Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Unaccompanied Baggage by John Philipp

Not until I’d slumped into the United Red Carpet Club armchair at 6:03 a.m. did I notice two weathered brown leather suitcases and an equally worn black vinyl valise piled atop each other on an otherwise empty counter against the back wall. I scanned the clubroom. Save for the lingering odor of Eau de Pledge, I was alone, apparently the only person who believed United when it said be at the airport two hours before flight time.


Traveling by oneself has its advantages. Better than having my wife to harp at me for being a stickler for detail — or her mother, Mona, who’d use more direct language. Alone, I had quiet time to review once more the presentation I was to give in Denver. Then I would relax, get a cup of half-decent coffee, and watch CNN repeat the morning’s news ad nauseam. Or, maybe I’d finish reading From Russia, with Love and discover if James Bond wins the game of cross and double-cross.

I double-checked I had my ticket and driver’s license. (I did.) I placed those boarding documents in my inside jacket pocket. A moment later, I removed the ticket to confirm it had today’s date (It did), and that my name was spelled the same as on my license (It was). I selected a Ziploc baggie from my briefcase and dumped into it any objects that might trigger a metal detector: loose change, a foil packet of breath fresheners, car keys, and nail clippers. I scrunched the seal tight, put the baggie away, and proceeded to the serving counter. I poured a cup of black coffee, added one-and-a-half packets of Sweet & Low, snatched a banana with no brown spots from the open bowl, and confiscated eight airline-size bags of trail mix.

I returned to my seat and picked out the almonds from the eight snack-packs to create one free bag of travel nuts. As my fingers pushed aside tiny pieces of dried mystery fruit, mini-pretzels, and something off-white and greasy I wouldn’t put in a bird feeder much less my mouth, my peripheral vision scouted the suitcases. Triggered by some Pliocene gland still embedded in the reptilian remnant of my medusa oblongata, a primal instinct surfaced and screamed DANGER! (I had learned those fancy terms in Anthropology I and wondered if their use now might retroactively improve my grade.)

What triggered this feeling of danger? I heard nothing except a muted CNN announcer babbling over a celebrity snafu, smelled nothing except a hint of French toast overtone to the fading Pledge — perhaps the restaurant next door — and noticed nothing except the clusters of empty chairs between me and the suitcases. Empty chairs! Airport PA system announcements played back in my head. Senses ratcheted up to Red Alert. My head whirled around. The club was like a morgue. I gritted my teeth. I was alone and face-to-face with … unaccompanied baggage!

I evaluated the situation. Just because I couldn’t see anyone, didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone around. A woman at the club entrance had checked my member card, and someone had set out the morning coffee service. My mind departed reality and traced those suitcases back to their imagined original owner, a swarthy, bearded man who had picked the Red Carpet Club lock last night after the cleaning crew had departed. I knew I was profiling, but counseled myself this could be a national emergency. I imagined the terrorist entering through the club kitchen, gingerly placing the suitcases on the counter, and setting the timer.

TIMER! My fingers tapped a rapid staccato beat on the side table, my chest tightened, my breath quickened, and my stomach overpowered my morning Prilosec. There must be a timer inside one of those suitcases! I considered opening them to see how many minutes were left in the countdown. Like James Bond, I would stare down at a panel of devil-red descending digits.

Suddenly, I had a discomforting thought, bolted upright, and dumped a lapload of dried fruit and mini-pretzels on the floor. What if the suitcase is booby-trapped, and I’m the booby? Terrorists did that all the time in spy novels to foil would-be spoilers. I knew in my heart my terrorist had read the same novels. I entered into a conversation with myself.

He’s onto me.

Who?

The bearded guy.

What bearded guy?

God, I’m talking to myself!

My undershirt was blotting sweat. After it dries, I thought, it’ll have to be surgically removed. Assuming my chest is in one piece.

I know I’m profiling again, but I go with Mustafa, an archenemy well seasoned in terrorism.

But my heart is pure and my cause is just, so…

Jesus, John, get a grip! First things first. If those are explosives, this is NOT a good place to be. Grab the briefcase, forget the free nuts, and get the hell out.

Then what?

I imagined my mother-in-law sitting across from me, whispering to her daughter. I couldn’t make out the words, but I knew what she was saying: “Whatta wimp.” Mona had first used the term after I’d chosen to ignore her midnight announcement she’d heard a noise downstairs (She was visiting); she used it after I didn’t complain when the restaurant overcooked my steak (I was buying); again when a large man butted in front of us in the movie line waiting for tickets to How to Be Single (I’d been outvoted).

Though faced with an imminent explosion, I couldn’t leave until I answered one more question: What’s my endgame?  What do I do once I'm safe? A memory wrestled into my consciousness, the comedian Shelley Berman describing how he once looked out a plane window, saw the wing on fire and said nothing because, “I’d rather die than make an ass out of myself.” Like Berman, I found myself square on the horns of modern man’s dilemma: the fine line between Hero and Ass.

I inhaled a deep breath, pulled in my stomach, and stuck out my chest. I jutted what little chin I had into its full-forward position — and made my decision. I chose people over pride, country over cowardice, and fame over fear. “Ballad of the Green Berets” swelled in my head. I rose and marched to the reception desk. An attractive Asian woman looked up from her open newspaper. “How may I help you?”

I spoke in a quiet, steady voice I dropped an octave for effect. “I think you should know there’s unaccompanied baggage in the back alcove.” As I waited for my reward, I imagined my mother-in-law in her Sunday-go-to-meeting brown wool suit, beaming as the president pinned a medal on my chest, flash bulbs popping everywhere.

“Oh, sir, that’s art. Interesting, don’t you think?”

Once again, I blessed myself Mona wasn’t standing at my side, and thought, but didn’t say to the attractive Asian woman: I'll tell you what I think. I think they should have little plaques on anything that isn't a bomb — and I should be awarded a ramekin of warmed Fancy Mixed Nuts, the kind they give you in First Class.

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John Philipp writes a regular humor column for six local Marin newspapers and has won awards for his fiction, humor, and memoir writing. He is currently revising his first novel. Everything he’s ever written has been published if you include his mother’s refrigerator door.

Judge's Comment: We enter the writer's mind in a Woody Allen-type romp around an airport lounge, in which his OCD tendencies escalate to sheer panic: 'Senses ratcheted to up to Red Alert. My head whirled around...I was alone and face-to-face with...' And then...wham bump tumble crash down to reality. Superb.