I’m Henry Ambrose and you can say what you want about me. I’m not about to make excuses. In the last forty-eight hours I’ve been on three planes. Two layovers in Podunk airports that stink like my pits; flight delays totaling three, no make that four hours. Beer helps but not enough.
I’m one of the first on the plane headed for J.F.K. I shove my duffle in the overhead, fold all six three of me into an aisle seat and grin at the poor bastards lugging their shit.
My right leg is stiff. It’s been nagging all day. I stretch in out in the aisle. The weary passengers don’t take me on. Double-chins stops, growls, “Do you mind?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Closing my eyes takes effort. From force of habit, I cross my arms over my chest, feel the weight on my chest. Sleep is the enemy. I manage to drift off until the burr of the engines jolts me awake. For the first time, I notice my seatmate. The kid and I lock eyes. Size each other up. I don’t know what he sees. What I see is a punk with spiky red hair and pink crusted zits. He’s got know-it-all eyes. Let me tell you something kid, you don’t know shit.
The kid gets the message. He plugs in his buds. I reach into the seat pocket and thumb through the airline magazine by now I know by heart. Best Places to Eat in Boston, New England B&Bs. The article that really gets me is this one.
Vietnam: A Cultural Odyssey.
Vietnam is an outrageously fun country to explore. The American War is over and you’ll find the people friendly and fun-loving. Spend time hearing their tales.
Give it a couple of years and they’ll be saying the same thing about Afghanistan and Iraq.
I swear the kid’s gonna blow out his eardrums. Start a conversation being we’re in this together. Like your music. Me, I’m into heavy metal. If I wanted I could talk his ear off. Tell him what it was like when I was a kid. Better watch it though or he’ll think I’m coming onto him. Jesus. The last thing I want is my dick up his ass.
The pilot gets on the horn. “Sorry for the delay, folks. We’ll be ready for take-off ‘bout ten minutes.” I massage my bum leg. Waiting gives me the jitters. I tap my fingers on the armrest. The kid is staring out the window.
We’re airborne. I recline my seat, concentrate on my breathing. Count backwards from a hundred. Feel my heart thumping.
A whiff of perfume. I open my eyes and stare into these gor-g-eous baby blues.
“What can I get for you, sir?”
Oh, baby, you don’t wanna know. “Some water and a Bud.”
“That will be six dollars.”
I catch her name, peel off a twenty. “Here you go, Betty.”
“I’ll be right back with your change, sir.”
Betty hands me a cup of water with two cubes of ice. I pop a pill, chase it with the suds. Leg is acting up again. Kid’s staring hard at me.
“Something the matter, kid?”
“No sir. I was just wondering if you’re okay. You … you seem kind of jumpy.”
I point to his buds and cup my ear.
“Geez, I didn’t realize it was so loud. Sorry bout that.”
“No prob. That way we both got to enjoy The Dead. You got any Black Sabbath, Slayer?”
“Got Wolf and Metallica,” he replies. “Want me to play some?”
“Nah. Later. We got plenty of time.” I’m still sizing the kid up, trying to figure him out. “Hey, how old are you?”
“Sixteen,” I shake my head in disbelief. “Sixteen. Got yourself a girl?”
The kid shrugs. I notice he’s got one of those tongue rings. “When I was your age, I had one of those. I figured if I was gonna get lucky, you know what I mean, I’d give them a little extra. Got lucky once only the ring got caught in her nest.” I laugh remembering her squeals and what came after.
The kid gets my drift. Me and this kid, we’re buddying up. We’re having a real good time, me and this kid. I drain the beer, close my eyes, just thinking about stuff I buried long ago. When I open them the kid is still there. “Say, how old did you say you were?”
“I just told you, I’m sixteen.”
“Right. Guess I’m kinda beat from all this traveling.” Stab of pain across my forehead. I wince.
“You sure you’re okay, mister?”
“I get these migraines. It’s nothing.” I turn my head around. Where the hell is Betty Boop? I could use another beer. “Bet you’re real excited about going to New York,” I say to the kid.
“Nah. I live there.”
I look at my hands as if they belong to some stranger. “My Ma died,” I say slowly. “I’m heading back for the funeral.”
“Gee, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah, well.” My saying Ma’s dead doesn’t make it any realer. It’s just something else I gotta get used to. Like Patty getting married, and Barney taking over the garage when the old man had a stroke. Time doesn’t stand still. Everything around me has moved further and further away.
“Don’t do that,” I snap.
“Do what?” The kid flinches.
“Pick that zit.” You poor ugly slob.
“You know something, mister. You’re weird.” The kid turns away, goes back to staring out the window.
Shit, now you’ve done it. Shooting off your mouth.
I tap the kid on the shoulder. He pulls a long face with those puppy dog eyes.
“Hell, don’t mind me. I get like that sometimes.” I try to make amends and tell him I’m like his style. I use my tongue and make circles over my lips. “One of these days the girls will be all over you and you won’t need that ring ‘cause you’ll be so smooth they’ll be like bees and you’ll be licking their honey.”
The kid blushes.
I stick out my hand. “Henry Ambrose.” I salute. “At your service. You got a name, kid?”
“Hank.” He palms my hand.
“What do ya know? That’s my name. Hank. Hank, short for Henry.”
The kid’s is real quiet. He doesn’t offer to tell me his last name. That’s okay. The kid’s got a right to be suspicious. “Well, can you beat that? I mean the two of us sitting here side-by-side and the two of us having the same name. I tell you, this world’s a funny place. You on some kind of school break, bro Hank?”
“Hasn’t started yet,” he says dully.
“Oh yeah, I forgot it’s the end of summer. I’ve been away so long I lose track of stuff like school breaks. So, tell me, bro Hank, what have you been doing all this time besides looking for candy?” I wink.
“I was staying with my aunt and uncle in Atlanta.”
I take a sip of water. I could sure use another drink. I lean back, stretch both legs into the aisle. “Atlanta.” I string out the word like each letter is a bead on a thread, each bead a memory that’s slowly coming back to me. “Atlanta. Best place in the whole U.S. of A. Man, you gotta love Atlanta. Me, I got some relatives in Atlanta. My brother Barney and me, we used to visit this aunt and uncle every summer. They had a kidney-shaped pool, and Barney and me would go swimming every day, sometimes two, three times. Me and Barney we thought we dropped dead and went to heaven floating around in that kidney-shaped pool. Our folks used to take us to Jones Beach, but a public beach is nothing like having your own kidney-shaped pool. Go skinny dipping if you want. Let me tell you, Hank, those were the days. Course the beach has the girls. All around you. North, south, east, west. Lying on their blankets, showing off their tits, smelling of cocoanut oil. All those sun-warmed tight pussies. Man o man!”
I can tell the kid’s lapping it up. Don’t tell me he’s not right there thinking about getting laid while I ramble on and on, the booze, the pills really kicking in.
The cart is clattering down the aisle. I whoop, “Here she come,” ignoring the stares of the people around me. I say to the kid, “How about the two Hanks get themselves a nice cold beer?”
The kid doesn’t answer. I lean into the aisle, wave furiously to catch pretty, pretty Betty’s Boop’s attention. She flashes a smile, waves back.
That’s the honey we should licking right now, I whisper to the kid.
When Betty comes to our row she says real perky-like, “I have your change, sir.”
“You know what, honey, put it toward two beers.”
She stiffens, not nearly so friendly. “We do have the right to limit the consumption of alcohol, sir.”
Betty slides a single bag of pretzels on my napkin.
“Hey,” I yell loud enough for the passengers to lower their heads into their books and computers. Bloody bitch. I put my bag of pretzels on the kid’s tray.
I wind up drinking both beers and pop a second pill. It does the trick. In no time I doze off. When I wake up, the kid’s gone. I figure he must be taking a leak. A half-hour passes. A different flight attendant comes around with the dinner trays. Tracy is prettier than Betty. She has long, straight blond hair and one of those fixer-upper ski-jump noses.
“Chicken or beef, sir?”
I order two beef. One for me, one for the kid.
Tracy says, “I’m afraid we have to serve all the seated passengers before we hand out extras.”
I’m not about to argue. Besides the kid’s meal will get cold. Tracy bumps down the aisle, sounding like a damn parrot. “Chicken or beef, chicken or beef.”
The kid’s been gone a long time. Maybe he’s wanking off in the john, whack, whack, after all that talk about getting laid.
The seat belt sign flashes. The pilot reports a pocket of turbulence. I tighten my belt, start that tap, tap with my fingers on the armrest. There’s still no sign of the kid. When we’re told it’s okay to move around the cabin, I get up and stand outside the toilets. I watch the passengers going in and out. There’s no sign of the kid. I go behind the curtains and check Business and First Class. No luck. Then, in the off chance he’s in the cockpit enjoying a chat with the crew, I rap on the door.
Tracy sees me. She says huffily, “What exactly are you doing? Passengers aren’t allowed to bother the crew,” and insists on walking me back to my seat where I pop another pill. Someone has put a dinner on the kid’s tray. The tray has not been touched.
We’re close to landing. I crane my head and see the dazzling lights flickering like bulbs on a Christmas tree. My chest fills with pride. This is what it’s all about, I remind myself.
Betty and Tracy have teamed up. Betty picks up the kid’s tray. I hand Tracy my blanket. “Have either of you ladies noticed a kid with red hair wandering about. My seatmate’s been gone a helluva long time. His name is Hank. Henry. Same as mine. Only I’m Henry Ambroise.”
Betty scrutinizes my face before answering. “I don’t recall anyone of that description, do you Trace?”
Tracy frowns. “No,” she draws out the o,” but we’ll be sure to check our passenger list to make sure no one’s missing, won’t we Betty? Meanwhile, would you mind raising your seat and fastening your belt, sir?”
We descend through nothingness to nowhere. I block out the other Hank, and once we’ve landed, I find my belongings and sling my duffle over my shoulder.
A short passageway leads to the terminal. The lights in the terminal are blinding. Then I spy the red hair. “Kid,” I call out, “Wait up.”
I speed by a woman pushing a child in a stroller; overtake two teenagers hunched over with backpacks; sidestep a throng of Japanese tourists blocking my path.
The flame is extinguished. I lose sight of the kid until we get to Passport Control. A kid with red hair … but, no, that’s not my kid.
More interminable waiting to get through Customs. I have nothing to declare. I search for the kid but don’t see anyone of his description. I am stuck behind a couple who are holding up the line. I’m anxious to pass through. I want to go home.
The man whose luggage is being inspected is thin with sickly pale complexion and a week’s growth of stubble. He is neatly dressed in a white shirt and black suit. His wife is short and stocky. She is completed obscured in a black burqa. The wife stands still as stone behind her husband. I feel my heart pounding.
The man is gesturing to the items the agent is unpacking. He is trying to explain what the items are, but the agent does not understand what he is saying. From the little Farsi I know I make out the words candy, cookies, daughter.
The agent responds calmly, “Sorry, I have to confiscate these. No food or plants allowed in the country.” He points to the sign overhead. The man tries explaining in broken English that the items are wedding gifts for his daughter. His wife wrings her hands. “Wedding, sweets, gift,” the man keeps repeating.
The agent says patiently, “Look, sir, it’s the law. You can’t bring any food into the country that might be contaminated. “
The woman begins to wail. “Gift, gift.”
“Yes, gift.” The man opens the newspaper wrapped around jars of jelly and jams. He holds one jar up.
Panic seizes me. I begin to shake. It feels as if all the parts that have been put together are breaking part. I reach for my rifle. Where the hell is my rifle? I lunge at the man. Two agents standing off to the side have been watching the scene. The larger of the two grabs me by the shoulders. He pulls me off the man.
“Take it easy, soldier,” he says gruffly. “What do you think you’re doing?”
I stare at the man. It takes a second to register my mistake.
“Son,” the other agent says gently. “You better come with us.”
I am sweating. My head is about to burst. “I don’t know what happened to me. It was the jars. For a minute … Look, I’m sorry. I just got back from down range.”
“You got people expecting you, soldier?”
I nod my head. “My family’s out there. My mother died. I’m here for her funeral.”
The agent behind the search table tilts his head. He looks at the couple, then at me. “Let him go on ahead, Joe. Give him some slack.”
I pick up my duffle, avoiding the stares of the people who backed away when they saw me try to jump the Arab.