Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Flight Attendant

"The view of the sea is simply beautiful," she said, "Where are we again?"

Negril. Jamaica.

"Oh, right. Just beautiful, the turquoise sea and the white powder beach. Calm, peaceful, warm. Just a wonderful way to begin each morning, a view like this."

Eleanor had criss-crossed the United States more times than she could count, spent short turn-around visits in Copenhagen, Paris, Madrid, throwing her body clock into a tailspin. But she had never been to the Caribbean and it took a while to adjust to the slow pace. No, wait, she'd been to Puerto Rico a while back -- does that count? Not sure, but certainly never to Jamaica before now.

"So, tell me," I said, "Coffee, tea or me? Is that really the life of a flight attendant?"

She just smiled and shook her head, a little embarrassed. "No," she said, "my job is to calm passengers, make certain they are comfortable during their flight, particularly the first-time flyers. Be a calm, soothing presence, and assist in the event of an emergency." She glanced over at her husband and turned back to me. "No, no passenger could ever distract me from the man I chose." She smiled again.

But she wasn't typical of the sort of flight attendant I'd gotten used to over the years. You know the type -- the career airline employee, a bit irritated that the public saw them as glorified waitresses or waiters who tended to our request for a pillow or a gin and tonic. They gave you the impression that you were 20th on the list of more important obligations but yes, they would take care of you. They struck me as no-nonsense gophers with a chip on their shoulder. Their training is not in the finer points of serving cocktails but in managing a hoard of anxious travelers in the event of an emergency.

A task that they are, thankfully, rarely called upon to do.

It must be frustrating for the most important aspect of your job to occur only in the event of a disaster, no? Eleanor saw even the more benign responsibilities to be a pleasure. She liked patting the hand of a fretful flyer, steadying others through the stomach-churning bouts of turbulence, giving her passengers a warm, genuine and reassuring smile.

It was as if she were from a by-gone era.

Eleanor and her husband would sleep late each day in Negril, eat breakfast at a beach-front table and then relax on the chaise lounges. Occasionally she would play a game of solitaire while her husband would read an action-adventure novel at her side. He would chide her when she cheated -- "NO, you can't shuffle the cards each time before turning them over, Eleanor" -- but, seriously, it's not as if this were Las Vegas. She'd glance at me with a questioning look -- I'd smile back at her, and whisper, go ahead and shuffle. Who cares if you win or lose, cheat or not? It's called Solitaire, after all, not Couple-a-Taire.

Win if you want to win. You're on vacation. She'd turn towards me and quietly shuffle the cards.

One afternoon Eleanor sat alone on a bench at the water's edge. It was an old varnished wooden bench that used to occupy a space in the beach front bar. The staff had dragged it out to the water's edge, under a sagging old palm tree, to sit atop some chunks of concrete in the sand. With the bench in place, no one would stumble or hurt themselves on the half-buried concrete and it provided a nice shady spot to sit under the palm while the sea lapped at your toes. Eleanor watched as her son splashed around in the sea.

A young shirtless Jamaican dreadlock approached Eleanor at the bench and began his lyrics. A bit of local small talk. Eleanor, of course, was polite and smiled. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a long, thick dried "bud" of local produce and handed it to Eleanor, a "gift for milady". Not quite sure what to do with it, Eleanor tucked it into the top of her swimsuit, said thank you, and looked back out to her son in the sea.

The young dreadlock then began his sales pitch, demanding money from Eleanor for his "gift."

"A high-grade bud, milady, yuh haffi give me a munny fi dat. Gimme a grand nuh," he demanded.

Eleanor was confused. It appeared to her that this young man had handed her a dried-out old plant and then wanted "a thousand dollars" in exchange. "What? What do you mean?" she stammered. "I, I don't have any money. I don't understand..." Her smile faded. She became anxious and scanned the beach behind her for her husband.

The dread became more aggressive, more demanding and raised his voice. He wanted his money. Eleanor's son came to her rescue.

Her son, David, now in his 40s, knew that bringing his aging mother to Jamaica would be both a gift to her but also a labor of love. Her short-term memory had almost completely evaporated. Each day she asked, "where are we again?" She greeted me each morning with a warm smile but never remembered my name. She could never remember the rules of solitaire.

David spoke quietly but firmly to the dread, warning him that if he ever approached his mother again, he would "drop him to the sand". How dare he try to take advantage of an 80-year-old woman whose mind was failing? Were their no limits to the Jamaican beach hustle?

Eleanor smiled at David as the dread quickly skipped up the beach, the uncomfortable encounter already forgotten.

"The view is so lovely, David. Where are we again?"

"Negril, mom. Negril, Jamaica."

The Flight Attendant's Palm
Ink and watercolor on paper
Print available here.


Anonymous said...

I love your stories, Victoria!

megh said...

And so do I. Glad they are coming back. BUT where is the Flight attendant's palm; or is it the tree? Guess I'm a tad dense tonight.

The Real Sister K said...

I hope Ellis will do the same for me when I am in that situation. I can see it coming in the not so distant future. Ho Ho!!