by: T.E. Cowell
Two offerings of flash fiction that explore connectivity amongst humans, or the lack thereof, in two very divergent ways…
I’m picking blackberries. It’s that time of year again. There’s a guy standing not far from me who’s also picking blackberries. I’ve never seen him before. He looks about my age. He is slightly stooped, most likely arthritis, like myself. A bit of a belly on him, which is something I’ve somehow never had. It seems he’s found my go-to spot for picking blackberries, the place I return to year after year. My wife makes blackberry cobblers from the berries I pick, and the cobbler goes over well with company.
I reach up high and pick a big blackberry from the bush and bring it in close to my face for inspection. I blow on it a few times in case they’re bugs crawling on it, and then pop it in my mouth. It’s a sweet one, a perfect blackberry in my opinion. Some people like their blackberries somewhat tart, but not me. I reach for another blackberry, tear it from the bush. It’s another juicy one. I’m about to pop it in my mouth when I notice out of the corner of my eye the guy standing not far from me is now watching me. I look over at him and he says, “I wish I was tall. The best berries are always just out of my reach. Always have been. It’s just not fair.” He says this like he’s joking, like he’s simply trying to make conversation. But I know enough by now to know that deep truths are often hidden behind light hearted facades. “Here,” I say to him. “Have mine. My hands are clean, I promise. I’m a bit of a germaphobe, really. I wash my hands about a million times a day.” The guy looks at the blackberry in my hand, between my fingers. “God that’s a big one,” he says. “It is,” I say. “If it’s anything like the one I just had, it’s perfect. That is, if you like your blackberries sweet. Some people like them a bit tart, you know.” “Not me,” he says. “Sweet, yes. That’s how I like them.” “Then here,” I say. “I insist.” I take a step towards him. He shakes his head and throws up his hands, as if my offer of a single juicy blackberry is too much for him to accept. Still, I’m determined to hand him the blackberry, and I succeed in this. The blackberry now sits in the palm of his hand. He looks at it for a second or two and then pops it into his mouth. He looks at me now as he chews, then swallows, and the smile that comes across his face is priceless.
Doug went in search of a coffee shop after entering the airport, and then, coffee in hand, an arrivals board. He browsed the list looking for his brother’s flight number, found it and learned that the flight was delayed two hours. He thought about this and then told himself that he didn’t mind, that two hours was about the length of a movie. It might even be entertaining, he thought, to sit inside the airport for a while, watching all the people getting ready to fly come in off the street with their luggage in tow. He could guess what they all did for a living and where in the world they were traveling to and why.
Doug’s dad had died. In effect, Doug had nothing much to do not just today but for the rest of the week as well. Funeral arrangements were in order. He was in no hurry.
Doug turned away from the arrivals board and started walking down the corridor. He hadn’t been in an airport in years, and being back in one now brought hazy memories of childhood to mind. His grandfather had lived the second half of his life in Hawaii, and Doug and his brother and his parents used to go there for Christmas. Doug had felt a sense of overwhelming joy whenever they’d been en route to Hawaii. At twelve years old, he’d thought Hawaii was the neatest place in the world, a place so different than Seattle, where’d he’d grown up and still lived, that it might as well have been on another planet. He recalled that sense of overwhelming joy and wondered where it’d gone.
Doug passed empty baggage claims and people dozing in seats and on the floor in places. He sipped his coffee. He came to the end of the corridor and entered an open section of the airport that was brightly lit from an array of skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows. A few readers sat around metallic tables in matching chairs. Doug saw an escalator leading up to another floor and walked over to it and stepped on. Stepping off, he quickly noticed that there were more people on this floor than the one he’d just come from, and that here they were more active. He figured this floor was where he wanted to be. This is where he’d kill his time.
Doug sat down in a black seat with silver armrests connected to multiple identical seats and sipped his coffee while watching people. Older men and women came in off the street pulling suitcases with wheels. Some younger people came in with bulky backpacks. Doug thought of how he’d most likely never see any of these people for the rest of his life, how none of them would ever again be in the same place at the same time as him.
Doug finished his coffee and leaned back in his seat, his posture gone slack. He thought about the last time he’d seen his brother, and then that, given how long it’d been, he should feel more excited than he felt now that he was about to see him again. He didn’t feel much of anything. It was like there was a layer of numbness that stopped him from feeling things the way he used to.
Doug thought he’d look for another arrivals board and see if the delay was the same as it’d been. It was. Now he had a little less than an hour and a half to kill. He’d grown bored of people. He walked the airport until he came to a line of shops. He thought of getting another coffee but then went in a book and magazine shop. He stopped before the magazines and started looking for one that might be interesting. There was an overwhelming number and variety of them – everything from guns to knitting to politics to travel were represented – but even so, or maybe because of the vast selection, Doug was unable to locate a single magazine he wanted to read enough to buy.
His eyes drifted to a crossword puzzle book, which he reached for and pulled off the shelf. He started flipping through it. His dad had done crosswords from books like this one for the last two decades of his life. Nearly every day until his vision had gotten too bad, he’d done them. Towards the end, Doug had done the crosswords with his dad. It was one of the only things they did together. Doug would read his dad the crossword puzzle clues, tell him how many letters it was for and, his dad sitting in his reclining La-Z-Boy, eyes milk-white from age, would try to solve them. If he couldn’t, Doug would try. But more often than not Doug couldn’t. He wasn’t especially good at crosswords. He wasn’t smart in that way like his dad was or had been prior to getting as old as he’d gotten. Doug sensed a disappointment in his dad during the times he couldn’t complete a crossword puzzle with him.
Suddenly Doug felt tears rising up inside him at an alarming rate. He tried choking them back, forcing them from surfacing, but failed. Now he was crying in a book and magazine shop in the airport. The occasion marked the first time he’d cried since his dad had passed away. It was the first time he’d cried in decades.
The woman managing the shop saw Doug crying and felt embarrassed for him. She looked away. She looked at her nails and scratched at a cuticle. Then she glanced up again. Doug had his back to her, but she could tell from the way he was shaking that he was crying. She didn’t know what to think. Seeing a grown man cry in public just didn’t seem natural. Some people, she thought, must just feel more than others.