach her car after getting off the shuttle bus. She stepped as lightly as she could, keeping her arms slightly out from her body for balance. She was not wearing boots, they were back in her apartment, but a pair of running shoes which she feared would be no good to anyone once they were finished with this walk.

Looking along row G-7 she saw her blue Honda Civic and used the tiny transmitter in her key chain to turn off the alarm and unlock the doors. As she got in the car another storm moved over the airport and it began to rain, not as heavily as before, but with sufficient intensity to suggest this was more than a shower and would be with her all the way home.

She shrugged out of her coat, put on her seat belt, put the key in the ignition and was relieved that the car started without complaint after the storm. Vivian put the car in reverse, backed out of the space, then shifted and headed along the row of cars, leaving behind a wake consisting of competing and overlapping “V” patterns in the water which rippled out to hit the tires of the parked cars and bounce back until the space between the rows very much resembled the surface of a choppy lake like the one Mr. Barbicane thought he saw as his plane took off.

Beyond the parking lot was an access road leading to the expressway that would take Vivian home. She’d turned on her lights when she started the car and now turned on the windshield wipers. There were a few cars on the access road, more as she approached the expressway. She merged onto the four lane roadway and accelerated. But up ahead there was some sort of problem. She could see the brake lights of cars a half mile ahead of her flashing on, then off, then on again as if to avoid a collision, then moving forward.

She strained to see what was going on ahead, if there’d been an accident of some sort, and finally saw what was causing the trouble. At first she thought it was a plastic bag or something like that blowing across the roadway. Then she realized it was a medium sized white dog of indeterminate breed running on the expressway, darting between the cars. Vivian was past the dog before she fully realized what was happening, and without thought she eased her car onto the muddy shoulder of the expressway.

She checked her mirror then opened the driver’s door, got out of the car and started back along the shoulder, looking ahead to where the frightened dog was jogging and charging through the confusion of rain and headlights. The odds that this was going to end happily, she realized, were remote. By stopping and getting out of her car she probably had guaranteed nothing aside from actually seeing the poor animal get killed.

The dog was white, perhaps fifteen inches at the shoulder, with a nice lupine snout. Drenched as it was it was unrecognizable to Vivian Teller as a Standard Poodle, a breed she had only seen humiliatingly groomed in television coverage of dog shows. She was unaware that if you simply maintained their coats at an even level, they looked like dogs instead of stuffed toys.

The dog was terrified, darting back and forth, freezing in the headlights, reacting to multiple horns, never more than a few seconds and a few feet from being sent pin-wheeling into the air. Vivian had no idea what to do. She was about to call to the dog, although she didn’t know what to call, then she stopped, afraid that the dog would respond and either turn to her at the worst possible moment and get hit, or possibly start running toward her and get killed in the process. She had to do something. She couldn’t just go back to her car now.

Then there was a sudden and starling gap in the traffic. The sounds of the cars fell away for a moment and suddenly the stretch of roadway between Vivian and the dog was clear. She looked up the road and saw the headlights of the next wave, barreling down on her.

Vivian Teller looked at the dog. Then she ran toward him, out into the middle of the rainy expressway, all the time holding out her right hand and saying, “Here, buddy. Okay, buddy. Good dog.”

The dog stood transfixed at the sight of this strange, rain soaked woman coming toward him (it was a male), starkly and increasingly illuminated on one side by the approaching headlights. He shrank back a few feet then thought better of it.

Vivian reached the poodle and scooped him up into her arms, surprised to find he weighed easily forty pounds. She turned toward the headlights then lost her footing on the road surface slick from the combination of rain water and the rubber worn from countless tires. Vivian started to fall, still holding the wet dog to her chest. Someone in an oncoming car thought the wisest thing to do under the circumstances was to lean on his horn. The sound cut through Vivian as she stumbled, trying to at least fall in the direction of the shoulder.

Certainly what Vivian Teller decided to do was both foolish and dangerous. Her death and the death of the dog would have been a very reasonable and realistic outcome. She had made a terrible mistake, perhaps thinking the selflessness of her actions would protect her from harm. Actually, there was very little conscious thought in her actions. One minute she was looking at the dog, the next minute she was holding the dog and that was really all there was to it. She couldn’t make a sound argument for the action if anyone had asked her. And now she was falling. She would fall and before she could get up she would be run over, probably more than once, and that would be that. It was clear to her in that moment what would happen, and what she chose to do, itself a useless act, was to try to twist her body in order to protect the dog from the first impact of the first car.

Falling and dying and, in death, tying up traffic. All in all a stupid way to go; the sort of meaningless leave taking that happens a thousand times every day.

But it was decided that there had been a sufficient number of deaths that particular day so Vivian was permitted to stumbled on, dancing across the expressway, tripping over the edge of the pavement and landing, still holding the dog, on the rain soaked shoulder as the next wave of cars and trucks stampeded by, horns blasting.

She sat up, clutching the dog trembling in her arms. Then she realized it wasn’t the dog that was shaking, it was her. She looked at the dog who looked right back at her. He had a collar, but no tags and Vivian thought he must have escaped from a travel case back and the airport. Someone would be looking for him.

Vivian got to her feet, kept one hand looped around the dog’s collar and trotted him back to her idling car. She put him in the back seat where he immediately shook off several pints of rain water.

Being very careful, Vivian went around to the driver’s side of the car and got back behind the wheel. She would take the dog home with her, keep him for the night and dry him off and call the airport in the morning and talk to the people in baggage to see if they’d lost a white dog.

She eased the car back into traffic and started to drive home again. She could see the still very wet dog in her rear view mirror, sitting up on the back seat and looking toward her. He seemed to accept the entire situation without question.

“I was in a box, then I was running, then there was a lot of noise, and this woman showed up and now I’m in this car. I guess something else will happen now. I wonder what it will be.”


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