I was drinking my coffee and reading the Wall Street Journal, trying my damnedest to ignore the cattle-roper sitting on the other aisle. His gut easily filled the business class seat, spilling over the armrests like a pot pie, and his tray table was angled away from him so that it bounced against his belly whenever the plane skipped over a burst of turbulence. That pink shirt, those jeans, that bolo tie… it was almost too much. I didn’t want to imagine what he was going to Tokyo for.
“’Scuse me, miss,” he drawled out, as a Japanese flight attendant walked by.
She stopped mid-stride and turned around.
He cleared his throat. “I’d like another beer.”
She looked at the empty beer glass, looked at his crimson-blushing face, and then nodded politely and went off to the galley.
“Them Asian girls sure know how to treat a man, don’t you think?”
He wasn”t looking at me, so I chose to interpret that as a statement to the seatback. I buried my face deeper in the broadsheet, almost nose-to-nose with Cisco’s stock price. I had to fly around the world and back several times to earn enough miles for this upgrade, and I would be damned if this redneck ruined my flight.
“Hey, is that a real Rolex?” he asked. I glanced around the broadsheet and saw his blue-gray eyes looking directly at my watch. Now he was challenging me, trying to elicit a response.
“Yes, it is,” I said, keeping the paper squarely in front of my face. My head wanted to turn to face the man, but I held it back. I flipped the page and began reading about mutual funds.
“She”s a beaut,” he said, “but real Rolexes are for suckers. Now I got me one that”s just as good… bought it from a guy in Chinatown for twenty bucks. How much did you pay for that one?”
I kept my eyes fixed on the digits. “It was a gift from my company.”
“Your company?” He chuckled. “Seems like they wouldn”t stay in business for long if they spend like that.”
“I work for one of the oldest brokerage houses in the country.”
“Ha!” He smiled and picked up his fresh glass of beer. “A real Wall Street investor! Maybe you can give me some advice, son… how do you make so much money when all the people you invest for are going broke?”
“I’m not a broker, or a trader, or anything like that.” I flipped the page again, and turned a few more degrees away from the cattle-roper.
“So what do you do, then?”
I folded the paper up, set it in my lap, and took another drink from my martini. “Listen, buddy. I have a very important meeting in Tokyo tomorrow. I would love to chat with you some other time, but right now, I’m not in the mood to talk. So please, just leave me alone. Talk to the stewardess or something.”
“’Talk to the stewardess?’ You crazy, boy? She doesn’t speak a damn word of English!” He chuckled again. “So just because you work in the city and wear a thousand-dollar suit, you don’t have time for conversation?”
I tugged at the handle of my video display and fumbled in the seat back pocket for a pair of headphones.
“Now wait, boy, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m in business myself… I own the third-largest chain of car dealerships in the Southwest. Tomorrow I’m meeting up with the CEO of Nissan.”
“That’s nice,” I said, plugging the headphones in.
He grinned. I braced myself; he seemed to be about to start his pitch about the used Cadillac on the other end of the lot. Instead, he said, “I might be interested in an IPO.”
“Call our office, then.” The headphones were still silent, so I began searching for a volume control.
“Well, it’s nice to see that some people don’t have manners,” he said.
“Manners?” I pulled the headset off and tossed it on the floor. “Who the hell are you to tell me about manners? Can’t you just keep all this bullshit to yourself? Can’t you just let me be? Can’t you just act like a normal goddamned person?” I stood up and pushed my way into the aisle, stuffing the newspaper into the pocket of my briefcase.
“Huh,” he said.
“Huh,” I said. I walked into the lavatory and closed the door behind me. I spat into the toilet, kicked it, and then looked in the mirror. I was red-eyed, white-faced, and absolutely wasted. It was time to put that 50,000-mile seat back and go to sleep, but I knew that the cattle-car-man wouldn’t let me.
The plane jolted gently. I splashed some water on my hands and rubbed it into my face.
As I stepped back into the aisle, the flight attendant was standing in the galley, reading a grayish printout in the dim cabin light. “Excuse me,” I said. “The man sitting on the other aisle is acting a little… belligerent.”
She looked at me as though I had suddenly sprouted bright pink tentacles. “What do you mean?”
“He won’t leave me alone,” I said.
“Do you want to sit somewhere else?”
I peered out at the cabin. There weren’t any empty seats that were far enough from the cattle-car-man. “Doesn’t look like I have many choices,” I said.
“There are two seats in coach that are empty,” she said. “They’re separated from the other seats, so you’ll have privacy.”
I followed her back to the coach cabin, grabbing my briefcase along the way. The cattle-car-man ignored me.
As I slept, the dreams kept coming. The fat man was laughing, and I reached for his neck to strangle him, but there was no neck, and I kept grabbing his gigantic jowls and kept being pushed aside. Then there were legions of him closing in from every angle, waddling down the aisle, guffawing like mad, and they pinned me down against the cockpit door saying, “Wait, boy! Gimme some advice, son!”
After we landed, I stayed in my seat for as long as I could, massaging my aching forehead and hoping that he would be gone when I got off the plane. As the last passengers began to trickle out of the back, I picked up my briefcase and jacket, and followed the trickling mob up through business class. Sure enough, the fat man was gone.
I waited in line at immigration for half an hour, and then finally walked out into the bustle of Narita Airport, with the ragged stride of a man who had returned from forty days in the desert. Tomoko, my co-worker, was waiting for me in the arrivals hall.
“You look like shit,” she said.
“I feel like shit,” I replied.
We walked out, quacking on about steel quotas and the tech bubble. I suddenly stopped in my tracks. There he was, standing by a giant illuminated billboard, with a group of suit-wearing Japanese businessmen, and they were all laughing. Laughing!
“That cock-sucking son of a whore…”
“Hold on to my suitcase,” I said, as I turned around.
“Hey, hey, wait!” She scampered up behind me, but I didn’t hear her. My heart was beating quickly, tapping out time, like a drum calling me to battle, and I marched with it, letting the clack of my shoes against the terminal floor match the rhythm coursing through my body.
Tex’s eyes widened as he saw me. He smiled that sardonic Southern grin of his, and stretched out his arms. The salarymen around him turned on me like a human spike strip, and he chuckled aloud. “What’s it gonna be now, boy?”
My teeth gnashed. The hairs on my neck stood at attention. “I’m not your boy, you fat fuck.“
Tomoko was yelling something in my ear, but the drums drowned out her voice.
“Now simmer down, boy… you don’t want to do something you’ll regret…”
I leapt up to charge at him, and felt my foot slip, and then my knee crashed into the floor. Tomoko knelt down to help me up, but I thrashed her hands away and jumped for the fat man’s throat, feeling the claws slide out of my fingertips and the fangs slip out of my jaw. My hand ran out of elbow just two inches short of his neck, and it snapped back to the ground, limp.
Four airport policemen closed in on me like vultures, nightsticks at the ready, and I closed my eyes on the dusty floor, feeling the palpitations weaken and hearing Tomoko’s voice come back into my ears.
“What’s wrong with you?” she shrieked.
I turned my head and addressed her shoes. “He kept talking to me!”
Tex chuckled. “Not any more, son.”
“Don’t be late for the meeting,” Tomoko said.
The policemen marched off, and I was left alone, with nobody to talk to.
In case you didn't already know, "Come fly the friendly skies," or some variation, was the slogan of United Airlines for about 40 years. In the early 1990's, they changed it to a much lamer tagline, "Rising."