Brig arranged for a car to drive him to XNN, the Xining Caojiabao International Airport, where he purchased a one-way ticket on Sichuan Airlines to LXA, the Lhasa Gonggar International Airport. Brig found it was much easier to get around in China with money in your pocket. As Tommy had said, “Money talks.” If you flashed a little cash, people found a way to help. His driver taught him how to use a translation app that Brig downloaded to his phone. It was simple. Brig spoke an English word or phrase into his phone, and a sexy woman’s voice would instantaneously repeat back what he said in Mandarin! He gave his driver a ¥500 tip on a ¥86 fare. His driver was very appreciative, as was Brig to the driver for introducing him to his new best friend, Xici, his sexy-voiced Chinese translator.
The Sichuan Airlines plane sat waiting for its passengers and their cargo to load in the thick Xining air. When it was time, Brig boarded. He had requested a window seat, hoping that as they got close to Lhasa he might glimpse Everest. He did not yet realize that Everest was still almost 300 miles away from Lhasa. It always looked so much closer on a map.
Brig was traveling light. He hadn’t had an opportunity yet to replace his climbing gear. He planned on doing that in Lhasa. He had purchased a coat at a shop in the Xining Airport. It was starting to get cold and his wardrobe was lacking in both form and function. He also bought a pair of running shoes, replacing the hotel slippers he had been walking in since yesterday morning. He wore his new shoes out of the store, and walked to a nearby trash can, intending to throw the slippers away but imagined Happy smiling when she learned that the slippers were in his pack when they found his frozen body. Brig slid them neatly behind the other accouterments in his backpack.
A compact, weathered Chinese man, wearing a leather cowboy hat, made his way down the aisle towards Brig. “The reincarnation of John mother fucking Wayne!” Brig thought, remembering the large Texan he sat next to on the flight from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. Brig recollected how he had prayed that the talkative Texan would not sit down next to him. Ironically, Brig now hoped that this Chinese cowboy would sit down next to him. He had questions to ask, and he wanted to buy his hat. Brig watched as the man held his ticket out in front of his face, trying to figure out where he was supposed to sit. Brig got the man’s attention by waving at him and then pointing at the seat next to him. The man smiled and held out his ticket to Brig, hoping that Brig could help him. As Brig took the man’s ticket, he marveled at the many wrinkles in his rough, brown hands. The man had spent his life working outdoors, Brig guessed, probably a farmer.
The man’s assigned seat was one row back, but Brig lied and motioned that the seat next to him was the man’s seat. “Xie Xie,” said the man politely, and sat down next to Brig. The man took his hat off, placing it roughly and without thought on his lap. He wasn’t nearly as uptight about his hat as Tex had been. Disappointingly, the man folded his hands and closed his eyes, apparently not interested in speaking with the strangely attired foreigner. Brig chuckled as he recognized the humor in the role reversal. Perhaps, he thought, his mother was orchestrating this comedy.
Fortunately, nobody claimed the seat next to Brig, allowing the cowboy to nap on. As the plane taxied onto the runway, the man’s head leaned sideways towards Brig. He had already fallen asleep. As the plane picked up speed for take-off, it rattled along the tarmac, causing the man’s head to fall closer and closer to Brig’s shoulder with each bump. By the time they were airborne, the man’s head lay firmly against Brig’s left arm. Brig remained still, trying not to disturb the cowboy as the plane leveled out.
The captain switched the seat-belt sign off and made an announcement that Brig didn’t understand. Brig guessed that it was something about welcoming them aboard, flight time, and duty-free, and blah, blah, blah, but the man slept peacefully on.
A flight attendant stood to begin her work and was shocked seeing that one of her countrymen was disturbing a foreign guest. Her face showed concern for Brig’s discomfort and moved to wake the man. Brig waved her away with his free arm, indicating he was fine and smiled. The flight attendant smiled back, showing Brig her approval by giving him a thumbs up. Brig held his phone out to the attendant and asked, using body language (a language he was becoming fluent in), if the flight attendant would take a picture. She happily agreed, snapping two photos with the camera’s flash, and still, the man slept.
The flight time from Xining to Lhasa was only two-and-a-half hours, but thirty minutes into the flight, Brig decided his volunteer work as a pillow was over. He gently pushed the man’s head up with his shoulder, pressing the button on the man’s armrest and allowing the back of the seat to recline an inch or two. It wasn’t much, but it gave the man something to rest his head on besides Brig’s shoulder.
Brig sat up and tried to raise his arms above his head to stretch, but the upper limit to his movement before his brain registered pain, was disappointingly low. By force of habit, he reached toward his bag for a painkiller but realized he had none. At that moment, he regretted flushing his pills down the toilet. His body yearned to slip into the familiarity of drugs. Kicking was never easy.
With twenty minutes left in their flight, the pilot returned to the airwaves for a final announcement. The pilot might have been telling the passengers to “brace for impact,” but judging by the bored faces on his fellow travelers, Brig figured it was something more mundane. Marlboro, the name Brig had given his new friend, stirred from his nap. He rubbed his face with his leathery hands and stretched his arms high above his head. Show off, thought Brig. The man tried to look past Brig and out the window, but Brig caught his eye first, and they smiled awkwardly at each other. The man didn’t realize how intimate they had been.
Brig pointed to the man’s hat and said, “I like your hat,” finishing with the universal sign of approval, the upward thumb. The man understood, smiled and thanked Brig for his compliment, still trying to look around Brig and out the window to see how close they were to landing. Brig persisted. He would not be ignored. He was trying to be friends, and he had the money to prove it. He spoke into his phone, “I would like to buy your hat. How much do you want for it?” Brig held his phone up for Marlboro to hear and waited to see Marlboro’s delight and amazement of Brig’s advanced use of technology. Marlboro smiled, but if he was amazed, he didn’t show it, telling Brig “No! Not for sale!”
“You speak English?” Brig asked, as amazed by Marlboro’s English as he thought Marlboro should be by his Chinese-speaking phone.
“No. No English.”
Brig nodded that he understood, but he wasn’t accepting defeat just yet. “Money talked, and bullshit walked,” and there was nowhere for Marlboro to go. He pulled out a wad of red ¥100 notes from his pants pocket, peeling off five and waving them in front of Marlboro’s face, who reflexively held up his arms to protect himself. Brig may have gotten better at communicating with his body, but he was failing miserably at reading Marlboro’s. Brig had assumed that Marlboro needed the money and didn’t consider that the man may have other reasons for not wanting to sell his hat. Brig added another one hundred yuan to the negotiation and beamed as if he knew this would tip the scale in his favor. The man looked at Brig sternly, pointed to his hat, and waved his arms across each other indicating, “Not for sale.” Brig smiled and shook his head, acting exasperated and holding his hands up in resignation.
“O.K. You win!” Brig said while placing ten ¥100 notes into one hand and waving them in front of the man’s face. “One… Thousand… Ren… Min… Fucking… Bi!” Brig shouted as if the man had never seen that much money in his lifetime. The man unbuckled his seatbelt and stood quickly to get away. Brig was shocked, thinking he was doing the man a favor and expected Marlboro to show appreciation, not animosity. Had he somehow offended Marlboro?
Marlboro walked to the nearest washroom, which was only a few steps away from his seat. As he entered, he glanced at Brig with a look that warned, “Leave me alone!”
Soon, the fasten seatbelt sign dinged on. Marlboro emerged from the bathroom and sat down in the open seat behind the one he had been sitting in next to Brig, his initially assigned seat. It would have been awkward for Brig to turn around and apologize, so he didn’t. Brig made a mental note that money sometimes did not talk. The Sichuan Airlines pilot made a smooth textbook landing, and after the ground crew had moved the gangway into place and the airplane’s door opened, Brig’s fellow passengers shuffled their way towards the exit. Brig invited Marlboro to exit first, doing his best to apologize. Marlboro smiled, appearing to have forgiven Brig. Still, he hurried off the plane, clutching his hat.