S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: "Standby," by Alex Clermont

A busted alarm clock, a major accident on the highway, and a slow eighty-something taxi driver all worked against me this morning. Together they made me miss my flight by thirty minutes; the time in the cab was filled with curse words, and finally acceptance. When I got to the airport my only comfort was that I didn’t arrive at the Shanghai airport early enough to see the damn plane take off without me. What I got instead was a courteous, “Sorry sir, but you have missed your flight.”

The pretty clerk, surprisingly, spoke almost perfect English – though she hadn’t mastered contractions yet. With a smile as shiny as plastic she continued, “The next several flights are all full as well. If you would like, I could put you on standby. We would place you on the next seat that becomes available on any of the upcoming flights to Los Angles.”

I listened intently while imagining her naked. My face didn’t change though, and I was as expressionless as I was when I walked through check in. I sighed deeply as my thoughts switched from the last time I actually held a woman, to the depressing possibility of me sleeping in an airport waiting for some other idiot to miss their flight.

I agreed to standby and gave her my cell number for when something opened up.

Until I was called I decided to walk around the airport. My first stop was the duty free store, and while browsing for nothing in particular I thought about what I should tell my supervisor to explain why I would miss Monday’s meeting. I wasn’t sure how the reality of the situation would reflect on me so I decided to omit the alarm clock from my story and send him an e-mail from my expensive company phone as soon as I felt like doing it – giving him something to read with his bagel and black coffee breakfast. I’d write, “Yes, the meeting went well. Yes, they like the software. Yes, they want it set up in their headquarters here and their offices in the UK.” That would most likely excite him beyond what that clerk could ever do for me.

Aside from liquor, the shop had nothing for me so I left to find some food.

The food court strip was made up of a few U.S. franchises, but mostly small national chains that sold food I imagine Ronald McDonald would make if he were a drunk Chinese cook. The smells from most of the chains were enough to keep me away. Although it had its moments, my month in China wasn’t enough for me to adjust to eating bite-sized pieces of things with flavors that don’t match. I was tired of pickled and fresh, hot and cold, sweet and sour.

After passing by some salted fish I tried to remember the last time I visited my grandma. Grandma was the head of the house when I was growing up and she made sure everyone in my family could cook. She’d probably be just as put off by the smells as I was – though she did always like trying new things, so who knows.

I thought about it a little more, but the scenes of my last visit were lost to me.

Smells had me walking in zig-zags until I ran into a sign that advertised an “All American Restaurant.” The logo was the name of the place with each word colored red, white and blue respectively. I saw the required pictures of burgers and fries, but I also saw spaghetti, lasagna, and a pizza pie that didn’t look half bad. Not necessarily “All American,” but I certainly didn’t mind the error.

Having skipped breakfast to get to the airport I was more open than usual to the idea of some familiar food. It wasn’t my grandma’s, but I was starving. As I ordered a plate of pasta I looked at my phone and wondered if anyone would call me beside the pretty clerk. Maybe my supervisor. Maybe a client. Did they count? I assured myself that they did and sat down to wait for my spaghetti.

It came, surprisingly, in a proper pasta bowl with a fork and spoon. I looked at it and noticed small chunks of garlic and green peppers. The garlic had been cooked perfectly golden. The fact that they were fresh in the first place was enough to impress me, and I took another look around at where I was to reassure myself that this was a small franchise with chairs made of plastic, painted to look like wood.

I twirled the fork in the pasta, spooned it into my mouth and found that it was definitely as good as it looked. A second before the taste hit me though, I got a whiff of the smell. With my eyes closed and mouth opened I remembered what was lost to me.

She was getting a little too old for standing in the kitchen for hours on end, so me and my two younger sisters were running around doing the prep work: chopping veggies, cleaning chicken, and anything else that didn’t involve fire. Grandma came in every so often with kind words about what we were doing wrong.

She eventually kicked us out and cooked what was left behind. With anticipation we watched from the living room like the children we would always be. What she made was Spaghetti Caprese with baked Chicken Parmesan and it was the best I ever had. I could smell each piece of food that was chopped up, diced or whatever, but they also came together in some amazing way I never smelled before. It left an imprint in my mind – though I didn’t know it until I sat in that airport restaurant eating pasta that was pretty close to Grandma’s.

The last time I had seen anyone in my family was almost a year ago.

I finished the food and ordered a chicken parm sandwich to eat later on the plane, or while waiting for one. Walking back to my gate to wait for a seat to open I quickly typed up an email to my supervisor. He would receive the good news when he woke up. In New York, though, it was midnight and I figured that was early enough to call my sister without totally disturbing her Saturday night sleep.

I heard a cough on the other end, then a congested, “Hello.”

“Hey Dave. Is Sherry there?”

“Who is this?”

“Dave, it’s Michael.”

“Mike? Jesus Mike, you know what time…”

“I know man, I’m sorry… Is Sherry there?”

“Yeah yeah. Gimme a second.” I listened to the mumbling in the background and smiled when I heard my sister curse.

“Mike, you alright?” I smiled a little more as I heard the rarely asked question.

“Yeah, I’m good. In China right now.”

“Haven’t heard from you in I don’t know how long. Why are you calling? You sure everything is alright?”

“Just realized that I haven’t talked to you in I don’t know how long. Been too long I guess. How are you doing?”

She chuckled and told me how she was. She told me how my niece was. She told me how our sister Cindy was doing, and how Grandma was feeling. I told her how the meetings went. I told her about the clerk, and I told her about the strange but good restaurant with plastic chairs. I told her that I didn’t like how I had been feeling lately – just a little lonely.

She told me that she understood me, and I believed her.

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