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Airport art

Well, you can go to the middle of New Jersey and wait there for hours early in the morning and you can still say that life is literature. You can see a man who toes out when he walks. The trousers are crumpled and the sweater only buttons in the middle. You wonder if someone would deliberately choose to wear a red parka with green plaid pants. Overall you do not get the feeling that the human story is going spectacularly well at the moment. None of you waiting by Gate 23 of the southwest terminal have come up with an especially brilliant way of living through the details of an early morning stretch in February. So you watch this man while you wait for the plane to Boston. It's quarter to 5 in Newark Airport and you know it will come to nothing, but you watch him anyway.

You see his son following him with the belt from his own red parka dragging along behind on the floor. They are discussing pudding.

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''They always have chocolate pudding at airports,'' the boy says. ''That is what I would like. Chocolate pudding. I wish they have chocolate pudding. If they don't have chocolate pudding, I'll faint - no, I won't faint. Only girls faint.''

''That's not true,'' the man says without looking around. He goes to the concession counter and knocks on the iron grating that is pulled halfway to the floor.

''It is closed, I believe,'' he tells the boy after several knocks. The boy follows the man back to the row of plastic bucket chairs across from you. Both sit down and the man carefully unstuffs the gloves from his parka pocket. The man also takes out two airline packets of jam and honey. It seems there is only one spoon, so the boy will have to make do with a plastic knife.

''Are you going to start with the strawberry or the honey?'' the boy asks.

Without speaking, the man hands the boy the honey and then slowly tastes his own packet. ''Better than most strawberry jams,'' the man says.

''Better than most honeys,'' the boy adds, ''. . . and interesting.''

''Yes, it is interesting.''

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''It's very good and it's also sticky,'' the boy announces. ''Can I have all the honey? You're fat. Let me have the rest of the honey, you're getting too fat.''

''That's not a nice thing to say,'' the man says as he carefully switches packets with the boy. ''Try the jam. Just put a little bit on your knife, go slowly . . . no, that was more like four or five bits.''

The boy has finished his packet way ahead of the man and must now watch him slowly swallow the honey, using only the tip of the spoon each time. The boy begins to twist a little but the man looks straight ahead and keeps on with the honey until he is finished.

''Let's look at the store,'' the man offers.

''Are you going to buy something?''


''Then what are you looking for?''

The man begins to explain what he is looking for, but they are too far away to hear. With your eyes on the boy and the man, you do not see what comes next. You hear padded sounds shuffling closer and only after do you see a very small girl in a red snowsuit beginning to trip over your leg. By the time you get a chance to think again, it is over. The fall has been terrible and swift, but things slow down now. There is the long, awful silence - a matter of two or three seconds to prepare for the loud crying to come. Not enough time to ask how things are going now that the fall is over or to reassure the small person that she has come through it wonderfully. About all you can do is ready your face with the proper look to tell the others: I am sure I can trust all of you to realize that I never meant to trip the child, just an accident, really.

So you set your face for the crying, but the crying doesn't come. The girl sees the boy following the man who toes out when he walks and she sets out after them.

''I tripped, Terry, I tripped,'' she announces.

''Terry, I tripped,'' she tells the boy. He barely turns but nods in her direction. He is busy with talking. They still speak too low for you to make out what is being said, but you watch the column of red parka, smaller red parka and red snowsuit. And you can hear the dull rubbery heels of the man who toes out when he walks, the boy's belt buckle clacking over the ridges in the floor and the small feet padding after. Every now and then, the padding stops, the girl bends down and reaches for the boy's dragging belt buckle. But the buckle has moved on and her stretched-out hand misses. She pulls back a closed fist and opens it close to her face, carefully looking it over to make sure there have been no tricks before she pads ahead again to make another try.

The little procession moves along.

It is nothing. Only a moment of clarity aimed for in an airport terminal, followed by a small boy and his even smaller sister. Just the way time slips and shuffles through an early morning in Newark. It probably goes the same in Paris, though you can never say for sure. So let's not make too much of this. It has merely become possible to see how one eats a small amount of airline jam and honey with precision and honor. It is the work of some kind of artist and it's a story as well. You can call it living and leave it at that, but it's a small story just the same, hey.

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