"Did you see last night's episode of Singer Castaway?" said a large man, both in height and girth, as he wrestled trying to get his oversized and oddly shaped baggage into the overhead compartment.
"I don't know what that is," said Dave quietly. He was seated in the middle four-seat column in a 747 bound for Spain.
"Huh?! How could you not watch that show? It's like the most popular thing on TV right now." The man started shoving his weight against the baggage.
"Please don't jam that in there, I have electronic equipment--"
"It's a singing show combined with an island survival contest."
"I really don't watch much television," said Dave.
"All of the challenges are sing-offs and they don't get enough calories so some of them don't do to well."
"That sounds a little drastic--"
"There!" the man exclaimed. He slammed down the hatch, then he sat down heavily on the aisle seat, next to Dave. "I can't believe that Chandler got voted off last night. I seriously thought he was going to win the whole thing!" He fiddled with his tray table, seeing if it would extend all the way down, but his belly interfered with it's proper deployment. Then settled back in the seat, folded his arms over his belly, and in the process let his elbows invade Dave's ribcage. "What do you think?"
"Well, as I said, I've never seen the show, or even heard of it for that matter," said Dave meekly. He was hoping someone more interesting would sit on his other side.
"Oh yeah, you said that," said the man chuckling. "So what do you do for entertainment?"
"I like to read books," said Dave.
"Books!" the man guffawed. "Seriously?"
"Yes," said Dave, confused why that should be so amusing.
"Books! Ha! Oh my God I hate books! Never could stand the things. I can proudly say I haven't read a book since high school. Eugh."
"Not even for work?"
"No way!" he laughed again. "I mean they gave me a manual but I didn't really read it."
"Wow," said Dave. He looked longingly at the two empty seats next to him.
"What's the type of book that's not a story? You know, the kind that celebrities get other people to write about their lives."
"That's an interesting definition," said Dave under his breath, then, "uh, well I guess you mean non-fiction."
"That's what it's called? I thought it was something fancier. So did you go to college, book guy? You don't mind if I call you that? Ha!"
"Yes, for several years," said Dave.
"Several years?" he laughed loudly again. "I thought it only took four years! What'd you do, get shit-faced all the time and flunk out then have to repeat?! Ha ha! That's how I would've spent college! Hell, that's how I spent high school!" The man suddenly looked reflective. "Man those were some good years. I played football. Man the cheerleaders were all over me! Ha! You get what I'm saying?!"
"Yeah...that's nice," said Dave. He was beginning to sweat. The rest of the plane was beginning to fill up.
"Best days of my life," said the man, sighing deeply. "Now I sell cars for my dad, and get a little sumthin-sumthin from the receptionist. Get it? Do ya get it?"
"Uh, yeah," said Dave.
"No you don't, 'cause I do! Ha ha!" The man's face started to go beet red, and he was tearing up. Then he started coughing violently. Something globular and slimy hit the seat back in front of him, and started a slow, herky-jerky descent down the blue fabric. The man clutched Dave's leg with a vise grip as he tried to regain his composure.
"Are you all right?" asked Dave.
"Yeah man. I really need to stop smoking. Man this is going to be a long flight. I hope they don't have smoke detectors in the bathroom."
"Oh, hey, I should introduce myself," said the man. He reached into his jacked and pulled out a damp business card and handed it to Dave." Go on, take it. I'm Chris. If you ever need a quality used car, just give that number a ring and ask for me."
"Thanks," said Dave, accepting the card. Finally someone appeared at the other end of the row. It was a tall thin man wearing suspenders he put his baggage away quietly. Dave felt a spark of hope.
"Hey, come join the par-tay!" said Chris. The thin man smiled and sat down on the far seat. Chris leaned over Dave's lap and extended a card to the thin man. He repeated the bit about used cars. The muscles in Dave's body all went tense in unison. He looked up at the ceiling.
"Thanks!" said the thin man genuinely.
"So what's your name?" Chris asked, continuing to lean over.
"Oh, I'm Julian," said the thin man.
"Nice to meet you. So what do you do?" Chris was still leaning. Dave looked over at Julian, with a pleading expression, but Julian didn't notice.
"Oh, I work for a small theater group for children," said Julian.
"So you're a pedophile?" Chris laughed loudly again. Julian immediately looked grim. "Just kidding man! Just kidding." Chris finally retreated from Dave's space.
"I uh, do storytelling and comedy, juggling, face-painting, balloon animals, that sort of--"
"So you're a clown?" asked Chris.
"Yes, I do in fact have a clown persona," said Julian. "Although I mostly--"
"Do you ride a unicycle?"
"Actually I can. It's all about balance. It's quite the--"
"Doesn't that hurt your balls?! Ha ha! Just kidding man, just kidding," said Chris. Julian had a completely sour face. "Actually, doesn't it? I've always wondered that."
"You don't look like you've ever been on a bike seat in your life, so I guess that's a fair question to ask!" said Julian in a huff.
"All right, chill out man," said Chris. Dave was embedding his nails into the armrests, and gritting his teeth. He looked again at the seat between himself and Julian, who was now donning sunglasses and headphones. A woman carrying a small child squeezed into the row immediately ahead of them.
"I bet your balls do chafe on those things!" said Chris a little to loudly to Dave.
"Language!" said the woman, turning around. She plopped her child into the seat in front of Dave. "There are children present on this plane."
"Okay, sorry! My bad. Didn't see him there," said Chris. He turned to Dave and whispered, "must be on the rag," then loudly, "am I right? Huh, am I? Ha ha!" The woman glared at him then turned to someone in the seat behind Dave.
"You had to book this flight online, didn't you!" said the woman.
"Honey, it was the cheapest way," said a defeated sounding man. Dave turned around as much as he could, and saw a dumpy looking man with three school-aged boys, directing them into seats in the row behind.
"We're all separated!"
"You've got Levi," said the man.
"But I want talk to an adult!" whined the woman. "He's exhausting! I'm going to be pulling my hair out." Levi was already climbing up the back of the seat and staring malevolently at Dave.
"Well put him in the aisle seat," said the man.
"And be chasing Levi all around the plane for the entire flight? You know how he always finds a way to escape!"
"Yes dear," said the man. Dave got the feeling he knew all about Levi's behavior, and planned the specific seating arrangement. Finally the woman sat down.
"That sounds like domestic bliss," whispered Chris to Dave. "Ha ha!" The child behind Dave started kicking the back of his seat. Dave started grinding his teeth.
Finally a well-groomed man came to their row. He smiled at Dave.
"I'm next to you I guess," said the well-groomed man. "I should have gotten here sooner so I wouldn't have to squeeze past. Please excuse me." Dave relaxed an iota.
When the man was seated, Chris leaned over and introduced himself again with a card.
"So what's your name?" asked Chris.
"I'm Denis," said the man, extending his hand and smiling warmly. Chris shook it vigorously and started laughing.
"Wow, you must have really gotten teased in school! Ha ha!"
"We all have our crosses to bear," said Denis, smiling.
"So what do you do, Denis?" asked Chris.
"I'm a lecturer," said Denis.
"What the hell are you doing in economy? Ha ha! Don't you all make wads of cash?"
"I'm not in it for the money," said Denis.
"Hey, this one over here," Chris leaned over and pointed at Julian,"Jackie Onassis with the glasses there, is a God-damned circus clown! How about that? Ha ha!"
"Actually he said he did children's theater--"
"Oh, ha ha, I keep forgetting you're there!" said Chris, slapping Dave roughly on the shoulder. "What did you say your name was?"
"It's Dave," said Dave.
"Yeah, Dave the book guy! He says he likes to read!"
"I like to read too," said Denis, pulling out a compact book bound in black leather from his blazer. He put it on his lap and tapped the cover gently. Dave felt a chill run down his spine.
"Ugh, I can't stand books. All that squiggly print! I always end up rereading the same paragraph! I hate that," said Chris. "Hey, what is it that you do exactly?"
"I'm a librarian," said Dave, a bit smugly.
"Oooh, well excuse me! Ha ha! Here I've been bashing books, and this is one of the high priests of the whole shebang!"
"It's fine," said Dave. The kid behind him started moaning between kicks. The kid in front was now chewing on the headrest, watching Dave with creepy intensity.
"What is your favorite book?" Denis asked Dave. Chris started coughing violently again. One of the kids behind started screaming something about a juicebox.
"Well, that's hard to answer. There are so many--"
"It should be easy to answer," Denis suddenly looked very serious, and turned in his seat to fully face Dave. "Let me ask you a simple question."
"Do you have a personal relationship with--" Dave stood up and climbed roughly over Chris, who was now starting to choke. Dave ran up the aisle, pushing various passengers into seats as he shoved his way past, all the way up to the egress door which a stewardess was closing.
"Stop!" he shouted. "I have to get off!"
"We're about to taxi sir! You'll have to get back to your seat!" she said.
"No way!" He shoved her aside and pushed open the door. The walkway had already retracted a few feet, and the pavement was a good story or so down. He jumped for the walkway and landed, but lost his balance. He teetered on the edge, trying to grab the side wall. The stewardess screamed and tried to reach out to him. He slipped and fell, but grabbed the floor of the walkway with his fingers. He started hyperventilating. The stewardess screamed some more. Footsteps fell rapidly somewhere up the ramp of the walkway--the vibration was too much for his fingers, and he watched the pavement rise up to greet him.
Dave woke up in the ambulance, strapped and immobilized to a hard board. Tubes were coming out of him and he wore a head and neck brace. The siren was blaring. There were two EMTs riding with him. One of them flicked on a flashlight and shone it in his eyes. Dave squinted his eyes shut.
"Looks like we got a live one," said the other EMT.
"Yeah, good thing," said the first EMT. "The paperwork when they die is a bitch!"
"Ha ha!" said the other one.
"Hey, did you watch Singer Castaway last night?" asked the first EMT.
"Oh man, Chandler! Dude I did not see that one coming!"
Dave started screaming.