By WILLY MORRIS
The man selected a window seat, stuffed his shoulder bag under the
seat in front of him, pulled out a bestseller and began to read. A
college student chose the aisle seat and quickly buried his face in a
thick calculus text. The middle seat remained empty until the last
stand-by passengers were herded aboard, and a skinny little girl with
corn rows slid between the two men.
The man returned to his book as the plane clawed into the air. The
story, about a tortured Southern gentleman who had fallen in love with
a 16-year-old girl, made his eyelids droop. Outside the window, an
unbroken bank of clouds slid underneath the vibrating wing as the
horizon turned a brilliant pink.
Her feet dangling over the edge of her seat, the little girl stretched
for the in-flight magazine, flipped through the pages and stuffed it
back into the seat pocket. She peered around her neighbor to look out
the window, then rummaged around in a shopping bag, pulled out an
oversized chocolate chip cookie, took one bite and dumped it back into
She's bored, the man thought, remembering what it was like to be that
young and sitting on an airplane all alone. Ask her where she's going,
if she's ever flown before, he told himself. But he had never been
comfortable with strange children, and he didn't really feel like
talking. If his neighbor had been another adult he would have just
stared out the window thinking about work until they landed in San
He had become a reporter 10 years before because he thought it was a
way to do something more than just earn a paycheck and pay his bills.
Now he felt like all those people he never wanted to be, the ones who
just put in their eight hours, head home, eat dinner, watch TV, then
go to bed, so they can get up and do it again. Today was typical. Two
cop briefs, because the cop reporter just quit, and a nice little
feature story that he had liked until his spacy editor rewrote the
lead for his own, unknown reasons. The job was safe and secure, but as
each day passed his opportunities dwindled and he felt as if he would
never move on to something better. Nothing, these days, seemed to work
out right. Even this trip to see old friends from college was starting
off badly. The plane was late and he wouldn't be able to meet them for
dinner as he had planned.
From the speaker overhead came the overly friendly voice of a male
"How're you all doing tonight? Sorry for the delay. To make it up to
you, we're going to play a little game. I've got a prize up here for
the person who's got the oldest penny. If you've got an old penny on
you, just reach up and push the call button."
The man thought about reaching into his pocket and sifting through the
handful of change the clerk had handed him after he bought his turkey
sandwich for lunch. Why bother, he thought. It's not worth the effort.
"1958," the flight attendant said. "I've got a 1958 penny. Who can
Just then, the man remembered something. He leaned over to the little
"Do you want to win a prize?" he asked, reaching for the wallet in his
She nodded yes.
Ripping open the Velcro seal, he stuck two fingers into the little
mesh pocket that held his SCUBA diving card and an Indian head penny
he had found years before in the jar of pennies that collected three
and four at a time every day when he came home from work. Handing the
penny to the little girl, he said, "You reach up and push that button
and give this to the flight attendant. No one's going to beat this."
When he saw she couldn't reach the button, he reached up and pushed it
A second attendant appeared from the back of the plane, took the penny
from the girl's fingers, looked at her, then shook his head.
"1901," he called out.
The contest was over.
The first attendant clomped down the aisle with a black plastic trash
bag bunched in either hand. "You get your choice of one bag or a free
cocktail," he called out while the winner was still hidden behind the
seats in front of her.
"Nah, you don't get no cocktail," he said when he saw her smile filled
with teeth that was still too big for her 9-year-old mouth.
"Which bag do you want?"
"That one," she said, pointing to the bag in his left hand.
"You won ... a month's supply of peanuts," he said, lifting up a clear
plastic bag filled with foil-wrapped packets of airline peanuts and
placing it in the girl's eager hands.
"I'm going to eat these all in about one day," she said to the man
with the penny.
From a point somewhere above his belly button yet lower than his
chest, the man felt a tiny surge of pressure that turned into a rush
of warmth and spread throughout his body. His nose tingled, eyes
watered and a little smile turned up the corners of his mouth.
"I think it'll take you a little longer than that," he said. "Maybe a
"Yeah, maybe a week," she said. "I'll have some when I get home from
school, and some when I'm watching TV."
They were friends.
He asked her where she was going, and she told him she was going to
see the dolphins at SeaWorld. She said she liked roller coasters, and
he told her he was afraid of them. She said her mom had cooked chicken
and cornbread and broccoli for dinner. He told her he hadn't eaten
When the plane started its descent, she took an almost finished
package of Lifesavers from her pocket, peeled back the crumpled waxed
paper, and popped one in her mouth.
"You want one," she asked. "It keeps your ears from getting clogged
"You must be an experienced flyer," he said, taking a yellow one from
the roll. "You know all the tricks."
"Yeah, this isn't the first time I've been on an airplane. But the
last time was a long time ago. I was only seven then."
They sat side-by-side sucking on their Lifesavers and looking out the
window. He pointed out the coastline and the mountains and a baseball
stadium filled with fans. She liked the twinkling lights, and when the
plane circled to land became confused about which vast dark area was
the ocean and which was the mountains.
As the plane touched down and pulled into the gate, she gathered up
her shopping bag and peanuts.
"Bye," she said, and disappeared down the aisle with a flight