YEAH, TELL ME ABOUT IT, PAL,” said the guy in the aisle seat, looking up at me. I stood holding my carry-on, staring down at our cramped accommodations in the last row of coach.
We had the aft most, ass-worst seats in the house, not counting the flight attendants’ jump seat a few feet back.
And of course the restroom, which in that moment I fondly recalled being much more luxurious. And with running water and other amenities besides.
“I hope for your own sake you at least got the window seat,” he said.
Frowning, I shook my head like they do on tv, where the doctor comes through the swinging doors of the operating room, looks soberly at the assembled loved ones, and shakes his head.
My traveling-companion-to-be stood and let me and my bag squeeze into place.
“The plane’s almost full,” he said, sitting back down. “I think everybody’s on. Why not just go ahead and take that window? I don’t mind.”
He put out his hand.
“Burt,” he said.
I shook that hand.
“Ruben,” I countered.
“No, Burt,” I said. “You know as well as I do what’s going to happen.”
“Yeah, you’re right. And it’ll be some humongous Baby Huey lumbering down the aisle at the last possible second. The flight’ll be delayed ten minutes while we have to climb out of our seats and wait for him to wedge himself into that corner.”
And yet, there is always hope. Unfortunately I’ve made a habit of denying myself that hope, so I waited while the flight attendant did her stand-up routine, all the while telling myself that at any minute that freakishly-enormous occupant of Row 27 Seat E would appear, bent at the neck, looming over me and my buddy Burt.
My waking nightmare was interrupted by the voice of the captain.
“Cabin Crew,” his captain-like voice began.
And then came those four little words I had been longing to hear.
“Prepare doors for departure.”
I looked up, and scanning, from the back of the plane to the front, the sprawling landscape of headrests, saw not a soul afoot but only uniformed crew.
“Cover me, Burt,” I said. “I’m going in.”
With that I violated FAA guidelines and unbuckled my seatbelt. Keeping my head down, I turned toward him, too close for comfort in that moment, so that he made a loud, lip-smacking kissy sound. I laughed, lifted my butt from Seat D, backed toward the window and dropped into place in Seat E.
I had barely clicked my seatbelt, looked out onto bustling baggage trains crisscrossing the tarmac, and emitted a satisfied yawn when I heard Burt speak.
“Uh oh,” he said.
I turned to look at him, and then into the face of the young girl standing at his elbow, the top of her head just lower than the headrests. You have to be this tall to ride this plane, I wanted to say, but didn’t.
“Hi,” I said. “Where did you come from?”
“Gun Barrel City,” she said.
“Is that a threat?” I laughed.
“It’s a real place. South of Dallas. But you’re in my seat. Twenty-seven E.”
She held her boarding pass straight out at me as if it were a warrant for my arrest.
“And we’re taking off,” she added as serious as could be.
“Right!” I said, and Burt and I scrambled into the aisle to let her in.
“What I meant,” I continued once we were seated again, “Was where did you come from just now. I never even saw you on the plane. I mean, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken your seat.”
“Potty,” she said looking out her wonderful window. “Daddy said to get that out of the way right off. So I wouldn’t be making people like you get up and down.”
The plane lurched backwards a little as it began to pull away from the jet bridge. I saw her grip both armrests.
“So, what’s your name, Miss Gun Barrel City?” I asked, hoping to distract her.
“Janis Peety. That’s Janis with an S. Six-zero-six Frolic Road, Gun Barrel City, Texas. Seven-five-one-five-six. And when we get off, Janis Peety. Arizona Acres. Nine-four-two-one East Main Street, Mesa, Arizona. Eight-five-two-zero-seven. Number seventeen.”
“Number seventeen. Cool. An apartment.”
“No, a mobile home. With my mom. And aunt Shirley. And great aunt Glo. When are we taking off?”
“In a few. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I just get a little car sick. I mean air sick. But I never puke. Promise.”
Great, I thought, and suddenly pictured NASA footage of weightless astronauts, everything in the vicinity floating around them in mid air. Everything.
“Here,” I said, and spreading open the clamshell-like mouth of the seat-back pocket in front of her, dug around until I found the airsick bag. I pulled it out, then slid it back in between two magazines, its paper tabs sticking out for quick, easy access. “You’re all set.”
“Thank you,” she said, swallowing hard.
“Nothing to it,” I said. “Just a little trick I invented myself. Oh, wait, I just thought of something else.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small zip-lock sandwich bag.
“Watcha got there, Ruben?” Burt asked.
“Just ginger, Burt,” I said, and turning to Janis, “Do you like ginger?”
“Ginger beer,” she said.
“Yeah, same principle,” I said and, with fingers working the contents through the plastic, squeezed a small slice out of the opening of the bag and held it out to her. She took it and looked at me.
“Okay, so you just put it in there and bite down a bit. Then keep chewing on it a while. You’ll be fine.”
“Are you serious?” Burt asked.
“Yes, I’m serious.”
“Is it sweet?” she asked, eyeing it.
“More like zingy,” I said.
“I don’t know,” Burt said. “Sounds kinda hippy dippy to me.”
“So what’s wrong with a little power of suggestion,” I said to him out of the corner of my mouth.
“I’m only eight but I know what that means,” Janis said, still holding the thin slice of ginger pinched between two fingers.
“Okay,” I said. “But if it works, it works, right? And it works.”
“Okay,” she shrugged, then opened wide, put it between her teeth, and bit down.
She made a sound like the word, pflugh, and the ginger went airborne, arching over seat backs and across the aisle.
“It’s hot!” she whined.
“Zingy,” I corrected her.
“Howdy,” Burt said, leaning out and waving to somebody a few rows up. “First one’s free.”
Outside Janis’s window, the engines started to work themselves into a frenzy, and the plane began rolling slowly forward. She gripped the armrests again.
“Okay, so,” I said to her, leaning in close to be heard above the roar. “Does Gun Barrel City have any hills?”
“Not like Mesa,” she answered through clenched teeth.
“Okay, good. So, let’s imagine we’re in Mesa, headed for high ground in your daddy’s pickup.”
“D’you know my daddy?”
“No,” I smiled. “Just close your eyes, and imagine you’re in that pickup, okay?”
“So you’re still on that stretch of flat road, and he’s going faster and faster. You feel it?–”
“Yeah. You been to Mesa?”
“–No,” I laughed. “But any minute he’ll start climbing that hill, okay?”
The nose lifted, the plane tilted up, and as we leaned back I heard her take a deep breath.
“Here we go. We’re climbing now. You feel it?”
Rear wheels left the ground and there was that falling away of Planet Earth. Her left hand let go of the arm rest and grabbed my own.
“We’re good. We’re good. Does your daddy live near the lake? Do you ever go out on the lake with the water choppy?”
She nodded silently, lips pressed together, eyes still closed.
“Feels just like that, doesn’t it?”
She nodded again. The plane dipped slightly. She gasped. I reached up and turned the knob on the air vent and sent cool air blowing on her face. Her hair lifted from her cheeks, and for the first time I thought of my own daughter, now grown, no longer small, no longer needing me to save her from much at all.
The engines quieted, and I could hear her whispering, “I’m on the lake. I’m on the lake.”
“Is it better now?” I asked her.
She nodded and looked up at me.
“You know the lake?” she said. “You have been to Gun Barrel City, haven’t you.”
“I only saw it on my phone,” I said. “Never been there. I know the people though.”
“Gun Barrel City people?”
Her eyes found the tabs of the airsick bag poking from the seat pocket. It seemed she only needed to make sure it was still there, waiting.
“You know trailer park people?” she asked.
She asked for another piece of ginger, and I gave it to her.
“So, Janis with an S,” I said. “I guess you already know you’re named after somebody famous.”
“Yes. It was my daddy’s idea.”
She bit down on the ginger and made an O-shape with her mouth, blowing out and fanning her face with her hand, as if she had eaten a hot pepper.
“He was a big fan of Janis Joplin?” I asked.
“No. He was a big fan of Conrad Janis.”
“Oh. Sorry. Don’t know the guy.”
“You never watched Mork and Mindy?”
“Yeah, but I don’t remember the name.”
“That’s okay. I never saw it myself.”
Finally she turned to look out her window across bulbous white mountains of cloud.
“The sky looks like ice cream,” she said.
I leaned over to see.
“That’s not ice cream,” I said. “That’s sherbet.”
“That’s not shurburt,” she laughed. “That’s yogurt!”
“That’s not yogurt,” I said. “That’s mellorine.”
“That’s not…uh,” she looked up at me, her face screwed into a knot. “What’s mellorine?”
“Nobody knows! But it sure isn’t ice cream!”
She giggled uproariously, making me want to tickle her to make her laugh even more, but then I thought better of it.
“Where are you going?” she asked me.
“Phoenix. I have work there.”
“Do you have a little girl like me?”
“I had a little girl like you. Now she’s a big girl.”
“Look,” she said.
Outside her window, the sky had turned upside down. We were drifting along above a plain of gray vapor, but underneath we could see thunderstorms and lightning. Strangely, it was one of the most peaceful and beautiful things I’d ever seen.
Somewhere out of sight, forward in the cabin, an infant began to cry.
“Oh, no,” she muttered. “A baby.”
“They’ll get it to stop. Don’t worry.”
“They never stop. They just cry and cry and cry and cry. My Aunt Shirley has a baby–”
She looked over her head and around the confines of the cabin.
“–And it sounds just like this.”
She buried her face in the sleeve of my jacket.
“I don’t want to go home.”
I looked around and ventured one surreptitious stroke of her head, then watched her fall asleep against my arm.
I woke to the seat belt chime and the sound of the crew preparing for landing. Janis slept until awakened by our rapid descent into Phoenix, and when she grabbed my hand, I had her close her eyes again and we rode her daddy’s pickup all the way down the hill until it leveled out on that stretch of flat road, where she finally looked up at me and smiled.
A flight attendant came and stood beside Burt.
“Sweetheart?” the woman said, smiling down at Janis. “You get to get off first and your family will meet you the other side of security, okay? I’ll walk you there.”
The girl nodded and quietly began to gather her things.
“Maybe I could say hi to your mom,” I said. “Tell her how brave you’ve been.”
“Would you?” she said, perking up.
“I’d love to,” I said and swept tosseled bangs off her forehead.
But she was gone as quickly as she had come, and even though I tried to spot her all the way to baggage claim, I never got to look into her eyes again. I finally saw her from a distance, through the glass outside the terminal, walking toward short-term parking behind a halfway-pretty young woman–her mother, I assumed–wearing terry-cloth shorts emblazoned on the back with the word PINK, her arms covered in tattoos, a cigarette dangling from one corner of her mouth.