A smooth take off and an ascent to cruising altitude set the stewardesses at work. The plane felt stuffier than usual. He was in the middle, his favorite location. He’d been at the front, not first class, but right at that front row, with all that legroom. It just didn’t suit him. He wanted to be appropriately uncomfortable, a badge of honor, a shared suffering. So here he was, middle of the plane, middle of the row. Priest to his right, old woman holding a Pomeranian on his left. He felt like he was living inside a not-that-funny-gotta-laugh-to-be-polite joke that he couldn’t remember the punch line for.
“I’d very much like two of those, three even, if a few other people have declined. Really, I’d like however many I could have, given the number of people who’d declined in all the previous rows. I’m only barely in the middle, so I think that’s fair. I’m not suggesting I take any extras after you’re done with serving all the rows, though, if that could be arranged, I’d be fine with that.” He felt familiar with her look, like he’d been on a flight with this particular stewardess before. Or perhaps, somewhere, they were mass-producing skinny blonde women with ponytails and translucent looks revealing exactly how much hatred she had for you.
“Sir, airline policy is that you get one alcoholic beverage with your ticket purchase.” Then she looked over him and pointed to the old woman at the window.
“Wine, white, please,” the old woman said.
“Wait your turn, Liza Minnelli,” he said before turning his attention back to the stewardess. “We should start over. I’m Trip. Yes, I get it, Trip on a trip, it’s all very funny, and sure, absolutely, of course I know there are airline policies, but what if the alcoholic beverage I prefer is a pint of Jim Beam? What then?” The plane shook slightly through some turbulence. It was enough for the seatbelt light to ding and illuminate with faded white, almost taupe hue. “See,” Trip said, while passing a plastic cup of wine to the woman in the seat next to him. He fought the urge to down it. To do that meant giving up the potential motherload of three to five tiny bottles of liquor. “Look, I know what this is.”
The stewardess popped a hip and with respectful boredom like a child listening politely to her grandfather’s ‘In my day’ rant. “And what exactly is this?”
“These drinks, they’re calming mechanisms. Much like the oxygen in the face shields you so expertly tucked away. But see, I know all this. I see the system. I know what’s behind the curtain.”
She leaned in. “And what’s behind the curtain?”
“Corporations. The big guys. The Man. We both work for The Man. The Man uses us to keep each other down. He makes rules he hopes you’ll follow to keep money in his pocket. Don’t do his bidding!” But she was already swinging her hand in the air and laughing a hearty laugh like she usually doesn’t do this kind of thing but this is a special occasion so let’s pop some champagne and have a good hard chuckle.
“Miss, see, I’m a practicing alcoholic. As such, this drink,” he held up the single nip, “is fifty milliliters of bullshit. All it’ll do is set my craving alight. I’ll be even less calm than you hoped I’d be, sitting here on fire, burning up everything. Imagine that. A person on fire, like a Vietnamese monk, immolated.”
“So don’t drink it,” she said, reaching for it.
He pulled it away, “Oh no, that just will not do. I don’t have a choice. You handed it to me. It’s like handing him a cross and telling him not to pray with it.” Trip pointed the tiny whiskey bottle to the priest. “The bastard is going to pray.”
“We’re all bastards,” the priest said.
“Save it, I’m in the middle of a conversation. You can see that. Talk to God for a few minutes. I’ll get back to you in a second.” He eyed the stewardess. “Please. Look at me. Between a priest and Maggie Smith.”
“He can have mine,” the priest said disinterestedly, flipping the pages of a magazine.
“There we go. We have one generous soul. We can check,” he sat up and peeked behind him fighting against the seatbelt holding him down. “Maybe there are others who want to donate to a worthy cause.”
The stewardess unlocked her cart and moved forward.
“Miss,” he said, but she’d effectively iced him out. She stopped at the next row. Pressing the break on her cart. He spoke again, loud enough for her to hear, “Living her life ten inches at a time but also a hundred miles, isn’t that just the most confusing life.” Trip nudged the priest with an elbow, “Ah, thanks for trying, there, father. Now I have to throw a fit. It’s really, if you want to know, it’s really about the dance.” He placed his hands on the seat in front of him, mimicking the placement of his hands if the seat were a woman in an evening gown and he were taking her for a twirl.
“The dance?” The priest never looked up from his magazine.
“Yeah, see, too harsh, I get banned from flights. Too soft and she’ll never give me more alcohol. It’s the dance.” He did the dancing thing again and, when his hand was nearby, the Pomeranian extended his neck and, with a pint-sized snarl, tried to nip his finger. “Hey lady, what’s the problem here?”
She shushed the Pomeranian, whispering a name like Freckles or Peddles or Piddles. “So, what do you do for a living?” the woman asked. Blue eye shadow hovered over brown eyes, the whites of which yellowed like a smokers’. “Oh don’t look at him.” She hugged the dog closer. “If you look at him, he thinks you’re challenging his authority. He won’t bite you if you don’t look at him. He doesn’t like when people look at him. Oh please.”
“Well this has been fun,” Trip said, turning away from her.
“You fly often, then?” the priest said, skimming the magazine.
“I do.” he reached up and rang for the stewardess. She must have heard him because her blonde ponytail whipped from one shoulder to the other. She eyed him angrily and a snarl seemed to curl on her lip. “What was that you said about staring, Judi Dench?” The woman opened her mouth to speak, but Trip didn’t wait. Instead, with a breath, he turned to the priest, “What are you reading, there? God Quarterly? Hot Nuns?”
“Most people make the little boys jokes.”
“I just hadn’t gotten to it yet.”
“So why do you fly so frequently?” He turned a page.
“Occupational hazard. I study invasive species. So: travel, point, return, repeat.”
The woman chimed in, “Now that is an interesting profession. My first husband…Don’t look at Pebbles. Don’t. Just please stop it.” Trip had taken to glaring directly into the dog’s soul. This, apparently, was the equivalent to a middle school mom joke because the dog was ready to throw down. The woman held the dog close to her, leaning toward the window.
He looked away and laughed. “Where in the hell…” He pressed the stewardess button again.
“What was your most interesting case?” the woman asked. He turned to her and she preemptively covered the dog’s face.
“Give me that wine and I’ll tell you.” She nodded, still holding the dog against her chest while it growled in a high-pitched moan that parodied itself. He held the plastic cup, turned it so the fluorescent pink lipstick faced the seat in front of him. “Ah,” he said “I see you went with I’m-still-alive-please-don’t-put-me-in-the-morgue-just-yet-pink.” Then he downed the wine in one gulp, sliding her cup underneath his.
“So?” the woman said, readjusting Pebbles on her lap.
“So…what? Oh, right. Got lost in the earthy flavors of,” he looked at the menu in the seat pocket in front of him, “oh, yes, of course, the fruit forward notes of White Wine. Very exotic.” He winked at her. “Excellent choice, really, I–”
“Just shut up and tell the story.” The priest still hadn’t looked up from his magazine but the interruption meant something.
“Sure, why not, right? Okay so I get called into the Amazon. A real shit gig. I mean, the Amazon? Mosquitoes bigger than Pebbles. Anyway, I get called in because there’s this logging company requesting removal of this…Well, what they did was found a loophole in the law. Basically, there’s this ancient tribe in Amazon, I mean, I guess there’s a bunch of them,” he stopped to take a sip of the whiskey. “Mmm, anyway, there’s a lot of tribes in the Amazon, obviously, but there’s one that populates this area with all these, Jesus if only I could remember the name of those trees. Hey, I have an idea,” Trip nudged the priest, “call in a favor for me, would you? I’d really like to—ah, I remember now, Ipê. That’s it. The Ipê tree.” The priest looked up from his magazine for the first time. “Stop smiling at me, father. I remembered all on my own.”
“So what happened next?” The woman asked, eyes turned toward Trip in rapt attention.
“So technically, because plans were put into place to cut down the trees for some hotel, and no one rebuffed them, because, well, the tribe can’t read, right? Then that means they’re standing in the way of progress. And because of that, they’re considered invasive.”
“That’s awful,” the woman said, stroking Pebbles.
“Sure is. That’s the loophole though. No one realized the vague language could be used to take a species and name them invasive when they’ve been there all along.”
“So what did you do? You saved the tribe right? You closed the loophole and…”
“I’m going to stop you there, Diane Keaton. I did my job. We found that, by the definition laid out in our—”
“We get it,” the priest said.
Trip shrugged after finishing the tiny whiskey bottle. “That’s the way it goes. The story teller always gets to tell the story.” He jabbed his finger into the stewardess call button another time.
The priest got to the end of the magazine and said, “profound,” before starting right up at the beginning.
“It is if you remove the pretense of God. Where is God when they send troops to displace people who, quite frankly, have ancestors who’ve populated that land well before Jesus got his first pube? Wouldn’t have happened if they were Christians, right father?” Trip nudged the priest who stopped looking at his magazine and stared down at the aisle. Trip turned his attention to the woman. “I mean, look, I’m not saying I didn’t try. I supplied the tribe with the paperwork, but I’m out there smacking mosquitoes on my neck telling these people with their tiny loincloths and bare-chested women and piercings through God-knows-what to file a court injunction, but they don’t know what court is, let alone an injunction. Hell, does anyone know what an injunction is? Anyway, they lost the land.”
“Yeah,” the priest deadpanned, “we got that.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this job, it’s that invasive species don’t think they’re invasive. They think they’re surviving. Their wants and needs just happen to be tied up in someone else’s. And, when push comes to shove it just matters…”
“Who tells the story,” the priest finished.
“We’re so cute together,” Trip said, “finishing each other’s…” he waited, but the priest didn’t bite.
Instead, the old woman offered, “sentences,” with a gaping smile.
“Those your real teeth?” Trip asked. The woman’s smile turned quickly to a scowl. “Didn’t think so. Anyway, it makes you wonder about what it means to be invasive.” Trip stared at the seat in front of him. When he shook himself out of the thought, he noticed the old woman was staring out the window and the priest eyed the aisle.
He was about to say something when the stewardess appeared. “Look, I got you one extra, will that keep you from pressing that button?” She put the whiskey on the tray table in front of Trip and disappeared. It sat there while all three of them stared at it.