It was two or three in the morning and we wanted to see what was in the old woman's bag. So we -- me and some other folks who were standing around on the subway platform -- pushed her around a bit and called her some names.
"Let us in the bag, you old hag," yelled one man. He pushed her into a sign.
"Quit holding out on us," said a teenaged girl who was down there with another teenaged girl. They poked their fingers into her bony chest.
The old woman made the same tired arguments -- that it was her bag, that we had no right to the contents of the bag. We told her we found her arguments unpersuasive. We told her property rights had no relevance to the situation, since we didn't want to take for ourselves what was in the bag, we only wanted to see it and spill it on the ground, and do no more than maybe step on it. We told her to show us what was in the bag or we'd kill her.
It was a largish floral bag. It seemed to be made of a tightly woven plastic -- I would compare it to a tablecloth. The floral pattern was faded and browning -- it was a favored bag. We licked our lips and rubbed our hands and tucked napkins into our shirt collars.
The plane was crashing -- we weren't going to make it to the airport. The pilot put the plane down in a field. Landed right on the wheels, no problem. He sent a young girl through the plane to take a poll -- would we rather fly the rest of the way (the plane was fine, he said, we could take back off with no problems), or he could just drive the plane to the airport the rest of the way on the highway. The poll was close, but driving won. The pilot pulled the plane out and we hit the road. We sang a song, in tribute to the pilot.
The woman sat down on a bench and held the bag to her chest, tight. We all stood a few steps away, behind a trash can. We started guessing what she had in there.
"I'll bet it's some clothes," said a woman in a business suit. "A little ball of clothes she's taking somewhere."
"She's probably got some food," said a kid with a student's beard. "Some food that was hard to come by, and she doesn't want to give it up."
"The normal stuff," said an Asian man with sunglasses and a Post rolled up under his arm. "Wallet, make-up, mints, pens, papers."
The old woman with the bag frowned at us from the bench. She dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex. She begged us to leave her alone, so we abused her with some more filthy names.
A Spanish-speaking man snuck up from behind her and grabbed at the zipper. The old woman tried to pull the bag away. "NOOO!" she wailed. "NOOO NOOO NNNOOO NNNNOOOO!" While she was wrestling with the Spanish-speaking man, I snuck up from the other side and smacked her on the forehead from behind. The Spanish-speaking man stumbled backwards -- he'd broken the zipper, but the bag stayed shut. We scuttled back behind the trash can. All of us tried to make tornado-sounds, to scare her.
We decided to play a game in the plane to kill time. Everyone would name one thing about the person sitting next to them that they admired. It could be a physical trait, or a personality trait, or a spiritual trait of some kind. We went around the plane three times. I was complimented on my strong voice, my eyes, and my deep well of compassion. I complimented the young woman sitting next to me on her deep well of compassion, her dewdrop breasts, and her charmingly imperfect teeth. After the game we all felt wonderful about ourselves, and found it easier to love each other. But someone remembered -- we had forgotten to include the pilot! We all rushed up to the cockpit and kicked in the door and told him all the things we loved about him. He smiled and brushed away a tear and honked the plane's horn, and down below us, the cars on the highway honked back.
A policeman came down the steps. The old woman rushed over to him and tugged on his shirt and asked him to, please, protect her from this crowd, that kept knocking her down and calling her names, and one of us had stepped on her glasses (it was a beefy man with a red moustache), because they want to see what's in her bag.
"Is what this woman is saying true?" he shouted at us. "Are you harassing her about her bag?"
"Yes," admitted an attractive red-headed woman in a green dress. "But she refuses to show us what's inside." This was shrewd -- because we'd confessed so readily, the policeman now wondered if what we'd confessed to was even an offense at all. The red-headed woman continued, "we think she might have a kidnapped child inside."
Now the policeman spun around and began shouting at the old woman. "Well, why won't you show them what's in your bag?" he demanded. "Is there a missing child in there who needs his mother and a warm, soothing bottle?"
"No, of course not!" she cried. The policeman pushed her up against the steps. We surrounded her and demanded the child.
The pilot parked the plane outside stadium. He called me up to the front of the plane. I could see the outfield -- the baseball players were doing their traditional dance, performed at the end of every game. The home team had lost, but their players still gave their all to the dance. Their steps were in sync; their arms cut through the air crisply; their leaps were graceful. The applause was tepid. I knew what would be said in the newspapers and on the radio the next day: that the players cared more about their dance than winning ballgames, but I admired the poise it took -- to burn with humiliation, burn as surely and brightly as if on fire, and still dance with calm and concentration, nothing rushed, nothing dropped, nothing shrugged off. The pilot told me that there were two children on the plane, both second-graders, and asked if I'd call their teachers to tell them that the kids' plane had crashed, but that they and all the other passengers were safe. I said of course I would, anything I could do to help, he had done such a wonderful job driving our plane, it was the least I could do! He smiled and gave me a smooch. He told me to use the cockpit phone while he stepped outside to stretch his legs. The first student was a small boy of Greek heritage with a complicated name. His teacher was a young woman -- she sounded worried, unrested. I told her that her student was fine, he had been in a plane crash but he was fine, and would be back in class soon with his little cap and his little backpack and his little pencils and homework. Yes, it's crazy, I said. Yes, it was quite an experience for all of us, I said. Yes, he was handling it well, I said. We sighed and there was a brief, awkward moment where neither of us knew what to say. I told her if she needed anything, if she needed absolutely anything, she should call the plane and ask for me.
There were maybe sixteen or twenty of us. We jumped on the woman and grabbed her bag away from her and ripped it open and poured everything out. The policeman was with us. The old woman cried out. There was no train coming.
I decided to call the second teacher from the phone in the back of the plane. A few passengers lounged on the leather sofas and watched the big-screen plane TV. An older man with a potbelly stepped out of the plane shower with a towel around his waist. I picked up the smooth black phone from a small circular end table. I told the second teacher the same story -- that his student had been in a plane crash, but she was fine, and she would be in class soon. Yes, it's crazy, it was quite an experience, she's handling it well. Thee plane was very noisy all of a sudden, I couldn't hear anything. A football team had brought their band and their cheerleaders right into the cabin. Their team was going to play a game in the baseball stadium, and in the meantime they were practicing a song, or a very loud series of cheers. Where was the pilot? He had taken some cash from the band to let them all on the plane, and walked away. He'd abandoned us; he wasn't coming back. Why? Was that it all along -- was it only about money with him? I couldn't believe the nerve of these cheerleaders, to make a lot of noise while I was trying to have a very important telephone conversation! About a child! "Excuse me," I said to the teacher, and I put the phone down and covered the mouthpiece. "HEY," I shouted at the cheer squad, "WILL YOU SHUT THE FUCK UP?" I screamed at them with everything I had in me. I felt spent and exhausted, like when I've been running. I picked the phone back up, and -- but it felt wonderful, to scream, to be so angry my hair stood on end, to make a spectacle of myself, to give myself over to hate, and to be justified! People stared at me, the cheer team and my fellow passengers, looking frightened, and I felt wonderful, like the bird flying, like the bird singing --
It was all the normal stuff inside the bag. Pens, wallet, papers, mints, make-up. Also some other things, like markers, and tape, and an envelope, and stamps, that we hadn't thought of but was still normal.
I told the teacher, if he needed absolutely anything --
We ripped the bag to shreds, looking for anything else, but that was all there was, was the objects, so we picked them up and pressed them to our faces and mouths and eyes, pressed them as hard as we could --