The young man found 13A, bumped many heads stashing his bag overhead, sat down, rifled through the magazines in the seat back before him, buckled his seatbelt, sighed, and turned to the occupant of 13B.
“Old,” he said, and immediately clamped a hand over his mouth. “I’m sorry. Sometimes my thoughts just pop right out.”
The old lady looked up from her magazine, eyed the young man over the rim of her glasses.
“Young man,” she said, crinkling her eyebrows. “You smell of brandy.”
Her voice was old and slow and broken.
“And you of death,” said the young man. Immediately, he clamped hand over mouth again.
The old lady lifted her wrist to her nose and sniffed. Then she put her nose in her armpit and sniffed.
“Goddamn,” she said. “I do. Young man, wave that flight attendant over.”
The young man waved the flight attendant over. The flight attendant came. She had a tray of orange juice and champagne. She said to the young man, “Yes, sir?”
The young man, giving the impression of deep thought, the impression that his mind was just too busy for speech, pointed to the old lady. The old lady grabbed two glasses of champagne. One of these she knocked back in one gulp.
The young man took a glass as well, and the flight attendant left.
The old lady smeared her second glass of champagne on her face and hands and under arms.
“Better?” she asked.
The young man sniffed the old lady. “Different,” he said. He was about to drink his champagne when the old lady took it from him and tossed it back in one gulp.
The young man sighed. He removed a notepad from his shirt pocket and scribbled on it.
“What the hell did you just do?” the old lady asked, lowering her magazine to her lap.
“I wrote down a little thought of mine.”
“Up your ass with your thought,” she barked. “I’m talking about your eyes!”
The young man’s mouth fell open, but nothing came out. The eyes in question blinked.
“You scribbled something,” the old lady clarified, “then you looked at me.”
“I did not.”
The old lady stared at him, said hmph, then rammed her glasses up with a finger and returned to her magazine.
The young man folded his hands in his lap. Then he unfolded them and picked at his nails. Then he folded his hands again. Then he bounced his knee up and down. Then he turned to the old lady and asked, “So, what do you do?”
“What’s it to ya, sonny?”
“Just making talk.”
“Horse shit,” said the old lady. “You’re asking because you want to tell me what you do. And what you do involves that stupid notepad, I’ll wager, the way you looked at me.”
“I didn’t look at you.”
The old lady mumbled something about prissy-assed black-turtleneckers and went back to her magazine.
The plane began to taxi. Up front, the flight attendant was sharing some thoughts on the oxygen mask and the seat cushion. You could float on the seat cushion, she said. The pilot came on the speaker and said something inaudible. Soon they were airborne. So were the passengers.
“I am a poet,” announced the young man, his chin held high.
The old lady threw down her magazine.
“Goddammit. I knew it. You tried to be sly, to see if I saw you writing. I knew you fancied yourself some kind of artiste. Skinny ass. Pubescent mustache. Hair all mussed up. I bet you have a mirror in your back pocket so you can keep your hair perfectly mussed up.”
The young man gazed out the window and began to recite.
“In the belly of a metal bird, met a maiden I…”
“Goddammit, don’t do that.”
“…Who, in champagne death, cursed my wandering eye.”
“Oh for chrissakes!”
The old lady reached for the red button in the ceiling and pushed it. A moment later the flight attendant came over.
“Yes ma’am?” said the flight attendant
“He thinks he’s a poet.”
The flight attendant eyed the young man.
She turned to the old lady.
“Ma’am, I am sorry. I would move him to another seat, but we are completely full.”
“Vodka, please. A real bottle. Not those little nipple suckers.”
The flight attendant left, crunching her heel on the young man’s foot. The young man wrenched in agony, as if she had crunched not his foot, but his soul. Hand over heart, the young man gazed into space, as if the pain of life were simply unbearable.
“You moron,” said the old lady. “She can’t weigh more than a dollar.”
The young man said, “O old lady / gladly would I lock my poet’s eye / inside a box / so perchance my pain might be locked in as well.”
The old lady doubled-over, hand at mouth, rifled through the seat back before her, found the air-sickness bag, and vomited.
The flight attendant came back with a bottle of vodka, accidentally bumped the young man in the head with it, and gave it to the old lady. She took the old lady’s vomit bag, accidentally bumped the young man in the head with it, and left. The old lady poured herself a drink, tossed it back, and poured herself another drink.
“I suppose you want a drink, to ease your pain, you pussy.”
The young man smiled a sad smile. A very practiced sad smile.
“Well, drink up. Then shut the fuck up.”
The young man drank, and said, “It will be good to be home again. America is my home. Are you an American?”
“Why would I be going there if I wasn’t? To get gunned down at a Walmart while some toothless fatty sucking on a Mountain Dew rips the flat screen from my cold, dead hands? You asshole.”
“Ah, I see there is a poetess eating away at your insides.”
The old lady pushed the red button in the ceiling, and a few moments later, the flight attendant came.
“He said there was a poetess eating away at my insides.”
“You son of a bitch,” said the flight attendant. The flight attendant took the drink the old lady offered her and tossed it back. “Listen, you,” she said to the poet. “Shut your mouth.” Then she left.
“I do not like Europe,” said the young man, waiting for the old lady to ask why. She did not, so he told her. “I do not like Europe because of the coffee. You ask for coffee, and you get one cup. No refills. You want more, you must buy another. It’s barbaric, I tell you.”
“You are a jackass.”
“Italy is the worst. You ask for coffee, they give you a thimble-sized cup only half full.”
“That’s espresso. It’s twice as strong,” said the old lady, tossing back another drink.
“And three times as expensive. There are no good coffee shops in Italy.”
“They aren’t as goddamned stupid there. They don’t want all you prissy-assed black-turtleneckers sitting around making them vomit all day.”
“What is the first thing you will do when you get home?”
“Hire an assasin.”
“I will go to a Shrimpy’s. The closest one to the airport.”
“He’ll meet you there.”
“At Shrimpy’s, when you ask for coffee, they bring you this enormous pot, and they set it right on the table. You can fill your cup a dozen times. And when you run out, you know what they do?”
“Beat you over the head with it?”
“They refill it.”
“Those fucking idiots.”
The young man pulled out his notepad.
“I’m going to write a poem for you.”
“No, Your Arrogance. You’re not.”
The old lady reached for the red button.
“But I want to give you a gift.”
“Give me cash, then. When I want a goddamn poem, I’ll go to the bookstore.”
The flight attendant came. “Yes ma’am?”
“He said he was going to write me a poem.”
“Crimony, sir, you’ve gone too far.”
The flight attendant went to front of the plane and banged on the cockpit door. A moment later, the co-pilot, Frank, emerged. He nodded to the flight attendant as she was talking. Yes yes, this and that, uh huh huh. Then he looked to the occupants of 13A and 13B.
A moment later, Frank was coming towards them, followed by the flight attendant.
“That’s him,” she said to Frank, “with the mussed up hair.”
“Sir,” said Frank, “get up, please.”
The young man got up. “Big strong man,” he said, and immediately clamped a hand over his mouth.
“Walk to the back of the plane, please.”
The young man started walking.
“Check his pockets!” said the old lady.
The co-pilot checked the young man’s pockets. He found a mirror.
“Look at this,” said Frank, holding up the mirror, speaking over his shoulder.
“Aha!” said the old lady. “I knew it.”
As Frank and the flight attendant escorted the young man to the back, the captain came on the speaker again. He was saying something mostly inaudible about a brief but necessary inconvenience and asking everyone to secure their personal effects. Then a great wind swept through the cabin and a faint scream was heard from the back. Then the wind died down again.
The flight attendant sat down in the empty seat next to the old lady, who poured them both drinks. “You should have seen it,” said the flight attendant. “Frank told him to ‘put this in verse.'”
“Now that’s poetry!”
Frank walked past on his way back to the cockpit. “Hey,” he said to the old lady, “I told him to ‘put this in verse.'”
“I heard,” said the old lady. “You’re the goddamn poet.”
“Have a drink,” the flight attendant said.
“Oh, I really shouldn’t,” Frank said, and tossed back a drink. Then he left.
When the plane landed, the old lady was met by her son and daughter. They kissed and hugged and waited for her luggage.
“They tell me I smell of death,” said the old lady.
The son sniffed. “No, Mama. Champagne.”
They went to the car and headed home. On the radio they heard some news about a man who fell from the sky and crashed through the roof of a Shrimpy’s and lived to order coffee.
“Goddammit,” said the old lady.