The Layover

It was nearing the second hour of my scheduled forty-five-minute layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, en route to Albany, NY. I waited in line for twenty minutes to speak with the attendant to see if any other accommodations could be made. When my turn came up, I could tell the airline sent a veteran to handle our increasingly turbulent group of passengers. She was in her mid-50’s, and her gray-streaked hair was pulled into a tight bun. Her uniformed blazer and skirt were immaculately tailored without a hint of lint. She wore a solid gold American Airlines nametag on her left breast pocket, with a red and white striped kerchief peeking out behind it.

She glanced upward from the computer screen, barely moving her eyes enough to make eye-contact with me. Her eyes were hardly visible over the scalloped frame of the dark red reading glasses residing at the tip of her nose. “Sir, there are no other flights leaving Charlotte, heading towards Albany.” It felt like she was feigning empathy, but it was hard to pick up through her strong Hispanic accent.

Albany. Not Al Bunny, Esmeralda,” I snipped back. My filter was long lost to impatience. She rolled her eyes and sighed at my remark. I took a deep breath, and spoke again. “I’m sorry, I know that you’re not from around there, but I really want to get home.”

“I understand Sir. Everyone in this terminal is trying to get somewhere. Please understand that there is nothing we can do, and your safety comes first. Any issue, however minor, needs to be addressed before the plane is ready for departure.”

“Are there any flights on other airlines that I can switch to?”

“Sir,” she said, with clear frustration in her tone, “I do not have access to other airlines. You are more than welcome to inquire about availability at their counters. When we have updates, we will announce them across the terminal. Thank you for your continued patience.” She looked down at the computer and started typing.

I walked through the terminal to seek refuge at another airline. As I approached Delta’s desk, I heard a mother yelling at her preteen daughter about taking something from the souvenir store. It snapped me back to my fourteen-year-old self. The words that kid heard were going to be stuck in her head for the rest of her life, just like the time I got caught stealing in middle school.

 

“You cannot imagine how disappointed I am in you!” Ma’s face had reddened and she had grown furious. “I thought I raised you better than this! How could you steal something?”

“Ma,” I began sheepishly. “I am so sorry. I just wanted a new Walkman, and I knew you couldn’t get it for me.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding me, Harold Joseph Winston!” She huffed and puffed like I was a plump pig in a stick house. “You should know that all you have to do is ask, and your father and I will do our best to accommodate you!”

“I know, Ma, but with you getting divorced I didn’t think you had money for that.”

“How do you know about that?”

“There was a letter left on the table when I came home from school the other day.”

Ma’s face had turned sullen, and the flush crimson color in her cheeks faded to a pale blue, like a foot of pristine snow under a full moon. “Harry, I’m sorry.” Her eyes had welled up with tears. “You weren’t supposed to know yet. I was waiting to tell you until I had living arrangements for the two of us.”

“The two of us?”

“Yeah, Harry. Me and you. We need to get away from your father.”

“Dad said you’d try to turn me against him!” Ma was the disciplinarian, and I sensed my way out of culpability. I continued my offense. “If you want to leave me and dad, go ahead!”

“Harry, if you really want to stay, I won’t fight your decision.” She had begun to weep openly. “Someday, I hope you will understand, but I cannot stay here with you and your father.”

 

After I struck out with Delta, I went on to also fail with Southwest, JetBlue, and United. Defeated, I went to the airport’s lounge to get a drink.

“What’ll ya have?” the bartender asked, in a way that sounded like he was trying to make a new friend.

“Whiskey,” I said sternly. “Neat.”

He took a rocks glass and set it down on the bar gently. His collared, blue shirt was buttoned to his neck, and his black vest appeared brand-new. There was a matching black bowtie symmetrically tied precisely at the center of his neck. He poured the spirit so softly that not even a drop landed outside of the glass.

“Ya doin’ alright, pal?” he inquired, while carefully sliding the glass toward me with one hand, simultaneously reaching for payment with the other.

“Yeah,” I answered, with no intention of divulging. I handed him my card. “Keep it open, buddy.” I took a swig, and it hit the back of my throat hard. I lowered the glass slowly, and stared at the auburn liquor in the glass as I swirled it around, thinking about the first time my mother and Florida were joined in my memory.

 

“Harry, you know how your aunt and grandmother are moving to Florida?”

I nodded passively, because I still had not come to terms with their decision. After Mom and Dad split up, they became my primary caregivers through high school, and my aunt was the co-signor on my college loan. My mother and I had an on-again, off-again relationship through my teen years.

“Well, I am going too.”

“Why? We’re just starting to patch things up!”

“I know it’s been rough since I left your father. But we are doing better.” She had placed her hands on my upper arms, and gave them a couple quick squeezes, like she was checking a cantaloupe for freshness. “You’ll be so busy with college in a few months that we wouldn’t see each other much anyway.”

I was disappointed, but I was determined to make our arduous relationship building pay off. “Alright, I’ll visit on breaks from school.”

“See? That’s the ticket!” The left side of her mouth had curled into a wry smile. “You’re already using me as an excuse for vacations!”

“Yeah, right. Besides, we’ll call each other all the time. It’s not like we’re going to stop talking after getting this close again.”

“That’s right! It won’t even be that bad when I’m gone.”

 

I looked around the bar as I finished my glass of whiskey. I saw some familiar faces sitting around me, though I didn’t know any of their names.

I summoned the bartender for a refill, and the second glass went down far easier than the first. While mulling over the third glass, I was staring at the local news on the TV. The closed-captioning was on, but I didn’t want to focus on a story about a book drive at the elementary school. I lost myself in the swelling hum of the crowd. My thoughts drifted, and brought back a conversation I forgot about.

 

“I don’t know how to say this, Harry, but I’ve been feeling weak lately, and my legs are always swollen.”

“Swollen? What do you mean? Swollen?

“You know, swollen. Puffy. Squishy.”

“Well what’s going on?”

“I’ve been to three different doctors, and none of them know what caused it. I’m suffering from late-stage kidney failure. They aren’t filtering how they should, and my legs retain fluid.” She paused, seemingly trying to find the words that would comfort both of us. “There’s things that I can try to mitigate the swelling.”

“Ma, come back to New York so you can see a real doctor.” I mustered a giggle, trying to change the tone. “Don’t let those bumpkins try to take care of you.”

“There’s real doctors here,” she said seriously. “We’ll figure it out. It should only take a few months.”

 

Ma’s few months turned into two years, and her kidneys worsened exponentially. She received hemodialysis three times a week to flush the toxins out of her blood that her kidneys refused to. The treatments were rough on her, and she was in a state of recovery every other day.

The bar’s hum had turned into a legitimate calamity. I’m barely able to get the bartender’s attention.

“Whaddya want?”

Dude, it’s my sixth one!

“Whiskey. Neat.” I look at my watch to figure out how long I’ve been sitting here. It’s been an hour-and-a-half since I first saw this guy, and his appearance has certainly declined.

His forehead is glistening with sweat, and there is no sign of his bowtie. His vest is open, and as he moves I can see the wrinkled shirt it once ensconced. His plush arm hair billows around his rolled-up sleeves, and his chest hair protrudes proudly from his unbuttoned collar. As he withdraws the whiskey bottle, I hand him my glass. Our hands graze, and for the first time, I notice how rough his hands are. He must be a carpenter or something.

The neck of the whiskey bottle seems like it’s going to snap under the pressure of his calloused fingers as he sloppily pours my drink. Maybe he’s a landscaper.

“The bar’s not drinking it, man, I am.” Ah, oil under the fingernails. He’s a mechanic.

“Yeah, whatever, pal. Ain’t ya had enough, yet?” He looks pissed as he shoves the glass across the countertop toward me. The liquid sloshes about, spilling over the edge. I lose my train of thought as I scan the room for napkins.

Two-and-a-half-weeks before this disastrous glass of whiskey, my aunt called to ask for help with Ma. Her blood pressure plummeted at dialysis, and she was rushed to the hospital for monitoring. While there, she suffered a stroke, and they weren’t sure that she was going to make it. For the last seventeen days, my aunt and I sat by her side in the ICU as she recovered.

Unfortunately, I’m out of vacation days for the year, and I must go back to work. My aunt said she’ll be able to handle Ma when she gets released, and that keeping my job is more important. We’ll figure out what to do after she gets settled at home.

I can’t hear my phone ring, but the vibration in my pocket drives me up a wall. I pull it out and look at the screen. My heart sinks, because even though the caller ID reads “Auntie,” it says something different to my soul. I don’t need to talk to her for the few moments I do, because I already know what our conversation is going to entail. I close out my bar tab and head back to the terminal.

Esmeralda is not happy to see me again as my spot in line comes up. I leave lasting impressions, huh? Her hair is let down, and frizzy. Her blazer is strewn across the heater behind her desk, with her heels peeking out from beneath it. I can see large sweat stains under her arm pits as she gesticulates.

“Sir, I know it’s been six hours,” she hesitates, as she stands up nice and straight. “However, we have no updates at this time. We apologize for the inconvenience, but we are doing everything we can to get you to Albany.”

“It’s okay. I need to go back to Jacksonville.”

Short Fiction — Modern American Boy

Today’s creative writing lab was heavily influenced by Jamaica Kincaid’s Girl, which I highly recommend. The imperative style is really neat, and I had fun with this one.

I’d like to revisit this at a later date and flesh it out more. It hits a little too on the nose for my taste, and I’d like to imply more with contextual clues instead of spelling out this father’s advice.


Modern American Boy

Boy, take your time and absorb what is around you. Your impulses will get you in trouble. You can be a few minutes late to work, you don’t need to speed. Make up for it by leaving a few minutes earlier tomorrow. Be early. Respect the system, be on time, work hard, earn your keep. Don’t rush. Mind your manners; be strong; be in touch with your emotions but don’t share them. Don’t stare at girls too long; don’t put girls down; don’t objectify them; appreciate their form, their figure, their mind, but don’t make crass remarks. Girls will be there later, tomorrow, and the next day. Focus on what you need for the future, not what makes you feel good right now. Pay attention to instructions; follow the rules; be patient; be a good student, be a good worker, be a good son, be a good spouse, and be a good man. Be mindful of your impulses and don’t jump in feet first. Don’t start fights; finish them. Stand up for what is right; pick and choose when to act. Don’t jump in feet first if you can’t see the bottom. I heard you. Don’t misbehave in class; don’t smoke in bathrooms; don’t go out drinking when you have a test in the morning; don’t arrange dates with two women on the same day; don’t date two women with different names at the same time; don’t fall for the grass being greener; don’t ruin marriages, don’t ruin families, don’t ruin your son. I am not ruined. Be there for those that need you. Be strong.

 

Short Fiction – Avoidance

As work drew to a close, he thought about the awkward encounter awaiting him at home. For the last week and a half, he and his wife had grown distant. They slept on the far edges of their side of the bed, and recoiled when their skin grazed one another’s. Their conversations were short, close-ended exchanges of one or two word answers. There was no compassion, there was no attraction, there was just empty space. And that’s what he wanted. He’d grown tired of the incessant attempts his wife made to rekindle the passion. “I can’t stand her dumb questions about my day,” he mumbled to himself as he slowed his work pace. “If I’m a half hour late, so be it. It’s another half hour of not dealing with that bullshit.”

She sat at home, anxious. Unfortunately, her thoughts were spiraling again. She couldn’t pin exactly when her anxiety became so unmanageable, but it reared its ugly head all too often. Her only distraction at this point was seeing that the clock was nearing 9:00 pm, and he would be home soon. Asking him about his day was her way of trying to escape the reality of how little she accomplished battling her anxiety. It was her escape, and often, it was her only contact with the world outside the house.

At 10:45, His phone rang. He lost himself in paperwork that didn’t need to be finished, and lost track of time. “Of course it’s her. She just can’t do anything on her own.” He sent the call to voicemail. “I’ll go home when I’m good and ready.”

“I wonder why he’s not picking up. He must be with another woman. One that isn’t crazy. One that doesn’t drive him nuts with her fidgeting and panic.” The phone call kicked to voicemail. “It has to be it. He can’t bother to answer the phone, and he’s an hour late. Of course he’s with another woman.” She had memorized the voicemail at this point, as every call she made to him went unanswered. Her message, too, had become rehearsed. “Hey, it’s me,” she tepidly began, “I guess you’re stuck at work again… Give me a call… Please.

Short Fiction – The DMV

One of my classes this semester is an English course focused on short story fiction. Each week, we spend an hour in a computer lab writing drafts, and I’m pretty happy with how a couple have turned out already. I’ll be sharing the ones I like and my goal is to flesh out these short drafts into full treatments.

First up, is my venture into writing in second person point of view, about a trip to the DMV. After years of personal story telling on my blogs, the creative license that fiction adds is really enticing.


It’s Thursday, and you’ve got two hours between class and work. You got stuck at work late last night and only got three hours of sleep, so the day’s off to a great start. It’s pretty typical lately, burning the candle at both ends, trying to divert energy equally to all of your obligations, and that’s where you fucked up. Today’s the last day your car is registered; gone is the easy option of mailing in the card they sent out four months ago, and there’s some archaic restriction on the web site that won’t let you renew online if it’s on or after the day it expires. Your ability to drive is paramount to keeping your job, and paying out-of-pocket for school is your only option, so you make this renewal a priority because so much hinges on having a car to drive.

You’re distracted through your three hours of class, anticipating the worst. The DMV is known for taking forever, with long lines, and apathetic tellers that are less than helpful. You could be like your father, and let the registration lapse. Which, in turn, invalidates your insurance. Which, in turn, suspends your license. Which, in turn, leads to your car loan being invalidated. Which, in turn, leads you to parking the car around the corner in a buddy’s garage to keep your car from being repossessed. He drove a car like that for four years before he got caught and played ignorant to it all. Remember that time your car was uninspected for three days and you got a ticket over it? Let’s not risk your job and school over a half-hour visit to the DMV.

You get through class, get out of the parking lot, and make it to the DMV. It’s on a one-way street that doesn’t have enough parking, so you start to worry about your two-hour window. It took twenty minutes to get there from school, and of course, there’s no parking. You need to circle the block another ten minutes to snag a space. It doesn’t have blue lines, but it feels like a handicap space. More stress. Imagine your car gets towed as you’re trying to renew the registration!

You notice how the door always sticks as you go inside. How old is this damn building? After the foyer, your nose scrunches at the musty, moldy smell. Your eyes squint at the dated manila paint job, and flickering fluorescent lighting. The sign says there’s an unemployment office upstairs, and the DMV is to the right.

Your eyes widen as you round the corner to the DMV’s hallway. There’s a line out the door. Of course there’s a fucking line out the door.