After minor delays the plane began boarding quickly; rows 8-15 first, then 16-24 and so on. All the rows had been called as the passengers waited patiently for the stragglers to board. The Howe clan were the last to board; mom, dad and their three children bumped down the aisle loaded with car seats and backpacks.
Mother Howe, dressed in a spring pastel sweater and Capri pants, held a young baby who made eye contact with those in the aisle seats which elicited smiles from the otherwise dour faces. An unblinking, serious toe headed girl of three held tight to her Dora “mochilla” backpack as if it were the floatation device located under the seat that may save her life. Father Howe brought up the rear with the eldest Howe child, a young boy of eight.
Father Howe instructed the boy to sit in seat 8B, the middle seat between two men.
“Don’t you worry folks we’ll take good of this young buck,” said the large man in the window seat. His head was shaped like a butternut squash standing on its stem. His large forehead, splattered with kool-aid colored sunspots, glistened with sweat. The man smiled and swayed as the boy took his seat.
“Austin, we are right behind you in row 15. If you need anything just stand up and we’ll be right there, okay honey.” Mother Howe looked unsettled and wouldn’t lose that look until they landed safely in Detroit.
“Oh don’t you worry about a thing. He is in good hands.” The man laughed and smiled at Austin who was busy fussing with his seat belt.
The cabin hummed with the ambient sound of indistinct conversation, shuffled magazines and the clicking of seat belts.
“Austin, my name is Ken.” Said the man in the window seat as if he were speaking to an English as a second language student.
“Hello,” Austin said tightening up his seat belt . He began to pilfer through the pouch in front of him pulling out the in-flight magazine.
“We were just talking about college football.” Ken said motioning to the man in the aisle seat who had buried himself in a book anxious to discontinue the conversation with Ken who was obviously drunk.
“This is Austin,” Ken said as way of introductions.
“I’m Steve,” said the man in the aisle seat.
“Steve, I’m Ken, very pleased to meet you,” Ken said.
“Nice to meet you,” Steve said rushing to stare into his book again.
“See,” Ken said to Austin, “now we all know each other’s name. “Isn’t that great?” Ken maintained his contrived enthusiasm as if he was the host of a children’s TV game show.
“Do you like football Austin?” he asked motioning as if he were passing a ball.
“Yeah, I guess,” said Austin looking for headphones in the pouch but finding none.
“Austin have you ever flown in a plane before?” Ken asked.
“Uh-huh,” replied Austin who was now rifling through his backpack pulling out brand new, unopened packs of collector cards.
“Well you don’t have to worry about a thing young man. Steve and I will take real good care of you. Right Steve?”
Steve flashed a quick smile, “Uh-huh,”. He glanced at Austin and thought, Poor kid, stuck next to this pickled stoop for the next two and half hours. Well, better him than me. Steve chuckled to himself.
The pilot announced over the p.a. that flight attendants should prepare for take off.
“You know what that means Austin, don’tcha?” Ken asked not waiting for a response. “It means we are getting ready for take off. How exciting. Vroom,” Ken made an airplane with his hand taking off from the runway of the arm of his blue blazer. “Exciting eh?”
Austin was flipping through his cards attentively. He nodded.
Steve had scooted as far to the aisle as his seat would allow never breaking eye contact with his book for fear Ken may try to include him in the inane conversation.
“Austin your Mommy and Daddy are right behind us, so don’t worry,” Ken said patting young Austin on the leg. Steve scooted just a bit farther to the aisle.
Austin flipped through another pack of cards thinking how he hasn’t called his parents Mommy and Daddy since he was five. He snuck a glance at Ken who was beaming a big smile at him. Austin quickly looked away and scooted just a bit closer to Steve.
Ken leaned over real close to Austin to look at the cards he was holding. Austin automatically switched to mouth breathing as the fusil stench of campfire and yeasted bread assaulted his air space. Austin looked up hoping the oxygen mask would somehow drop from the ceiling.
“Watcha’ got there?” Ken asked.
“Pokeman cards,” he replied, “I collect them.”
“Wow! Would ya’ take a look at those? Some of those monsters look pretty scary. Did I tell you I was in the Navy?”
“Speaking of scary,” someone in the row behind cracked.
The plane took off. Austin looked past Ken out the window. His stomach sunk when the plane became airborn. Ken’s eyes were closed tight. He clinched the armrest tightly. As the plane flew higher and higher the view from Austin’s seat became less and less interesting so he dug through his pack and brought out a book of puzzles and a pencil.
After the plane had reached a cruising altitude Ken relaxed again returning to his overtly demonstrative self.
“The pilot has turned off the fasten seat belt sign. Please feel free to move about the cabin,” The p.a. announced.
“Oh boy Austin, you know what that means don’tcha? The drink cart can’t be far behind,” Ken said with true excitement.
This did excite Austin. Both Austin and Ken sat up in their seats with necks craned watching the painfully slow progress as the drink cart inched up the aisle.
“What can I get you to drink sir?” the stewardess asked Ken.
“May I please have a cup of ice and a cup of water,” he answered proficiently.
Steve looked up from his book surprised at the drink order. Hmm, he thought, I was banking he’d order a double gin and tonic.
Austin ordered a pepsi.
“A pepsi, huh Austin? That is really great. You’ll really enjoy that, and how ‘bout that, a little bag of salted peanuts. What a treat.”
Austin carefully poured his soda into the cup of ice and studied his puzzle magazine.
Before Steve had even poured his apple juice Ken had reached into his briefcase and pulled out a fifth of scotch. I knew it, Steve thought.
Ken became very quite. With great intensity he began to pour himself a scotch on the rocks with a splash of water. Steve and Austin set down their books and watched as Ken unscrewed the cap, took a deep whiff of the scotch, and rested the lip of the bottle of the rim of the cup. Ken’s tongue was sticking out the corner of his mouth as his carefully began pouring the liquor over the ice.
“Watcha’ drinking there huh Ken?” asked Austin abruptly startling the hell of Ken who jerked his pouring hand back and spilled the contents of the cup and bottle all over the fold out tray and onto Austin’s nice new traveling slacks. The liquor drained off the tray into Austin’s open backpack.
Ken turned red and splotchy. “Oh crap, jesus Christ, can someone get me some napkins please.” Steve offered his napkin. Ken grabbed the napkin and began dapping at his lap. “I’m pretty sure I’m going to need more than that, thank you.”
The stewardess soon arrived with a few more napkins. “I need a whole stack of napkins for Christ sake,” Ken’s eager smile was replace by thin lipped frustration. He madly mopped up his pants and tray. He slammed up the fold out tray and bolted past Austin and Ken toward the lavatory.
The air around Austin now stank like Ken’s breath. Austin switched back to mouth breathing. From his backpack he pulled out comic books, a sticker album, snacks and stuffed pig. All were saturated with booze. Austin looked at Steve, “Excuse me, I’m going to see my parents,” he said.
When Steve saw Ken walking down the aisle a few minutes later Ken was smiling. Is that bastard actually strutting? Steve wondered. Ken arrived at row eight. His smile instantly dissipated. Austin was no longer sitting in the middle seat. It was a grown man, Austin’s father. Father Howe stood up to let Ken pass.
Row eight, seats A, B and C were silent for the rest of the trip to Detroit.