Human Animal Life by Andrew M. Marr
Human Animal Life
A middle-aged woman and her mother, strapped to a wheelchair, gliding and smiling both. The mother suffers from sarcopenia; her daughter will, in all medical likelihood, too. The mother’s geriatrician, Dr. Stiles, said that she, the mother, should stop with the added sugar and instead try aspartame, and that she should try to wheel outside more; he prescribed her a statin, told her to buy some Bayer, some CoQ10, some fish oil. Taking pills, Mrs. Fischer, is easier than anything else, and exercise is a good thing to do if you’ve got the time, Mrs. Fischer, ma’am. He moved his wrists in circles; he tilted his neck and tugged with his hand. Movements like these are simple, Mrs. Fischer, not too much work at all. Your health is important.
The mother scans the airport from her heated wheeled seat: she never remembers seeing such an extensive network of moving walkways—not before nor after Midway’s construction overhaul, way back when, in those Daley days. Moving walkways that run parallel to one another, moving walkways that intersect perpendicularly, moving walkways that run diagonally right to various Chicagoan tourist stands and shops: Garrett’s, Nuts on Clark, the Hudson News Stand with Cubs, Sox, and Bulls memorabilia, T-shirts with a picture of the fallen Trump Tower and firefighters amongst 747 ash and smoke. So many lines and intersections: one would figure Euclid happy. Euclid, Dr. Stiles, this mother, and her daughter Elsa: they are all of different ages, from different ages. They have human animal feelings and they are human animal life.
Elsa and her mother reach the moving walkway’s junction at Gate 8A and McDonalds. Bathrooms are not far away, within walking distance—Midway International Airport and the City of Chicago apologize for the inconvenience. After Midway’s high Consumer Report rating, all over the country, airports installed these networks of moving walkways. Midway’s moving walkway network leads to every food stand—for guest expedience and pleasure. Elsa presses the red “stop” on the handrail of the junction of the two walkways, turns her mother’s chair slowly, and pushes two generations out the glass emergency exit door—one door for every 35 feet of walkway, for medical emergencies and commercial purposes—and into Midway’s great grey open. Their flight is leaving in a half-hour; they have passed security and they have weighed and checked their bags.
Elsa sees a scale between McDonalds and the bathrooms. She forgot to weigh her mother at baggage check-in. Midway has two WeighStations in every gate, each one equidistant from the beginning of one gate to another. Both Elsa and her mother observe a father and his young son, about nine years old, glide up to the line of McDonalds. They begin to walk to the counter. The son yawns, flails the sleeve of the jacket where an arm should be. His sleeve spins in circles like a propeller. He tells his father he is flying, he is flying. The father asks his son what he wants to eat. The son says he is flying, he is flying. The father buys him a happy meal.
Elsa and her mother observe the father and son. The son bobs on the balls of his feet, and the father puts his hands on his shoulder, a little more than a stub on a socket.
Elsa says, “Mom, we’ve stopped, do you need a breather? Pit stop?”
The steel platform and the digital reader on the WeighStation resemble an equestrian scale, with handrails in case a Midway guest loses her gripping. The handrails read blood pressure, heart rate. Above the scale a sign imperiously states: WINGED WELLNESS. FEMALES MUST NOT WEIGH MORE THAN 225 LBS. MALES MUST NOT WEIGH MORE THAN 275 LBS. PASSENGER BLOOD PRESSURE READING ON HANDRAILS MUST NOT EXCEED 130 / 90. PASSENGER BLOOD PRESSURE READING ON HANDRAILS MUST NOT FALL BELOW 90 / 60. CONSULT MIDWAY INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT PERSONNEL FOR QUESTIONS AND / OR ASSISTANCE. Behind Elsa and her mother, people glide by. The boy receives Hi-C, and little orange beads cry down the cup.
“Mom, anything to eat or drink?”
“No, Els. Do you need to rest?”
“No, mom. Mom, we need to weigh you.”
“Mom, remember what I told you? They require that now, all airports do.”
The mother coughs. She does not cover her mouth. She leans back a few inches in her wheelchair and wheezes.
“Why’s that, Els? Can’t you see? I’m a senior citizen.”
Elsa moves so that she faces her mother, and she smiles at her.
“It’s for safety, mom. Your safety and everyone else’s.”
Elsa kneels down and looks at her mother, eye to eye.
Elsa says, “Mom, if we don’t weigh you, you won’t see dad. Or the coast.”
Elsa stands up and steers her septuagenarian mother onto the steel platform of the WeighStation. The architect of the network of moving walkways said that the walkways would save costs—too many guests have missed their flight due to the “simple inability to navigate to the flight gate in due time,” and that, due to the increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and heavy respiration associated with intense aerobic exercise, moving walkways would ensure fewer ambulances, fewer fatalities, and fewer lawsuits. Further, the architect said that “bustling gurneys not only disrupt commercial exchange in the terminals, but also disrupt guests from navigating to their gates in due time.” A resting heart rate leaves little reason to panic. Minimize walking, ergo minimize risks. TSA and FDA followed Midway’s suit. They attempted to minimize the likelihood of any emergency—cardiac, pulmonary, or otherwise—occurring on flights themselves, and thus mandated Winged Wellness benchmarks in order for guests to board an aircraft at all. Airline companies feared the attendant legal repercussions and attendant deterioration of reputation if any health emergency occurred on their flight. They, of course, consented to these benchmarks. It is better to be safe than sorry, they must have thought. Health and safety are important to us, they must have thought.
Observe: human animals care for each other; care is a part of human animal life.
Elsa and her mother are flying to Portland. They will rent an automobile and drive west to see the coast. They will see the sea from the shore; they will use telescopes one ordinarily uses for whale watching to locate where they scattered the ashes. Elsa’s mother said she’d get too tired on a boat. Elsa’s mother is a retired nurse assistant. These days, she occupies her time in her vinyl recliner, completing Jumbo word searches or Jumbo crosswords with a blunt pencil. She’s told her daughter once before that she’s too busy sharpening her mind to sharpen her pencil. Sometimes, she watches Jeopardy—telling herself that the new guy’s nowhere near as handsome as Trebek—and she pretends to be a contestant, expecting the deep voice of a man in the room to respond.
Her daughter has vacation days to spare.
It is temperate there, in Portland, and the densest clothing items both Elsa and her mother brought were windbreakers. The mother remembers that, before this age—whatever age the theorists call it, this one—she was never weighed before flying. She remembers that she had legs with muscle and skin you could feel, caress. Her husband, deceased for ten years, felt those legs, many times. Quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocnemius, soleus. These muscles are animal muscles both the mother and her husband possessed and used to walk, for instance, or to run.
Her husband was from Portland, and before he died he asked his wife to scatter his ashes in the ocean. His ashes came in a plastic container resembling a shoebox. Elsa and her mother considered the container offensive. Elsa wheeled her mother onto a boat. The sky was overcast; the day was windy. The box sat on the mother’s lap throughout the trip, and on the boat, the mother opened the box—just to look at him, just once—and some ashes flew into her face. This is what grief tastes like, the mother thought. Elsa said that dad would have laughed.
The two waited until the captain was in the head. Elsa’s mother asked her to do the job. Elsa led her mother to the back of the boat. Seagulls nipped and cawed at the boat’s stern. One seagull dipped down for the ashes; the rest of the flock did not. This human animal moment occurred a decade ago.
Now, the father and son get their food and turn around, and Elsa’s mother studies the man: his eyes are sunken violet, his posture wilted, but still he sips his fresh coffee and he grasps the bag of food and he guides his son to the walkway, his son all the while prancing, swinging his sleeve, Hi-C in his sole hand. They cross Elsa and her mother. Elsa and her mother hear the father press the red “stop” button at the junction and open the emergency exit door. Elsa and her mother hear the boy insist that he is flying, he is flying.
It is strange, the mother thinks, how human animal life requires human animal death. It is strange, the mother thinks, how no dead human animal is more dead than another dead human animal. It is strange, the mother thinks, how she is one generation Elsa’s senior, and that Elsa’s human animal children, who are at home with her human animal husband, are all no more alive than she is, and they will never be more alive than she is. It is strange how she is a human animal and she is able to fly.
Elsa unbuckles her mother and helps her mother out of the wheelchair.
“Hold the bar, mom.”
Elsa pushes the wheelchair off the platform.
The mother leans on the bar, and Elsa turns and floats her arms under her mother’s in a position resembling the Heimlich maneuver. Her mother’s pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, triceps, and brachioradialis tremble and shake.
“Stay on the scale, mom. I’m right here, mom. You’re doing great.”
The scale stalls several seconds before reading 224.4 lbs. She will be weighed yet again, before she boards the flight with her daughter. Her daughter will help her onto the WeighStation, and she will say to her mother that I’m right here, mom, you’re doing great. They will board the plane. They will receive airline service, pretzels in place of peanuts due to previous allergic emergencies, and they will say thank you to the flight attendants, all of whom smile and nod. They are human animals, too, living their human animal lives. They have their moments, as us all. Don’t bother them. Don’t touch them without asking, or assume much else about them, please.
Andrew M. Marr is a fiction writer and essayist from Wheaton, IL. Andrew's work has been featured in Cellar Door and Catch magazines.
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