by Jeremiah Goulka
When you’ve just scored a surprise upgrade to first class, few things are worse than finding yourself trapped next to someone who looks determined to spend the entire five-hour flight yapping at you.
Way before the flight attendants announced that we could fire up our laptops—I had so much to get through—and maybe even before the airplane pulled back from the gate, this old codger who was occupying the seat separating me from the aisle started talking. He pivoted his body toward me, boxing me in against the bulkhead, and shoved a small photo album at me. “What do you think?” he said.
My fellow traveler looked like an older, bespectacled version of Grand Moff Tarkin, not-too-recently retired from ordering Darth Vader around the Death Star. What choice did I have? I opened the album and tried to think up with something nice to say. Looks like a future imperial commander. Now THAT’S a baby.
But there were no pictures. Instead, I found this scratched across the page:
Flag of our fathers
Ripp’ling bright—blue red and white,
O say can you see
“I didn’t know Francis Scott Key did Haiku,” I said before I could stop myself.
Was that menace in his eye? “Try this one,” he said, and he reached right across me and turned the page. I know you’re not supposed to blame old men for smelling old.
The sun’s a pink orb
In a sand and bomb smoke cloud.
I have no regrets.
“Hmm,” I said. A veteran? He looked too old for the Iraq wars and too young for WWII, so maybe Vietnam? He didn’t sport any of the self-identifying military garb or haircuts you see sometimes. His hair was short and white, and he was wearing a suit, conservative and elegant. Actually it was beautiful, almost certainly bespoke. It made me think of water, shimmering on marble, though that might have been the complimentary sparkling wine and my bladder.
Across the aisle, two burly men with buzz cuts stared at me. Their suits looked even cheaper than mine.
“Try this one,” the old man said.
I pound their stupid heads in—
August body, ha!
“Pretty good, eh?”
“Unhh,” I said, and when he looked away—I think one of the buzz cuts may have made a noise—I reached for my headphones and flicked on my personal TV screen. It showed a news channel. The banner read “Former Vice President Cheney to Speak,” and they were running footage of him at a lectern at some think tank or industry conference. My head started swinging back and forth from the screen to the old man next to me, and finally he reached over and closed my mouth.
“Hello there,” he said, and then he tilted his brow toward me and spoke my name.
He reached over and closed my mouth again.
“How … ?”
“… do I know who you are? Please. Who ushered in the No-Fly List? I did. Who spawned the expansion of the NSA wireless surveillance program? Me. … Oh calm down, you’re not in any trouble. Yet.”
He fixed me in his gaze. Did I see in it what Shakespeare called “the evil which is here wrapt up [i]n countenance”? Evil is a big word, but in the fire of his eyes I thought I saw Blake’s Tyger, and it freaked me out. So much confidence and energy buzzed out of him that I didn’t see how it mattered whether our personal electronics were on or off.
“Don’t you, um, usually fly, in, like, a private jet, or something?”
“Not today,” he said. “One is usually provided for me, of course, by friends. But not today. Speaking of which, I hope you are enjoying your upgrade.”
My legs stretched out involuntarily, and yes, it did feel good, those “measureless oceans of space.” (Well, maybe not quite measureless; my apologies to Whitman.) But then I saw his flat-lip smirk, curling up at each edge like a Viking ship. It was uncomfortably familiar. “Did you … ?”
“I have a more than enough miles in my portfolio. Now, if you wouldn’t mind.” He waved at the notebook.
ISIS burns my heart.
Those pinko lesbo lefties
Wouldn’t let us win.
I turned the page—all it read was “Ferguson“—and he ripped the notebook out of my hand. He flipped through the pages himself. “No… no… no… harrungh … rrrgh … Here!”
Tomorrow I speak
At CPAC and Heritage. [or maybe AIPAC??? yes, people know, and respect, AIPAC]
At least they like me.
I opened my mouth, but he cut me off. “You never even once replied to my submissions. Not even the standard-form rejection email. Nothing.”
“We thought it was, I don’t know, from a crank?”
“I was worried about that. Even using firstname.lastname@example.org? Well… now you know. These are for real. I would be grateful if you would consider them for publication.”
I accepted them all, on the spot.
Jeremiah Goulka is a writer based in Washington, DC. Before he couldn’t stand it any longer, he worked at two federal agencies and a prominent think-tank. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremiahgoulka or contact him through his website jeremiahgoulka.com.