THE BLACK BAG
There’s no way I will get a story written during this ﬂight. Why even try? The stewardess will keep interrupting. Turbulence will make my handwriting illegible. Hunger, stale air and cabin pressure will leave me too groggy to complete a thought. The Finnish guy beside me will start snoring and drooling down his chin. There are too many distractions onboard to allow one’s imagination to soar.
Even as I write this simple confession of my inability to write, the Finn beside me leans forward, gazes upon my scribbles and says, “Are you a writer? Are you writing a story?”
I say, “No, I am not a writer. I’m just trying to scribble some thoughts.”
“It is too bad you’re not a writer,” says the Finn, “because I had a strong experience today that will make for a good story.”
Yes, I’m sure you did, I think. Most non-writers believe it’s all that simple. The slightest blip on the radar of ordinary experience instantly qualiﬁes as a story, so they believe, as if stories were solely about unique experiences. They have no understanding that even the most mundane moments in human life—the dissolving of a wafer into a cup of tea, riding a shopping mall escalator or diapering a baby—these simple, every-day events can be brought to life on the page in a way that conveys our most esoteric feelings, beliefs and ideals.
But I don’t have a chance to explain any of this to the Finn who has decided to inﬂict his recent experience upon me—even if I am not a writer.
“I should be on this ﬂight yesterday,” he says, jabbing a ﬁnger into the seat in front of him. “Yesterday, I am at the airport early. I stand in line. I give them ticket. Then two security men say I must come with them. What is this, I think? I have good visa. I have
all my correct papers…”
He wipes his perspiring face on his shirt sleeve, then leans closer. I can see the swelling pores on his pink Finn nose.
“These men take me to a small room. There is just table and one chair. They tell me, sit. I wait. I wait some more. Then two new men come. They want to know what I do for work, how long I traveling, who are my parents—yes, all this.”
“To make a long story short, they make mistake. They confuse me with another Henrik Vaara from Turku who, I think, is in very big trouble. But this is not my problem. My problem is I miss my ﬂight. Airline says, this is not their problem. This is the problem
because of police. But they give me new ticket and hotel room.”
The Fin pauses as the stewardess takes out drink orders. “May I please have two Coca-Colas?”
“Two?” repeats the waitress.
“Yes. I am sorry. I am very thirsty.”
The stewardess hands me an orange juice and hands Henrik two Coke cans and a cup of ice. Henrik continues.
“Okay. So I have big inconvenience at airport. But what can I do? I take shuttle bus to hotel. I watch Friends on TV. Then fall to sleep watching As Good as It Gets. Do you know this movie? You will have to tell later how it ends.”
“So I am sleeping when I hear a big noise. There is somebody at my door. Door opens. Someone is inside. I am trying not to breathe, like to be invisible. This person can take my bag, take my computer. I don’t care. Just don’t kill me. Light goes on and this person and me have a big shock. It is some business woman with—oh, I don’t know—she is carrying so many bags. She says, ‘I am very sorry.’ She looks at her key card. ‘I’m looking for room 228,’ she says.
“‘This is room 228,’ I say. There is some confusion. She says she will go downstairs to have management give her new room. ‘Okay,’ I say. ‘No problem.’
“Then I try sleeping some more. Maybe three hours. I wake up, I get ready to leave and what is this? There is some black bag next to door. Deﬁnitely not my bag. It is maybe from this woman, I think.”
Henrik has only just ﬁnished his ﬁrst Coke and is already a bit twitchy. Dandruff ﬂutters from his jerky eyebrows. He burps and lifts the end of his navy tie to wipe his purply lips.
“Something makes me want to look inside. What is that word? Curiosity. Yes. So I open this bag and what do I ﬁnd? I ﬁnd this little — what do you call them? Small white clouds for to take off makeup. Cotton balls! Yes. A bag of cotton balls. This and a white plastic something that has writing, Danger: Hazardous Materials. I think this is not a good thing for me to have. If I leave this in my room, a maid will come and make report and say it is mine. Maybe they will call airline and there will be trouble. But if I bring this to hotel desk and explain this problem they maybe make trouble for me. Ask that I speak to police, ﬁll out report—I don’t know what. And I cannot miss my ﬂight. Not a second time. So I think I must leave bag in hallway somewhere. But this is problem too because when I leave my room, everyone else in hotel is leaving their room. There is nowhere to leave bag without someone seeing me.
“Okay. So I have a new plan. I sit in hotel lobby. I put bag next to chair. I wait a few minutes and thinking—Pfft.” Henrik walks two ﬁngers through the air. “I walk away. Leave bag. Nobody notices. But when I stand I see there is some video camera looking — you know— straight at me. What can I do? I take black bag with me and leave hotel.”
Henrik quickly scans the isle, the back heads of passengers and the overhead bins. He lowers his voice to a loud whisper and rests and index ﬁnger upon my drink tray.
“Now this is where I am getting very nervous, because on this shuttle bus to airport…”
Maybe the altitude is affecting me. Maybe the cabin pressure is low. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just too hungry to focus on what the Finn is telling me. My attention begins to wander. My eye is drawn to the window just past the Finn’s left shoulder. There are billowy cloud tops. Cotton balls afﬂicted with gigantism. In the distance, they seem to be dissolving into the cyan blue sky. I think about their potential as metaphor. Clouds like cotton balls soaked in ethyl acetate. Me, a captive in a glass jar…
No, stories will not come to me here, not with so many distractions and interruptions. If only I were alone somewhere quiet, with my own thoughts. If only there wasn’t this plane, this waitress, the oceanic roar of air vents, and this tall Finn beside me, yammering on and on as if he had a story to tell.
KEN NASH is the founder of the Alchemy reading & performance series in Prague. His short fiction has appeared in The Prague Revue, Bordercrossing-Berlin and X-24. The Brain Harvest (& Other Autobiographical Fictions) was published by Equus Press in 2012.
Praise For Ken Nash’s The Brain Harvest, now out from Equus Press:
“The stories in Ken Nash’s brilliant collection The Brain Harvest lay bare the sparks and idiosyncrasies of an exceptional mind. Each new story is distinct and memorable in its jewel-like compactness, and the characters we meet are unique and endearing. In subject matter, the stories weave and delve into continuously unexpected territory; from the alien adventures of Emily Dickinson, to the intricacies of bespoke basket-making, time travel, orchestral garden plots, and the great green sea lizards that haunt our parents’ dreams. Nash’s playful and quick-witted style bears echoes of maverick American greats like George Saunders and Donald Barthelme, and recalls the quirkiness of Miranda July. Taut, intelligent, eccentric, and wholly engaging, The Brain Harvest is a wonderful debut for a very talented new writer.”
– Clare Wigfall, author of The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber & Faber) and winner of the 2008 BBC National Short Story Award.