:v_voltaire takes the stage: It doesn't matter if you're ten minutes or two hours late for a plane ride. The result is the same: you miss your plane. Therefore, while waiting for the next open flight, I had a great deal of time on my hands. One result was my 11/30/00 column of "Homework." The other result is this story. :v_voltaire leaves the stage, munching on some complimentary snack mix.:
Joseph didn't care about flying anymore, almost as little as he cared about staying on the land. He had done so for too often, for too long to care. Every week he was sent off to someplace new. It was one of the requirements for his job. He spent more time in the air than most pilots.
The places blurred in his memory. New York? That was La Guardia, the port with the somewhat attractive waitress—Shelly, her name was?—who knew him by name. Hartford? That was home of the tacky, carpeted floors. New Orleans, home of jazz, Mardi Gras, and the Hurricane? Oh yes, that was the place with the awful, yet inexpensive, restaurant, "Jester's." A hundred cities, all known by their little airport eccentricities.
Joseph had no home anymore. For several years he had owned a modestly upper-class apartment in New York City. Even during the time that he owned it, he found it an effort to visit it. It was never "home," it was merely an obligation. When he was away for two months and came back to find all of his plants dead, he decided that it was time to sell his apartment.
His home was whatever hotel he stayed at and whatever seat he sat in on the plane.
Joseph went through three stages in his plane-riding years. In the beginning he attempted to have pleasant conversations with the person seated next to him. He would speak of common, non-offensive topics, perfecting his courtesy-laugh whenever his companion would attempt a joke. Then, one day, Joseph realized that he was always having the same conversation, just with different people. That was when stage two kicked in.
Stage two involved him developing elaborate lies about his life. He was tired of explaining exactly what a "business consultant" did, so instead he was an author, a doctor, a lion tamer, a rodeo clown. Stage two ended when someone told him the absolute, perfect truth about what he was doing. He remembered the words with utter clarity: "That is complete bullshit."
With that his deception ended. True, he had been lying, and lying poorly at that. True, the majority of people didn't believe the lies he made up about his life. Now, whenever he tried to lie, he smelled the dizzying, sickening stench of the excrement his lies had been called.
Stage three involved his complete avoidance of the person in the seat next to him. He would simply ignore that person whenever he was talked to. He had faith that, if the person was ignored for long enough, that person would soon be quiet. If that tactic failed, as it infrequently did, Joseph had become adept at giving what he called "The Look." It was a perfect blend of boredom, annoyance, and contempt. It was known to stop even the most incessant chatterbox mid-sentence. "The Look" was one of the few things Joseph was proud of.
Thus isolated in his seat on the plane, Joseph was confused when a voice was able to penetrate the invisible barriers he had placed about himself.
"Aren't you scared?" a youthful voice asked. Joseph turned to his right to see a young girl seated next to him. He was perplexed.
"The turbulence," the girl explained. Joseph's eyes drifted downward to see that, although her face was calm, her hands were tightly clenched on the armrests.
Another jolt from the plane caused Joseph's complimentary snack mix to fall into his lap. "I hadn't noticed," Joseph confessed in a temporary moment of honesty.
"You're not serious," the girl said, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear before returning her hand to its proper place, clinging for dear life to the armrest. "I should be used to plane flights by now, but I guess I'm more on edge since this is my first one without my parents. Whenever we hit a bump I can't help thinking 'Alive' or 'Langoliers' or 'There's something on the wing!' or something like that." She laughed at herself, then squeaked as the plane shook again. "You're seriously not scared?" she asked.
"No," Joseph said, voice void of emotion. He startled himself when he realized that it was true—he could detect no stench of falsehood. He simply had no fear of a plane crash. He didn't know whether this was because he had flown so much that he had complete faith in the pilot, or, more disturbingly, whether it was because he didn't care if the plane crashed. He feared that the correct answer was the latter.
Whether the plane crashed or not, Joseph had no control over it. His fate was in someone else's hands, and worrying about it wouldn't change anything. With this thought in mind, Joseph turned away from the nervous teenager and looked out the window.
His first thought was that it had been an awful long time since he had looked, actually looked out of a window. His second thought was that the plane was flying awfully close to the ground. The second thought didn't bother him—maybe planes flew lower nowadays, and the plane seemed to be holding at a level altitude. There was little danger of crashing, so he didn't worry.
What he did do, however, was look. It was nighttime and the ground was lit with traffic lights, cars, and buildings. The patterns were astounding, Joseph realized for the first time. Cars traveled down the roads creating little rivers, red in one direction, white in the other. The lengths of traffic lights sparkled green and red in rapid succession, a chain reaction of changing color. Buildings were black spots on top, outlined by the lights pouring from their windows. The enormous park in the center of the city was the most marvelous of all. The street lights used to illuminate it were constantly hiding behind trees, occasionally peeking out between the branches before shyly hiding again. Their twinkling seemed a celestial tribute, a glorious imitation of the stars in the sky above it. Joseph sighed softly in pleasure.
Then something changed. With an audible snap that only Joseph could hear, the mood of the world beneath him changed. The park lights were moving, the city was moving, the cars seemed to join form and separate at the same time. The lights from the park weren't twinkling, they were pulsating.
It was alive; Joseph realized this in a moment of clarity. The city buildings were individual cells. The streets with their constant river of cars weren't rivers at all! The streets were veins, arteries, and the cars were blood, streaming through this organism. The park, oh God, that was the worst of it all! It seemed to him a symbiot, something breathing, living, crawling outwards towards the city and its unwitting inhabitants. It was grotesque, and no one but Joseph seemed to notice it.
He was the only one who spent enough time away from it, disconnected through flight. That was why he was the only one who could see it for what it really was. It was ridiculous, but it stunk of truth. The irony gave him sick pleasure; the acrid odor of Joseph's lies had changed into the indicator of horrible truth.
What could he do? All over the world, he sensed these things. They were made not only of cities and machines, but of the people who created them. These people all lived their life, crawling in and out of its carcass, oblivious to what they were a part of. He couldn't be a part of this, he couldn't! He had to do something, he had to—
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are beginning our descent. Please fasten your tray tables and return your seats to the full upright position. The time is 12:15 AM and the temperature is 42 degrees. Thank you, and I hope you have enjoyed your flight."
The plane fell, fell, fell until it crashed lightly onto the landing strip. The passengers amiably exited the plane, willingly devoured by the organism. Joseph watched as his neighbor, the teenage girl, happily accepted her fate as part of the creature. In fact, she looked relieved to be connected again. Joseph was the last passenger to leave the plane, but he too rejoined the organism.