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Original artwork by Katie M. Zeigler

Lap Seat

Jimmy Lis


The undulating voice over the PA could have been Hungarian nursery rhymes for all Joyce knew. And she may have concluded as much, had she not been staring at the National Airlines gate attendant as he leaned over a pencil-thin microphone to make the garbled announcement.

Joyce stood off-kilter, leaning onto the extended handle of her luggage, just far enough from the gate to appear unruffled, yet close enough to reveal an anxiety about missing vital information. Her gray tweed skirt suit crunched lightly when approaching the attendants behind the counter, rolling bag in tow. She pushed her eyeglasses firmly into a thicket of withered, silver hair atop her head.

“I’m sorry,” she began, because she considered this a kind way to start any possible confrontation. “I couldn’t hear you clearly. Something about wheeled carry-on bags? . . .”

The gate attendant on her left—a gentleman of olive complexion and square jaw, nearly a head shorter than Joyce—looked up from his computer. The other attendant, an Amazonian blonde in an impossibly long red blazer, tilted her angular face downwards to offer a cheek-only smile. The male attendant addressed Joyce (and the perked ears of the dozen passengers within a vested radius) in a voice so resonant he seemed an altogether different person than he who had gargled into the microphone moments ago. 

“Yes, ma’am. Today’s flight is at half capacity. There are certain measures we must take to distribute our weight. First thing is to check the heavier carry-on bags under the plane, where our technicians will balance them appropriately.”

“Is it really so precise?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am. In fact, we’ll be making other announcements here shortly along the same lines,” he said.

“We’ll be on-time, won’t we? You can have my bag, but I can’t be late.”

“We ask that you listen for the announcements, ma’am. We should be on-time if everyone cooperates,” he said.

Now a fellow passenger who had listened to this exchange took three steps towards the counter, rolling his carry-on bag behind him. 

“Hi there. Bill Mulligan, Seventeen A.” With his right hand resting just above the beltline of his Levi’s, Bill paused, should they want to verify his information in the computer. He ran his left hand through the lopsided combover of brown hairs on his head, a habit that had likely accelerated his thinly-veiled baldness.

When no formal response regarding his identification was proffered, he continued, “I couldn’t help but hear what you told this kind woman about the bags. Thing is, I really need to keep my bag with me.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Mulligan, for this flight, anything larger than a backpack will have to be checked. It will go through to Minneapolis, free of charge,” the male attendant reassured him.

“Look . . . George,” a quick glance downwards revealed a nametag on the man’s chest, hanging perfectly perpendicular to his belt, “My son is going to be waiting for me to arrive, and . . . I can’t keep him waiting this time. Could you make an exception for one bag?”

“It’s for everyone’s safety,” said the Amazonian, Linda (her nametag required a steep climb for Bill’s eyes), in a tone as if she had anticipated stepping in a pile of dog shit, and with her next step, had done just that.

Bill Mulligan crossed his arms, produced an audible sigh for benefit of the official record, and raised his eyebrows in commiseration with his fellow passenger—the perplexed matronly type still standing at the counter with spectacles on her hair. He walked away knowing he had lost the battle, but not yet ready to cede his luggage. 

George leaned over the microphone once again, beginning his next announcement with a rumbling preamble. “Uhhhhh . . . For all hoes fying to Mini Apples, fight fee shen hee barding at gate firty-seven, peas note, once hen, our fight is awful gumass city . . . uhhhhh . . . we’ll need to move shirt and messengers to diffrun seat sign mints to balance weight. Hees dribble chick the new barding pass we hand you for your pop art seat occasion. Hank you.”

Joyce had scrunched up her eyes to concentrate. It didn’t work. She threw her arms up in frustration. 

Bill Mulligan returned. “I’m sorry, George,” he began. He was not at all sorry. “You said something about new seat assignments?”

“Yes, sir. We will need to move some seat assignments to balance the plane. When you scan your boarding pass, please wait a moment before proceeding. We may need to print you a new one,” replied George in a prosaic tone that made Bill Mulligan wonder if the man had been recruited by the airline for that very quality: his voice a warm blanket to wrap around weary travelers.

“What does this mean for our bags?” asked Bill.
“The larger bags still need to be checked and balanced properly under the plane, sir.”

“It’s for everyone’s safety,” chimed Linda. Bill searched the hardened expression on her face, but he lacked the fortitude to hold her gaze for more than a second. 

“It is imperative that we balance properly, sir. Thank you for your cooperation,” said George.

Joyce, whose arms had just finished their descent, threw them in the air once again with her question, “If it’s so ‘imperative’,” she added air quotes, “to balance the weight precisely, are we even safe to fly?”

“As long as we have your full cooperation, everything will be just fine, ma’am,” replied George.

From the row of gatehouse seats nearest the counter, a woman in an oversized Mizzou sweatshirt froze. From pleading with her young daughter to eat the wrapped bagel in her right hand while reproaching her son for drawing the outline of buttocks with permanent marker on her left hand, she stopped to lean forward towards the counter and ask, “Why would you say that?” Her ponytail stiffened in anticipation of an answer that would not come.

A man in wire-rimmed glasses seated in the row behind her dug into his backpack, pulled out a small pill, and swiftly chased it down his gullet with a swig from his water bottle. He leaned back in the cold plastic seat and hugged his backpack.

Joyce’s attention drifted to a woman two seats away from the man with the wire-rimmed glasses. She watched in awe as the young woman, computer open on her lap, typed away while chatting amicably on the cell phone wedged between her cheek and her shoulder. The woman’s shiny brown hair hung steadily at chin level, meticulously sloping to a point in front—the hairstyle of an assassin, which stayed bobbed in place despite the extreme angle of her hands-free phone arrangement. A wisp of steam rose from her paper cup of coffee in between sips. She placed the coffee on top of the chair handle next to her, a precarious resting place that Joyce knew would have spelled certain doom for herself, had she tried the same maneuver. The woman showed no concern for the PA announcements, engaged with typing, sipping, talking, and even laughing so pleasantly that Joyce closed her eyes, struck by a strange sense of envy for that laugh. 

“Meetings are one and two-thirty. Plenty of time to make it back to the airport for the five o’ clock flight. Mediterranean snack box. Four hundred and sixty calories. Thanks, Hon. If the taxi line is longer than twenty people, I’ll call you. If not, I should make it home by seven-fifty and I will kiss our little angel on his cheek before bedtime. Then if you can give me forty minutes to answer some work emails, and another thirty minutes to shower, I’ll see what I can do for my big boy, too. Okay? We’ll be asleep by ten. Perfect.”

Though Joyce didn’t like to stare, she did just that, probing the image of this woman for any similarity to herself, past or present. Nothing. Now that her own boys were out of the house, Joyce was almost certain to return home to Boyd asleep in his chair, curled up with the crackers and cheese dip on which he had subsisted in her absence. Staring at the young woman across the boarding area, Joyce suddenly doubted this whole trip. She was now convinced that the job would be given to someone else by the time she arrived for her interview.

Behind the counter, George paused his rhythmic typing at the computer for another announcement. 

“Ashnil Airlines udd hike to fank you fyor patience and for shoosing to fie with smorning. Fight fee shen hee barding at gate firty-seven with service to Mini Apples will now begin herding all five minority cussumers. All five minority cussumers are welcome to bard atthistime.”

Bill Mulligan looked at Joyce next to him for any indication that she had understood the message. He had flown enough times to understand that the First-Class passengers and rewards members boarded first, which most certainly did not include him. Nonetheless, he was relieved when she shrugged her shoulders and sighed deeply, confirming the same loose grasp on the messaging from the microphone less than ten feet in front of them.

Bill and his fellow flummoxed flyer watched the steady stream of passengers board, awaiting their respective turns. Except that Bill noticed something wasn’t quite right. So, he took two steps towards George at the counter (angling himself to avoid the disapprobation of the hulking Linda). 

“George, help me understand here. Why do I see the First-Class passengers rolling their luggage onto the bridge without getting a tag? Didn’t you just tell us that we all had to check our rolling bags for safety?”

“Those are Fly Priority, Elite Golds, and active military, sir,” said George.

Bill shrugged the demonstrative shrug of not understanding.

“We don’t have ‘First-Class,’ Mr. Mulligan. We have Fly Priority members and Elite Golds, who are boarding now. And we have invited active military passengers to board early as well.”

“But why don’t they have to check their bags?” asked Bill.

“We’ve already accounted for the weight of our Fly Priority bags, as well as the Elite Golds’ and our active military members who preregistered,” responded George with the same calm determination.

“But they’re all in the front of the plane. If the weight distribution is so crucial, shouldn’t they check their bags too?”

“They’re fighting for your freedom, sir!” interjected Linda from over Bill’s right shoulder so forcefully that he jerked his head to the left.

“The Elite Golds?” he asked.

“Sir, everything has been accounted for precisely, for the safety of you and everyone on board. Please step back from the counter until your group is called,” said George.

Bill Mulligan took two begrudging steps backwards, landing him in approximately the same space. Joyce, to his left, stared at the two gate attendants.

George returned to his microphone.

“Uhthistime, webby barding group main do. All messengers in barding group main do, welcome to bard.”

Joyce pulled her glasses down to her eyes and examined the paper ticket in her hand. “What group is boarding?” she yelled towards George and Linda, looking back and forth between the two in search of an answer. She had meant to apologize before she asked. Though she wasn’t sorry.

In a voice clear enough that his whisper could have carried the entire boarding area of gate thirty-seven, George said, “Main two is boarding now. If your ticket says, ‘Main Two,’ you are welcome to board.”

Joyce shot Bill Mulligan one last exasperated look, eyebrows atilt, before heading for the other side of the black nylon cordon and onto the plane.

When George made his next incoherent announcement, Bill stepped around to the other side of the cordon, not so much confident that it was the appropriate time for Boarding Group 3 as he was fed up with trying to decipher the announcements and anxious to move forward. Besides, he appeared to be one of the last passengers still at the gate.

As Bill approached, Linda was ready with a luggage tag. He held the black plastic handle of his bag a bit longer than he intended, just as he looked up into Linda’s eyes a moment longer than he meant to, then suddenly lost the nerve for both. She deftly looped the tag around the handle of his bag and looked past him to the next passenger. Bill swiped his ticket over the eye of the scanner and stepped towards the jet bridge with his bag, now displaying the gaudy white sticker of second-class citizenship. Immediately he lost himself in thought, pondering whether his boarding group also had some sort of cute name to make his lot in life more palatable—the Silver Sluggers or the Bronze Besties, perhaps—so much so that he hadn’t noticed the electronic eye of the ticket scanner wink at him and then beep loudly, mocking him with unwanted attention. 

“Sir,” called George. “Your new boarding pass.” George held the stiff rectangle of paper straight out towards Bill, like an epee poised to strike his heart. The few remaining passengers, the two attendants, and perhaps all of terminal C froze in place until Bill accepted the ticket. “Please pay close attention to your new seat assignment, sir.” 

Bill Mulligan lowered his head and shuffled unevenly down the cold jet bridge.

Halfway down, Bill peered back over his shoulder, as was his habit on a jet bridge. This desolate tunnel always unnerved him. When he walked it alone, a crushing feeling of solitude overcame him. He couldn’t shake that feeling for the entirety of the flight, no matter how short the walk, no matter how long the flight. Only upon landing at his destination and mixing in with the frenzied crowd at the airport would the feeling subside. But when he looked behind him and saw other passengers on his tail, accompanied by the ominous zipping sound of wheeled luggage rolling along the cold steel, he felt a tremendous anxiety that caused him to scuffle forward at a faster pace. Which, in turn, only enhanced the feeling that he was being pursued. This feeling could only be assuaged with his typical order for a virgin Bloody Mary. And for those God-forsaken flights that offered no beverage service, that feeling would roil in his chest until the plane landed and he found the level ground of the airport terminal under his feet once again.

This time, he heard no wheels. Yet, when he looked behind him, he saw the gate attendant Linda striding towards him with the long, deliberate steps of a giant clearing a dozen city blocks at a time. As he turned his head forward, his foot caught where one platform connected to the next, causing him to stumble briefly before righting himself. He hurried along to the open door of the plane, too embarrassed about losing his footing to turn around for the customary glare at the perpetrating section of floor.

With a quick nod to the pilot and the flight attendant standing at the front of the plane, Bill turned to the right to find his seat. Only then did he look down at his new boarding pass to find his seat assignment: 22B. Figures they would move me to the middle seat.

Glancing behind him as he made his way down the aisle, Bill saw the unmistakable long scarlet blazer of Linda. Reason could have assured him that she was one of the flight attendants joining them, but the way her massive frame blocked the door as Bill moved down the aisle, she appeared more bodyguard to the Kool-Aid man than cheerful addition to the service team.

As Bill approached 22B, he encountered a familiar face. He took a deep breath to brace himself for the forthcoming (and hopefully amiable) confrontation. 

“Hi there, Bill Mulligan, twenty-two B,” he stated plainly, as though the situation would resolve itself from there.

“Oh, yes, you were next to me at the gate, weren’t you? I’m sorry,” she said, then leaned closer, “but am I the only one who wanted rip off the microphone and beat that little man over the head with it? So hard to understand. I just want clear instructions, you know? After so many years of flying . . . It used to be easier, didn’t it? I’m Joyce, by the way, 22B. Or so I thought! Where’s my ticket?” Joyce patted down every conceivable pocket on her person before discovering the ticket in her left hand.

“Oh, my. I’m sorry. If my head wasn’t attached . . .” She dropped her glasses onto her nose and focused on the ticket. “Yep, I’m still twenty-two B, unless they forgot to give me a new boarding pass. Well, here’s the flight attendant.”

Linda’s shadow covered Bill and stretched another four rows beyond him. “Is there a problem, Mr. Mulligan?”

“Please, call me Bill. Mr. Mulligan’s my father,” quipped Bill with a practiced smile which slipped from his face upon the thud of attempted charm falling at Linda’s Sasquatchian feet. 

Somberly, then, he held forth his ticket to show Linda. “It looks like maybe you assigned us both the same seat.” 

“Okay. But your ticket here . . . Bill, is for twenty-two B, lap,” enunciated Linda.

“Lap? What the hell does that mean?” said Bill. And from the side of his mouth, towards Joyce, “Excuse my French.” Bill was not sorry. Nor could he speak a lick of French.

“It means, Bill, that this woman’s seat is twenty-two B and your seat is the lap of twenty-two B,” explained Linda like she was introducing simple arithmetic.

“Is that a nickname for one of the other chairs here? Are we doing fun ship words now? Am I sitting ‘port’ or ‘starboard’?”

“No, Bill. It’s the name of that area on our bodies between the waist and the knees,” said Linda.

Bill leaned his head all the way back, looked straight up at the ceiling, and uncorked a measured guffaw. “Okay! You guys got me.” He held his hands straight out in front of him, wrists together, surrendering for handcuffs. “You can tell the hidden camera crew to come out. Let’s wrap up the shenanigans! We all have places to go,” he said, as though he were taking back control of a raucous adolescent slumber party. “Enough with the horseplay” was on the tip of his tongue, but he restrained himself. “I’ll go ahead and take the aisle seat over on this side, since it looks like everyone’s on the plane now.”

“Bill,” Linda spat out in such an exacting tone that Bill froze mid-air in a crooked kind of squat. “The seat assignments have been chosen carefully by our technical team to ensure proper weight distribution, and thus the safety of everyone on board. As you were informed before getting on the plane.” 

Slowly straightening himself, Bill said, “You’re not serious.” It wasn’t a question. He was merely reassuring himself. “Obviously, I’m not going to sit in someone’s lap, like I’m an infant. I’m a fifty-eight-year-old man. And it’s not my first time flying. This is not how this goes. You want me to take the window seat, or move back a row or two, fine. Maybe . . .” he said, building up steam, “you want to reshuffle some of that First-Class baggage instead of hassling me. I paid for my ticket to have a seat just like everyone else here!”

“We don’t have ‘First-Class’,” Linda reminded him.

“Okay, the Gold Berets, or whatever you call the fat cats sitting up there, each with their own seat, with plenty of room in the overhead compartments for their baggage! Meanwhile, you’re back here trying to make me sit on top of this poor woman. What in Christ’s sake?!”

During the festering seconds of Bill’s wordless, heated breathing that followed, the passengers in the rows behind him all seemed to start murmuring at once. A few of the Fly Priority or Elite Gold passengers from the front glared back at the scene and whispered among themselves. Bill Mulligan didn’t have the disposable income to even guess the kind of statements exchanged in front of that curtained line of demarcation, but he could feel their sting from twenty rows away. An especially sharp dagger came from under the hood of an assassin’s haircut, turned 180 degrees in her seat to stare at the dysfunction in coach; the troubles she witnessed as foreign to her as baggy jeans were to Bill Mulligan. 

Passengers in Bill’s periphery conspicuously checked the time on their watches. The man with the wire-rimmed glasses in 34A reached into the backpack he hugged, took out another pill and popped it in his mouth, without taking his eyes off of the irate passenger and the monstrous flight attendant standing in the aisle. 

Next to the spectacled man, a female voice: “Did he not hear the announcements?” And a male passenger near her posited more loudly in Bill’s direction: “It’s about the weight distribution! They have to balance properly!”

Bill heard it all. But through the cloud of steam rolling from his nostrils, his eyes remained laser-focused on the flight attendant. “This is ridiculous. I’m going to talk to your boss. Who is your manager, Linda?”

“If you think my boss takes safety any more lightly, you’re welcome to try her. You can ask for her contact information back at the gate. But this plane is leaving, with you sitting in your assigned seat or without you.”

“We all have assigned seats, man!” shouted a young male voice from the vicinity of 40E.

“Yours isn’t in someone’s lap!” Bill shouted back in the direction of the unseen heckler. 

“How long is the flight?” asked Joyce through a deep sigh. 

“You can’t be serious,” said Bill, looking back down at her.

“Bill, this is the last flight that gets to Minneapolis in time for my interview,” said Joyce with glazed eyes that looked right through him. “There were no other interview times available. I already tried, because . . .” She looked down at her lap. “Because I needed all the time I could get.” 

Taking a deep breath and looking back up at Bill, she said, “We’re adults here, right? And you look like you’re . . . a fit young man. And I’m stronger than I look, Bill,” Her tone was firmer at this last part. “You won’t crush me.”

“I’ll just get off the plane. I’ll just have to explain to my son why I’m late. Hopefully, he’ll understand.”

Bill ran his fingers through his wispy brown hairs.

“I’m sure I can find a flight on another airline,” he scowled at Linda. “An airline where they haven’t lost their minds,” he continued. “Or I’ll just rent a car. What is it, eight hours?” He did not wait for an answer; this brainstorming session was solely for his own benefit. “Won’t have any laps in there but my own.”

Linda looked down at him, unfazed. “Bill, I feel obligated to inform you that all other direct flights to Minneapolis today are booked solid, as I checked for a customer earlier. The drive to Minneapolis is just under ten hours, if you are lucky enough to miss all traffic. And if you were to leave the plane now, we would need to confer again with our technical team about proper balance, most likely reassigning seat locations for many of the remaining passengers. Certainly, delaying takeoff for everyone here.”

Bill looked past Joyce, out the window, imagining his son parked in the cell phone lot of the Minneapolis airport, awaiting his father’s call, like so many late nights innocently posed at the front bay window of their home, hoping his father could, at least, be home in time to tuck him in. 

“Why don’t we just try to make do?” said Joyce. 

Bill thought he had detected a conspiratorial roll of her eye. But it was only a flash. How could he know if he interpreted it correctly? How was anyone supposed to know what to do?

Bill examined the plaintive look on Joyce’s face. Then, looked up and down the aisles of the plane again. A chorus of jeers was closing in on him. 

“Sit down!”

His breath came heavier under the palpable scrutiny of the other passengers, like the feeling that choked him when stumbling uneven down a jet bridge. 

“C’mon, let’s go!”

The image of his son’s disappointment—piled higher than a bottomless heap of dirty laundry with Monday looming—gnawed at him from inside. 

“Don’t be selfish!”

Who was he, of anyone, to determine what was needed for balance? 

“Do the right thing, man!”

Bill Mulligan looked down at threadbare carpet of the aisle to hide the resignation in his eyes, though his body said it all. 

Linda had already turned and walked back to the front of the plane by the time Bill looked down at Joyce with a deep exhale and his hands slightly raised as if to ask, “How do we do this?” 

Their eyes darted around the lap in question, surveying the logistics. 

“Sidesaddle?” she suggested.

“Like a proper lady,” he nodded in agreement. “Maybe loosen the seat belt?”

“Oh, good thinking,” she said, with a more spirited tone—her attempt to roll the snowball of goodwill to a larger mass.

The dance that proceeded was a clumsy waltz of kicked shoes and bruised knees wherein Bill Mulligan did end up upon Joyce’s lap, his knees together, pointed straight to the middle of the tiny oval window against the outside of the plane. He couldn’t really see out the window from his elevated position, but he couldn’t bear the shame of facing the other passengers, each with his or her own seat. 

Bill did not order a virgin Bloody Mary at the call of beverage service, let alone turn around to face Linda for a, “No, thank you.” He just sat and stewed in the insufferable shame of his position and the guilt of crushing Joyce’s legs, whose claims of being tough enough were betrayed by the occasional grunt. Bill tried to lean his weight forward, as much as possible. He had surreptitiously slid their shared armrest down and managed to put his right leg over the top of it, so that if he leaned forward and to his right, the thin strip of hard plastic bore the majority of his weight rather than Joyce’s legs. This, however, had the effect of cutting circulation to his right leg. Numbness in his leg crept higher towards his crotch, giving Bill the altogether unsettling sense that he could no longer feel his balls and where they may be in relation to Joyce’s lap. Though he had no reason to believe they had shifted or were otherwise inappropriately positioned, there was just no way of knowing for sure. 

And so, when Bill made his move to slide forward, towards the empty window seat, he was encouraged by the nearly imperceptible breath of relief he detected from Joyce. He was listening very closely for any such sign. He then shifted his bottom—his numb balls likely dragging across the stiff armrest in such a way to induce great pain, later, once he could feel again—and dropped himself into the seat. He held his breath amid the sensation of falling, until he realized he was seated, like any normal passenger. Like he had always imagined of this routine flight from St. Louis to Minneapolis. Though he couldn’t feel it in his numb ass.

The plane lurched to the right. With eyes wide open Bill looked over to Joyce, who looked back at him, eyes quivering like over-easy egg whites and mouth slightly agape. As the plane leaned hard to the right, Joyce appeared as though she might tumble on top of Bill’s lap this time. But she was anchored in place by her seatbelt. 

Joyce closed her eyes closed firmly and gripped her hands around the ends of the armrests. Maybe this turbulence was to be expected, she told herself. She tried to conjure a mental image of the plane steadying itself and landing safely on the ground. But she could only see the image of the young woman at the airport gate with the envious laugh, the one seated in First Class whom she had passed on the way to her own seat. Joyce wondered if she herself had taken this flight twenty years ago, would she have breathed steadily as the plane shook and then sloped harder to the right? Would she have been balancing a cup of steaming hot coffee on the armrest instead of trying to press her fingers through the aluminum?

With the feeling of perpetual roller coaster drop tugging at Bill’s insides, it wasn’t his whole life that flashed before his eyes, but only questions. While everyone else had the right ticket, the right luggage, took all the right steps, why did he always feel like he was in the wrong position? If he could go back and do it all over again, could he find the right balance? 

And it wasn’t God’s voice that Bill heard from above, but it was the pilot over the PA system who spoke as the plane’s right wing rose steadily and the knot in Bill’s stomach eased. 

“Fight tendons peas repair fur scent of Mini Apples.”

As the flight attendant in the long red blazer loped down the center aisle towards seat twenty-two B, Joyce tried to catch her attention for clarification. With her hands raised, she looked at Linda. “I’m sorry? . . .”

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