Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Fifteen

It was after seven in the evening when Mr. Barbicane finished his free food and looked up to see that the storm had abated. He was informed by a ticket agent using the public address system that the weather was indeed clearing to the east and that Mr. Barbicane’s flight to Pittsburgh International Airport would be departing within the hour. The airline was sorry for the delay, even though it was caused by circumstances completely beyond its control.

Mr. Barbicane collected the debris left by his snack and tossed the bag and empty soda bottle into an appropriate receptacle as he moved away from the departure area and crossed the polished concourse floor to visit the men’s room once more before boarding.

At eight fifteen, Mr. Barbicane handed his boarding pass to Vivian Teller who inspected it, found it in order and handed it back to him, wishing him a pleasant flight. It would be narratively satisfying to note that in that transaction their fingers touched for a moment and both sensed a strange, indefinable connection, something that would haunt them for the rest of their lives, but their fingers did not touch and no such connection was forged.

For the second time that day, Mr. Barbicane settled into a first class window seat onboard a Boeing MD-87. He couldn’t have been happier, fully expecting this second departure to be more relaxing, more satisfying than the first. Gone was all the anxiety about possibly being foiled in his departure, of being prevented from becoming a passenger. He already was a passenger and was continuing his journey without ever having to unpack or do business or leave the security and warm anonymity of Airportia. He had traveled from airplane to airplane with calm efficiency and was feeling exceptionally proud of himself as he buckled his seatbelt and looked out the rain splattered window at the ground crew in their yellow slickers.

He felt the energy of this flight would be different from the first leg of his trip. For one thing it was night, almost nine local time and they would not arrive in Pittsburgh until well after one a.m. No one would be charging the cabin doors when they arrived to rush to a meeting or make a connection. Whatever was going to happen to them in Pittsburgh would not happen for several hours. There were fewer passengers on this flight. The seat next to Mr. Barbicane was empty and he wondered if it would remain so until take-off. There is less fussing by the cabin crew during a night flight, the rhythm is that of discretion. Cabin lights would be lowered and services would be offered but not insisted upon. If a passenger wished to sleep undisturbed, all they needed to do was make sure their seatbelt was buckled outside the thin blanket provided by the airline so the cabin attendants would not be obliged to wake them to check.

A cabin attendant with short cropped, intensely curly hair and lipstick the color of crushed plums offered him an extra pillow and asked him if he thought he would be using the meal service; normally at this time of night only a “late snack” would be offered, but since the flight was originally intended to depart in the early evening it was supplied with dinner entrées. Mr. Barbicane took the pillow and said he would very much like dinner. He selected the filet mignon with scalloped potatoes.

Mr. Barbicane turned to the window again and looked out at the jet way between the terminals. Water still rushed in ragged streams, converging on the drainage grates set in the concrete. He looked up and saw the bottom of the clouds painted a bluish white by the lights of the airport. Soon he would see stars, but first he had to leave the surface of the planet again, taking off in the dark, which was a very different experience from taking off during the day.

Take off during the day and your eye is crowded with detail; cars, roads, buildings, rarely people for some reason, then the grid of streets, then the sense of geography. But when you take off at night you don’t see those things. Rather you see their ghostly indicators. You see the headlights of cars and not the cars themselves, the bright windows of buildings and not the outlines of individual structures. There’s a grid, but it’s a grid of tiny chips of mirrored glass organized on a black surface. Not black velvet, that metaphor is reserved for the sky. The earth is something else. A beach at night. No color, just the sense of something flat and far reaching in front of you.

The forward cabin door was closed and dogged and Mr. Barbicane turned to see that the seat next to him was still empty. He would travel the rest of the way to Pittsburgh in near solitude. The success in leaving Burbank, the delay in Texas and now this, still with the promise of another airport and a hotel room at the end of the day. Mr. Barbicane was very pleased with how things were going.

While the senior cabin attendant gave the pre-departure safety announcement, Mr. Barbicane gave his attention to the woman with the plum colored lips who stood at the front of the cabin and mimed the instructions. Often the cabin attendants give the charge of acting out these instructions, demonstrating with a belt that secures nothing and an unconnected oxygen mask, betray a certain ennui about the task. They do it by rote with no eye contact. Perhaps the bland expressions is meant to communicate the seriousness of the instructions being issued, but more often it came across, at least to Mr. Barbicane, as indifference.

That was not the case with the curly haired woman he watched that night. Her eyes were bright and she smiled as she demonstrated the safety equipment, opened and closed the safety card, a duplicate of the one he could find in the pouch built into the back of the seat in front of him. There was an unmistakable flair as she indicated the locations of the various exits, the forward cabin doors and the over wing exits. Her hands seemed to be moving to some unheard music. Her arms were loose, her hands softly turned into the index and middle finger pointing gesture with the slightest hint of a bounce at the top of their arc. Delightful.

The MD-87 was pushed back from the gate by a tractor. Again the sound of the hitch being detached and the sound of the pilot increasing his touch on the throttle to move the bulk of the airplane out of the alley and toward the taxi way. The aircraft cleared the terminal and started its long roll out into the darkness of the active runways, rolling away from the glare of the terminal lights. Ahead he could make out the running lights of the other aircraft waiting in line for clearance to begin or continue their delayed journey.

Certainly there were people on those other plans feeling frustration over the storm’s interruption. There were, in all likelihood, people on the plane with Mr. Barbicane who felt thwarted and aggrieved by the delay and their unavoidable lateness. But Mr. Barbicane could share none of their sourness. He had been given without wishing the gift of additional passangerhood, more time in which the system gently moved him from place to place and he enjoyed the feel of the current. His MD-87 took its place in the line of aircraft. Mr. Barbicane was looking forward to his filet mignon.


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