IN THE JETWAY
Right now I could lick that bald man’s neck. I could just stick out my tongue and lick that man’s neck and no one could stop me.
A person could just lick another person’s neck.
The bald man would probably jump a little, that’s probably what he’d do. He’d probably whip around and look at me.
Did you just lick me? he’ll say, more loudly than necessary because I’m standing right there. And I’ll say Yes I did lick you, because it would be a difficult thing to deny.
The bald man will pick up his bags and stand sideways, his neck out of tongue’s reach. That’s pretty fucked up, he’ll say.
All of the people in line will nod and wonder what I’ll do next. Will I lick them now?
They’ll have that nervous look my husband Allen gets around dogs. No dogs, no kids, we were barely dating when he said it.
The line starts to move again and I wonder which of the bodies rocking back and forth have dogs at home.
Definitely they do.
The entire line is moving in unison now, only me out of sync. Me and an elderly woman four passengers ahead. She’s out of sync, too. When everyone shifts left, the two of us go right. It’s just me and the elderly woman against the world.
Her dress is a field of bluebells, I love bluebells, and the nylons she has on have turned her ankles to russet potatoes, dry and brown. Odd and lumpy. Her arms are the powdery white of biscuit dough. I’m sure they would feel that way, too, yielding and warm.
Right now I could walk up there and squeeze that old woman’s arms. I could squeeze her arms, I could tickle her in the pug folds of her neck, I could pick that old woman up and spin her around and around until her little shoes fly off.
When I set her back down, laughter will spray from the black gap where she’s missing a few teeth up top, and her face will make me think of that Italian peasant who sells almonds in the travel brochure. Someday I’ll go to Italy and buy that peasant’s almonds.
It will take her a moment to catch her breath, my powdered biscuit, but once she does, she’ll clap her hands together and say, Oh my, I haven’t laughed like that in forty years. The two of us will laugh again when we look at our seating assignments. The elderly woman I choose to tickle happens to be in 21B and I’m in 21C.
I put her bag, the kind that looks like a couch cushion, green with pink peonies, into the overhead and help her get settled into her seat.
She tells me she’s from Georgia. I tell her I’m from Oregon but I always felt like I should have been from Georgia, or at least Virginia. Somewhere where the women drink mint juleps and the men talk southern.
I was born wrong, I say, and that’s not the way I meant to say it, but still she looks soft at me, she pats my hand.
We talk through clouds, over birds and blurry fields, talk as we hop Crater Lake. Mount Bachelor is a stone.
Time is a small thing, too. Already the pilot is telling us to prepare for landing by moving our seats into the upright position.
I push my old woman’s button for her and dig a pen out of my purse so we can exchange addresses.
You must write to me, she says and I promise I will.
Years go by and she has pictures of me on her refrigerator. On my refrigerator is a square-headed boy bent over a creek and a girl licking the last blue juice from her popsicle stick. And there’s a man, his hands stuck halfway down his pant pockets, thumbs meeting at the top of an oval belt buckle I can’t read. Her son.
The sides of my shoebox bulge with her letters and I have to use a rubberband to get the lid to stay on. Sometimes there are newspaper clippings tucked in with the letters. Inspirational quotes cut from greeting cards, that sort of thing. Some have god in them, but I don’t mind, I kind of like it, this god we share.
Then one year, just when I’m about to start a new shoebox, no new letters come. Weeks go by without a single letter.
Her son calls with the news. How she spoke of me. How she went on, he says.
Did you ever get a puppy? he wants to know before we hang up.
Two days later I stand in a hot jetway behind a bald man, but I don’t want to lick
him because it was just that one day. But the bald man makes me think of bluebells and I have to lean out from the line to see if she’s standing four passengers up.
In Georgia I take a taxi to the cemetery, where I see them huddled together, people shaped like her: short-limbed and droopy-shouldered. Sad marsupials in their funeral best. I don’t know any of them but when I hug their pressed dresses and scratchy suits it seems like we’ve done this before.
After a ceremony that makes our insides ache, we all go over to the daughter’s house. Under a pale pink tulip tree we drink mint juleps and talk about what a delightful laugh she had. Delightful, they use my favorite word.
I tell them about the time I tickled her in the folds of her neck, and the hairs on my arm spring up when it’s her laugh that comes out of them.
Right now I could lick every one of you, I say, and that isn’t what I meant to say, not lick, but still, they pat my cheeks, they smile at me. It seems like they might even love me.
Yes, we know, they say. We have thoughts like that all the time.
Kathleen Lane lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is currently working on a short story collection, and where she co-hosts SHARE, a monthly event that brings writers and artists together for an evening of making and sharing.