Eleven-B (a short story)

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This is a short story I wrote 20 years ago, after a plane trip and a fortuitous find or two in a newspaper. It was formerly published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com. I wonder how I would write it differently 20 years later, or if I would write it at all. It seems a trifle overdone.

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“Good morning.” The inevitable red, white, and blue flight attendant smiled a practiced smile. Smith scowled in her general direction, mumbled something between “good morning” and “what’s it to you?” and moved on, looking for his aisle seat, 11C. More paint than a billboard, he thought. I’ll bet she buys her eye shadow wholesale.

He found his seat. 11A and 11B were unoccupied. His cheap new briefcase, which contained the few material possessions he troubled himself to care about, went into the overhead compartment among the pillows and blankets. He growled softly at nothing in particular, then strapped himself into his seat. Finding the appropriate button, he pushed it, tipping the seat back. He yawned discretely, almost timidly, and shut his eyes.

He couldn’t sleep. His eyes opened, and he inspected the back of the seat in front of him. Someone had left a section of a newspaper in the magazine pocket. He pulled it out, gave the front page an uninterested once-over, then the back page. He was too unambitious to open the section, so he returned to the front page and chose an article at random.

The headline was melodramatic enough: “A confrontation of the heart—and two men die.” On December 16, he read, twenty-year-old Mohammed Nasser Al-Hawash was shot not 200 yards from his home in East Jerusalem when Israeli soldiers fired on a funeral procession. Mohammed was one of the “Shabab,” the young activists responsible for the uprising that had been going on in the occupied territories for a year. The funeral was that of a Palestinian teenager who had died by an Israeli bullet during a demonstration.

He read on.

Four days later, the paper said, Mohammed, who had worked in a garment factory, lay brain-dead in an East Jerusalem hospital. His head wound was fatal, but his heart was still beating. That evening’s television news included a report on his condition.

Later in the broadcast there was an apparently unrelated item, a nationwide plea for heart donors. Four miles away from Mohammed’s hospital bed, in another hospital, Yehiel Israel was on a heart-lung machine. The 46-year-old Jew would die unless a heart transplant was performed within 48 hours.

The young man in 11C looked at his watch and idly wondered why the plane was still at the gate. He continued reading.

Israel’s brother Yehuda, he read, was watching the news in Jerusalem on the evening of December 20, and learned of Mohammed’s fate. Preliminary contacts revealed that Mohammed would be a suitable heart donor, and negotiations began. “For the next two days,” the article said, “a delicate series of indirect negotiations took place between the two families, conducted through intermediaries such as the mayor of Jerusalem, Palestinian doctors, lawyers, and PLO leaders.”

The intercom clicked on, then off, then on again. Finally, a flight attendant said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re sorry for the delay. We’re still waiting for our first officer, who’s arriving from Denver. His flight was delayed in Denver by the weather, but it’s landing now. As soon as he can get here, we’ll be on our way. Once again, we apologize for the delay.”

The man in 11C went back to his reading, now mildly curious to see how it would end.

But two days after the initial contact, the Al-Hawash family, which is neither religious nor especially radical, broke off the negotiations.

“We refused,” the father said. “Can you imagine someone shoots your son and then asks you to give him his heart?”

That night, Yehiel Israel died. Three days later, Mohammed Al-Hawash was pronounced dead.

He put the paper back in the seat pocket, stretched, yawned, and once more began to contemplate the inside of his eyelids. But he still wasn’t sleepy. Dad would have let them take it, if it were my heart. Never mind that I’m his son; I’d still be dead.

The intercom clicked on. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for waiting. Our first officer is now in the cockpit, a few late passengers are boarding, and we’ll be taking off in just a few minutes. We’re sorry for the delay, and we thank you for your patience.”

Almost immediately, 11A and 11B arrived. The impeccably dressed but obviously exhausted young mother looked at the unshaven young man in the disheveled thrift store suit and not-quite-fashionable tie. She decided at once that this fellow passenger was not someone with whom to associate any more than absolutely necessary during the flight. For a moment this thought showed on her face, but when he looked up she managed to replace it with a forced but suitably gracious smile.

The man in 11C wasn’t fooled. You’re smiling, lady, but you don’t mean it. I’ll bet your daughter gets the window seat.

“Hi! Doesn’t it bother you that the other people in the row always board late when you’re sitting in the aisle seat? Excuse us, please.”

“Mm-hmm.” This yuppie and the flight attendant must shop at the same smile store. He unbuckled his seat belt and stepped into the aisle.

“Jamie, you can sit next to the window until after takeoff, so you can look out the window, then we’ll switch, okay?” said the woman.

“Okay,” answered Jamie. Then she said to the man in 11C, “This is my first airplane ride. Do you like airplanes?” Little Jamie beamed. She was too young to see what her mother saw in his clothing.

“Jamie, you can sit by the window and watch the clouds go by.” Jamie and her long blond hair bounced into 11A, and her mother sat carefully in 11B, a human barrier between her daughter and the poorly-dressed stranger in the aisle seat.

“Mommy, why do airplanes have seat belts?”

“So you don’t fall out if the ride gets bumpy.” Jamie didn’t ask another question for at least a minute.

On an airplane, there are two ways to avoid conversation with your fellow traveler. The first is to close your eyes and sleep, or at least pretend to. To the experienced flier—who has done it a hundred times—it looks like a sham, but it works. The second method is to bury yourself in a book; airport gift shops sell lots of books. This is less effective: So as not to seem unfriendly, the stranger in seat B is likely to ask what you’re reading. And it has to be a book. Newspapers are unwieldy for those flying coach, and magazines will not do, either. The complimentary airline magazines, which no one reads out of genuine interest, are too shallow to be buried in, and other magazines offer too much tempting fodder to the idle conversationalist.

The man chose the first method; 11B chose the second and opened a best-selling novel. Jamie was content to watch the airplanes taxi. Every minute or so, she exclaimed, “Mommy, look at that one! It’s so big!” Of course, 11B wasn’t listening, but Jamie either didn’t know or didn’t care.

* * * * * *

“Sir?” Someone touched his arm. His thoughts were elsewhere—he himself wasn’t sure exactly where; perhaps somewhere between a Jerusalem hospital and the cement block “home away from home” where he’d lived—no, better make that “worked,” they wouldn’t understand—for the last few years.

“Sir?”

What the—

It was a flight attendant. “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to lock your seat in upright position during takeoff. As soon as we’re in the air and the captain makes the announcement, you can lean back again.”

He obeyed, frowning slightly and nodding his head. Then he shut his eyes again and ignored the ritual recitation about seat belts, exits, and flotation “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

He thought about where he had been and how he got there, about where he was going and whether it would be better than where he’d been. As if it could be otherwise. Working in his uncle’s tobacco shop in San Francisco wasn’t his idea of a career, but it would do for a while. His old high school friends in Salt Lake City wouldn’t think much of the city or the job, of course. Then again, he thought, they don’t think much of me.

The captain announced that their flight time from Salt Lake City to San Francisco would be almost three hours, including a brief stop in Las Vegas. The young man in 11C yawned. It had been a very long week. Sleep . . .

* * * * * *

He dreamed, or remembered, or both. There was no plot, no dialogue, only misshapen scenes melting together in his mind. Things and people were more or less realistic—where he had lived and worked, the people he had lived and worked with, his father who came to visit. But somehow they weren’t quite right: his old regulation bunk was deathly pale— pale?—and his roommates were just tattooed, needle-tracked arms in the other bunks; an oversized, sad smile was handing him a battered book, which looked like an ordinary paperback but was as thick as the family Bible; and his father was a pair of extraordinarily compassionate, penetrating eyes from another world. The fence around the yard was not wire any more— it was the edge of the world, the perimeter of a well-lit blackness, beyond which in all directions stretched an infinitely blacker nothing. The sun during the day and the lights at night were strange, too; the whiter they were, the blacker they made everything else. Yet there was light enough to read, for the sad smile was back in his usual corner (which had always been a right angle, but wasn’t, now), reading a book as if only it and he existed.

Then suddenly there was wordless dialogue. A young, desperately frightened female voice shrieked meaningless syllables. A solemn, black-robed voice intoned what sounded like a lecture, but he couldn’t understand the words. A little boy whom he seemed to recognize pleaded with an adolescent he didn’t know, his unreasoning pain clear if the substance of his pleadings was not; his pleas echoed in the poorly lit, foreboding halls. There were other voices, too, at once familiar and not. A desperate, vicious whisper stilled them all.

* * * * * *

Having silenced Jamie yet again with a suitably sharp word, and by taking over her window seat, which left Jamie quietly pouting, 11B took out a pen and some stationery, intending to complete the letter she had begun in the terminal before boarding the plane at the last minute. First, she read what she had written. Between keeping up with Jamie and nearly missing the flight, even though it was delayed, it had been a bumpy ride; here and there a word was almost indecipherable.

Mom,

I’m on my way to California now, thinking about leaving my old life behind and starting a new one. That’s what I’m doing, you know. In fact, the only strands of continuity are Jim and Jamie—and Jamie’s growing so fast that she seems to be a different person every other week or so. As for Jim, well, he’s different, too. I suppose it’s the difference between an MBA. student and an MBA. I don’t know. And whatever his faults—if he has time for any—he takes good care of us.

Security. I guess that’s the difference. Ever since—well, you know . . . Ever since then, until, I think, right now, I’ve never really felt secure. It’s not, please understand, that you and Dad weren’t simply ideal parents. In fact, I don’t know what it is. It’s not that I think a lot about what happened, either. I just sort of block it out and don’t face it. But maybe that’s what it is after all—just a huge black thing hanging over my head. I don’t think about it, perhaps, because I don’t have to. It’s just there. Not at the level of conscious thought—it’s more implacable than that. But right now—I guess this is the point—it feels like I’ve left it behind or lost it—like emotional baggage that accidentally got checked through to Singapore or Baghdad, where I’ll never see it again.

It wasn’t exactly what she wanted to say, but she couldn’t think of any way to improve it. It would have to do. Now, to finish writing it.

That’s why I say it feels like beginning a new life. All the people who know are behind me, now. Not even Jim knows— how he hasn’t found out yet, I can’t imagine. But he doesn’t mix much with my old crowd, and they would probably be embarrassed to mention it to him anyway. In any case, it’s none of their business. Maybe they’ve forgotten. After all, it was seven years ago.

I could never forget.

I guess I understand why everyone reacted the way they did—you included. Maybe it was hard to deal with—like not knowing what to say to someone whose wife or husband or child or best friend has just died. But how hard do you think it was for me?

I’m sorry. I know you did the best you could, and one way or another we all survived. But things were never the same after that. Maybe my being gone with Jim and Jamie for a while will make things more or less the way they were before. Maybe you and everyone else will remember the me that was before it happened—the person I can be again, maybe, if I get away from where it happened and all the people involved for a while.

Anyway, this isn’t why I started this letter. Or maybe it is, I don’t know. You were so exhausted yesterday after helping us pack and clean and minding Jamie—she’s an angel, I just sometimes wonder whose angel . . .

She crumpled the paper and started over.

Dear Mom,

You were so exhausted after helping us all night that I didn’t even try to wake you this morning to say goodbye. So I guess I’m saying it now. And thanks—for everything.

It’s not as if there won’t be telephones and airplanes and mailboxes, but please don’t feel bad if I don’t use them much for a while. I have to forget my past, at least part of it. When I manage to forget that part, I’ll hurry back to the rest of it—and to you.

I should finish this, so I can send it at the airport in Las Vegas, where this flight stops on the way. Jim’s meeting us at the airport in San Francisco, and we wouldn’t want to burden him with all of this.

She thought of her mother, a widow now for about a year. But her tired, gentle face, the one 11B hadn’t wanted to disturb this morning, was soon replaced in her mind by something unspeakably horrible. It had the same features—ten years younger and not nearly so gray—but it expressed a mixture of fear, love, pity, and what seemed to be revulsion. Revulsion—that was the part that lingered in her memory. How could her mother, of all people, have felt that way when she found out? Of course, those days had been so traumatic that it was difficult to be sure what she herself felt, let alone read the faces and minds of others. But it could have been revulsion. What if it was?

She sealed and addressed the envelope and placed it carefully in the seat pocket in front of her, where she could see it, so she would remember to mail it at the airport in Las Vegas. Then she yawned and closed her eyes. Somehow, the peace and security she had described seemed now very fleeting and uncertain, but it remained. She dozed.

* * * * * *

Something was tapping his knee. He opened his right eye halfway. It didn’t help. Something tapped his knee again. He opened his left eye halfway. It was Jamie, who rewarded his semi-consciousness with a business-like four-year-old smile. He decided it was time to say something.

“Huh?” It was more a sleepy grunt than a word.

“Excuse me, Mister. I want a drink of water from the bathroom, and Mommy’s asleep. Will you help me?”

“Say what?” At least wait until I’m conscious, little girl.

“C’mon. I’ll show you. But you have to stand up, so I can get out.” In the aisle, she grabbed his hand tightly, and pulled. “C’mon.”

He went. By this time his eyes were wide open, but his mind lagged behind. They came upon the red, white, and blue billboard, who moved to the side so they could pass on their way to the rear of the plane. He half-scowled at her. Isn’t it your job to get the kid a drink? She smiled.

When they reached the stainless steel fountain built into the bulkhead in the lavatory, Jamie said, “Please give me a cup.”

He mechanically took a cup out of the dispenser and began to fill it.

“No! I wanna do it myself!”

“Sorry,” he mumbled. He dumped the water down the drain and handed her the cup. A yawn overcame him. He closed his eyes sleepily and remembered the battered but inviting pillow in last night’s cheap motel room. Sleep . . .

“Mister Smith!” Something tugged at the slacks of his suit.

“Pick me up so I can reach, okay?” He hesitated, then awkwardly obeyed. She filled her cup, and drained it. She turned, looked him in the face, smacked her lips in satisfaction, and smiled. “What’s your first name?”

“Smith.”

“No, that’s your last name. What’s your first name?”

“That is my first name.”

“No it isn’t, it’s your last name.”

“My last name is Johnson. My first name is Smith.”

“That’s weird.”

“So am I.” She probably thinks I’m kidding.

“No, you’re not! I like you. You’re my friend.”

If your mother only knew what sort of friends you have. “You done?”

“Yup. Want a drink?” She refilled her cup and handed it to him, still smiling. He looked at her strangely for an instant, then took it, drank, and dropped the cup into the trash receptacle. He bent over to let her down, but she put her arms around his neck and held on.

“No, don’t! I want you to carry me back to my chair! Please?”

“Mm-hmm.”

Returning to their seats, they met the painted flight attendant again. She smiled the same smile and stepped aside, and they squeezed past. When they reached row 11, they found Jamie’s mother still asleep, a red pencil in her hand and a leather-bound Bible conspicuously open on her lap.

“Shhhh. Don’t wake Mommy up. She’ll get mad at us.” They sat. Then Jamie added, “I’m tired. Can I lean on your arm?”

The abrupt change of subject startled him. “Uh, yeah, sure.”

She made herself comfortable leaning on his arm; his hands gripped the armrests. The short walk up the aisle had revived him, but there is something sleep-inducing about being hurled through the air at 550 miles per hour, five miles above the ground. He was drowsy again as soon as he sat down. Jamie, on the other hand, was in a talkative mood.

“Know what? We’re going to meet my daddy in San Fr—, um, San Frun-sis-co.” She pronounced the big word with care. “We’re gonna live there, and we have a new house. Where do you live?” Not waiting for his reply, she continued, “My daddy is a biz-ness-man, and Mommy says he’s gonna be a mil-yun-aire. Are you a millionaire, Mr. Smith?”

But he was asleep. She shrugged and began to amuse herself with a snag on his thrift store lapel.

* * * * * *

It was Saturday morning. The dormitory halls seemed long, tall, and solemn, as they always do to thirteen-year-old boys. But they were not nearly so intimidating as the college men behind the doors he had knocked on, one by one. There was only one more left on this floor, the second floor he had canvassed in the first of eight three-story buildings. He paused in front of it. He could hear classical music playing. It sounded like Beethoven, but only because he couldn’t remember the names of the other composers Mom used to tell him about before she died.

Two or three of the men he had talked to had told him to knock on this door. “Why don’t you try 2102? He has a good job and a good scholarship, so he’ll be able to help you,” they had said. “And he played basketball in high school, so he’ll understand.”

He knocked. The music faded but did not disappear.

“Come in. It’s open.”

He went in. The man was certainly tall enough to play basketball, but his thick wire-rim glasses made him look more studious than athletic. Rows of books and the computer with double-spaced text showing on the screen contributed to the studious effect. They also gave the impression that the owner was not struggling overmuch with poverty.

The boy took a deep breath and began his speech.

“I’m selling these chocolate bars to pay for little league football. They’re really good, and they have nuts in them, and they only cost fifty cents apiece. If I sell the rest of this box then I can play football, and I really want to. Would you like to buy some, please?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think so. I really don’t have money for that sort of thing right now.”

“Please? They said you have a job and a scholarship, and you used to play basketball, so you’d understand.”

“Like I said, I don’t think so. If you’ll excuse me, I’m very busy this morning.”

“Please? I really want to play football, and my dad lost his job and we don’t have the money.”

“I don’t think so. Didn’t you see the sign downstairs? ‘No Soliciting,’ it says.”

“I’m not soliciting. I’m selling candy bars.” Now he was on the verge of tears. “They said you would understand. And some of them bought some. It’s only a little money, and it would make my dad happy. He used to play football, too, and I think he feels real bad that we don’t have money so I can. Please?”

“I’ll tell you what. Monday is payday. If you come then, I’ll have some money and I’ll buy a couple of your chocolate bars, even if I don’t like nuts.”

He stifled a sob and shuffled out of the room. He walked down the hall, out the door at the end, and down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs he stopped, set down the box, lifted his head, and looked around at the other buildings. Every one of them had three floors, with 42 doors on each floor (he had counted them). And he knew that behind every door was a college man who had lots of books and a computer, but didn’t like nuts.

His lower lip began to tremble, so he clamped it between his teeth. It didn’t help. He picked up the box, hugged it tightly to his chest, and hurried off, his head hanging, and hot droplets from his eyes falling into the box. When he got to the bus stop, he didn’t even look down the street to see if the bus was coming. He just kept shuffling in the general direction of home.

* * * * * *

“. . . But Mommy, he’s my friend, and he said I could.”

“Jamie, you don’t lean on strangers on airplanes. You have no idea what kind of man he might be.”

The voices seemed distant through the sleepy fog in his brain, but gradually reality came into focus.

“He’s not a stranger. He’s my friend.”

“Jamie, you don’t know him. He—”

He opened his eyes and stretched as much as one can stretch when travelling coach class. Seeing him stir, 11B changed thoughts in mid-sentence. Her voice said, “I’m sorry about Jamie. She just doesn’t understand the trouble she causes.” Her eyes added, “How dare you touch my daughter!”

He opened his mouth to say that she was really no trouble, but 11B cut him off before he could start. “I’ll keep her out of your way,” she promised, as she lifted Jamie and traded placed with her, leaving her in 11A next to the window. “Now, Jamie, just sit still and act like a good little girl.”

Jamie began to study the scratches in the window. They sparkled in the sun like spider webs in the morning dew. Somehow they made her eyelids heavy, and she slept. But for her mother and the man in the aisle seat, the conversational ice was broken.

“Are you going to San Francisco?” 11B politely inquired.

“Uh-huh. You?”

“We’re moving there, actually. My husband is meeting us at the airport and taking us to our new home.”

“Oh.”

“Are you from San Francisco, or where?”

“No, uh, Salt Lake City.”

“Really?”

Believe it or not. “I grew up there.”

“I’ve lived in Utah all my life, too. By the way, you’re not a Mormon, by chance, are you?”

“By chance”? No. But I’ll bet you are— you and your Bible. You ought to read it sometime. “I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” When was the last time you visited someone in prison, lady?

All he said was, “Nope.”

“Oh.” A pause. “So what takes you to the west coast?”

“Moving, too.”

“How interesting. My husband’s in business. What do you do for a living?”

“Whatever.” When he saw that she was expecting more, he grudgingly volunteered, “For now I have a job in My uncle’s tobacco shop on the waterfront.” For an instant he thought he saw disapproval in her face, but he might have imagined it.

“There aren’t many tobacco shops in Salt Lake.”

Nice touch, lady. “I was—that is, I worked at Point of the Mountain.”

“At the prison?”

“Yeah.”

“Wasn’t that scary, with all those terrible criminals around?”

“Yeah.” You wouldn’t believe how scary.

“What did you do?”

“Uh, custodial work, uh, mostly.”

“I guess working in a tobacco shop is a step up, then.” It was not a question.

“Yeah.” A big step.

“Did you get to know a lot of the prisoners?”

“Uh-huh.” Did you?

“You know,” she said, feigning embarrassment, “I don’t even know your name.” Another pause. “But you look familiar.”

He shrugged. She forced herself to look elsewhere, then remembered to be polite.

“I’m Susan.” She didn’t offer him her hand.

“Smith.”

“A pleasure. What’s your first name?”

“That is my first name.”

All the color that wasn’t painted on disappeared from her face, and she stopped fumbling with the red pencil in her lap. She stared at her hands and didn’t ask his last name.

“Is something wrong?” he asked gruffly. She seemed not to hear him.

“Is something wrong?” he repeated.

She started. A little color returned to her face, then faded again. When she spoke, it was hesitantly, and there was a nervous vibrato in her voice.

“I’m sorry. It’s just that . . .”

She took a deep breath.

“Forgive me. You see, a few years ago, someone in Salt Lake City whose first name was Smith . . .”

Another deep breath, and another. Then she continued hastily, as if hurrying to finish a memorized speech.

“. . . attacked m— . . . that is, my . . . little sister and left . . . her in an alley behind a trash dumpster.”

His staring eyes were no longer cool. They were glacial. They looked into hers for what seemed to her an eternity, his becoming colder and emptier as hers became more and more agitated.

Finally, he blinked, and she managed to release her eyes from the icy, bottomless blacknesses that had held them fast. Not knowing what else to do, she decided to say something. “But . . . his last name was not the same as yours.”

I didn’t tell you my last name.

“He’s in the penitentiary where you worked, I think, only he’s a prisoner.”

Of course.

This time the pause was longer and, if possible, even colder.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said it. Forgive me.” She stared at the back of the seat in front of her, hugging herself and trying to stay as far from her fellow passenger as possible without appearing to be doing it. She squeezed her upper arms so tightly her knuckles were white. But she couldn’t leave it alone.

“I didn’t mean to imply that you . . .” She didn’t finish the sentence.

Maybe I did. Or maybe you just think I did. I’m used to it. His icy stare faded into a look of tired resignation. “‘S okay,” he said quietly.

The conversation was doomed. She took refuge in her Bible, and he reached up for his briefcase and extracted a thick, well-worn paperback book, which he opened but didn’t read.

Jamie, who had been dozing, awoke when complimentary beverages and peanuts were served. The plane landed in Las Vegas; some passengers disembarked, others boarded. With a polite but unintelligible murmur 11B left to mail her letter, taking Jamie with her. A few minutes later they returned. He stood up and stepped into the aisle so they could take their seats. Jamie smiled at him. Her mother took the window seat. The letter, unmailed and slightly crumpled, was still in her hand, but she didn’t seem to realize it.

When the plane was back at cruising altitude, there was another round of drinks in plastic glasses and peanuts in impenetrable packages. When the woman turned to take her orange juice from the flight attendant, the man in the aisle seat was looking at her. She flashed him a nervous smile that did not reach her eyes, turned, and began to fuss with Jamie, who was more interested in her peanuts than her milk.

They ate and drank in silence. He didn’t touch his peanuts. His drink hadn’t satisfied his considerable thirst, and salty snacks would only make it worse.

Jamie turned to her mother. “Mommy, I’m hungry. Can I have your peanuts?”

“I already ate them, dear.”

“Oh.” Undaunted, Jamie inspected the fold-down tray in front of the aisle seat, then turned to its occupant.

“Mister Smith?” she beamed. He looked at her. “Can I have your peanuts?”

He started to smile, then thought better of it. “Yeah.”

The woman stared silently as Jamie reached out and nabbed the peanuts. She even forgot to remind her daughter, “Now, what do you say?”

She didn’t have to. Jamie smiled at him again. “Thank you.”

A few minutes later she folded up her tray and turned to him again. With an even bigger smile, she asked, “Can I lean on you again?” Without waiting for a reply, she settled against his arm. Her mother tried to say something, but couldn’t. She just stared.

“Mommy, he’s my friend,” Jamie proudly announced a minute later.

“Yes, dear.” Her lips nearly strangled the words.

“Do you like him, Mommy?”

“Mommy” looked at him for an instant with a silent plea in her eyes, then went back to her Bible without answering.

Jamie put her seat back, like his, then rested her head on his arm again, as if to sleep. But a moment later she sat up, looked around, and asked, “Mommy, what are you reading?”

The pleading look had not left the woman’s eyes. This time it was directed at Jamie.

“Know what, mister? Sometimes Mommy reads to me.” She clapped her hands, delighted at the thought. “Read to us, Mommy!”

The woman’s eyes were suddenly very wide.

“I don’t want to read. What do you want me to read?”

“What you’re reading.”

“Jamie, that man doesn’t want to listen to me read.”

“Please, Mommy? Please?”

The woman looked nervously toward her daughter’s friend, avoiding his eyes. “You don’t mind?”

He shrugged indifferently and closed his eyes.

Something in her face hardened. “Okay, Jamie, if you insist. Where shall I start?”

“Read, Mommy.”

“Okay, if you insist. ‘And before him shall be gathered all nations; and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats . . . ‘”

Her voice trembled at first, but gradually steadied to a cool, quiet murmur. The man in the aisle seat dozed. Or he pretended to. You can never be sure on an airplane.

* * * * * *

The sad smile in the corner looked up at him. “Have a seat,” it said. He sat. It asked him if he had ever read anything by some Russian author with an unpronounceable name. He said he hadn’t.

“I read him a lot,” it said. This was not news to anyone in the building. “I don’t go to services, but I’m a believer. Reading these books is sort of my way of worshipping.”

He wondered why the sad smile was telling him this.

“It may sound strange,” it continued, “but I meet people from another century and another hemisphere, and they’re just like us. Maybe people don’t change much. I see myself in them, and I see them in me. And not just myself, either. You, too, and everyone else I know. And the funny part about it is that by meeting these people from another time and place, fictional people, people who never really existed . . . Well, I said people don’t change, and I guess that’s true, but they change me.”

Suddenly the smile noticed that his listerner’s half-disdainful half-curiosity was becoming more than half-impatience. “But I digress. Look, you and I haven’t had much to do with each other since you came. That’s okay, I guess. I’m just not the social type—you might say that’s why they put me in here in the first place—and you’re obviously not, either. No offence.”

The sad smile rummaged around in a beat-up blue canvas knapsack for a moment. Then it held out two dog-eared books.

“You’re leaving tomorrow. I want you to have these.”

He spoke for the first time. “But aren’t these your favorite books?”

“Well, yes. But these are not my personal copies. They’re extras. I had a friend get them from a used book store downtown. They hardly cost anything. Take them.”

“Thanks.” He took them, wondering as he did so whether he was grateful or was just politely accepting books he would never read. Then the smile spoke again.

“Good luck in the real world.” Then it continued cryptically, “But don’t be surprised if it’s no more real than this place.”

* * * * * *

The cabin speakers clicked. “We are now beginning our descent into San Francisco. Visibility is somewhat limited on the ground due to the fog, but that’s nothing to worry about. We don’t anticipate any difficulties or delays. We should be pulling up to the gate in a little less than half an hour. I’ll have a weather report for you in just a few minutes.”

Jamie was snuggled against him, and her mother was still reading, in a voice even cooler and quieter than before. He could barely make out the words.

“‘. . . For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in . . . ‘”

* * * * * *

The walking billboard appeared, smiling at no one in particular. “You’ll have to make sure your seat belt is tight, young lady. You certainly are a pretty girl. We’re about to land.”

Jamie’s mother stopped reading and put away her book, then made sure Jamie’s belt was tight.

“Mommy, why do airplanes have seat belts? Nobody fell out, did they?”

She tried to be stern, but just sounded tired. “Just sit still, Jamie, and don’t be a pest. We’re almost there. I’m going to have to tell your father that you were a bad girl on the airplane.”

The End

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