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.
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.”