As the plane tip-toed to its spot in line I was drawn to the fat man again. His skin was a failing dam, unable to withhold the tide of perspiration. He seemed visibly uncomfortable now. He’d already been screened, and he certainly didn’t fit the stereotype, so I knew this son-of-a-bitch wasn’t gonna blow us up. But something was wrong. Outside the engines were revving with maximum power, preparing to catapult us skyward; yet, beside me his knuckles grew pale, bones only moments from ripping through as his grip on the armrest grew deadly.
In a matter of seconds we were barreling down the runway, and in that brief moment as our aircraft left Earth, hovering unsteadily in an epic attempt to take flight, the fat man let out a high-pitched whine followed by a holy snort.
My god! I was in fear now. He’s a giant child, too.
I turned to the window and pulled my hat low, ignoring the breakdown beside me, instead, choosing to admire the disappearing city beneath. It was home for nearly a decade: cozy, comfortable and content. My story already written. There was magic there, and for many it still existed. For me, though, it had become bittersweet. This was the end, an abbreviated goodbye to an enchanting coastal town.
I knew complacency was no substitute for happiness. I knew I had become a stale onion, withered and harsh. Still, I also knew something existed underneath, if only I could remove those layers and get to the core.
Maybe this isn’t forever, but it is certainly for now. If I ever return, I know things will never be the same. And I’m OK with that. Selah.
I turned back to the fat man, more so out of curiosity. I was greeted with a doughy, eerie smile. He was staring directly at me and began to speak before I could react.
“Must apologize for being rather rude and ignoring you earlier,” he said.
Taken aback in a moment of retrospection, I found myself reeling from his thick English accent.
“Well, ya see, sir, I have a rather difficult time flyin’…”
Awwww, shit, he’s a talker, too!
“An’ I am also very peculiar,” he continued. “I know my own girth, but there’s something ‘bout being near the aisle. I fly a lot, so it gives me some room to stretch. Hell, I guess it also gives me peace of mind, you know? Just in case something goes wrong, I can be first up and running toward the exit,” he said with a chuckle.
“Anyway, I noticed that you had difficulty getting past me, and I know that it may have seemed rude that I did not move but, you see, I’ve developed a type of ritual and feel that, if I stay seated…” he trailed off momentarily,
“Well, I guess I’m giving more detail than necessary, but I hope that you understand. Aren’t we a funny little species with all of our idiosyncrasies?”
“Yes, yes we are.” I didn’t know what else to say. In only a matter of words, this man had managed to humble, embarrass and surprise me. He made me feel pity and left me with an awkwardness that I hoped would not dominate the remainder of this flight.
“Well, don’t fret, sir, the worst of it is over for me,” he said. “The flight itself is never a bother, but it’s the getting off the ground that I worry about. Now that we’re in the air, we’re flyin’ with a first-class company, and they know how to treat their customers,” he ended in triumph.
“What, do you work for them or something?” I asked, not that I was interested.
“Me? Oh, no, sir—no way. Couldn’t do that. I’m a, uh, tax man.” He smiled and I wondered how much of that was bullshit.
“Tax man, huh?”
“Yes, an’ if I do say so, one of the best around.”
“Keeps you busy?”
“For much of the time, unfortunately.” His faux smile faded and a truer regret shone through.
Damn curiosity. “Why’s that? Sounds like you enjoy your job.”
The fat man quickly regained his composure. “Oh, I do, sir, don’t get me wrong. I very much enjoy it. You know, it’s very pleasurable to understand that, if I have to toil my days away by working, I can do so in a manner that provides me, and hopefully my clients, with some sort of delight. It’s just that I have a wife and a child whom I’m often away from. I love them endlessly and miss them terribly all the days we’re apart.”
I heard what he said and raised the stakes. “Why not quit then? Certainly you can find other jobs, or even another tax job. It can’t be that hard, right? I mean who th’ hell wants to work with taxes all day?”
He only looked with an expression that brought shame. It made me wonder how many times I delivered that same look to my students?
“You talk like everything revolves around my career—that it controls me,” he said. “But I chose this path. Even though I go long stretches without the luxury of their beauty, it’s what I need. I’m a big guy, and everything around me is always cramped: this plane, these seats, any fucking car I ever sit in. Always cramped. But my job actually provides me space. I get to travel, and see different places and meet many people. Even more, I get to miss my family. I don’t take for granted what most people do. My happiness, my love, they are not stifled, and that is my choice.” The thickness of what he’d said hung on a dramatic pause, then he continued, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, since we’re free to roam, I’m going to th’ loo.”
As the fat man stood, I marveled at how thoroughly he destroyed my stereotype. He began to walk toward the back of the plane, paused, turned back and extended his hand.
“By the way, my name’s Matthew.”