Tuesday, August 4, 2009

"Ushuaia" A story of hope....


El Prat was never really finished properly, following the twenty-fifth Olympiad in ninety-two. Not the last part of the last terminal, anyway, where the tattered and beaten Montenegro Airlines plane had dumped me from the flight in. Barcelona was supposed to be one grand city, but I was not going to see it, and that didn’t bother me in the least. As cold and rotten as the rain had been at Golubovci when I had shambled aboard that morning, Barcelona’s warmer overcast sky, visible just beyond the terminal windows, seemed to offer little better.
All the other passengers had filed dutifully toward baggage claim, somewhere else, probably a long ‘somewhere else’ inside the vast facility. Instead of following along I had taken a nearby seat and fallen into it. I had no baggage. No checked and no carryon. Going home in disgrace did not require luggage, or belongings of any sort. Your body was required to take the journey, so you could stand and be told what a sad human being you had turned out to be, and, without it being directly said, how it was not their fault that you were such a miserable representative of species homo sapiens.
But I did have cigarettes. American, no less. The good stuff, not that cheap-burning Balkan crap. If I’d had drugs…well hell, I didn’t, so, as with the remainder of my life, it didn’t much matter. The people from the plane were mostly gone. Stragglers here and there, straggling aimlessly, like so many people do at airports around the world. I observed them by habit, as I didn’t care at all about them. No players among them, I knew. Even deep covered operations specialists were not difficult to spot, if you had been in the business, and the field, for awhile. I’d been both.
9/11, back home and so many years back, had changed everything I thought, as I began looking around for a place to smoke even part of a cigarette. Airports were hermetically sealed environments following 9/11, where smoking had gone the way of the pay phone and coin-metered parking out front. I watched a beautiful, but stressed out, woman head toward the opening to the washroom. Barcelona, not home, so it was one of those single unisex things I didn’t care for. Although the woman was dragging a seven or eight year old girl along with her I mostly noticed her. Tall, elegant, and wearing a beautiful knee length black dress. I noted that she walked powerfully, moved strongly, but she gave the appearance of somehow being wounded at the same time. I was a predator, and she had the look of prey. I smiled, turning away. Fortunately, for both of us, I was neither a predator of women or children. Unless it was required of the mission. And there would be no more missions.
I had a decision to make. The greatest decision of my life. The decision about my life. And I needed a cigarette to help me along. I looked back toward where the woman and her child had disappeared into the unisex bathroom opening. Just beyond that opening was a large metal door with yellow writing angled across it. Spanish was not one of my languages, not the writing of it anyway, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that the message was a ‘keep out’ message. But I could not see any lock on the door’s surface.
Looking around carefully first I arose from the chair and headed for the door. I took out my pack of Marlboros, to use as a cover in case I was encountered. Even so, just trying to use a door marked 'not-to-be-opened' might be a huge violation, not explainable by a person simply wanting to have a smoke.
“Screw it, like it makes any difference at all,” I said to myself in disgust, pushing down on the European-style door lever. I pulled. No alarm. I opened it all the way, stepped into another world, and looked around in surprise. I gently closed the door behind me, leaning down to make sure that there was no hidden device or lock along the height and depth of its edge. I took out a Marlboro and lit it. I leaned against the hard concrete wall opposite the door. I suddenly realized what I was in. I was in a long walled off corridor open to the sky. At one time the corridor must have led somewhere, but the vagaries of construction, and probably security, had caused both ends to be walled off. I looked up at the gray sky. The walls had to be over thirty feet high.
I heard the sound of deep sobbing. I walked a short distance down the long enclosed length of the concrete box. The sound was coming from a vent just above my head as I stopped. I blew out a great puff of smoke and watched it swirl right into the vent. A child coughed lightly from inside the vent. The vent led into the bathroom I concluded. The woman was sobbing inside there, with her child nearby.
“What are we doing, Mom?” I heard the child say. I listened intently. After a moment of more quiet sobbing, there was silence. Then the woman spoke in a whisper loud enough for me to hear.
“Get on your knees. We’re going to pray to God. We‘ve been deserted here
and have no money. If the authorities take us in, it won’t be long before they have us
back in that horrid country with those horrid people.”
The accent was American I concluded. The world was a hard place. I imagined one of the countries the woman must be talking about. Saudi, Iran, Jordon.
Cultures that were implacable, with respect to their women and children. Rendition had been invented by them, and the Israelis, not by Americans. To be on the run from one of those countries was to be in terrible jeopardy.
I drew in more smoke, then watched it snake back into the vent. I heard no more coughing. Instead I heard praying.
“Please Lord,” the woman intoned, followed by the little voice of her child, repeating the same words. “We are in deep trouble. Please send someone to help us. Anyone. We can’t make it on our own.” I heard all the words twice, but it was the little girl’s that went in toward what was left of my soul. Then I shook my head, threw the cigarette down and ground it out with my foot. It was a cold cruel world.
It took its toll on all of us and I had my own problems. I tip-toe'd to the door, opened it noiselessly, then slipped back into the real world again. I moved away quickly until I was well down the terminal corridor.
It seemed like a half-mile walk to the main building where the counters were located. I had an electronic connecting ticket to Washington but I had made that decision. I wasn’t going back there so I needed a ticket. I picked the United line, as it was fairly short and my original connect had been on that. Maybe they had a flight to South America that did not connect in the United States.
I felt someone behind me, but then, I was in line at an airline counter. Instinctively, I glanced back anyway. I almost groaned aloud. It was the elegant broken down woman and her child. I quickly turned my head, but not quick enough.
The little girl spoke up at me.
“You’re him, aren’t you?” I grimaced down at her, in question.
“Huh?” I said, intelligently.
“You smell like him.” I stared, having nothing to say to that comment.
I looked at the woman, but her attention was on everything else around. Her eyes darted all over the place, like those of a cornered animal. The girl kept staring at me, waiting for something.
“I smell?” I finally asked, against my better judgment. She nodded, knowingly.
“My Mom and I prayed for help. I smelled you when we prayed. You’re him, the one God sent.” I stared, my expression one of total disbelief. The girl had coughed at the smoke from my cigarette while in that bathroom I realized, then
picked up the same aroma from my clothes. My mind raced. A lot of people smoked, especially in Europe. The girl could not possibly know that the smoke was from me personally. I started to comment, then stopped, looking into the steady deep pools of her eyes. She knew. I knew that she knew. She knew that I knew that she knew. No words needed to be said.
“Por favor?” a woman’s impatient voice said, from the side. I jerked toward the sound. I was next. The counter clerk was motioning toward me. I looked up at her, then back at the child, who smiled, her knowledge of my role total and complete.
“Jesus Christ!” I whispered bitterly, taking my wallet from my pocket, and then approaching the counter. I took out my personal Visa, the only credit care I owned myself. The Agency cards were not going to work to get me anywhere, I knew, not anymore. My last ten thousand dollars was invested in the Visa card. Or at least my only ten thousand, and it was all credit. I shrugged. What did it matter.
“Here,” I said, shoving the card across the counter, “fly these two people to anywhere they're going.” I pulled back. The woman moved to the counter.
“What?” she asked. “What’s going on? What are you doing?” The woman looked from the clerk to me, than back again. The clerk shrugged like I had, but with more meaning.
“Here, you need tickets out of here. Use my card. Take care of your child.”
I said the words in embarrassment, as the woman stood staring at me in silence.
I watched conflicting expression flow across her face like the surface of a river’s white water rapids.
“We needed help Mom, and God sent him,” the small girl said, in her penetrating little voice. She pointed up at my chest. I could tell that the woman did not know what to do.
“Take the tickets. Get the hell out of here,” I said sharply. The woman’s face broke, then she caught herself, thankfully stifling a sob. I stepped away to give her room. The little girl stepped with me.
“Where are you going?” she asked me, conversationally, as if what was happening was just a normal part of her everyday life. I sighed.
“Ushuaia,” I said, thinking that that would stop her, but it didn’t.
“Ushuaia?” she intoned, getting the pronunciation all-wrong. I didn’t correct her, preferring to wait until she and her Mom were out of my life.
“Why are you going there?” the girl went on, as I wondered that she had not even asked where Ushuaia was. I answered as if she had asked.
“Its in South America, down near the tip, in a place called Terra del Fuego.
There’s a bar down there I’m going to drink at. I’m done. I’m all done. “ I finished saying the last words with my eyes closed, imagining the total relief I would find down there, as there was just no point in living on anymore. The bar in Ushuaia was as good a place to end it all as anywhere.
“Can I draw you?” The little girl brought me back with her odd question.
“Huh?” I said, returning to my earlier intellectual response. I noted that the girl had produced a small notepad and pencil from somewhere.
“I don’t care what you do,” I answered, truthfully. I moved to the side to wait
Until I had to sign something. I did not have to wait long. The clerk gestured, the woman stood aside and I signed the credit card slip, then some other papers. I accepted my card back, but did not put it away.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” the woman began, as I tried to shake my head and stop her. “No, without you I don’t think we would have made it," she went on, "you saved our lives and I don’t know how to thank you.”
“I don’t need any thanks, just get your child back home or wherever you’re going.” The woman nodded. I knew she was aware of my discomfort. She took her papers, turned, then turned back and kissed me on the cheek. She smiled for the first time, as I shrank back in surprise, bringing my hand to my cheek. The woman grabbed the little girl by one hand and made to depart. The girl pulled back.
“Wait,” she yelled, then held up the other hand to me. I took the piece of paper she pushed at me, then watched as both she and her Mom half-walked and half-ran out into the main terminal area. I watched until they were gone.
“Por favor?” the United clerk said, once again.
“Connect me all the way through to Ushuaia, Argentina,” I said, pushing the Visa back across the counter. The woman went to work. I waited for almost ten minutes. All at once she looked up.
“The card’s no good. You don’t have enough money for that trip.”
I stared.
“What?’ was all I could say for a moment. “But I had ten thousand of credit on that card,” I said, in a shaky voice.
“Oh,” the woman said. “Now I understand. That woman and her child used up nine thousand dollars of your credit.” I stared, my eyes going round.
“Where the hell did she buy tickets to, Timbuktu?” I could not believe what I was hearing.
“Washington D.C.” the woman said, flatly.
“D.C.” I almost yelled. “It doesn’t cost that kind of money to fly from Barcelona to D.C.!” I waited for a reply, fuming.
“It does in first class. You said fly them anywhere. They were going to D.C.
At the last minute and with a full plane, first class is all that was available. Do you want to fly somewhere else?” I shook my head, still in total shock. I took out my electronically issued boarding pass. I handed it across the counter.
“Are they on that same flight?” I asked, knowing the answer. The woman checked her computer. She nodded, as I knew she would.
“Please tell me that they don’t have seats next to mine,” I murmured, all the strength of my voice gone.
“Oh no,” the woman replied, brightly. They’re in first class. You’re back in economy.” I just looked at her, slowly taking my boarding pass back. “You better hurry, you’re flight leaves in twenty minutes,” she finished.
I nodded, saying nothing. I stepped away, hearing “por favor” behind me.
I walked numbly toward the center of the terminal. I stopped under the flight display to find my gate. I remembered the piece of paper in my hand. I unfolded it. It was a wonderful little pencil piece of some expressed talent. It was a drawing of a smiling man bending over to talk to or accept something from a female child. Under the drawing was written the words “Not Done.”
I could not help smiling to myself. I didn’t believe in God. If I did believe in God I wouldn’t have liked Him. But I walked toward the United gate smiling, with a strange new purpose in my step. I talked to Him, whom I did not believe in, while I walked. Indeed, it appeared I was not done.

copyright 2009


  1. Wow, James, You now have a new Fan! This story is so well written and very touching. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This then is from that body of work attached to "Nearer to God"? It definitely seems to be the same persona with the same complex (and complexities). Will that be a series of short stories?

  3. This is one chapter of the novel "Closer to God," which is in the process of being written. "Give Me Strength" is another.