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DULUTH by Andrew Higgins

The plane fulfills its purpose: we are no longer ascendant. The engine winds down smoothly, a game show loss sort of draining. The tarmac is ice-sheathed but our skid in was mild. Men outside in reflective gear gesture meaningfully towards the hull, and we look at them through the ovular windows with a small, first-world pity. My body is still hallucinating movement at six-hundred miles per hour.

We are all seated uncomfortably, waiting for permission, exchanging mild sentiments until we can get off. The thin fury of air-conditioning is louder than before. The seatbelt chime rings, finally, and we all jolt to our feet. It’s a group-rise, liturgical. We’re hunched under the rounded ceilings, staring into our respective middle distances. The plane seems to close in on us as we stand in needless silence. The reek of a changed diaper leaking into the cabin. Benign mechanical screeches issuing from under our feet. Nearby someone’s belly croaks long with hunger. We’re a fuselage of bodies, wanting to get off.

The woman seated beside me, stringy-haired and jumpy, was telling me about comparative taxes rates in Ireland, where she lives now with her husband because of his job. “They take half!” She exclaimed quietly. “Half!” Her voice was nasally but reassuring, an accent I haven’t heard for a while. I can’t guess her age. She has that life-long waitress sheen, tight-skinned, wide-eyed, always chewing gum.

A man leans over his seat, giving us both a world-weary look. Balding, wide-set predatory eyes, his collar yellowing a little after our red-eye from New York. Our eyes meet and we raise our eyebrows at one another, a way of greeting. We are open.

“Ya know,” he says to neither of us in particular, “it’s not much better here in the States. Between state and federal, my 401k, and health insurance—my one kid’s special needs—it comes out to over 50% of my take-home, too.”

The woman glances up to me for confirmation.

I say, “That’s about right.”

Her face goes gloomy. She seems to be burdened by some previously unknown woe. “Ya know,” she says in a vaguely didactic tone, “a lot of kids are turning up autistic these days. I tell ya, I saw on the news that it has something to do with all these WIFI signals in the air!” Her eyes fall to her lap and she shakes her head, a look of pale distress on her face. “You just never heard of that autism before this whole online thing.” I realize as she says this that she’s much older than I’ve guessed.

“Oh, my son doesn’t have autism,” the man begins apologetically. “Tommy’s mentally retarded.”

Good afternoon passengers. This is your captain speaking. Looks like it’s a cloudy sixty-four degrees outside…

There is a silence that the woman beside me obviously wants to fill. “Well,” the woman starts in a vaguely conspiratorial tone, “if it weren’t for Comrade O-BA-ma’s health care plan…Plus! these government people with their federal salaries and pensions and benefits!” She shakes her head again, this time, at a world bent on specific fiscal waste.

The man dips his chin towards me, looking for the third side to our burgeoning revolt. “What do you do for work?”

I look at my feet.

“I’m a consultant, with the GSA.”

They both find a variation of frown-smile at this, and a feeling arises that we’ve all sort of had enough of each other.

The door opens and the plane is depressurized, an entirely controlled danger. We all descend into the small barbarism of hasty disembarkation. Bins are pried open. Bags are ripped out. I am pushed, I push back, and no one acknowledges it. Wordless negotiations take place between opposite sides of the aisle. Each of us has our own reveries and despairs and we wear them on our faces. The passengers all enter the terminal as a dissipating community, and we fuse as individuals into a larger faceless crowd. We will abandon all knowledge of each other: we are, above all, strangers.

Duluth is convinced it’s coming up in the world. This is my hometown, but I’m disoriented in the new terminal. welcome to the james l. oberstar terminal runs across an exterior skyway. It was built recently in memoriam of a late-senator, a Democrat, and I recalled this only dimly because my Republican parents say his name with offhand venom. I walk past a pseudo-luxury coffee house, local displayed prominently on the signage (although the coffee is neither grown nor roasted here in Minnesota). There’s a full British pub next door, its ruddy baroque wooden panels bleached out by the sunlight coming in through the wall-sized windows. Next, a languid young man, dark and vaguely foreign, coughs and offers me pink salt from The Dead Sea.

Travel noises. Intercoms, electric doors, the hushed tension of people moving toward destinations. I turn towards the baggage carousel, following a sign. The slow tide of traffic outside. A few passengers’ families have paid the one-hour parking fee to greet them indoors. I see the man hug the son he described and a few others who share his general traits. I am enjoying the sight of this, hardened by the city I now live in—one of the elite coastal bastions. Then the woman from the flight waddles up to my side. She peers at me, wide-eyed. I can see that she’s waiting to tell me a secret. I raise my eyebrows, a gesture of openness, and she begins speaking from the side of her mouth. “I can’t believe they say that about their own kids!”

“Say what?” I ask, confused.

Re-tard,” she whispers, casting a look to each side. “That’s like saying the N-word!

The word hangs in the air. I realize she’s come to misunderstand autism as some sort of PC term for mental retardation. Given her feelings about taxes and health care, I find this consideration mildly ironic. Bags begin thudding down onto the conveyor belt, and the silence her statement has engendered, I realize, belongs to neither of us. Goshes and darnits and hons fill the air. I part ways with my seatmate now and wish her a Merry Christmas. This is my tribe, what I came for.

I am home.

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