Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Thirteen

While the young man and woman made their way out of the terminal and into the parking structure, Mr. Barbicane, unaware of the ramifications of the young woman’s dream, the effect it was having on her in so-called waking life, proceeded to the video monitor just inside the door of the departure area and checked his connecting information. He found, much to his satisfaction, that his connecting flight was in a different finger of the terminal and he would have to walk perhaps a quarter mile to reach it.

He set his bag on the floor, opened the outer zipper compartment and placed his auxiliary meal into the pocket. Then he pulled the telescoping handle up and locked it before taking a firm grip on the handle and starting out of the departure area. The wheels of the bag transitioned with a thump from the carpet of the departure area to the polished surface of the terminal promenade.

Local time was just after four, but the approaching storm brought about an accelerated darkness and the walkways and departure gates were already bathed in carefully designed artificial light, more the idea of light than light itself. Mr. Barbicane was pleased to see that his experiment with the young woman on the airplane had been successful and that his fellow travelers were discernable as individuals with faces and proportional limbs. Having satisfied himself that the passengers around him had not changed into a single undulating mass of faces and bags and clothes, he let his awareness of them drop away in order to better enjoy his walk through the terminal.

His plan was to do as he always did in such situations which was to proceed directly to his announced departure gate, and once arriving there and checking in if possible, take care of any pre-boarding business. In this case that would include the purchase of a package of band-aids to protect his cut finger.

With the lightness of heart he always felt when in purposeful motion, Mr. Barbicane continued along the concourse, watching the gate numbers descend as he approached the central hub of the terminal. All around him were arrivals and departures, people in a constant state of flux. Some returning, some leaving, some beginning, some ending, some tired, others filled with excitement. All of this human activity was supervised by the uniformed employees of the various airlines supported by the personnel employed by the airport for the tasks of security and sanitation. And it all seemed so unwaveringly productive to him. All this activity, of which he was a measurable part, filled him with pride.

His happiness was compounded by the knowledge that he didn’t have to leave this building. He could draw on its energy then get on another aircraft and enjoy his second take-off of the day.

Mr. Barbicane reached the base of the terminal finger and turned right. As he walked to the adjacent terminal wing he was able to see the main open space of the terminal with its security and ticket facilities. One of the great endearing things about airports, modern airports, recently built airports, is that they always felt like civic space as it might have been designed by the people who built sinister secret headquarters in vintage James Bond movies. The airports Mr. Barbicane liked best always made him feel like we was walking through the secret volcano launching site in You Only Live Twice. The good airports seemed to be a collection of forced perspectives and gleaming metal imparting a sense of urgent activity simply by being contained in their architectural embrace. Anyone moving through a space such as this must be a person of note, of significance.

Mr. Barbicane felt his posture straighten as he continued along the terminal edge, arrived at the appropriate finger and started along the wide concourse with it ascendingly numbered departure lounges on his right hand and all manner of services and conveniences on his left.

He realized the storm that had pursued him had arrived while he was transversing the terminal and now the floor to ceiling windows on the departure side of the finger were being pelted with intense rain while lightning lanced the sky. The thunder was audible under the sounds of the terminal, but it was muffled and seemed removed from the storm that produced it.

Reaching his designated gate he was not surprised to learn that the airport had temporarily suspended operations because of the storm and therefore his flight to Pittsburgh would be delayed. Others around him bemoaned this interruption in their travel. Mr. Barbicane did not. An additional extension of his passenger status was guaranteed by this delay. Another layer of abstraction had been applied. He was now suspended in the storm that blissfully compounded his powerlessness and made him smile.

As soon as there was an update on the weather it would be posted and an announcement made. While the delay would certainly be an hour and potentially longer, it was suggested passengers remain in the immediate departure lounge area in order to hear any and all updates.

Mr. Barbicane took this opportunity to use the men’s room and visit the newspaper and souvenir shop where he purchased a twenty ounce bottle of Diet Coke and a small package of band-aides paying, as he had anticipated, a price disproportionate to the number of bandages acquired. He then returned to the departure lounge associated with his gate and took a seat at the end of a row of chairs bolted to the floor and facing the expanse of windows.

He took one of the band-aids from the packet, removed its wrappings, peeled the small tabs protecting the adhesive portions of the strip and placed the cushioned portion against the small wound on his finger. It was then a simple matter to wrap the two adhesive portions of the bandage around the finger. The first time he did this he found that he had pulled them too tight and had to peel them apart and reapply the bandage. This second application proved much more comfortable. Mr. Barbicane slipped the package containing the remaining band-aids into his jacket pocket then looked up and toward the window.

The rain was being driven against the glass in pounding sheets that undulated across the tall windows making them look like the surface of a lake during a storm. When the wind slacked and eddied, the drops would slide down the glass only to be caught by the next gust that drove them up and across then down then sideways again. All detail was lost of the alley beyond the windows. Mr. Barbicane had a sense of the outlines of several planes and the lights of the other terminal finger multiplied and distorted by the rain, but it was a confused picture. Lightning continued to spike the horizon.

A few yards away from him two uniformed ticket agents coordinated the check-ins and answered questions about the weather delay and when did they think the storm would clear and explained how the airport was essentially shut down at the moment, nothing coming in, nothing going out, and that airport rules prevented workers to venture out of the terminals for tasks such as food and cabin service, baggage loading and unloading and particularly refueling because of the danger of lightening. So, you see, they had no idea when the flight would leave because once the storm had passed the airport would have to go through this period of reawakening. Passengers would move away, dissatisfied by the answer and annoyed at these women who had no control over the situation.

Mr. Barbicane sat by the window, watching the storm, confident that at some point the weather would improve and he would be able to continue his journey. There was no real rush. He wasn’t expected until the following afternoon. His schedule required leaving a day early and staying at the hotel airport in Pittsburgh then renting a car the next morning and continuing the rest of the trip by road.

The air beyond the window was suddenly filled with white light. The planes and buildings were illuminated from above by an intense magnesium glare. For an instant the jet way was strobed into intense detail. The silver and blue aircraft at the gates, the carts and vehicles tucked under the terminal overhang, the markings on the concrete, everything blasted by the sort of light one would expect if the moon were to one night explode in the sky.

A heartbeat later, the thunder arrived. It cracked like breaking wood at first then stumbled into a concussive, rolling cannonade that stopped everyone in the concourse in mid-stride, pulled them up as they walked or talked on their cell phones or punched at their laptops or sipped their lattes, and made them cringe and duck and pull in their heads, responding to the heavenly explosion with an atavistic reflex that linked them all with our time in the caves. The thunder rolled and echoed and called to itself for what felt like an eternity to the people in the concourse. Then, as the fusillade faded and the rain beating on the windows became the dominant sound, people straightened up and unclenched. Some people laughed, a nervous, testing laugh.


Mr. Barbicane turned at the sound of this evocation and saw one of the two women at the ticket counter, her hand pressed to her heart. She had her hand to her heart. He’d never actually seen anyone in that pose before, at least not someone outside of a motion picture. He’d assumed it was one of those invented gestures, the sort of thing they come up with for people to do in movies to symbolize some emotion for which there is no real symbol.

But there she was, a very real woman, her right hand pressed against her bosom. He had discovered the gesture occurring spontaneously in the wild. Or had he? Mr. Barbicane wondered if this gesture of amazement and possibly fear was instinctive or acquired. Did it well unbidden from the deeper parts of the brain or was it a case of having seen the same gesture so many times in countless movies and television programs and illustrations it had been imprinted on the woman’s mind as the thing to do, the appropriate display, and after years and years of ordinary life something finally happened to trigger this response? In that moment of noise and light had the black and white image of a thousand startled actresses overcome any natural reaction in her and came forth in melodramatic detail?

She stood there a few yards from Mr. Barbicane in her pressed blue uniform and carefully molded blonde hair highlighted with streaks of lighter blonde, a woman of perhaps forty, with her right hand touching the skin at the base of her throat, visible above the open collar of her white blouse. She wore an emerald ring on one finger and there was a loose bracelet set with the same sort of stones around her wrist. Mr. Barbicane turned so quickly at the word “Jesus” he managed to catch the last instant before the tips of her manicured fingers, polished in white and a pale pink in a combination he once saw advertised in the window of a nail salon as a “French Tip” that he saw the bracelet slide down her wrist, catching on the metal button at the cuff of her tailored jacket. In spite of her modern dress and appearance, the gesture felt Victorian, like something conjured from another era hidden within her, the subconscious remains of perhaps afternoons spent in tea shops with maiden aunts during summers of banishment to upstate New York.

Long forgotten were the walks along the tourist crowded streets of Lake George in the company of her father’s sister who never married in spite of the opportunities available to her during the war. She had seen pictures of the aunt taken in the forties, and earlier at the 1939 World’s Fair and thought she was pretty and almost adventurous looking. But all adventure had disappeared by the time they walked together in those summers when the family packed up and went north on the thruway on the way to the State Fair in Syracuse.

While her brothers played in the lake and her parents slept in, she and her aunt would walk from the clapboard house, along the sidewalkless streets to the gaudy main drag of the village. What she wanted was ice cream or a Belgian Waffle or some taffy. What she would get would be thin amber tea and a tasteless scone set on a paper doily and looking like some sort of pale, raisin dotted meteorite.

Where had the fire gone? Where had the smile she saw on the face of that girl standing in front of the Trylon and Perisphere? What happened to turn that pretty girl into a maiden aunt? She wanted to know almost as much as she was afraid to know. But she never asked and now it was too late. Too late by decades.

The ticket agent at the counter took her hand away from her heart and looked around as if to see if anyone had caught her in the gesture. She didn’t see Mr. Barbicane who turned his attention back to the storm beyond the windows realizing that his flight delay would be a substantial one. Good.

There was more thunder, but it was beyond the airport. The rain, however, remained torrential. Mr. Barbicane stood and went to the window and looked down into the alley. Below he could see a grating, part of the system meant to carry rain water away. But the grating was overwhelmed and water seems to be issuing from it rather than draining into it. He put his hand on the glass and found it cold. Taking it away he saw his palm and fingers rendered in condensation on the inside of the window. He watched as the image faded, first the fingers (with a horizontal band of nothing where the band-aide was) then the shape of the palm. When this was all gone he turned away from his reflection in the window and returned to his seat.

Now the wisdom of his taking the extra bag lunch paid off. He would eat it now, as an early supper, saving him the expense of buying food from a terminal concessionaire.


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