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The Questionnaires

by Bill Teitelbaum

Part 1 appears in this issue.


Overall, then, inured as they were to obstacles of all kinds, a slim majority of the passengers simply dismissed the questionnaires as relatively minor impositions. Surely this was not the worst that could happen on a plane, and the loopy vagueness of the questions tended to render the whole situation rather trivial.

Does spelling count, really? Does neatness?
Do good things come to those who wait?

Indeed, it may have been this very triviality that seemed to sap people of their indignation, and the longer the aircraft bumped along the taxiway, the more vacant of significance the matter seemed to become. It was as if one might have preferred the urgency of a true disaster: a fuel leak, a crash at sea, a cockpit struggle, or perhaps one of those harrowing piracies you saw videotaped from time to time, granular, rain-spotted, the victim-aircraft isolated on the runway, silhouetted figures flitting at the portholes, occasionally an awful flare of light, more harrowing in its silence than the gunshot it represented. Over everything, the grim gibberish of the reporters. But, like almost all of life in general, little here of any real importance seemed to be at stake, and therefore most of the passengers were willing to comply with the situation simply for the sake of being done with it.

As a practical matter you didn’t endure duckbites like these because they made any sense, and you certainly didn’t take exception to them personally or on grounds of principle, since there would have been no end to that. Real issues were matters of personal relevance, and since most people were doing moderately well, if only in a conditional and rather desperate way, the rational approach to absurdity was to dispense with it as expeditiously as possible. This was also considered the healthy thing, and generally it was agreed that health was the important thing.

Sooner or later the aircraft would take off or, at worst, it would simply return to the gate and, at that point, the better informed of the passengers would take up the matter with their attorneys. Indeed, not a few of the passengers looked forward to the opportunity; federal policy was quite clear on the subject of tarmac delays. In the meantime, most were fairly certain that within a week this particular morning’s vicissitudes would be overtaken by others like water closing over itself so that in time none of it would really matter.

But if that were the case, the objectors replied, then the situation didn’t matter now, either, did it? And clearly this wasn’t the case, since how could anyone say this didn’t matter?

As one might have expected, most of these objections were sounded in coach, which seemed to represent most of democracy’s deficiencies, but small pockets of resistance seemed to be forming among the twelve passengers in business class as well, and there was little doubt both forward and aft that among the questionnaire-friendly majority there were several passengers who were growing frankly irritated by the endless dithering the questionnaires seemed to elicit from some people.

Not that those objectors weren’t entitled to their point of view, their opponents conceded, but why should they be permitted to impose their foolishness on everyone else? For the imposed-upon this seemed only a further injustice. Besides, they said, the longer those troublemakers were indulged, the more likely they were to infect the others.

It was as if they knew who the holdouts were, and the immediate sense of polarization this precipitated put everyone on notice. Some of the passengers tried simply to sleep through the situation, hoping that in their absence as it were, the problem would resolve itself that much sooner, but the moment’s suspension wouldn’t permit them to relax. There was no rhythm to adopt, no comforting motion with which they might fall into phase. People would close their eyes and adjust their breathing, but surrendering to indifference felt suddenly perilous, producing a sensation like strange hands rooting in their pockets, and far from easing into sleep, they were only moved to grip their seat cushions more tightly with their buttocks.

Even the flight’s most experienced travelers, people who cultivated tolerance and resilience as professional necessities, had to wonder if some critical line had been crossed, and whether it wasn’t time now to consider early retirement, or perhaps launching some home-based business they might operate in their pajamas.

Given everyone’s escalating anxiety, it wasn’t surprising that dense queues had formed by now in both cabins to use the restrooms, filling the aisles and looming over the passengers now trapped in their seats, with the result that everyone, both standing and seated, felt more vulnerably conspicuous.

The crowded aisles also made it difficult for the port and starboard seats to communicate with each other, so it might have been one o’clock in the afternoon before everyone aboard had become aware that Flight 1155 was no longer part of the departure queue, which was now visible from the starboard ports as a conga-line rolling steadily along the taxi-path and then wheeling diagonally plane by plane to take off along the main runway.

Triangulating mentally, and referring to the airport map at the back of their in-flight magazines, the more cartographically proficient of the passengers inferred that Flight 1155 was now probably stalled somewhere between the Air National Guard base north of the control tower and the municipal acreage leased to the air-taxi service where most of the community’s private aircraft were hangared.

Wherever they were, though, stalled was stalled, and if the passengers had been angry before, now even their boredom had a serrated edge to it. For many this state of having empty and rudderless time on their hands may have been the one thing they had always struggled to avoid. Life wasn’t a noun for them, it was a verb, a vector, mobile and deliberate, yet any hope these Sunday travelers may have entertained until now about salvaging some portion of the weekend for themselves, or getting a jump on the workweek ahead, had evaporated with the failure of the flight to depart as scheduled.

“How can they do this to us?” people demanded of each other and, since ventilating one’s anger is always more satisfying than nursing a baffled impotence, for perhaps half an hour Flight 1155 experienced what seemed to be a second wind.

Convinced that meaningful relief could be expected from neither the airline nor one another, the passengers ferociously redoubled their solitary efforts to make their distress known to the outside world, a process some would compare later to charging headlong into a wall of aspic.

Nevertheless, vast networks of colleagues, friends and family members who had been contacted hours earlier by phone were now blandished again by passengers demanding to know what was happening, only to discover that the situation was substantially unchanged or perhaps a bit worse since, owing to the current call volume, estimated time to contact a service representative at the airport’s administrative offices was now pegged at forty minutes, while any mention of Flight 1155 triggered a synthesized robo-message reproduced here in its entirety as follows: “Flight... eleven... fifty... five... is... cleared for departure.”

Is love all you need?
Are you proud of your work?
Can you admit when you’re frightened?
Does anything make up for anything else?
Sometimes do you wish you were stupid?

It was all so bitterly disheartening for these otherwise capable men and women. None of them had actually done anything to warrant this abuse, yet each of them seemed determined to be accountable for the situation, perhaps in the way that nature abhors a vacuum, for everywhere one could hear pained expressions of regret, as if scheduling an earlier or perhaps a later flight might have spared them this experience.

Since none of this remorse had any real basis, however, all it yielded was a humbling melancholy that forbade people from taking their distress too seriously. If anything they seemed beyond relief, as if they were prepared now to accept anything that might happen to them.

Outside it was apparent that a cloud cover had moved in from the way the low sky had become indistinguishable from the flat gray of the airfield, a prairie of cement that seemed endless through the Perspex. But inside, too, the ambiance was gray and watery, a winter light like melted snow that made the overheads seemed lower.

Some of the passengers had their reading lamps on, but in the general murk these isolated and colorless holes of light seemed only to make the interior dullness all the grayer. Books and magazines, newspapers and various articles of clothing, all these seemed strewn anyhow, as if a general indifference had settled on the plane.

People slouched carelessly in their seats or stood awkwardly in place, leaning across the adjacent seatbacks, or stretched backward to release the cramps in their legs, but the anticipation of flight that had animated them at boarding had declined during the past several hours to a listless vacancy of expression. People looked eroded, as if dragged through gravel. They glanced emptily at one another as if there were nothing more to be expected.

The air itself seemed measurably heavier, a damp weight that could be felt on one’s skin, and its aromatic burdens of aviation fuel and stale peanuts gave the sodden air the feral notes of the pet-shop and nursing home, making everyone more vividly aware of the organisms sitting next to them.

Beneath bright clothes, one saw lungs softly bellowing, moist purplish valves popping open and closed. Swamp-like internal vistas appeared to the mind’s appalled eye where soft squirty little glands secreted their contents along wet reticulations of meat-colored piping.

Then, all at once, the restroom queue seemed to heave its full length in serial convulsion as its occupants struggled to reverse direction in response to the news that both aft restrooms had been taken out of service, owing probably to the inability of certain people to follow the disposal instructions.

A moment later, however, the captain had returned to the public address system and was now assuring everyone there was no cause for alarm. It had come to his attention that the aircraft’s restrooms needed to be serviced and, as a safety precaution, the plane would be towed out of harm’s way to a maintenance hangar on the other side of the field.

“Why don’t they take us back to the terminal?” someone asked, but almost immediately a brief jarring shook the plane as a small utility tractor engaged the landing gear at the aircraft’s nose. A moment later, it was towing the plane briskly along the airport perimeter toward a cluster of vacant hangars on the opposite side of the field. There the tractor veered the plane’s length perpendicular to the first of the hangars and then backed it slowly inside, a maneuver that caused a liquid shadow to advance back-to-front along the plane’s interior, as if a curtain were being drawn across its ports.

Yet far from alarming Flight 1155, this advancing darkness seemed to calm and reassure its weary occupants, perhaps the way dimming houselights encourage theater audiences to settle into their seats and, though absorbed by their grief, they seemed strangely content, as if frustration had restored them to familiar territory, deepening their sadness but at the same time instilling a comforting lethargy, a release of tension like surrendering to sleep.

Yet here and there aboard Flight 1155 there were vivid exceptions to this apathy, such as the contained excitement of Mr. Nathan Hemmings, an I-T consultant from Edison, New Jersey, who continued to anticipate the ulterior meaning of the day’s ordeal to reveal itself. Not that he had suffered more cruelly than anyone else but, like his fellow passengers, Mr. Hemmings felt brutalized arbitrarily and therefore considered it only right that the experience yield some compensating benefit.

Mr. Hemmings had been prone since childhood to negotiate these one-sided, essentially metaphysical transactions for the fairness they seemed to compel from an unfair world. In middle age, he continued to believe whatever he imagined. Things were much simpler for Mr. Hemmings this way, and more than anything else it was simplicity that he believed in. It was the same reason he believed in the existence of some god or creator, since this was easier than imagining a universe that had created itself.

Let it be said, too, that Mr. Hemmings was also willing to believe that nature’s presumed lawfulness might be merely an artifact of his own physical construction and that as a product of the universe he occupied, Mr. Hemmings had no choice but to see things the way he saw them; but experience had long ago convinced Mr. Hemmings that conjectures along those lines never yielded the simplicity he needed.

What had come of it all? Mr. Hemmings asked. What had been learned, or affirmed, or refuted? What had changed for any of these people? What did they know now that they hadn’t known before?

He looked down then and saw his folded questionnaire tucked into the seat-pocket in front of him, noting with some embarrassment that in his prior eagerness to comply with the captain’s request he’d neglected to answer the questions on the back page. As if to compensate for this oversight, he now considered these unanswered questions with particular care.

Are you punctual?
Do you pray?
Would you like to have your say?
Do you owe someone an apology?
Do you have a favorite sin?

Copyright © 2020 by Bill Teitelbaum

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