This story is for her.
FLYING OVER IOWA
She enjoyed the turbulence. To her closed eyes it felt like a much needed massage. Baltimore. Most of the odd ones would probably deboard there. This leg was packed with oddballs.
She pried an eye open to ensure her massage did not become a nap. A dreadlocked guy in a vintage Gumby T-shirt was staring at her. He knew he had been caught but continued to stare anyway, like a game of chicken. She did not avert her eyes either.
A large lump of turbulence declared the staring contest a draw. The sound of snoring suddenly removed itself from the airplane’s blaring mix of white noise. For a moment she glanced out the window and focused her attention on the perfectly round crop circles below.
Her attention returned to the passengers. The dreadlocked guy calmly munched on some ice chips from a plastic cup. She noticed the ice in his cup was red. Red? The airline had discontinued Hawaiian Punch years ago. So it wasn’t Hawaiian Punch. He caught her staring at him and gave her a toothy and bloody smile.
It was her job to assist the dreadlocked man with the bloody mouth. With a sigh she approached him with routine caution.
“Sir, is everything all right?”
“Yeah,” he chuckled with bloody lips, “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? Your mouth is bleeding.”
He laughed again. “Don’t worry. I’m a glass eater.”
A glass eater. This was new. His serene reassurance misled her, and a game curiosity quickly reverted to professional, distanced concern. She spoke in a stage whisper.
“For safety reasons, we can’t have broken glass on the plane.”
He assured her that he did not have any broken glass. Just hard plastic. Pen caps and bottle caps. He was chewing them to reinforce the strength of his gums and his threshold for pain.
“I perform with a midnight circus,” he explained.
“Sir,” she persisted, “we still cannot have you bleeding aboard a United States aircraft.”
A bald, in fact completely hairless, man chimed in.
“C’mon, Gums. It’s not like I can practice eating fire during a flight.”
She gave the bald, hairless man a sideways glance. He added.
“I’m a fire eater.”
She scanned the plane. The over abundance of oddballs now made more sense. The facial tattoos. The vertically challenged twins. All the scarred and branded hands handing her their trash. She was traveling with a traveling circus.
The fire eater continued.
“We’ve got shows all this week.”
“In Baltimore?” she guessed.
“No. New York.” The beast man next to him let out a horrid, sour burp. “But we’re all from Baltimore.”
“I tell you what,” said the glass eater. “If you have any more of those dinners back there, that’ll clean up my mouth good.”
She rolled her eyes and went to get him one of the many dinners declined earlier by the other circus people. It’s funny, she thought, they’ll eat fire and glass but won’t touch Chicken Parmesan. She grabbed a warm tin and a set of silverware and headed back down the aisle.
Suddenly, a thick patch of turbulence sent the plane jarringly downward. She braced herself on the overhead compartments, but in doing so sent the silverware flying from her grip. It soared awkwardly until landing squarely on the nose of the glass eater. A few of the non-circus people gasped.
“Oh my God! Are you okay?” she stammered.
“It’s okay,” he smiled. “I’m also a sword swallower.”
My aunt and uncle on my father's side introduced me to wanderlust.
Between ages 12-14, they brought me along on their road trips.
My closest cousin Michelle and I would get into all sorts of boneheaded mischief.
We did things on the cheap, and always on the fun.
This story is for them.
NEW LIBERTYThe van broke down again. This time at night. Almost home. But not quite.
The vacation had been fun. The kids got along well. They counted VW bugs the whole time. In Pennsylvania, George decided to venture up the steep, densely wooded hill behind the motel. His path was choked by pine trees, and he used them like levers until it got too thick. Audrey followed but got stuck. George tried to guide her down but she skinned her legs on the sharp rocks. That hill wasn’t meant for climbing really.
DC was neat. They escaped the sun’s oppressive breath inside the museums, spritzing their day with history and education. The next day Philadelphia would offer more of the same, but the van didn’t want to go. At least the carburetor didn’t. George and Audrey didn’t seem to mind. For two days they hung out at the motel across the street. It had a swimming pool and miniature golf. George and Audrey were having fun.
They watched Philadelphia from the expressway. It looked grey and mean. Like a nasty dog. They decided to skip past it. Atlantic City promised the enchanting possibility of recouping their losses. They strolled around the boardwalk, and saw a roulette wheel made out of jellybeans. The kids bought gag souvenirs. Liquid-filled shot glasses. Somehow they amused themselves for hours with those things.
George and Audrey played at the motel pool while Mom and Dad hit the casinos. They stuck to slots mostly, but ventured out for the occasional hand of black jack, mostly breaking even. Then a couple of shiny guys in spacey disco suits hit the jackpot on the slots behind them. They whooped and danced and swore and gave each other high fives. The sound of endlessly plinking coins grew tiresome. Those guys didn’t need that jackpot. Mom and Dad glanced one last time at the disco jerks and left the casino. They were down by a few hundred dollars.
George and Audrey had been jumping on the beds. Doing flips. Rough housing. A particularly graceless somersault by George ended in Mom’s purse getting knocked from the nightstand onto the floor. Its contents spilled all over the green and yellow shag carpet. Audrey scurried to scoop up the dollars and coins and put them back in the purse. George helped. As the kids hurriedly shoved fistfuls of small bills back into the purse, the door opened. It was Mom and Dad. George and Audrey froze, the guiltiest looks of real fear stitched on their faces. They started to explain that they weren’t doing what it looked like they were doing. But their folks just burst into laughter.
It had been a long day of driving. Probably close to twelve hours. Almost midnight. Almost home. But broke and broke down on the side of the road. Mom and Dad were worried. George and Audrey didn’t seem worried. They just sat in the van and waited.
A car slowed down. A white sedan. It pulled over and stopped in front of them. A guy got out. He was a young man, with dirty blond hair and a dirty blond beard. His button down shirt seemed permanently wrinkled. It looked fresh from the trunk. He offered to take them home, just forty miles away. They cautiously accepted.
He apologized as he rolled up a tattered wool blanket and brushed several crumpled Budweiser cans from the rear window. The sedan had become his home of late. Its windshield housed a generous crack that spidered diagonally. The upholstery on the ceiling sagged, and the vehicle smelled odd like stew. But it ran.
George and Audrey sat in the back with Mom, playing with their shot glasses. Dad kept the man company up front. His name was Bobby. He talked about losing his job at a furniture warehouse. He talked about trying to get a job at the mattress factory in Coralville. He started to talk about his family, but Dad made sure things didn’t get too dark. Dad talked about the casino, and how they had lost most of their vacation money on car repairs. Every now and then Audrey or George would chuckle from the back, in their own world. He counted the miles.
Bobby pulled into their driveway. The dogs went wild, not recognizing the strange vehicle and its strange but also familiar scent. George and Audrey hugged the barking, snarling beasts and tiredly lugged their bags into the house. While Mom and the kids lit up the house, Bobby asked if he could stay the night. Dad gave him the last twenty dollars.
I prefer writing stories to being a sad sack.