She was a tiny woman, skin tightly drawn around her face, remarkably unwrinkled yet somehow looking old, as if she spent a lot of time screaming to stretch it out. The fat man hoped to God she wasn’t sitting on his row.
Once he had flown on an almost weekly basis, an average of fifty thousand miles a year for two decades, but those days were over, and the airlines were what he least missed about travel. He had those frequent-flyer miles, though, and a deal on a rental car, and there just wasn’t any sense in driving all the way to Milwaukee no matter how much he dreaded the flying. The fat man hadn’t been on a plane in twenty months, and he wondered how many more services had been discontinued, how many more seats crammed into the cabin, how many more charges there were for what once was free. His dread had led him to drive halfway across the country a few months earlier, but he didn’t need to waste that kind of money on gas, so, after trying to convince himself otherwise, he had flown, cashed in some miles, because it was less stupid to do than not to.
They charged twenty dollars now to get on the plane before travelers who didn’t. An exit row seat cost extra. A flight attendant still lectured the poor devil who paid extra that, “in the event of a marine landing” (a crash, not Iwo Jima), they’d have to assist others in evacuating the plane (dashing madly through flames). Apparently a few extra bucks made any man a potential Indiana Jones. Or any woman, Lara Croft.
The woman was headed home from a disastrous visit to see her son and his family. She had wanted to move in with them and drunkenly blubbered that she had nowhere else to go. Now she was going back to Milwaukee and was hung over and out of pills. She wanted a cigarette more than eternal life. She saw the fat man and hoped it wasn’t her row. He saw her and said a silent prayer that went unanswered. It was the nineteenth row. He was on the aisle; she was on the window. It was a “commuter jet,” as if people normally commuted seven hundred miles. The seat looked like something Chuck Yeager, not a fat man, might have sat in. He got up and offered to hoist her cloth gym bag into the overhead compartment.
“Fuck that,” she said.
“Suit yourself, ma’am.”
She was supposed to slide the bag under the seat in front. She didn’t, preferring to place her bony legs on either side of it. The attendant came by to tell her she couldn’t do that. She seethed and, after the attendant turned to reciting instructions to the people who had paid for the exit row, hissed several times. The man didn’t say a word and hoped he wouldn’t have to. He pulled out a novel and tried to read.
Fifteen minutes into the flight, the woman poked him in the ribs. He ignored it.
“I just wanted to let you know I was going to share this armrest with you.”
“No, ma’am,” he said. “We’re not sharing it. You can have it all. It’s yours.”
She didn’t reply, but it didn’t satisfy her.
Somewhere over Indiana, or Illinois, the woman spoke.
“At the risk of being rude …”
“At the risk of being rude,” she reiterated, “I thought they insisted that you people had to purchase two seats.”
The fat man remembered that exact tone from somewhere. Oh, yes. It was the same way people used to say, “You know, he’s black.”
“No, ma’am,” he replied. “Obviously, they don’t.”
“Well, the plane’s full,” she said. “And you’re taking up part of my space.”
He thought for a moment. “It’s funny. When I first saw you, and I realized you were sitting next to me, I thought, well, thank goodness it’s not another man my size, because you’re unusually small, and I’m unusually large, and it wouldn’t be so bad. I’ve tried to give you as much room as I possibly could, and I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you.
“But,” he said, “in answer to your remark, I do find you very, very rude.”
The woman came out of her seatbelt and didn’t give the man time to get up and let her out. She stepped on his knees and, well, bounded out. She walked up the aisle, and the man wondered if she was going to claim he insulted her, or that he might be playing outlandishly against type as a terrorist, but then he realized she had her bag with her, and, he thought, well, maybe she’s got a half pint of vodka and she’s going to the lavatory for a swig. He didn’t want to know. He went back to his mystery novel. He did make sure, however, to be standing in the aisle when she returned from wherever she went. They didn’t speak again.
He saw her once more, while he waited for a bus to the rental-car center. She was standing on the curb, smoking a cigarette like there was no tomorrow, looking at her watch and hoping for hell to raise.