BY MICHAEL JOLL
Copyright is held by the author.
GUY WAS some pissed. The meeting had been a disaster, ending early. He’d be lucky if it didn’t cost him his job.
He turned his attention from admiring his image in the mirror behind the Calgary airport Departure lounge bar, and focused on the young woman washing glasses in the sink in front of him. Anna, her name tag said. Tantalizing glimpses of a minuscule cleavage interrupted his analysis of what had gone wrong with the meeting. Blame it on the asshole in tooled cowboy boots and white Stetson behind the huge desk in the glass and steel office tower down town.
“Excuse me, miss,” Guy said.
“Sir?” Anna looked up, placed a glass upside down on a towel to dry and removed her cleavage from Guy’s line of sight.
“Another Big Rock, please.” He pushed his empty glass towards her.
Anna brushed a stray strand of hair away from her face and took a bottle from the fridge behind her. Guy admired the swell of her hips and her black ponytail. Petite and slender, maybe a hundred pounds soaking wet and all of five feet tall, he guessed. He’d had a girl like that once, though he couldn’t recall where. She offered him a wide smile showing perfectly aligned white teeth as she uncapped the bottle and pushed it towards him.
“Thanks” He returned her smile. “Are you sure you’re old enough to work in a bar?”
“I get that all the time. Yes, I am. And I’m not going to tell you how old I am either.”
Guy wasn’t sure whether she was cross or teasing him. Anna leaned forward again to finish her washing up. This time Guy fixated on the small gold crucifix snuggled between breasts so skimpy they would have to send out a search party to find them. But damn it, she was looking better with each beer. He checked the time again. Still almost an hour to boarding call. She keeps smiling at me. If I play my cards right, I might score.
“What time do you finish?”
“Four o’clock. Then I’m off for the weekend.”
An hour. Maybe I could catch a later flight. Tomorrow. Or Sunday even. The boss would never know. I’d even pay for the hotel out of my own pocket.
“Where are you heading?” She smiled again.
“St. Louis via Denver.”
“Are you American?” Another wide smile.
“Canadian. From a small town outside Montreal. Head Office is in St. Louis, so I mostly live there, for now. When I’m not on a plane or in a hotel room somewhere.” But the job sucks. So does the money.
“That sounds exciting. I’d love to travel.”
“I’ve been travelling since I was 15. All over North America. Most places people never heard of, but if there was a hockey arena there, I probably played in it.”
“You were a hockey player?”
“Since I was four years old. After 30 years I had to get a real job.” He laughed, hollow, like he didn’t mean it.
“I’ve never met a real hockey player before. Not a pro. Did you play in the NHL?”
“A few games. Half a season one year. With Nashville. Then with Columbus.” This is going better than I thought. Keep it up and you could be in bed by four thirty. “But mostly in the minors,” he said. Mostly in the ECHL, not even the AHL, he could have said, truthfully, but it would hurt his image. “I’m sorry to disappoint you. The money was okay.” Was it, hell! The money was crap most of the time. Cheap motels, long, overnight bus trips, sleazy apartments if he stuck with one team long enough to rent a place in one-horse towns like Gwinnet, and Wheeling, and Elmira. “But never enough to retire on comfortably. That’s why I’m in Calgary. Like you, working for a living.”
Anna smiled again. He was getting used to the wide grin. “It’s a job,” she said. “It helps to pay off my student loan. Once I’ve done that I can start my Masters.”
Guy rubbed his face, tracing the half-moon of scar tissue under his left eye, the one he had got playing against Drummondville as a junior in his draft year when a stick got under his visor and nearly took his eye out. He was just smart enough to know that one-eyed hockey players were not in much demand. He went in the sixth round, to Carolina. Report to wherever they told him and try to make the team. Or become a roofer like most of his buddies who barely scraped through high school. Guy hated heights and ladders.
“I played defence,” Guy said. But Anna had her back to him now. Hockey talk, meet brick wall. The same cold shoulder the asshole in the tooled cowboy boots and Stetson had given him. I hate Calgary, he almost said aloud. And I hate this fuckin’ job.
He caught a glimpse of reflected movement between the ranks of liquor bottles that hid much of the mirror. He swivelled on his stool until he had his back to the bar.
Clutching a laptop bag and an outsize purse, Jabba the Hutt’s twin sister stood wheezing in the doorway. Her carry-on bag sat at her feet. Five foot three, Guy guessed, tops, and over three hundred pounds. Short grey hair without a hint of style topped a face devoid of make-up except for a crimson gash circling the lips of her small mouth. Her large lower jaw jutted out, square like the Iberian Peninsula, and her eyes were sunk deep in their dark sockets, like she was exhausted or ill. She glared at Guy and coughed into the crook of her elbow.
“Hello, there,” she cried out in a clear, firm voice, shoehorning herself into a booth. Anna looked round, grabbed a menu and hurried over to the woman. She glanced at it for a moment and handed it back.
“Two pounds of wings, hot sauce, fries and a large whatever you have on tap,” she said. “Anything but Coors Light.” Anna hustled back to the bar and disappeared through a door into the back.
Figures, thought Guy. Like the Goodyear blimp needs to eat. The sort of airline passenger who can’t get the tray down over her belly but insists on eating, and has the flight attendant wake up the poor slob in front of her and make him sit up while she stuffs her face. He figured the airline has to bump her up to Business Class, not wishing to be sued for discrimination on account of her disability, which in her case was an inability to keep her mouth shut in the vicinity of the all-you-can-eat buffet table.
The woman looked up from studying her finger nails and met Guy’s stare. “I have a thyroid problem,” she said in a voice loud, provocative and defiant. An image of tooled cowboy boots and Stetson flitted across Guy’s mind, annoyance mixed with anger at being discovered and having no come-back.
I’m not apologizing. I’m not giving in to that fat cow. I don’t care.
He turned away and searched for Anna, brains and beauty in one small package. Then inadequacy ate into Guy’s consciousness. Smart women always made him feel like he’d failed grade three. It never took long for women to probe beyond his rugged, battle-scarred good looks to discover that he was, in fact, just another dumb jock who knew little outside hockey.
“The bill please, Anna,” he said when Anna reappeared through the door from the kitchen clutching a plate of wings and a basket of fries.
“Back in a moment,” she said, and wove her way through the maze of tables and chairs to her only other customer.
She returned and rang up Guy’s bill. He handed over his company credit card and waited while she processed it. “I could always get a later flight,” he said, glancing at his watch and slipping the credit card back into his wallet. “You finish at four, you said.”
Anna smiled at him. “That’s very kind of you,” she said.
“I live with my parents.”
Guy’s face fell. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I didn’t mean —”
“I think I know exactly what you had in mind, sir.”
Guy picked up his carry-on bag and laptop case and slunk out of Anna’s life.
“You can’t win them all,” the fat woman said as he passed her. Guy almost froze in his tracks, but thought better than to stop.
Half an hour later in the departure area he sensed rather than saw someone staring at him. Annoyed at the scrutiny, he ignored the inspection and placed his magazine on top of his laptop case on the seat next to him. That seat was the only one that he could see across the sea of passengers and hand luggage that was not occupied. Except for his carry-on. Deliberate. He didn’t crave company.
Passengers milled around, waiting for the boarding call. He sighed and looked up. The hippo from the bar examined him as if he was something in a Petri dish. He picked up his magazine.
“A gentleman usually offers up his seat to a lady,” she said. “As is customary in civilized societies. Even Calgary is considered civilized, so I am left to presume you are no gentleman.”
Guy’s face turned bright red. He spluttered an apology and stood.
“I don’t need a seat,” she said. “But I did want you to understand what it is like to be belittled. Quite humiliating, isn’t it?”
Guy opened his mouth to reply, but could think of nothing to say.
“Like I said, I have a thyroid problem. There is no medication that works. My condition will undoubtedly kill me, probably sooner rather than later.”
“I’m sorry,” Guy muttered. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“But nevertheless, you did, as do most people I meet and who judge me by the surface rather from the inside out.” She put her hand over her mouth and coughed in a genteel manner. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’ve had a bit of a cough and a sniffle for a few days. Ragweed, I suspect. I never knew I was allergic to it until I came to Alberta.”
“Where are you heading?” Guy prayed it would not be Denver. Or worse, on to St. Louis. But she was in the same departure area. What were the odds?
“Denver. Then eventually back to Atlanta. The CDC, the Centre For Disease Control, normally pays for me to fly Business Class, but there isn’t one on this flight, so I have to squeeze into whatever they allot me. I hope she’s as skinny as Anna, the young woman behind the bar you mentally undressed and no doubt wished you could in real life.”
Guy had no clue what the Centre For Disease Control, or whatever she called it was, didn’t care where she lived and worked, and decided against risking further exposing his ignorance by asking the dumb question of the day. The woman clutched her boarding pass in her pudgy hand. “B 24,” she said. “Middle seat. Perhaps someone will be kind and swop it for an aisle sat.”
With dread Guy examined his boarding pass. C 24. Aisle seat, as he had requested. Shit, not only is she on the same flight, but she’s right next to me.
The loud speaker called their flight. Together they trudged down the finger and into the Airbus. With difficulty the woman made her way down the aisle as far as row 24. She stopped and reached for the overhead bin.
“Allow me,” Guy said, reaching up for the clasp and opening the bin. He took her carry-on and stowed it, then placed his own beside it. “I’ll take the centre seat if you like,” he said and slid past her. The occupant of the window seat ignored them.
Somewhere over northern Colorado, as the engine note changed and the nose of the plane dipped slightly, Guy turned to the woman next to him. “Guy Lachance,” he said. “Just so you know the name of your bad-mannered travelling companion.”
“I would shake hands, but there’s no room,” she said. Guy saw her body quiver as she forced a laugh. “Janice Wilkinson,” she said. “Doctor.”
“And what was Dr. Janice Wilkinson doing in Alberta?”
She turned her head and looked away for a moment, coughed delicately into her sleeve then looked back at Guy. “I was delivering lectures to the medical faculty and students at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, and then at the University of Calgary. I am on my way to continue the series in Denver and Phoenix.”
“That sounds interesting,” he said without conviction. Another bright woman. He detected a sulk coming on. He read her hostility, even anger, as if she wanted to lash out at someone. Like he did when confronted by bright women and assholes in tooled cowboy boots and Stetsons. They sat in silence for several more minutes.
The plane was well into its descent by the time Guy decided on a different tack. “What are your lectures about?” He hoped he sounded curious, intelligent rather than as dumb as she undoubtedly suspected he was.
“I’m a specialist in tropical diseases. I head up a research team searching for cures, which is virtually impossible without huge amounts of Government and Institutional money.” She retrieved a tissue from the sleeve of her dress and blew her nose. “It’s frustrating at the best of times.”
The captain announced their final descent. “What are you working on now?”
“A new strain, a variant of the Ebola virus that has shown up in Sierra Leone. It has a much longer incubation period so it is not easily detectable until it has developed into a full-blown case. By that time it is usually too late to do anything about it other than to bury the victim. Tragic, but that’s life in Africa.”
Guy shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’m not up to date with Africa and stuff.”
“Off the radar, I expect.”
“Pity. But then that’s often the way.”
With a squeal of tires and a couple of bumps the plane touched down.
“But there is a way we can make it top of mind,” Dr. Wilkinson said.
“We’re working on it. We’re close to a vaccine, but not a cure.” Guy knew what everyone knew; that vaccines caused autism. Was a stupid African better than a dead one? He decided not to debate the point with her.
The plane taxied towards its finger and came to a stop. Passengers reached into the overhead bins. Dr. Wilkinson stood and bumped into the person behind her. “Jeez,” Guy heard someone mutter. “You’d think . . .”
Dr. Wilkinson stopped for a moment, opened her eyes wide then sneezed explosively. “That’s better,” she said and sniffled. “The virus is spread by aerosol, coughs, sneezes, that sort of thing,” she said to Guy. “It spreads quickly, especially in confined spaces. You may like to know that I carry the virus. I did a blood test the other day. It’s positive. Now I’m pretty sure you, and most people on this plane, and everywhere I’ve been this past several days also has it.”
Guy opened his mouth, then snapped it shut.
“Once the outbreak takes hold in the States, people will do something about it. Sure, they will blame the fat woman for bringing an African-style disaster to their country, but if that’s what it takes to get something done . . .”
Guy looked around him at the passengers waiting impatiently to get past her and down the aisle. “I don’t believe you,” he gasped.
“You had better see your own doctor,” she said. “Before it is too late, though it probably already is.”
“But why would . . . ?”
She gave Guy the benefit of a grotesque crimson smile, edged closer and whispered in his ear. “I’m perfectly sane, but angry enough to kill. You really should have tried harder with Anna and flown out tomorrow. It might have saved your life.”
She put her hand on his arm. “Anna had you pegged right, Guy Lachance. You’re a loser. But if it’s any consolation, you’re now part of the solution.”