By: Jim Bates
A crowd of humanity surged through the concourse like a tidal river rushing down a coastal inlet. At gate 23 in the waiting area for flight 175 people settled themselves into the seats, leaving as much space as they could between themselves and the people around them. As departure time drew nearer more and more passengers arrived, filling the seats one by one until none were left, leaving the late arrivals standing wherever they could, rocking back and forth on their heels, looking around and trying not to make eye contact.
Larry Gustafson sat in the last seat in his row out by the concourse trying to read a short story by a favorite author. It was hard to concentrate.
Next to him a middle aged, paunchy guy in a red turtle neck stood up. His shirt was neatly tucked into grey dress pants which were accessorized by a shiny burgundy belt and with a silver buckle. He addressed the woman next to him who was quietly reading a newspaper.
“I’ve had something fatty to eat and something salty to eat,” he stated to her. “Now I need something sweet to eat.” He paused, his pronouncements hanging in the air proudly like flags waving. He stood watching her, waiting for her to look up. “Maybe some water too,” he added, making it seem like he had arrived at this conclusion after much deliberation.
Larry cast a quick glance in their direction. The guy was nervously shuffling his feet, staring at his traveling companion, hands twitching at his side.
“Well, go get something then,” she suggested without looking up, slowly turning the page. Larry noticed it was the front section of the local newspaper. She shook it to straighten out a wrinkle and continued reading.
“Where should I go?” The guy asked, not taking his eyes off her. All around people were walking into and out of the area, restlessly waiting for the plane to begin boarding. It was going to be awhile. Larry glanced at his watch. They had a good twenty minutes. “Maybe I should get a candy bar.”
He looked down her again. She was dressed comfortably in loose fitting tan slacks and a beige blouse which nearly hid a thin, gold chain necklace. She had rings on most of her fingers and a prominent, diamond studded one that was most likely a wedding ring on her left hand. She was quite tan, which was surprising given it was February in Minnesota. Larry got the feeling maybe they were just passing through. But then again maybe not. Maybe she had been tanning for the last month or so, getting ready for a vacation to Las Vegas, the destination of the flight.
“What do you think?” The guy asked, nervously putting his hands in his pockets and jingling what sounded like a bunch of coins. After a few moments he took out a wad of bills that he unrolled and started counting with a practiced manner that indicted it was a task he did often. Then he put them back in his pocket.
She folded the paper and rested it on her knee. She raised her hand and patted her hair, which was light brown and tastefully frosted. Her lipstick was deep red, almost maroon, and matched the color of her fingernails. She appeared well off and looked to be the same age as the guy, nearly sixty. “Maybe get a candy bar?” she asked. “Like a Snickers?”
“I don’t know,” the guy pondered, seriously considering her suggestion. “I’m not sure about the nuts.”
“Then how about a Hersey’s? she replied. “They’re just chocolate.”
“Hmm…” he said, thinking.
Larry had forgotten all about his book and was now surreptitiously watching the entire conversation out of the corner of his eye. The guy put a hand to his chin and rubbed it and then slid it to the back of his neck, massaging the skin vigorously. He was smooth shaven and his complexion was an unhealthy mix of ruddy and pale, not like his traveling companion’s at all.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I’m just not sure what I want.” HIs eyes were blinking rapidly, his confusion genuine.
Just do it! Larry wanted to scream. It’s only a friggin’ candy bar for christ’s sake. But he didn’t. He just watched and listened, becoming drawn in to the couple and the drama being played out.
“You know there’s a kiosk just down the concourse to the right,” she said, pointing.
“Yes. Why don’t you go look?”
Nervously contemplating her suggestion, the guy rubbed his hands together like he was dry washing them. Then he crossed in front of Larry and stepped to the edge of the concourse, looking down toward the kiosk. The flow of people swerved around him without missing a beat. He stepped back saying, “Maybe I will.” And then stood there looking at her, shoving his hands in his pockets again, fiddling with his money some more.
The guy’s shoes were nicely polished, dark brown wing-tips. Larry thought they were a nice juxtaposition to the tan work boots he was wearing. The contrast of colors looked kind of pleasing together, he thought, as he carefully moved his boots out of the way, not wanting the guy to trip.
The guy’s traveling companion looked up at him and opened her paper, shaking it once to straighten it out. “If you go, get me a bottle of water please.”
“What kind?” the guy asked.
She was quiet for a long time. By now Larry felt like he was part of the conversation and had some small vested interest in her answer. Really. What kind of water did she want?
Finally she gave a slight cough, turned to a new page and said, “Doesn’t matter.”
Larry didn’t’ realize he’d been holding his breath. He let it out and felt a sense of relief. But it was only momentary.
“Really?” the guy said, questioning her. “Really? It doesn’t matter?”
“No. Any kind will do. But you should hurry.” She glanced at her watch. “We’ll be boarding soon.”
“Geez.” the guy said, looking at his own watch now, getting quite anxious. “Do you think I’ll have time?”
Her eyes shifted to the next page. “If you hurry.”
“Ok,” the guy said, turning to leave. “I’ll be right back.”
He hurriedly left, merging quickly into the flow of people. Larry leaned over in his chair and watched him, finding himself concerned that the guy was going to be safe. He surprised himself that he cared so much. When the guy was out of sight, he repositioned himself in his chair and shot a quick glance toward the lady. She was engrossed in her paper, an air of calm around her, concentrating on her reading but also at ease, like this sort of thing with the guy happened all the time and she was so used to it that it didn’t even faze her. Larry turned back to his book. He tried to put the couple out of his mind so he could focus on the story he had started. It was hard to do. He was just starting to read when the guy returned. He surprised himself by realizing he was relieved the guy made it back okay.
“Look at this water I got,” he said, excitedly, sitting down and taking a plastic bottle out of the small bag he was carrying. “It’s the best.”
Larry glanced over. He had to admit he was curious. The guy was handing her a bottle with a label he was unfamiliar with. Not Evian, Clear Mountain or Poland Springs. It was some French name he’d never heard of and the shape was slightly different from most bottled water, this one being thinner and taller.
“Thank you,” she said, setting it on the floor, going back to her reading.
The guy sat down and twisted the top off, taking a long drink. When he was finished he smacked his lips. “Boy, that tastes really good.” He turned toward her, “I didn’t realize I was so thirsty.” He started drinking some more.
“Be careful how much you drink,” she said without looking up, continuing to read. “You know how you hate to use the bathrooms on airplanes.”
The guy stopped drinking and his leg started jiggling up and down. “Oh, boy,” he said, agitated. “I didn’t think about that.”
She glanced at her watch. “You can use the bathroom here on the concourse, if you want, before we board. You don’t mind those.”
“Yeah,” he said, sounding relieved. “That’s a good idea.”
She smiled and patted him on his arm. He seemed to calm down. “Did you get your candy bar?”
“I did.” He reached into the bag and pulled it out, showing it to her. “What do you think?”
“A Hersey bar. All chocolate. That’s a good choice.”
“Do you think I should eat it now?”
“Yes,” she answered and then turned back to her paper. “You don’t want it to melt and make a mess.”
“Good idea.” He peeled back the paper and bit into the bar, clearly savoring the chocolaty flavor. When he was half way through he leaned over, offering her some, “Do you want a piece? It’s pretty good.”
“No. I’m fine,” she said, setting the paper aside and making it a point to look at her watch again. “You should finish up and use the bathroom. I think we may start boarding soon.”
And, just like that, over the loud speaker the gate attendant announced early boarding for those needing assistance. The general boarding would begin in a few minutes.
“Oh, boy. Do you think I’ll have time?” he asked, suddenly very nervous. He quickly stuffed the remainder of the Hersey bar in his mouth, chewing rapidly and crumpling up the wrapper.
She patted his hand reassuringly. “I’m sure you have time, dear.” She said. The term of affection seemed to point to the fact that they were married, something Larry had been wondering about. “Why don’t you go now? I’ll wait right here for you.”
The guy stood up hesitantly and looked at her. “Are you sure about the time?”
She smiled reassuringly. “Yes, I am. You go to the bathroom and hurry back. I won’t go anywhere. I promise.”
“Ok, then.” he said, moving toward the concourse, glancing back at her. “Promise?”
“Yes, dear. Just hurry.” she pointed to her watch.
“Ok, then. Bye.”
Larry watched as the guy slipped into a break in the crowd and then was swept away. He leaned over and watched until he was out of sight. The last thing he saw was the guy cutting through the sea of people, heading for the men’s room. Larry thought about getting up to follow him, but it looked like he was going to make it all right. Satisfied that the guy was okay, he settled back in his seat, checking that he had his boarding pass. The lady folded up her newspaper and put it in a small carry-on bag. She took out a tin of Altoids and popped one in her mouth, snapping the top shut. She noticed Larry watching her.
“Mint?” she asked, offering the tin to him.
Embarrassed, Larry stammered, “Ah, no. Thanks though.” He felt his ears turning red.
She smiled at him. “Going to Vegas?”
She seemed very nice. Pleasant. Larry felt himself becoming drawn in to talking with her. “Well, yes,” he said, his embarrassment fading. “I’m meeting my brother there. He’s picking me up and we’re driving to where he lives.”
“He’s from Vegas?”
“No. South. Two and a half hours. Lake Havasu City.”
She nodded her head. “It’s nice down there.”
“I’ve never been. First time.”
“You’ll have a great time.” She was watching the concourse now, looking for the guy.
“Are you and your husband going to Vegas?” he asked, curious if he had guessed correctly and they were married.
“Yes.” She smiled. “We’re celebrating our fortieth anniversary.
Question answered. “Well, congratulations,” he said, meaning it.”That’s something to be proud of.” He knew of no couples who’d been married that long.
She smiled at him and ran her hands over her slacks, smoothing them. “It is,” she said. “He’s a good man.”
Just then her husband rushed into the waiting area and stood in front of her. “Whew. I thought I was going to be late.” He leaned down and kissed the top of her head. “There was a line in the bathroom and I didn’t know if I should stay there or leave. Finally a stall opened up and I used it, but it seemed to take forever to go. You know…,” he said, looking around, embarrassed. “Then I wanted to wash my hands but the water took forever to come on. Finally it did.” He paused, agitated. “I hate those automatic faucets.”
His wife reached up and patted his arm. “Well, you’re here right how. You can just relax.” And, just like that, at the touch of her hand, the guy calmed down. “I’ve been talking to this nice gentleman here,” she said, indicating Larry.
Larry looked up at the guy and smiled. “Hi.”
“Hello,” the guy said, cautiously.
“I’m Larry,” he said, putting out his hand.
The guy took a moment before shaking it, and glanced at his wife who nodded, like it’s okay. “Steve,” he said. “My name’s Steve.”
“Nice to meet you, Steve,” Larry said.
In the background the call for boarding began. “And this is my wife, Susan,” he added.
“Hi Susan,” Larry said, shaking her hand, introductions now complete. “I hope you both have a great trip and a wonderful anniversary.” He meant it.
Steve gave his wife a questioning look. “I’ll fill you in when we’re seated, dear,” she said as she stood, picking up her carry-on. “It’s our turn to board,” she looked at her husband with affection and put her arm through his. Then she turned to Larry. “You have a good trip,” she said, smiling. “Have fun with your brother.”
Steve and Susan moved into line. Larry stood up but hung back waiting for his section to be called. He watched the couple as they inched forward toward the gate and then down the runway. He saw Steve’s head bobbing along, dipping occasionally as he said something to his wife. They seemed like a nice couple and something about them and how they were with each other made him feel good. It was a feeling that might be worth exploring. They rounded a corner and then were out of sight. His boarding section was called and he moved into line, putting his book into his carry-on, forgetting about the story he had been reading, thinking instead about Steve and Susan. He wouldn’t mind at all if, by chance, he ended up being seated next to them for the flight to Vegas. And why not? He hadn’t even left the airport and already his trip was memorable. Who knew what lay ahead?
Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers’ Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords, The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2, The Best of CafeLit 8, Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine.