"Very Stable Genius"
I’m often surprised with what I see when I walk past the half a dozen or so rows of first class seating into the more narrow communal clutter of economy flying. I’m surprised by the lack of recognizable faces. I always expect to see a movie star or a pro athlete, maybe a pop star hiding behind sunglasses drinking champagne at nine in the morning.
I do believe I saw a woman who played a television mom on a show that came on TV when I was a kid, but I can’t be sure. My desire to see someone famous probably precludes me from an honest assessment of the moment.
Seat after seat contains regular people just like you and me. I always wonder how in the world they can afford to pay three times what I’m paying to sit there, and more importantly, why. The thought of paying such a high price for a couple of hours of luxury seems disproportionate.
I found out all about luxury flying the day the ticketing agent winked at me and bumped me to first class. Within minutes I was sitting in 3B with my heels off, rubbing my toes on the thick carpet under my chair. There were an abundance of inches on both sides of my hips showcasing the glossy soft leather. An unopened water bottle was sweating in the cup holder next to me. I leaned forward to pull a magazine from the seat in front of me and almost couldn’t reach it.
A man rolled a gigantic suitcase down the aisle and stopped next to my seat. He looked down at me and then to the empty seat next to the window.
“I’m 3A, do you mind swapping with me. I need a little more room to spread out?” he asked.
I did mind, I very much minded, since I had already sunken so completely into my own seat and was in the process of adoring my new real estate. “Okay, sure,” I said.
My new seat was minus about an inch of space for my left knee, not that I needed it. I was reaching into my purse and pulling out my phone and some headphones when I noticed new congestion near our row. People were lifting their carry-on luggage chest high to contort around the large bag he had left in the aisle, with its pull handle still erect. The exercise was called to a halt after at least four people squeezed by and gave us both dirty looks, as if we were traveling together. A flight attendant leaned over a seat two rows in front of us and said, “Sir. Sir. Your bag.”
“Yes, that’s my bag.” He slid his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose to size up the flight attendant and then pushed them back over his eyes.
“It’s blocking traffic. Can you place it in the overhead?”
“I’m thinking it’s too big. It won’t fit,” he said.
The flight attendant apologized multiple times to the people in the aisle while she maneuvered around them to get to the man.
She reached our row and looked at both of us and then to the monstrosity of a suitcase. “It is way too big. Why didn’t you check it?” she asked.
The man looked down at his phone and began tapping and scrolling. She then looked at me with her palms up, still expecting an explanation. I shrugged and shook my head, hoping she realized that meant, I’m sorry, I don’t know this man at all. Seriously, not at all.
She asked everyone to take five big steps backwards and then slid the luggage back toward the front of the plane in the direction of all the sighs and groans.
And that was my informal introduction to a very stable genius.
The silence between us was forever halted when he reached over and touched my watch. I recoiled out of instinct.
“What time you got?” he asked.
I looked at the cellphone on his lap and then to my watch. “Nine fifteen,” I said.
“Good, on time. I can’t be delayed, not today.”
I nodded at him, put headphones in my ears, and looked forward. I was anxious for the plane to level out since I was near the edge of dizziness.
“My name’s Jack Cartwright,” he said.
I tried not to sigh, but removed the earbuds in a melodramatic way to indicate a measurable level of dissatisfaction.
“Jack Cartwright. That’s my name.”
“Hi, Samantha.” I pointed at myself.
“No one calls me that.”
“I like to give people nicknames.”
I forced a laugh.
“Do you like your shoes?”
I looked down at the tan heels. “I suppose, yes.”
“Where’d you get them?”
“I don’t remember, probably online.” Oh great, a foot fetish guy, I thought.
“Either way, thank you for buying them,” he said.
“Okay, um. I’ll bite. Why am I thanking you?”
“I designed those.”
“You’re Judy Banks?” I was proud of myself for remembering the brand of shoe. I don’t care much about those things, name brands, fashion.
“No, Judy works for me. I paid her to design them. So actually, I designed them.” Jack pulled on his shirt sleeves near his wrists to reveal sparkling cufflinks.
“Tell Judy thank you. They are very comfortable.”
“Fashion is really just a side hobby for me. I’m more into import and export. International business. Also dabble in mid-level commercial development. A little music here and there. Have you heard the Red Flowers?”
“Yes of course.”
“That’s my band.”
“You’re a musician?”
“No, they work for me. I invested in them, now I get an eighteen percent share of everything. You download their song for a buck thirty, we get sixty cents. I take home about twenty of those cents. So, yeah. It’s my band.”
“Well, congratulations, they are very popular.” I put my headphones back into my ears and looked forward.
“Are you listening to them now?”
I closed my eyes and pretended I didn’t hear him. Then he tapped me on the arm. That’s when I knew there was no getting away from Jack and I might as well play along.
“No, I was listening to relaxing music trying to rest up before we land. I’ll be speaking at a conference at noon,” I said.
“Well, next time you listen, you should download our albums. There are four, but I don’t own the first one. It’s no good anyway.”
“Their music is a little too hardcore for me, but I’ll tell my niece.”
“Good.” He made eye contact with me for the first time and smiled in a way that was a violation. The way he looked at me made me feel sticky and cheap like adhesive left behind from a bandage to collect grimy dust.
He leaned over me and looked out the window. “Lots of clouds today,” he said.
The divide between our seats was wide enough to keep him from encroaching over me, but he still seemed too close.
“Mr. Jack,” I couldn’t remember his last name. “Let’s maintain our personal space. I’d be happy to trade with you if you would prefer the window now.”
He made a hissing noise, like air leaving a balloon. “Trust me Sam, you aren’t my type.”
“Good to know.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack believes he is very important. He is beyond grandiose, and expects to be recognized as significant for his superior achievements. Criteria number one, check.
“Besides, you know my girlfriend,” he said.
I cataloged different aspects of my life searching for that name but came up empty. I shook my head.
“You know her. She’s does the afternoon show on FOX News. She busts some major balls. Doesn’t take shit off of anyone, not even me, if you can believe that.”
“She wants to get married.” He put his hand over his mouth and whispered. “I’m not ready to settle down, if you know what I mean.”
“I believe I do.”
“We need each other. She needs me because I have lots of connections. Business, entertainment, especially politics. You go to Washington, walk up on the hill and randomly grab any politician’s cell phone, and I bet you one of my vacation homes my name is in their contacts.”
“That last stimulus package wouldn’t have happened without me. I literally had senators calling me from the floor while they were voting. They all wanted to know if I supported it and would it truly benefit the American workers. I said, yes, one hundred percent. Go for it. Now, look what those votes did for you, all the people on this plane. The economy has never been better.”
“That must make you proud.”
“It keeps me humble, stable. Some say I’m a very stable genius.”
I took a long pull on my water and raised my eyebrows in approval. The groove was easy with him. Just agree and prompt him to spew whatever it was he so desperately wanted to spew. Plus, I would have one hell of a story to tell when I met up with the gang in Cleveland.
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack believes he is very powerful. He is preoccupied with fantasies of success, brilliance, and power. Criteria number two, check.
“So what about her?” I asked.
“Who, Christie? What do you want to know? I’ll give you the dirt.”
“No, you said you need each other. What is it you get from her?”
He rubbed his chin and then laughed. “Not sure.”
“You see what?”
“Well, you said it was a mutually beneficial relationship, but you can’t actually name what it is about her that you like, or need, as you said.”
He thought for a moment and then waved me off. “She’s a fun chick. We have a lot of fun when I’m in town.”
“What sort of fun?”
“Hot fun. Sweaty fun. Her toes curling fun. Let’s just say, we don’t spend much time outside her apartment.”
Then I was the one with my hand to my face, except it was my palm to my forehead.
“Don’t be prude, Sam. Adults can talk about sex.”
“I’m not talking about sex with you. If that happens again, we’re finished talking.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack lacks empathy. He isn’t even capable of recognizing the feelings of other people unless he can use those feelings for manipulation. Criteria number three, check.
He grimaced and then pulled on the knot of his tie and rolled his neck.
“What’s a guy got to do to get a scotch around here?” He lifted his hand above his head and began snapping his fingers. Snap, snap, snap, snap. He continued snapping, even when the flight attendant approached him.
“Sir, please,” she said.
“I’ll take a single malt scotch, two fingers. And two cubes of ice.”
The lady had been leaning over his chair with her head close to his, no doubt hoping to create a volume of conversation between them that was closer to a whisper. But when he completed his request she put her hand over her heart and stood up straight. Then she laughed. Her laugh stopped when Jack didn’t join her.
“Oh,” she said. And her face was clearly marked as if to say,Oh, you were serious. I thought you were just pretending to be a jackass.
“Let me check,” she said.
After a few moments, an older silver haired flight attendant came to our row. She looked like she had handled many Mr. Jacks through her years in the air. “Sir, Cindy tells me you are wanting scotch?”
“No. I said single malt scotch, two fingers with two large ice cubes.”
“Sir, this is a one hour flight to Cleveland. We don’t have such a thing. As far as whiskeys are concerned, we have Jim Bean and we may have Jack Daniels.”
“Did I say I wanted whiskey? I said scotch.”
“But Sir, isn’t scotch just whiskey made in Scotland?”
He rolled his head around again, stretching his neck. “I tell you what. You go in there and make me a drink as close to what I asked as possible. And I mean really think hard about it. Then come back and serve it to me as I asked.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack believes he is better than these people. He displays a nasty and haughty attitude. Criteria number four, check.
The flight attendant forced a smile at Jack and then looked at me. “Same for you Ma’am?”
I shook my head and put both palms up, contorting myself into any body language I could think of to say: I don’t know this guy, I don’t even like him. I promise.
Jack turned to me and said, “I guess we got stuck with the flunky crew this morning.”
I laughed, a bit too hard and a bit too long, I suppose. Once he figured out I wasn’t laughing with him he said, “What’s so funny?”
I contemplated saying nothing and letting the moment pass, but I couldn’t. “In Old English, flunky means steward. That’s what they are, cabin stewards.” Then I smiled, showing him a playful side of me that I immediately regretted.
“They’re all a bunch of trashy stewardesses to me,” he said.
The younger flight attendant returned with a tray. On it was a plastic cup with what looked like two cubes of ice, and a tiny Jim Beam bottle. She placed the cup in the chair’s cup holder, opened the tiny whisky bottle and emptied it into his cup.“Your scotch, Sir.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack believes he deserves favorable treatment. He has a strong sense of entitlement and presents unreasonable expectations. Criteria number five, check.
“Sam, have you ever even had scotch?” He lifted the cup toward her. “Try it.”
“Try the scotch?”
“Yes. It’s time you tasted the good life.”
“So, we’re actually going to pretend that you are holding scotch?
“We have to pretend because of the dumb stewardesses.”
He sipped the whisky. “I didn’t think you’d get it. Me, I don’t float around and get blown by the wind like everyone else. I make my own way. I make things happen everywhere I go. You, people like you, things happen to you.”
“Is that something we can all learn, or are you born with it?” I asked.
“Born with it, I think. I suppose there are a lot of gifted people who have it, but have never worked to develop it. They choose to be blindly led through life.” He took another sip.
“Oh, does it? If it made sense to you, you wouldn’t allow yourself to be bulldozed as part of the visionless mass. Most people are truly pathetic.”
“So you’re saying I’m pathetic?”
“I don’t know yet.”
He lifted the plastic cup to his nose and gave a loud sniff. “This is good scotch. Very good scotch.” Then he pulled his lips back into that creepy smile.
“A lot of it is just your bloodline. I mean, I have excellent genes. My mother could have been an Olympic athlete, and my father owned dozens of companies. He put food on the tables of thousands of families. He was like me.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack believes he is truly unique and can only be understood by other special people. Criteria number six, check.
“Is that what you do? Put food on people’s tables,” I asked.
“Damn right. I don’t even know how many people work for me. Actually, if you count the people who are employed by the people who are employed by the people I employ, you’re talking about a million people. From the top all the way down to the smallest person.”
“That must make you proud.”
He looked at me unsure. “I’m not a proud man. I understand what I do is necessary for the world to run, for all those people back in coach to pay their bills and put Little Johnnie in clothes.”
“I don’t follow.”
He nodded as if to prove a point. “There are hundreds of examples. Here’s one. I own thirty percent of a climate control company out of Florida. Climate control is just another way to say air condition.”
I smiled as if he had just revealed something important to me.
“They have several factories including one in Indianapolis, where we just left,” he said. “Thousands of employees. They don’t work for me, but they need me because of this.” He held up his cell phone. “All I have to do is make one call to my broker and say sell. That’s it, one word and all those people are at the soup kitchen. See, if I sell my shares then everyone else will sell and that company will be closed by noon. In fact, Little Johnnie is probably back there in coach on the way to see his Granny in Cleveland. His family couldn’t afford that if it weren’t for me.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack believes he is worthy of admiration. Criteria number seven, check.
“What do you think of that, Sam?”
“I’m not sure what to think,” I said.
He blew out his cheeks in frustration. “You just don’t get me. I’m complex. You see, I diversify. I have so many ventures.”
“Tell me more.” I could feel the plane tip forward and the captain announced we were beginning our descent.
“Alright my direct influence goes beyond the economy class back there.” He pointed at me. “I had a direct impact on your morning before I even sat next to you.”
“I’ve got to hear this.”
“Those heels you so desperately love.”
“Never said I loved them.”
“They were made by a company I own in Asia. I’ll spare you the details. But you probably bought those for about eight-six dollars. That’s the ARP. After materials, labor, transport, marketing, packaging, I’m told we make about twenty-two dollars per unit.”
I looked down at my heels dumped on the floor between my feet. I could feel their smooth surface though my stockings when I rubbed my toe along the shoe’s edge. I didn’t realize when I got dressed this morning that I would forever hate my shoes.
“Do you know how much those shoes would have cost you if I were forced to make them in the United States? For me to make the same twenty-two dollars, I’d have to sell them for a hundred and fifty-two dollars. Well beyond your means, I’m sure. Beyond the means of enough women for me to end up with a warehouse of unsold shoes.”
He turned his palms and bowed his head as if offering me a gift. “You’re welcome,” he said.
“How much do you pay the people who make these shoes?”
“Oh, you’re one of those type of people. They are paid a living wage commensurate to the quality of life that is to be expected by the producing party.” Then he winked.
“Your lawyers have coached you well on that one,” I said.
“I coach the lawyers.”
“So the workers are paid next to nothing.”
“They are paid what they are worth.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack does what he wants. He exploits others for personal gain. Criteria number eight, check.
We sat in silence long enough for me to reinsert my headphones. I clicked on a playlist labeled relaxation and shut my eyes. Indulging Mr. Jack’s ego was exhausting.
The plane landed and began a slow drive around the airport in search of the proper gate. Mr. Jack tapped me on the arm and said, “You never told me what you do.”
“You never asked.”
“Alright Sam, what do you do?”
“I am a psychiatrist.”
He laughed and slapped his thigh. “So you sell weak people garbage for a living.”
I could feel my shoulders becoming stiff. Then I identified my anger, took a deep breath, and chose not to act on it. “I don’t see it that way,” I said.
“You’re a doctor?”
“You’re telling me, you went to medical school, spent your whole life in school basically, and then decided on psychiatry instead of a field where you could actually help people like I do?”
I took another deep breath, refusing to be pulled into the contest he was devising.
“I don’t get it, that’s all,” he said. “What you do is not medicine. You don’t make a difference in any way. I bet you have been sitting here this whole time just wishing you were more like me. You obviously wanted to make a difference at some point, or you wouldn’t have bothered with med school.”
I thought to myself, Mr. Jack believes all people are envious of him. Criteria number nine, check.
“Alright Dr. Sam, if I were to allow you to psychoanalyze me, what garbage would you come up with?”
“I’d rather not say.”
“For laughs, come on.”
“You are not my patient, it wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“You’re afraid to say because of what I will think of you,” he said.
“That’s not the case.”
“I knew it. There’s nothing there. You can’t even make something up about me. Like I said, I am very stable.”
The bell went off to signal we could begin shuffling off of the plane. Mr. Jack got up and stood in the aisle, blocking me from getting out of my seat. “Last, chance Dr. Sam. I’m sure you will be kicking yourself for years that you didn’t have the courage to push some of your fake medicine on Jack Cartwright.”
“Alright Jack. You clearly meet all nine criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. That’s the clinical term. In the real world we call that Asshole.”
“You are right about that Dr. Sam. There is no greater asshole than me when I want to be.” Then he walked off the plane without even hassling with a carry-on bag.
Jeff Barker has many short stories published in literary journals and anthologies including The Broadkill Review, HelloHorror Journal, Literally Stories, Jolly Horror Press, and the forthcoming Don't Cry to Mama. Jeff is also a healthcare provider in the field of psychiatry. Before that, he had a nine year career as a television news anchor and reporter in Texas, Alabama, Florida, and Oregon. He has interviewed three U.S. Presidents, and stood in the middle of five major hurricanes. His vast life experience and study of human behavior shape his storytelling. He has completed a novel manuscript and is beginning the process of looking for a literary partner to help him find constant and loyal readers. Jeff is married with three sons and a daughter on the way. He lives on the Gulf Coast in Daphne, Alabama. You can follow his work at jeff-barker.com.