Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Five

With his eyes shut, Mr. Barbicane listened to the airplane fill with people. Normally he would take advantage of this seat so forward in the aircraft to watch the peristaltic progress of his fellow travelers. But his experience in the departure area, the inability to see people as individuals, plucked at his mind. He was not so much afraid to look as he thought it wiser not to look. If he opened his eyes and found he could not tell one person from another, if he couldn’t get the right head with the right body, he would surly find it distressing. And if he did, there was nothing he could do about it. If he said something…well, what could he possibly say? How could he possibly explain what was happening? Not that anything was happening. He was just having a little trouble being able to tell people apart. What would he get out of informing the cabin attendant of his perceptual difficulty? She might think he was ill and they would have to take him of the plane, they would prevent him from leaving and that’s the last thing he wanted.

So he stayed quietly in his seat listening to the people pass by, feeling the change of shadow across him as they blocked and cleared the windows on the other side of the cabin.

There was nothing wrong. Whatever it was…and it wasn’t anything, really…was something along the lines of that ghost slash across his vision, the one the back of his eye picked up through the gap between the steps and the airplane. An optical illusion.

After all, he’d been able to see the faces of the woman at the ticket counter and the woman who checked his boarding pass, and the cabin attendant who’d greeted him when he stepped on board. They were focused, their features were properly placed on their faces, their heads firmly attached to their bodies. He had no problem there. It was his fellow passengers he was having trouble with.

He felt someone slip into the aisle seat next to him. He heard the person exhale as they leaned forward to put something under the seat in front of them and knew from the quality of the sigh that he was now seated next to a woman. He kept his eyes closed.

Mr. Barbicane had crossed the nation several times without exchanging a single word with the person sitting next to him. He respected their privacy and expected a reciprocal indifference.

After several minutes the sounds coming from the people snaking their way to the back of the aircraft diminished and a cabin attendant came on the public address system reminding all within the sound of her voice about the federal regulations requiring everyone to be in their seat before the plane could be pushed back into the taxiway. She then requested that everyone on board direct their attention to the front of the cabin.

Mr. Barbicane did as he was told, opening his eyes and looking straight ahead to watch one of the cabin attendants act out the instructions heard over the small speaker above his head. He watched her hold up a card on which all exits from the MD-87 were clearly marked and that a path to these exits would be delineated by a light strip imbedded in the cabin floor. He was shown how to operate a seat-belt and what to do with the yellow oxygen mask which would drop down from a panel in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure.

He kept his eyes on the woman demonstrating the safety measures. He felt she deserved at least that much. All around him were the sounds of people settling in their seats, finishing cell phone conversations, preparing paperwork or reading material, blasé in their disregard for this important information. Perhaps someday those people will pay a heavy price for their inattention. Perhaps that day was upon them. Were they hours, perhaps minutes away from cursing themselves for not listening as they struggled with their seatbelts, the Pacific canting wildly to one side beyond the window as they desperately tried to remember if their lifejacket was in a packet in the seatback in front of them or if their seat cushion itself was to be used as a floatation device? Disrespectful fools. They were the authors of their own fate as far as Mr. Barbicane was concerned, and would receive no sympathy from him. For he alone among them would know that even though oxygen was flowing into the mask, the plastic bag would not inflate.

The announcement was completed with the promise of beverage service once the aircraft had reached its cruising altitude of thirty-five thousand feet. Soft drinks, water, and juice were free while there was a nominal charge for wine and beer. Exact change was always appreciated. In first class, Mr. Barbicane knew whatever beverage he chose would be free, regardless of its alcoholic content.

There was a slight jerk, a shudder through the length of the machine as the tractor attached to the nose gear backed the aircraft away from the terminal building and into the taxiway. A pause while the tractor was detached then the throttles of both engines were gently advanced and the turbines behind him surged slightly in order to overcome the inertial bulk of all those people and bags and fuel and metal and the aircraft moved forward under its own power for the first time since Mr. Barbicane stepped on board.

Clear of the terminal, the aircraft started rolling along the parking lot perimeter to the end of the longer of the airport’s two runways, 15/33, which runs essentially north and south and has a length of six thousand eight hundred and eighty-six feet and a width of one hundred and fifty feet. It has a surface of grooved concrete and, when used in the 15 configuration, i.e. taking-off to the south, the heading is 152 magnetic, 167 true.

The aircraft lumbered along the taxi way, its wingtip almost even with the chain link fence that guarded the budget parking lot where Mr. Barbicane parked his car before boarding the shuttle to the terminal. He saw the Number Eight shuttle stop he used and then, to his amazement, he saw his car. It was a starling coincidence and he almost waved to his car as he passed. He wondered if this sighting had any meaning. Certainly it wasn’t a bad thing to see one’s car before departing. Therefore he decided to take it as an exceptionally good omen.

The airplane reached the end of the taxiway and made a slow arc of a turn to bring it around to the foot of the runway. They reached that point, apparently already cleared for departure, because once the pilot had the nose of the aircraft centered on the runway, the throttles were fully applied and the machine charged down the concrete, picking up speed and pressing Mr. Barbicane gently back against his seat.

The parking lot streaked by on the wrong side of the plane for him to even attempt to pick out his car. Then the terminal went by. Then the nose of the plane started to lift.

Mr. Barbicane did not feel the exact moment the main gear lost touch with the runway. He never did and this surprised him. He couldn’t understand why such a profound event wasn’t accompanied by an appropriate acknowledgement. A sound, a light, perhaps a visible tentacle of gravity snapping clear of the undercarriage as the aircraft escaped. But there was no such delineation and he had to guess at the moment, never guessing right, always off by a few seconds, only knowing for sure as the landscape all around dropped below the plane as it climbed and started to bank which is what the aircraft did now.

Mr. Barbicane was no longer in physical contact with the planet Earth. He had been removed from the surface and all that was left behind was circumstantial evidence of his existence; his car, his home, his other worldly goods. You might deduce their owner from the fact of their existence, but you couldn’t really make the leap to saying for sure there really was an owner. You couldn’t, without fear of contradiction, state unequivocally that there really was someone named Mr. Barbicane and this was his hat and these are the checks he wrote and this is what was left of the bottle of mouthwash he put in the medicine cabinet next to the razor he used yesterday. You might locate people who claim to have seen him. Possibly saw him in the market, purchasing the mouthwash and razor you found in the medicine cabinet. And those people might believe they had seen him…not that anyone ever took note of him in the market or anywhere else for that matter. There were dribs and drabs and the vague suggestion of a rumor that a Mr. Barbicane walked the Earth. But in that moment, as he was in the process of being subsumed into the firmament, the Mr. Barbicane in question did not walk among mortal men. And you really couldn’t prove it.

In this sense, Mr. Barbicane, when aloft, was very much like God.


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