The sign painted in bold yellow letters on the concrete wall was clear as day--RENTAL CARS PULL AHEAD TO HERE--but Walt, always Mr. Cautious, had to drive to the end of a long line where harried travelers hauled suitcases from their trunks and waved rental contracts to draw an attendant. A jet roared overhead.
“Honey, go over there!” I said, pointing to the right. “Can’t you see the sign?”
“Pull over there? But there’s no one else in that line.” I could tell he was worried if he
obeyed the sign, we’d lose our place and be delayed.
“Those people are lemmings!” I said. “The sign says pull ahead to here!” I tried to keep
that nagging, know-it-all-wife tone out of my voice, but arriving at an airport always
made me bossy. Approaching that chaotic no-man’s-land, a cluttered corridor between expectation and disappointment, put my nerves on edge. The indignities of going through security, greeting plastic-smiled flight attendants, and watching overfed passengers cram over-stuffed carry-ons into overhead bins filled me with dread. Not to mention tedious warnings about seat belts and life vests, unwitting reminders of the perils of air travel.
Plus, I couldn’t bear the thought of ending our trip and returning home to our horrifyingly
“All right,” said Walt, “but I don’t think . . . ” He steered into the shade of the concrete
structure and stopped at the yellow line. We looked around for someone to acknowledge us.
A tall young man with a buzz cut and zippered jacket appeared from nowhere and opened Walt’s door.
“Good morning, sir!”
“OK to leave it here?” Walt asked.
“Yes, sir, he replied. “Your contract, please.” His overly attentive greeting made me
wonder if we had in fact landed in the wrong line.
Walt handed him the folded pages and unlatched his seatbelt.
“Just wait here, sir. Leave your bags in the car, and I’ll be right back.” The young man,
our contract in hand, darted over to a glass booth where a clerk was staring at a computer screen.
He didn’t look right to me, this fellow who’d snatched our contract, with his buzz cut and
bouncy manner. He didn’t have the disaffected air you’d expect from a man performing
the menial job of receiving rental cars at an airport. It crossed my mind he wasn’t actually
an employee of the rental company. He seemed more like a guy who’d hunted too long
for a job in the feeble Florida economy and had interjected himself into this place,
volunteering his services in hopes of nabbing some part-time employment. Odd.
Walt and I sat in silence contemplating what we’d accomplished with our Florida vacation. Trading mundane household cares and the tedium of office paper-shuffling for a stretch of beach and blast of sun had been our expectation. But by Day Three we were plagued with sunburn and backaches from stooping to gather seashells on the gritty sand beach. And our digestive systems were severely disrupted by overindulgence. We had managed to not fight all week, at least; we’d called a truce and taken a break from whining about each other’s bad habits and careless words. The release from squabbles did make for a true vacation. But now we were at its end, girding ourselves to take up at home where we’d left off.
At the glass booth our attendant said something to the clerk at the computer, and they exchanged a laugh. Maybe our crew cut fellow did belong here, I thought. Maybe he was all right. After finishing his business with the clerk, he hastened back to us.
“Here you are, sir!” he said, handing Walt his receipt, “Now I’ll drive you to the airport.”
He opened the back door for my husband. I was about to suggest we were at the
airport -in fact we were less than a hundred feet across the street from the glass doors of
the departure halland we really didn’t need him to drive us there, but the young man
seemed determined. I shouldn’t deprive him of his job, I thought, so I refastened my
seatbelt and announced to him the airline departure area we needed to get to.
“Yes, ma’am.” he said.
“This is awfully nice of you,” Walt said, leaning in from the back seat, “to drive us right
to the curb.” And utterly ridiculous, I thought. Other travelers were blithely rolling their
suitcases along the crosswalk and into the terminal.
“Yes, sir. We’re the only rental company that does this for our customers.” He and Walt
launched into a conversation about the features of the car we’d rented. Noticing the
fellow’s foreign accent, I asked, “Where are you from?”
“Ruth!” Walt said. He thought I was being impertinent.
“So?” I shot back, “I’m interested!”
“I’m from Cuba, ma’am.
”Taking in his aquiline nose, fair skin, and buzz cut, I said, “You don’t look Cuban.”
“Hah, that’s what all the guys in my unit said. Thought I looked like some white guy or somethin’.” His words were tinged with bitter amusement.
“You were in the army, then?” Walt said, leaning forward.
“Yes, sir. One tour in Iraq, two in Afghanistan.”
“Oh, my,” I said. An image of heat and sand and peril sifted through my brain.
“Well, thank you,” Walt said. “thank you for your service.” He was always quicker on
the draw than I was about such things. And we so rarely came across servicemen back home.
“Oh, yes,” I muttered, “thank you for your service to our country.” I wondered how a Cuban had found his way into the U.S. Army.
“My honor, ma’am. My pleasure, too.” He paused, made a decision. “Except for the
“What?” said Walt.
“Yeah, I got that. It’s what stopped me. Otherwise I’d still be over there.”
We had emerged from the dim shadows of the parking garage and were caught in a jam
of cars jerking toward the airport exit. Our driver thumped the palm of his hand on the
steering wheel as his glance darted back and forth from the rear view mirror to the
stubborn line of vehicles ahead.
“Yeah, that old PTSD,” he said. “But that’s why this job’s good for me. Let’s me talk.
That’s my problem, see, social skills, dealing with people. This work gives me a chance
to talk with folks.”
The line of cars began to surge forward and we were soon making a wide loop on the
perimeter road of the airport. The mention of PTSD sent a missile of alarm through me.
Though, according to news reports on TV, many soldiers had come back with it, I’d
certainly never met one. I tightened my grip on my handbag and focused on figuring out
exactly how this fellow was going to get us back to our departure area, which we seemed to have left far behind.
“Yeah, I did my tours, then came back here to help my mom. Since she came to the
States, she’s been working three jobs, and I said, wow, like, I gotta start helping . . .”
We were entering the main highway on the outskirts of the airport, for some reason
heading directly away from where we needed to be. The fellow must be confused about
where we were going, I thought. I turned to make a face at Walt. Shouldn’t we say
something? Maybe our soldier had had a mental lapse and wasn’t fit to drive, let alone
serve the public. But Walt sat like a dolt, staring out at the stream of cars whizzing by.
“Haven’t we taken a wrong turn?” I said, twisting in my seat to read signs we’d passed.
“No, ma’am, we’re doing fine.”
“Are you sure?” I was certain we’d gone way past where we should have re-entered the airport.
“Yes, ma’am.” His tone seemed sly, as though he had some hidden agenda.
Then it struck me that Walt and I had given ourselves over to a total stranger, one with
mental illness to boot. Maybe our soldier boy didn’t work for the rental company after all
but had urged his buddy in the booth to let him take us for a joy ride. Right then I knew
he had no intention of returning us to the airport. We were victims of a carjacking. He
was taking us off to rob us and steal our car.
“Goin’ to school now, too,” our car thief said, “Fort Myers Community College!” He
enunciated each word, sounding truly unbalanced.
“Oh, good for you,” I said, trying to stay calm. I scanned the highway signs for some clue
as to where we were. We could end up anyplace with this lunatic at the wheel.
“Studying psychology!” he said with a note of triumph. Then haltingly he continued. “I
want to help people like me with mental issues. PTSD is pretty bad, but there’s all kinds of mental problems out there. I want to do what I can for anyone with the troubles I got.”
His attempts at conversation only ramped up my alarm. “Yes, that’s a good idea. Good
for you,” I said thinking, if I spoke kindly, I could perhaps humor him into taking us back
to the airport.
Suddenly, I wanted more than anything to get home. I longed for the security of our
modest colonial on Maple Avenue and my boring office routine. The safety of our
humdrum lives, as absurd as it was, meant the world to me. Under the control of this
mental incompetent, who know where we’d end up? A terror I’d never see my home
again boiled inside me, and Walt was doing nothing.
“Listen, you” I said, all pretense of calm tossed aside, “I don’t know what you’re up to, but we have a plane to catch. Where the hell are you taking us?”
The young man jerked his head back, blinked, and stared straight ahead.
“Ruth, give the guy a break!” said Walt.
“He knows where he’s going! Geez, the fellow’s put his life on the line for us, fighting in
those god-awful wars. Surely we can trust him to get us to the fucking airport!”
My face burned. Sweat seeped from my hands into the strap of my pocketbook. I pressed
my lips together and shut my eyes to soothe the sting. I sat there and thought how right
my husband was to shoot me down.
When I opened my eyes, a sign reading DEPARTURES with a broad yellow arrow came
into view. Down off to our left I could see the line of rental cars, the glass booth and the
crosswalk we’d left behind only moments ago. Our driver took a smooth sweep into a
lane of busses and SUVs. I cleared my throat and repeated the name of our airline.
“Here we are, ma’am.” He slid into a parking spot between two limos. In a flash he was
out of the car, pulled open the trunk, lifted our bags and placed them on the curb. I
gestured to Walt to give him a tip.
“Thank you so much,” we said in unison.
“Thank you,” said the boy, pocketing the paltry five-dollar bill.
“And good luck with your studies,” I said. My voice was shaking. If only I could grab
from the air some magical words to express my regret. “And thank you again,”--such a
deficient expression“for your service to our country.” I looked into his eyes, the eyes
of a boy who’d signed a contract to risk his mental wellbeing for the sake of us paunchy Americans. No apology would suffice. I wanted to touch him, to shake his hand, but in
the confusion of grappling with bags and carry-ons, I didn’t.
“My pleasure, ma’am,” he said, “my honor.” He jumped back into the car and drove
away, following a wide arc to his future.
About the Author: Jacqueline Masumian is the author of Nobody Home: A Memoir. She grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, and has enjoyed careers as actress, performing arts manager, and landscape designer. Her stories have appeared in Mused Literary Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Chagrin River Review, and Indiana Voice Journal. Visit her here.