For a moment, with his eyes still closed, he could pretend that he was waking up in his bed as usual. The sunlight was hitting his closed eyelids in the same way that it did on Sunday mornings, when he and his wife Jeannie would lie around lazily, each daring the other to get up and make coffee. The difference was in the low rumbling noise that pushed through his consciousness, reminding him that he was on an airplane bound for Las Vegas.
Jake opened his eyes and glanced blearily around the cabin. Couples leaned on one another lovingly, heading for honeymoons or weekend getaways. He sighed and readjusted his large, muscular frame in the tiny seat, pulling a white fedora cap down over his eyes before child next to him could make eye contact after her mother rose to use the lavatory. Too late.
With one finger, Jake slowly pushed up the brim of his hat to see a little, curly haired girl looking up at him. He grunted an acknowledgement and cast his gaze about, looking for the child’s mother to spare him this conversation. All he saw was the skinny looking youth who had also snagged a standby seat who looked away as soon as he sensed eye contact. The little girl smiled, showing that her two front teeth were missing.
“I’m going to meet up with my dad in Las Vegas. We are going to stay at the Excalibur and watch real knights jousting. I really wanted to stay at Circus Circus, though. Where do you get to stay?”
Debating whether he should claim to be staying at a brothel outside of town, Jake sighed tiredly instead. He hadn’t thought of where he was going to stay and didn’t appreciate being reminded of that. He glanced up to see the child’s mother returning to her seat.
“Sweetie, don’t talk to that man” the mother said gently, “he’s a stranger.” Relieved, Jake took the opportunity to leave his seat and head for a break at the bathroom. Squeezed in next to each other on an airplane and mothers still thought that every man around them would be an imminent danger to children. What a world. At least it kept little pests from talking to him and reminding him about the kids he never had in with the wife who would never have him again. Thirty-three was getting too old for kids. After all, he wasn’t planning on living a long life.
Catching the eye of a flight attendant, Jake gave her a quick nod. Her name tag said “Jackie,” and she looked prim and proper in her uniform with pink lipstick to match her nail polish, but the fingernails on her left hand were cut short, which Jake supposed meant that she played a mean guitar at home.
“Ma’am. I’ll have a whisky.”
A middle-aged blonde turned to face him from where she was working on loading more beverages onto a cart. “What seat is yours, sir?”
“Oh, I’ll just take it now.”
The woman chuckled. “Sir, you have to be seated for beverage service.”
Jake was unsmiling. “I will be in a moment” he said, gesturing towards the bathroom. “I can multitask.”
“Sir, I will help you when you return to your assigned seating area.” The woman blushed and turned away to dump ice into her cart.
Sighing, Jake entered the lavatory. He took of his hat and wiped his face with a moist cloth. There was no way to maintain either dignity or class on an airplane, but next time he would have to pony up for first class. Next time he would hopefully have a job to pay for it. He felt a twinge in his chest that nearly equalled the pain of losing his wife. His job as a Detective on the police force had been everything to him. It felt as if his very identity were stripped away.
Gazing into his own eyes, so dark brown as to be almost black, Jake took an inventory of his appearance. His chocolate skin was unlined, as if he never smiled. He had never frowned much either, until these tough times. He wore a white suit to highlight his ambiguous race. Truth be told, he had no idea of his ancestry after the Second World War had scattered surviving family to the winds and caused his drunken grandmother to clam up about everything. He straightened his tie. Jake pulled out a comb and wet his black hair and slicked it back before donning the hat again. He set his strong jaw and looked at himself in the mirror again. He had always prided himself on being the masculine, “ladies’ man” in his younger days. Now he didn’t care for swarms of obsequious college girls and waitresses that took turns in his bed in his youth. All he wanted was Jeannie, and maybe a cocktail.
Returning to his seat, he was happy that the mother of the little girl warned her child one more time not to talk to him, until he saw her glance at him with a bit of fear. He used to be a cop, for goodness sake. The little girl was wearing a soccer t-shirt. She probably had coaches and other male figures in her life that she needed to learn to trust without her helicopter parent around. He folded his arms tightly across his chest and cleared his chest with a growl. Where was that whisky? A ring of the stewardess bell brought her scurrying with his drink.
“Sorry, sir, I forgot about your drink.”
“That’s okay,” he nodded at her with a tip of his hat. “This drink is supposed to help me forget, too.” The stewardess pressed her lips together with feigned concern and then bustled along on her way.
Staring out the window at the wall of clouds, Jake couldn’t help but remember. It wasn’t the big fight that he’d always imagined heralding a break-up. In fact, he and Jeannie never really argued. Jake was always a passionate person, but he yelled more with his work buddies than with his wife. They’d been together too long. Jeannie had been his high-school sweetheart and the first girl he’d ever kissed. They’d gone to all the dances together, gotten the requisite awkward photos taken posed in ugly clothing of the era. When he had entered the military for a few years she didn’t bat an eyelash or complain. When they reunited it was as if they had never been apart. Maybe that was the problem. She had always been more like a roommate than a wife. Roses, flowers, the whole bit that women were supposed to go nuts for wouldn’t phase her.
When the time came, she just said it calmly over breakfast, as if she were announcing a new yoga class added to her schedule. Jake had been reading a news story about a small aircraft stolen from nearby Boeing airport in Seattle when Jeannie said was going to file for divorce and nonchalantly asked if she could have the house they bought together in their early twenties. He had laid down his newspaper, picked up his hat and walked out the door to go to work without saying a word. He was never the type of guy to take a break-up maturely, however. Even when he was a young teenager a rejection after a first date would send him reeling into self-destruction, chain smoking and sitting out in the rain melodramatically until dawn.
With Jeannie’s departure, however, his attitude turned sour at work. The Monday “guy’s night out” wasn’t the same. His boss, Hank had a few too many.
“Take a swing at me, Jake,” he said. “You ain’t no kind of man until you can hold your own in a fight.”
Jake had stared him down evenly over his own beer. Hank sat at a desk all day while Jake pounded the streets looking for criminals. Of course Jake had been in fights. Hank had stood and thrown a clumsy right hook that was deflected by Jake and answered with a straight hit to his boss’ eye. It wasn’t that moment that got him in big trouble, though.
Rather, it was the drive home, with Hank in the passenger seat and a sober Jake at the wheel. Jake had demanded a raise, and instead his boss laughed and said he was fired. Jake slowed the car to the stop and quietly asked his boss to get out of the car in the middle of the freeway. After a bewildered Hank was left to scurry for the off-ramp on foot, Jake was fairly certain he wouldn’t be heading into the office the next day. Ten years of Detective work undone in one moment of foolish pride.
The only thing that could calm Jake’s melancholy heart after Jeannie’s abandonment and the problem at work was to sit in his car outside the airport watching planes take off and land. Ever since he was a little boy, it had been his favourite hobby to watch airplanes. Back in the day, one could go inside the airport just to view the runways, but nowadays one had to pull off the road in a favourite turnout. Jake didn’t mind. He would sit and watch the planes float over the waving grass on the hills, listening to crickets through his rolled down windows instead of the radio. On warm nights he would put the top down on his bright yellow Mustang.
It was during one of those moments, sitting in his car outside of the airport after the falling out with his boss and wife that Jake had decided to try to catch an extra seat on an airplane. At first, he hadn’t a clue where he was going. All he knew was that he had his favourite trench coat, tie and hat, so he was ready to leave town. A road trip was the first thing on his mind, but he would prefer a drink tonight, and an airplane was as good a place for a whisky sour as any. A few hours of waiting around for a standby seat on a plane to nowhere found him in line with a scrappy looking youth with long hair. They both had made the last two seats to Vegas.
The popping of his ears startled Jake out of his reverie. The plane was descending. He reached automatically for his breast pocket to pull out a stick of gum that he always carried. Jeannie had made him quit smoking. She hated the yellow stains that his cigarettes made on the walls in the bathroom when he smoked in the shower. Ever since, he had chewed gum like a madman. To fiddle with a stick of gum was at least something to do with his hands. The clouds were gone outside of the window and the glittering lights of Vegas shone brightly in the night. The little girl leaned over him with a smile, forgetting her earlier fear.
“It looks like fairies live down there!” She chirped, excitedly.
Jake snorted. “Yeah, fairies who take your money.” The little girl blinked at him and Jake turned away, waiting for the wheels to impact the runway at his new home. Hello, Las Vegas.
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