The year 2010. He’s nothing I want to befriend, and I’m dripping in exhaustion, unable to rub two thoughts together. Spaced three feet apart, a gulf between us. A recumbent child, a dwarf, a lifetime could fill the hole between us on the bench. He says, “You missed a belt loop. And your pants are unzipped.”
I’ve dodged across the US all day, flown from Oklahoma to get to Texas to find Los Angeles to arrive in Albuquerque, all in pursuit of an additional forty-five dollars of savings. Now, in the late afternoon, I wait for a magic coach to carry me miles out to my car. I wait on a bench with a morose, humped-over man in black pants and a white shirt. With epaulettes and patches, a little American flag on his shoulder, a phone but no gun. In his hands he cradles gloves, the semi-transparent kind you stretch and stretch to fit your hands, that you snap loudly. The kind that make bulges where they bind your wrists.
I flick my eyes down to my crotch. He’s right. I shimmy in my seat to jerk my zipper up. What do you say – thanks? I grunt.
He begins to talk, and he may not stop. “It’s okay, the zipper I mean. I see it all the time. Mankind is nothing if not unbuttoned and hanging out. You all are clueless as to what you look like. And judgmental, Jesus Christ! All day you and your fellow travelers troll past me, curse me, roll your eyes when I ask you to take off your shoes. All day I’m reviled as I work to keep the airplanes safe from some yo-yo with C4 stuffed down his underwear and a primer in his ass. Day after day you frequent fliers stare at me like I’m shit. It’s okay. It’s a living.”
Alarmed, I shoot him a glance. Now that I stare at him, I see the sad trenched lines of a perpetual sigh, the dusky skin of the New Mexico Hispaño. I see a man blessed by too much airport food, with dark glossy hair marred by dandruff. His shoes are scuffed and look as old as he. I need something to say. “I guess I didn’t get the belt threaded right in Tulsa. No sense in messing with it now. But I wonder how long I’ve been . . . .”
“Walking around with the barn door open? It doesn’t matter. You don’t have anything we all haven’t seen somewhere else.” He turns away, stares out into the edge of the night as the sun does its fast desert disappearance.
“That’s right.” He has the slightest Mexican accent.
“Who made up that rule about the four ounce container?”
“You mean one hundred milliliters. Not me. But I catch the blame. When I taught English, years ago, I used to think my students would catch on. I thought they’d figure out from literature what motivates people. But now that I work for the Feds, I think we’re all like pinballs, just banging into things and complaining about the loud noises and bright lights. Rules are like the flippers and rails; they wake you up some.”
I perk up a bit. A bench-born philosopher. A little bit of Americana. “You must meet some interesting people.”
He snorts. “You got to be kidding. Your average traveler hurries through as fast as he can, so he can shuffle down the concourse, buy a three dollar Coke and dump down in some waiting area. The only thing I meet is people’s possessions, and their disapproval.”
“Possessions, huh? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found?”
“We found an antique doll once, with a knife stuck clear through her. That’s what the X-ray saw, the knife. The doll herself was invisible until the bag was open. She lay there, her dress ripped apart in front. Sweet face I thought, with her eyes open and accusing. Well, I took it that way. We kept the knife of course, but we had to give the doll back to the passenger. The passenger was something – her face was worn all to hell and her lips stretched back in a rictus – you know what a rictus is, like a skull’s grin? She was crazy, and poison on top of it. I felt bad for the doll, having to go on with that woman.”
“Ummm. What’s the most repulsive thing you’ve found?”
“A connoisseur for the off-beat, right?” He gives me the eye, one brow lifted up and his head tilted back.
“I’m a writer.” Or think I am.
“Oh. Makes me your source material, I guess. Repulsive? At least once a week we have to open up a bag, to find the crap people bought while they were on vacation. The stuff from Mexico, that crap shows up on the tube as something bizarre. Lumpy.”
“How’s that repulsive?”
He coughs out a short little bark of a laugh. “It’s always wrapped up in dirty underwear. Does it never occur to anyone that their trophy haul means we have to pick through crusty stained underwear? Takes a strong stomach.”
I feel I should apologize. Or lie. “Not me. I never buy anything.”
He threw me a pitying glance. “Sure. Any other questions?”
“How does this job make you feel overall? What strikes you the most?”
He stares down at the sidewalk in front of him. “You don’t ask for much, do you? You don’t make small talk, either.”
I flap a hand. “It comes with the territory. An excuse for rudeness.”
He leans back, stares way off, like he could read something out there on the side of the parking garage. “What strikes me is how pitiful we all are. It fills me up with despair sometimes. I know I’m not a pretty picture myself, but some of my fellow humans! They all squawk about their privacy and how embarrassing security is as they line up for the L-3 scanner. Well, when we walk them into the can and the scanner shows who they are! – A hundred pounds of gut hung over a dick they haven’t seen in years. An ass the size of the bus they came in on. Or even the scrawny ones, with the ribs we can’t quite make out, tit-less and all stooped over by their anorexia. What about my feelings, having to stare at humanity past its sell-by date?”
I grunt again.
He takes it as an opportunity to hammer home his anguish. “And guess what’s the best part!”
My mouth opens and closes. I have no words to say, no guess to offer for this man who sees his job akin to pumping out cesspools.
“The best part is I got cleared for searches. Now if there’s a suspicious character, I’m the one who gets to do it, in a locked room with another cop, monitored to protect everyone’s rights. I have to actually touch you people. Thank God for vinyl gloves.”
A shuttle trundles close, its sign reading “Employee Parking.” He groans as he levers himself up, stiff from a long day of seeing mankind at its worst.
He turns to me in the door. A grin flashes out, showing coffee-stained teeth under green florescent light. “Have a wonderful evening, sir.” The door flaps shut.
*Note – This piece was originally published by The Prague Revue and Folliate Oak in 2013.