Conversation Pieces


Lenny Levine


The sign at O’Hare Terminal B’s Gate 27 hadn’t changed in over an hour, but Phil Evans couldn’t stop himself from obsessively staring at it. “Delayed,” not “Cancelled,” not yet. At least there was a plane out there, which was encouraging. He could dimly see it at the end of the Jetway through the swirling snowflakes whipping around in the darkness outside the window.

It’s not up to me, he thought for the hundredth time. He’d either get home tonight and find out his suspicions were true, or he wouldn’t. Out of his hands. He tried to make it into a positive, but it kept feeling like helplessness.

At his hotel this afternoon, as soon as he got the e-mail that tomorrow’s meeting was off, he saw the opportunity. Barbara wasn’t expecting him home until tomorrow evening.

She was seeing another man, he was sure of it. Their sex life had been perfunctory at best for months now. And she didn’t seem to mind his sales trips anymore, which was very odd. Throughout their five years of marriage, she’d given him nothing but grief about his travel schedule. Whenever he told her another trip was coming up, he could count on her rolling her eyes and treating him to several minutes of the cold shoulder. That had changed, and he wondered if it was because she was glad to get him out of the picture.

He had no idea what he’d encounter when he walked through that door tonight, if he ever got the chance, but he’d bet she was screwing the guy in their apartment rather than someplace else. She wouldn’t risk not being home if he called unexpectedly, which he did from time to time. One night only last month, he’d had to call her very late because he left some important demographic stats in his desk drawer. He was surprised at how alert she sounded, not at all like she just woke up, and this was a woman who couldn’t keep her eyes open after 10 o’clock. As she was reading him the figures, he could have sworn he heard a toilet flushing in the background.

What would he do if he found her with someone tonight? He honestly didn’t know. His imagining went only as far as stealing into the bedroom and seeing two figures under the covers. He knew she slept like a log and wouldn’t wake up. The guy might be a different story, but still, he pictured the two of them asleep. Then what? He had a hazy notion of himself walking into the kitchen and taking a steak knife out of the drawer; then his mind would go blank.

He looked up again at the sign, which remained unchanged. It would be a full plane if it ever left. Every seat in the passenger waiting area was taken, the hum of conversation flowing around him in a sea of disjointed syllables. Most of the voices weren’t talking to each other, he noticed, but on cell phones, and loud. Why do people talk louder on cell phones? He supposed he did it too but was unaware of it. His eye fell on the girl across from him, who couldn’t be more than 17 or 18, blonde with a nice body, as far as he could tell under her jeans and heavy sweater. She furrowed her eyebrows as she spoke, staring ahead and clutching her right hand tightly to one ear. Her voice was typical singsong Valley Girl, turning sentences into questions. “Karen, it’s like I’m sooo not into this? I mean, you wouldn’t believe it out there; it’s a total blizzard?

If she were a couple of years older, Phil mused, feeling a familiar stirring and aware that some might think him a hypocrite. Sure, he had women on the road from time to time, but it was far different from what Barbara was doing. None of his “affairs,” if you could call them that, had any bearing on his marriage. They only satisfied a physical need, were short, and took place far away. He loved his wife and was sensitive to her feelings every moment he was with her. Not too many men could say that.

But Barbara was worse than unfaithful. She was bringing someone into his home, his very bed. How many of their neighbors had seen the guy? Their doorman had, at the very least. She was screwing around right in front of everyone; that’s what was happening.

“No, Dora, they haven’t told us anything yet.” It was the woman on his left, an elderly, overweight lady with hair that looked like someone had slapped a giant steel-wool pad over her head. Phil had been aware of her ever since she sat down heavily next to him, reducing his personal space to a minimum.

“Susie just might have to wait to see her grandma ’til tomorrow morning, if I can get there by then.” She sighed and shifted her weight, causing his chair to move with her. He wondered why fat people always sat next to him.

The person on his right also took up more space than average. He was an oversized college kid wearing a purple Northwestern sweatshirt. He looked like he could be a football player, a lineman. His hair was in a buzz cut, and his acned cheeks worked fiercely around a piece of gum. His cell phone was plugged into one ear, freeing his hands to play an action game on his laptop as he talked.

“Yo, dude!” he called out. “I’m stuck at O’Hare; what’s goin’ on?”

Phil realized his fists were clenched, and he made an effort to relax. Tucking in his elbows to avoid physical contact with either the fat lady or the jock, he allowed himself one last look at the girl, then at the sign, which, sure enough, hadn’t changed. He reached down, pulled his carry-on bag closer between his legs, and stretched out as far as he could. Then he lowered himself in the seat, closed his eyes, and surrendered to whatever.

“I don’t know, Dora, aren’t the airlines supposed to put you up in a hotel if the flight’s cancelled?”

“I can’t believe you just said that. Are you, like, serious?

“Yeah, dude, it’s a bummer.”

Sitting there, stuck in his emotional loop, Phil hadn’t considered where he might be sleeping tonight. One thing for sure, the airline wasn’t going to take care of any of them. This type of cancellation, if it happened, fell in the Act of God department. The general policy of the airlines, as he knew from experience, was “God sayeth, ‘Screw you.’” Well, he’d slept in airport terminals before, and he’d do it again. But he’d make sure it was far away from these people.

“Yo, how’d the Bears do?”

“You don’t wanna know. It’s, like, so depressing?

“I realize that, Dora, but there’s no point in getting upset over it.”

That was kind of strange, Phil thought, the way it all seemed to come together like that. He’d been trying to blot out the babble, but now, with his eyes still closed, he began to listen.

“I mean, how could she go out with him? Didn’t she, like, say he was a complete dork?

“Yeah, and that’s why the guy’s gotta go, dude. How many interceptions has he thrown this year already?”

“It’s nine now. You’re an hour later.”

“They gotta try using the backup, bro, What’s-his-name.”

“Spike. Isn’t that stupid? What person in her right mind would date someone named Spike?”

“I’d do it in a minute, Dora, but it’d be crazy. Even if I could get a hotel room at this point, I’m sure there are no cabs available. There must be a foot of snow.”

Phil almost started to laugh at the weirdness of it, but something stopped him. Instead, he kept listening.

“Dude, it’s the Colts next week. Don’t tell me you’re not even a little worried.”

“What I’m concerned about is my medication. It’s in my luggage.”

“They’re gonna lose it, bro, guaranteed.”

“Ohmigod, how can you even say that!”

“Don’t yell at me, Dora. I’m allowed to miss a dose.”

“Am I, like, missing something? She said he was anthropoidal, right?”

“Right, and that’s just why we gotta get rid of him.”

There was silence, as the people on the other end were apparently saying something at length. He could feel it as a palpable presence surrounding him. The noise of the waiting area seemed separate, as if he were in the center of a small, isolated space. If he opened his eyes, he wondered, would whatever this is stop happening? He realized he didn’t want to find out. He kept them closed, and waited.

“Now he’s completely different, Karen; he’s hot! And I heard he, like, just broke up with his girlfriend?

“Whoa, dude, we’re breakin’ up. I couldn’t hear the end of what you just said.”

“God, am I never going to hear the end of this? I’m sorry I even mentioned the damn medication.”

“Like, why are you sorry? Who cares if you know her, you don’t owe her anything.”

“Yes, I do, Dora. I know how to keep my medication straight. Now stop yelling. I can hear you perfectly fine.”

“Yo, that’s better, bro. Now what were you sayin’?”

“I’m saying, like, he’s available, so what’s the problem?

“It’s that you think I don’t know how to look after myself, isn’t it? Well, you’re wrong.”

“No, you’re wrong, dude. Our defense sucks. They’re gonna ram it right down our throats.”

Eeew, that is so gross!

“It’s the truth, yo.”

“Come on! I can’t believe he’d do a perverse thing like that. Who told you?”

“Susie. I hate to say this, Dora, but I think you even worry about leaving her alone with me. Like I have Alzheimer’s or something.”

“You keep forgetting, bro. Indianapolis has got an explosive offense, and we’re already down to our third-string linebackers.”

“Oh, please, it’s not that bad. Honestly, Dora, where do you get these ideas?”

“From, like, my own experience? You can’t trust her; she’s got a thing for him too.”

“Listen, if you can’t trust me to take care of my own granddaughter, there’s no use in my even coming there.”

“So, like, don’t. What do I care? But how do you know she isn’t just making it up?

“Dude, would you listen to yourself? You’re making that up.”

“I mean, just ’cause you thought you heard something? What kind of reason is that?”

“It’s nothing. So she was up way past her bedtime that particular night. So what? She just wasn’t tired, that’s all.”

“Couldn’t you at least, like, talk to her?”

“It’ll be a slaughter, dude, a bloodbath! I don’t know what you’re thinking.”

“I mean, like, you’re gonna ruin your life over this?”

Feedback blared from the loudspeaker. His eyes blinked open, and instantly the three voices were part of the cacophony, everyone talking at once, incomprehensible.

The PA system squealed again, and a woman’s voice came on. “May I have your attention, please? Passengers for United Flight 526 to Boston: On behalf of the crew, we’d like to thank you for your patience, and we’ve got some good news. It looks like we’ll be getting a break in the storm and the weather in Boston is clear, so I’ve been told that we’ll be flying tonight after all. Our scheduled time for departure is now 9:55 p.m.”

Cheers broke out all around him, but he sat there mesmerized. What kind of goddamn Twilight Zone thing had just happened? It was either supernatural, or random forces had somehow come together for a minute there to make a kind of crazy sense that only he happened to be perfectly situated to pick up on. What were the odds against that?

Maybe it was something like what astrology people believed about the movements of stars and planets. He’d always thought astrology was bullshit, but maybe he’d just experienced a mini version of it.

Or had he been dreaming? His eyes were closed the whole time, and even though it felt like he was awake, maybe he wasn’t. He thought about that bizarre turn it took at the end. It was almost as if they were talking to him, like somebody, or some entity, was trying to tell him something. Or, if he was dreaming, maybe he was the one trying to tell himself.

He remembered the steak knife, and a shudder went through him. Quickly, he reached down into his carry-on bag, took out his cell phone, and, before he could change his mind, pressed the speed dial.

The voice that answered sounded alert, but, after all, it wasn’t that much past her bedtime. And besides, he didn’t want to think about that.

“Hey, Barb, it’s me. I’m at O’Hare,” he said. “I’ll be home tonight.”



2 Responses to Conversation Pieces

  1. zina says:

    Great piece!

  2. Hilary Rothman says:

    Great story!

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