The Passenger

Here’s a short story I wrote several years ago.  although I’m tempted to make updates to it and change things, I don’t think that’s how it works.  For better or worse, this is the form that is on file at the US copyright office

The Passenger


I noticed the youngish-looking man sitting next to me had been quietly tapping on his laptop ever since we were allowed to turn our electronics back on.  He looked calm, almost disinterested in his own words, but still had a focus about him.  Normally I do not talk to people on airplanes.  Or, more accurately, people do not normally talk to me.  I consider my long flights to be a refuge, a time of solitude and Simon and Garfunkel.  Two whiskey sours, though, and I was curious about the narrative unfolding next to me.

“Are you a writer?” I asked without really looking at the man.

“Not of anything anyone wants to read,” he responded without really looking at me.  His keystrokes didn’t even break stride.  He just kept tapping without looking up.

I felt my brow crinkle and head cock slightly as I processed his answer.  After the last slurp of my cocktail went up the straw, I persisted, “Why would you write something that no one wants to read?”  This time I looked at him.  He was younger than I had imagined, twenty-something and very plain looking.

“It’s a gift,” he said, again continuing to type with no regard for me.  “It’s a gift that has become a hobby, rather like doodling I suppose.”  I continued looking at the side of his head for a moment, listening to his fingers dancing quickly across the keys, and then I faced front again, somewhat befuddled.  The plane’s engines were humming.

We were in seats C and D of row one, him on the window, me on the aisle.  This means we both faced the bulkhead.  The sun had been setting when we boarded some forty-five minutes ago, but it was dark now.  The only light in the first-class cabin came from the yellow-orange glows of the reading lights above.  There were, perhaps, six of them on, dotting the four-row cabin.  I caught the steward-, er, flight attendant’s eye and swished the melted ice in my glass in her direction.

The tapping continued next to me, and I noticed my own fingers strumming the armrests.  Please keep in mind that under ordinary circumstances I would be the one ignoring a persistent chatter on a plane, silently willing them to let me rest in peace.  But the typing was persistent and steady, an unstopping cadence rolling along next to me, almost seeming to get louder, echoey.  And the man appeared so dispassionate about it, as if his own fingers were dragging the rest of him along begrudgingly.  I found myself hypnotized by the dexterity of his typing.  So fluid, so . . .

My drink came.  I took a gulp.

“I’m sorry,” I said, turning toward him and leaning away from him, into my armrest.  “Are you writing something no one wants to read, or just something no one will read?”

His fingers froze in time, hovering crooked and motionless over the keys.  The abrupt cessation of sound was jarring, and I started slightly and looked at his screen.  He was in the middle of a word – bea – beautiful, beastly, maybe.  The typing resumed in a quick burst – beatitude.  In a single flash, he hit ctrl+S to save and clipped his laptop shut.

It was only then that he leaned back in his seat and seemed a bit groggy.  “No,” he said with a large sigh, rubbing his eyes as he said it, “Every word I’ve written will be read by at least someone, probably by several people.  But the truth is they probably would rather not be reading it.”

He held his eyes closed for a long time and brushed his brown hair back up his head, continuing to groan and breathe heavily.  He clasped his hands in front of him and stretched his arms out far, bending over at the seatbelt. I heard joints cracking.  Then he sat up straight, turned and regarded me for the first time.  He seemed refreshed, as if he had just woken up from a languid nap.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a perfectly friendly voice.  “Sometimes I get lost in my own thoughts, and I don’t normally talk to people on planes.”

“Neither do I,” I chortled with perhaps too much enthusiasm, as if we were suddenly comrades because of this fact.  “I mean, well, you just seemed to be so focused on your writing, I wondered if you were an author.”

His eyes drifted up, and his head went back a little, like he was contemplating what I had just said.  I noticed I had drunk my third cocktail rather quickly when he continued, “No, author would probably not be the most accurate term for what I do.  I told you I have a gift.

“A gift for writing,” I interrupted and then regretted it.

“Writing, sure, there’s that, but there’s more to it.”  He turned toward the bulkhead, and his thoughts seemed to recede from the forefront of his mind.  “It’s kind of a dark talent, or skill, or, I don’t know what you’d call it.  I can kind of predict the future.  Kind of.”

Now I turned forward, deciding what I thought about this.  And there we were.  The both of us staring at a blank plastic wall with a faint No Smoking sign painted onto it.  I’m certain that if someone could have seen us from the front, my neighbor to the right would have looked more relaxed.  I was also certain that I needed another drink.  The stew-, ugh, flight attendant came over and asked us both if we wanted anything.  I said, “Another,” and my neighbor, after thinking about it, ordered a rum and diet coke, no lime please.

“Look,” he turned back toward me casually, “I know it sounds pretty weird, and I agree that it is, but you asked me.”

“Indeed I did, and I apologize for being taken aback by your answer.  It’s just that it’s not every day that . . .”

“I know.  I would be a skeptic myself, and some days I am.  But every time it happens, it happens exactly like I write it.  Every single time it’s exactly the same.”

“Like, you read people’s fortunes?”  I asked and then remembered that he was typing, not studying lines in hands.

“No it’s not like that.”  Our drinks came and I began to feel a little more at ease.  At least now we were drinking together as we talked.  As I took a sip, he continued, “I write people’s obituaries before they die.”

For as much effort as I put into remaining calm, I still felt the acute alcohol burn in my nose as I snorted my sip and then dribbled more than a little of it on my chin.  “I’m sorry,” I recovered, “You do what?”

“Yeah,” he was smiling slightly now and took a sip of his own drink.  “I write people’s obituaries before they die.  That’s my gift.  That’s what I do.”

“You mean you write their obituaries, and, because they are somehow so accurate the families print them?”

“No,” he explained, “I don’t write the actual obituaries; I write what I write and then that’s exactly what appears later in the newspaper, written by someone else.  Sometimes it’s a week later; sometimes several years go by before I see my words again.

“I’ve long since accepted this as truth, but the really uncanny part, the part I never can get my head around, is how I always get the right paper on the right day in the right town.  That’s the weird part, for me anyway.”

“Huh,” I said, unsure if I was convinced.  “That is weird, but you’ve definitely got me curious.  So, how does it work?”

“Well, it works like this:” and my neighbor to the right began to explain to me how he writes obituaries for people before they die.

“I meet someone, or hear someone, or hear of someone, and in short order, two, maybe three days later, I know exactly what will be written of them after their passing.  I’ve decided that the art of obituary writing is a cruel one.  You live your whole life, doing good deeds and bad; meeting people, making friends, losing lovers, and yet the whole of your existence is summarized in a handful of paragraphs at that moment.

“I mean, what if you were held in high regard by most everyone with whom you came into contact and had only a handful of detractors?  But what if all the people who loved you died before you did?  Then your final description would be written by a person who wasn’t all that keen on you.  It’s sad.  When people are walking around, assuming they will be survived by kind words, but they won’t be.  That’s the part that saddens me.  That, and when they’re children.”

For the second time in our conversation I spit up a bit of my drink.  “You mean you know their ages?  You know when they will die?” I stammered.

“No, not exactly,” he explained.  “The whole thing comes to me like a very lucid dream, but there are still parts that are obscured, blurry, just out of sight.  One of those things is their age.  But you can tell.  They say things like, ‘Vivacious little girl, taken too soon,’ or, ‘Beloved son, survived by a grieving father.’  Stuff like that gives you an indication that they were perhaps too young to have died.

“The only time I derive a bit of satisfaction out of it is when the deceased is definitely old, and they are described in kind and loving ways.  Of course, that also means that someone is probably heart-broken and misses them very much.

“Take this, for example.”  And then I was shocked when he opened his laptop and scrolled up a little.  I could see the entries were mostly five and six paragraphs long, each separated by extra spaces.  He stopped and pointed at one of them and allowed me to read:

After XX years of gracious life Agnes Underwood passed peacefully Monday night in her home, with her husband of 59 years.  She joins in heaven her parents, Lois and Arthur Underwood, and a niece, Hellen Buckwald.

As a young girl Agnes won many awards for volunteerism, mainly for care-giving in the service of the elderly.  After earning her nursing certificate from Sacred Heart Regional Educational Services (Spokane), she spent a lifetime in dutiful service at several area hospices.

She leaves behind her two sisters, Linda (Bill) Hendricks, Mary (Paul) Misner; nephew, Richard (Dana) Gredelsen; nieces, Christine Loander and daughter, Megan, Paula Christenson and daughters, Libby and Claire; other family members, Wendell (Patricia) White, Daniel, Kayla and Eunice; also many cousins and special friends.

The family wishes to express heart-felt thank you for the compassionate care given by Providence Health & Services and Sacred Heart Medical Center (Spokane). 

In lieu of flowers, memorials in her name may be made to Hospice of Spokane County/Providence.

It was touching and a bit sad, but I could understand what he meant – this was a satisfying one.  “And the unpleasant ones?” I asked sheepishly, but he slammed his computer closed as if to say show time is over.

We both ordered another round of drinks and then he offered, “There’s not as much money in it as you might think.”

To which, I replied, “I wouldn’t imagine there’d be any money in it.  And I’m still not even sure I understand what it is.”

“Estate sales,” he said blankly.

Before I could ask him if that was some kind of morbid joke, the pilot boomed in overhead.

Good evening ladies and gentleman.  We’ve reached our cruising altitude of 34,000 feet and should reach Seattle-Tacoma International Airport at, uuhhhhhhhh, um, at about 9:27 pm, local time.  Please sit back and enjoy the rest of our flight.

The voice crackled off and was replaced by the dead hum of the engines.

I was amused, if a bit skeptical.  “Okay,” I said playfully, “Do me.  What’s mine going to be?”

The man shook his head somberly and began a series of sighs again.  “It’s been my experience,” he was talking into his drink, “That people, in spite of what they say or think, do not really want to know too many of the details of their own death.”  He paused a moment, as if remembering something.  “Yes, I’m sure of it.  After they’ve accepted the opportunity, people always regret learning anything related to their own demise.”

“The part about having no one left to say nice things about you?”  I mused.

“No, the part about how you really are going to die and it always, always comes sooner than you’d expect it would.”  With that, he was done.  A silence hung in the recycled airplane air, broken only by the swoosh of the lavatory.  A vision of blue water entered my brain, and I decided this wasn’t a funny conversation anymore.

The flight attendant brought our drinks and asked if we preferred short-rib with mashed potato or portabella mushroom pasta.  We both opted for the pasta and then did not speak for over an hour.  Even if I had believed his stories, I’m not sure I wanted to talk about his gift anymore.  It had become somewhat unsettling.  Somewhat real.  Plus, I thought I was catching a buzz and my thoughts were becoming a little jumbled.

After eating, both my neighbor and I rested into what can only be called twilight sleep – not quite asleep, not quite not asleep.  Somewhere between sleep and wake, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t dreaming.  The passenger next to me was talking.  “The pilot,” he said grimly.  “The pilot is an easy one.”  His face was shadowed unnaturally by the light directly above his head.

I allowed my head to sort of slump in his direction and may have uttered a hmmpff.

“The pilot’s an easy one because he has no friends, no family to speak of.  That’s why it came to me quick.  The obituary will not be unkind, but it will not be kind either.  It will be nothing.  It will be a cold and heartless documentation of facts.  And it will be brief.

“Someone, I’m assuming a coworker, but probably not the co-pilot, will say that his name is Greg Hastings and that he was born in Scranton, Ohio.  The two paragraphs will tell his final age, the age at which he moved to Tacoma and the fact that he’s been a pilot for what looks like 17 years.  Numbers are always a little fuzzy.  And it will say how he died.  Not all obituaries do that, you know, say how they died.  Usually it’s the untimely deaths that go into detail.”

I hope I did not come across as rude or uninterested, but I’m pretty sure my eyes were not completely open for the entire account, if it had, in fact, been relayed.

I vividly remember, however, when the beeping came on.  Ding-ding, like if your ringtone were a doorbell.  And then, Uhhhhh, this is your captain speaking.  Ladies and gentleman we’ve hit a patch of rough air, should be over it soon.  That’s why, ummm, I’ve turned the Fasten Seatbelt sign on.  We’ll be dropping below 30,000 feet to try to get under it so it should be over soon.  As the voice crackled off I could swear I heard the pilot’s voice again for an instant, but then there was nothing.

At least, there was no sound from the flight deck.  The plane, on the other hand, was rocking and bouncing and shifting from side to side.  Nothing major; I’d been through unexpected turbulence a thousand times before in my travels.  Each time I wondered what it was that made that distinct, airplane rattling noise.  It sounded like a moving truck driving over speed bumps, carrying exclusively silverware.

This was a little rougher than usual, though.  The melted, yellowish remains of my last cocktail were sloshing in the glass and threatened to jump over the side.  I was still a little bleary from my nap and barely had one eye open when I saw something I’d never seen before.  On its own, the contents of my glass, and then the glass itself, floated slowly up into the air.  That’s when I registered my own feeling of weightlessness.

A vertical drop.

I was awake now, or at I least figured I was.  I looked around the cabin.  Some, but, surprisingly, not all, of the other passengers were also awake, but no one was saying anything.  We looked at each other and instantly bonded within our shared situation.  We were a cadre of confusion in a moment of weightlessness.

It was just then that the dim lights in the cabin sputtered and then went black.  An instant later there was nothing but silence throughout the plane.  Darkness and silence.  Not even the reassuring sound of the engines.

The last thing I saw, just before the lights snapped out, was the face of an elderly black woman sitting across from me and one row behind.  She had shiny burnt-honey skin and whitish hair that looked like frayed yarn. It was difficult to tell behind her thick glasses, but she seemed to have a look of stoic pleading in her eyes.  It was as if she were asking me for something.  That was the last thing I ever saw in my life.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 14 September 2009

Gordon A Hellerud abruptly left this earth (or, rather, slammed directly into it) on Friday, September 11, 2009, together with every other passenger and crew aboard Southeast Flight 909.  He was returning home to Everett from his job in Chicago when he became victim to this horrible accident.

Hellerud, age XX, is survived by his two parents, Ed and Trudi Hellerud and his bastard son, Otis (previous relationship). 

He will be remembered as a polarizing figure, one not easily forgotten.  Whether loved or hated, scorned or adored, those who knew him were never at a loss for opinion of him.  Often, these opinions shifted with the wind, as did his character.

He was most proud of waking up almost every single morning (or somewhere in the vicinity thereof), being handsome and never having died – at least until the end.

A memorial service will be held Saturday at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon.  As per his wishes, attendees are encouraged to bring pudding and wear funny hats (or ties, whatever you’ve got).

As his favorite author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. never said of him, “He tried.” 

Also, he sat on the left.

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