The waiting area for flight Delta 3332 was absolutely mobbed. It was standing room only. There were squalling kids, frazzled mothers, and fathers so deeply in denial they were either nose deep into Red October or scanning the flesh. There were the usual assortment of business travelers, leaning over the laptops proped on their knees, trying to get a last minute email out or polish up a PowerPoint presentation. And of course, there was the corpulescence, a short woman with a page boy cut and pale lips. She took up two spaces on the bench across from Denny.
All you need to know about Denny is that he was very tired, that he was headed through at least two more airports before Anchorage, and that he was thinking “It’ll be just my luck to have That sitting in the middle seat with even a hunkier one sitting in the window.” He was very tired because he had spent most of the previous night and early morning running ViraDeAnne, the hulking Tauren huntress through the broken world of Azura. He should have spent the late evening, after the kids were in bed, reviewing his presentation. He should have been getting some sleep. His presentation was on options for updating handicap accessibility in the two hundred thirty-two existing Health Service hospitals and clinics. Since he had been running ViraDeAnne instead, he should at this moment be last-minute proofing his handout and double checking his PowerPoint. He should at this point be thinking through how each of the other people at the upcoming meeting would respond to issue.
Instead he was thinking “Just my luck,” and trying not to doze.
Truth be told, Denny had only a fleeting interest in the subject. Like Mike, his boss, he thought retrofitting existing buildings was money wasted. And he did not believe in money wasted. But it was administration policy, and Mike had asked him to make the presentation because, “you could sell a size eight to a fat lady and make her believe she’d fit it. Me, I’d say ‘fat’. Or maybe ‘large’ on a good day.”
As it happened, when the flight attendant began boarding, the small, large woman managed to heft herself in rocking waddle into the line just behind Denny. She was very short, the top of her pageboy about the same latitude as Denny’s armpit. She was dragging a small suit case and had a large handbag hung over her shoulder. She smelled of violets and juniper berries and sweat. She wheezed.
“Where you headed?” she wheezed.
It took Denny a second to realize she was speaking to him.
“Uh, Denver, then Seattle, then the crow hopper to Anchorage.”
“Oh, jeeze,” the woman said, “Me too.” Behind the mask of double chins and wattles, she had a pleasant, really a pretty face. She had quick blue eyes that seemed to take in everything. “We musta had the same booking agent.”
“A perverse one, for sure,” Denny said.
“I wanted direct to Seattle because there isn’t any direct to Anchorage. But I’m traveling on the G’s dime, and so cheap is how you do it.”
“Aint it a bi. . ., the pits,” Denny said.
The woman wheezed twice, then said, “A bitch.”
For the entire trundle down the ramp and then the long aisle of the airplane, Denny was saying to himself, Please of all the three hundred twenty-four seats on this airplane, let hers not be E or F twenty-three. But she was still behind him when he reached row twenty-three. He shoved his carry-on in the overhead and then stepped in to let her pass. She didn’t pass.
“Can you put this up there, please,” she said, hefting her drag-along. “I’m height challenged.” She had a sweet wide-mouth smile.
“Sure,” Denny said. Please A B or C or Aisle 24 or 22—anything but this side of Aisle 23. He stepped into 23 Aisle to let her pass.
“I’m there,” she said. She didn’t look at Denny, but she pointed to E twenty-three. Denny stepped out to let her into her seat. He thought all sorts of tired, mean, obscene, profane, awful thoughts that, as a matter of principle, he would never let ViraDeAnne say or think. He wished he had the decency not to think or, more importantly, show these tired, mean, obscene, profane and awful things. But he did think them. And it probably showed.
The woman brushed him, wide fanny bumping against his thigh, as she wagged herself into the narrow aisle. She flipped up the armrest between seat E and F, dropped a wide cushion that covered both seats and plumped with a wheezy sigh right where the armrest had been.
Before it registered on Denny what this meant, she turned her cold blue eyes up at him, “There. You got the whole seat to yourself,” she said.
She then turned to and looked out the window at the top of the wing and the industrial panorama of the airport beyond it.
Denny felt an empty sickness. When Mike had said he could sell a small dress to a large person, he hadn’t meant that Denny would actually do something as hurtful as unloading impractical things on people, but that he wanted to please them. If a large person wanted a size eight dress, Denny was the kind of person who wanted to make them feel comfortable about wanting a size eight dress. So, seeing the hurt, angry, blue eyes of the woman in seats E and F, was not pleasant to Denny.
So, he leaned over and said, “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t turn. She frowned. “Yeah,” she said. “I hope you aren’t going to be jabbering all the way to Denver.”
“I’ll probably be sleeping. But I wanted to let you know I am sorry. I was being an ass when we were seating.”
“You’re not an ass, because an ass would not admit he was an ass.”
“Well, thank you.”
“But,” she turned those nail blue eyes at him, “Would you be sorry if I wasn’t in two seats?”
Denny felt himself flush.
“Well, it doesn’t matter,” she said. She turned back to the window. “None of us are always who we want to be. We all of us are always playing at being somebody better.”
They were on the same flights all the way to Anchorage. Denny bought her lunch in Seattle as they waited for the Air Alaska take off. Her name was Allison, and she was a journalist contracted by the G to research treatment of American Indians and Alaska Natives by the Federal Government.
“I usually interview over the phone, because when they see me,” she brushed her hands across her ample bosom and belly, “They don’t talk like they do on the phone. But that’s no way to research about anything, so I am going to see for myself. Obesity attitudes be damned.” She had bought an extra seat on all the flights. “I don’t have a choice, do I?” she said.
That night alone in his hotel room, Denny thought about loading up ViraDeAnne and running a session through Azura. But instead of ViraDeAnne, Denny slept and early the next morning revised his handout. It needed serious rehandling to make it right—convincing to Mike and the other money slaves he worked with.