I’m a baggage handler. It’s not the high-flying job people think it is.
I wake up, put on my grey coveralls and drive twenty miles to work. I ride a baggage truck to the stands and back. Load the conveyor belt. Unload. Drive twenty miles home, open a beer, and fall asleep after three episodes of The Simpsons.
I wake up in my coveralls. I drive twenty miles to work. I wait all day in the loading hall, a featureless, empty hangar, with a conveyor belt, two plastic chairs and a black-and-white monitor. Sometimes I sit and will the conveyor belt to start with my mind, just to have something to do.
Leaves are falling off the trees on the drive to work. I eat alone, an egg and watercress sandwich that tastes of old dishcloth. There’s a buzz and a flash from the monitor. New arrival. I signal to Mac, the other bag jockey, bit of a dick. Every morning he grunts at me and drags his chair to the opposite end of the hall. We don’t talk.
I drive to work. It’s Christmas Eve in the hub of dreams. I wear a Santa hat, wondering if Jackson will get the joke. He runs one of the hold-baggage screening machines. He’s the only one with any brains in this dump. The only one who acknowledges I exist.
“Hello, José,” he says, and smiles for a second before going back to his control terminal.
I unload for the hundredth time. I kneel at the opening where I send back through to the passenger hall. I catch glimpses of happy families on the other side of the wall. Arriving on holiday. Returning from holiday. Colourful advertising, snack machines, children yapping excitedly. I drive home, microwave a pizza and fall asleep to It’s a Wonderful Life.
End-of-year review time and Linda is doing the rounds, clipboard in hand. Ever since her promotion, she struts around like she belongs in the sky. New hair colour too, drives me wild. Need to plan something smart to say. I slide into the men’s and wait for her footsteps to disappear.
Apparently, if I ever want to make manager, I have to make an effort to ‘fit in better’. Whatever. I sit back on my chair and doze off.
When I wake, there’s a cat.
He stares at me, chin high, somehow managing to look down on me from the floor. I break off a piece of my ham and drain cleaner sandwich and toss it towards him. He looks at it, dismisses it, and resumes his grooming. Can’t blame you, buddy.
Buddy is in his usual spot by the hangar door. I’m making progress. I stopped at the little deli on the way to work and bought half a handful of skinless chicken. He won’t take it from my hand yet, but when I return from the next run, the chicken is gone.
I asked Linda out earlier. She coughed, pointed at her manager’s tag and changed the subject. Maybe she doesn’t like bowling. Still, she didn’t have to laugh. I told her I’m trying to fit in, but she didn’t laugh.
The weather is foul and two planes have serious delays; they’ll be landing after midnight. All shifts extended by half a day. Great. My stomach rumbles but the cafeteria is already closed. Buddy studies me on my chair for four hours.
What are you doing here? he seems to ask. I have nothing to answer him.
I’m sitting on the frame of the baggage carousel, scratching Buddy’s chin. He reaches up, purring happily.
Mac comes out from the toilet. He approaches Buddy, couching low, rubbing his fingers, whistling softly. He has a sinister look in his eyes which makes my skin crawl.
Buddy freezes warily for a moment, takes a tentative step towards Mac, and another.
Mac yells “little bastard,” and swipes with his huge troll hand. Buddy crouches, hisses, ears flat on his head. Mac rises to his giant height, laughing like a donkey HU-HURR, HURR, then stomps his work boot loudly. Buddy bolts for the hangar door.
“What the hell, dude? It’s just a cat!” I scream.
“Mind your own business, taco monkey,” he snarls. “Filthy animals should be thrown out.”
Jackson is walking through and has seen everything. He gives me a sad smile, shakes his head, and walks on.
I drive into town on my way home. The pretty lady at the pet store helps me pick out a little plastic bowl, one shaped like a cat’s head. She seems nice.
She asks if I have a new cat. I say no and look down, too self-conscious of my dirty coveralls and the name on nametag to say anything else. She purses her lips and says okay and charges me. I leave in such a hurry I almost forget my change.
I fight back the tears for the last ten miles home.
Buddy meanders around the luggage carts, making little hunger growls, watching me load up. He appreciates good work.
Twice already this month, Linda has told me to speed up my runs, but I take my time, so the cases fit better and get less scuffed; Mac hurls them like potato sacks.
I return from the loading ramp and pull out a little pouch of cat food from my coat. Buddy sprints ahead of me into the dusky twilight.
Best to keep Buddy out of the way; I keep his bowl by the old fuel pumps on the far lot. Mac’s been on the lookout, but he won’t find him here.
I squeeze the chunks into his bowl. Damn expensive stuff, more than I spend on myself, but he goes crazy over it and that makes me happy. I open his cardboard box and place the bowl in the corner, next to my old jumper. I’m worried about him, and the strange howling he’s been making lately.
“I got you, Buddy,” I tell him. “You’re safe here.”
Today is the day. I’m going for it. My hands are sweaty, deep in my coverall pockets, rubbing the two tickets – a month’s salary – for good luck.
Linda is smoking outside the staff room. She’s laughing at something Mac said, and I almost double back. No – we all deserve an opportunity, right?
I step up to her.
I ask her out. Again.
I’ve done good work. I’m on my way up. I’ve got these two ticke –
Mac snickers through closed lips. He doesn’t even have the manners to look away.
“José , the thing is,” Linda says, “is that people like you and me…” She stops, breathes out, and continues. “I’m really sorry. I can’t go out with staff members.”
As I turn the corner out of sight, Mac’s laughter explodes from the smoking area. I half run to the old fuel pumps, the tickets crumpled into a ball in my fist.
But Buddy isn’t there.
It’s been a month. I’ve taken to walking around the airfield and the buildings, whispering his name. Every time I see Mac smile, I imagine the worst. Even on days like today, when it’s raining like a pissing cow, I’m out hoping to hear that little trill.
The booming echo of Mac’s voice stops me cold just outside the loading hangar.
“So this Saturday night at Jack’s Steakhouse?” he asks. “And then back to mine for Mac’s Steakhouse?” and the familiar snort, HU-HURR, HURR, HURR, HURR.
A woman’s voice shushes him, then giggles.
I stand in the shadows, soaked to the bone, breathless, shaking. Another humiliation, and I’d have taken it, if I hadn’t heard what came next.
Linda’s voice, now clear and authoritative: “Oh and Mac? Get rid of that fucking cat once and for all.”
I can practically feel the grin on Mac’s face.
Two days later it’s raining Armageddon. I’m watching a prop charter start its descent when I hear a deep, unsettling yowl somewhere outside.
I’m stumbling blindly through the downpour. I close my eyes, cover my ears, try to filter out the pitter-patter on the tarmac, ignore the approaching rumble.
Again it comes, more faintly this time, a pained scream that makes my heart pound louder than the rain. I rush down the side of the building towards the maintenance hangars. The sound grows louder, more frequent now. I feel like I’m trying to swallow a fist.
Mac, if you’ve – I’ll fucking kill you, I swear it.
The hangar is empty. Moments of silence in which I wonder if I’m going crazy, then an unmistakeable mewling from the tool sheds. It doesn’t sound like Buddy, though.
I crouch between them, pulse racing.
Well, what do you know?
Guess Buddy is going to need a name change. She stares at me with an irritated face, surrounded by her litter.
What I am supposed to do now?
Go ask the nice lady at the pet store, she says.
Back the loading hall, Linda’s going ape shit.
“José, the four-fifteen is already on-stand. Where have you –“
“Yes, yes, I’m on it,” I say, without turning around.
“See, this is exactly what I –“
I’m not listening. I’m thinking about that pet store.
I’m heading back from the plane and the rain is thick as a wall now, making everything fuzzy. Over by the hangar, a figure lumbers towards the trash compactors, holding a sack out at arm’s length.
That bastard must have followed me earlier. I gun the pedal, accelerating to a full eight miles per hour.
Mac hears the cart’s alarm and turns to wait for me. I jump out and run up to him. Our faces are too close to back off now, his face a foot above my face, both jaws clenched in hatred.
“Something to say, Ho-say?” HURR HURR HURR.
Around that disgusting smile, I see fresh scratches.
It happens fast. I lunge, screaming. He barely moves, just launches a log-like missile. For a second, I hear nothing. Then a dull clunk as my head hits the tarmac.
I crawl onto my knees by the luggage cart. My head feels like a balloon. Blood is drizzling onto my coveralls and the floor. I half-see Linda, standing there without saying a word.
But Mac has relaxed his grip on the bag and Buddy escapes. In one watery flash, Buddy leaps onto Mac’s face and strikes him repeatedly, red-stained claws flailing. Mac wraps his hands around her, screams as he yanks the claws off his skin. One of his eyes is bleeding heavily.
Then Mac dropkicks the cat, a huge, mighty boot that sends Buddy tumbling through the rain.
Mac starts to turn but doesn’t see the hard case swinging towards his head. It connects and he goes down. He’s gurgling on the floor, down but not out.
Buddy lies prone at the foot of the concrete hangar wall, eyes wide open. Her body lies at an unnatural angle and I know there’s nothing to be done.
I consider kicking Mac’s head in, right there in front of Linda, but it’s not going to change anything. The world starts to spin; I’m tired of these people, angry with this place. My legs give away and I sit there, looking up at the rain.
The softest of trills brings me back, coming from the sack. I remember the kittens and carefully look inside. I sigh with relief: all five, crawling around with their eyes closed.
Mac is already turning over when I start loping for the hall, still dazed. As I reach the entrance, Linda is helping him on his feet. I don’t have much time.
I look around the hall. Panic explodes in my chest. There’s nowhere to hide. Mac will bash my head in, then he’ll finish what he started.
Only one option.
It’s ridiculous. Dangerous. But there’s no choice. I run faster than I’ve ever run before.
Jackson jumps off his chair as I stumble up to his station, nose broken, coveralls stained with blood. Grumbling meows emerge from the sack. I’m so dizzy and out of breath that I drop to my knees; I can’t even talk. I can’t run any further.
Jackson starts to say something, then stops. He looks at me, at the sack, all around us, and inhales deeply.
Then he turns back to his control terminal.
I wake up, put on my grey coveralls and drive five miles to work. I’m over at the bus depot now. I wash buses, help the mechanics, odd jobs really. It’s not a job that goes anywhere, but the people are nice, and they like cats. With the extra time I've joined a night course near the depot. I'm gonna be a teacher.
On my break I sit and watch my little friends eat. They eat like animals. Sometimes I wonder if we weren’t all given a super-dose of radiation that day, hiding inside Jackson's baggage scanner. I think of the day I found them. I make a decision.
On the drive home, I pull over. I loiter around the aisles for a while, checking shampoos, collars, building courage. Then I think of Buddy. Hell - we all deserve an opportunity, right? I walk over, head down, and start unloading cat food pouches.
“It’s José, right?”
I freeze. I look up.
“I’ve always liked that name,” she says, smiling.
LIKED IT? RATE IT BELOW!