Here’s a short story I’ve been writing off and on for about half a year. A few earlier Irrational Confidence posts were written for this, fictionally, and posted normally, so if you’re an avid reader of this blog that’s why there are some really familiar paragraphs. Enjoy!
It was an airport in Denver. Or maybe St. Louis or Seattle, it didn’t matter. There were spindly, off-white trusses exposed in the ceiling and dappled tile carpet below them. There were brushed aluminum signs, oatmeal-colored walls, and everywhere seats of varying age and comfort.
Andrew Gray sat in one of these seats, leaving. Or really, he was staying and everything around him would shortly be leaving. Where he was going, he’d still be, but his surroundings wouldn’t. He was buried in a book, trying not to think about leaving.
So he thought about leaving, looking down at his faded jeans. Jeans. You wear them in, you wear them out. Now they sold jeans that you barely had to wear in at all. Drew worried that this was raising expectations for everything else.
Drew followed the tawny lines in the carpet to other people’s shoes. Shoes surrounded him, something you rarely notice but is nearly always the case. He tried to guess details about the people who belonged to the shoes. It kept his mind off of being at an airport, a place where all you do is leave.
He boarded the plane alone, among fifty other people. He chose an aisle seat with an open middle and an old man sitting in the window. In the window seat, actually. Despite his mood, Drew smiled at the image of a man squashed into one of the tiny transparencies on the side of the plane.
The man who was sitting next to the window looked up from his paper as the plane’s door closed. “We got lucky, looks like,” he said to Drew, nodding at the empty middle between them.
Drew inclined his head in agreement. He was tall, for a normal person. The extra room was always welcome.
“Doubt my next flight’ll have any open,” said the man neutrally.
“Where to next?” Drew asked.
Some other airport, Sacramento maybe, the man told him. Who can tell the difference? Drew smiled, and over the roar of engines, the man kept talking.
Drew strained to hear. Like most people who have something worth saying, the man spoke softly. He’d served in the Air Force for twenty-one years, married a girl he’d met on an assignment in Germany, and retired in New Mexico. He said “I did my time,” like an ex-convict might.
He worked for a crayon company, now. “We don’t sell boring colors like ‘green’ or ‘purple.’ Just ones like ‘envy’ or ‘impressed.’ Buying those makes people feel clever. We do okay.” Drew glanced at the man’s shoes. The company did better than okay.
A knot of turbulence yanked the plane momentarily upward, and Drew held his breath. To the man’s curious expression, Drew explained, “When I was a kid, I thought that a person only got a finite number of breaths, and that the number was fixed the day you were born. So I used to try to take as few breaths as possible whenever I got scared, because that way I’d be safe. I couldn’t die until I’d taken all my breaths. I mean, I don’t believe it any more.”
“But holding your breath can’t hurt.” The man smiled. “When I was young, younger than you, I thought everyone had a special, specific talent, and all you had to do to be happy was discover it and do it. The reason Magic Johnson was always smiling was that basketball was his Intensive Purpose. And I suppose I learned long ago that an Intensive Purpose is nothing more than a grammatical mistake, but I still haven’t given up on the idea. Nobody does.”
Drew knew exactly what he meant. He was holding out for an Intensive Purpose of his own, even if he’d never thought of it that way.
The man’s quiet stories made rest of the flight pass by nearly unnoticed, and Drew was grateful. He liked these conversations, the ones that happened almost by accident in in-between places. They were genuine and easy to figure out. Maybe leaving wasn’t entirely bad.
Drew and the man parted at the next airport, Washington or Chicago or somewhere. Drew had an hour to wait before the next flight. With no more stories to distract him, Drew thought about the town he was leaving behind. Of all the places he’d never fit in, Autumndale was his favorite.
Three summers ago, Drew had been sitting in the back seat of his family’s Honda minivan. It was comfortable and cramped. Drew’s long legs barely fit behind his sister’s seat in front of him, but the way the mats lay slightly not where they were supposed to and the feel of his backpack to his left were so familiar, so reassuring.
That seat was an in-between place. Drew, his parents, his brother and his sister had leaving behind them and arriving ahead. They had miles and yellowing street lamps in both directions.
Drew liked the idea of moving, even though pragmatically almost everything about it was horrible. You could be anyone you wanted to be in a new place, someone better than you used to be, at least until you got there and were the same person you’d always been.
Drew looked out the window at all the moving things. It was more a continuous band of colors than a parade of shapes—dull brown intermittently alive with bursts of viridian, and at night dark blue punctured by twinkling white above and flickering orange below.
“Nobody loves you,” said the flight attendant, “like we do here at Southwest Airlines.” Drew smiled a half-smile at the pause.
The middle seat was open again, and this window-occupant didn’t say anything. Just as well. The engines hummed beneath, and above, an ashen sky.
Drew didn’t want to die in a plane crash. As the jet rocked in the wind, he wondered if he’d be okay with dying if he’d accomplished something. He tried to put himself in the shoes of his future self, a successful self who wore shoes to match, but he couldn’t think of what he’d have accomplished.
Even if he were successful, he decided, death was still undesirable. Death, like an airport, was about leaving things behind. Imprints and people. Most people would leave one and not the other, and Drew wasn’t sure which part of this gave death most of its power.
He looked at the backs of the armrests on the seat in front of him. The screws and overlaps made them look like little robot faces, which reminded him of a toy he’d had as a child, which reminded him that he used to think people only traveled by plane when their destinations were in the sky.
Drew looked out the window; the airplane was inside a cloud. He hoped the pilot could see, or at least that the computers could. The near-opacity outside made Drew remember wanting to be lighthouse operator as a kid. On days like this when the world felt too big or too dark he still wondered what it’d be like to spend your hours up in the light room, calling out over the water to other lost people and making sure they got found. In his mind’s eye the days are brisk and cloudy, the wind sweeps sand and brush like in a painting. Where lighthouses are, there’s room to lose yourself in music or in a book and room to find yourself when you’re done.
Drew wasn’t sure if the job existed as he imagined it, but he thought it should. The idea that someone’s whole purpose is a sailor’s rescue is comforting. The idea that someone’s whole purpose is anyone’s rescue is.
He thought it was funny the way he threw around the phrase when I was a kid in his head, as if he no longer were. He had a year left before college, which, as everyone knows, is where you go to become an adult.
Two summers ago, Drew had been waiting for a friend in his favorite coffee shop. He’d ordered the usual (even though he still didn’t like being thought of as a regular) and taken a corner booth. His mom had done her best to efface Drew’s aversion to coasters, but Drew loved the gentle crescents a naked cup could etch into a table. His booth had them, time-worn and friendly. It was odd how those stained wooden moons, so absent from anywhere he’d lived growing up, reminded him of home.
Home was a mental flag Drew picked up and dropped from time to time. For the second time in two years, he was picking it up. He did so expertly.
The friend didn’t show, which was just as well. Even with all the practice, Drew had never gotten the hang of goodbyes.
Unlike in the terminal, in the plane all the shoes were neatly arranged in rows and columns. Drew could only see the ones adjacent to his own prescribed position in the grid, and after he’d invented lives and details for their occupants he stared blankly out the window. He wished he could read about the people in the shoes he saw to find out if what he made up was at all accurate. Drew’s mom always said that everyone had a story if you’d bother to listen, but Drew suspected most people’s stories wouldn’t be very exciting. So maybe it was just as well; the things he made up were probably more interesting than the truth.
Night was coming; bits of it gently wrestled the daylight below the edge of the world. Drew couldn’t remember what the names of the constellations outside his window were. As a kid he’d had a star chart that you rotated based on what season it was and then a paper circle told you what animals were supposed to be in the sky—he’d had most of them memorized. Even back then, the idea of constellations struck Drew as a wonderful gesture of imagination. Like someone had gazed up at the inky night and thought there ought to be a lion up there, even though there clearly wasn’t, and he had arbitrarily connected the dots in the sky to animate his fantasy.
Drew imagined the sky filled with shapes, with lighthouses, with Intensive Purposes. He thought maybe if there were any Intensive Purposes, college was where they were hidden. That’s certainly what the brochures wanted him to think.
One summer ago, in Autumndale, there was no leaving. Andrew Gray stayed right where he was and so did everything around him.
He was going through last year’s school papers, throwing out most of them. As an economics exam hit file 13, Drew vividly remembered taking it. One part had encouraged him to “identify and explain the significance of the following terms.” At first he’d confidently blazed ahead, noting that the Cobb-Douglas production function was significant because it allowed people to observe the shares of national income that went to labor and capital. But then he questioned the significance of that significance.
Who cares how much national income goes to labor, as a whole? I care how much of it goes to me, as a person.
But really, how significant is that? The share of national income that makes its way into my wallet doesn’t tell me how happy I am or what I’ve contributed to the world. It doesn’t assure me that my happiness or contributions are basically valuable.
But of course, answering “we all die eventually” wasn’t likely to score many points (how significant are these points, anyway?), so Drew overlooked the existential implications of the prompt and penned an admirable defense of the importance of factor shares.
A math teacher had once told Drew that you could make anything look tiny if you stepped far enough back. Drew thought that was a good description of his problem.
The plane touched down with predictable, statistical safety. Drew couldn’t rule out the fact that he’d held his breath as a possible reason for this. On the ground, Drew was no longer in-between, and just like that he was a bit more definitely himself.
Drew guessed he wasn’t the kind of person who would ever have a story written about him, because as far as he could tell he never changed, and his parents weren’t divorced or dead. He figured people liked stories because plots were reassuring, since whether or not life had a plot was ambiguous. Stories taught, more than anything else, that it did.