Billy slid smoothly into the last row of seats in the first class compartment and wedged himself comfortably next to the window. As the rest of the passengers filtered through to the steerage seating he watched their faces for the inevitable expressions of resentment. Money bought small pleasures, like the vodka tonic which he nursed through the delays until takeoff sent him east across the Pacific Ocean.
Billy’s trip had been bountiful. He had plucked some low-hanging fruit from naive investors who weren’t as versed as he in the minutiae of the fine print, and Billy had lawyers whose contracts and ledgers had fine print all the way down to the quantum level.
He had purchased both seats in his row for himself so he was surprised to discover, upon being awakened from a light doze by sudden turbulence, that someone was seated next to him.
Billy glared at his new seatmate. “Hey buddy. That seat’s taken.”
An older man, his face bearing the telltale scruff of someone in the middle of a long flight, gazed at him through cloudy green eyes highlighted by fine gray eyebrows.
“My apologies. I am waiting for the restroom and the turbulence is, well,” He held up a cane made of gnarled wood. “I don’t balance as well as I used to.”
“Well,” Billy felt his guts rumble. The lavatory door opened and the light above it flickered from orange to green. “Afraid I’m gonna have to jump the line, pal!” He lurched out of his seat and pushed roughly past the old man and into the aisle, cutting in front of a young woman who was making her way forward.
“Emergency here, lady,” said Billy as he squeezed through the narrow door. He smirked at her scowl as the door accordioned closed.
He concluded his business and sat for an extra couple of minutes, simply because he could. The first class bathroom was much more pleasant than the facilities at the rear of the plane.
Billy exited the lavatory and smiled cheerfully at the young woman waiting outside the door. She glared back and made an exclamation of disgust as she squeezed past him. The door clicked closed and the light changed from green to orange.
The old man was still in Billy’s second seat, hands clasped over his cane. Billy stumbled as another bout of turbulence shook the plane. The old man looked up innocently as Billy glared, but made no effort to move aside. The plane shook again and Billy gave up and squeezed past and sat down. He slammed back the rest of his drink, and as if by magic a flight attendant wearing a close approximation of a smile appeared with a replacement.
“You comfortable there, pal?” said Billy.
“These seats are wonderful,” said the old man. “So much more accommodating than those farther back. And my joints aren’t what they once were.” The old man rubbed at his knuckles, and Billy saw that he wore a ring on his right ring finger, the plain metal fitting holding a remarkable green stone.
“I paid for that seat,” said Billy. “I’m a busy guy and I need space to work.”
The old man looked at the drink, and at Billy, and raised an eyebrow. The plane shook again.
“I’ll be on my way in a moment,” said the old man. The door to the lavatory opened and the young woman eased herself into the aisle. She smiled down at the old man.
“All yours, Mr. G. I think it’s aired out now.” She glared again at Billy, who raised his drink in a sarcastic salute.
The old man beamed up at her and slowly rose to his feet.
“Thank you for your patience, sir,” he said politely. Placing his cane carefully he made is way forward.
Billy snorted and looked out the window. The sky was dark, scattered stars visible through high-altitude clouds. Below was nothing but the black water of the Pacific. He took another sip from his drink and closed his eyes.
“Airplanes are liminal spaces,” said a nearby voice a few minutes later. Billy started awake. A fresh tumbler full of clear liquid and ice sat in his armrest. Next to it sat the old man.
“Air…wha?” said Billy.
“They are neither one place nor another,” said the old man. He offered a hand. “My name is Meliton.”
Billy reflexively took the hand, disorientation enough that he didn’t immediately squeeze just to see the old man wince.
“Will Jenkins. Billy. Pleased. Uh, yeah.” Billy straightened up and habits born of years of wheeling and dealing kicked in. “Where you from, Meliton? Can’t place the accent.”
“Oh, here and there. I’m travelling to San Francisco for business. And please, call me Mel.”
The vodka had done its work and Billy was feeling more relaxed. He reconsidered in the old man. Mel was dressed simply but his clothes were immaculate, and that stone in the ring was probably worth enough to buy every seat on the plane several times over.
“Is ‘here and there’ somewhere near China?”
“More or less,” said Mel. “Near the western border. Not many people know about it.”
“Small place, eh?” Said Billy.
“Yes. And quite off the beaten path.”
Small talk was one of Billy’s particular talents, and he warmed to the task.
“I get that. I grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota. Not much there.”
Mel’s eyes crinkled. “Indeed.” He pulled a small flask from his coat and held it up in a toast. “To nowhere.”
Billy lifted his vodka tonic in reply. “To nowhere!” As he tossed back his drink turbulence shook the plane and he felt a drop run down his chin.
“Shit! Sorry.” Billy dabbed his face with his sleeve. “So, Mel, tell me. What do you do that sends you all over the world?”
Mel shrugged. “My family has an old business. Some imports, some exports. Right now I am most useful as the right person in the right place at the right time. And you?”
“Finance,” replied Billy. “Speculation. Stocks and commodities. There’s some interesting stuff going on in China, and I’m staking out territory before everyone else crowds the space.”
Mel chuckled. “Yes. Too many people makes for a crowded space. But,” and he gestured with his flask. “It’s in the little nooks and crannies, where people aren’t looking, that the really interesting things happen.”
“How do you mean, Mel?” said Billy, turning in his seat as best he could. Turbulence shook the plan again, and Billy’s guts gurgled loudly in response. He winced.
“Sorry, friend. I think I need to get by you again.”
Mel squeezed to the side. “No apology necessary, Billy. Air travel taxes the strongest of us.”
Fortunately the light was green. Billy slammed the accordion door closed and spent several miserable minutes with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. It was the fish, he decided. That last night out when he and his new friends hit the streets for the “real food of China” which was flavorful and pungent, and nothing like the breaded and sugared American varieties he preferred. Authenticity, he decided, was not what it was cracked up to be.
His innards temporarily settled, Billy made his way carefully back to his seat. Mel was sitting as before, hands crossed on his cane, eyes closed and humming quietly to himself. A fresh vodka tonic occupied the cup holder in Billy’s chair.
“So Mel, I couldn’t help noticing that ring. It’s a beauty! What’s it doing on the hand of a man in steerage?”
Mel opened his eyes and glanced at the ring, then at Billy. His eyebrows rose quizzically. “‘Steerage’?”
“Cattle car. Cheap seats.” Billy gestured with his head. “Back there.”
“Ah.” Mel grimaced and sighed. “I’m afraid all of my assets are tied up in a new venture. Until they play out I must be frugal.” He smiled widely, showing startling white, slightly crooked teeth. “Imagine my delight at having a traveling companion who is so generous with his good fortune!”
Billy laughed. The several drinks were taking the edge off in a way which he had not enjoyed in quite some time, and Mel was an interesting companion. “You know Mel, I had my doubts, but you aren’t acting all entitled so, well, my pleasure!”
They shared a companionable silence as the plane soared and shook around them, and other passengers made their careful or panicked way to the lavatory, the light over the door changing from green to orange and back again. Billy polished off the vodka tonic and the magic flight attendant had it replaced less than a minute later. As he carefully sipped he saw the old man take pull from the flask.
“What are you drinking there, Mel?”
Meliton capped the flask. “It’s something from the old country. A simple recipe, though the ingredients are difficult to find. I usually save it for rough flights.” He sighed. “I am not as robust as I once was.”
“Settles your stomach, does it?”
“It’s good for digestion. I don’t travel without it. But it does have a powerful effect.” He gestured at Billy. “Would you—” he said, at the same moment that Billy said “Can I—”. Mel laughed. “Certainly. Have a sip. But carefully — it’s much more potent than a vodka tonic.”
Billy sipped, then gasped and coughed. Potent was not the word he would have used. Pungent, maybe. Or poisonous. His lips and tongue buzzed like the aftershocks of Novocaine or a habanero pepper. His teeth felt too large and suddenly Mel seemed to be sitting a long way away from him.
“Whoa,” said Billy.
“As I said,” said Mel, and the plane shook again.
“Tho — hmm. Th — SO!” said Billy. “Wow! That packs a kick. What’s in it?”
“Alcohol. I find that brandy is an excellent base. It eases the bitterness. The rest?” he shrugged. “Some roots, some herbs, and as my father says, magic.”
Billy chuckled. He was beginning to really like the old guy.
“Surprised they let you on board with that.”
“I have my ways,” said Mel. “An old man needs his medicine.”
Billy washed the taste of Mel’s medicine from his mouth with a sip of vodka. “What was that you were saying earlier? Limited space?”
“Liminal spaces. Places that are neither one thing or another. Where we are when we aren’t somewhere else.”
Billy frowned. The numbness had faded in his mouth but seemed to be playing games with the back of his neck “Yeah. I get it. But!” he said, feeling smug, “Isn’t that just another place?”
Mel beamed “Exactly! The space in between places is also a place. And in between those spaces—?”
Billy yelled “More places!” then flinched and looked around. The other passengers were buried under blankets and headphones and took no notice of him. Besides, they were so far away they probably couldn’t have heard him anyway.
Mel lifted his flask in a toast. “Turtles all the way down.”
“Turtles—? Oh! Like the elephants and the stack of—”
“Just like that, Billy,” said Mel. “Packed as close together as the ticks of a clock.”
Billy tried to set his tumbler down but the holder in the armrest was far, far away. He reached toward it anyway, and marvelled as his arm stretched the into the distance. He giggled.
Mel said, “Think of the variety of animals around the world. They can survive and prosper in some environments, but not others.”
“Yah,” said Billy. He must have finished his vodka in one of those liminal spaces because a full tumbler sat at his side, dripping with condensation. He wiped sweat from his forehead.
“If you want to see those creatures,” continued Mel, “you can’t really bring them to you, you have to go to them.”
“Like, um,” Billy frowned with concentration, which caused odd spots and tendrils to dance and writhe in front of his eyes. “Like penguins?”
“Sure, Billy. Like penguins.”
“But, um, zoos,” Billy rubbed his eyes. The spots and tendrils remained and seemed to be waving around in a strong wind. His belly rumbled and the plane shook in response.
“Of course, you can go to a zoo to see penguins,” said Meliton. “But they’re not entirely real when they’re in zoos, are they? They’re approximations. And it’s difficult to find the right food for them.”
“Like finding a good steak in Shanghai?”
“Much like that, Billy. You need to be in Minnesota for a good steak, and penguins need to be in Antarctica to find the best fish. The right food at the right time in the right place. Well,” Mel shrugged. “There’s nothing like home cooking.”
Billy’s belly rumbled loudly. He gauged the distance between his seat and the lavatory door, above which the light was thankfully green.
“Afraid I need to take a break, Mel,” said Billy, rising from his seat. The prospect of the long walk across the enormous space of the first-class compartment was daunting. “I thought you said that stuff was good for the stomach.”
“Digestion, actually,” said Mel as he held out his flask. “One more for the road?”
Without thinking Billy took the flask and downed the remaining contents, then dropped it in Mel’s lap and staggered down the walkway toward the front of the plane.
“It’s been a pleasure, Billy!” Mel called after him.
Billy held his belly and fumbled at the door handle, then squeezed inside. Somewhere far away he heard the click of the door locking, and as he turned to the toilet he fell into a vast hot space full of howling wind, and the sky above and below was full of writhing things the size of storm clouds.
And he discovered that it wasn’t turtles all the way down after all. It was, in fact, teeth.
John Winkelman lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His writing has appeared in the 1999 issue of Voices, the anthology Jot That Down: Encouraging Essays for New Writers, and other venues. In the past he has served as a director for Caffeinated Press and as the managing editor of The 3288 Review literary journal.