Short Story – The Plane Home (By Douglas Robbins)
The Plane Home
By Douglas Robbins
I’m on my way this time. I’m tired of being lonely, a nobody, living in the shadows of my life. I’ve been on my way before and always got stuck. I’m heading home now to a place I’ve never been yet always felt. The signs in the airport corridor direct me where to go. Empty faces pass. I feel alone as the straps of my bags cut into my hands during the two-mile walk through terminal after terminal. I’ve never been smart enough to buy a rolling suitcase for ease and comfort.
At the gate I drop the heavy bags at my feet. I expect to cram one into the overhead bin, which might shift yet never does. The other will rest under the seat, but at least I’ll have them with me.
A flight attendant mumbles over the speaker about airline “members” and adds, “Preferred customers can now begin the boarding process.” A few people walk up with haggard looks; they’ve clearly been to the airport too often and are probably on a first-name basis with the airlines—“Bob from St. Pete checking in.” After the initial excitement of boarding, the rest of us wait.
Over the speakers, the flight attendant announces, “I’m sorry, folks, but the overhead bins are now full. You’ll have to tag your bags with our courtesy tags.”
People look around at one another. Huh? Didn’t boarding just begin? Aren’t there only five “preferred customers” on the plane?
The crowd anxiously waits. I anxiously wait. I must get there. I’m desperate to get to that place that’s called to me since I was a young man. We all want to get onto the plane and into our seats, which get smaller and smaller each year. It’s as if the airlines are trying to eliminate millions of years of evolution and growth—not to mention the advent of snack food.
We fill out the little nametags and leave our bags without supervision at the end of the ramp. We board the plane and take our seats, slowly, like canned hams machine fed into a foil tube, puh-phuumph. The plane must say Hormel somewhere.
The plane taxis onto the runway. “Folks, we’re number four hundred seventy-three for takeoff. It’ll be a little while,” the first mate cheerily says over the speakers.
We sit and wait and wait and sit. There is now “engine trouble, folks,” he says a little more seriously. I gather it must be from the plane having sat here so long, yet no one knows exactly what the problem is. A couple of hours go by. Then we’re told everything is “A-okay.”
We taxi again holding our place in line. I see into the small windows of another plane and notice people needing haircuts. More hours go by, but a storm is moving in our direction. We wait for days on the runway, days waiting. I grow a beard. Everyone on the plane gets to know each other on a first name basis. The mile-high club occurs at ground level. Men and women “go the bathroom” as instinct and needs take over.
We wait longer. We play cards and try to smile, laughing off the apparent ruse, ignoring it, while waiting for others to get us where we need to be. Our future is in their hands.
All looked good to fulfill this journey. Money and a commitment to their schedule, it was so clear and obvious how to get there and what our destination would look like.
We’ve waited so long. I can’t wait any longer. I’m going mad. Now the engines are sputtering and possibly out of gas. I’m trapped in this damn canister, sealed up with strangers. We’re running out of food, good graces, patience. Maybe this trip was a bad idea. Maybe it’s too hard. Maybe we can never get there.
A few shout, “We’re never going to make it!” Most of us try ignoring them, hoping they’re wrong, but we all have our doubts.
“We should be there already!” another person proclaims, adding to my stress, knowing he’s right.
We’re all tired of waiting, tired of promises, tired of the tears, pain, and being someone else.
The flight attendant announces, “Folks, the flight is being rerouted.”
What? We aren’t going where we need to go?
“We’re rerouting to a place you have no desire to visit. But we must switch planes first.”
We pull back to the terminal to transfer to another aircraft—this one is malfunctioning.
“Your bags will arrive at a new destination. However, we’re not certain YOU will. Bags won’t help where you’re going.”
I imagine months going by, living in this confused state—the state I’ve lived in for years. My destination once made so much sense, so clear and easy, especially when I was young.
There was a promise, a guarantee, but live elsewhere now? Be someone else now? A job, false roles, something that keeps me up at night and doesn’t fulfill? No, I need to get there.
The pilot pulls up to the terminal so we can change planes and wait inside. What a horrible word that is, terminal. More days, weeks, and months go by, and we’re still waiting for them to get us there. We all have our hopes and needs. These planes and “destinations” clearly aren’t under their control.
I need a shave and look like shit. I must look as haggard as my seat neighbor buried under peanut shells and flight magazines.
* * *
In the terminal, I look at the red digital sign with information regarding the direct flight “Home,” I had purchased. After all, the shortest distance is a straight line. Why deal with pitfalls, hard lessons, ugly experiences, and shortcomings, if we can simply just fly over them. Besides, we’re all impatient. Yet impatience doesn’t seem to get me there. Life after all has its dirty lessons to impart.
The red digital board lights up. We stare in disbelief.
Current time: Now
On-time status: Not even close—You don’t dictate life.
My bags are on the plane, filled with my clothes, toothbrush, and socks.
At the gate, the crowd swarms around the flight attendants. We want answers. We’re stressed and want to reach our destinations. We’re growing ugly. We need to get there.
A guy in plaid is pleading with a female flight attendant. She slaps him as he goes on about finding love at his destination. If only he could get there, his life could start. Expressionless in her airline issued attire and plastered smile, she slaps him again.
“I can be someone else there…I can start anew.” He walks away with tears dripping down his reddened cheeks.
A man in a business suit demands to make his connection. The flight attendant says she has no control to offer him. But he’s used to being in control and won’t concede it now. “I’m important. I’ll be rich, if only I can get there.”
“Please wait over there, sir.”
“I won’t wait! I’m important. I’m a preferred customer.”
She slaps him too. He does as he’s told and waits over there.
I’m pulled into the fray. Stressed. Confused. Upset. The hurt in me rises that was suppressed long ago. A woman walks up to me and slaps me hard. I’m stunned. She then slaps me again. She sees in me what she sees in herself. “Sorry, I had to. I just had to!” She stares at me then pivots to look at the flight attendant and digital screen.
I’m glad she slapped me. I needed to get slapped to pull me out of this stupor. Maybe that’s why the flight attendant is giving out free slaps. She has no control either as her own pain and disappointments well up. The slaps are her only power. Her husband and boy back home don’t like her much and she knows it.
“Anyone want to rent a car?” I shout. “We can drive there. We can control the car.”
They all look at me.
“That’ll take forever!”
“We don’t know the way. They do.”
“I would go with you,” an older woman answers, “but we’re not going to the same place!”
Shoot, she’s right. We’re not going to the same place. I need to rent my own car, alone. After all, it’s my journey. Others shake their head and point fingers at me, as if I’m crazy. A battle grows within. I’d rather wait here too. It’s warm and at some point they’ll take care of me and get me there. They promised. They also might offer me snacks and drinks. I can rest and let others be in charge.
Can I leave my things? I need my things! And what about the money I’ve spent on the flight? I can’t leave my bags and the time I have invested in this.
I struggle further ripping my thoughts in half.
I walk away from the gate and the promise of them getting me there. I walk away from being a passenger. I head toward baggage claim and ground transportation. No bags cut into my hands and neck to slow my stride and contort my body. I don’t take the corridor treadmill.
I make it down the stairs and toward the exit and walk up to a smiling kid behind the rental car counter. He can only assist in getting me a car—he can’t get me to my destination.
“Do you need a vehicle, sir?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Luxury or economy?”
“Economy is fine.”
Outside, I show the lot attendant my receipt, and he points me to the car. It’s filled with gas, well maintained, and ready to go. The radio works too. I put on a classical station to soothe my mind and the eruption within.
I find my way to the freeway and head in the direction I feel I need to go. It’s not the direct line I was hoping for, but it’ll get me there. I have to keep moving, fighting, unfolding, learning, healing.
I’m alone in the car, light, feeling like a newborn baby—that is, a newborn with a driver’s license.