“Excuse me, is this seat taken?”
He didn’t wake, or even shift. Annie reviewed her options: repeat the question, louder; move the newspapers on the seat next to him, which might be his, or not; pretend she didn’t see the newspapers and sit on them; or return to her assigned seat two rows back and have her kidneys battered all the way from Miami to New York, as the little boy behind her kicked her seat.
He still didn’t move. She sighed, torn: not worth it / kid would drive her crazy.
“Wake him up!” said a wiry, leather-tanned woman in the seat in back of him. “Hey! Wake up!” She reached between the seats and slapped him on the shoulder. “Lady wants to sit down!”
“Oh—sure.” He swept the newspapers onto the floor in front of him.
“Thank you. Sorry to wake you.” She got out her book, to indicate that she wouldn’t interrupt him further.
“That’s all right . . . are we there yet?”
“No. We’re still here.”
He smiled, revealing a twinkle of gold at the side of his mouth, and nodded at her copy of The End of the Affair. “You like that?”
“Do you think he’s dead, when she sees him after the air strike?”
“—Yes. I reread it. The description is very clear. . . . You don’t?”
“No.” He drew in his breath slightly, a reverse sigh. “No miracles.”
“This is a work of fiction. It can hold miracles.”
He smiled again, with a flash of gold. “I’ll owe you—I mean, I’ll send you flowers or something—if you’ll change seats with me so I can sit on the aisle.”
“Why didn’t you ask for an aisle seat?”
“—Good question, Ms.—“
He offered his right hand, tilted slightly, palm out. “Andrew Logan.” She grasped his hand—large, warm, dry—just long enough to be polite.
“Ms. Annie. I didn’t ask for an aisle seat because I’m borderline entropic and my company made the reservation for me and probably thought I had kept my childlike wonder all these years. If you prefer the aisle, keep it.”
“I always ask for an aisle seat. If you go into spasms later, we can switch.”
He wanted to talk more, she could tell, but she had so looked forward to finishing the last fifty pages of the book and she didn’t want to be picked up anywhere, but especially not on an airplane. Still, his face—long and lean, fair-skinned, with pale blue eyes—was familiar, along with his name. The shape of his head, his dark blond hair . . . had she seen a photograph? It nagged her as she read, just beyond her mental grasp, she would think of it later today and kick herself for having kept her nose in a book.
By the time breakfast came he had skimmed through the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and El Neuvo Herald and was at work on the Times. He put it aside to eat.
“What’s new?” she said.
“SOS,” he said, and she nodded, unable to think of anything more except that gold tooth.
“I need some dental work done. Do you recommend gold?”
A laugh rumbled up from him; she’d been right to wait till he had nothing in his mouth. “Yes. It makes people remember you. Who taught you to ask questions?”
“—No one. No one at all. Until about four months ago, when I took a job with the local newspaper. Now I can ask questions all the time.”
He asked her which newspaper, where it was, what kind of stories she wrote. She thought he was just passing the time until she realized that he interviewing her: asking a question, and then a follow-up question, and then another follow-up.
“They can’t be too bad if they let you take a long weekend in your second quarter,” he said.
“I’m being docked for it. But my stepfather’s been ill. My mother bought me the ticket.”
“I’m sorry about your stepfather. But you need a union, Ms. Annie.”
“Forget it, Andrew Logan. They’d close the paper.”
“They all say that,” he said, but she was on another thought. Using his name made it come clear.
“You’re a writer, aren’t you,” she said.
“A reporter. I ask questions.”
“The New Yorker. They devoted a whole issue to your report of the massacre in Cuscutlan.”
“You have an amazing memory, Annie. That was years ago.”
She opened her mouth to tell him that she had saved the issue, unable to discard it even after his book was published. But that might sound obsessive, so she said, “I was working with our local Central American solidarity group.” She paused, embarrassed; out loud, sitting next to him, the word solidarity smacked of limousine, or in this case, Honda liberalism, but his long face was open, listening. “We all read it, as part of our education. And your book, we all read your book, not that one but the earlier one, about living with the guerillas—”
“You read that book?”
“Yeah, I still have it—”
“You all read my book?”
“Well, six of us. The ones who read.”
“Did you all read the same copy?”
Now she laughed. “No, we each bought a copy. To support the author.”
“I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “That doubles the number of people who read that book. Where the hell did you get it?”
“The Marxist bookstore in the Village. The one on 10th Street.”
“Jesus . . . I hope you didn’t write a check.”
“Those who wanted to be followed up by the FBI wrote a check. Those who didn’t paid cash.”
“Your first real smiles, Annie . . . don’t look away, it’s just a reporter’s observation. For me, too, those were glory days.”
“It was a good group.”
“Defused now, deflected?”
“It was easy to keep a high level of rage in the ‘80s. People—”
“Well said. Did you come up with that?”
“No, Ed did. He was the articulate one. Jaime thought up clever demos. I wrote our press releases.”
“Public education is crucial.”
“That’s what we thought. Think. A few of us try to keep the spirit going, but people’s lives change. They realize they’d better pay attention to their children, or get a job. It happened in Cuscutlan, too.”
“It did . . . “ He seemed ready to speak, then changed course. “Ed your husband?”
“—Was. He died.” She could feel her chin lift.
“I’m sorry . . . cancer?”
“I’m really sorry.”
They were silent for a moment, the ghost of Ed tucked between them.
“Kids?” he asked.
“When did Ed die?”
The captain came on the intercom to alert them of their landing. They stored their things as instructed and she felt silly, not a real reporter, because she had been reading a novel, not the daily papers. Traveling, she and Ed had always bought the local newspapers.
When it came time to file out of the plane, she said, “My bag is two rows back. Good luck with your post-election analysis.”
But he waited for her, looking out the window, his legs stretched sideways, just short of the aisle. He didn’t speak again until they were walking in the airport.
“Are you dating?”
“Do you have good friends?”
“I mean, male good friends.”
“Yes. From before. Our friends. People I’ve known for years.”
“—I’d like to get to know you, Annie. I won’t ask anything of you. We’ll talk, like we did today. I could—” he looked away. “No. That’s it. We’ll talk. Books, the news.”
Standing, he was even taller than Ed, and his stride was long, like Ed’s. She had been telling herself she didn’t have to keep up.
“Do you ever come to New York?” he asked.
“—Sometimes. Not often. I have the dog, the consuming job.”
“Let’s do this. Next time you come to New York, call me, OK? I’ll take you to lunch. Here—” He gave her a business card that consisted of his name and a telephone number. “Call me.”
“Shake?” he said. They shook hands and parted. She could feel his card in her coat pocket. She would never get to New York, but the card was a nice souvenir. She would call Jaime tonight . . . remember the guy who wrote about Cuscutlan?
And there he was, by her side again. She turned awkwardly, startled.
“It occurred to me,” he said, “that since this is my idea . . . I should visit you. Can I come calling next weekend?”
“I have to work.”
“The next weekend then.”
“I’ll call you. I’ll take the train up for lunch. If I can sit through lunch, I can’t be too psychopathic, right?”
A twinkle from his gold tooth, and he was gone.
Two days later an envelope arrived for her at the office from him, marked personal . . . a plain business envelope, return address in the west 40s . . . he must have called, to get her last name. She put it aside, took it home, ate dinner, went out to cover a meeting, came back to the envelope, examined it again, made herself open it. Inside were two pieces of paper folded around four $100 bills and one $50. “I figure they docked you $205, and you’re worth at least twice that to them,” said a note scrawled in black ink. “Take it. I’ll call you.”
Take it, and she owed him.
If he sent her $450 a week, it wouldn’t be enough.
He was Guild, he lived alone, probably had plenty of money. It was meaningless to him, this money, her lack of it.
No, it wasn’t. He was precisely right about how much they had docked her and he knew, exactly, how much that cut hurt. She put the envelope in her sock drawer.
Copyright © Debby Mayer