SHORT STORY: The Man Lacking Plausible Identification
Thirty people deep in the only line on planet earth where you actually gain time by removing your clothes.
Flunkies with plastic badges wearing ill-fitting polo shirts conceal boredom by staring contemptuously at everyone in the queue. Underpaid and forced to put on airs, these enforcers methodically extract the one pleasure afforded by their bullshit job: harassing commuters in their nervously throttled transition between highways and flight. "Welcome to John F Kennedy Airport" echoes faintly from the entrance down below as an angry woman in colorful braids targets me with roaring federal dictates regarding water bottles for the third time. "Warp," I tell myself, "Warp your mental on out of here." The line shuffles slowly to the podium where the first gatekeeper, perched upon his barstool throne, judges successive assholes to locate the embedded terrorist, achieve national fame and retire to warmer climes. Inevitably, neckpillows, carry-ons and bodies inch forward proving, incrementally, jihad is not in favor this season. "How is it possible for burning jet fuel to soften steel? How many other buildings in history have collapsed due to fire?" Ephemeral thoughts dissipate with myriad body odors.
Mom's dead. Is it odd that I wish she died of cancer? Cancer death is so common nowadays, as such, peoples' cancer sympathy machinery is highly developed and comfortably reactionary for interlocutors. No weirdness, no rhetorical discomfort. "She fell down the stairs" opens up too many lines of inquiry, it mentally constipates the empath, and immediately opens a line of strange yet well-intentioned questions. Handrails, neck-breakage, poor traction, head injuries, heart attack, medical call buttons on lanyards and on and on. Is it morally perverse to borrow cancer as the cause? Probably not, however, the empath could flip the weirdness onto me, causing entry into a dicey world of cancer explanations, esoteric vocabulary. Does metastasize mean increase in size? Meta means big, sort of like mega, right? And size is right there in the damn word. Big size, like big, fuckall tumor killed her? No, mom fell down the stairs, broke her ankle, ended up in the hospital, contracted nosocomial pneumonia and died 28 days later after choking on her cup of applesauce during a midnight snack binge. A robust 78-year-old woman taken down by 6 ounces of pulverized apple, an ironic martyr for the alternative healthcare paradigm. Well, sort of anyhow, as sacrifices are measured in oblique associations sometimes. Stupid glory-stealing apples. Cancer followed by mute tears seems a rational strategy for potential empathic intrusion.
Her foot onto my footprint, mine onto his, wash, rinse, repeat. His foot is covered with sandals, always a good flight choice. His beard is long and flowy. Bilal, going on about what it takes to be a good Muslim and I can't help staring at his beard. It's white, long, down to the middle of his chest and streaked with the occasional dark hair, resilient youth. Thoughts about the beard I grew last summer, long, but nothing like Bilal's. My beard hitting that certain length, about two, three inches perhaps, and what were coarse hairs started becoming soft, malleable. If I would have grown it a few more inches or perhaps the length of Bilal's I wonder how soft it would be? I'd like to touch Bilal's beard. Is it soft and supple like a flowing afro or is it soft and rigid like a horse's mane? Or, something else entirely? Facial hair is a strange animal with unique properties. If only I could stroke the bottom, quick-like, just to find out. Maybe he'll find out about mom, bear witness to my mute tears, a compassionate embrace, a stealth pet. If only. Bilal has that empathic look about him.
Coincidences. The discount for the bereavement flight was roughly equivalent to the price of an applesauce cup. One dollar and fifty-eight cents. A little more searching on the discounted fare sites would have certainly netted a much cheaper flight. Cynicism. Have bereavement flights shifted from the customer service side of things to the profit center? Reality. Non-associative human interaction is governed by a value proposition measured in precise quantities of fiat currency. Where did I read that? Cancer has a strong value proposition and is the number two killer of people nowadays. Why would the cancer industrial complex want to cure cancer? Would we all race-for-a-sustainable-and-reasonably-priced-treatment-regime in a post-cure environment? Would we still use the colorful ribbons? Does suffering matter less than death? Pink was mom's favorite color. My favorite color is black. Black is the color commonly associated with death. Melanoma is a black ribbon. The melanoma-ribbon-inventor-people should take cues from the thyroid-cancer-ribbon-inventor-people as pink, teal and blue are much more cheery and optimistic than black. Mom had two healthy breasts, loved to jog and lost many friends to cancer, mostly the pink, blue and white varieties. Proximity.
She keeps hovering, assaulting everyone with her eyes. What's she like at home? I imagine her toddler, plunked down on her lap, playing with an orange (leukemia) braid, feigning a bite, referring to herself as a little bunny. They share a smile, the adorable toddler gets a tender smooch on the forehead, then they melt into one ball of angry, red (multiple myeloma) energy and yell at me for the fourth time to discard my water bottle. "But my mom died of cancer and I'm really thirsty" I might say. She would then pass me a pink (breast) ribbon, assault me with skeptical eyes. The woman behind me taps, says, "The line is moving forward." Bilal made eye contact! This is my opportunity to inject a little witticism, pull him into my beard-stroking trap. I wish I was witty and had a long beard all of my own.
Mom was a good Christian. Well, mom was a Christian. I guess it's not my place to judge one way or the other. She went to church because that is where the elderly go when refreshing the iPad gets boring. She liked church because the pastor was young and had a tattoo. I think it made her feel less guilty using the institution for entertainment when the leader of the organization was clearly a recovering addict. And, since Jesus didn't waste his time judging, I think mom thought both she and the pastor were getting good value out of the whole sin-washing scheme. A good value proposition that went far beyond fiat payout. But I judge, and that really isn't my place. Who am I? Mom dies and I give her cancer and trash her social life. What a good son. But, I'm here. I'm present. At her funeral this evening I will cry, openly. I will share tears with my sister, my brother and we will bask in the fine melodies of our collective catharsis like troubadours on the secret beaches of some forgotten land. They won't bother to question why I didn't arrive earlier, why I couldn't make it for the wake. Instead, we will reunite, embrace. The world around us will melt away and we will look at one another with swollen eyes in the vacuum of our piercing pain and realize that we are family. Our familial connections are the only ones in the cynical world that could possibly endure when the shit gets really tough. We will laugh at the silly memories from childhood. We will cringe at the naive parental advice given. We will reaffirm the importance of our familial connectivity in the solemn ether of the church and make concrete commitments to get all the kids together in the very near future. Back home, a few days later, the string of missed calls and forgotten emails will continue it's quiet march toward the next pink ribbon encounter. Until that time, I gotta get mine.
I can almost touch his podium! Underneath his little ultraviolet light goes Bilal's passport, the bright smudges of cocaine and semen speak of last night's debauchery. Unfazed, Ronald S. slides the passport into the reader, checks Bilal's boarding pass and sandwiches them together before passing them back with a flat-lip smile. Bilal's travel companion steps to the podium as I remove my jacket, undo my belt, take out my wallet, loosen my shoes, discard my water bottle and remove my laptop from my backpack. Behind me, shit's getting real as people begin wiggling out of clothes and prepare for the security dance. Finally, a clear path to the exit of this particular tier of security hell.
"Step forward. ID and boarding pass."
To the tip of a needle. All consciousness smushes into a tiny speck of awareness sitting atop the piercing tip of a fine needle. That smug smile I gave to the person at DMV looking back at me but only visible to my mind's eye. The white plastic New York State Driver License card sitting erect in my keyboard, conveniently situated for quick entry of details into the boarding pass, all alone in a quiet apartment.
"I need your boarding pass and your ID please."
"I, I don't have it. I think I..." Memories, simultaneously lucid and stretchy.
"Sir, you can't board a plane without identification."
"But, my mom, she...she..."
"My mom. She. She fell down the stairs, and she broke her ankle."