There’s a minor interrogation going on in the front of the plane. The old guy in 1C is laying it on the flight attendant, a tall redhead in her early twenties with a weary ponytail that looks like it got hassled going through security. No jewelry. No makeup. Smile that takes a couple tries, like a bent motel room key.
Despite her nametag, I’m going to refer to her as Allie, because her widow’s peak gives her ghostly pale face the heart shape of a barn owl.
Allie answers: she’s had this gig five years. (There’s a long layover between “five” and “years.”) Says she lives in Charlotte, has ever since she started with the airline after high school. No, she doesn’t want to do this forever; thought it would be fun; wanted to travel. Now they’ve got her pulling two to eight flights a day—four to sixteen ups and downs. Each morning, she wakes in a hotel by an airport, but can barely remember what city she’s in. Can’t quit right now, what with the economy how it is….
All of this is perfunctory, from the flight safety instructions she performed, to her full-cabin choreography routine, hoisting carry-ons, tallying passengers, punctuating it with a quick return and downward spin in the galley, lowering herself onto her pop-out chair and belting in, conveniently across from the lunging, sport-coat-wearing jackal in 1C.
Trickles of light splash across Allie’s porcelain features. Does she ever get sunlight that isn’t torn to shreds by spinning propellers and spit through the Plexiglas of tiny ovular windows? The turboprops’ howl drowns out the inquisition, but her strigine face says it all, concealing joy as efficiently as the panels hiding the aircraft’s oxygen masks. As soon as we’re airborne she’s up, wiping the tops of cans in the drink cart, wiping the stainless steel surfaces in the galley, wiping the sticky marks from the rubber mat.
Our flight is Hilton Head-bound. My wife and newborn daughter are there, home. We will land at the airport where I work, marshaling these small express flights, loading their cargo bins with expensive suitcases and golf bags. Forty-eight minutes estimated flight time. Twelve miles visibility.
Allie passes through the cabin with a selection of beverages. I ask for a cranapple juice. She pours one, glances conspiratorially around, slides the can onto my tray. A gesture of industry solidarity?
No. She shoots me the look a woman uses to let a man know she’s seen him watching her; her gaze falls to my wedding band, then rises icily back up, either at me, or, through me, to the lever on the emergency exit hatch. It all comes through loud and clear as, “Just drink your juice, don’t hit on me, and we’ll all make it out of this.”
I have no intention of hitting on her. It sounds as though we both took the airline job for the same reason—travel—but it’s ending for me soon, and I’m not sure how I feel about that yet.
I don’t say this. I drink my juice.
One thing I can’t prove but strongly suspect: flight attendants are some of the U.S.’s most malnourished workers. Commercial air travel obliterates distance; the aluminum alloy fist of the passenger aircraft gathers and bunches the fabric of place, or at least of airports, chain hotels, restaurants—if those things can be called “places.” For a flight attendant like Allie, who is always stuck in the boondocks without a car, a grocery store or a stove, it might as well be some isolated polar station. What kinds of forage does she find in those vast airport-exit food deserts? How often is the ring of her dinner bell sounded by the clank of coins falling into an airport vending machine?
Allie rips open a pack of peanut M&Ms, devours them one at a time.
I swivel to the window, watching the messy sprawl that’s strewn over the Piedmont plateau around Charlotte appear to tug itself apart. The term for this is parallax, a trick of perception. The closer the object, the faster it seems to pass, just like the scene below: the fast foreground of roads and roofs racing at the shuffling feet of cul-de-sacs and duplexes while highrise apartments and skyscrapers stand guard in the distance. I blink, adjust my sight, imagine the plane sits stationary, mounted on a post, the world sliding past on a conveyor belt. I could do this back and forth the whole flight.
This free trip will be one of my last. The airline is cutting back: last hired, first fired. Flight attendants have had it worse, a series of similar cataclysmic extinctions having wiped out all but the most hard-scaled flying reptiles, who folded their leathery wings tight against their Nixon-era hire dates and watched with cold yellow eyes as corporate rats picked the bones of the young. How Allie survived is a mystery. She is a creature out of place and time.
On a cocktail napkin I do a quick tally of all the states I visited on the airline’s dime. I cross out the airport-only states. The captain instructs Allie to prepare the cabin for arrival.
Arrival. My wife and baby in the terminal, my own bed tonight. Allie travels everywhere. Does she ever arrive?
The last time I see her, she’s ushering stragglers down the stairs. When the last passenger steps onto the ramp, Allie lowers her owl face and slouches forward between the handrails for a moment, then tosses her hair back, ducks into the cabin, and disappears.
She will keep her airline job after I lose mine, but at what cost? She’s receding from the world, this woman. Or the world is receding from her. From this distance, it’s hard to tell which is moving away faster, or if I’m the one moving.
Dustin Michael's work has appeared in Brevity, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, Big Muddy, and The Journal of Asinine Poetry. Currently, he teaches English at Savannah State University and lives in South Carolina with his wife and daughter.