domenica, settembre 18, 2005

In The Beginning

Julian Ahlquist And the Case of the Cursed Luggage

By Romulus

Nobody said traveling would be easy. And absolutely everybody said that traveling with Julian Ahlquist would be lunacy; and this most especially in my case. Not the least of those who portentously dissuaded me, warning of impending tragedies and devastating mental and physical traumas, is my former roommate Paul Provencher.

Paul, it should be noted, has proven himself singularly able to effortlessly keep track of my worldly possessions and in large part my whole physical person, which often wanders about getting into all sorts of trouble without my consciously being aware that that is what it is doing; being aware of just how much I depend on this sort of thing, and well aware that Julian would be more likely to absent-mindedly lead me off a cliff in the Alps onto my final resting place of jagged rocks than to be able to perpetually pinpoint the precise position of my pipe (alliteration strangely unintended), he fretted for at least thirty seconds about whether I would survive without him.

Not surprisingly, both what had not been said, and what had been said, are proven correct. I may very well not survive this trip. And yet, four days into this pilgrimage, or whatever name you care to give it, I still firmly ascribe to the belief that sometimes living on the edge, and even a little over the edge, maybe even contorted and bleeding and dying on a bed of jagged rocks in the Alps, is worth its weight in gold.

For instance, the very first act of mine and Julian’s on this trip, even before leaving American soil, was one that was dreadfully and shamelessly illegal, as certain uniformed people-who-would-know repeatedly told us in angry voices while threatening to call the sort of uniformed people-who-know who specialize in the use of firearms. Jolly good fun.

The following not-so-tall tale is one that Julian and I have told a good two dozen times in the last few days, and is likely more amusing in person, since we have developed a nuanced accompaniment of bizarre and grandiose hand gestures and impassioned anti-French invective; but this article will simply have to do.

The curtains rise on the campus of Christendom College on the day of our departure. At first it had been our intention to ride to Dulles airport in a Christendom van some time in the early afternoon. Sam Philips, however, graciously offered to drive Julian and myself a little later which presented the blessed opportunity for me to finish packing and to enjoy a little more time with a particularly lovely native of Oklahoma. At some point while doing exactly that I received a frantic message that our beloved registrar, Walter Janaro, was in Regina Coeli on the verge of having an aneurysm. The reason was a piece of baggage that had mysteriously surfaced and that belonged to a student who had already left in the Christendom van.

The bag belonged to Greg Roth. It had, directly contrary to Greg’s specific request to the contrary, just been sent to the College by the airport which had misappropriated it the day before when Greg had flown in from Saskatchewan. The solution seeming clear. I took the bag, saved Walter’s life, or at least his sanity, and the matter seemed closed. It wasn’t. Goodness no.

A few tearful farewells later and we arrived at Dulles. Seeing as both Julian and I each already had the maximum of two bags to check in, and Greg’s bag appearing too large to take as a carry-on, I bucked up for a fight and asked if I could check in the bit of luggage on Greg’s behalf. The expected negative was delivered by the expected airport peon, a pasty young fellow with spiky black hair and a lethargic attitude. I asked if I could speak to someone in authority. Certainly. Spiky-haired youth disappears and pops back with rodent-like Frenchman in tow.

I explain the dilemma. “It is illegal” I am informed in a thick French accent. Because of security reasons, I am told. The weasely Frenchman proves himself unable to explain why they can’t just search the bag and thereby alleviate all security concerns so that we can all go on our merry ways and be friends. But, I quickly remind myself with a curious bent for optimism, this is a bureaucrat, a weasely, bald French bureaucrat nonetheless, and I shouldn’t expect too much, and certainly, God forbid, not logic. “Well then, what if the 50% bagless Roth, who had already checked into the airport, comes out here and claims the bag.” Certainly. If you can get him to do it within fifteen minutes, at which point check-in for the flight ends, which is unlikely.

“Well, could you please page him for us then?” No. It’s against the rules. “Can we use your telephone?” No. “Julian, do you by chance have ESP? Can you channel spirits? Do you have mystical powers of bilocation? Can you walk through walls? As prime-minister of the kaphoozle ministry can you order this French bureaucrat to shut his trap and allow us to do as we please?” No. “What use are you then?” None. “I see. I’ll remember that.”

Turning back to the bureaucrat who has enclosed himself in his comfortable and impermeable fortress of red-tape: “Well, what are our options here, then, if you don’t mind our asking?” You can leave the bag somewhere in the airport, the bomb squad will be called, and the bag will be sniffed, searched, and incinerated. “Ah. Not much of an option is it, really?”

Dark feelings of hopelessness set in.

The time has come for drastic measures. Julian becomes bad cop, furrowing his eyebrows together and raising his voice, while I becoming good cop, maintaining a cool, collected, reasonable demeanour. Julian begins to yell at theweasely French fellow, while I pretend to try to calm him down and ask cool, reasonable questions of the bureaucrat. Contrary to the plan this bald, weasely Frenchman does not raise his hands in surrender, nor does he announce his intention to drop everything and have an immediate revolution. “What,” I ask in what strikes me as a particularly ingenious maneuver, “if we actually lied before, and this is our bag after all? What’s to stop us from claiming it as our own?” The fact that you told me that it wasn’t. “Ah. Yes. There is that isn’t it? Quid est veritas?” He’s not taking the existentialist bait.

I am feeling glum. The distinction between the good cop and the bad cop becomes increasingly glossed over; and a spark of fear ignites the eyes of the weasely Frenchman when he realizes that he has two large, furrow-browed, stage-voiced, indistinguishable, angry, curly-haired men who are seriously questioning the merit of his continued existence.

He threatens to call the police. This strikes myself and Julian as a good point to ease off a little. We do. Actually, we turn around and leave; steam is billowing from Julian’s ears.

After exploring our options in depth, and concluding that we don’t have any, we decide that rather than leaving our friend’s bag to be sniffed, searched, and incinerated we will bank upon the inability of bureaucrats to communicate with one another and bring the offending bag through security as a piece of carry-on luggage. Brilliant. This we do, with not the least amount of trouble. And as we stride away from the X-ray machines, on the right side of the airport, we are both filled with feelings of elation. Now all we need to do is take the bag on the plane, hope that Greg doesn’t say anything about it, and upon arrival in Rome transfer it to his possession. Foolproof.

Foolproof, of course, if it were not that the weasely Frenchman happens to lead a double-life as a ticket collector inside the terminal. The sight of him, there should be no need to say, causes great consternation. We curse in fashions that are not entirely Christian. But he has not yet seen us and we make full use of his ignorance. As a last ditch maneuver we engage the services of one of the girls to go up to the front of the line, to grab Greg who is waiting in queue, and to bring him back to where we are standing.

“Greg,” we say in nervous stage-whispers that can probably be heard in Timbuktu, “we have just brought your bag in through security illegally. That weasel-like Frenchman up there is out for our blood. Take the bag, and cross your fingers, and pray like a maniac, and maybe with the Grace of God you can get it by him. Just take the damn thing off our hands! We don’t want it any more. It is cursed.”

However, Greg is looking at us in what strikes me as a situationally inappropriate fashion. We wait his answer.

He looks down. And then he looks up. “That’s not my bag.” He giggles nervously. We both think about socking him one, but fortunately for him we have bigger problems now.

We discuss leaving the bag here in the terminal. But a man in the line behind us says that we can’t do that because they’ll shut down the whole terminal and our flight won’t leave. As a bunch of us throw ideas back and forth I notice that Julian’s face has donned a frightening look of determination, and there is a red gleam in his eyes. Of a sudden he grabs the offending bag with a visceral grunt of frustration and anger, turns around and before I can get out a word, disappears through the crowd. It is an image that I will not soon forget.

Ten minutes later I am on the airplane, and Julian is not. Seven minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave I have said fifty-eight full rosaries, and have experimented in the use of the force and voodoo to will Julian onto the airplane. Five minutes before the flight is scheduled to leave, to my immense relief, he appears; a goofy grin is splashed across his face.

“Thank God!” I say as he takes his seat. “But what on earth did you do with that accursed bit of baggage?”

Julian, however, only smiles mysteriously, unwilling to say. I explore different scenarios and continue to pepper him with questions. But he will not reveal his secret, and all the way to Rome that mysterious, inscrutable smile is the only answer I receive to my inquiries.