Portholes

Any port in a storm, but not this one

Photo by Tahir Osman

The work day fell into the history books as the swinging doors closed behind him. Their echo down the long, bare passageway rang in his ears like the tinnitus that would drive him to near madness years later when gray outran his youth.

The cold of the passageway went bone deep despite the cold weather parka he wore unzipped. Why did cold feel so much colder in the still air of indoors? The range of windows down both sides held views of the snow piled feet high and he shivered. It had been cold on the flightline. His fingers were still numb from working gloveless while safety-wiring the landing gear brake bolts.

He reached the entrance to Barracks 216 and stopped. The portholes in the door let him peer through to see who was in the TV lounge. No one. Good. He walked in, grabbed a beer and a pack of smokes from the vending machines and headed up the stairwell for the third floor.

He was glad Ken and Rick were still at work. Ken could be a prick but Rick was cool. Ken didn’t mean any harm, he just had a habit of picking at people he thought wouldn’t pick back. He tossed his ballcap onto his rack and stripped down, chugging the rest of the beer. The hot shower felt good and the tingling in his fingers subsided as they warmed. The mirror was fogged up so he combed his hair while wiping a clear space with a washcloth. He hated his hair. It would blow around in the wind and settle back in ways that made him look ridiculous. He hated looking ridiculous. People would stare and probably make fun of him.

His stomach growled; the beer hadn’t helped anything. Hunger meant eating and eating meant going to the chow hall or eating crappy burritos and Dinty Moore Stew from the vending machines. What the hell, the chow hall was free. He put on jeans and wore a flannel shirt over a long-johns t-shirt. With his boots laced up he locked the door behind him and headed for chow but stopped a few feet down the hall. Did he really want to eat in the chow hall? He could hit the machines and eat in his room. No one would watch him eat then. Nobody to look at his clothes and laugh. Or his hair. Maybe he should change into sneakers. The boots might look out of place. He should have ironed his shirt after doing laundry the other day. He started back to his room but stopped again. His fingernails were bleeding where he had chewed them too close. He chewed them anyway though it hurt like hell. Where was he going to eat? Crap. He’d just go and see if anyone he knew was at chow.

The passageway grew warmer as he neared the chow hall. He wondered if it would be crowded. The smell of pork chops and rice and gravy reached him. The same meal every three to four days. Dessert was always good though. He reached the doors and peered through the portholes at the top. It was crowded. He didn’t see anyone he knew. Damn. All those people would look at him when he walked in. And they’d watch how he ate. He remembered how Eddie had laughed at the way he cut his steak and his mother told him it wasn’t nice to laugh. They didn’t eat steak at home. Was there a special way to cut steak if you could afford to eat it?

He sighed. A long sigh of frustration and desperation. His heart seemed to fill his chest and tears welled in his eyes. He hated this. He hated himself. He didn’t want people to stare at him. Why would they stare at him? He looked through the portholes again. He couldn’t face the storm of criticism he expected. He took out his wallet and counted the bills. He’d have to get change at the Front Desk.

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