Overbooked with Virginia Woolf
Terrified pre-flight we gripped plastic armrests, hands of children, bottles of Xanax spiked Coke-Cola Zero, as miniature behind-the-headrest screens played Rhapsody in Blue, safety demonstration actors buckling belts, inflating vests, securing their own oxygen masks before helping others. Carry-ons stowed in overhead compartments. Tray tables to the full upright and locked position. “Sit back, relax, and…”
Our tickets—my brother’s and mine—read 36C and 36D, both in the aisle with a view of the entire cabin—the entire cabin except for the back three rows. In front of us we saw heads: black hair, blond hair, bald spots and the like. Offseason-Monday-evening vacancies impacted every other row, two sitting where there could have been three, nothing overbooked except for seat 21F where a woman held a sleeping infant in her lap. Those afraid of rubbing elbows over tightly spaced armrests abandoned assigned numbers and letters taking entire rows in the back of the plane. No asking, “excuse me,” before stepping over a stranger for an on-flight piss.
Twin engines fired. Gates, planes, and horizons blurred on the other side of triple paned acrylic. But not for me. For me there were two men in the back. The one in the furthest corner, somehow sleeping, covered his face with a dark hand and thick black coils for hair, a young man with muscular curves showing through a loose white t-shirt. We had stood behind him while in line—basic economy tickets. The final group to board. His umbrella, the long type with a curved handle, had been shaking in his hand. My brother noticed and nudged my ribs. “They let that through security?” he asked.
Our plane had picked up off the ground. When I glanced up towards the front of the plane, I could see others staring back too. The umbrella still shook in his hand. And that was when another man who had been sitting in the back stood up. He didn’t notice the seatbelt signs or anything. We were still taking off, a few hundred feet above the ground with the wings banking hard towards the near blinding sunrise in the east.
He wore a brown sweater vest with a tie. His trimmed white beard was thick and pointed. His blue eyes and pale skin baffled us. The plane straightened out and he nearly fell over with that strange object he held in his hand. At any moment, we expected a flight attendant (one of which was a man), to spring from the curtain in front of the bathrooms and tackle him to the ground. To throw him out the back hatch. But their backs were turned. They didn’t see and no one dared to scream.
The man adjusted his bifocals and held the object up to his face. He opened it to a bookmarked page, the object, and held it with his thumb in the crease, his free hand supporting the weight of the pages and cover. Without introduction, he began reading with a scholarly lisp, a sonorous tenor: “To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other’s people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency…” Vaguely familiar, I felt. As if I’d heard it somewhere before. I could see the title from the back cover because I was sitting so close (He was right behind me!): To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. For effect, he reached out with his left hand. Painted pictures with his fingers. Mr. Ramsay (a character from the novel) appeared before our eyes, enraged not at his beautiful wife, but at the futility of human desire. And his son, James, appeared equally furious. Not at the abstract. At his father, the man.
And from our seats, we felt it too. He wouldn’t stop, “Already ashamed of that petulance of that gesticulation of the hands…” It wasn’t that we had a problem with Virginia Woolf. She can be read on a plane. But out loud? Read out loud?! Never! There was the seatbelt light to consider. And what about terrorists? Who’s to the say the terrorists didn’t start by reading Virginia Woolf before brandishing their box cutters?
A sound came from overhead, bee—doo, and then we heard the voice of the pilot. “Reminder to all passengers. The seatbelt light is on. Please remain seated.” We were still accelerating, the floor angling up towards the cockpit and the front of the plane. There was motion behind the curtain in front of the bathrooms. The blond haired attendant pasted an off-centered smile to her face. Must’ve cut it out of a magazine. “Sir,” she said reaching out. Her lips moved behind the glossy image of a smile. “You’ll need to return to your seat, sir. Sir. Sir. You’ll…”
But he kept reading out loud, his voice never faltering. “…with a movement which oddly reminded his wife of the great sea lion at the zoo tumbling backwards after swallowing his fish and walloping off…” In that moment my brother nudged me in the ribs. He wasn’t the only one to do it. In every row, someone was nudging someone. We had all watched the news. We knew that we couldn’t be victims. My brother and I, we were closest. But we weren’t the first to leave our seats. I’m not sure who knocked the book from his hand, but I know it was me who tackled the man to the ground. Fists and kicks flew past my head and into the man’s body and face. The passenger with coils for hair stabbed downwards with his umbrella, He struck at the eyes, the metal tip crushing the bifocals and then impaling the soft, baby blue. And yet, the voice wouldn’t stop. “… his effort to arrive at a perfectly clear understanding of the problem…”
Eric Smith: "I am an English teacher, an MFA student with the Bluegrass Writers Studio, and a reader for the Jelly Bucket Literary Journal. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cossack Review, Apocrypha and Abstractions and Ink in Thirds. When not writing or teaching, I build fine furniture in my woodshop and spend time with my family in West Virginia."