I’m in the galley, making coffee. I try to look busy, not in the mood to talk or help. This is the fourth leg of a six-leg day, and already I’m tired. I immerse myself in counting and recounting stacks of Styrofoam cups, tightening the handles on metal coffee pots, scrubbing the steel galley counter until I can see my face, distorted and greenish in the planes fluorescent light, eyes flecked with dried mascara.
I hear him coming before I can see him: the rustle of his nylon bag, brushing against seat backs and the heads of other passengers. He is old, thin. He plops the bag on the floor of the emergency exit row, right across from where I’m standing. I’m engrossed now in stocking Cokes into the beverage cart. I watch him from behind the galley wall, a talent all flight attendants learn, covert ways to size people up.
His hair is gray, and saliva has settled into the corners of his mouth. He holds a filthy handkerchief to his nose. He is coughing, a deep-lunged cough, the kind that fades into a feathery wheeze then begins again, a terrifying, endless loop. A pack of Marlboros is tucked into his left sock.
I am afraid to go near him, afraid of what I might catch. When you make your living on an airplane, there are things you become afraid of, like germs and crashes and how cold the ocean is off LaGuardia in winter.
“They’re not supposed to let them on like this,” says my friend, who’s working with me.
They’re not supposed to let them on drunk, either, but this is how it is. That’s what I think, but I don’t say anything.
The man coughs, then follows with his wet-rattled breaths.
I think: This is serious, maybe not contagious, but serious. I call to him from the galley. “Sir, would you like water?”
He wheezes, coughs, shakes his head. I look at my friend, who’s busy alphabetizing magazines and stacking pillows in the overhead bins.
“Excuse me, sir?” I say. “Can I get you something?”
He coughs, points. Coffee.
“Cream and sugar?”
He nods, and so I bring him what he wants, along with some water.
“Thank you,” he says and grabs hold of my hand. I feel myself pull back. His hand is damp and cold; the fingers are all bone. “Thank you, I—” he coughs again, and I don’t get the rest, so I have to lean closer, “—really appreciate.”
Later, he tries to give me a tip: two quarters wrapped in a wet dollar and held together with a rubber band. I say, “No, no,” but he presses it into my palm, gasping, “You take it for taking care. I appreciate.”
The effort of breathing has made him sound foreign. He’s American, I’m sure, a New Yorker, though disease has taken the hardness out of his eyes. They are brown and damp, the whites yellowing like old paper. Still, he thinks small kindnesses are things you have to pay for.
I haven’t really been kind. I’ve just done my job, against what I wanted, despite my own disgust. I am paid to smile, to talk to strangers about the latest issue of People, to bring coffee and water, to make people comfortable.
I take the money.
“What is it you say?” he’s asking, but I don’t understand. “What is it you say on TV?”
“You’ll love the way we fly,” my friend sing-songs from the galley.
The man nods gravely, repeats it.
I laugh now. I don’t know what else to do. He’s dying, I’m sure. Emphysema or lung cancer, probably, like my father.
The flight is only an hour, D.C. to New York. When the man gets up to leave, I keep my head down, eyes focused on my hand, checking off items on a list. What we need: tea bags, stir sticks, Band-Aids, first-aid cream, two bags of peanuts. I try not to think, but I can’t help it.
Who will be there in the airport to meet him? What is his home like? Who brings him coffee the way he likes it? Who is not afraid to touch him?