In the Clouds
Steve had boarded the connecting flight in DFW in route to Baltimore, sat in window seat 9F, main cabin, though he had plenty of miles to upgrade. His wife Haley was always saying, “We should use them to fly first class to Puerto Rico.” But Steve didn’t want to see Puerto Rico. He wanted someday to see the U.K., to feel his skin moist and plumped, not a piece of dehydrated potato or the beet he became after too much Phoenix sun. He only moved to Arizona for the job promotion. He was thirty-eight then and met twenty-five-year-old Haley who was hostess at a restaurant he hadn’t tried until the night his best friend Carter came to town. Steve was hoarding his points for his own trip, or maybe one with Carter. They often spoke of college days and road trips, trying one again “like old times.” But neither could find time for a week on the road. Flying was more efficient anyway. Steve liked efficiency.
He accumulated points with one airline, used discount cards, and always ate minimalistic meals. He kept expenses so much farther below company budget that his manager asked, “What do you eat on the road? Power bars?”
At 10,000 feet, Steve opened his laptop, signed up for wireless, tried to log in to his company’s cloud. His password was rejected. Steve figured the software was being updated and shut the laptop, stared out the window at the sheep-herd clouds, thinking about real and unseen clouds out there—like information and ideas—hovering just above the surface of where we live. He considered electromagnetic radiation and unseen germs like the ones that must have exited the sweatshirt-clad guy’s unshielded nose when he sneezed two rows up. Steve feels sick at the thought of all that’s threatening and undetectable, that he’s exposed to every day. That's why he tries only to think of sales goals and customer satisfaction, and washes his hands each chance he gets.
Eyes on the clouds, Steve thinks, I’m one of them, in a long chain of others, all moving in the same direction, pushed by political and economic jet streams until dissolved in air. (This is where Steve’s course of thinking runs when left to his own devices, when not relying on mobile devices.)
Steve pulls the airline’s magazine from the backseat pocket, flips pages, stops at an image of a man like him: salt and pepper close-cropped hair, taller, slimmer-bellied but also wearing crisp khakis, a laundered dress shirt, blue blazer (Steve’s neatly folded in the overhead).
The black-and-magenta-maned Millennial beside him with her big white headphones rocks to whatever she’s hearing while fast-speed finger-sliding through photos on her Android, smiling, laughing, as if reliving the selfies and posing and parties. She never looks at Steve. He is no threat, of no interest. He doesn’t know he will receive a call after he lands from the sales VP about the company’s restructuring. The VP will tell him how well he served them, the old “thanks but no thanks," then detail severance terms. Steve will consider flying to Edinburgh instead of back to Phoenix, to Scotland where the clouds are often low-slung or blue sky punctures wasteful holes through them. Steve will realize then he is an aging man, invisible. That night before calling Haley, he’ll order a bottle of wine at dinner, relish the absence of words and muttered commentary and nixing mouth noises from his teetotaling wife. He’ll gorge on appetizers, a steak entrée, two chocolate desserts, break budget and charge it all to the company.
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