At The Airport
by Hiram Blunt
A short story in three parts – approximately 5000 words
11th March 2011
"Look at that!" Bernie was addressing his fellow redcoat, Scott, who was much younger than Bernie, and had only held this job at Newark Airport for a couple of months.
"What?" The young man answered.
"That long haired asshole over there; the one with his feet up on the chair. Look at his attitude. Think they own the world... these guys. We ought to do something about that."
As far as Scott understood, the redcoat's job was to be of service to the traveller... supply information and such. Security was supposed to be taken care of by those other guys, the security guys... or the cops, whatever. He hated it when Bernie would start acting like he owned the airport.
"These young dopes ain't got no respect for other peoples property. It's aggressive, I'm telling ya. Somebody's gotta show him he can't get away with it," Bernie continued as he slowly made his way towards the seating area.
Scott didn't really want to get into any kind of an altercation with somebody who, after all, wasn't really bothering anyone, or harming the seats in any way– hell, they were made of plastic. And people get pissed off, sometimes, when you hold them to useless regulations, or tell them how to act, when all in all, it's really none of your business. But Bernie, who was supposed to be his mentor on this job, thought that everything in the universe was his business. Certainly everything at Terminal B was his business... he thought, anyway. "Twenty years I been working here, Scotty" he would tell Scott over and over again. Scott hated to be called Scotty. It sounded like some kind of a little black dog that your grandma would have, and faun over and feed off the table. He hated it when people feed their little dogs off the table, where humans are supposed to eat. Another thing Scott hated was when people would tell him the same thing over and over again a million times. He felt like telling Bernie, "I know, I know... twenty years you've been here... I know." But Bernie was moving through the aisles of seats in pursuit of his quarry, so Scott just followed along.
The funny thing was, when they reached the man who had his feet up on the seat, Bernie's whole attitude changed. But not until he'd already yelled out, "Hey buddy! You need to get your feet down off the furniture." Because when the man turned round to face them, it kind of made Bernie think about the whole thing a different way. You see, they'd only seen the back of him so far, and he did have long hair, which was mostly dark colored in the back. But in the front it was mostly grey, and even totally white in some areas. In fact, the man was probably around sixty or so. Either way he was much older than Bernie.
The man slowly, and painfully, lifted his feet off the seat using his hands to do it, as if his legs just wouldn't lift by themselves. He turned to look at the two redcoats with a wide smile on his well ripened features, and he spoke to them in a thoroughly British accent, which reminded Scott of, er... you know, that old guy in the movie "Troy," what's his name, oh yeah... Peter O'Toole.
"Oh, excuse me officer, I'm terribly sorry. I suppose I should have known better... but it's my arthritis."
Bernie was immediately taken aback at this turn of events. He never liked it when things didn't go the way he expected, or when his original assessment of people turned out to be wrong. Normally that would have made him even more belligerent. But Scott could see that it made him feel good to be called, "officer," and, although Bernie didn't really like foreigners very much, he held to that peculiar stereotype that many working class Americans have, which is the notion that all British people are smarter than them... and therefore somehow superior. The fact that this superior being was actually deferring to him in such an amicable way, almost made Bernie feel guilty for having bothered him. He felt like he had just met the Queen, and told her to get her ugly boots off the couch.
"You see," continued O'Toole, "my doctor suggested I keep my feet raised any time that I have to sit for a long while..." he examined his watch with a distressed look. "The plane I'm meeting has been delayed." He tossed a glance toward the arrivals monitor. "And it helps... " he gestured with his hands along his hamstrings "er... with pain, you see."
"Oh!" said Bernie, finally finding his voice. "I'm really sorry..."
"No, no, officer," the Englishman continued heroically, and in a pleasantly accommodating tone, "I absolutely understand. You were doing your duty, and one must do one's duty. I shall fully comply with the requirements of this establishment now that I have been so professionally and courteously apprised of them. You need not worry about me any further."
"Oh!" said Bernie again. "Well... I'm not sure what... er, hold on a minute."
He stepped back to where Scott was standing, and pulled him aside for a confidential summit. "You see, what we got here Scotty, is a guy on doctors orders. Now I'm not sure we have the authority to go against doctors orders. What do you think?"
Scott shrugged his shoulders.
"Also," Bernie went on, "there's the issue of a lawsuit. This fella doesn't look like somebody you wanna screw around with. I mean, what if they blame us for his medical problems. What do you think?"
Scott shrugged his shoulders.
"I think you're right," said Bernie, "I mean, he could be a Duke... or an Earl... we ought to let him put his feet anywhere he needs to put them. This gentleman clearly isn't bothering anyone... and the seats? Hell, they're made out of plastic, they'll be alright." He looked Scott square in the eyes. "So what you think... we agreed?"
Scott shrugged his shoulders.
"Alright then." Bernie went back to the Englishman, who was now fully engrossed in the novel he had been reading, and had his back turned, once more, to the two redcoats. "Er... excuse me sir..."
"Oh," the Englishman seem to cry out in surprised exasperation as he swung around to face them. "Don't tell me there is no reading allowed in this waiting room..."
"No, no, that's not it," said Bernie.
"...because I didn't want to flaunt any more rules. What must you think of me? Whatever it is, please... speak."
"No, sir... you don't understand, sir... I was just going to say that I think it'd be alright if you wanted to put your feet back on the seat... seeing as it's doctor's orders and all."
"Doctor's orders? My good man, my doctor doesn't order me to do anything. He merely suggested that if I..."
"Er, yeah... whatever sir... please feel free to raise your feet up on the chair if it'll help with the er... arthritis."
"Oh," said the Brit. "How awfully nice of you. But are you sure? I wouldn't want you to bend any rules just for me. I mean, I wouldn't want you to get into any trouble or anything."
"No sir, no trouble. It'll be fine. Now if you'd just like to get your legs up on the seat... here, let me help you..." and Bernie literally bent down and reached for the old guys legs, like he was about to lift them up on to the seat for him.
"Well I say," quoth O'Toole indignantly, pulling his legs out of reach of this intruder's grasp. "I think I can manage for myself."
At this point young Scott stepped up and tugged at Bernie's elbow, pulling him away from an almost certainly embarrassing potential situation. "I think he'll be alright now, Bern..."
Bernie stepped away and followed Scott back down the aisles of seats still speaking to the Englishman. "Whatever you like, sir. You can put 'em up... keep 'em down, er... whatever you like... sir." And then in a quieter tone he said to Scott, "don't call me Bern! You know I don't like to be called Bern. It's Bernie... or Bernard... thats what my mother called me. You know... like those big dogs they have in the mountains. But not Bern. D'you hear me, Scotty? Hey are you listening to me? Hey Scotty!"
Scott and Bernie each cast a glance over at the Englishman from time to time. At one point, he had got up and was talking to a woman with a small child who were seated nearby. He took a photo of them with her phone, which he promptly handed back to her before he resumed his seat. He had obviously decided to put his feet up on the seat again, and had been reading quietly for most of the half hour or so which had passed since his encounter with the two redcoats. Suddenly he raised his hands to signal the person he was waiting for. And there she was– coming down the walkway, waving excitedly back at him through the glass partition which separated the new arrivals from those who had already arrived– a rather attractive young woman, possibly in her late twenties or early thirties. She came up to the glass and made funny faces at him through it, seemingly unconcerned as to what other people might think.
"Must be his daughter," nodded Bernie.
"Whatever," said Scott.
But both men were rather surprised when the old gent seemed to hop up spryly from his perch, with little or no apparent regard for his own arthritis. Then– as the young woman skipped gaily towards the exit doors, pointing for him to meet her there, and pulling her noisy suitcase on wheels behind her like a harness trotter– the Englishman hurdled several rows of airport lobby seats as easily as if he were a champion thoroughbred at the Grand National. Where they met, she carelessly flung her luggage to the floor, causing quite an obstacle for other arrivals in her wake– a woman returning from Puerto Rico with a broken heart; a man from Argentina escaping prosecution for fraud— and she leapt up onto his body, encircling him with her thighs, and engaging him in a distinctly un-parental and rather passionate kiss.
Bernie was shocked, and his face turned a bright red in response to this display of physicality. He couldn't be sure if he had been tricked by this Englishman, or not. On the face of it, it seemed that the man had been deceptive in the presentation of his medical condition. But Bernie had already made a judgment about the man's character. Words like "nobility" and "class" were spiraling heraldically around his mind, and it was hard for poor Bernie to let go of those thoughts. And yet there was a conflict... if he were to believe what his eyes were telling him. There must be– he ruminated within the stark terror that his entire belief system might be collapsing in on him–some other explanation.
Eventually the Englishman put the young woman down. He helped her gather her luggage with one hand, and pulled out of his coat pocket, with the other, a set of keys to a well known brand of Italian sports car. These he twirled brazenly for her... and all others... to see, their prancing horse gyrating proudly on the fob.
As he escorted his lady friend past the place where Bernie and Scott were standing with their mouths agape, the Englishman stopped briefly and turned to address Bernie. He winked slyly at the redcoat and whispered to him, "You know old chap, when I'm with her... she makes me feel like a much younger man."
12th March 2011
That night, as he walked past his son's bedroom and saw the boy there, playing with his toys on the floor, kneeling silently as he maneuvered them around unfamiliar situations in imaginary worlds, it occurred to Jerry that the boy showed little joy in his playing. It was always dark in the room... the boy preferred it... always, with the lights off, and just a sliver from the hallway cutting a line across the floor. Jerry wondered if the boy was having fun... it didn't seem so to him. He couldn't remember the boy ever having had fun... or smiling even. He must have done at some time— thought Jerry. But when? And with whom?
He stood there for a while watching. The boy was aware of his presence the entire time, and continued his passionless play in a restrained emotionless manner, hoping that eventually he would be left alone. Hesitantly, Jerry summoned up the courage and entered the boy's room after having tapped unconvincingly at the door, and clearing his throat in a formal gesture of interruption.
"Hello there boy," he said in a sweet tone, which made his son all the more more suspicious. "Er... how would you like to have a little... chat, er... with your– er... with me. Th-There's been some... there are some things I would like to talk to you about... I've been meaning to talk to you about... for quite some time, well... since you were born, anyway. Some questions, let us say. So er..." he flicked his eyebrows upwards, questioning, "so what do you think?"
The boy met his father's eyes for an instant, and then withdrew his gaze, immediately, to the floor where they resumed their pacing back and forth, side to side.
Jerry sat down on the bed. "For instance," he said, "er... are you happy?" The boy looked at him briefly not knowing what to say. "I mean..." his father continued, "this is what I have been told is important... for a young fellow like you. You are supposed to be happy. What do you think? So tell me."
The boy was still looking at the floor, so Jerry gently cupped his chin with a loving hand and brought his face upwards to answer the question. "So, are you happy?" He repeated.
"Yes!" Said the boy quickly.
"Good!" Jerry said in a loud tone contrived to express genuine pleasure. "Very good. Well. That's alright then." He got up off the bed as if to leave. The boy relaxed his shoulders a little.
"Because it is good for you to be happy... I, er.. try my best for you and your... mother..." he was almost out the door before he turned his head back inside the room. The boys head dropped another inch and he breathed in deeply. "Unfortunately, one cannot have everything... that, by the way, is a good lesson for you to learn... so that you will not be disappointed in life." He stood at the threshold, his rhythmic finger tapping at the door post sounded like a horse running. "So... well, one has to work... and thus one finds it difficult... I... I find it difficult to spend as much time with my fam... with your mother... and you."
Suddenly he turned and came back inside, squatting down in front of his son, "I would like to spend more time... perhaps we can, er... go to the zoo... or something... it's just... well, you know, money doesn't grow on trees. If I don't put in the full sixteen hours every day, driving people hither and yon... then... well, then we cannot have this house to live in. You know it was easier to make ends meet where we came from. Why did we ever come to this god forsaken New Jersey?" He seemed to stare off into the distance for a second, and then suddenly composed himself again. "No no, it is good we are here. It will be better for you. Anyway... what do you know of the old place? You are from here, born and bred American boy. You are happy here... you said so."
The boy twiddled his toy between thumb and forefinger. "I will provide everything you need, have no fear." Jerry mumbled, "even though your uncle has shown up now... from god knows where in South America, another mouth to feed... that's alright... family helps one another." He lowered his voice almost to a whisper now. "Huh! Bloody big shot, he thinks he is. Off to Buenos Aires to do some big business deals. You don't hear from him for five years, then suddenly... like a rat with his tail between his legs–" Jerry stopped when he heard the bathroom flushing and a door opening onto the hallway. After a few footsteps and the closing of another door, they were left with the sound of the toilet tank refilling as it reverberated throughout the house.
"No, no" he went on, "it is good that he is here. It's always good to have your family close by. And... he can help out now... if he wants me to feed him. He can drive the cab some times, and then I will have more time to go to the... zoo."
The boy looked up at his father with a momentary smile. It only lasted a fraction of a second, but a smile is a smile, and it cannot be taken back.
"Now, young fellow... do you know what I am going to do next?"
The boy shook his head, no.
"I am going to... well, you see I took this woman to the airport yesterday afternoon– because I was picking up your uncle anyway, and I thought I might as well not waste the drive out there... although, of course the way back I made no fare– but whatever... and she had her little boy with her. And they were making an awful racket in the back of the cab... but... but, they were having a good time with each other. And apparently all this racket making, makes people happy. This is what the woman told me... so how could I complain? America is a place where everyone must be happy, all the time... and I kept thinking that I wish that we... you and me... and your mother..." he thought about it for a second, "and, I suppose, your uncle too now... that I wish that we could be more happy, some times," he shrugged. "And when she was leaving the cab, her little boy was clinging all over her, and first, I thought to myself there must be something wrong with this child that he must cling to his mother so much... you for instance, are not such a clingy child... no, no, you are very well behaved, because we have taught you. But then I thought, maybe you don't need to behave so well, all the time. And sometimes a parent doesn't mind a little clinging. And I said to her— lady, you and your child have a very nice relationship going here... are you happy? She said she was very happy with her child and she couldn't imagine losing him. And I asked her— what is the secret to such a happy relationship. And you know what she told me?"
He looked the boy straight in the face, "can you guess?"
The boy shook his head, no.
"Go ahead, guess."
The boy shrugged and looked embarrassedly from side to side.
"Then I will tell you," his father responded. "She told me that the most important thing is for you to hug your child. Now I didn't know this. Did you know this?"
The boy shook his head, no.
"No, me neither. It's a new one on me," Jerry admitted. "I never tried that before, but I thought to myself— here is this woman... with her little boy, and they seem to be the proof of their own pudding... it certainly can't do any harm... so what say we try it?" He looked at the boy. "Eh? What do you think? Can an old daddy give his boy a hug... just to try?"
The boy shrugged.
"And if it doesn't make us happy, then we don't have to do it any more," his father assured him.
The boy shrugged.
Jerry opened his arms and embraced his son for the first time ever. At first the boy just seemed stiff, but after a few seconds he relaxed and began to hug back. Eventually the boy's embrace became stronger and stronger until he was squeezing his father with all his might. Jerry heard him start to sob a little, and he felt the boys tears upon his own cheek. Soon, his own tears began to flow, and the father and son just stood there in that darkened room, holding each other, frightened to ever let go.
The Old Photograph
11th March 2036
It was when I was visiting my mother in the hospital just before she died, I saw it there on the table beside her bed. Of course, I'd seen it a thousand times before, in the house where I grew up, but I was surprised that she had chosen this particular photograph to have beside her at this particular time. It was of my mother and myself, when I was about eight or nine I suppose. Her arms were wrapped around me as I was reclining onto her lap, a little too big to be sitting squarely on it... perhaps, but small enough to still want to.
I didn't know where the picture was taken, I had absolutely no memory of the event, but it seemed to be in a lobby of a hotel or a station somewhere. Daylight was streaming in through huge windows and in the background, attendants in red jackets stood by, hoping that they would not be needed for any job requiring actual labor.
"Do you remember that day, Johnny?" my mother asked when she noticed me looking at the picture.
I shook my head in reply. "No... where was it? I don't remember it at all."
"It was only about twenty-five years ago," she prompted, as if this information would somehow suddenly invoke the memory for me. "It was at the airport... Newark. We were there to pick up your aunt Stella. Remember? She'd gone to Puerto Rico with that guy she met at the Italian restaurant in Hillsdale where she used to work. What was his name... what a loser he was. And they had a big fight. Remember?"
I did vaguely remember something about Aunt Stella running off with some guy, and then returning home prematurely. I think I remember my father mocking her for it. He never liked Aunt Stella.
"She called from Puerto Rico," my mother continued. "Awhh, she was so sad that it didn't work out. But I told her... what d'you expect? He was a loser. Don't waste tears on that one... I told her."
"So this was at the airport?" I was trying to get her back on the subject.
"Don't you remember, Johnny... that man who took the picture? He was a strange looking man... but nice, very nice. Do you remember what he said when he came up to us?"
"I don't remember, Ma."
"It was 'cause you were standing like that." She pointed at the photo. "That was the exact position you were in."
"I can see that, Ma. What about it?"
"Well... that's what he told me when he saw you like that. He came over... he was very polite and all, normally I wouldn't have talked to some old guy who I didn't know. But he had this accent... really polite, like— excuse me ma'am, he said... no, not ma'am... madam, he called me— excuse me madam... I hope you don't mind me talking to you... that's the way he said it— I wish I had a camera to take a photo of you and your son.
"Well, of course I had a camera... in the phone, you know like they all used to have... so I gave it to him. Although I thought it was kind of a strange thing to come up to somebody and say that— I wish I had a camera to take your picture.
"But then he explained why he said that. He told us that someone in his family had just sent him an old picture of himself and his mother, when he was a little boy about your age. And he was standing just like that... in exactly that same position... in the picture... you know, when he was a little boy, with his mother holding him, just like I was holding you. And he said that he didn't remember when the picture was taken either... just like you. And he thought it was funny that just on the same day that he got that picture, he would see another little boy, you know– you... standing exactly the same way, with his mother– me."
My mother had this way of stating the obvious as if she had made some incredible discovery. Perhaps for her it was.
"And he said wouldn't it be great if one day, when you're his age, you had the same picture to look at. And then he said that when you're his age, he would probably be 'gone'... you know, dead."
"Yeah Ma. I know what 'gone' means."
"I thought that was a little depressing, don't you? Specially, 'cause then he said we would probably all be 'gone,' meaning me too."
We both sat silently for a while. But then my mother sighed and continued with her story. "I suppose he was right... I mean how old was he anyway?" She laughed.
"I don't know, Ma. I don't remember him."
"Ha! He was about sixty or so. I don't wanna see you when you're sixty. That would be awfully depressing, I think... don't you? I mean... how old are you now, anyway Johnny?"
She pondered my answer and then replied, slowly at first. "Hmm... that's what I was when this picture was taken. That's old enough for a mother to see her child get to," she said. "I mean, who wants to see their kid going grey and losing their teeth and getting all old and wrinkled? That's not really your kid anymore, is it?" She frowned a little. "It's some old stranger.
"No Johnny," she reached her hand up to my face and caressed my cheek, "You're beautiful just like this. This is how I want to always see you."
I placed my hand upon her hand upon my cheek, and I held it there... firmly... and forever.
I made a copy of that photograph, and put it in a little silver frame which sits on top of her gravestone now. Soon the photo will be faded and washed away and no one who visits that place will be able to see what was once the picture within that frame. But I will have my copy, and when I am sixty... if I get to be sixty, I will take out that picture, and look at it, and I will remember those who are still here, and those who are forever gone.
Hiram Blunt Died on the 28th October 1987. His ghost, however still haunts me, and sometimes asks me to type up a short story or a novel for him. One of his novels, "The High Priest of Prickly Bog," has been published by BongoVista Publishing and is available at greatgodbongo.com