"Want to have the tuna?" she screeched to the woman next to her. Then to the man on the window-side, in 10 times amplification: "Grapes, you want grapes?"
"I like ham salad sandwiches" mumbled the old woman on her right.
"I like chicken salad sandwiches," shrieked the voice, "but now we got tuna salad. And grapes for Pa."
I hadn't turned around so I had no idea what the tuna-salad and grape provider looked like, but I imagined her to be about 40, extremely nervous, needing to talk without surcease and worried that if she didn't do things for people every second they might escape her control and go freelance. I started considering what kind of medication I should prescribe as she went from food to the subject of sleep and how she didn't think the people on either side had gotten enough of it the night before and how they had to take one of her sleeping pills at the hotel. I prescribed 500 mg of Prozac for a year, and 5 mg Dexedrine for ADD. I then found out that a good night's sleep is essential for your health and that once they were at sea, they also needed to guard against the nausea of seasickness with some herbal remedies. Then it was back to the tuna salad, which neither of the old people wanted. They also adamantly refused the grapes. I meditated briefly on the vast range of home-cooked Midwestern delights, a cuisine based firmly on chopped meats with minced celery and mayonnaise. From that rock-solid foundation, one could move to gourmet touches such as pineapples and cottage cheese. A good Midwestern pantry would feature, in addition to many jars of mayonnaise, rows of cans of tuna, chicken and ham, and an array of jams and jellies from Smucker's.
When the woman stopped talking for a second, I felt deep relief. The flight to New Orleans was very quiet, an unusual thing. People going to New Orleans are usually loud and friendly, either because they are from New Orleans or because they are going there. I was ready to take a nap, but just as I drifted off, the rusty mechanism went off again:
"Are you cold? Have some grapes!"
OK. I had to turn around. Who was this person who thought (very loudly) that grapes might keep you warm? Grapes are cold, lady. Not even tuna salad can warm you if you're really cold. Or old. To my surprise, the voice belonged to a pleasant-looking mid-thirties woman who had been outfitted with the wrong voice box. Everything else about her looked modest and kind. The old folks on either side of her were clearly her parents, two very old, very feeble folk. She caught my eye:
"We are going on a cruise," she said apologetically, in a normal if not exactly soft tone of voice, "They are deaf."
I was flooded with shame and wonder. She was taking her deaf old folks on a cruise, doubtlessly their last trip. She was fussing over them because they were old and going to die soon. I was a heartless idiot.
"Sorry," I said.
"Want some grapes?" she offered, and shoved a plastic bag over the top of my seat. I took a cluster: they were purple and sweet. Warmed me right up.
Andrei Codrescu's latest book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City (Algonquin Books).