Bert maneuvered down the airplane’s aisle. The roller bag behind him glided at his heels as he perused the seat numbers. Near the tail, row thirty-four gaped, like the unanswered questions Tabitha’s call had left hanging in his ear.
Upon each of the three chairs on the right hand side, folded seatbelts gleamed. Hefting his bag into the overhead bin, wheels first, Bert claimed the window seat. He grimaced, bumping his elbow onto the bulkhead and discovering less room than the backseat of a car or even his cluttered office. Resigning himself to the threadbare cushion, he fastened his belt over his lap and gazed out the window.
Airport vehicles darted through the flurries starting outside, each cart scurrying like a collection of manic toy cars. The similar image on his screen saver, with its sped up orbiting projectiles, appeared in his mind’s eye, teasing with solved equations and understood patterns.
Shifting his attention to the other passengers, Bert diverted his brain’s churn to calculations on the probability the middle seat might remain vacant.
Around him, row thirty-three and thirty-five filled. An elderly gentleman, who appeared on the verge of sleep, sagged into thirty-four C. The crowd of those standing about began thinning as seats were claimed and the lower numbered rows began boarding.
Bert exhaled, allowing his mantis legs to drift into the middle seat’s terrain. Slouching down, he folded his arms over his navy fleece and listed his head onto the curved bulkhead. He shut his eyes, and ignored the bustle, murmured apologies, and thumps of closing bins, and tried escaping the echo of Tabitha’s voice in the blackness of sleep.
The tittered banter of one woman whittled into his near doze. Bert squinted, and spotted her rotund figure as she worked down the aisle. Against her chest and ample ski-jacket, she hauled a scarlet bag like an enormous ruby. Stopping at each row, she peered at the numbers, and into the opened bins.
A steward tromped passed Bert’s row, her trajectory aimed on an intercept course. The stomp of her practical flats shook the floor.
“Can I help you, ma’am?”
“Oh! Hello. I’m in Row 34. Seat B,” said the woman, her cheeks flushed. “But I’m not sure where I can put this.”
“Let see,” said the steward, a strained smile on her lips. She snooped into the overhead bins like a detective seeking a culprit, cracking up and down one lid after another. “How about here?”
The woman shuffled forward, and heaved the bag to her shoulder with a constipated grunt. With the steward’s help, they wedged her luggage between a roller bag and stout backpack. After two tries, the steward managed to close the lid and then backpedaled, waving the woman toward the one remaining empty spot in plane’s final rows.
“Take your seat, ma’am,” said the steward, “we’ll be heading out in a minute.”
“Of course. Sorry.”
Rocking from his chair, the elderly man rose, providing the woman as much access as the plane’s confines allowed.
“Thank you,” said the woman. She sucked in her gut and batted down the front of her puffy jacket a radioactive shade of green. With her breath held, she waddled into the row like a bulbous crab.
Bert nudged closer to the window as she plopped down beside him.
She grinned. “Well isn’t this cozy?”
Bert offered a lean smile, and tilted aside as the woman worked into her seatbelt. She smoothed coat’s fluff, and wiggled between the armrests.
“There we are,” she said with a contented titter.
Bert’s stomach plunged as she extended a meaty hand.
“Hi, I’m Melba.”
Frowning, Bert shook her hand. “Like the toast?”
Melba chortled. “You don’t know how many times I’ve heard that.”
Bert hoped she wouldn’t indulge him with a recounting of each.
“Bert,” he said, tucking his arms back across his chest and settling against the window.
Melba failed to pick up the hint in his body language. “Are you stopping in Chicago?”
“No,” said Bert.
“Where will you be flying today then?” Her smile stretched, and she giggled at what she apparently perceived as a humorous mimic of a steward’s questioning tone.
“Oh! I bet Phoenix is lovely this time of year.”
“Any where’s warmer than Buffalo. Are you going for business or pleasure?”
“Ah….” Bert raised his brows, and contemplated the two choices. Business seemed the safer reply.
“Oh,” said Melba, “what do you do?”
“I’m an astrophysicist.”
“Really?” Mable’s eyes widened. “You study…space?”
“Yeah,” said Bert.
“You must work at the university then.”
Bert nodded, but Melba barely paused for the confirmation.
“What’s in Phoenix for an astrologist?”
“Astrophysicist,” said Bert.
Melba blinked, the correction impacting her like a light bulb flickering on within a galaxy.
He sighed. “A meteor shower deposited some…some space rocks. I’m going to take a look at them.”
“What are you hoping to find? Aliens or something?”
Bert shrugged. “I’m not sure.”
Melba cocked her head. “So why are you going?”
Glancing down, Bert plucked invisible lint from his ebony jeans. Tabitha’s worried voice over the static-laced line flooded his thoughts. The goose bumps as she described the meteor’s unusual characteristics pebbled Bert’s skin beneath his winter gear.
“You’re guaranteed not to find anything if you don’t look,” he whispered.
With her mouth forming a silent “o”, Melba nodded as if he had relayed some sage advice.
Shaking himself from the hours-old phone conversation, Bert settled on Melba, who stared at him with silent but hungry expectation.
Suppressing a sigh, he indulged the inevitable. “What about you?”
Melba beamed as the conversation changed tack. “I’m visiting my sister. She lives just outside of Chicago with her husband Roy and their kids, Betty, Oliver, David, and little Susie.”
Bert tuned out as Melba droned on about her nieces and nephews, each apparently more impressive than the last. He nodded appropriately when Melba noted some of the children’s less than glorious moments and “oh’d” as necessary when they had redeemed themselves with some thoughtful, surprising, or heartwarming act.
Tabitha’s concern, however, rang in his ears, undercutting the awkwardness in their first-argument free conversation since she’d departed for greener pastures, and the meteor’s troubling details.
“….so I’m going to see if I can help her out and take things from there,” said Melba. Her grin stretched, yearning for approval.
“Imagine that,” said Bert, meeting Melba’s gaze, “me too.”