Creative Writing – Next Flight

Next Flight

W. James Jonas III

September 2006

We talked about playing it for years.  In fact, there were times when we had claimed to have done it, but those were, at best, tall tales around the fraternity house.  None of us, truly, had the money to do it, and there had been more than enough entertaining ways to blow cash that did not include the hassle of travel.  But, now we had become sufficiently bored, but with means, to finally play a game of Airport Lottery.  Not exactly a game for the jet set, and no one talks about the jet set anymore.  It is not a game that would have been developed after September 11th 2001, but for good or for ill, most of our childish fantasies were developed before that tragic day.

The premise was simple.  Walk-up to a random ticket counter at the airport and request a seat on the next flight.  When we first described this “game” to friends, it was the closest activity to random jet setting that we could imagine.  However with a few decades since the first outline which took the form of graffiti on the poker room wall of our college abode, the rules had become more complex, but there were only four:

1. Go to the airport, by taxi, telling the driver to drop you at any airline he or she desired.

2. Walk up to the nearest ticket counter and request a one way ticket on the next flight.

3. Repeat Rule 2 at your destination airport.

4. Upon arrival at your “second destination airport”, give all of your money to the nearest church, destroy your credit cards, and figure out a way to get home.

In full disclosure, rule 4 was modified, to its current form, after marriage (for some), children (for a few), and rehab (for me) mandated a re-write from the “find a hooker, drug dealer, bookie, liquor store, and hotel that accept Diners Club and keep charging until found by the others players or arrested.”

We were tired of watching reality television and decided it was time for a game of our own.  Given the nature of the rules, we could all play at the same time and could all start in our respective home towns.  Our plan was to begin the game on July 4th and confirm all had arrived safely at home by the end of the month.  We would use the month of August to decide how to share our adventure with the others and would meet at the beach over Labor Day to exchange stories.  There were only three of us left from college, and it would be good to see George and Paul again.

As I called for the taxi to come pick me up, the absurdity of starting this game from my home in Arkansas was obvious.  There is only one taxi in Deer Bluff, and it is run by Cane Cutter a non-reformed stoner of the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and beyond and a guy that was to go to college with me until he decided that his senior year of high school was just too much trouble.  “I would like a taxi to come pick me up and take me to the Airport.”  When I made this request, I knew the response would not be the crisp “we will be there as soon as we can sir” that one would get in most American cities.

“Berry!  What the fuck are you doin’ calling for a cab on the morning of our country’s b-day?  Don’t you have any respect for all the dead people that made America great and those who are honoring them by being peaceful?”

“Look Cane, I know 11am is very early for you, and happy Fourth of July, but I need to get to the airport and was hoping you would”

“When did you start calling for cabs?  Is your fancy car broken?  Oh, I get it.  Jill is pissed off with you and she has hidden your keys.  No let me guess.  You are trying to save money by not having to pay for parking at the airport.”  His final point will mean nothing to those outside of our community, but our airport is so small, there is no charge for parking.  In fact, up until 1955, citizens were asked to park there cars at the airport whenever possible so that the pilots could identify our runways as they were easily confused for well trimmed fields.

After a few more minutes of verbal abuse from my childhood chum, he agreed to pick me up after he made his delivery of holiday meals to the elderly of the community.  Please do not be mistaken, Cane is neither charitable nor concerned with the well being of the aging population of our town.  He is merely engaging in a combination of corporate diversification and niche marketing.  His food deliveries are paid for by the state social services commission.  I have reason to believe certain of these older citizens have found in Cane a market for their excess medications, and to my disgust, I know for a fact one 80 year old has developed a rather sophisticated taste for high grade marijuana which began after the stash from Medicare, during a session of chemotherapy, ran out.  Before one becomes outraged at the mental picture of a pitiful aged addict, I must report that Granny Jones ended her chemo 20 years ago, bowls three times a week, volunteers at the pet shelter, and just happens to smoke an illegal substance every night while watching her collection of Price is Right re-runs.

By noon Cane was in front of my house and quite unnecessarily honking multiple times.  “I saw you were out here.”  There was no need to honk and wake everyone up on a holiday.”

“Look Jimmy, the only one who MIGHT have been sleeping until noon in this place was me, and you fucked that up with your stupid call this morning.  Now get in and quit your bitchin.”  “Which airline are you going to today sir?”

Again, Cane’s humor will escape all except those who live, as I do in a small town that does not charge to park at its airport; in such a place, there is, at best, one airline.  Thank goodness the trip to the airport is short as only one track of Cane’s eight track cassette player (or perhaps it is the tape) is working.  Such a technological state of affairs (for those to young to understand what it means for only one track to work) subjects the listener to, at best, 2.5 songs that will be played over and over again.  The repeating of the two songs that are complete is not impossible to tolerate as the world of one company owning all the radio stations in the universe already subjects us to torture of a similar nature.  The thing that begins to drive one a bit mad is the repeating of the .5 of a song.  It’s as if a Jimmy Buffet with Alzheimer’s is performing in the back seat and he will not stop.

I knew Cane would want to be paid in cash and I had to promise him a $50 tip for him to show-up at all.  I had to imagine that neither George nor Paul was experiencing similar levels of abuse or expense so early in the adventure.

“Hi Jimmy! Where are you going today?  We do not have a reservation for you in our system.”  It is on days like these that I wish the town was just a bit larger.  Susie, my youngest sister’s roommate, is working the desk of our regional airlines.  There is no way to explain to her what I am doing, and the lies that come to mind sound lame even to me.

“Susie, I just need the next flight out.  There is a project I am working on, and I would like to go ahead and get part of the trip behind me today.”  I knew this would generate multiple questions, but I could think of nothing else to say.

“The flight to Biloxi leaves in two hours.”  That was all she said and I thanked God.

Two hours in my home town’s airport is as miserable as the flight to Biloxi in an older prop aircraft with limited ability to adjust the temperature of the cabin.  On the runway you bake, and in the air you freeze.  However, living in this area for the past forty plus years has always come with a message; it is not easier to get here and it is a little painful and tedious to depart.

The airport in Biloxi was an oasis.  The place had recently been renovated and while it still had reminders that you were in the South – the Deep South – there was a sense of sophistication.  I entered the Men’s Room and I saw him he looked maybe 19; definitely hung-over, and was tying his belt to a crossbar in the ceiling.  He seemed to think I would use the facilities and depart.  He had no reason to know that I knew exactly what he was doing.  Perhaps I did not know why he was doing it, but I did know what would be the next steps he was going to attempt to accomplish.

Most of us go through life knowing that suicide happens.  A few of us know a friend or relative that has committed suicide, but my experience goes beyond that.  Our college was full of very intense competitive people all driving, with pauses for binge drinking and drugging of course, to future success as medical or law students.  When the other area colleges starting calling us “Su U” during my sophomore year, it was easy to explain to our parents that it was because our college was the platform for great future trail attorneys and the other schools merely did not know how to spell the word “sue.”  The real answer was darker and sadder.  Suicide is Painless was a popular song for a popular movie and television show.  It was also the theme that well described a very sad path three of our friends selected that fall of our sophomore year.

The kid had no clue what he was doing.  For only a moment, I wanted to let him know what a silly amateur he was and how his efforts might accomplish his goal but reflected absolutely no understanding of physics or physiology.  That, as much as anything else, reminded me that most kids like this really are not thinking when they engage in conduct where we ask later “What was he thinking?”

“Kid, you are destroying Airport property, and I am turning you in.”  He fought me a bit as I pulled him down from his perch.  He was light and scared and a bit greasy, but it was not a problem to throw him around a bit.  Since I was going to try to save his life, and I knew that in the short term that would make him hate my guts, it seemed only logical that this should be a bit fun for me.  He probably was not expecting me to put his head in a toilet (a clean one but still a toilet) and let the flushing water refresh his scalp, but his ability to fight me was pitiful; this guy had not eaten for days, had taken a few too many chemicals, and decided he was out of options.

When he started screaming, I stopped the flushing and asked him if he was ready to go to the police or would he rather have a burger instead.  The kid did not speak, but looking at his expression, he started to realize that I might be crazy but I definitely was not a cop.  I did not wait for him to choose; we went to the taxi stand and asked to be taken to the closest place that had good burgers.  After that, I would look in the phone book, and we would find an AA meeting to attend that day before I caught a plane back home.

I wonder if Paul and George will forgive me for not finishing the game.


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