So after my recent visit to Karli’s, I go online to print out my boarding pass and pick my seat. The whole plane is open! I can click on 1A if I want to. There’s an anxious moment, like at the theater when zero seats are claimed and you wonder: “Who picked this stinky movie anyway?” But I claim a window seat, kiss my grandkids Kira and Katrina goodbye, and motor back to Birmingham Airport.
The lady at Alamo sees me coming and springs to her feet, smothering me in an embrace. “Thank you for renting with us!” I swear she’s almost crying. Then she adds: “Want to keep the car another week, mister? Please?”
“Um, I’ve really got to get home,” I stammer.
“But . . . you’re our only customer the last three days.” She glances at the board with all the keys dangling from it. “How about a Lincoln Navigator?”
I shake my head.
“Just four bucks a day. Plus Fred will drive for you.” She whistles to a guy in the back who was doing a crossword. “Fred! You can drive for this guy, right? You got nothing.”
“I honestly do have to get back to my job,” I manage. “Five classes to teach.”
“How about . . . two-fifty? Two bucks fifty a day for a Lincoln, and we pay for all the gas. You sure you can’t stay another week?” she adds in a tremulous voice.
I finally extricate myself from her embrace and flee to the terminal. I go in . . . and holy cow. THE PLACE IS EMPTY. Ghost town. Like they’ve rented it out for an apocalyptic movie shoot and the crew hasn’t arrived yet.
“Yikes,” I murmur to myself. “There really is a Rapture. And looks like I got left behind.”
It’s a scary thing to be in an absolutely abandoned terminal. I peek at my cell phone and have texts from all three of my brothers. So if the Rapture has indeed taken place, the Smith family’s account with God is badly in arrears. I glance up at a TV monitor and see Laura Ingraham interviewing Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Mike Pence on Fox News, so at least they were left behind too.
Now things get dicey. I get to the security queue and twelve TSA agents leap to their feet. “We got one!” the lead guy yells. “Guys! Back to work!” They come at me with evident enthusiasm, pent-up energy to spare.
“No, um, it’s just . . . I’m nobody,” I remonstrate. But this crew is eager for something to do. One gets out a screwdriver and some cotton swabs and began to disassemble my carry-on; two others are fishing in a medical cabinet and I wince as one of them begins to tug on a pair of latex gloves, the kind doctors wear when a guy over the age of sixty goes in for his physical.
Seven unpleasant minutes later I squish my way over to gate 12A. There are literally zero passengers waiting there, and I cool my heels for about twenty minutes.
The lady finally picks up the microphone. “We’re ready for preboarding our morning flight to Phoenix and then Ontario,” she announces, looking vacantly past me at absolutely nothing. “Anyone with young children, or if you need some extra time getting down the jetway . . .”
Wait wait wait. Three minutes later: “We’re ready now to board our first-class passengers,” she broadcasts to the empty air all around me.
Wait wait wait. At last she fixes me with an impatient gaze. “Okay, Mr. Smith, now you can board.”
I scoot past her and onto the plane, and again, what a surreal feeling to walk onto this absolutely barren bird. The two pilots squint at me, and I can almost read their thoughts. Really? All the way to California just for this lumpy guy?
Still, it’s a nice feeling to scamper down the aisle unimpeded. I grab my window seat, stretch myself out to hog the whole row and get my Kindle ready. A few minutes later the attendant launches into her canned safety script. “Should the cabin experience a sudden drop in pressure, oxygen masks will appear. If you’re traveling with small children . . .” She catches herself, blushes, and chucks the life vest into an overhead bin.
We scoot down the runway at a lively clip, and wow, when there’s only one passenger on board, a 737 really darts into the air. We leave terra firma at a disquieting 70-degree angle and as I fumble for my airsick bag (hey, I’ve got 230 of them to pick from), I make a note to add this anecdote as a quiz for my trig class.
Less than three minutes later, we’re already cruising at 34,000 feet, but perhaps half an hour in, the plane makes a noticeable dip, almost a dive like at a Blue Angels air show. Huh? The attendants are gossiping in the back of the plane, and I half-rise out of my seat. “What’s going on?” I shrill.
The older one shrugs. “The captain’s got a girlfriend in Dallas.”
“What? We’re stopping off to see her? Isn’t that against FAA rules?”
All he does, though, is descend to about three hundred feet, fly right over her condo, and dip his wings. I see a perky blonde about by the backyard swimming pool waving a blue towel with a Cowboys logo and holding aloft a beer mug.
Let me tell you, it’s exhilarating to be going 575 miles an hour when you’re a bare 300’ off the ground! Way up in the stratosphere you don’t really sense the velocity, and this is like a roller coaster ride. I gape at the traffic and near misses as the pilot scoots in between skyscrapers like in a Harrison Ford thriller.
“Don’t the guys in the control tower get mad when you do something like this?” I asked the attendant.
She blows a bubble with her gum. “Nah.” Pop! “There ain’t but one guy on duty at DFW, and I know for a fact he does Sudoko puzzles most of his shift.” She made a gesture out the window. “Look for yourself. We’re the only plane up here.”
Her chance remark gives me an idea. I undo my belt and ease toward the cockpit. The captain’s in an effusive mood by now, buoyed by his girlfriend’s towel wave. “What can I do you for, oh valued customer?”
“Well, look,” I stammer. “I live in Highland, just above Redlands. Can you guys maybe just drop me off there? It’s a forty-minute drive to Ontario.”
All of a sudden, this suburb-buzzing flyboy is all business again. “Can’t do that. Schedule has us going into Phoenix, then Ontario.” He peers at a screen. “I guess we could skip Phoenix now that you mention. Nobody on the passenger list.”
“But . . . where would we put down?”
I think hard. “How about just . . . right on Baseline Avenue? It’s three lanes each direction,” I add hopefully.
“You kidding? Nada.”
The guy actually ponders it. Forty minutes later he calls me back to the cockpit and gives me the bad news. “We got no passengers in Ontario, so I’d almost be willing to go for it.” He points to a gauge. “But hey. We really do need to top off our tanks before heading back to Bama.”
I sag, and the copilot gives me a sympathetic look. “I imagine your wife’s already on the way to the airport to pick you up.”
I glance out the window, and sure enough. Nosing westward on the I-10 freeway I can see Lisa’s little blue Chevy Spark. It’s the only car on the entire Interstate.
The pilot gives her a cheery honk and my wife looks up, startled, then waves at the three of us.