Screening Process

“They tell you to get here two hours before your damn flight, and there’s still a damn line.”

Madeline did not look back at the owner of the voice, a portly man she took to be some sort of business traveller, who had been opining on all aspects of the airport since he came within earshot of her. She was not a particularly frequent traveller herself, but she knew enough to think that loud complaint was unlikely to bring prompt changes. She also knew, from bitter experience in retail jobs, that the last thing she wanted to do was to make eye contact, thus engaging the attention of the entitled man-baby. Bluster though he may, she kept her gaze firmly forward. One glimpse of his approach had been enough for her.

The line in front of her was not so bad, although she would grudgingly concede Man-baby’s point; it was not much fun waiting to get through security. She had watched movies showing the glamour of air travel in the middle of the twentieth century, and wondered what the so-called Jet Set of that bygone age would had said to standing in a line, unshod, to pass their belongings through an x-ray machine and themselves through a metal detector gate.

She regarded the people ahead of her. Modern life, or perhaps it was real life, certainly offered a more diverse cast than the clientele of the previous age’s celluloid airlines. There was a black couple just about to enter the detector, each of them dressed at least as well as Man-baby, but Madeline made herself a bet that they would get some extra screening hassle when their turn came. The little old lady behind them, a quivering pale figure who looked like someone sent over from the cast of one of those old movies, was unlikely to get any extra hassle but Madeline also formed an internal wager that she would induce delay by not following correct procedures; a nail-clipper in the pocket of her cardigan, perhaps. The guy in t-shirt and jeans right in front of Madeline might go either way, depending on whether he looked like a stoner to the screener. From the back, she couldn’t tell.

She had no idea what to make of the man between T-Shirt and Granny. She hadn’t really noticed him when falling into line, which was surprising. He was tall, and if Granny looked like she had been sent by Central Casting, this guy had wandered over from the set of a film about the ways of the Amish with his faded black suit-coat and odd wide-brimmed hat. His carry-on was a burlap sack, and Madeline actually put a hand to her mouth to hold in the laugh when she saw it, picturing the likely contents: two pair of socks, the good Sunday underwear, and the latest issue of Barn-Raising Illustrated.

The line crept forward. Man-baby kept up his tirade. Boarding calls echoed overhead in the obscure language known only to announcers at airports. Madeline gave her pockets a final pat for loose metal objects, and tried to predict any possible challenge from the screeners so she could respond without looking guilty. The theatre of American airport security needed players, and you never knew when your turn on stage might come.

She was not displeased when she lost her first bet. The screeners had apparently seen a professional couple who happened to be black rather than two black people who happened to be well-dressed, and they had passed the metal detector with no more than a nod from the man with the wand. She never minded her expectations of that sort being confounded, and it augured well for her own passage through the gauntlet.

She was peripherally aware of Amish Guy putting his sack into the plastic box for its ride through the x-ray, and that vague notice returned her thoughts to him. His hat was tipped back, making it impossible for her to see more of his features than a fringe of greasy yellow-grey hair which left a ghost of its colour on his shoulders. If there was a smell to match that unappealing display, she thought, T-Shirt’s over-application of deodorant was probably a blessing in disguise.

Granny passed through the detector arch without a buzz, and Madeline was about to congratulate herself on missing two predictions in a row when she saw that the old dear had managed to put her box on the conveyor belt at a slant so that it now braced across the opening of the machine. Granny was already standing at the far end of the belt, looking anxiously in the direction of her shoes and purse, by the time the x-ray operator had gotten the jam cleared. Amish Guy had lumbered toward the metal detector, unbidden.

Madeline sighed. All it would take for the process to come to a halt, she thought, was for the screener at the arch to decide his authority was being challenged, then he would hold up the line, wanding and patting-down needlessly to prove who was the boss. That would almost certainly provoke Man-baby to turn up his noise, which would challenge the screener further and reduce his speed that much more.

She saw the screener glance at the operator. The latter shrugged, hardly turning his head from the monitor. The screener made a show of beckoning Amish Guy even as he passed through the portal.

Madeline glanced at the conveyor, to see whether the clearing of Granny’s belongings had knocked any of the following boxes askew. They seemed to be trundling along nicely, though, the string-wrapped neck of the burlap bag just passing into the machine.

She was just about to turn her attention back to the screener, not wanting become the delay she had feared, when she saw the change of expression on the face of the x-ray operator. Boredom vanished. His eyes went wide. There was a reflection in his glasses which she could just make out, a small distorted box with an irregular something inside it passing over one eye then on to the other, something which, surely due to a distortion from the glasses, seemed to change shape in its passage. He sat a little straighter, pushing away from the machine.

Madeline looked at the screener. He was waving T-Shirt forward, apparently oblivious to the change in his co-worker. She looked back, thinking she must have been mistaken. She saw the handle of her own carry-on in the box which was about to enter the x-ray’s portal. She saw the operator’s eyes rolled right back in his head.

He stood, making a thin tea-kettle whistling which grew into a shriek as he twisted to grab the back of the swivel-chair he had been perched on. Howling, he swung the chair over his head to smash it down on the machine, a caster flying off as it struck home which hit T-Shirt in the side of the head. T-Shirt’s cry of pain was lost in the chorus of screams from those nearby.

Madeline tried to retreat. Caught between barriers, the line could not easily disintegrate, and she could only press against the person behind her.

There was another crash of chair on machine. She looked, afraid of another caster coming her way. The screener was rushing toward his colleague, calling out “Bob!” or “Bud!” The back of the chair had come away from the rest, and as the operator went on flapping at the wreckage, his howls passing back into a thin screech of hyperventilation, the seat and wheels slid with a clatter from the fractured x-ray machine to the floor, taking her carry-on with it.

Madeline’s gaze passed over Granny, who stood clasping one hand and one shoe to her face, her mouth a shocked O between them, her eyes wide and streaming. She also took in Amish Guy, who was reaching past Granny with calm deliberation to retrieve his sack with a black-gloved hand. His face was the colour of putty, his eyes a darker shade of the same, and his liver-red lips were set in a smirking V of unwholesome amusement.  He turned away, never looking toward Madeline or the uproar on the far side of the conveyor, his face quickly eclipsed by the shabby hat brim.

As the man walked without haste into the departure concourse, there was another scream from the operator, one which soared too high for a man’s throat until it broke in a strangled gurgle. He swept the chair-back up once more, and it seemed to carry him over backwards with its momentum. He dropped full length onto the floor, head hitting with a resounding clop. The screener bent beside him, shouting into his radio for assistance. Other shouts came from either side of the screening station, demands that people clear the way. Man-baby shoved past Madeline, his businessman disguise shed to reveal a doctor, his petulant tone still in place as he began directing the screener.

Madeline did not make her flight. It departed as she made a statement to the police, one of facts only; she had decided only seconds after the operator had fallen that she would avoid all inferences of cause. She was not upset to miss the flight, realizing that she may have had to share it with a tall man in black clothes and a broad-brimmed hat. It was, if she was honest with herself, a circumstance in which she took some comfort.

“Screening Process” ©2019 Dirck de Lint