I recall that I had smelled him before I noticed him sitting next to me. I can't say it was a good smell or bad. More like those faint memory smells, the after rain kind, dampish. And his bright plaid polyester jacket, wide lapels, off-color pants and pointed leather European shoes, all an odd mix of old and new. His name, he had said, was Carl. Dressed as an amalgamation of past and present, indefinable Carl. Affable, grinning, and late middle-aged Carl. Such a man would not keep to himself.
“Did you see that Armenian come out of Gate 7? What the hell was on his head?”
I nodded. Yeah, a talker.
“They love their goats. I bet he misses that goat,” he said.
His laugh, which hooked me, was a high-pitched cackle. I smiled back.
“I had a sales route through Raleigh. Nice town,” he said.
“I used to stay at the Hilton on Creedmoor Street. Made rounds around Industrial Business Park.”
I worked in the area, but said nothing.
“I got to know a secretary real good there. Her husband was a preacher. She would spend some long lunches in my room at the Hilton. Know what I mean?”
I knew the woman. She was nice. I nodded. Please stop.
Carl relaxed his jaw and slid back in the plastic chair. His exaggerated grin spread as he looked up at the terminal ceiling. I followed his gaze, but saw only ductwork across open beams maybe 20 feet high. Carl was quiet and that was enough. Thirty minutes until boarding. Until escape.
“You don’t talk much, Scott.”
We had never gotten around to my name. It wasn’t in his narcissist playbook. How?
“You know, that’s okay, Scott. I’ve watched a lot of guys like you. You agreeable sort. Avoiding any hint of conflict. But you don’t always agree do you.” With his long and crooked forefinger he drew a slow winding and diminishing screw in the air that landed inches from my right shoulder. “Your type must be packing down some serious rebellion, huh,” Carl said.
“Really? Nothing?” Carl asked.
“I need to go make a call before we take off. It was nice talking with you,” I said.
“We, Scott? No. I’m not getting on that plane. Are you crazy?” He laughed.
“Okay. Well I…”
“No, Scott. You let me in long ago. Remember? At the Boy Scout Jamboree. I like to call that ‘Move-In Day’.” Another laugh.
“What are you…how do you know my name…and boy scouts?” I demanded.
“You know what I’m talking about. And I know you. Come on, Scotty, get real with me here. It’s me, Carl. Our chats go way back. We work everything out, you and me.”
I instantly disconnected. I could do this when things got too hot, overly complicated. I engrossed in the weird texture of his shoes, the shine, the form and color. I was calm.
“Yes. Good. We do our best work here in this place. As I was saying, before you did that to the fat kid in boy scouts, we chatted. That’s where we first met. But the girl, oh yeah. That was good work. We were buddies after that one. All those great discussions one right after the other.”
I was calm but wondering why.
“That moment in your white minivan before you drunkenly turned the key. Oh, and that other incident, the nice little talk we had before you and that check-out girl on the side. She was so crazy. The Sherriff’s granddaughter? Really, that was classic.”
I remembered Carl, our partnership. That was the same laugh I had heard in my head for the longest time after my run-in with the Sherriff.
”Do you ever miss your wife?” he asked.
The smell from Carl increased. Still that vague hint of those past, but putrid memories.
“Yeah, okay. I know you.”
“Then you know why I’m here, don’t you, Scotty.”
“Stop calling me that,” I replied.
“No, no. That’s not how this works, right. Understand that you’re spot on – there is no hope. Not for you or anyone. And everyone hates you, always have. And why not, right?”
I gradually looked up from his shoe to see his face. Carl clearly understood me like no one else. But then in his eyes I felt an abrupt, strange alienation from him. It had occurred to me that deep darkness of the blackest kind might be as blinding as the sun. In the way that it can be so cold that you get burned. Maybe that was true of all extremes. In what Carl had so plainly placed forward in the truth of all hopelessness, I had noticed one thing; His hate for me well exceeded my own for myself. That pathetic flash was my small tether of light. I quickly hid it. I had a little weapon.
“Scott, I think we have our understanding.” he said.
I nodded. But then I let loose a feeble smile.
Carl frowned his surprise. Then in a fierceness he took on a form of what I can only describe as the total embodiment of the word – intimidation. He poked my shoulder twice, hard. With his same grotesque hand he pointed to the gate. I looked and saw that the line had formed to board my plane.
Looking down to my own shoes, I prayed. A stupid, broken, and desperate plea. Powerless except for my astonishing humility. I was honest and that was a new thing. I then developed a tincture of gratitude for Carl. There were no illusions, he had made certain of that. I was who I was and for that tired moment truth and hope clung to me. Changed me.
After a time I came back to myself, my body and the clamor and commotion of the terminal returned. Last call to board flight 666 to Seattle. Mr., Frank Johnson, please meet your party at gate 4.
I turned my gaze back to the seat next to me and found that Carl had vanished. But a faded smell of him remained. I had resolved to not run away to Seattle as planned. It was stupid. I had just wanted to get as far from Boston as I could. And to never return to Raleigh. I had seen a map of the U.S. that morning in the hotel paper. It made perfect sense at the time.
I grabbed up my duffle bag and made my way back through the crowd, picturing a smaller, more manageable world. First the escalator. No thought of the door to the street until its time. Only when I reached outside would I consider my parking spot. Not before. Moment to moment. Blonde flight attendant – no.
Once outside, I adjusted to the night and the rain pounding the overhang above me. It had been brilliant daylight I had entered the airport. My sense of time returned to me as I stared down to the dark reflection of the clouds in the puddled pavement under my feet. I took in the evening air intentionally. Breathing in a kind of renewed feeling of life. I was determined to never plan anything again. I closed my eyes and inhaled again but whiffed an angry smell mixed in the evening mist. Carl.
A luggage man, tall and in full dress uniform, walked towards me. His form was an emergent silhouette until he fully covered the streetlight behind him. So cleanly cut, shoes shined, congenial in face. A man ready to help.
“Can I get you taxi, sir?” he asked.
“Oh. That’s not good. You’re going to get wet. You can wait here if you want.”
Thunder burst and a brief explosion of light crossed the sky.
“Then we could chat, right?” I asked.
“Well, sure. I can talk.”
“I know, Carl.”
“Excuse, me?” he said.
“Carl. Come on. Really?”
The uniformed man’s demeanor shifted markedly. He looked agitated.
“Well,uh…” He stammered.
“Yeah. Carl, this is weird. I mean what is it with you? Are we on the verge of world peace? Stop it. Go away.”
Carl sighed. He seemed incapable of looking directly at me. He frowned in his usual way but this time it was turned onto himself. When he finally did look at me it was with a wretchedly tragic and pleading expression. He peered up to me, having lost much of his dashing height, and hair, from a moment before.
“Why?” he asked.