“Look at that bunch. Tell me, are those people you’d be comfortable dying with?"
Strange question. I have no answer. So I hand him his scone, blueberry, and his change, sixty-five cents. But he lingers. Still fifteen minutes until he boards and becomes the flight attendants’ problem. For now, I guess, he’s mine.
“That’s what I ask myself whenever I fly. I look at my fellow passengers and I say, ‘Billy, worse case scenario: would you be okay falling from the sky and meeting your maker with these folks?’”
This is graveyard shift. This is Molly’s Muffins, a coffee-stand in the international terminal. It’s rare to work in the service industry and have no regular customers. But here people come and go. From everywhere and to everywhere and at all times and I never serve the same person twice.
“You know,” he says. Pretty much a monologue by now. Couldn’t call this a conversation. “People always say, ‘you’re born alone and you die alone.’ But that needn’t be true. Me for instance, I have a twin. And if I die in a plane crash, I’ll have proven the exception to both rules.”
Can I get him with anything else, I ask. He stares off at the crowd. “They seem alright,” he says.
Working nights, sleeping days. You fall out of rhythm with the rest of the world. I never see my friends anymore. Same for family. I can’t catch the primetime television lineup and I eat my dinner at eight in the morning. I’ve lost touch. I no longer empathize with the problems of day dwellers. So when some cranky old lady, red-eyed and sleepless, moans something awful about our over-priced water bottles, I care so little I don’t even try to justify it.
“Four dollars! Four dollars for water! It falls from the sky for Chrissakes. And you’ve got the nerve to charge four dollars. This is one hell-of-a racket.”
After the summer 2006 revelation that terrorists had planed to blow up transatlandic flights with chemicals smuggled aboard in water bottles, all outside liquids were confiscated at the security checkpoint. In the wake of this development, my manager inflated the price of bottled water an extra buck fifty. So yeah, it’s a racket
“This is robbery. I ought to call the police. Ugh! How do you sleep at night?”
But of course, I don’t sleep at night. “Ma’am,” I say. “There’s a water fountain near the restroom. Maybe you can find an empty bottle in the recycling bin and fill it up.”
“You’d have me root around in the trash like a bag lady? My Lord! You people are despicable…” And on and on she went. Until finally, she ponied up four dollars for the bottle. They always pony up the four dollars.
When the sun starts its rise, my stomach turns. The clear, cool morning forms underneath the dense night. No more mystery. All is laid bare.
And waiting for my shift to expire, I find myself privy to a thorough explanation of the benefits of child dentistry. “Another thing, they don’t have coffee breath. Oh man. Back when I dealt with adults, used to drive me ill. Reminded me of grandma’s kisses.” And while he says this, I should point out, he’s finishing his third cup. Forty-five minutes into his layover.
“Oh oh oh,” he starts so suddenly. “I almost forgot the best part. Baby teeth! When the kids start coming to me, I don’t even pay attention. Cavities? Who gives a shit. Those are just practice teeth.”
I shrug. “And when the baby teeth pop out,” he taps at his chompers with his index fingers. “Then I have half a mouth worth of work. Fucking cake walk. And my hygienist does the lion’s share. Most of the day I’m in the back, dicking around on the computer.”
Across the terminal, my daytime replacement has arrived. She walks through the metal detector and past the newsstand. “Ha ha. And all these suburban mommies, I can charge whatever I like. Nothing’s too much for their babies.”
And I reach in the drawer and pull out my timecard. My sunglasses. I punch out. Grab a danish for the road. And behind me, as I work through the terminal’s morning crowd, I hear, “Four dollars! Who the hell do you think you are?"