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Cover-Wit Will & Angels

So it turns out my mother is a writer too.

She's authored a geniune page-turner of an autobiography about her life, and Crunch! has published this work. You can read more about this project here...

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Recreational writing:

Patch Reefs


© Garrett Klassen. All rights reserved.

About the best thing you can say about the Tavernier Hotel is that they give you two-ply toilet paper.

The other is that if you stumble into Room 18 drunk one night and fall down, you cannot fail to hit the bed. That’s not just a guess on my part. It really is that small. It’s so small that I had more knee room on the airplane than I did sitting on the hotel toilet. This closet costs $49.00 US per night, but that’s after a $20.00 discount.

Welcome to the Florida Keys, where it takes longer to get you off the plane, over to the majestic, opulent Value Car Rental Outlet, into your vehicle and out the parking lot, than the entire flight time from Toronto to Ft. Lauderdale, by about half an hour.

This is partly because, this day, you clear US Customs and Immigration in Ft. Lauderdale instead of in Toronto. And no one bothers to tell the Ft. Lauderdale officials. Now this alone is not cause enough for delay. Agents are waiting and standing by. Except there is one who insists on venting his displeasure at supervisor and visitor alike. This is, of course, my line.

He is an older gentleman entirely unfamiliar with social graces, perhaps because of his belief that someone in his position is officially empowered with the authority of the Gestapo in kinder, gentler, times. All this is unimportant. The thing is about Flight 620, and what it’s doing here.

When we hadn’t cleared in Toronto, I had asked the pre-boarding flight attendant at Terminal 1, Gate H, more or less the same thing. Had I missed something? Weren’t we supposed to clear US Customs and Immigration in Toronto? Was I the only one who noticed?

Oh, no, he had assured me. Not today. But the officer now standing before me knows none of this. Instead, he slams and tosses forms and documents, mutters and berates the Canadian tourists bent on coming to his country with converted Monopoly money. From all I can tell, the other five lines are progressing smoothly and, more importantly, quietly.

Now, he comes to me.

I am the last passenger in his line to have disembarked offending Flight 620. I am the last one because I have been seated near the rear, in row 41, and people get so pushy on airplanes, don’t they? I am not in a hurry, which, as it turns out, is a very good thing.

The reason I know I am the last is because we are down to the final six in each of six lines, when a wave of humanity washes up the stairs and into the near-empty interrogation room, and they are all “speaking a foreign language.”

So here I am. It’s my turn. Others before me have failed to properly complete their Customs Declarations, but I am ready. I hand the oppressed man my passport and declaration with a relatively non-threatening greeting. “Good morning,” I say.

He doesn’t hear me. He has chosen this particular moment to pick up the phone and scream the way only an aging Customs agent can, at his Supervisor about what the hell is flight 620 doing here? In my mind, at least, the room falls strangely silent. I have two urges — one, to tell him, it’s OK, I’m the last passenger, so his ordeal is almost over. The second is to surreptitiously scratch out the flight number on my card — not because it says Flight 620 — but because I have mistakenly written Flight 601 on my declaration, which I am afraid will send him into a tizzy and make him cart me off to the Dade County Work Camp.

I resist both urges as he slams down the phone and begins jackhammering on his computer keyboard. My sense of conspicuousness heightens by a factor of, oh — about 10 — when his clearly Cuban supervisor shows up so that my host can complain to him in person. I redouble my resolve not to so much as whisper.

He is stamping things – hard – and takes a long look at my declaration before he stamps that and pushes it towards me. The computer tells him I am not a criminal of any current standing, so he stamps my expired passport too. I am almost free to go.

But he chooses this moment to talk to me. He tells me the story I, and half the people in the area, already know. He mutters that someone is going to get a whopping fine for this. I silently hope it’s not me.

In keeping with my human resources training, I agree with his need, and in as few words as possible, relate to him my own surprise, as I expressed to the attendant in Toronto. He still has some things to stamp. Maybe he is just stalling, genuinely confused about phantom flight 601, I don’t know. But as I walk away, he calls after me in a bright and pleasant voice, “Thank you, sir!”

I want to turn and tell him that the 100-or-so passengers behind me are all French Canadians. I hear they’re starting a newsletter down here.

At least my luggage arrives. You can never be too sure. With me, it’s never better than a 50/50 thing, so seeing it on the belt is always a good sign.

Having gone through what I think is the worst, I now face a brief interlude with the Immigration official, who appears to be approximately half my age. He bears the singular attractiveness of youth, and a pressed blue uniform to boot. But I have the ponytail. It’s a long one.

In front of me, senior citizens pass through the checkpoint without incident. I approach unarmed and joyous. I am on vacation. The young man steps directly in my path. I give him my freshly embossed form. He looks at it carefully, turning it over in hand and mind several times. He looks at me directly in the eye and asks my address in Florida.

My life flashes before my eyes. “The Tavernier Hotel.” The words stumble from my mouth. Understandably, he has never heard of it. Where’s that, he asks. In Tavernier, I answer. I actually have no idea, but it’s a good guess. Well, what do you do for a living, comes the next question. Time to improvise. I explain I am self-employed, with a small company. What’s it called? I tell him. What business are you in? My window of opportunity opens. I say, advertising.

A light seems to go on. A veil lifts. Angels sing. “Oh, okay,” he says, “you can pass.” I drag my hardshell case and ponytail across the imitation marble floor and ask myself — “What was that?”

By this time it is stupid o’clock. But I haven’t actually set my bezel yet. Scuba divers do that on their watches as a quick reminder of how long they have been underwater. They don’t really care what time it is. On land, I sometimes do this to time parking meters, and measure the length of other earth-shaking events.

I step outside the terminal building, and within 15 seconds — bingo! —there’s my bus. It’s in the outside lane, and it says “Value” in big bold letters right across the top. Now, I’ve been to LAX and O’Hare. In fact, I’ve been to a lot of airports, so I know if you don’t ask you don’t get. I step off the curb and with an air of supreme control and authority, I stretch out my arm full length into the air and point at the driver. He sees me. But he doesn’t pull over. Instead, he renders his own arm at some imaginary point on the space-time continuum that exists in the perceptual world over his right shoulder. Then he drives past.

Okay, I say. He wants me to go “over there.” I aim myself somewhere towards the vicinity of his index finger, and there find a distant memory of the last time I was in Ft. Lauderdale: “the airport car rental pick-up loop.”

I remember this, so I know I am in the right place. A few people are waiting. Big and intermediate sized buses come and go. I light a cigarette. (Okay — I’m quitting on Saturday, Okay?!) I think, “he’s seen me, so he knows I’m here.” Enough time goes by for my unprotected skin to begin turning red under the mid-day sun. I sit on a flat surface of something I believe to be a light standard. Entire buses go by, almost empty. None of them say Value. They say Hertz and Dollar and Budget and Avis and Enterprise and Hertz and Budget and Dollar and Avis and Hertz and Enterprise. Even the employee shuttle goes by three times. None of the buses say Value.

More people are coming now, and they’re not getting onto any of the other buses either. They are the French Canadians, and together, we form a throng. I can see the approach run of the buses as they come towards the loop, and from my perch, I make a game of trying to distinguish the letters in the dark underpass beyond. But all they say is, not my bus, not my bus. I light another cigarette. Then, finally, I see it, but it drives by the circle. Time is standing still, but still, I am not in a hurry. I still have not yet set my bezel.

Finally the bus comes. It comes in the outside lane of the circle because the curb lane is full of buses  that say Hertz and Dollar and Avis and Enterprise. But I know what to do. I hop off my perch, step off the curb, fully extend my outstretched arm and point at the driver. The bus stops directly where I am standing.

Given this proximity, I am almost first on the bus. But the time it takes to reach behind me to grab my suitcase costs me three places. People on buses are always in such a hurry, aren’t they? I am happy, almost joyous. I sit in the first available seat and the flood of humanity just doesn’t stop. It is the French Canadians. One standing passenger remarks to another on the “Please remain seated” sign. That gets a big guffaw.

We arrive at the majestic, opulent , architecturally over-the-top headquarters of Value Rent-a-Car at Hollywood International Airport, Ft Lauderdale. And, you know what they say — first on, last off. Actually, I should have been third-last off, but people get impatient on buses. That’s okay. I am pre-registered for a compact car — have my confirmation number and everything. Soon, I will be diving with the dolphins.

Wrong. I am not quite the last one into the majestic, opulent... well, you know — Value Rent-a-Car building because I know more or less where I’m going and others don’t. They are generally older than me, and don’t all speak English unless they absolutely have to.

In the centre of the three-storied, atriumed, glass-walled palace itself is a ticket dispenser with a can’t-miss-it sign that says “Please Take a Number”.  I promptly do so. Around are comfortable lounges and sofas beset with bored, numbed and at least partially brain-dead patrons of the establishment with its obviously-chatty counter staff.  A country music video plays in the background. They are the waiting dead.

I look at my number. It is B-81. I look up at the number displayed behind the lack-of-service counter. The readout says 60. I sigh. Countless others will audibly do likewise with varying degrees of exasperation and vehemence during the precious hours I am about to spend in the palace. I sit down on my luggage, observing the lack-of-service counter in still life.

It is now that I set my bezel.

I wonder at how far this twilight zone physically extends. I go outside for another cigarette. There, I observe others who have already lived through the experience. Returned cars sit in the returned-car lane, abandoned. Attendants scurry around, asking each other whether they know who’s car this or that one is. Déjà vu all over again: having been there once, returning renters have no stomach for re-entering the palace. Hang the cost. Here’s your car.

I go back inside. They’re up to number 64 now.

At least there are brochures to explore and vending machines to explode.

There is a blue phone with a sign that says, “Reservations.” I have one. I pick it up, but I get a recording. Then, music, meant, I am sure, to quiet my discontent. After five minutes I hang up and go back to my suitcase.

Oops — number 67.

I conclude it is a ploy. There are convertibles in the parking lot. After an hour and a half, they call my number. I upgrade to one of those from the pleasant and chatty lack-of-service person. They have simply given me far too much time to think about it. Cost? Doesn’t matter. I’m happy. Top down, I’m under way. The pilot of Flight 620 is back on the ground in Toronto now.

Renter number 102, whose sigh I distinctly hear on my way out the door, begins thinking about the steadily dwindling number of convertibles.

I call out in a loud guttural voice that disappears behind me at 70 mph. YIPPEE! I’m on holidays. Four toll booths later on Florida’s Turnpike, it starts to rain. I am cold. I stop the car and begin my study of the interior of the flip-top. It could be worse. It could be snow.

Floridians believe the only way to serve a garnish or a dip is in a small, plastic bowl with a lid. Doesn’t matter that the meal with drinks costs 30 bucks for one person. Doesn’t matter if it’s a gourmet restaurant or a roadhouse. Blue cheese dip, dressing, mayo, butter, sour cream or marinara sauce. It all comes in a little, clear plastic dish. Floridians don’t understand food; I think it’s because they live on a highway with no intersections. The road through the Keys is just one straight line.

Drinks come in plastic glasses too. Vodka on the rocks with an olive? (And I do mean an olive.) Plastic glass. Margarita with salt on the rim? Plastic glass. And let’s not forget the straws. Complimentary, with the Vodka too.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but people — except for dive shop operators for the most part — seem incredibly rude. Maybe they’re just uninvolved. You can call it that, can’t you, when they walk by you six times — know you’re there — but pretend you’re not? What is that? Maybe because I’m a single, or unattractive, or both? But com’on. This is a biker bar! I suppose that could be the answer.

But more people than just bikers go to other places like, say, the grocery store, where staff seem singularly devoid of brain activity. They do have the presence of mind to demand your money. But a sense of humour? Forget it.

Maybe most of these people are just plain unhappy. Two nights ago, clearing tables, I heard — totally unprompted — all about the waitresses’ bad relationships, her move to the Keys, her terrible hours, lack of tips and need to have a place all her own without a roommate who would probably just rip her off and stiff her for the rent. In under two minutes! How can this person smile? Do you get rid of bad luck by sharing it with total strangers, or is this wallowing? Maybe it’s an attempt to bond.

These people should try six months without sunshine.

Then, in the middle of dinner, along comes this guy putting up Christmas lights. Not just sort of inconspicuously, but right overtop of the guests. That isn’t done, is it? Where you pay upwards of 25 bucks for dinner and a drink and some guy climbs almost overtop of you to hang these weenie Christmas lights with a staple gun?

Is it just me?


I can see what attracted Hemingway to these parts. It’s a place where you can watch, and if you have the wherewithal, the watching is the nourishment. How much watching does one do when they work? Not much evidently. Where’s my waitress?

She’s watching something else. Oh — here she comes. There she went. She thinks my choice of dessert is strange. I can tell. I can see it on her face. What’s so unusual about a cup of chili and a glass of red wine for dessert after a steak? I’m still hungry. That’s what happens when you serve inedible vegetables.

Now that was cool! Automatic Bug Spray Release. They wait until almost everyone is gone, hit the button and down comes this one-second blast of bug spray from hoses or pipes build right into the ceiling over the patio. I thought it was just water vapour for a second, but it’s not. Water vapour doesn’t smell.

I cover up my drink.

Another vacation. Another wet suit drying out. Bird behaviour is just like some people. Aggressive and territorial at the expense of their own best interests. Why be king of the flock if you don’t get any food? Everyone knows you’re the boss, and while you’re busy continually proving it, the others eat the very thing you’re trying to protect. What do we learn from this? Lay back and feed while others fight amongst themselves? Pick your spot? Bear in mind the objective when obsessed with the mechanics? Don’t get attached to power — it’s illusory?

The best answer may be to work as a team, but most people don’t understand that. People are just like birds.

Now that cuts it. Another meal, a different restaurant. Not only is the soup cup plastic, but so’s the spoon. Tequila comes in a plastic shooter glass and the lime comes in another plastic shoot glass. It’s the new definition of casual. The Florida Keys: Plastics-R-Us.

The waitress, is writing a book: The Land of Zoon. I think she’s in it. She’s on Chapter 2. That was as of a couple of years ago. Everything takes time. Even when you live in Paradise, there’s none of that.

Wine comes in — guess what...

Tomorrow is quit day. I’m steeling myself. I have a special cigar. Going to find a quiet corner after my meal.

The last smoke of your life is like your last dive. You never want it to end. You freeze the moment. Memorize every part of it. The inhale, the exhale, the rhythm, the suspension, the rush. You know it will never come again. Not exactly like this. When and if it does, it will be a long time from right now.

I have to give up one to prolong the other. Climbing onto the boat is hard. That’s not from smoking. That’s just age. Age is catching up with me. I know, because everyone calls me either sir, or cutie.

Still, the smoke’s the thing. It’s been my lover for almost 30 years. Thirty years! That’s reason enough to change.

I have to leave her here in Florida, no matter what. It will be a sad, romantic parting. Independence has a price, but she has demanded enough. Time to be free.

Maybe my singing voice will improve.

No telling what strangers will do. Maybe Canadians really are too uptight. What’s the difference between a Canadian and a canoe? A canoe tips. That’s a joke down here. Like plastic plates.

The last cigarette was special. It was exactly as I had imagined it, only better. It was outside the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Bags gone, flight waiting. I memorize the draw, lungs fill, the burn, the little buzz. I look at the ember approaching the filter — it, squeezed a little too hard, hot and yellow. I look at the blue sky. Three birds carve loops and circles, gliding, wings outstretched, free. My last breath. I walk to the crematorium of dead cigarettes and butt out for the last time. The ball of red ember crushes under my index finger and thumb into black. I toss the butt inside. I turn to the sky, looking for the birds. They are gone. Then I see them, now five, now more — seven, maybe ten. I thank the birds.

I face the doors of the terminal and wait for people exiting to make their way through. People in airports are always in such a hurry. Waiting, I notice an elderly woman in front of me, drawing long on a cigarette. She is older than 65, younger than 75. She is in love with her addiction.

I silently thank her for showing me with such force why I choose this. The old lady will never be like the birds.

In the public washroom, I pull out the patch and walk toward my takeoff.

 


©Garrett Klassen is president of Crunch! Communications in Elora, Ontario, Canada.

 


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