“Give me a ticket or give me a bar tab,” the young soldier said.
After seven beers, the soldier had gone belligerent, but the ticket agent had nothing new to offer. The agent was a dark, square-shouldered man and he spoke with an accent that may have been African or Haitian. “I can give you nothing right now,” the agent said. “When we start boarding, I will see what I have.”
The young soldier was tall, broad in the chest and lean, taller than the agent by a head and shoulders. He held a plastic cup of beer in one hand; in the other, a slip of paper. “I got a ticket here says I’m number one for stand-by.” He laid the ticket down on the podium and pointed with a big, blunt finger.
“Your number mean nothing to me,” the agent said. He looked the soldier in the eye, slid the ticket from under his finger, tore it in half, and dropped the pieces in a trash can. “I have seven others, waiting just like you.”
The soldier looked stunned. He pointed in the direction of the trash can. Things could have gotten ugly, but a small woman took the soldier by the elbow and led him away from the podium to where the others sat. “You need to calm down,” she told him. “You need to stop the beer and you need to calm down. You won’t get anywhere talking to people that way,”
“It wouldn’t be like this if I was in uniform,” the soldier said. “I know it wouldn’t. But they won’t let you go in uniform when you’re on emergency leave.” The soldier was on leave from the war in Iraq. His father was dying in some small Ohio town. So he had flown across half a world since early morning. His desert-camo backpack marked him as a soldier, but he wore a civilian t-shirt, denim shorts, and high-top running shoes. His hair, shaved close, military-style, was beginning to grow back in so that his head resembled a big, gray knuckle.
He glared murderously at the agent, but the man was too busy to notice. Perhaps he had faced down –who knows?—much worse than this in the country he was from.
“Listen,” the woman said. “We’ve all decided, no matter who gets called first, you get the first seat.”
“That’s right,” said a man standing near. “I’ve been in the military, so I understand.” He was in real estate and had a big meeting in the morning, but he was willing to step aside for the soldier. So was the man who managed a dance company and had a performance coming up. And the man from India who was due to start a new job in Louisville at nine a.m. sharp. And a woman dressed all in black who would not say what her business was. And a retired cop coming home from a fishing trip. And a college kid with earphones strapped around his head, lost in his iPod. And the woman who had taken the soldier by the arm and led him away from the argument — she had a class to teach in the morning. But she was willing to stand down for the soldier like the rest.
Moments before, she had tried to sit in meditation. There was nowhere she could go to do it properly, no quiet place, nowhere she could remove herself and empty herself of the strain of the day. So she simply parked her backpack underneath her seat, crossed her legs, folded her hands in her lap, and closed her eyes.
Empty your mind, she told her self. Empty your mind.
But it was hard to do, with all the televisions running the bad news of the day and the palpable tension of the stand-bys, announcements going out over the intercom, chatter all around her, and her own mind chattering away with worry, so her mind was not empty at all when she sensed the soldier — the poor drunk soldier with his father dying — ready to go off on the agent.
She could not bear it. She got up to calm the soldier and guide him back to his chair.
They had funneled into this waiting room from Tempe, Denver, Boston, or London into Chicago O’Hare and now they hoped to get from Chicago to Cincinnati or through Cincinnati to somewhere else, and it had been for each of them a nightmare day of delays and cancellations, a chaos of missed connections, visits to customer service, wrong turns, changes in plan, switched terminals, phone calls, re-written tickets, and races to one gate or another in the hope that, finally, they could get through.
But now, they waited, the camp of the ticketed passengers to one side and the camp of the stand-bys to the other. For an hour or two, the woman and the man from India had sat in the bar across the aisle where seven screens played the World Cup. But that was long over. And with the last flight of the night delayed yet another hour for god-knows-what reason, none of them knew when they would make it to their homes or meetings or classes or jobs or the father dying in his small Ohio town.
The soldier sat with his beer to his temple and glared at the agent, or out the window to the plane, or toward the door to the ramp. The real estate man turned to the small woman and asked, quietly, “Did you see the news last week about the soldier back from Iraq who went off his nut?”
She had not.
“He went off and he tried to break into the cabin and take over the plane, but the passengers took him down.”
“There’s thousands of soldiers flying every day.”
“I know. I know. I’m just telling you what I heard. So what do we do if we don’t get on this plane?”
“There’s the first flight out at 5:30 in the morning.”
“And what do we do until then?”
“They’ll get us a voucher for a motel room.”
“Who told you that?”
“The people at Customer Service.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
“But that’s what they told us.”
“Yeah, well, Customer Service is closed.”
“Wait a minute.”
“Don’t believe me? You can check.”
She was already bounding down the hall. She strode past the bar with the seven televisions, swept past the news stand with the bright magazines, turned right at the McDonald’s where one last customer waited for a Big Mac, then took a quick left across the hall.
No one at Customer Service. The poles and web straps to keep the lines in an orderly snake were still up, but the desk was dark; no one was in line. A Latina woman maneuvered a vacuum among the lines.
“Abierto?” the woman called over the noise of the vacuum.
“No. Cerro. Closed half an hour ago. They all went home.”
“That makes no sense.”
The woman with the vacuum shrugged.
Hours before, the small woman had been in line at Customer Service for a food voucher when word came that her original flight, the one delayed hour by hour because of bad tires, the missing paperwork, and the change of crew, had finally, after a string of promises, been cancelled.
So, by luck, she was first in line when the word came and a young black woman named Bianca had set her up for stand-by. The flight was just down the hall and there were just a few minutes until boarding, so she forgot all about the food voucher. She took the ticket, thanked the young woman, and raced down the hall to the new gate where the ticket agent was announcing that this flight, too, was delayed.
Something this time about a change of shift. And so, she, and the soldier, and over the next hour the other stranded stand-bys, piled up at the gate where the agent read each ticket, took their names, and made no promises.
So there was nothing to do but wait, and hope, and listen for the latest update on the status of this flight. The others checked watches, talked into cell phones, or read in fits. She sat and thought and thought about all the impossible situations of the stand-bys and she knew some could wait but others had truly urgent places to be or connections they would miss. And when she heard the story of the poor soldier trying to get home to his father who was ill and dying and how the soldier, who had already been delayed once in London, which was why he was stuck with stand-by, had to watch the hours of his emergency leave dwindle away, she could hardly think of anything else. She decided then, that rather than scramble over one another for a seat, they should decide, fairly, among themselves, who had the greatest need and the clearest right to the first seat. And of course it was the soldier.
When she came back down the hall the workers were cleaning up and shutting off the lights at the McDonald’s, the news-stand, and the Starbucks. The bar maid was wiping down the tables in the bar with the seven darkened televisions.
At the gate, there was the soldier, and there were the stand-bys and there were the rows of ticketed passengers and there was the agent studying the computer screen at his podium.
The soldier had a new beer filled to the top. He stared at it as a person might stare into a book whose meaning had got past him.
The woman sat down next to him. “Anything new?” she asked.
The soldier shrugged. “Closed?”
“They were closed. I’m undone. It’s so wrong. It’s cold in here. And I’m hungry. And there’s nowhere to sleep.”
The soldier took a long slow sip from his beer, burped quietly, and said, “They better get me on this plane.”
“They will,” she said. “I’m sure they will.”
He glared at the agent and took another long sip.
“How many of those have you had?”
He shrugged again.
“You’ve had enough. You keep it up and they’ll never let you on the plane.”
“Bar’s closed now anyway.”
“Well good, because you can’t talk to people the way you did up there.” She nodded toward the ticket agent. “He could just scratch you off his list.”
The real estate man sat down across from them.
“College or high school?”
She did not realize at first he was talking to her. “I’m sorry, I don’t . . . ”
“Do you teach college or high school?”
“What do you teach?”
“Well . . . ”
“I thought you were. I could tell.”
“You could tell. . . ”
“I got saved last year, so I can tell. I can just tell who’s been saved and who hasn’t and I can tell about you.”
“I don’t think . . . ”
“My wife was the one. She pushed at me and pushed at me and finally she said, If you don’t quit the drinking I’m out of here. So I said, This is serious, so I started going to church and I was saved last year . . . ”
The agent was on the intercom. ”Ladies and gentlemen, I have word we can now begin boarding.” He began to call off the sections who could board and the ranks of the ticketed passengers began to thin. The real estate man continued to tell his story, which had somehow morphed into how he was a day or two away from wrapping up a deal that would set him up for life and how he had been blessed and she listened without enthusiasm. The soldier sipped slowly on his beer and watched the agent closely. Once he had called the last section the agent disappeared into the loading ramp for a few moments, came back out to his podium, tapped at his computer for a few strokes, then called out “William Morris.”
No one was left but the stand-bys and none of them was named William Morris. The soldier looked across his beer at the agent. The others looked to each other, but no one moved. If there was no William Morris, then there was an open seat on the plane.
“William Morris, last call.”
The agent looked at each of the seven faces. The dance manager touched the handle of his carry-on. Each of the others tensed in his or her seat like a runner.
“Last call. William Morris.”
No one moved. The agent wrote on a pad and tapped at his computer.
“Regina McBride. Last call Regina McBride.”
There was no Regina McBride in the room. So there was at least one more seat. The agent wrote on his pad, tapped at his computer, looked around the room, and turned back into the tunnel. The soldier sipped and stared and the others looked at each other until the agent came back out. He pointed to the soldier but the soldier did not move.
“He means you,” the woman said. She nudged him and he stood. He drained the last of the beer in one long aspiration and threw the empty cup into the can next to the podium. “Go on,” she said, “you’ve got your seat.”
The agent tapped at his pad, looked up, and called, “John Reynolds.”
The real estate man stood, grabbed the handle of his carry-on and said “Good luck everybody.” He showed his ticket to the agent and trundled through the ramp door and out of sight.
The man from the dance company shook his head and muttered.
“Go on,” the woman told the soldier, “Get on the plane.”
The soldier hitched his backpack onto his shoulders. The woman nudged him again and he stumbled as far as the podium. The agent reached for his ticket, but the soldier glared down at the man.
“What about my luggage?” he asked.
The agent looked up. “This is the first I’ve heard about your luggage.”
“I got six thousand dollars worth of military equipment in that luggage.”
“They will do their best to locate your luggage and get it on the plane.”
“I can’t leave without my luggage.”
The woman charged up to the podium and poked the soldier in the shoulder. “Just go,” she said. “You’ll get your luggage later.”
“ I got six thousand dollars worth . . . ”
The agent pointed to the ramp door. “Ask the crewman. Yellow jacket. He’ll be right near the door.”
“ I got . . . ”
The agent clacked a few more times at his computer, looked up, and said, “Are you going? I have a room full of people who want that seat.”
“Go on,” she said to the soldier.
The agent typed once more into his computer. Without looking, he pointed toward the door with his thumb. “Talk to the baggage crew.”
The soldier looked one more slow, beery look at the agent, then headed through the door and into the tunnel.
The agent finished with a flurry of taps and looked up. “So did Customer Service take care of you?”
The man from the dance company said, “They gave us stand-by tickets for the morning, but nothing for the night.”
“But they’ll give you a hotel voucher.”
“Not if they’re closed, they won’t.”
The agent hissed with frustration. “Let me finish up here,” he said. “I will see what I can do.”
He closed up his podium and went back through the ramp door.
The small woman stared a moment at the door, then looked around at the rest of the stand-bys. This was their last chance. Now, they were stuck. The college kid laid out his backpack as if he planned to make camp. The woman in black sank deep into her chair. The dance manager still stared at the door as if there might be some hope. The man from India talked loudly into a cell phone.
The batteries in her cell phone had died hours ago so she decided to look for a phone booth to call her husband. She looked right and she looked left down the darkened corridor and could not tell which way to turn. The only sound was the janitor’s vacuum at work around the corner.
This is crazy, she thought. What will I do? She was tired, she was cold, she was hungry. There was no place she could go. At this hour, the whole terminal was shutting down, the whole of it gone over to a vast, catacombic darkness.
She had nothing with her but a light jacket and a satchel with some books. She wanted to tell her husband, she wanted to tell someone, what a day this had been.
What a day, she thought. What a day. And what will I do for the night?
She felt a tap on her shoulder: the ticket agent. “Come with me,” he said. “I have a seat for you.”
She looked around at the others, saw their eyes on her, and felt a wave of guilt.
“Come on,” he said, and she followed him through the ramp door and down the tube. At the door of the plane, there was the soldier, a stewardess, and a man in a yellow vest.
“I aint leavin’ without my gear.”
The stewardess tried to explain. “We don’t know where your luggage is right now, but we’ll find it and have it delivered . . . ”
The woman poked the soldier on the elbow. “Why aren’t you on that plane?”
“I aint leavin’ unless my gear goes with me.”
“You need to get on that plane; your father is waiting for you.”
“Six thousand. Dollars. Worth of . . . ”
The agent tapped her elbow. “Come on, please,” he asked.
“But . . . ”
“We’ll take care of him. You get on the plane.” A security guard stood behind the soldier now. She let the stewardess guide her across the platform and onto the plane and back to the seat the soldier had refused to take.
The man in real estate had been given the seat just behind her. He smiled, gave her a thumbs-up, and said, “You made it.”
She nodded, but she could find nothing in her to say to him. She pulled a book from her carry-on, and shoved the bag under the seat in front of her.
The passenger beside her was already asleep. The woman strapped herself in and the stewardess began to act out the ritual of latching and unlatching and what to do in the unlikely event and how to put on the mask. But the woman just wanted to sleep. She wanted to pull up the little thin airline blanket and put her head down on the little puff of an airline pillow and sleep, but she could not stop thinking about the drunken young soldier and his dying father and about the sad platoon of stand-bys she had left behind.
Empty your mind. Empty your mind, she told herself. Empty your mind. But the man in real estate had found someone who would listen and he talked the whole flight long, over the darkened fields and farmland of sleeping Indiana, about deals made and broken, about the costs of doing business, about the price of land and the rates of loans and of profits made and losses taken and of how he had been saved.
Banner photograph: SilkAir, Airbus A320-200 (9V-SLI) at Singapore Changi Airport, parked at boarding gate.