“Local People” (Excerpt 2) by John M. Keller

How did I immigrate here?: I was on an airplane. Even though I had explicitly reserved a seat in the aisle, I was directed to a window. I spoke to the flight attendants, but there was apparently nothing they could do. There was nearly a moment in which I had managed to switch with a family so that they could all sit together, earning myself an aisle seat, but at the last moment a woman showed up and claimed it. She probably needed it nearly as much as I did. But not as much as I did. The flight took off calling little attention to itself and, before long, the window at my left inherited a splendid view of the clouds, which looked like floating, freshly sheared wool somehow defiant of gravity but otherwise locked in a single, non-floating row. The flight attendants came asking if we wanted any beverages. Of course I declined. I was given someone else’s (low-cal) meal, which I ate dispiritedly, unhappy about the quantity of fruit, and about an hour into the flight I already had to use the bathroom. I apologized to the two seated (sleeping) individuals at right and made my way down the aisle to the bathroom. Upon my return, I apologized again and slid down into my seat, waving at them in thanks. This is when things began to go awry. Not five minutes later, I already was beginning to feel the urge again but, having just gone, there was nothing I could do. My mind traveled back to the moment when I had booked the ticket and ensured that I’d selected my seat—and then the phone call I made several weeks later to confirm this. This had happened once before on a shorter flight and was nearly as uncomfortable a prospect then and, in my youth, I’d once survived a two-hour bus drive from one town of chicken pens to another in which there wasn’t even a bathroom aboard. But this was a twelve-hour flight. I told myself not to think about it, that my urge to go to the bathroom was an invention of the mind, that it wasn’t possible I already needed to go when just moments before I’d relieved myself. I pictured the small bathroom compartment, its sink and different dispensers, the flush button, which accomplished an uncomfortably loud noise, and then me standing there, as a free man, in what was like my own temporary hotel room in the air—why hadn’t I stayed there longer, waiting to see whether I had really finished going or not? I couldn’t understand myself. I tried to focus on something else, and made it two hours before waking the pair next to me. I’m really sorry, I said. I meant it. They said that it was no problem. This time I lingered. After leaving the cabin, I spent another two minutes at the back of the plane on the grounds of wanting to stretch my legs to avoid blood clots. I imagined conversations to this effect, in which I would be quickly excused for what was in fact rather sensical rationale, but no one asked. An hour passed in which I slept not at all but, thankfully, also in which I didn’t have any urge to use the bathroom. I declined all offer of beverage service. I was thirsty. I began to feel rather trapped pushed up against the left side of the plane, every time needing permission by two strangers to leave my row. The lights had been turned off; there was still conversation trickling up and down the aisles, but the airplane began to go to sleep as if obedient to the tacit directive inherent in switching the lights out. I began to nod off, and fell asleep.

I was awakened by an uncomfortable feeling in my bladder. What was this? At home, I used the toilet no more than four or five times a day. I consumed massive quantities of fluid and was a healthy individual. My neighbors now catatonically hibernating, the jaw of one having fallen into his shirt, the other, a little girl, shifting her position every few minutes but clearly no longer among us the awake, I told myself that I would endure. Neither had gone to the bathroom the entire flight, but soon they would have to. I told myself that I would make a point of going when one of them did, thus only having to inform the other that I would simply take advantage as a precaution, while the other was up, as a point of courtesy and preemption against future flare-ups of necessity. Would it even be preemptive? I could deal with that when I came to it. But they slept soundly for another hour, and by then I’d told myself I would go to the bathroom if they were both awake, explaining that I’d had a lot of water and coffee before getting on the plane (had even asked for an aisle seat so as not to inconvenience anyone.) There was some turbulence by the time we were halfway to the new land, turbulence my bladder seemed particularly sensitive to. How strange that a man and a small girl slept next to me when not a soul slept next to me at home, in my bedroom—instead here in a public place with absolute strangers! Strangers with the bladders of camels! Another hour passed. The little girl awoke. The man’s jaw sunk lower, his mouth opened fully, as if he were a malfunctioning device. Someone a few rows up put their light on for a moment, then disabled it. The little girl slept. I tapped the man on the shoulder, several times. It occurred to me he was dead, that this was a possibility. I tapped him again. He looked over at me incomprehensibly. I gave him a look as if to say I don’t understand it either. And this was going to keep happening again and again and would characterize our trip together as strangers. I tried not to look him in the eyes so that he would not remember me.

In the cabin, I urinated. The sensation was euphoric. I left the bathroom and from the flight attendant asked for a glass of water. I looked into her eyes to see if she judged my question or had even noticed how many times I used the bathroom. She didn’t seem to suspect anything. She gave me the water, which was chilled and in too much ice. I carried it back with me—I didn’t want to have a conversation about throwing away half a glass of water I’d just requested. I’d already begun to regret the decision of having asked for it, but I no longer felt parched. I climbed back into my window seat, holding the cup, which I didn’t drink from immediately. Eventually, I drank all of it. Now, time passed, and it seemed we were only an hour and a half from the new country. Forms were distributed. I ate someone else’s order of a low-cal fruit and cereal breakfast. The need to use the bathroom resurfaced, as it had been there all along.

The plane shook from turbulence. Announcements of congratulation were made that we had come all of this way together, that we were very near, that the flight had gone well, that the flight attendants were happy to have served us, that everyone was happy we had chosen their airline, that we were welcome back, that we would arrive within a set of minutes divided from hours that were fractions of days and of years, and thus of lives.

The plane landed.

Outside there were men and women, workers dressed in a particular way, with a particular skin tone, speaking to one another in a language. Through the window, cleared of atmospheric dew by my hands, I looked out at the frosty climate that had something and nothing in common with the ice that had been in my plastic cup.

I was here.


John M. Keller is author of Abracadabrantesque, a novel, recently released from Dr. Cicero Books, and the story collection, A Bald Man With No Hair. Read Excerpt 1 of “Local People” here.

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