Fiction · 04/19/2017

The Man For The Job

A woman screams in the middle of Dulles: it strikes you as odd, out of place this far through security. She is young, early thirties, and the sound she makes is plaintive and desperate and raw, animalistic. A man has stolen her backpack. He’s tall — perhaps six-five — and has short-cropped brown hair and a thin ginger beard. As you watch him run through the motionless gray crowd of coats and mittens and bags packed with gifts, a cartoonish scene of a distorted reality plays through your mind, like a reel of tape that has melted and stretched beyond recognition. You imagine yourself running after the man — catching him, taking the bag by force, perhaps even pinning him to the ground as you await security, who will thank you profusely, ask you: how did you manage this great feat? Can such bravery truly reside in the human soul? — but you will shrug (not sheepishly, but firmly, confidently, the shrug of a hero) and say I do what I can, your bravery now proven once and for all among these many witnesses. Upon returning the bag to its rightful owner, you will exchange confident pleasantries and perhaps even phone numbers with the grateful young woman before boarding your plane, and you will return home for the holidays a changed man.

Instead you watch as the moment of imagined triumph vanishes. The man has turned a corner now, the shouts of security following him. The opportunity is gone. The woman’s arm is held by a thick, heavyset man in a black jacket with SECURITY in bright yellow letters on the back that look like the markings of a wasp. You can hear faint murmurs as he speaks calmly to the woman, and the pair walk off. You hope she is comforted. They’ll find him, you think. You’ll get your bag back. Don’t you worry.

You walk to your gate. Your bag feels heavier than it did just a moment ago.

At Christmas dinner with your family, you tell the story of the airport thief, how crazy it must have been for the woman, how afraid she must have been. You can’t even imagine. Your father — now three and a half glasses deep into the whiskey — says, “Why didn’t you go after him?”

Dad has never been a violent drunk — more of an asshole drunk, someone who knows how to get under other people’s skin. You and your sister Karen (and now her husband, Drew) have learned to put up with this behavior ever since Mom died.

Your sister says “Dad” — but he theatrically raises a hand and says, “You don’t know real fear until you’re on night patrol in the jungle.” It’s a story everyone at the table has heard many times — the story of Christmas the year he was in Vietnam — but no one can stop him from telling it now. He and Rob “The Knob” Lentin were on patrol and kept hearing something in the bushes just out of sight. “Can you imagine?” Dad says, prodding you in the chest with his knuckles. “You can’t see anything in the darkness. You can just hear it. It’s getting closer…closer… Then something burst out at us from the foliage, screaming like a demon. Rob shot it, and it went down like a bag of wet cement. The two of us,” your father says, “well, we about shit our pants, but I grab the flashlight from where I’d dropped it and see that it’s nothing but a pot-bellied pig must’ve got loose from one of the farms nearby. Almost as big as a man; probably weighed about the same. So we decided we’d cook it up and have it for our Christmas dinner.”

At this, your father smiles; he knows your sister has been a vegan since the seventh grade. He is playing with her. “We just hung the bastard up by his little back hooves, sliced him along the throat, right around… here —” He runs his thumbnail across his Adam’s apple. “ — and waited for the blood to drain out of him.” He spears a piece of glazed ham with his fork, stuffs it into his mouth as Karen looks on, disgusted. “Then you just cut him down the middle, right along the belly —”

As he speaks, you wish you could go back in time, apprehend the bag thief in the airport. Then you would have obtained sufficient moral authority to stand up right this very moment, tell your father that no one wants to hear that kind of thing at the dinner table. Shooting a pig. It’s disgusting, you’d say. Your sister and her husband would look on with approval at your display of courage. That’s not even real heroism, you’d tell your father. Why, just yesterday I apprehended a dangerous thief and returned what he had stolen, and your father would look at you with newfound respect and admiration, would apologize for all those wasted years —

— but you say nothing. Eat your food, keep your head down. Your sister starts to shout at your father, but you don’t hear the words. You excuse yourself to the kitchen to refill your glass of cabernet. Then: rinse and repeat several more times until it’s late enough to excuse yourself to bed. There’s a mattress on the floor of your childhood room, the frame having been sold many years ago. You lie perfectly still in the silence, a pleasant buzz lining the inside of your skull, and look at the glow-in-the-dark stars you’d glued to the ceiling the summer when you turned eight. Dad never liked them, you think. It was Mom who bought them for you, helped you apply them to the ceiling, watched them glow as you switched off the lights excitedly.

“What would you have done?” you whisper to her in the darkness, imagining she is somewhere in the room, just out of sight. You hear Dad shuffle upstairs to bed and you turn on your side and fall into a dreamless sleep.

After coffee the next morning, you say goodbye to Karen and Drew and drive to the airport — your father is still sleeping off the previous night — and return the Hyundai to the rental place. You sit outside your gate with that week’s copy of Time: on it is the picture of an anxious-looking baby, facing the camera. Above it, in blue letters, are the words Want to Know My Future?

Your phone buzzes. It’s a text from your father: a simple Have a good flight. His way of apologizing for the night before. You don’t answer him; not yet, at least. What would you tell him? What is there to say?

When you board, you hear an old man a few rows back talking to another passenger who looks like he’s maybe seventeen. You turn in your seat to watch. The young man pops out an earbud, listens as the old man explains that he and his wife don’t have seats next to one another — would he be willing to swap seats so they can sit together? The kid says no and puts his earbud back in. You imagine yourself standing up, grabbing the kid’s pillow so his head knocks against the windowpane. You’d just stand there, silent and strong like The Man with No Name from those spaghetti westerns, and the kid would slink off down the aisle in shame. The couple would thank you over and over again for letting them sit next to one another for the flight. You’ll raise your hand to absolve them but out of their immense gratitude they’d still repay you with a pair of mini wine bottles during drink services —

You startle as you realize the flight attendant is standing next to you. You set the magazine aside and the attendant explains the requirements that come with sitting next to the emergency exit and asks if you are able and willing to carry out those responsibilities. You nod at the attendant and smile, say, “You bet.” The attendant moves down the aisle, making sure trays are fastened and overhead compartments latched. You pick up the magazine again. Ahead of this sad baby you can see its future solidifying like poured cement — all the failures of nerve and the long streaks of cowardice and silence that can characterize and overwhelm a life, and you desperately want to call the flight attendant back and say no no no, you must have mistaken me for someone else — I am not the man for the job — but instead you slide the magazine into the pocket of the seat in front of you and tell yourself you’ll be a better man, starting now. The force of the engines pushes you back into your seat. Below, the world falls away, just out of reach.

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Austin Ross lives and writes near Philadelphia with his wife and forthcoming child. His fiction has appeared in Emerge Literary Journal, Black Heart Magazine, and elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @AustinTRoss.