by Peter Grimes

Dear editorial board of airline specialty catalogs,

I write from the Bitch Seat of a Boeing-737. I’m wedged between an alfalfa farmer from Crosby, North Dakota, who requires the seat-belt extension advertised in your pages, and a pack-it-in-pack-it-out type, a woman whose self-sufficiency croons to the very nature of your publication. She’s got a refrigerated collapsible food tote, stuffed to the flaps with stinky cheese and crackers, baggies of dehydrated apricots, and other morsels to enjoy on a Bismarck-to-St. Thomas direct flight.

Of course, no such flight exists. But you knew that. Who could write under such dehumanizing conditions anyway, pressed between the grasshopper and the ant? And I’m not writing on any other airplane either, there being no direct flights from western North Dakota to virtually anywhere, it being 5:30 AM mid-school week and my being a forty-year-old professor of soft skills, the whole scenario being nothing other than a metaphor for my position as occasional air traveler and thereby qualified recommender of a product for your pages: the venerable llama.

I have seen what treasures you offer in your seldom-leafed catalog, your “unique gifts and travel accessories.” I’ve marveled at your automatic pet food dispensers, your stair-climbing folding carts, your beef jerkers, your NapRightHere shoulder-strap head proppers, your “gifts for her” such as the LED nail polish drier, the fourteen-carat-gold ball-stud earrings (so many of your products require hyphens!), and other accessories for the—so you imply—acquisitive male accessory. I have taken note of your glass roses, zig-zag corner wall shelves, GPS-guided steam cleaners, your Puma Vision power cap with directional lights on the bill. I’ve been touched by your ice cream bowls in retro jewel-tone colors, your anti-frost freezer mats, your Ten Commandments tablet sculpture for home and garden, your eye-of-the-dragon mystical safe box, your Lord Raffles settee. I’ve gazed upon more riches than any satisfied mind should in your oft-ignored-except-by-the-hemmed-in-intercontinental-traveler magazine.

But you must add the llama to your inventory.

It may sound like too straightforward and simple a product, too earthy and alive, organic, furry, non-hyphenated and herbivorous. Fear not. You may present it as an acronym. The Long Life and Mindfulness Accessory is the first and last thing a sky shopper needs, a way to keep four feet on the ground, as it were. With all due respect, who needs a pair of sequined enameled eggs on pedestals, a fingertip pulse oximeter, or Peek-a-Boo pet cave? Who can’t live without a King Tut tissue box cover? Who would buy a medical alert bracelet from an airline magazine, especially when you can have the one thing you need, which is to say an accessory that encourages being grounded and present in the moment and, in that manner, living a long life, millions of minutes of here-ness devoid of fretting, past-grasping and forward-glancing, which is to say a LLAMA?

Don't be put off by the bold vagueness of such a description. The doe-eyed domesticated camelid is anything but an empty promise that empties the purse. Llamas are nothing like the dumpster decoration you seem to imagine some money bags on a flight from Bismarck to Liechtenstein would purchase in the heat of a between-cart-services moment. My dear steward, I have dinged you over from your galley confab to place an urgent order of ginger ale, an overpriced snack box, and if you have any left, please put aside for me a set of twelve diagonal-slat eucalyptus interlocking deck tiles. If you could just leave them by my gate-checked baggage in the jet bridge, that would be delightful.

Rather, imagine your very own long-necked landscaper, yard fertilizer, local attraction. (And these are but side benefits to the central selling point of life-long mindfulness assistance.) Rival product-pitchers will warn that a llama spits, nips the unsuspecting ear, that it bears an eerie resemblance to a kangaroo standing in all its muscular glory at your bay window. They’ll argue that a llama is a social animal and, therefore, to live a long and happy life must cohabit with others of its kind on your property, raising concerns about basic space needs, sufficient alfalfa supply, and escalated property taxes—not to mention tall security fencing.

Those who’d prefer, at odds with common sense, to purchase from your catalog for $604.20 the imitation head of a great white shark to mount like a trophy in their rec room might point out that a llama must be fed and groomed, whereas a fake dead sea creature requires no upkeep and elicits guffaws from friends who come upon it for the first time (and thereafter either pay it no mind or tire of witnessing its toothy assault on aesthetic decency). Those friends, I might add, may further think, The kind of money he spent on that shark head could’ve kept a child of Burkina Faso in shoes and rice for seven years. But never mind what the petty critics may prefer or argue.

Here’s the kernel of my belief in the llama: Once, in my twenties, before I moved to land-locked North Dakota and gave my life over to the coaching of intangibles, I traveled with a college friend from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Nashville. Mind you, we made the journey not by plane but by automobile, a second-hand teal Honda Accord, unstocked with reading material of any kind besides perhaps a dog-eared copy of Crime and Punishment or whatever life-affirming matter we philosophy majors were puzzling through at the time. Naturally we ended up across the street from Johnny Cash’s gated residence, an expansive yet understated estate on a winding country road. Given the sizeable boundary wall, we couldn’t see much but his second story, where we imagined he had penned “Man in Black” during the Vietnam War. I can only assume his yard behind the fence bore no plaster gnomes, no princess arbors nor cascading bamboo fountains, no stegosaurus statue with fuchsia dermal plates.

Matt and I didn’t bother the gate attendant, did not holler over the walls and interrupt the master’s solitude. We stood across the road beside a pasture fence, maintaining the proximate-to-greatness vigil of the young and idealistic. Soon llamas joined us. They gathered at the fence, and we offered them crab apples from a twisted tree, pretending we were feeding Johnny Cash’s pets. And, indeed, it felt for that hour as though we were among his guardians, gazing upon his Tennessee castle with the brown eyes of llamas, mimicking their patient yet alert stature—oh for the glimpse of a guitar in a window!—the bass-toned hearts ensconced beneath their coarse outer hair and fine undercoat beating in our chests as well, their slender jaws and ours all the while circling, crushing the white flesh of apples in rumination.

It may be that such an image of sorrow-faced beasts of burden from the Spanish Empire, standing beside two boy-men in someone’s field in a vanished Nashville, might stir a coil in the red-eyed passengers you entice with convenient purchase, those men and women who’ve bypassed experience by leaping on chromium wings above the unpopulous nether regions of our earth’s crust, where down in the dark in an undecorous split-level resembling, in cheapness and tan siding, its neighbors on a grid of streets so hopefully named “Country Oak Estates,” in an upstairs spare room made into an office, there types away at a letter of recommendation, dawn just breaking, some nameless purveyor of soft skills, giving voice to the hope of some vague pack animal dream.


       Fly-over state resident

Packingtown Review – Vol.10, Spring 2018

Peter Grimes has published fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction in journals such as Narrative, Cream City Review, Mid-American Review, Jelly Bucket, Sycamore Review, and Nashville Review. He is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina—Pembroke, where he teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing. He also edits Pembroke Magazine, an annual print journal of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry since 1969. His website is www.peterjgrimes.com. Peter was a contributor to Volume 3 of Packingtown Review.