JEFF BAKKENSEN - BUYING SIGNALS
Micah wasn’t sure why some things annoyed him out of proportion to others. For example, his phone vibrating in his pocket as he waited for a delayed flight to a sales conference in Chicago that would occupy, checking his watch now to confirm, yes, less time than the travel there and back. Somehow, right now, the phone call was where his annoyance focused. The delay was just life.
It was Mom. A mass of maligned travelers knotted around the belt blocking access to the skybridge as he stood and scanned the terminal to assess progress towards departure. Out past the windows, red and green lights flashed against the tarmac, each wing-tipping pair slightly out of sync with every other. He sat down again before picking up.
“Micah, are you in the middle of something? I won’t keep you long.”
Mom’s first two lines were always the same, followed by a pause as she gathered her wind to sail the conversation forward. Today she had a very important message that she hoped didn’t upset Micah on his way to Chicago.
“Pat Sturbridge has died.”
Micah squinted his mind’s eye as a middle-aged man, his youth pastor, came into focus.
“Yes. Craig Bridge. I hope that doesn’t upset you.”
Micah checked his emotions the way his therapist had taught him, and found that he wasn’t upset. An airline employee briefly stepped to one of the kiosk computers. Micah stood again to see what she would do.
“I’m so sorry to tell you like this,” said Mom. “It’s awful, but he had a heart attack while he was swimming.”
It did sound awful, he gave her that.
“I just found out,” she said. Micah listened while she traced the lines of communication through names still familiar from their time in the church.
For as long as he could remember, Micah had found it helpful to organize his perceptions of everyone he met on a specific point or story around which the rest of their person could be wound. For Pastor Craig, that was a sermon delivered to Micah and the rest of the youth group when Micah was in sixth or seventh grade.
“Remember the story about the traffic sign?” Micah asked.
He’d first realized what he was doing the summer before his sophomore year of high school, when he found himself annotating his yearbook with private notes about his classmates. You’re a good listener, friends’ moms would tell him while their sons were out of earshot. The yearbook became a notebook became an excel file he still regularly updated. His ex-boyfriend Joe had called it borderline committable behavior, but as Micah always drilled into his presentations to junior associates, the first step to a sale was understanding the buyer. Without that, all you ever had was luck.
The youth sermon, Micah telling Mom now, was a parable of God speaking to the faithful. One day Pastor Craig was driving through Big Dig Boston when he passed a sign that read, Craig Bridge still open. Craig Bridge: his own name lettered in LED. The bridge’s proper name was Craigie Bridge. Who abbreviated by two letters? Who signaled that a road was open rather than closed? When a pastor asked a question, the answer was usually God. The sign was a message, the chessboard-moving of traffic cones and construction workers for the benefit of a single solipsistic soul. It meant that his Account, some words were so maximal they had to be capitalized, with God was still Open. No Decision had as yet been made.
Mom said, “I don’t remember that at all.”
“Because it was a youth sermon.”
What did it mean to have an open account with God? Micah remembered a smiling description of a soul trembling issued from a dinner table seat that Pastor Craig filled for a few evenings while Dad was away working through the issues he blamed on Mom. Saving faith required good works and good works required moral clarity, which seemed even to a sixth or seventh grader like a snake eating its own tail situation.
“Didn’t he adopt some kid from El Salvador just before we stopped going?”
Mom wasn't sure.
The airline employee went back to the kiosk and finally there was good news as she called Micah’s boarding, her lips moving a half second before the announcement lisped over the loudspeaker. The woman’s winding spire of hair, Micah thought, would be the thing he’d remember, the way it punctuated the lines of passengers passing back and forth in front of the kiosk.
Micah told Mom he had to go, and only realized as he hung up that he hadn’t asked whether she was upset. Of course that’s why she’d called.
His bags were gathered and carried and dropped near the group of people blocking the skybridge. Start, stop. It was a chore to pay attention to something you had no control over. Like, how many times had Pastor Craig driven over the Craigie Bridge and been ever so slightly disappointed at not finding anything actionable? Maybe the whole Bridge family was named after Boston bridges. Tobin Bridge. Eliot Bridge. Micah couldn’t think of any others. He boarded with his fellow Mosaic passengers and sat on the aisle, then stood to let an older woman take the window seat. Start, stop.
There was an imaginary ear towards which Micah directed these asides that his therapist had helped him identify as belonging to Joe, the same ex-boyfriend who’d objected to his spreadsheets. But they weren’t asides, he corrected himself in his therapist’s voice, if they were important enough to share. He and Joe had met at UMass and lived together after college. It was one of those things, and this thought was also Joe- and therapist-directed, where if you could unspool and splice, Micah would have chosen to drop his scenes with Joe into a later part of the film, reshoot his early twenties, and achieve a satisfying resolution at thirty.
This was a breakthrough, said the therapist.
“How would Joe feel if he knew he was still in your life?”
But Micah wasn’t sure he wanted to know, and a few months later, the breakthrough had already passed into well trod territory. It felt reheated, sickened with digestive smells, and even this thought staled as he jawed it silently into Joe’s patient ear.
Another delay occurred on the runway while the captain’s fried voice intercommed about weather over the Great Lakes. Micah listened to a couple behind him bemoan the wedding rehearsal they’d already missed. The woman in the window seat read a book until they finally took off, and then went to sleep with her hands in her lap. Micah pulled out his laptop and began to go over his PowerPoint.
There’d been a time when it was easier to move in new circles, both within yourself and in the world. As you got older, you began to run up against the same people, and always the same self. Joe was still living in the condo he’d bought when Micah moved out. His spreadsheet entry said so.
The plane dipped and Micah looked past his sleeping seatmate, but the window was closed. This must have been the weather the fried voice had described.
If two or three consecutive flights are delayed, the traveler begins to factor delay into his travel. Did Pastor Craig ever look for other avenues of communication, driving by his namesake bridge day after day, waiting for the hook around which to wind his life’s story? Maybe his mail. Every bill a notice of God’s Accounting. Census Takers His Agents.
Micah went back to his PowerPoint, and as he did, the plane dropped, like just before you fall asleep and your thoughts begin to scatter. His seatmate came alive and slammed her armrest. Their seats stuttered. But the woman didn’t seem afraid, only confused, as if she’d forgotten something vital she’d been meaning to say.