Part I by Romulus
Nobody said traveling would be easy. And absolutely everybody said that traveling with Julian Ahlquist would be lunacy; and this most especially in my case. Not the least of those who portentously dissuaded me, warning of impending tragedies and devastating mental and physical traumas, is my former roommate Paul Provencher.
Paul, it should be noted, has proven himself singularly able to effortlessly keep track of my worldly possessions and in large part my whole physical person, which often wanders about getting into all sorts of trouble without my consciously being aware that that is what it is doing; being aware of just how much I depend on this sort of thing, and well aware that Julian would be more likely to absent-mindedly lead me off a cliff in the Alps onto my final resting place of jagged rocks than to be able to perpetually pinpoint the precise position of my pipe (alliteration strangely unintended), he fretted for at least thirty seconds about whether I would survive without him.
Not surprisingly, both what had not been said, and what had been said, are proven correct. I may very well not survive this trip. And yet, four days into this pilgrimage, or whatever name you care to give it, I still firmly ascribe to the belief that sometimes living on the edge, and even a little over the edge, maybe even contorted and bleeding and dying on a bed of jagged rocks in the Alps, is worth its weight in gold.
For instance, the very first act of mine and Julian’s on this trip, even before leaving American soil, was one that was dreadfully and shamelessly illegal, as certain uniformed people-who-would-know repeatedly told us in angry voices while threatening to call the sort of uniformed people-who-know who specialize in the use of firearms. Jolly good fun.
The following not-so-tall tale is one that Julian and I have told a good two dozen times in the last few days, and is likely more amusing in person, since we have developed a nuanced accompaniment of bizarre and grandiose hand gestures and impassioned anti-French invective; but this article will simply have to do.
The curtains rise on the campus of Christendom College on the day of our departure. At first it had been our intention to ride to Dulles airport in a Christendom van some time in the early afternoon. Sam Philips, however, graciously offered to drive Julian and myself a little later which presented the blessed opportunity for me to finish packing and to enjoy a little more time with a particularly lovely native of Oklahoma. At some point while doing exactly that I received a frantic message that our beloved registrar, Walter Janaro, was in Regina Coeli on the verge of having an aneurysm. The reason was a piece of baggage that had mysteriously surfaced and that belonged to a student who had already left in the Christendom van.
The bag belonged to Greg Roth. It had, directly contrary to Greg’s specific request to the contrary, just been sent to the College by the airport which had misappropriated it the day before when Greg had flown in from Saskatchewan. The solution seeming clear. I took the bag, saved Walter’s life, or at least his sanity, and the matter seemed closed. It wasn’t. Goodness no.
A few tearful farewells later and we arrived at Dulles. Seeing as both Julian and I each already had the maximum of two bags to check in, and Greg’s bag appearing too large to take as a carry-on, I bucked up for a fight and asked if I could check in the bit of luggage on Greg’s behalf. The expected negative was delivered by the expected airport peon, a pasty young fellow with spiky black hair and a lethargic attitude. I asked if I could speak to someone in authority. Certainly. Spiky-haired youth disappears and pops back with rodent-like Frenchman in tow.
I explain the dilemma. “It is illegal” I am informed in a thick French accent. Because of security reasons, I am told. The weasely Frenchman proves himself unable to explain why they can’t just search the bag and thereby alleviate all security concerns so that we can all go on our merry ways and be friends. But, I quickly remind myself with a curious bent for optimism, this is a bureaucrat, a weasely, bald French bureaucrat nonetheless, and I shouldn’t expect too much, and certainly, God forbid, not logic. “Well then, what if the 50% bagless Roth, who had already checked into the airport, comes out here and claims the bag.” Certainly. If you can get him to do it within fifteen minutes, at which point check-in for the flight ends, which is unlikely.
“Well, could you please page him for us then?” No. It’s against the rules. “Can we use your telephone?” No. “Julian, do you by chance have ESP? Can you channel spirits? Do you have mystical powers of bilocation? Can you walk through walls? As prime-minister of the kaphoozle ministry can you order this French bureaucrat to shut his trap and allow us to do as we please?” No. “What use are you then?” None. “I see. I’ll remember that.”
Turning back to the bureaucrat who has enclosed himself in his comfortable and impermeable fortress of red-tape: “Well, what are our options here, then, if you don’t mind our asking?” You can leave the bag somewhere in the airport, the bomb squad will be called, and the bag will be sniffed, searched, and incinerated. “Ah. Not much of an option is it, really?”
Dark feelings of hopelessness set in.
The time has come for drastic measures. Julian becomes bad cop, furrowing his eyebrows together and raising his voice, while I becoming good cop, maintaining a cool, collected, reasonable demeanour. Julian begins to yell at theweasely French fellow, while I pretend to try to calm him down and ask cool, reasonable questions of the bureaucrat. Contrary to the plan this bald, weasely Frenchman does not raise his hands in surrender, nor does he announce his intention to drop everything and have an immediate revolution. “What,” I ask in what strikes me as a particularly ingenious maneuver, “if we actually lied before, and this is our bag after all? What’s to stop us from claiming it as our own?” The fact that you told me that it wasn’t. “Ah. Yes. There is that isn’t it? Quid est veritas?” He’s not taking the existentialist bait.
I am feeling glum. The distinction between the good cop and the bad cop becomes increasingly glossed over; and a spark of fear ignites the eyes of the weasely Frenchman when he realizes that he has two large, furrow-browed, stage-voiced, indistinguishable, angry, curly-haired men who are seriously questioning the merit of his continued existence.
He threatens to call the police. This strikes myself and Julian as a good point to ease off a little. We do. Actually, we turn around and leave; steam is billowing from Julian’s ears.
After exploring our options in depth, and concluding that we don’t have any, we decide that rather than leaving our friend’s bag to be sniffed, searched, and incinerated we will bank upon the inability of bureaucrats to communicate with one another and bring the offending bag through security as a piece of carry-on luggage. Brilliant. This we do, with not the least amount of trouble. And as we stride away from the X-ray machines, on the right side of the airport, we are both filled with feelings of elation. Now all we need to do is take the bag on the plane, hope that Greg doesn’t say anything about it, and upon arrival in Rome transfer it to his possession. Foolproof.
Foolproof, of course, if it were not that the weasely Frenchman happens to lead a double-life as a ticket collector inside the terminal. The sight of him, there should be no need to say, causes great consternation. We curse in fashions that are not entirely Christian. But he has not yet seen us and we make full use of his ignorance. As a last ditch maneuver we engage the services of one of the girls to go up to the front of the line, to grab Greg who is waiting in queue, and to bring him back to where we are standing.
“Greg,” we say in nervous stage-whispers that can probably be heard in Timbuktu, “we have just brought your bag in through security illegally. That weasel-like Frenchman up there is out for our blood. Take the bag, and cross your fingers, and pray like a maniac, and maybe with the Grace of God you can get it by him. Just take the damn thing off our hands! We don’t want it any more. It is cursed.”
However, Greg is looking at us in what strikes me as a situationally inappropriate fashion. We wait his answer.
He looks down. And then he looks up. “That’s not my bag.” He giggles nervously. We both think about socking him one, but fortunately for him we have bigger problems now.
We discuss leaving the bag here in the terminal. But a man in the line behind us says that we can’t do that because they’ll shut down the whole terminal and our flight won’t leave. As a bunch of us throw ideas back and forth I notice that Julian’s face has donned a frightening look of determination, and there is a red gleam in his eyes. Of a sudden he grabs the offending bag with a visceral grunt of frustration and anger, turns around and before I can get out a word, disappears through the crowd. It is an image that I will not soon forget.
Ten minutes later I am on the airplane, and Julian is not. Seven minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave I have said fifty-eight full rosaries, and have experimented in the use of the force and voodoo to will Julian onto the airplane. Five minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave, to my immense relief, he appears; a goofy grin is splashed across his face.
“Thank God!” I say as he takes his seat. “But what on earth did you do with that accursed bit of baggage?”
Julian, however, only smiles mysteriously, unwilling to say. I explore different scenarios and continue to pepper him with questions. But he will not reveal his secret, and all the way to Rome that mysterious, inscrutable smile is the only answer I receive to my inquiries.
To be continued…
Part II by Remus
I contemplated abandoning the cursed suitcase at a different terminal and having that one shut-down and swarmed with bomb-squads and airplane delays rather than our terminal, so that we would be just fine. But then I was overcome by the small residue of conscience I had left, as most of it had been eroded away by violent thoughts against the French. My heart oscillated in painful gasps as I surveyed the Airport battleground. To me, this suitcase was worse than a bomb. I wished it was a bomb, so then it would blow up and disappear and leave me alone. But no, it was a normal suitcase. It wouldn’t go away.
As I headed toward an alternate terminal, I threw myself at the mercy of the airport ticket agents, saying, “Excuse me, I thought this was my friend’s bag, but it isn’t. What should I do? It’s not my bag. I don’t know whose it is.” And I didn’t mention that I had brought it through security illegally.
They asked me, “What’s your airliner?”
And I shot back in haste, “Air France.”
To my chronic depression, they explained that this terminal was, in fact, not Air France but Luftansteinawitz or something wretched like that. They commanded me to take the terrible luggage back to the Air France terminal. This, of course, was out of the question, as the legalistic French weasel from hell was standing guard at those very gates with the knowledge of our sin.
At this point, I executed a plan which I had kept in the back of my mind if all diplomacy should fail. I charged into the bathroom, opened wide the stall, and set the suitcase upon the toilet seat. Here, I rested, meditating in silence what evil consequence might come should I give this bag a final resting place in this lavatory jail. How long would this hermitage outlive the janitorial world before some unsuspecting Mexican would drop his mop in terror and run for help to the bomb squad? The police would investigate the bag, and perhaps employ hidden security cameras to discover the idiot behind the scare. Surely, either man or camera would behold my entrance to the latrine with the bag and my exiting without it, and they would have their revenge.
The toilet was not the destiny for this unholy grail, so I discerned it had a vocation elsewhere. I decided to stuff the entire suitcase into a trash can. What legal snare could grip me then? People throw a bunch of stuff in garbage bins at airports, but they aren’t crucified for it. Why then could I not throw an illegal suitcase in it as well? The answer was simple in my case: it was too big. I thought about ejecting the contents first, giving the bag greater flexibility to sail through the opening of the can, but, alas, the case was built too solid, and jettisoning the cargo would not ease its wasteful travel. So I disembarked from the bathroom on the edge of despair in the sea of chaos where time and French sought my destruction.
I found a security guard gliding innocently down an escalator. I sought to make his life miserable by heaving this burden onto him for my own salvation. Maybe, just maybe, he would be the Messiah.
I proclaimed to him, “Excuse me, sir.” After which flowed from my lips a golden-tongued stream of the most Ciceronian eloquence rivaling the rhetoric of John Crysostom himself that could persuade anyone to do anything. This man, however, was not convinced. Mental reservation had dammed the tides of incriminating information, yet still this individual, after he asked, “Did you bring this bag into the airport?” (To which I replied ‘yes’ with great vexation), told me that it was my responsibility and that I should take it to Air France. I lamented to him, “I don’t want this bag any more. Just take it and incinerate it.” But no. He did, however, suggest that I could take it to the luggage office to plead my case there. And as the luggage office was not French, I agreed to this alternative.
Unfortunately, this new destination seemed like it was in France … allegorically. It was quite a hike, and more like a painful sprint, as I was bearing this bane of bureaucracy as well as my two legitimate carry-on’s. My tongue, once so Ciceronian, became parched like desert. An endless canal of moving sidewalks was before me, crowded with Japanese people, forcing me out onto the immobile floor, making me rely on my own locomotion for success. At this dark hour, I became convinced that I would miss my flight. I would not be going to Rome. I would not enter the Eternal City. I would be left behind.
Yet still I kept going, almost indifferent to the law now. They could harm my body but not my soul so I didn’t care. I marched up to the Baggage Office and rejoiced sarcastically to witness of very long line congesting this alleged Baggage Office. I didn’t have time to storm this Bastille so I went up to an American, a guy standing near the place with a walkie-talkie, one who understood oppression and was not shackled to the Satanism of Bureaucracy, and said, “Sir, I thought this bag was my friend’s, but it’s not. I don’t know whose it is. I need to catch a flight.” With humane undertones in his voice he told me to get in line. But in my dying breath, I called out again, “I’m probably going to miss my flight. I’m really late.” And behold! The camel was cleaved in two! He hesitated and said, “All right, go catch your flight. We’ll take it.” He popped open his walkie-talkie and reported, “We have an unclaimed baggage in sector –” as I bolted for freedom. I did not look back.
Perhaps the bag erupted in a terrorist explosion for all I know, as I ran with my back to it, for God did not find even ten righteous bureaucrats there. I did not dare look back at Sodom and Gomorrah for a water fountain, though my tongue had turned into a pillar of salt. I persevered to the distant terminal, hoping that it had not been overrun by the enemy. I passed through, the French did not decapitate me, and I came into the Promised Plane. My friends tried to interrogate me about what I had done, but I simply smiled nervously, wondering if they might still be watching me. I sat down and prayed and when the machine took flight, I knew I had won. The bag had been destroyed, and I had not.
Upon sitting peacefully in my 2nd class seat, I remembered I had discreetly removed the name tag from the evil suitcase before we went through security. I reached in my pocket and found it. “Bryan Fox.” The airport had sent Greg Roth this suitcase claiming that it was his, even though the suitcase had “Bryan Fox” written on the tag. Why would they do that? Furthermore, why the heck didn’t we check the name tag before we tried to check it in!? We could have avoided everything! Idiot! Now poor old Bryan Fox will never see his suitcase again. It’s been incinerated. We have his phone number and e-mail address, though, and John and I thought about contacting him, but we wouldn’t know what to say.
But I’m glad it happened. I do fear my return to the United States, but I am confident that I can plead my case with legalistic subterfuge. Javert will be waiting. But I am Jean val Jean.