the wind blew me back
in the middle of the night
I remember well the last time I came home via Chicago. But I cannot remember where exactly I was coming home from. Perhaps Mexico, which would go a long way towards explaining why I found myself smoking a Delicado in a t-shirt and cargo shorts just outside of Terminal B, shivering so violently that the ash scattered everywhere and blended neatly into the night's snowy deluge.
An older gent joined me outside for a smoke. He asked me if I was cold. Yes, I said, I am. Then he launched into his life story. I couldn't follow most of it - I am not that well-versed in racial slurs - but his story ended happily, I think. He was waiting for a connecting flight to JFK, then he was off to The Philippines to meet his mail-order bride for the first time. Aren't mail-order brides supposed to come in the mail, I asked. I mean, isn't that the whole point of mail-order brides?
"Whelp," he said, "I just thought I'd save her the trouble. The exchange rate ain't so kind over there. Kinda want to give the ol' girl a test drive anyway."
The twelve-hour overnight layover at O'Hare looked much less gruesome on the itinerary. I slept on the floor of Terminal B that night with my backpack for a pillow. They had benches in Terminal B, but they were short ones, and artsy ones. So I'd wake up with my legs dangling out into space and a rustic sliver of sharpened tin jabbing me in the kidney. The floor, alas, was my best bet, and it wasn't a very good bet at all. The soothing whir of the floor buffers did little to alleviate the train wreck going on in my spinal column. I would wake up in the middle of the night and gaze up at the multi-billion dollar ceiling of Terminal B, and I'd think to myself, this might just be the nicest house I ever fall asleep in.
Dawn arrived and I was the first person in line. We boarded the learjet, or the turboprop, or the Dash 7 or whatever it was. I wasn't afraid of flying at the time, so I just kind of sat there in my assigned window seat and eavesdropped. The guy seated behind me started jawing to his neighbor about a party he went to in Phoenix.
"Y'ever heard of Usher?" he asked. Silence. "No? No? Where you been, man? Living under a rock? Heh heh."
This was in 2009, when I last came home via Chicago. I can no longer remember the last time Usher was big.
The guy seated behind me took out his laptop and within seconds, all of us seated in coach were listening to Usher's "Yeah" on laptop speakers that were the hip-hop equivalent of a black hole.
"This," said the guy, "is Usher."
I turned around to make sure of what I already knew: that the guy seated behind me was not young or black, that he was in fact a salt-of-the-earth Nebraskan in his early forties, wearing a brutally folded and sweatstained Poulan Weed Eater baseball cap. A bevy of Nebraskans had gathered in the aisle to watch the music video, and their bovine faces were blank with the sort of silent trepidation known only to people who move to Nebraska later in life. About two minutes into the video, the stewardess came by to tell the guy seated behind me to turn off his laptop. The guy grudgingly complied and the Nebraskans, relieved, returned to their seats.
The guy seated behind me, however, was not done. He had a story to tell, a real humdinger that he would lavish upon his neighbor whether his neighbor liked it or not.
"We went to a party with this guy," said the guy seated behind me. "Usher, I mean. The party was at Usher's house."
The House of Usher, I thought, thoroughly amused with myself and my English degree.
"Well, I mean, Usher has like, a million houses, I'm sure," said the guy. "But this was one of them."
"Oh. Yeah?" grunted his neighbor.
"Yeah. Me and my buddies were on the guest list and everything. Unfortunately, the line was too long. You shoulda seen it, man. I mean, a line out the gosh-danged door. So we never got in," said the guy. "But we were still partyin' in the street. I tell you what: that Usher knows how to throw a party."
We lifted off. Nobody spoke for a while, least of all the businessman seated next to the guy seated behind me. I imagine he popped a fistful of Unisoms and strapped on his sleep visor ASAP. But the guy seated behind me was not yet sated conversationally. So he reached across the aisle, so to speak.
Two Nebraskans: A Dialogue. Their conversation kicked off, predictably, with high school football. I listened, was familiar with all of the shitkicker towns and most of the mascots. I even knew some of the players. Or their older brothers, perhaps. Then the conversation shifted, somewhat less predictably, to Native American heritage.
"Yeap. I got some redman blood in me. I'm about 1/8th Winnebago, 1/16th Pawnee. Yourself?"
"Welp. About 1/16th Nemaha, 1/32nd Omaha, 1/128th Yamaha ... "
I listened but kept silent. Considering my own negligible Irish ancestry, I figured I was probably the least Nebraskan Nebraskan on board.
The stewardess came by and tossed me a bag of pretzels. I've never liked pretzels as much as everyone else on earth seems to, so I gave them to my neighbor. My neighbor was a college girl, blonde and homely in the rural Nebraskan way, and we talked for a bit in the rural Nebraskan way. We talked about high school football. Out the window, miles below, the weird agricultural circuitry of the American Midwest scrolled lazily past.
The stewardess came back around to pick up our empty bags of pretzels. I thought about asking her for a Bud Light, but everyone on board was palpably Mormon or worse. Then I asked her for one anyway. But we were already starting our descent. The flight home from Chicago never takes very long. It's a line drive. A puddle jumper, if there were any puddles to jump. But it's all refurbished desert down below. The front lawn of America. Irrigation circles, buzzcut farmland, straightedge roads to nowhere - long and gray and deserted except for a tiny twinkle of metal, a Ford F-150 pickup, perhaps, zipping along with a frantic slowness to the intersection of nowhere and nowhere in particular.
The seatbelt lights came on. Always a sepulchral moment for some reason, the descent. I buckled my safety belt and wrapped up my conversation with the girl next to me. Even the guy seated behind me fell silent. What else was there to talk about? We'd be landing soon. Though everyone on the plane was probably related somehow, we'd never see each other again. We were descending. We'd hover past the used car lots of Council Bluffs, hurdle the muddy Missouri, and the tires would kiss the runway. Home at last. We'd taxi to the only terminal Omaha has to its name. Is there even a departures wing? I wonder sometimes. And then the seatbelt light would blink to black. And summarily, as a herd, we would remove our masks of polite airplane formality and apply our masks of polite Nebraskan formality. And that's just what we did.
But as I reached up for the overhead bin, as a panicked afterthought, the girl next to me asked for my phone number.
"I don't have one," I said. It took me a moment to realize that was true.