Last Flight to Philly
Rory didn’t know it, but this was his last time flying to Philadelphia. Which could be considered a good thing for someone who didn’t like flying. Or Philly. Or winter. Or his job.
Given the autonomy of his role, he could most often avoid such dislikes — as long as he satisfied client needs. Rory was prized by his employer for a specialized task. A role that, for years, was predictably becoming less necessary and would no longer exist in the not-too-distant future.
His job was debugging software.
Albeit a specific software that most of his employer’s clients no longer used. And those that still used it wished they weren’t. They just hadn’t bitten the bullet to migrate to a modern system.
Rory was prized because he was the only one who could fix these old systems. All the forward-thinking programmers who had worked on this legacy service in the past had left the company, retired and/or passed away. Rory was literally a remnant of a dying breed and when he was gone, the service he provided would cease to exist.
The question was, would they really wait until he retired?
Since the demand for what he did wasn’t so great that he had something meaningful to do all year, it was a legitimate question. Furthermore, the service contracts for the remaining users had already expired. But his company was not about to create bad will with these long-time clients while they still had Rory. The company routinely sent out notices to legacy clients reminding them that support for their systems could not be provided indefinitely and of course, the account reps continuously encouraged such clients to upgrade.
Regardless, good news prevailed: the majority of the debugging could be done remotely — in other words, at home. In pajamas. (With a dress shirt for video conferencing). Surrounded by empty pizza boxes, fast food packages and beer bottles.
From a productivity perspective, his motivation for excellence was driven by his aversion to leaving home, which also saved his company travel expenses. For those clients who were far away, he would bend over backward to keep them happy via phone, email and video conferencing. Sometimes he cajoled clients to do work that they, technically speaking, didn’t or shouldn’t be doing — all so he could avoid booking a flight. Rory’s absolute finest debugging skills would need to fail before a trip to a winter environment would be necessitated.
But who was he kidding? His least favorite city was Philly, regardless of winter. Cold just made it easier to hate.
Now that he was in his mid-fifties, overweight, diabetic, and a survivor of two divorces, only an exceptionally persnickety issue could get him to fly to Philly in the winter.
Rory disliked LAX. Hiring a ride to avoid driving was his attempt at maintaining tolerance in the face of crowds and noises he found intolerable. And it never seemed any better on Sundays.
Fortunately, there was one saving grace: as much as he didn’t like flying, at least the plane itself would be relatively quiet.
Yet, when he stepped past her to take his window seat, he was assaulted by the smell. A mix of over-applied perfume wafting off a morass of a decaying human. Except she was alive. And any decay was not visible.
At times in life, he had been momentarily distracted by the smell of a passerby: a street person who apparently hadn’t showered for some prolonged period. But that carrion cloud would linger only for moments as their increasing distance would dissipate the offending odor.
In this case, they were not pedestrians passing in opposite directions. They were seatmates traversing the sky from coast to coast.
He tried to imagine how a person could attain this condition, and then in spite of it, board an airplane packed with other humans. Perhaps she has a life-long fear of water, and only bathes every few weeks? Was she recently rendered penniless by back luck and circumstance, resulting in her family buying a ticket to return home? Rory looked out the window, unsuccessfully hoping to reduce exposure as she read a book.
Later, when the beverage cart arrived, he ordered scotch and beer. Two of each. For starters.
By breathing as shallowly as possible, the smell was less repugnant. Or, perhaps he was becoming partially inured to it. And/or, alcohol was increasing his endurance for the vagaries and discomfort of existence among people.
An hour into the flight she headed toward the bathroom, leaving the book upside down on her seat. Rory spied the title visible on its spine: How to Tell Others You Are Dying.
When she was returning down the aisle, he observed the heads of passengers turning in her direction, seeking to confirm the source of a disturbance.
She sat down and started reading again. The odor rejoined as an unwanted trespasser.
He awoke from a fitful, quasi-conscious sleep with the announcement they would be starting their descent to Philadelphia. In addition to the five-hour flight time, they crossed time zones that equaled eight hours on local clocks. As he became reoriented to the world of the living he noticed the woman was gone. And so was her book. He raised the window shade against a black sky, which he had lowered against blue. The lights of towns far below reminded him that there were too many people in the world. Especially here. In the past, he had left bad experiences and people he wanted to forget in this area.
When he went to retrieve his luggage, he became aware of the trespassing smell. He turned to the right at the baggage carousel to see the crowd parting. She was only about four feet away and since Rory didn’t appear to be evacuating, she pointed and asked, “Could you please grab my orange bag?”
Rory couldn’t tell if she recognized him and obligingly pulled her suitcase off the carousel. “Did you get another seat on the flight?” She accepted the bag and without looking his way hastily remarked, “You were snoring so the stewardess found me a quieter spot.” She disappeared into the chaos of moving bodies.
He dutifully arrived at the client’s office at 10:00 am the next day. Antonio was called to the lobby.
Underneath his heavy coat, Rory wore a sweater that did a reasonable job smoothing his belly that overhung his pants. But he wasn’t there to pose for photos. He had a job to do.
Antonio escorted Rory to the data center and directly in front of the belligerent system. Although the machine had been upgraded over the years, it was still sporting the same cases from twenty years earlier. “I’m going to take some photos of this before the Smithsonian arrives to retrieve it.”
Antonio didn’t seem to get the reference. “I’ll be over here at my desk in the corner. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Are there any new issues since last week?” Rory re-appreciated why he usually didn’t tell jokes.
“No. It’s still misbehaving as before.” Antonio started to walk towards his desk and then stopped, “By the way, our CFO, Maggie, may stop by. She wasn’t on any of our calls, but when she found out you were coming, she wanted to speak with you.”
“Alright, you know where I am.”
Two hours later, Rory completed the diagnostics, replaced a circuit board that he had anticipated would be the culprit, updated the software, made a number of adjustments, and rechecked everything before letting Antonio know it should be fixed. “Would you please confirm it’s working to your requirements?”
Antonio made a few calls to have others access the system from their machines and ensure all was OK.
“Hi, I’m Maggie from accounting.”
Rory turned around, startled. Not just because he hadn’t heard her approach, but because she appeared to be the woman from yesterday’s flight, except now with eyeglasses. “I’m Rory.” He almost asked if she was, indeed, the woman on the plane, since she was not accompanied by the bad odor. But it seemed she didn’t recognize him, so he was uncertain.
“Rory, I want you to know we are reviewing our contract with your company since we are going to replace this system and we are entertaining offers from other vendors.” She certainly had no trouble getting to the point.
“I’ll have the rep for your account contact you. I’m sure she’ll provide a competitive offer. I believe she normally speaks with CTO Bob Thomas.”
“Bob left the company and his replacement hasn’t been decided. So, in the meantime, I want to get up to speed on things and Antonio says you have been providing very capable support for the ten years he’s been in the department.”
“I recall when Antonio started working in Data and I even recall when this system was installed.” He was still trying to determine if she was the woman from yesterday.
“Can I buy you lunch and ask some questions?”
It had been a while since Rory had eaten in the company of another, and he was a bit self-conscious while answering questions about the history of the system. He told her how things had evolved over the years, what he would suggest if they replaced the current service with his company’s newer offering and how that compared to the competition. Rory gave very candid responses, which highlighted the pros and cons of his company versus the competition without any sugarcoating. He elaborated on what her company should do differently when considering a new system, based upon what Rory had observed from their usage over the years.
Maggie was a good listener and took notes while occasionally picking at her salad, but at no point did she indicate any recognition of Rory. However, when she finally seemed to be winding down her questioning, she asked where in the LA area his company was located. When he replied, she gave him the insight he was seeking. “Oh, I was just near there last week.”
“Did you happen to fly back yesterday?”
Maggie looked puzzled, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I did.”
“We sat next to each other on the plane. At least for the earlier part. Then we saw each other at the luggage carousel. I handed you your orange bag. Of course, I was dressed differently.”
Maggie stilled. “Well, OK.” She looked at him cautiously. “I wasn’t wearing my glasses.” Recognition dawned on her but not in an appreciative way. “You’re the snorer.” She then looked around the restaurant, seemingly assessing if anyone could hear them.
“Sorry. I didn’t even know that about myself.”
“Not a problem.” She brought her attention back to the table. “You’d think I’d be used to it since my ex was a snorer.” Her shoulders eased a bit. “But I did sleep much better after the divorce.” She pushed her half-eaten salad aside. “Why didn’t you mention that earlier?”
“Well, I just wasn’t sure. I mean, what are the odds? Plus, I mean, well, you know, um, well, as I said, I just wasn’t sure.”
Maggie sat up straighter. “You mean, I don’t smell the same?”
Rory stopped eating but didn’t look up. He was not accustomed to this level of directness.
“I guess I should explain.”
The routine discomfort he felt being with others became more pronounced. Why did he open his mouth?
“I have a rare disease called trimethylaminuria. Although I mostly have it under control, stress can exacerbate it. When things get bad, I just toss out the clothes I’m wearing, as I did last night.”
Rory looked up, more self-conscious than ever.
Maggie went on. “Some difficult circumstances preceded that flight.”
He nodded. With all the troubles and challenges he had been dealt in life, he got the idea that she may be contending with more.
“My father started this company when I was born. He died several years ago. He had intended that I take over the business at the right time, which would be about now. However, I also have cervical cancer and although I’m still physically capable, that will be changing.” She paused. “I was in California for some treatment. But I learned I have about eighteen to twenty-four months to live, which was unexpected.”
Rory was flummoxed. This was the most incisively honest conversation and the strongest taste of real life he had experienced in too long.
“So, I intend to ensure things are lined up as squarely as possible for this place, while I still can.”
All he could do was softly offer the words that automatically stuttered out, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. So far, I have only spoken of this latest news with my doctor — who recommended a book to me.” She paused. “You’re helping me confront this.”
At the beginning of the flight back west, Rory’s seatmate said he was glad to be going to a place with warm weather, even if it was only a few days. “Do you live in Philly, too, or are you going home?”
“I live in LA but I’m thinking of moving to Philly.” He felt unusually relaxed and was cognizant that he didn’t mind speaking to the stranger.
“What!? Why would you do that?”
“I was offered a job with another company. And I wouldn’t have to fly anymore. In fact, if I take the job, I’ll drive back across the country, which I’ve always wanted to do.”
“What about the winter?”
“I grew up outside of Philly, so I know what it’s like. I left years ago after a divorce. I never thought I’d return, but I’ve gotten into a rut. If you asked me a few days ago, I would have told you I had no plans of changing anything.”
“Must be a good job.”
“That’s only part of it.” He paused and thought about Maggie. “I’m re-evaluating everything.” The impact of her direct honesty flitted through his mind. He was inspired by her devotion to make positive changes even with her days numbered. “You know, there are things I don’t like about my current situation.” Their lunch conversation had gone on for a while before she even brought up the job. “But really, it’s me.” He had never been so candid, even with his ex-wives. Something had already changed. He was newly imbued with a sense of assurance he hadn’t felt in years. “I might benefit from going home.” Rory looked directly at his seatmate. “I left some unresolved issues in Philly.”
by George Alger
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