Tuesday, November 29, 2005

"Mr. Barbicane Takes A Trip" Chapter Six

Mr. Barbicane savored his assent. He looked down at the retreating Earth and, although he knew such a thing was unlikely, felt he could actually detect a diminishing of the gravitational pull of the receding planet. He felt this at the base of his brain and across his chest. He could almost feel himself rising slightly in his seat, the belt tightening across his lap.

Outside the small window cars and streets and people dropped away, lost their details, their reality, their ability to affect him. The landing gear retracted into the body of the aircraft with a straining hydraulic whine and the solid shutting of metal doors. Flaps were pulled back into the trailing edge of the wings and they all continued upward, no longer banking, but still climbing. Climbing out of the valley that now could be seen to be covered with a thin brown layer of trapped air.

Higher still, through the first thin clouds then the great white layer of overcast which, when pierced, looked to Mr. Barbicane like an Brobdignagian version of the cotton used to decorate communities of miniature houses established under Christmas trees and around mirrors on the dining room tables of old women who arranged the tiny figures of skaters, figures made out of lead and handpainted in their childhood.

These arrangements were fussed over for hours every December by the old women who were filled with the anticipation of delighted children who would visit during the holidays. The children rarely came and if they did it was with the familiar reluctance of children to visit the old. They came for gifts and candy and took no joy in the intricate display set out on the dining room table, the frozen lake mirror, the skating figures, the mounds of whipped cotton representing snow, the small cardboard houses and pipe-cleaner trees, disproportionate toy cars and perhaps a sled. It was motionless and therefore of no value to a child. Its lack on animation was just another reason to dislike these forced visits. And being children they did nothing to hide their irritation. They were rude and hurtful and when their rudeness and hurtfulness was pointed out to them they would shrug, compounding their sins with indifference.

But really, he thought, they are not so much rude and hurtful and indifferent as they are afraid. They are afraid of people closer to death than they are and they know the older you get the closer you are to the end. They are primitives in this terror; cute little cavemen and cavewomen made hysterical by the approach of someone who, sooner than the person would want, would be as dead and motionless as the lead figures she has arranged on the mirror on her dining room table. They are grimy little monsters, inarticulate, selfish, sociopathic, snatching her candy and toys then skulking by the door waiting for the grown-ups who forced them to come here to finish their stupid tribute to this old and therefore useless creature, so they can leave, so they can finally just go and take them away from this lavender scented house of death with its drawn curtains and dark corners and no television to look at, just pictures of people all ready dead and therefore of no use to anyone.

Perhaps it is because children have so recently become aware of being alive that they fear death more than the rest of us.

Their irritating complaints will eventually erode the will of the grown-ups who brought them and they will all leave. And the old woman will be left in the quiet house which has seen so many withdrawals, more and more as the time goes, and at a disturbingly accelerating rate now. She loves the children and the life they represent and is sorry they can’t see her as anything but the source of boredom and sugar. But she also recognizes their cruelty and monstrous nature. They are ugly little proto-people without grace or wisdom. They should be moved through this childhood period as rapidly as possible so that they can become something of value. Until such time they should be instructed to shut-up and informed that they are really very stupid little creatures whose opinion is not sought or appreciated.

This, of course, is not the prevailing opinion in the nation where Mr. Barbicane resided. In fact, for some reason, the prevailing opinion is the exact reverse of what commonsense would dictate. In Mr. Barbicane’s world, there is an assumption that these little monsters should be serviced continually and that their strident whims should become the basis for the entire culture. Another reason why Mr. Barbicane so liked to detach himself from the planet now hidden by clouds.

It was at this point the pilot came on the public address system and welcomed the passengers. Prior to this announcement, the pilot always remains mute, buffered from his charges by the co-pilot, cabin attendants and ground-based crew. But once in the air, once in his true and unchallenged domain, the pilot spoke to Mr. Barbicane and the others with a firm if disinterested male voice that spoke to altitude and weather conditions and the estimated time of their arrival and what they might expect to find there. He completed his speech by acknowledging the fact that the people in the passenger cabin had a choice in air carriers and expressing his gratitude as well as the gratitude of the airline itself that they had made the series of choices leading to their trusting their lives to this organization and this crew of highly trained professionals in particular. If there was anything a passenger thought they needed to make their journey more comfortable, that person should not hesitate to communicate those needs to a cabin attendant.

All was preceding well. Mr. Barbicane grew increasingly confident in his status as passenger. The airport had been negotiated, there had been no problems with his ticket, not mechanical problems with the plane or meteorological difficulties along the projected route, nothing to send him back into the nightmare of re-booking and re-scheduling. The take-off had been perfect, the climb and leveling, all perfection.

Now began the core of the flight, the patient waiting in a comfortable seated position while the machine around him transported Mr. Barbicane through the lower atmosphere surrounded as he was by travelers of all sorts and missions.

The only problem…no, problem was much too serious a label. The only point of concern…and even that was too strong a word. The only tick Mr. Barbicane was willing to admit to was the, he was sure, transitory inability to bring into focus his fellow travelers; the problem…alright, call it a problem…of not being able to distinguish them, to see them properly and keep them focused in his mind as individuals.

He decided to use the next few minutes of the flight to experiment. He would look at the woman seated next to him. He usually avoided doing this, kept his eyes directed out the window or down at his tray of food or the pages of a book or, on long flights when the cabin was darkened and video entertainment provided, looking over the seatback in front of him to the screen at the front of the cabin, watching the various programs. He never listened to these show, he only watched. He much preferred the powerful white noise of the cabin pressure and the vibration of the engines to the soundtrack of the various presentations. He would watch the tiny actors as if they were performers in a cunningly detailed puppet theatre. The motives of the miniature figures were not as interesting as the casual ballet of their actions.

But there would be no film entertainment on this flight due to its comparatively short duration. Besides, he had made the decision to see if he could differentiate the person sitting next to him.

Mr. Barbicane looked down at his feet then started to turn his head to the left, very slowly, a few degrees at a time until some part of the passenger at his side came into his field of vision. This happened and he almost gasped when he realized what he was looking at.

What he saw, extended under the seat was a bare female leg. Next to it a second leg. The feet were almost bare, wearing flat sandals consisting of little more than a sole and two narrow straps the reached back over each foot from between the great and second toe. The nails were painted a dark grape color. The skin was not tanned, but not pale. The legs were trim, neither flaccid nor grotesquely muscled. These were the legs of a young woman wearing a pair of pale yellow shorts. Not running shorts, but the sort hikers wear, very short, but with a cuff and multiple pockets and loops. She also wore a fanny-pack sort of pouch. Mr. Barbicane turned his head a little more, still looking down and saw that above the waist of the shorts was the beginning of a ribbed t-shirt of a thin oatmeal colored fabric. He could now see the young woman’s bare arm now and the rise of her breasts above the scoop of the t-shirt.

After the sudden and inexplicable shock of first seeing that bare leg, Mr. Barbicane was relieved that he was able to maintain the various body parts in a proper continuity; that the legs were where legs should be and the shoulders lead to arms and the arms lead to hands holding a thick magazine filled with pictures of heavily made up women with expressions suggesting a vapid confusion and apparent unawareness of their location or how they came to be there. He wanted to look at her profile, at her face, to make sure everything was all right there, that there hadn’t been some distressing cubistic rearrangement. But he really couldn’t do that, he really couldn’t just turn and look at her, without the very real risk of her looking back. There was the very real danger of eye contact, problematic all by itself, but happening this early in the flight there was the possibility of Mr. Barbicane being completely undone. He would wait to try to look at her face. Perhaps during drink service, while the cabin attendants were in the aisles. He could look then, see at least the side of her head and take it from there.

That determined, Mr. Barbicane was struck with the realization of just how much of the young lady’s body was available for him to look at. Between the legs and the bare arms and the cut of the shirt, the vast majority of her surface was on display. This amazed him. Not that he was a prude. He was amazed at the mind set that would permit someone to go out in such a state.

Imagine. Being not only not repulsed by the sight of your own body, but being able to expose so much of it to the world. What must that be like? What would you feel in the morning, looking in the mirror? Would you identify with the person looking back at you? What about in the shower? What would a shower be like if you looked like the woman in the seat next to him? A shower was something utilitarian, a period of unavoidable nakedness and self-awareness that needed to be kept to as short a time as practical. But if you looked like that and you were aware that you looked like that and could actually derive some aesthetic pleasure out of how your body looked and, he reasoned, felt…what would that do to the concept of taking a shower? Suddenly a shower takes on an aspect of ritual, one filled with gratitude.

How conscious was the choice to leave her house, to step out into the world wearing shorts and a t-shirt? Certainly there was comfort. There was probably at least some pride. Satisfaction? Entitlement? Were the choices of clothing made based on who she was leaving or based on who she would find at the other end of the trip? Was it about the person taking you to the airport, or the person waiting to pick you up at the other airport? Was this the promise made during the shower? I will go out into the world as myself and let the world enjoy what I have enjoyed in my own home, in my own mirror. I exist and you can see that I exist and isn’t that the most pleasant thing to contemplate for both of us?

Or was their no consciousness at all. Perhaps it never occurred to her that any real decision needed to be made, at least any decision beyond comfort. It didn’t matter to her. She stepped out into the world without concern for the opinion or judgment of others. They had no power to judge her with look or word.

Mr. Barbicane felt old beyond his years. He felt dusted with his own dead skin. If he moved, parts of him would flake away to be pulled into the air circulating system to be filtered and reintroduced to the cabin environment where, perhaps, in one breath, traces of him would be pulled into the lungs of the woman at his side. A ghostly remnant of him might be transported by a sigh, deep into the body next to him, there to cling to the side of an alveoli until dislodged again and coughed out, expulsed. The essence of Mr. Barbicane finally coming to rest in a ball of pink tissue for disposal later.

He was lifted from this contemplation by a cabin attendant leaning over him and asking what, if any, beverage he would like.


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