Volume 20, Number 2

Next Available Flight

Roland Goity

Juanito massaged the glossy-green leather luggage with his fingertips. Yep, alligator hide.
“Careful with that thing,” the woman said.

“Yeah, it might bite!” her husband remarked. Laughing, he pulled a fiver from his wallet, and slapped it into Juanito’s hand. “Keep the change, Pablo!”

“I’m not Pablo. I’m—” But before Juanito could remind the man of his name, the fellow and his wife passed through the automatic glass doors and into the terminal. By nightfall the loutish couple would join their bags in Florida, in Orlando, at MCO. A place where nearby real gators lurked, and where it was undoubtedly warm and sunny. Not like in California, in Oakland, at OAK, where it was cold and windy, and where raindrops showered down on Juanito every time he stepped curbside to help expectant travelers unload their bags from a cab or shuttle. What had been only the sniffles a day earlier had become a fully fledged chest cold, with one hell of a cough.

Juanito checked Mr. and Mrs. Disneyworld’s bags and shook his head at Tyrone when his fellow skycap offered him a smoke. Juanito had almost quit for good; Tyrone knew that. It pissed him off whenever Ty offered, but he didn’t let it show. He was good at keeping his emotions in check. Too good, Annabelle, his wife, often reminded him.

“Goin’ take a break then, aight?” Ty said, and Juanito gave him a nod and the go-ahead.

Since 9/11 and the recent standardized handling charge concocted by the airlines, not only had the daily bag count gone down, but so had the size of the average tip. Couple the job woes with the ill-timing of Juanito’s decision to refinance his home’s mortgage with a variable-rate loan, and the perfect storm of financial troubles had beset him and hindered his ability to provide for his family. So it was times like this, with his cohort on an extended break, that he would hustle faster, greet customers with a thick smile, and hope that the diligence of his deeds was recognized and duly rewarded. Hard work was something Juanito had learned from and admired in his father, who literally worked himself to death (a heart attack) shoveling horseshit at Golden Gate Fields. The man cleaned stables for thirty-one years without complaint.

A van pulled up, hip-hop music booming out its windows. Out jettisoned a handful of tattooed guys in Raiders jackets, muscle shirts, and dark jeans that rode a good half-foot below the bands of their boxers. Their faces beamed liked neon marquees. Juanito engaged in a few fist bumps and talked them up. “Puerto Vallarta” was their soon-to-be destination according to one in the group. PVR. “They got sandy beaches, salty margaritas and horny senoritas as far as the eye can see,” said another. “Join us down there. We’re going to bust some serious nut,” he added, as a matter of fact.

“Sounds great, but I’m married,” Juanito said, flashing his ring. “My old lady might have a problem with that.”

The fellows laughed, and then thanked Juanito for his help. Their energy, camaraderie, and sizable gratuity gave Juanito a figurative warmth that helped combat the literal chill. He wished he was a dozen years younger again and could take part in their no-holds-barred vacation in May-Hee-Co. Or, better yet, on another go-round south of the border, the Old Country, with Annabelle. For their honeymoon he managed to propel her to the southernmost tip of Baja, to Cabo, SJD, but the trip didn’t turn out quite as Hemingwayesque and romantic as originally envisioned. He caught nothing more than seasickness on his daily boat trips for albacore or marlin, and Annabelle was under orders to refrain from any sort of sexual activity due to “the infection,” which she referred to frequently throughout the vacation. Infection indeed; the smell on his fingers from the live mackerel they used as bait was the closest he came to anything resembling the scent and familiar comfort of her pussy during the entire trip.

And now, with two kids to feed and mounting bills to pay, a return to Mexico, or even just a trip across the Sierras to Vegas (LAS) or Reno (RNO), seemed a monumental venture that would do well in conversation but would never reach takeoff. As an employee of the airline, there were times when Juanito was personally entitled to board the next available flight where a seat remained unsold. To visit areas of the world on a whim, like Puerto Vallarta in the company of fun-loving strangers. He used to love the actual flight. The aerial views, traveling inside the clouds. Sometimes he’d imagine the plane was a strand of hair in the downy confines of some cosmic pillow. But in addition to the unpredictability of it all—the inability to plan an itinerary in advance to secure a date, time and destination—another drawback kept him from such trips for years: the fact that he’d have no money in his pockets upon landing to even risk setting foot on the tarmac. Regardless of the locale, one step from the plane and he’d essentially be homeless.
So Juanito daydreamed; he did do that. He could see himself in the wingtips or loafers, the sandals or tennis shoes of the travelers whose baggage he handled. Pictured himself embarking to the distant lands where others planned to travel. To Rome (ROM), and the Coliseum, where gladiators had once battled to their last dying breath. To Paris (PAR), and the Eiffel Tower, where he could gaze upon the world’s most beautiful city with his outlook unfettered. To Tokyo (TYO), and its Dome City, where shopping, entertainment, and stimuli of all shapes and colors awaited. To Moscow (MOW), Buenos Aires (EZE), Nairobi (NBO), Montreal (YMQ), Honolulu (HNL) and elsewhere. In his head, Juanito had traveled the world several times over.

That afternoon the rains came down gradually harder by the hour. Juanito’s cough grew stronger, to the point where would-be customers held on to their bags and veered right past him, not willing to pay for the privilege of acquiring whatever germs Juanito carried.

At five o’clock, Ty and Juanito gave way to the next shift. Nine minutes later, Juanito rode the back of a drafty bus, trying valiantly but unsuccessfully to suppress his cough as he headed home to his neighborhood in east Oakland.

It was a trip he took every day.