Steven slumped in the airport chair and glanced quickly from side to side. Satisfied that his arrival hadn’t caused undue interest, he stuffed his hands in the pockets of his old army coat and crossed his blue-jeaned legs. At last, his area apparently secured, he began a practiced, militaristic scan of the surrounding territory.
Los Angeles International seemed relatively uncrowded for a Saturday evening, but anticipation was ever present as it rose and fell in sync with the arrivals and departures. From his back row vantage point, Steven noticed a family a few rows ahead. The father, a balding man in his mid-thirties, sat quietly, answering the impatient demands of his two young children. His wife, detached from the proceedings, hid in tired resignation beneath a gray scarf.
Standing near Gate 52, two young businessmen waited for their flight to board. Steven’s vision locked onto their position, and automatically he began a full scale evaluation. Name — Jim and Joe America. Rank — up and coming executives. Serial Number — about $150k per year. Two perfect examples of what Susan expected me to be. Steven swallowed to clear his throat of resentment.
Susan, he thought. She pushed and prodded for five years to motivate me to meet her goals – but I failed. Then came the brilliance of her retribution. Each night of belabored acquiescence was preceded by three weeks of headaches, hair-dos and “that time of the month”. Tonight, of course, jet-lag will be her protector.
Steven sighed and the thought faded as he thumbed through the book at his side. Hesitantly, he searched for a vestige of wisdom; some morsel of universal truth worth five dollars. He knew that Susan would demand to know why he couldn’t “just walk away from those Krishna kooks”. Something profound was required to begin his defense. Unable to find a suitable passage, he quickly pushed the book under the seat in front of him.
As Steven’s eyes combed the immediate area for incriminating witnesses, he was alerted to an intrusion within the banks of seats. Several rows ahead, a pallid, middle-aged woman moved silently from person to person. Each person received a card and then reached, in embarrassment, for a handful of coins or a dollar bill. The woman received each offering with a small nod of solemn benediction and then continued on without spending a smile.
Steven watched and waited as she moved like a specter through the rows of chairs. When she approached the row with the family, the children stopped their fussing and stared. The father hurriedly reached for his pocket, and the mother withdrew even further into her gray shell. Steven’s fascination was shattered as he realized that it was only a matter of twenty seconds before she would reach his.
Maybe she won’t come all the way down this row for one last person he thought. Look like you don’t want to be disturbed. Read something. Dammit – where’s that book when I need it?
Time moved unmercifully forward as the woman headed toward his row, and turned in.
Walk out the other end, he told himself. She won’t run after you. No, wait, it’s too late. She’s almost here. Find a dollar, no, at least five. Get rid of her quick.
The woman reached Steven’s seat. Without a word she handed him a card. Carefully, he read the words.
I am deaf. Most of the money I live on comes from generous people like you. I give you this card as a gift. I hope that you will offer whatever you can in return.
His stomach churned as the panic welled up inside of him. He hesitated but, with Susan’s voice ringing in his head, he handed the card back.
The woman’s expression remained unchanged. She turned the card over so that Steven could see the neatly printed sign language examples on the backside. Then, like a teacher with a slow student, she offered him the card again.
Steven’s forehead glistened, and the fear that clutched his throat made speech impossible. The airport noises seemed to have stopped, and he felt the weight of a thousand stares. Take the card his brain screamed to his arm. His body remained frozen for a moment then, slowly, movement began. To Steven’s amazement he realized that it was his head moving – side to side – in a steady motion.
Steven sat transfixed, barely perceiving the woman’s scowl as she faded into the airport din. Clutching his stomach, he summoned a burst of desperate energy and ran blindly toward the restroom.