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Grumpy Old Man and Mr. Selfie Meet In Flight
Harmony House: Episode 4
“Harmony House” is a serial novel with episodes released every Tuesday morning. You can read the setup for the story or start from the beginning. Each episode comes with high-quality audio narration for you to enjoy on the go with the Substack mobile app.
This novel is free to read for all subscribers. Paid subscribers get access to my other serial novel, “The Memory of My Shadow” and to my entire archive of work.
In the last episode, we met Cameron, the second contestant in Houze as he’s reeling from the loss of his marriage, his home, and his job and grasping for anything that might mean some stability. At FutureAbode headquarters, the Jenson Brothers met with Eve Baron and the BangOn! Media team to discuss the final details for their reality show. Scott Jenson expresses his strong opposition to the bawdy marketing campaign, insults Eve, and has to dodge the glass that she hurls at him. Miraculously Schultz, the BangOn! director in charge is able to bring them to the meeting table and make the changes Scott demands so planning for Houze can proceed.
Staring out the tiny portal window, the landscape below was a patchwork quilt of farms stitched together by highways and fences. It was all so orderly and intentional or at least appeared to be from 40,000 feet.
Jessie knew otherwise. It was chaos down there. Hard-working people forced to borrow money against a crop that may not come in to make the payment on a patch of dirt they had all but destroyed from decades of mono-crop farming, pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones, and God knows what else. But who was Jessie to judge, sitting here sipping whiskey in the first-class cabin of an airplane owned and operated by a company that had done more damage to the ozone layer in the last fifty years than any other corporate entity? This non-stop flight alone represented a fifty percent increase in Jessie’s carbon footprint for the year. It was painful to consider.
But the flight hadn’t been a choice and Jessie had tried to find another way but the people who were in charge of this contest said it was non-negotiable. They had a tight timeline and needed to coordinate six people’s itineraries. Jessie took another sip and turned around to observe the other passengers. At 58, this was Jessie’s first time ever to sit in first class. The people were decidedly not impressive specimens. But what was the expectation? Tailored suits and Italian leather briefcases? Runway haute couture and Gucci handbags? These people were in sweatpants and T-shirts. They looked like they just rolled out of bed to go down to Denny’s for pancakes.
There was one exception though. The kid in the aisle seat across the way was a sharp dresser with jet-black, shoulder-length hair and tortoise-colored designer glasses. Every time Jessie looked over at him during the three-hour flight, he had been alternately preening for a selfie, doom-scrolling on his phone or furiously typing on his sleek laptop. He had a small frame, bird-like really and his complexion was dark. Jessie figured second-generation immigrant, maybe Indian or Pakistani. Whatever his country of origin was, he was 100% American. That much was clear. Only fucking Americans could be so completely self-absorbed. Jessie wondered what the kid did for a living. Probably worked in marketing or social media or brand management or one of those nothing-burger jobs that kids did at Jessie’s last place of employment.
There was a little gurgle of turbulence, and the captain came over the intercom and said they should all stay seated and keep their seatbelts fastened. They would be landing in Atlanta in less than thirty minutes. Jessie took another sip of whisky and stared at the sober face reflected in the glass of the darkened entertainment screen on the seatback.
When did he get so goddamned old? He tugged on his grizzled beard and sighed. Was there still a man under there, a person of any real value, a person with anything left to offer the world or was he just in the way? For all his clean living, his fasting, his abstinence, his meditation, and mindfulness, Jessie was a crusty old white man with a permanent scowl and a furrowed brow to match. He wondered if there was time to order another free drink. What the hell, he was off the program now anyway. He was no longer gainfully employed. There was no one anxiously waiting for him back home. He was on a new adventure now for the first time. This was his first step in finally doing what he’d wanted to do for the last fifteen years: completely unplug from the grid and disappear.
The plane touched down without incident and rolled into a smooth taxi that seemed to last for days as everyone twitched in their seats and fidgeted with their devices waiting for the enormous plane to lumber up to the gate. When it did, the elevator ding of the seatbelt sign was like the opening bell of the stock market. Passengers were up and out of their seats, exposing their ample bellies and ass cracks to their neighbors as they groped up and down for their bags. Jessie stayed seated and waited. He didn’t figure they would leave without him.
According to the last email communication, there was going to be a driver to meet him when he got to the baggage claim area – not that he needed baggage claim. He’d only brought his backpack and a small duffle with his essentials. He’d spent the better part of his life backpacking so he knew how to pack lean and tight.
In all the jockeying for position to deplane, there was a commotion in the aisle.
“Young man, your suitcase has ruined my jacket,” an older woman said, her voice a quivering warble that reminded Jessie of his mother in her last years.
The young man in question was Mr. Selfie who pretended he couldn’t hear the distressed woman. Earbuds jammed in his ears, he rummaged through the front pocket of his expensive messenger bag which was a kind of distressed leather jobber with a big silver buckle. The woman held up her non-descript overcoat and pointed out the tear in the back by poking her arthritic fingers through the gaping hole.
“Excuse me, excuse me,” she persisted, trying to get his attention.
She looked around to the other passengers, but no one was willing to make eye contact. The woman was distressed, her mouth quivering into a frown as she lowered the garment and folded it over her arm.
Jessie asked the pot-bellied man who had been sitting in the aisle seat next to him and was now busy shouldering his backpack, “Did you see what happened here? Did the kid rip her coat?”
“Aw hell, I don’t man, maybe,” he said under his breath. “He did pull down a big suitcase.”
The man nodded downward into the aisle in front of him. Mr. Selfie’s suitcase was some industrial-looking thing with sharp metal corners. Jessie squinted to get a closer look and saw the damning evidence of some taupe fibers that clung to one of the rivets that secured one of the corner braces. He sighed.
“Hey, kid,” Jessie called, loud enough for everyone to turn around and look at him.
Mr. Selfie didn’t look up. Jessie motioned for Potbelly to nudge him to get his attention. Potbelly frowned but reached over and tapped Mr. Selfie on the shoulder. Mr. Selfie turned around looking annoyed as he pulled out one of his earbuds and flipped his hair back. He didn’t articulate an answer, only raised his eyebrows and did that impatient head waggle that people do when they feel put upon. Potbelly directed his attention to Jessie. Jessie leveled his gaze on the kid and stood up into a crouch, perching one knee on Potbelly’s empty seat.
“Did you know your suitcase tore this lady’s jacket?” he asked, gesturing to the older woman.
“No, I didn’t do anything,” Mr. Selfie said, indignant.
“Well, I think maybe you did,” Jessie said pointing down at the evidence on his suitcase. “Show him your jacket ma’am.”
As the lady was reaching to hold out the rent garment, Mr. Selfie brushed by her and was on his way quickly toward the exit. Another passenger, oblivious to the unfolding drama followed him. People in the rows behind Jessie were pushing and murmuring their impatience. Potbelly shrugged his shoulders and moved forward to the exit. Jessie grabbed his duffle from the overhead. He stopped in front of the woman.
“I’m sorry ma’am, that was very rude,” he said, pausing for a beat to make eye contact.
The woman made a sad smile, blinked, and said, “It certainly was. What’ll I do if it rains?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Jessie said and then he hurried to deplane.
Mr. Selfie was fast, already advancing through the terminal past the food kiosks and restrooms. Jessie shouldered his Patagonia pack, tightened the straps, and set off after him. As one of his strides equaled roughly two of the kid’s, it wasn’t long before he overtook him. Rather than sidle up beside him, Jessie passed him and squared off in front of him, causing the kid to stop short. Mr. Selfie’s eyes popped open wide, and he swallowed hard.
“Pardon me young man, but I believe you didn’t behave your best back there. It’s one thing to accidentally damage someone else’s property, but it’s a whole other thing to not apologize or even acknowledge them.”
Mr. Selfie didn’t say anything at first. He seemed like an exotic bird who just flew into a window. Jessie knew most people weren’t good at confrontations. It required a strength of character that most people lacked. He didn’t budge. He didn’t say anything else. He just waited to see what this one would do when confronted with the fight or flight juice. It appeared to Jessie that a number of calculations were taking place and each one flickered a possible solution across the kid’s face in rapid succession: fear, repentance, contempt, annoyance, pleading. Finally, he spoke.
“Look man, I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure it was my fault to begin with, and I’m in a hurry to meet someone. What do you want me to do here? You want to make a citizen’s arrest?”
“I want you to do the right thing,” Jessie said, evenly.
“And what’s that? You want me to pop in here and buy her a new raincoat,” the kid said, gesturing at nothing in particular. “You want me to exchange insurance info with her?”
“Judging by your smart-ass tone, I can see this is a pointless conversation. Your parents clearly didn’t teach you manners so I’m not going to assume I can. What if someone behaved that way with your mother?”
“My parents are dead. Thank you for the ethics seminar. Unless you have further wisdom you want to impart, am I free to go now?”
Jessie sighed and weighed his options. As a younger man, he might have been inspired to pugilism, but that was not a good look on a man of his years. He stepped aside and gestured for the kid to pass which he did, quickly, but not before turning his head ever so slightly and saying, “You’re a self-important old fuck.”
The vein in Jessie’s neck pulsed so hard it was like a knock. He closed his eyes and took three deep, calming breaths. He was interrupted by a hand on his arm.
“Well, did you find him?”
The old lady with the ripped raincoat was craning her neck to look up at him.
“Sorry, I tried,” he said. “Some people have no manners, and they can’t be taught.”
“Well, he was a little haji asshole anyway. You can’t teach those people how to act decent.”
Jessie sighed and shook his head. “Wow, this just gets better. Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity. Best of luck with your travels.”
He wasn’t sure she could interpret sarcasm even though she was old enough to be Mark Twain’s sister. Not waiting to find out, Jessie turned on his heel and strode down the jetway.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been in a big airport. It was overwhelming, a sensory overload. Between the smell of cinnamon buns, French fry grease, and human feces masked by bathroom cleaners, the cacophony of a thousand conversations, intercom announcements, screaming babies, beeping electronics, and televisions blaring and the visual assault of digital signage telling you where to go, what to buy, what to eat, where to vacation and how to invest your money, Jessie had the beginnings of a generous migraine gathering at the base of his skull.
He managed to find the “plane train” as they called it in this airport and rode it four stops to the main terminal and baggage claim. He exited the train with the herd of other passengers whose final destination was Atlanta and took his place at the foot of one of the longest escalators he’d ever seen in his life. Three-quarters of the way up, he spotted Mr. Selfie, taking a selfie. What a little fucker.
Jessie closed his eyes and took three more calming breaths. He opened his eyes when he felt the air around him change. An air-conditioned breeze carried with it a hint of the outdoors. He was blessedly close to escaping and getting a few lungfuls of real oxygen. Jessie stepped off the escalator, passed the TSA guards, and scanned the clusters of greeters waiting here for their people. There were Dads with little kids waiting with flowers and balloons for mommy’s return. There were clusters of young bridesmaids in matching t-shirts and tiaras waiting for their bride. And of course, there was the odd assortment of drivers, mostly brown-skinned men wearing white button-downs and black, dress pants. They all held up signs at chest level, some of them scrawled by hand on a legal pad or piece of cardboard, some displayed on a tablet screen.
After some scanning, Jessie spotted an elderly gentleman holding up a tablet with two names printed on it. The sign read:
Jessie started walking towards the sign, relieved to be a step closer to ending his long travel day. He reached the man and extended his hand.
“Hi there, I’m Jessie.”
“Hello Sir, welcome to Atlanta. My name’s Melvin. I hope your flight was good,” the man said as he closed the cover on the tablet and stowed it in a little attaché case. “We’re just waiting for Mr. Jain who had to make a stop at the restroom.”
Jessie plunked down his duffle on the floor.
“Here sir, let me have your bags and I’ll put them on the cart here with Mr. Jain’s things.”
The driver took his duffle and turned to the cart behind him. Jessie stepped around him, unshouldered his pack, and sat it down on the cart too right next to the two bags of Mr. Jain. One of those bags was a large industrial, metal case with sharp corners and some taupe thread caught on one of the rivets.
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Who’s Who in Harmony House?
Having trouble keeping track of who’s who from one week to the next? It’s tough when you only get to visit once a week. I made a little cheat sheet just for you: