Thursday, October 20, 2016

Store Policy

My wife and I were in a store in the mall where you could have you own custom jewelry made.  I decided that it would be nice to have a necklace made for my wife.  She picked out several roughly cut jewels and crystals from bins scattered around the store, turquoise stones and jade and amber, as well as a couple of engraved metal pendants.  I took them to the counter where they made the jewelry, and I explained to the man and woman working there how I wanted the pieces strung onto the necklace.  I wanted them arranged so that there would be a metal pendant between each different jewel, separating them.

I handed the man all the jewels and pendants, and he cupped them carefully in the palm of his hand.  He put on a visor and an eyepiece and he fed the jewels and pendants into some greasy old contraption and bent intently over his work.  I figured that it would be a while, so I told him that we'd be out shopping at the other stores. He just shook his head without lifting it from his work.  He said that the necklace would be ready in only a minute or two.  He said that by the time we got up to the front counter, the necklace would be done and waiting for us.

The woman working with him escorted us up to the front.  She handed us a large shopping bag filled with pinecones.  This was apparently some complimentary gift that they gave to all of their customers with their purchases.  We weren't sure what we were supposed to do with a bag full of pinecones, and we were even a little embarrassed by our own confusion, caught in that intimidating moment of uncertainty you feel in a store that's above your class.  But we thanked the woman and I tucked the bag of pinecones under my arm and carried it awkwardly to the front.  Just as the man had promised, the cashier already had our necklace ready and bagged at the front counter.

We paid the cashier and went to leave, but my wife wanted to see the finished necklace and she was already opening the bag before we were even out of the store.  A confused wrinkle formed between her eyes as she pulled out a coat hanger that had a tiny pink sweater and a red scarf and bow combination arranged on it.  This wasn't a necklace.  We were about to take it back up to the counter to complain, when it occurred to me that the necklace may be concealed under the sweater and scarf, that maybe it had been packaged this way to give the customer some sense of what the necklace would look like when they were wearing it.  Like the pinecones, this was just another bewildering anomaly in foreign territory.  We didn't want to look like complete fools.

My wife rummaged around under the neckline of the sweater until she felt the loose edges of the jewels and pendants.  She pulled the necklace up and out over the scarf, and the dark stones gleamed in the store's soft lighting.  But she still wasn't sure that this cleared things up.  Maybe she had been given the sweater and scarf by mistake.  I suggested going back up to the counter and asking the cashier about it.  My wife nodded and agreed.  But when she got to the counter, instead of just asking the cashier outright, she proceeded on the assumption that the sweater and scarf were part of the packaging, and she framed her question as a complaint, saying, "I don't think that this is the right outfit to go with this necklace."

The cashier stared impassively at my wife until she was finished and then he picked up a radio that he had on the counter.  He held eye contact with her the whole time he spoke.  "I have a customer here requesting the urban presentation rather than the floral presentation."  He waited a beat for their response, which we couldn't hear, then he formed an acidic smile and told my wife, "It'll be just a moment."  We turned as a tall man from store security approached us.  The cashier explained that we were being taken into custody temporarily because we were suspected of stealing store merchandise.  By this, he meant the scarf and sweater.  Since we had just established that it wasn't the packaging that we preferred, by some strange logic this meant that we had just confessed to trying to steal it.

We protested vehemently, of course.  Loudly.  Passionately.  The cashier expressed every sympathy he could for our plight, but he told us that we would have to go to their holding area until the matter could be cleared up.  The tall man from store security took us to a room in the back where there were a number of mattresses laid out on the floor with people sitting on them or laying on them in clusters, their faces despondent and glum.  They didn't even look up as we came in.  They had given up any hope that anyone had come to retrieve them, that there had been any new progress in their cases.  The tall man walked us down to an empty mattress at the far end of the room.  He pointed to it and told us to wait there.

When he had left us, I took a seat on the mattress, but my wife stayed standing, ready to start pacing like a caged animal.  I asked her why she had handled things that way, why she had gotten us into this mess, why she hadn't tried to just clarify the facts instead of using them like blunt instruments from a psychological toolbox.  She had nothing to really say in her defense beyond the obvious point that she had no way of knowing that things were going to end up like this.  Fair enough.  I couldn't really argue with that.  I shook my head and sighed deeply and settled back on the mattress for the long, long wait.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Off the Runway

I had to catch a flight back home in the morning.  I stayed up all night the night before with some old friends of mine at their small cottage house.  We sat around the table in the kitchen drinking coffee and playing cards and telling all the old stories from childhood.  When the morning came, the rooms of the house led directly to the airport terminal.  I passed through a doorway and I was in the waiting area outside the gate.  There was a bank of chairs along the wall with a tall lamp beside them.  The last chair was open and I flopped down and opened a paperback book that I had with me.  But I had no real interest in the book, so I put it aside and reached over and clicked off the lamp and stretched out my legs and waited.

I had almost dozed off by the time they announced the boarding call.  I yawned and got up on stiff legs.  I was almost too tired to feel nervous about the flight.  That was why I had purposely stayed up all night anyway, really.  There was a moment, though, when I was seized with a sudden panic that rushed through me like a burst of flame.  I broke out in a sweat and I was suddenly wide awake.  My legs went rubbery and almost gave out beneath me.  The moment passed quickly, though.  I had to get home.  I had to take the plane and I knew I'd be fine.  I showed my ticket at the gate and made my way up the ramp into the plane.

I buckled myself into my seat, feeling tired again and ready to sleep through the whole flight.  I looked down the aisle and I realized that I could see all the way up to the cockpit from my seat.  There was a woman there at the controls with a headset on.  She was wearing a light blue uniform shirt with wings on the sleeves.  I didn't like that.  I didn't like being able to see the pilot in all of their human uncertainty.  I decided that this must be some second rate airline to put me on a plane where you could see the pilot.  I didn't like this at all.

But we were already starting away from the gate and moving towards the runway.  I checked my seatbelt again and squirmed a little in my seat.  When we got over to the runway, I braced myself and held on tight to the armrest.  That moment of takeoff, when the plane is picking up speed down the runway, is always the most anxious part of the flight for me.  That hard feeling of the ground.  That rush of acceleration.  But this was surprisingly mild.  The wheels felt fairly gentle rushing along the pavement.  There was even a second where we slowed down a little, like pumping the brakes.  There was a square, man-made pond just beyond the runway and we lifted up and soared out over the blue water.

But the pilot wasn't happy with the takeoff.  Even though we were in the air and clear, she wasn't satisfied with it.  I could see her up there shaking her head.  She came over the loudspeaker and told us that we had to turn back.  "We got to do that again.  We didn't get enough speed," she explained.  We were in the air, but we wouldn't be able to gain altitude.  She banked hard and circled back over the pond, back towards the runway.  Everyone groaned and grunted throughout the cabin.

As the wheels touched back down on the pavement, there was a sharp stutter as they made contact.  This sent us into a skid.  The plane slid sideways and the wheels gave out beneath it and it began to flip end over end.  People were tossed all over the cabin, and I heard a hard crunch as someone's head slammed against a wall.  When we finally came to a stop, people and seats were piled everywhere.  I was completely unhurt, though, as were most of the people around me.  Mostly there were just sighs of aggravation and exclamations of relief.  "Whew!  What a landing!", someone yelled.  The plane had broken up into pieces all around us.

It turned out that the all the trouble had been caused by a couple of people who had boarded the plane at the last minute.  That was that brief second of braking that I had felt on the runway.  The pilot had slowed down to let them on board, and the whole thing had completely thrown her off.  These last minute passengers had been arguing from the moment they got on board.  They were strangers who had gotten into a fight in the terminal over something and they had made each other late for the plane.  They argued as they got on the plane.  They yelled through the takeoff.  The bickered through the landing.  They complained through the crash.  They were even griping with each other now in the wreckage.  Somewhere across the cabin, someone climbed out from under a chair, dragging a broken leg, and they hollered down, "How about you just shut up already?"

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Passage

I found myself in an industrial facility in the far North, near the Arctic Circle.  It was a vast installation of steel beams, steaming pipes, and concrete tanks built on the icy shore of a dark waterway.  It was a station that had been established to keep the passage clear of ice for the ships passing through.  I went down to the water and watched the ships go by.  They chugged along against the smoldering red glow on the horizon, and I could see the cranes and claws and machinery hauling the ice floes out of their path.  It was an awesomely massive operation, slow and methodical, an automated process neglected at the end of the Earth, moving through its ceaseless cycles in the eternal twilight, somewhere far, far, away from the living world.

The facility itself was a labyrinth of cold steel and rust.  I wandered through it trying to see if there was anyone else around.  The snow crunched under my feet and more flakes swirled in out of the dark, carried on a biting wind.  I called out and heard my voice reverberate off the tanks.  I was about to mount a flight of metal stairs when someone emerged from the shadows beneath it.  It was large woman, much taller and broader than me, and she had on a thick parka with a fur lined hood.  She told me that she was the only one that worked at this facility.  She ran it all herself, tightening valves, checking gauges, keeping all of the machinery fueled. 

She explained that the passing ships never docked there, but she would sometimes have brief contact with them over the radio and she could hail them out there on the water with a flashing beacon and they would respond with a low bellow of their horn.  That was all the human contact that she had.  Even the occasional supplies that were brought to her were loaded onto a pallet and attached to one of the cranes by a hook and lifted right off the deck of the passing ship without the ship stopping or dropping anchor.  There was just that half hour of radio contact with the captain and then he would chug off again into the darkness and the static.

I asked her if she had things here to keep herself occupied.  She nodded abruptly and she said that she did, but I could see that she was lying.  I could see that she hadn't been prepared for the loneliness and the cold.  She couldn't have fathomed it beforehand.  She had brought nothing with her.  I could see that she slept there under the stairwell, under the light of a single bulb shining somewhere far above casting the long deep shadows that were all around us.  She slept there on the ground with her coat pulled tight around her against the cold.  I could see that that was all she had.  There was a twitch at the corner of her mouth.  She was getting to where she couldn't take it anymore.

So I decided to start bringing her things.  I brought her a music box the first time I came back, and the second time I brought some hardback books.  I never thought to ask her what she might want or need.  I'm not sure that she would have admitted to wanting or needing anything.  But she thanked me for everything that I brought and I saw the warmth returning to her face and her eyes.  I brought her a large book about the history of art, illustrated with pictures of famous paintings.  I brought her a hand knitted blanket.  I brought random photographs and postcards.  I brought records and a record player.  I brought anything that I could carry in my hands that I thought might brighten her life a little.

One day I brought her a coffee maker and a can of coffee, and she insisted that we have a cup of coffee together.  She took me to a little apartment that she had made for herself in the lower decks of the facility.  She wasn't sleeping in the dark stairwell anymore.  The door to the apartment was a metal hatch, but it was surprisingly homey inside.  It was warm and she was able to take off her coat.  I looked around at the books on the shelves and the little lamp with the stained glass shade by the chair and the picture frames propped up on the table under the lamp.  I heard the music coming from the record player, the soothing play of the piano keys.  I saw the lit candle mounted on the wall.  I hadn't realized that it had all amounted to this, that I had brought all this one piece at a time.  There was a porthole window at the far end of the room and I could see the ships passing out there on the water against the red horizon.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Stolen Glances

I was part of a cleaning crew that had been sent to clean a concession booth at a summer resort that was out in the middle of nowhere.  The concession booth was a small wooden shack.  It sat on a midway lined with other concession booths.  It was the off season and all the booths were closed, their metal shutters locked.  Dry leaves drifted across the pavement along the midway and there were a few faded red flyers scattered here and there, trampled under dirty shoe prints, advertising the live entertainment that had been booked for the past summer.  We all pulled up in the driveway alongside the booth.  We unloaded our cleaning supplies and we went in through the side door.

The booth was very bare inside.  All the equipment and supplies had been cleared out and the dusty shelves and cabinets were all empty.  We opened up the metal shutter over the concession window to let in some light and air, and we got to work cleaning.  There was one decorative touch that had been left behind and it caught my attention.  On the side of the wall near the concession window there was a small framed photograph hanging on the wall.  It was a photo of a young woman with dark hair, turning away from a sunlit window to look into the camera.  Her expression suggested that she had been startled when the picture had been taken, and her piercing blue eyes stared out at us, troubled. 

I kept looking up at this photograph as I cleaned.  I found it a bit unsettling, as though the woman had been distracted from her pleasant reveries at the window by something in this dark empty booth, something that only she could see long after the rest of us were gone, as through she were caught forever in that moment in this lonely place.  As I glanced up at it again, one of my coworkers swept up beside me, leaning on his broom, and said, "We're not allowed to mess with any of the owner's personal effects," and it wasn't until he said that to me that I realized that I wanted to take that photograph off the wall and take it far away from here.

But I had to figure out how to get it down without my coworkers or the head of the cleaning crew seeing me and knowing that I was taking it.  I thought about this all day as I worked.  In the afternoon I walked down to a small country store about a half a mile down the road to grab something to eat for lunch.  The sun beat down along the deserted midway as I walked back.  The day had warmed up as the sun climbed high, and the light glared off the faded paint of the closed booths.  I stopped for a moment to consider a few small weeds struggling to grow up through a crack in the pavement under my foot and an idea occurred to me how to get the picture off the wall.

When I returned to the booth, the crew was finishing up and loading the equipment into their cars.  The woman who was the head of the cleaning crew had the keys to the booth in her hand and she was about to lock it up.  I told her that I had something I had left inside that I needed to grab.  I held my hand out for the keys.  She seemed reluctant to give them to me.  She studied my face, peering into my eyes.  I just kept my hand held out, holding it steady and keeping a blank, impassive expression on my face.  Finally, my firmness seemed to wear her down and she handed over the keys.  She hesitated as she got into her car, looking back at me, having a moment of doubt.  But it passed, and she and the rest of the crew got into their cars and drove off.

Afterwards I could never remember if I actually took the picture off the wall, whether I had left behind a clean square of space or whether the picture hangs there still.  I just remember sliding the key into the lock and the next thing I remember is driving off down the midway.  The time that passed in between, whatever had transpired when I was alone in the booth, was forgotten, missing.  I pulled out of the resort and onto the main road, and I realized then that I didn't know my way back.  We had all come down as a crew, and we were supposed to go back as a crew.  Only the head of the crew knew the way back and we were supposed to follow her.  But I had let them go, and they were long gone.  I had only the sun to navigate by.  It was low in the sky to the west, so I got onto the highway heading north.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Marsh Pond

We lived in a country house on several acres of land, and there was a marsh pond towards the back of the property.  A couple came to visit us from the city, and I took them back to show them the pond.  It was late September and cool.  It was early in the evening, but it was already dark.  There were tall cattails and weeds on either side of the path that led down to the shore of the pond.  The ground was soft and wet there and my shoes made deep prints in the mud.  We could hear the bugs in the tall weeds and the frogs out on the pond.  It was a clear night and the golden moon was just above the water with a bright star beside it, its light flickering off the pond.

As I reached the edge of the water, I turned back to say something to the couple that had followed me, but I found now that there was a whole crowd behind me, families with tents and RVs setting up barbecues, their kids lingering about or running along the shore or hiding from each other in the cattails.  They all worked through the night, establishing their camps.  There was the soft ting of hammers driving tent stakes into the ground.  People shivered in light jackets and flashight beams played about in the sharp morning air.  Someone set up a covered pavilion with picnic tables beneath it and we all gathered there for breakfast as the sun rose over the tall weeds.  Some of the kids went out to swim in the pond first thing in the morning and someone put a tin pot over a campfire to make coffee.

More and more people arrived as the day wore on.  They came in trucks and campers, setting up tents on the outskirts of the growing camp.  The day was warm for being so late in the season.  By the late afternoon, the kids had gotten drowsy and there were only a few of them floating lazily out in the pond.  Their parents called them up for dinner under the pavilion as the setting sun glared low over the water.  After dinner, someone made one last pot of coffee as the sun dipped below the horizon and the evening grew cooler.  It got harder to see each other's faces as it grew dark and people started turning in for the night, climbing into their tents and campers to sleep.  Some of the smaller kids cried, because they were tired or they didn't want the day to end or both.  Their parents hushed them and the hush fell over the whole camp and the bugs and the frogs took up their song again.  I took a folding lawn chair down to the edge of the water and planted it's legs there in the mud, and I sat down to finish my coffee and stare out at the crescent moon over the pond.