by Brenna Dixon
Jack checks in at the American Airlines desk at Ft. Lauderdale International Airport. His card won’t work at the e-Ticket desk so that’s why he’s here, talking to Sandra K, explaining that no matter how many times he taps the screen with his fingertip, his bony knuckle, the nail on his middle finger, his reservation comes up in bold, red letters: UNFOUND.
Sandra sees this kind of thing a million times a day: locals flying for the first time, foreigners visiting the states, old people whose fingers shake. None of them can get the machine to work. She doesn’t understand why they switched to machines in the first place. She does the same amount of ticket printing. Jack Kenner’s just another name. Seat 38B, Gate A10, flight to Denver with a connection in Atlanta. Just another ticket out.
Jack’s fingers feel ropy taking the paper ticket from Sandra K. Sometimes when he’s steering the airboat his fingers loop around the levers this way, tighten like a noose. Sandra K gives him a look that he knows she probably gives hundreds of people every day—a bored, exasperated sort of look—but it bothers him anyway because he’s always driven the pick-up out of Florida. This he’s never done.
He thanks her through his beard and shoulders his duffle, a bag his father gave him from his grandfather. A lot of stains from a lot of countries. He weaves through people, so many reaching mangroves, and stands behind a bleached woman at security. Recorded jungle noises play over the speakers, welcoming visitors to South Florida. Noises misplaced and foreign between these white walls. Shallow sounds. He gets in line to go through security. A man labeled Hammond hands him a plastic bin for his belongings.
Hammond hates new travelers and hates the way Carlos is always so nice to them, so nice and understanding. They can read the signs, can’t they? No liquids over 4 ounces. Put your laptop in its own container. Take off your shoes, your hats, your belts. Ditch the change. Last week a man came through with a hunting knife, a Bowie. Looks like this guy with the beard is the type to do that, too. Jack Kenner, his bag tag says. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Hammond makes a mental note. There goes Carlos smiling while he tells Jack Kenner to unlace his boots, smiling as he motions to the container, acting like he’s the guy’s best friend and holding up the whole damn line.
Good shoes take a minute to get on and off, and you need good shoes when you’re out in the Everglades all day every day. Good shoes are essential when you’re responsible for the safety of boatloads of men, women, and children. Jack figures the people behind him can wait a minute while he gets his shoes off and in the bin. He understands a little Spanish, which makes the younger security guy happy.
Como estas? he says.
Asi asi, Jack responds. Asi asi.
When the other man, the stockier one, pulls him aside to check his bag again, he’s pretty sure it’s because he wore the red shirt his daughter, Jeannie, asked him to wear. She’s been telling her kids red’s his favorite color for years now, and they believe it because when they visit he wears red bandanas or red socks. Something red every day at Jeannie’s, too. This is because Jeannie has always been convinced that red is his favorite color. Jack’s convinced that wearing red’s as bad as driving a red car. Someone always notices. Someone always makes you slow down.
Hammond knows the guy’s watching while he unzips his bag and riffles through the clothes. Lots of t-shirts, a couple of faded button-downs. Socks, jeans. Nothing special except the gator claw on a stick. He pulls it out.
What’s this? he asks.
The man shifts his eyes up. They’re level eyes and they make Hammond uneasy, but not in a bombing sort of way. Just in a way that makes him think he shouldn’t have asked the question.
A back-scratcher, says the man. For my granddaughter.
So Hammond lets him go, wondering if he made the back-scratcher himself. As the man walks away, Hammond stares hard at his old, stained duffle bag and wishes that for once there would be drugs or weapons, something hidden under all the socks and underwear and t-shirts.
Every summer Jack gets a phone call from Jeannie asking him to come to Denver to spend time with the girls, to go hiking with Bryant. Jack always had a hard time believing anyone with a name like Bryant could hike, but that’s not why he hasn’t gone.
“The summer season,” is what he’s always told Jeannie, and to some degree it’s always been true. The summer season’s when the tourists come. It’s when he makes enough money to keep himself in food and still put a little away for the girls’ college fund. Jeannie doesn’t know about the college fund.
But that’s not it. Or not all of it.
Jack finds a Starbucks in the A terminal and drops his bag at his feet. He figures the line’s at least twice the length of the fifteen-foot boa his last tour group gawked at. The whole time he was loading his shotgun (just in case) he thought of Len and how she would’ve gotten out of the boat and posed with the snake, would’ve loved giving those pasty people a lasting memory. Unique memories, she called them. She loved being a part of unique memories.
This is what Jack couldn’t tell Jeannie: that the summers were her mother’s favorite even though no sane person would love the Everglades best in that mosquito-sticky season; that he sees bits of her in the tourists’ camera flashes. But maybe he can tell Jeannie now. Maybe she’ll understand because of Bryant. This is a kind of understanding Jack never wanted for his daughter.
Jack orders a large black coffee to have something warm between his hands.
Venti, you mean? asks the cashier. She’s a young girl, slight of build like Jeannie. Cassandra, her tag says.
Sure, he says. Venti.
Cassandra doesn’t like her curly hair so she twists it up in a bun behind her visor. She can’t blame people for never getting the sizes right. In her opinion a small is a small and a large is a large, but it’s company policy to correct the customers, and her manager is exactly to her left, so she corrects the sad man with the beard. She tilts her head up to see his face. People are at their most exposed in airport coffee lines, she’s learned. Without caffeine their faces slump with fatigue and grief. The happy people don’t come for coffee; they walk past on phones.
No. It’s the drained that come to fill cups.
Cassandra leaks black, bitter coffee into a paper cup and slides it to the bearded man. She offers him a cardboard coffee cozy, which he declines, and takes his money, which is wrinkled. Then he’s gone, moving in a slumping way toward A10. She recognizes his gait as the gait of a tall man made small.
Blocky orange and red shapes make up the thin carpet. It isn’t really even carpet, Jack thinks. It’s practically floor, a floor that seems much farther away than it did earlier.
This doesn’t make sense to Jack, that he should feel taller when he feels so low.
Maybe, he thinks, I’m filled up with loss. Like a balloon. Maybe I’m floating.
So he checks. His feet are firmly on the ground. He laughs at himself, a rough chuckle that turns a few heads. Jack thinks that maybe a person’s own sadness pushes them into distraction-action, like his half-baked alligator-wrestling business after Len, while a child’s grief makes a father with calloused hands reach for poor poetry.
Jack remembers Bryant as a pair of blue eyes that looked too long at his only daughter. Bryant was never comfortable in the swamp, had only come to do an internship counting snail kites for some graduate class. Len had just died and Jeannie was running airboats with Jack, which Jack liked. He loved his daughter, loved having her around, except for when he saw Len in the way she stood, feet slightly apart, hands on hips, and the way she spoke with one side of her mouth when she was being funny. Then it hurt to love his daughter, but it was a good hurt, one that would have hurt worse if she were gone, too.
Now he is afraid to see his daughter. He is afraid of what grief has done to her.
Jack sits. His jean cuffs rise, exposing the washed-out blue of his socks above the tops of his boots. He presses the coffee between his palms and tries not to move. He thinks about sawgrass, the way it cuts. About gator holes and sinking, and the way cypress knees look like people waist-deep in dark water.
He pulls out the back-scratcher, runs his fingers along the lacquered, bony claws. It’d been an injured gator. He believed in using all parts of an animal, so they’d feasted on the meat for days: gator tail and gator steak. He’d cleaned up the head, arranged the jaws into a snarl, and sold it to a skinny little boy from Iowa. The entrails he’d given back to the swamp. The feet he’d turned into back-scratchers like this one. It is weighted with the memory of Len running it down his back, then across his left thigh, then across his chest. My gator man, she’d said.
And he remembers Jeannie picking it up from next to the TV, chasing Bryant all around their house the first time he came over for dinner. It creeped him out, Bryant said. She chased him through the house and across the yard into the Spanish moss dripping from their old oak. Laughing and laughing.
Jack aches with this and the ache presses against his ribs until his chest feels like a broke-open cavern, a great dark smile carved into the earth.
Something’s wrong with the man balancing the coffee. He’s swelling up. Cal’s new and doesn’t know who to call, so he calls security and they come with guns like there’s a bomb or a terrorist.
Where? asks a security woman.
There, says Cal, and points toward the man with the beard. His brand new dress shirt creaks with starch.
Security officers line the other waiting passengers up against the big window at the front of the terminal and approach the bearded man silently.
Sir, they say. Sir, are you alright?
It’s medical, Cal thinks. An allergic reaction maybe.
Jack opens his eyes and sees a new face close to his, a man’s face red with exertion, red to match his hair. Always red, Jack thinks. He means to speak, but his mouth feels too big, like too much swollen flesh on his face, and he’s glad Jeannie isn’t seeing him like this.
Jeannie: Len’s living doll, Bryant’s sad widow. His daughter, 26 and a widow.
He hears the airline employee, a pudgy man in a crisp white shirt, call quietly for passengers with disabilities and/or small children. A mother hustles her two toddlers along the wall and onto the plane. A man in a wheelchair shakes his head as he passes Jack, knowing. Boarding Zone 1. Boarding Zone 2. Jack manages a few words: I have to go.
So he tries to go, finally unsticks himself from the chair, the officer with red hair jumping back from his spilled coffee.
Boarding Zone 3, his boarding zone, then on to 4, all the while Jack swelling larger, feeling his skin stretch tight over a welling-up he can’t un-dam.
He is big with sorrow, fat with it.
Kitch pulls his red hair back. He has never seen anything like this before. Not in all his years of security work. Not even at the state fair he worked as a rookie where people routinely ate themselves into severe allergic reactions. The collar of his uniform cuts into his neck and he feels for the man swelling before him. His cheeks expand so that Kitch can see skin between little curled rows of beard. When the man stands, Kitch is at a loss. He can’t shoot a guy in pain. He can’t wrestle him down. (He’s never actually shot or wrestled anyone.) The guy’s not even doing anything wrong, just trying to get on his plane.
A woman in a glittery shirt whispers something about a bomb and Kitch has the uncharacteristic urge to smack her. This shames him. He’s never wanted to hit a woman before. But Kitch lost his brother a year ago and now he finds himself wanting to strike out at the slightest irritation. The swelling man keeps swelling even after he pops out of his seat, and Kitch fumbles with his radio, calls for a medical team. He’s not even sure if this airport has a medical team.
A10, he says into the radio. Come to A10.
The words medical attention float somewhere to Jack’s left. He can’t fit through the boarding tunnel even though he tries. His duffle digs into his shoulder and his shoulder digs into the wall. The security officers try to close the door on him.
Sir, they say. You’re not well. You shouldn’t fly in your condition.
And then the medics arrive in their blue and white with their orange bags. They gape at him then set their jaws and rifle through their supplies. A woman with Carol stitched over her breast pocket stares hard at Jack and he suddenly feels microscopic, a mote of debris floating in brackish water.
An epi pen, Carol decides. That’s the best and safest course of action for what looks to be an allergic reaction, though she’s never seen anyone so inflamed.
She approaches the boarding tunnel. Sir, she says. I think you’re having an allergic reaction. Are you, to your knowledge, allergic to anything?
The man shakes his head, no.
Have you eaten anything out of the ordinary today?
Still, she thinks. It must be has to be an allergic reaction. Why else would someone flare up like this? He looks worse than her brother-in-law after a seafood feast at Red Lobster.
The man has sad eyes, she realizes. They are tiny in his swollen face.
The epi pen pinches but offers Jack no relief. He feels a slow panic building from his groin. It rises up through his belly, spreads through his chest, peaks in his throat and suddenly he can’t breathe. It’s like he’s never breathed before in his life, like his lungs aren’t lungs but useless chunks of muscle tissue held captive in his body.
And then there’s Carlos, the thin man from the security check point, speaking to him in Spanish of love, of hope, of promise. He says he came running when he heard about a man expanding at A10, says Hammond will be angry but that he knew it was Jack, knew that he’d suffered some loss by the way he stared Hammond down over the gator-claw back-scratcher like it was a lifeline. He says he’s been there, that he himself had shrunken to the size of a small child when he’d lost his abuela, that he’d shriveled up on himself.
Jack hears these words. They float up into his ears like tiny swallow-tailed kites, like a flock of bald-headed wizened woodstorks. They float in and they build sturdy nests of sticks soft with down and moss.
Jack Kenner no longer looks like Jack Kenner, Carlos decides. In this state he is no longer ropy and lean; he no longer looks like a man to wrangle the world. In this state—plump and overwhelmed—he looks vulnerable, soft-bellied, as though a person could walk up and poke him with a butter knife—not even a sharp knife—and he would be done. Though, he notices, the epi pen does not deflate him. And suddenly Carlos sees his purpose. He sees why he shriveled after his abuela, sees why he was allowed to return from that small and awful state, sees why he ended up working at this airport on this day.
Amigo, Carlos says. Hombre. You are not alone. See here? This shell I have on this chain? It was my abuela’s. Do you see these eyes? They were hers, too, and her smile. She gifted me her hands with which I try only to do kindness, and she gave me her belief of souls and how they become older, sometimes older than our bodies, and how they should always know joy and know relief. How the soul must cushion the mind and bear witness to the heart and overall be steadfast. I light a candle for my abuela every Wednesday and every Sunday in my home at the counter where she used to sit and read romance novels. Oh those old novels.
Carlos laughs at the thought of his abeula’s small shoulders hunching closer and closer to the book as she read. Jack Kenner stops trying to force his way through. Carlos notices that he is bleeding a little at the shoulder.
Amigo, he says. My friend. You must let go a little. Just a little at a time. Just a little for right now.
When security begins prodding Jack with guns he remembers to breathe. Shallow breaths at first then deeper ones. He feels as though he can’t take in more air, as though his body will burst with one more breath. He slides his shoulder a little further through the door, but that’s all, the rest of him won’t fit, and they’re holding the door closed anyway, telling him Sir, Sir until he pauses, stops pushing his way through, too big to stay, too big to go. He is stuck in this godforsaken doorway. He looks at Carlos, thinks of his words about souls. Jack isn’t sure he really believes in souls. It’s more like he hopes for them. He hopes that Len is out there somewhere maybe showing Bryant the ropes. Len would be that soul—the one that figures it out first and shows the others how-to. The pressure in Jack’s body eases a little. Just a little.
His phone rings. It’s in his back pocket where he can’t reach it because he can’t reach around his own body. He knows it’s Jeannie by the ringtone: her voice saying, pick up pick up pick up, it’s your favorite daughter, pick up!
She must be wondering if he’s boarded yet, if he’s on his way to her. His motherless, widowed daughter.
Everyone stares at him. He closes his eyes and sinks into that voice, sinks into his daughter’s voice: pick up pick up! That cheerful, playful self she was and who she must eventually return to being because it is her soul self. (He chooses for this moment to believe in souls.) He wills himself, wills his body. The pressure gives, just a little, just a bit, so that he can squeeze through the doorway. Faces peer in at him, dozens of faces, while he picks up the phone.
Dad? Jeannie says. Are you on the plane?
Her voice aches in his chest so he follows the track lights with his eyes, counting them (twenty, twenty-one) to keep away the building pressure.
About to be, he says.
Thank you, she whispers. I’m so glad you’re coming.
When they hang up, Jack feels spent, deflated, tired, and he knows he must get on the plane now or risk being stuck again. He knows it will come again, that he will soon harbor, again, that bursting inflating hurt, and that once he touches down in Denver he will take on his daughter’s hurt and his granddaughters’ hurt because that is what a father does and that is what he must do for Bryant, too. He thinks now of Jeannie riding on the back of an alligator, taping its mouth shut; thinks of her steering the airboat, loose hair wrapped around her face. He thinks of her strength and that gives him strength. He hoists his duffle and moves away from the baffled faces behind him. He follows the track lights into the plane and is still as it leaps into the air.