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The Illustrated Man

by Jim Tritten

It had been a hard day. I downed one of those pills that would make me relax. Well, maybe two–what a day. The chairs in the Phoenix film studio had been uncomfortable. Thank goodness it’s only a short evening flight to Albuquerque. I walked through the cabin closing in on seat 24B. Should be ahead on the right. An aisle seat. I can finally stretch my legs. Easy access to the lavatory. Perhaps someone interesting to chat with. Someone to help me take my mind off the terrorist movie plot we worked on. Perhaps that rather unusual-looking….

The first thing I noticed was his sweaty bald head as he mopped it with a white paper napkin. He looked up and we made eye contact. I smiled politely. In return, his wide grin revealed a gold front tooth. He turned back to his submarine sandwich, stuffing the remainder into his mouth, while crumbs and condiments rained down on his lap.

I swung into my seat and immediately smelled grilled onions. I looked over at the bald man in the adjacent window seat. Grease drooled from his lips, down his chin and onto his black t-shirt. Just my luck there’s no seat between us. The white napkin returned to his pate, and he again wiped sweat. Perspiration saturated the paper.

I craned my neck searching for an empty seat. The flight attendant confirmed my fears when she announced. “This flight is completely full.” I looked to my left and pretended to watch the ground crew out the window as the plane rolled backward. The bald man was probably in his early thirties. No facial hair like my own. Oh! Tattoos. How did I miss these?

They ran up from his back onto his neck, reaching up to the base of his skull. Reminded me of wisteria climbing the base of a giant oak. More crept down from the short sleeves of his t-shirt, practically obliterating any view of unmarked skin. They were mostly blue ink, with a smattering of red intertwining the designs and words. His powerful, greasy fingers sported a variety of polished steel rings. One featured a skull and crossbones.

“Good evening, this is your captain. The flight to Albuquerque will take forty-five minutes. We expect clear skies and no turbulence.”

Really? Not from where I sit. I reached up and turned on the air conditioning, shifting the flow to the left ever so slightly so as not to draw attention. I tightened my seatbelt and clenched my jaw. I looked to my left, and avoided direct eye contact. Grease continued to drip down from his lips. The single gold tooth shone as he smiled. Then he coughed into the formerly-white napkin and I could see green chunks of what were probably either chiles or jalapenos.

The engines roared and we rolled forward on the runway. The illustrated man scrunched up the greasy tan paper that had held his sandwich and the napkin he had used to wipe on his bald head. He deposited them into the magazine pouch in front of his knees and wiped his hands on his shirt. First the palms. Then the backs and then each finger. His biceps and forearms were well-developed. Muscles flexed as they worked under the illustrated skin.

I closed my eyes and stroked my mustache as we lifted off into the moonlit skies.

After reaching cruising altitude and being alerted it was safe, I saw the chrome studs of the man’s leather trousers reflected the overhead reading lights. His trouser legs were tucked into high black leather boots. A slack, polished chain ran down the side of the trousers, affixed by a bolt screwed into the heel of his boot.

The man was holding a large smart phone. He held it close to his face. If I pushed my head back into my seat, I could detect he was playing some kind of game. The red wallpaper on his phone had a black circle in the center. Inside this circle there was a white design–blocked from view by the game. My eyes widened and gut tightened as I realized the tips of the design in four distinct corners were clearly the edges of a white swastika inside the black circle.

My mind raced as I searched my memory for what I knew about the Aryan Brotherhood. Which tattoo is awarded after the initiate kills his first victim? The illustrated man is a paid killer. Yeah, that’s it. I knew we all went through the TSA security check. He doesn’t have a weapon on him right now. But why would the agents allow an obvious killer like this to get on the plane. Don’t we have the right to sit in safety?

Maybe the game was a ruse and what he’s actually doing is planning a mass murder. Or is he planning my murder? He probably knows a dozen ways to kill me in my seat. He could put a knife between my ribs and deflate one of my lungs. No, he can’t have a knife on the plane. But if he takes one of his thick arms and reaches around my back, he could snap my spine.

I moved as far over to the right in my seat as I could, closed my eyes again, only to be enveloped in total silence, blackness, and the smell of caramelized onions.

The bump of the landing brought me back to consciousness as the plane touched down. The plane taxied into the ramp area and after it stopped, I bolted from the plane down the aisle to safety. I raced down the corridors of the terminal, aware of the internal pressure directing me to find the nearest toilet. I planned to stay in the bathroom until everyone had left the terminal.

After a longish visit, I emerged from the bathroom. In front of me, walking across my field of vision and straight to the top of the escalator was the illustrated man.

The man was holding hands with a beautiful, tall woman about his age. She was slim and wore flowers in her long blonde hair, which flowed freely in waves as she chattered. She wore a pale blue and white dress that danced in rhythm with her steps.

Five young towheads giggling and laughing bobbed for attention. They skipped alongside the couple toward the escalator–flowers and toy bears in their arms.

One of the little tykes pointed at me, grimaced, and cried. The tall blonde woman glanced at me, picked up the child and hugged it as they continued forward. I heard her say, “He’s probably a nice man. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge.”

 

“The Illustrated Man” won a Gold Medal for 1st Place in the 2016 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.