Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Bully

With my bulky winter coat comfortably adjusted over my arm and my roll-on suitcase twisted into a practical following position, I glanced over the other waiting passengers to the ticket attendant. Boarding had just been announced for the final leg of my flight home and I looked forward to a cozy first class seat, a glass of wine, and my Ross Macdonald mystery.

He emerged out of the corner of my vision and walked straight to the head of a well-formed line that by now included several dozen people. The quick deliberate steps, his focus directly on the ticket attendant, and the made-to-look-innocent expression suggested he meant to butt in.

I really dislike people who butt in and hoped the persons at the head of the line would catch the action, glare indignantly and force a polite retreat. Sadly, they never saw him coming and he slipped into second place to have his ticket ripped.

The flight was full and I knew that the first class section contained only sixteen seats. “About a one-in-eight chance I’ll have to sit beside him,” I calculated, but I sensed it was inevitable.

By the time I negotiated my suitcase into an over-head compartment and looked down the cabin, he had found a seat in the last row and was busy with a golf magazine. I checked my boarding pass and confirmed my fourth row seat. For one fleeting moment I hoped we were on opposite sides but a quick look at the letter designations shattered this wishful thought. Next I hoped perhaps he was in an odd fifth staggered row, but no, the number above his seat was four.

Of course he was in my aisle seat. I always request the aisle and could specifically recollect the ticket agent’s remarks, “No problem Dr. Robson, I can offer an aisle seat all the way home.” Just to be sure I looked at the boarding pass and then at the diagram on the console above the seats and confirmed my 4C stub designated the aisle location.

Positioned above his reading head I summoned a cheery smile to accompany my I-don’t-want-to-be-inconvenient,-but, words.

“I’ve got 4C. What seat do you have?”

He produced his stub too quickly and replied, “4D.”

“Ah.” I corrected. “That would be the window seat.”

He moved over without a murmur and for a moment I considered the seat confusion a legitimate mistake and almost forgot how he pushed his way to the front of the line. But no, his quick comeback a moment later articulated a self-serving character in proud unfurled glory.

“You can’t really tell which is which, can you,” he offered as a statement of innocence.

My own personality defect is that the truth is important and I dislike those who lie as much I do the ones who butt in.

“Actually you can,” I added without hesitation. I didn’t give him the satisfaction of a glance and went on to drive the point home, “There’s a picture above each set of seats.”

I snuggled into the leather seat, gave my jacket and coat to the flight attendant, ordered a glass of Merlot, and eagerly opened my Macdonald.

As I read I noticed him worrying his ticket stub. Finally he wedged the paper into the armrest crack between our seats, the top corner bent like a tiny flag.

As the passengers steadily streamed onto the plane, I lost myself in the Macdonald book. I was with Lew Archer, the gumshoe hero, in a dingy California motel. Lew was rummaging through the purse of a murdered girl. Just as Lew was finding something interesting, I heard a grunt to my right that whisked me back to the airplane.

“I need to get out,” was what he seemed to say.

The aisle was thick with passengers and suitcases. An elementary aged girl was beside me and I managed to squeeze between her and a very heavy woman. The girl smiled but the woman seemed upset by the need to accommodate two men in the cramped aisle.

Well, my standing presence was nothing by comparison to his disruption as he bulldozed his way forward to the plane entrance. He wasn’t a tall man, but stout with a large round head, and with his arms up and elbows out, he literally pushed people aside.

“This man knows how to go against the flow,” I thought, as he disappeared around the corner.

I initially presumed that he needed to use the bathroom. A moment of thought rejected this scenario as unlikely and I wondered if he was up to mischief.

Sure enough, a few minutes later he was back, suddenly emerging from the continuing stream. He interrupted just as Lew Archer was trying to settle down the dead girl’s boy friend.

“I need to get in,” he said.

For a moment I considered this might be the opening volley of an in-and-out, up-and-down, I’ll-teach-you set of maneuvers.

He sat. I sat. And as I reached for Macdonald he leaned over and spoke directly into my ear, “The flight attendant says I have the aisle seat.”

I didn’t look at him. I didn’t speak to him. I opened my book and disappeared into the crime scene report at police headquarters.

Finally we were airborne and after about ten minutes I started to believe he might have given up but I noticed his stub was again wedged in the armrest, like a battalion standard in no man’s land.

The final skirmish came with the arrival of the flight attendant and our drinks. As she set down my glass he grabbed the stub, waved the paper in front of both our faces, and demanded, “Am I in the right seat?”

She looked at the boarding pass, then at him, and clarified with a pleasant musical response, “Why yes sir, you are.”

He retreated but left the stub on guard and promptly fell asleep. I found Lew hot on the trail of the killer, and wondered how he would have handled the bully.

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