Long Layover by Stuart Watson

Long Layover

Stuart Watson

Nine months after we boarded the 717 operated by FlugZeit Air, my favorite flight attendant slipped me her business card. On its back, in her script, “Ficken? …fünf minuten?” Lotte smiled saintly, glanced at my wife sleeping in the middle seat, then back at me, and winked.

Such were the surprises of being marooned on the anniversary trip of a lifetime. For one, I didn’t know flight attendants had business cards. For another, I somehow understood the meaning of her note, even though I had succeeded only at flunking freshman Spanish. Her note sounded far better than anything that had come our way since we stepped aboard. Nothing about her offer surprised me, either. She had been stuck with us from the get-go.

Becky slept on. She had been mostly sleeping for months. In her waking moments, she expressed a delirious hope that we would make it to Paris for our 20th anniversary, even though the date had long passed.

Lotte had been with us the entire time. Blonde, glorious, Teutonic Lotte.

Three months on the tarmac in Seattle. Something about a fuel shortage. Another two months in Miami. Caught in the crossfire of travel bans.

First, people from Muslim countries.

Then, people from Hindu countries.

Then, Confucians, Buddhists, Mayans, Anabaptists, Zoroastrians, and worshippers of chia pets. They couldn’t come in. And no Americans could go wherever those swarthy, tiny, over-educated, funny-talking types came from. The fearless leader eventually decided people on planes had to stay where they were, shelter in place as if caught in an active shooter drill, while he and his people worked it all out.

Our plane was full, a testament to the blind optimism of a populace in extreme denial. We had become quite the little community. A group of women in first class had pulled down their carry-on luggage and set up a swap meet. They draped clothes over the backs of their seats. Other women would wander around, find something they liked, and start to bargain.

“Hermes! You’re selling the Hermes?”

“Only if you’re buying the Hermes.”

“For such a price, I’m not buying that Hermes.”

“For such a price, you don’t deserve Hermes.”

“What I don’t deserve? Used Hermes?”

Period Hermes. Before you were born, period.”

“From a museum, is it? I should wear antiques?”

“It would complement your ensemble, this Hermes.”

 And on. And on.

Other of our fellow travelers had given up hope. They wore vacant looks, slept a lot, exuded weird aromas, burst into rants and exhortations, shaking their fists, beating their heads against the seatbacks.

I wouldn’t let it happen to me. I had lost a little vim from my vigor—20 years of marriage will take that out of you—but I tried to stay fit. I had Toner Tubes I could use in the aisles. I did wall push-ups on the bulkheads. I spent the rest of my days walking up and down the aisles, toward the W/C and back, skirting the girl with the ring in her nose, who always seemed to be in a downward-facing dog pose when I asked to slip by.

Wi-Fi was good. We learned that oil reserves had tanked but that technocrats had a solution in mind. Turn airliners into gondola cars—big ones. Solar panels would power the cables.

Installing all those towers and cables was going to take time. Some were in place, but not to every destination. We might be among the last people ever to fly under the power of fossil fuels.

We got as far as Frankfurt before progress stalled. Clearance to depart for the mythic Paris? Never happened.

One day, the captain was out stretching the engines, and I noticed that we had worked our way toward the viewing zone, where jet freaks came to watch planes land and take off. They were ghouls. They all dreamed of something going wrong and their video going viral.

A food truck was parked near them. It was a currywurst stand. The plane pulled close and stopped near the tables, and I could see the Syrian guy who ran the stand talking with someone in the plane. His head was tilted back. He wrote stuff on a pad, returned to his truck, and two hours later, returned with dozens of very large bags.

In short order, Lotte and the other attendants were passing paper boats full of sliced sausages slathered in curry-seasoned ketchup with chopped onions and fries. Most of us wolfed it down and sat there belching and farting until a chant rose up, and pretty soon, the whole plane was in synch.

“Curry …WURST! Curry …WURST!”

Lotte was one of six people on the plane who had jobs. She brought us food and blankets and told us when we could use the toilets again. She and her buddies also brought us heated meals from the concession folks. The plane didn’t have a real kitchen, so heat-n-serve was our only option. Why they couldn’t vary the menu, that was the big question. Eat teriyaki chicken on rice with steamed vegetables and a bad plastic-wrapped cheesecake every night for a year, and you might want to eat a flight attendant.

Lotte saw that look in my eye. Maybe we wouldn’t see Paris, but Lotte was art, I’ll say that. Rubens would have loved her.

The cabin went dark and quiet. Lotte walked by and winked at me. I followed.

I had offered Becky a shot at a quickie in the W/C, but she would have none of it. She needed clean sheets, for Pete’s sake. Lifting her skirt and climbing aboard, my surly member eagerly seated on the vacu-flush commode in a compartment slightly smaller than the average Amazon box? Total non-starter, as far as she was concerned.

When I opened the door to the W/C, Lotte was standing on the toilet with one leg, the other foot in the sink, and she held her skirt up to her waist. She had a nicely trimmed landing strip. With my butt against the folding door, I went to work. It didn’t take long for her to start with the “Oh, ja, oh, ja ja ja.”

It sounded like gibberish but translated well. After she finished, she had to push my head away. She grabbed a paper towel. Somehow, we changed positions. It was my turn. She was smiling through a mess when I handed her a pre-moistened towelette.

She left first. “Vielen dank,” I said.

“Bitte schön.”

My time with Lotte became a weekly rendezvous, but I resisted complacency. I didn’t want this to become my life any more than it had.

And it didn’t. Four weeks after Lotte and I got going, we learned that the plane would, too. The captain came on the intercom and said we had been cleared for travel to Santiago, Chile, with stops in Dakar, Cartagena, Quito, and Lima. The jets remained silent, but the cables and towers were in place.

I took Becky’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “No Paris, I guess,” I said.

She smiled.

“Like a second honeymoon,” she said.

“Better,” I replied.

Our first had been a whistlestop tour of California, aboard a Greyhound bus, with a driver whose voice warbled notice of each approaching stop, an elderly woman who kept asking him if we had reached Tulare, and the two of us counting the hours before SoCal and the chance to resume our crappy jobs.

The ground crew dragged the plane out beneath the cables. We heard a loud thump overhead. Something must have descended and attached to the plane because we could feel the fuselage tilt and start to lift upward.

And then we started moving. The captain came on the intercom a minute or so later and said we were cruising at just over 34 miles an hour. Expected arrival: nine days.

Becky started to sing. “I love Santiago in the springtime…”

At altitude—about 200 feet—Lotte came by with her beverage cart. I let Becky make eye contact and order something tasty. I just stared out the window at the traffic beneath us.

Lotte had work to do.

About the Author

Stuart Watson wrote for newspapers in Anchorage, Seattle, and Portland. His writing is in Yolk Literary Journal, Barzakh, Two Hawks Quarterly, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Bloom, Fewer than 500, Mystery Tribune, Bending Genres (Best Microfictions nominee), 433, Flash Boulevard, Revolution John, Montana Mouthful, Sledgehammer Lit, Five South, Shotgun Honey, The Writing Disorder, Grey Sparrow Journal, Reckon Review, Muleskinner Journal, Wrong Turn Lit, Sensitive Skin, and Pulp Modern Flash, among others. He lives in Oregon with his wife and their amazing dog.