Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Keep a Secret

The plane lifted off the runway and into the air, the rushing blast sucking the life out of every other noise. Except for the baby three rows ahead who because of inability to gnaw a stick of Wrigley’s, fought against her mother’s advances to take the bottle. The plane’s climb tilted into a bank and the blessed little one decided to take the nipple. The cabin pressurized emotionally, seat backs adjusted and settled against the cushions. Neck pillows appeared from stowage and braced heavy heads against inevitable strain.

I found the sweet spot in the head rest and closed my eyes, sighing, resisting the urge to peek at my watch one more time. “I’m supposed to keep this a secret, but I absolutely must tell someone.” Hot breath slid across my cheek as the words materialized in my ear over the muted wind-gust. My shoulder brushed my ear against the intrusion. I dug into my pocket for a handkerchief to wipe my cheek against stray spittle, turning with wild surprise to clearly view my seat-mate.
“Excuse me?” I said producing my tucker, wiping my face.

“Yes, it’s true. Every word of it.” He said, raising a hushing finger against his lips while pulling the window shade down against eavesdroppers or intruders.

I reached for the call button.

“Secrets are fascinating because they eventually come out,” he muttered. My hand froze, the fingertip kissing the orange icon bearing the generic image of the chatting brunette strapped into the jump seat against the cockpit door; the guardian of our souls for our forty-five minute flight. She glanced up from her conversation with the man on her left and shamed me with her eyes for daring to push the button so early into the flight. My hand dropped.

I surveyed my seat-mate, memorizing his features. He was a small man, older but not terribly advanced in years. Thin red hair ringed a shining bald spot, and the beginnings of a red beard sprouted from patchy skin. He had not shaved in a couple of days, or was close-groomed. Nothing was out of place to suggest sloppiness. He wore a tan jacket over a white shirt, tan slacks and grandfather’s brown leather shoes. His wardrobe suggested a kind of uniform, but I could not be certain. A gold college ring flashed on his right hand.

“Should I be scared?” My own whisper caught me by surprise.

He gazed at his hands, folded palms upward as they rested in his lap. His fingers laced together formed the framework for his thumbs to caress each other. A Mona Lisa smile materialized.

My clammy hands gripped the arm-rest, the metal curvature warming under my skin. I stared at the back of the seat in front of me thinking how fortunate I am to be sitting beside a terrorist or a garden-variety lunatic or some religious person or an airport drunk or someone with a confession. I sniffed. No smell of alcohol. The man in the seat before me twisted his air jet open, causing the stray hairs on the top of his dead to dance.

“It’s been said that secrets have the effect of sin or guilt on a person,” he said.

I watched him stare at his hands. “I’m not a priest,” I replied, staying out of trouble.

“Possibly,” he sighed. “Quite possibly; but it’s true. Oh, I should not tell.” He stared out the closed window.

My head thumped back against the headrest and I closed my eyes. This is going to be an eternal flight. I encouraged myself. “When I open my eyes, it will be over because I fell into a deep sleep; we never talked; none of this ever happened.”
He broke the silence. “It’s not that easy.”

I sat up. “What’s not easy?”

“You know.”

“What do you mean, ‘You know’?” I asked, incredulous.
“You know what I mean,” he said with a gentle smile.

“Are you reading my mind? You are making me very uncomfortable,” I said. My thumb rocketed up to the orange button, jamming it deep into the socket with a crack. The cabin bonged a reply. The flight attendant crossed her legs, held her knee in her hand as deepened her conversation with the man on the front row. She laughed a quiet laugh at him when she was sure I’d noticed.

“Really? Are you serious?” I asked up the aisle in a hushed tone.

“No, I’m not a mind reader. Mindreading is fiction,” he said.
“What did you mean when you said that about me closing my eyes? How did you know what I was thinking?” I demanded.

“Perfectly obvious,” he said, turning to me. “Look,” he continued, “I’m sorry to spring this on you. I sincerely apologize for making you uncomfortable; but, it’s plain to see what you were thinking a moment ago. I’m sorry. But I absolutely must tell someone.” He said the last in a whisper.

“Why me?” I whispered back. “Are we in danger?”

He waved a hand. “We’re in no danger; that is, unless someone else on board has an agenda.” He waved again. “No, no. I have no part of that kind of stuff.”

“Then why talk to me about secrets?” I emphasized my singularity with a hand on my chest.

“We are strangers. You don’t know me. I don’t know you. I know my secret will stays right here at . . .” Interrupted, he blushed his eyes beyond me.

A white sleeved arm reached across my vision, resetting the orange button. “How can I help you gentlemen,” she asked with inconvenience.

“Oh, I uh . . . I thought I was going to be sick. Can I get some Ginger Ale? Can I get a bag? I can’t find one.” I fumbled.

She smirked. “We will be serving drinks shortly. Can’t it wait?” Without taking her eyes from mine she reached into the seat pocket in front of me and with flair of prestidigitation produced a white Pepperidge Farm-type bag in which travelers toss their cookies.

“Sure,” I said, taking the bag with a weak smile, “I can wait. Thanks.” She harrumphed and drifted back to her the jump seat, securing herself in once again. The plane drowned out the sound of her apology for the interrupted conversation.

The pilot bonged in and whispered, “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am captain . . . . In few moments the . . . -ant will be . . . the cabin with . . . for purchase. The pilot . . . seatbelt sign. Please remain . . . with your . . .-send in case of . . . -bulence. We will be arriving at our destination in . . . and will be cruising an altitude of . . . . feet. Thank you for flying . . . “

“Sounds like the pilot has a few secrets himself,” I said feeling lighter in the moment. His eyes lightened and the smile blossomed on his face.

“Ok,” I conceded, “I’m curious. Tell me.” I folded my hands over my barf bag and waited for story time.

He held up a finger, emphasizing a point. “Ralph Waldo Emerson said that curiosity lies in wait of every secret.”

“You like to read?” I asked.

“Oh, yes,” he replied, gasping, “How did you know? Did you read my mind?” We laughed at the joke. “I love to read. Perhaps I read a bit too much.”

“What do you like to read?” I asked, thinking of my ever-growing reading list. My intention has been to read a book a week but like the culinary connoisseur, I like to savor my food.

“Well, you see.” He said, blushing. “I’ve been traveling since my wife died ten years ago and I’ve been many, many places.”


“Occasionally, but I like to stay ‘close to home.’ The States. I can’t find what I am searching for in many countries of the world.”

“Something exotic, eh?” I wondered out loud.

“One might say so,” he contemplated his hands again. “I stay in hotels often.”

“Well, people do when traveling . . .” I replied, stating the obvious.

“Every hotel has them. Every motel.”

“What? Towels? Soap? You collect towels and soap?”

“No, no,” he was serious. He leaned over close to my face, whispering, “The nightstand. It’s in the nightstand.”

Oh great. He is religious! I sighed, wishing for an airport drunk. “Yeah, what about ‘em?” I replied with irritation. Turning my head with the memory of how this whole conversation began, my rolling eyes fell upon the flight attendance standing right next to me, crunching the brake on her cart in the aisle. She produced two mini-cans of Ginger Ale and with thousands of miles of practice popped the tops, one in each hand. She poured two plastic cups already filled with ice and handed over one for me and one for my companion, one napkin each clinging from between skilled fingers. I started to say I did not ask for Ginger Ale, but the look in her eye reminded me of my plight so I was grateful. I waved my doggy bag to demonstrate my diligence “just in case.” Releasing the break, she drifted on covering 10 miles backward with each step.

“I read them.” He continued, whispering. “The Bibles. Well, not the Bibles themselves but what people write in them.” He was speaking now, staring at his hands again. “In the margins. I read the margins of Gideon Bibles.” He blushed.

“The margins?” Somehow, I was interested. “What do you mean?”

“Well, people traveling know where to find one and they read them, the Bibles. Most often, people write in them. Their thoughts, their hurts, their desires, their prayers. You learn about people through their graffiti.”

“Isn’t reading people’s notes like invading someone’s privacy? Knowing someone’s secret confessions?”

“I suppose it is, but if they intended on keeping things bottled up, why write them?”
He had a point. Long after we landed, I wondered what people read in the Bible to make them give up their secrets . . .

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