An excerpt from

And It Will Be a Beautiful Life

MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Thursday, March 7, 2019 | 8:17 p.m.
748 miles from home


In a practiced motion he slipped halfway into his coat, then slid the backpack strap onto his right shoulder behind it. He wrenched himself and dangled his left hand back, trying to catch the loose sleeve, and he clipped the head of the man from 6B, who was sitting in his seat and placidly awaiting the jumbled exit.


“Sorry,” Max said.


Pursed lips and no reply from 6B. Max set his backpack down in his own seat, 6C, across the aisle, shed the coat, and tried again, this time with more precision and control. He hooked the left sleeve and finally shimmied the coat fully onto his shoulders, then he brought the backpack up again.


“I never understand the hurry,” 6B side-mouthed to 6A. “We’re all going to get off in due time.”
6A, a woman about 6B’s age, Max figured, similarly neat in dress and taciturn in manner, gripped his hand without a look up.


“There’s no need to race everyone,” 6B groused on.


“Some people like to stand,” 6A said. She glanced at Max and offered a fractional smile, one he couldn’t quite interpret. Don’t mind my grumpy husband, maybe? Or, you clumsy oaf. That was the greater possibility.


Max swallowed hard. “It’s just that I have a tight connection.”


6B looked at him with merciless erosion. “I wasn’t speaking to you.” The final syllable drew out, mocking and disdainful.


“OK,” Max said. Another quarter-way smile from 6A, then forward movement began up ahead, followed by the murmur of insincere goodbyes from the flight crew.


Max took half a step back, crowding 7C and clearing the space between the seats. “After you,” he said to 6B and 6A. They shuffled into the aisle, collected their things from the floor and the overhead bin, and walked toward the door. Max hung back a couple of steps.


“Thanks for the lift,” he said to the captain as he exited, the same words, the same flat delivery as several hundred times before. The flight attendant smiled, the same as ever. Max hucked the backpack higher on his shoulders, ducked his head, and stepped into the jet bridge.

He merged with the stampeding humanity of the F concourse at 8:23 by his atomically precise watch, and though he dutifully put one foot in front of the other, dropping heavy steps toward the gate at the end of C, he knew there was little point to it all. The words he hadn’t wanted to see—“on time”—had stared back at him from the departure board, and he knew there was no way to bridge the distance before Flight 859, the last plane home for the night, pushed back from the gate and headed for Billings without him.


Still, he trudged on, past gift shops and fast-food offerings, past mothers pushing strollers holding conked-out children, against the flow of business travelers and students, to the end of the F concourse, left turn, under the mezzanine, a veer away from the signs pointing to baggage claim, a right turn at the C concourse, all the way down, past the art gallery, onward, ever onward.


On the people mover, he thought of a treadmill, then ricocheted off to a memory of his seventeenth year, Billings Senior High, the quarter-miles he could toss off when he was a young man of remarkable want-to if not quite elite speed. In those days, he could cover the distance in 50.12 seconds. Assuming constant speed—a faulty assumption—that’s a three-minute, twenty-second mile. In an hour, 17.96 miles. In twenty-four hours, 431.04 miles. It can’t be done, of course. Not by the human machine. Even if it could, he would be left well short of Billings.


Gate C27, now emptied out, came into view. If he were suddenly in possession of his youthful gait, could he have made it by dashing through the nighttime terminal like the Hertz commercial O.J. Simpson of his memories, before the Juice became known for other ways of running? Probably not. He knew the speed but not the distance or the time of flow. Would have been fun to try, though, in another life.


“It’s gone, I guess,” Max said to the gate agent.


“About to be.” The agent, maybe Alexandra’s age, tilted her head toward the window. The jet bridge was pulling back from the plane.


“No chance you’d...”


“I’m sorry,” she said.


“Yeah.”


“They’ll be happy to rebook you at customer service.”


“I know the drill. Thanks.”


“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, sir.”


“Me, too.”

Sorry didn’t begin to cover the half of it. The whole thing, right down the line, had been a series of misses that had taken Max increasingly afield from the promises he had made. First had been the standby day in Wisconsin while the eggheads back in Germany scrutinized the tool data remotely. He had pushed his come-home flight back a day when that happened, a two-hundred-dollar charge that wouldn’t cause even a blink in accounting when his expense report went in. Then the hour-long shutdown in Indiana, six miles from the end of the run. That had wiped out his margin of error. The hour and fifteen minutes on the tarmac at Midway as the airline mechanics replaced a cockpit panel. That was the setback that had pushed him into the red. The distance between the gates in Minneapolis had finally torn his plans for good.


On the other end of the call, Janine wanted none of it.


“I knew,” she said. “Of course you wouldn’t be back.”


“I couldn’t do anything about it.”


A sigh across the miles. “You never can.”


“It was just bad luck.”


“I said, ‘You going to be home Thursday?’ You said, ‘Oh, yeah, no problem.’”


“I didn’t know this—”


“Just stop.”


He stopped. Silence wedged between them, wiping clear the rest of what he might have said in his own defense.


“This is important to me,” she said, emotion edging into her voice.


“To me, too.”


“No.”


“It is.”


“It’s not, or you’d be here.”


“I couldn’t.”


“And there you are. You just had to take the late plane, and now—”


“I didn’t have a choice.”


“Yes, you did. And you made it.”


“I’ll be there by lunch,” he said brightly, as if some cheerfulness he pulled out of the ether or some other nether region could right this skidding thing. “Maybe we could—”


“Alexandra and I are going to brunch after the thing. To celebrate.”


“I should be there.”


“Alex and I are going to brunch.”


“OK. I’ll wait at home.”


“Good night,” she said.

Max lingered in front of the vending machines, considering his options. The airline rep had come by with an overnight kit—a floor mat, a blanket, a tube of toothpaste and a miniature brush, some wet wipes. “Thanks for flying Delta,” he had said. Max had built himself a bivouac at Gate G5—another long walk after the rebooking and before the contretemps with Janine—and was now procuring the provisions that would carry him to the other side of the night.


A swipe of the card, buttons punched, and a bag of cookies preserved into crispy permanence dropped from their perch. Max pushed back the door and collected them.


He moved one machine to his left, swiped again, and punched in the code for a Diet Coke. A mechanical arm with a big receptacle moved up and over, collected the bottle, and deposited it in the holding chute. A cylindrical door opened, and Max grabbed the drink.


“That stuff will kill you.”


Max turned around. Jogging Suit Man, who had also made camp at G5, smiled and pointed at the soda. “Chemicals. So-called essential oils. Artificial sweeteners. Caffeine.”


Max shrugged. “Not going to be able to sleep anyway. I’m not worried about the caffeine.”


“I used to drink that stuff. A two-liter bottle a day, at least.”


“Yeah?”


“Now, straight-up water. At least a hundred and twenty ounces daily. Usually more.”


Max thought of Niagara Falls. And then he thought of urinals into infinity. And then he thought of the sublime freedom of peeing outdoors, perhaps discreetly covered by an open door on his rental car but otherwise whizzing into the weeds, as nature intended.


“Interesting,” Max said.


“I started running,” Jogging Suit Man said. “Sixty-nine years old, can do a nine-minute mile. Running and a morning swim in the ocean. Can’t beat it.”


“I can run faster than that.”


“Oh?”


Max’s hands went to his ample midsection to cover the lie. “Could.”


“Ah.”


Jogging Suit Man, like Seat 6A, regarded him with a smile that couldn’t be deciphered.


“OK, then,” Max said.


“OK,” Jogging Suit Man said. “But that stuff will kill you.”


Max looked at the bottle in his hand, then back at Jogging Suit Man.


“When?” he asked.

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