The Bitches of Banner Elk

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01/04/2008

JFK Airport

Neighborhood: Across the River, Queens

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The trip from Greensboro, North Carolina to New York will be safe and superfast in our little plane. I climb in, pleased to find I have a seat alone. An elegant young couple sits across from me - they have a small, silent beagle in a carry-on case. The man’s probably thirty and has a voice only barely tinged with Carolinian, a roundness in his vowels. He’s wearing thin reading glasses with no frame and smiles at something he’s just read, murmuring to his wife. She laughs discreetly and, blonde hair spilling over her shoulder, she whispers in his ear. Somehow this is not revolting. Her blouse flashes open for the second before I look back toward the window.

“Hey! Hang on there!” I hear the four women outside on the tarmac before I see them, bouncing up the mobile stairway like fat pinballs flung hard by a paddle. One, in a floral print dress that roils like a rain forest, is earnestly negotiating with the ground crew. She finally joins the others, who are talking excitedly at the cabin door, and below I see two men clutching cash and staring at eight items of oversized luggage.

Once inside, their voices roll down the aisle. They pause in front of me and begin to hunt and shuffle through the overhead bins. The youngest of the four whips me with a long orange and grey stole as she whirls to find a space. An aunt armed with a black helmet of hair collapses in the chair in front. She has a low smoker’s voice. “Lisa,” she moans, “how soon do they serve liquor on this flight?”

Lisa, the fur-bearing youngest, is probably thirty-five. She’s plump, a little heavier than the rest, decked out in a massive blue ring, a bracelet of clear cubes and carefully thick eyeshadow. Her skin looks tight and slick even as it rounds gently beneath her chin. She sits down across the aisle from her aunt and the floral-print woman sits at the far window.

Lisa says, “God, we’ll be trashed before we even get to our hotel.”

Our floral-printed friend erupts in a sound with which the entire plane will soon become familiar: a kind of wheezing, conspiratorial guffaw, generally six beats long. Every thirty seconds from this point onward. It’s a kind of laugh that never has a self-conscious moment, existing completely in its own world. It’s how you imagine your PE teacher used to laugh. It makes you grin into your window, partly because the laughter is straight from some ridiculous cartoon, partly because it’s completely genuine and you can’t help but laugh with her.

The aunt, who later turns out to be named Darlene, shouts to the fourth woman who is many rows up and already engaged in conversation with an older couple. “Sis! Sissy! Lisa says the bitches from Banner Elk are gonna tear it up in Manhattan tonight!”

Sissy raises up her long head above the seat, blinks apologetically for a moment and replies, “Absolutely right.”

The plane takes off and I try to read for awhile. Everything is clear and blue outside the window. When I look out I can see all kinds of farmland, and I’m surprised there’s so much of it still along the East Coast. The stewardess comes up to pass drinks and stays rooted to the trio in front of me. She’s passed out bloody mary mix but what keeps her there is Lisa’s ring.»

Darlene declares, “It’s her mama’s. A Christmas present, along with a full mink coat. The whore.”

Floral begins the guffaw again to my right and I see that the young elegant couple are grinning but not smirking. I’ve been formulating replies to the women, should they notice I’m there. Something dry and condescending. Something that insults them without their even knowing it, representing myself as a New Yorker, i.e. not interested in their provincial nonsense. Except, you know, I only lived in New York for five years. And worse, they resist an easy gloss. The Bitches of Banner Elk are loud, they’re round, they’re crass, they’re the embodiment of new money small-town women going for a hot weekend in the Big Apple. They’re also completely aware of this.

Darlene wooty-hoos when Lisa or Floral says the words “New” and “York,” followed quickly by this mantra: “Watch out New York, the hicks are coming!” Insert wheezy guffaw. I grin despite myself when she laughs at her own laugh and the wheeze gets all drawn out and gnarly.

“Ms. Stewardess, sweetheart, we need a little fresh-up right here.” Darlene is slapping Floral on the back. “I’m buying. Another for ever’one.” Lisa says something low one time and Darlene replies, “Honey, I’m never going to see them again! Fuck ‘em.” And then she covers her mouth, grinning through it.

By the time we land, the couple behind the Bitches have been absorbed completely in a conversation about famously wealthy North Carolinians. Then they’re talking about fancy hotels in New York. Turns out the women are staying just off Times Square for four days, and Lisa – who works in New York some of the time – has decided they’re going to take a taxi today. “Not the limo, it costs so much more, girls.”

Darlene turns and leans toward the young man. “We’ll save that money to buy drinks for boys like you.” He flushes and his wife actually knocks her head lightly against the window, laughing.

Sissy turns around as we taxi in the runway and asks Lisa which of the bridges to our left is the Brooklyn one. “None, Sis, we’re in Queens now.” Sis looks incredibly disappointed.

As we all wait, half-crouching, for the plane to unload, Lisa lets her relatives go ahead. She catches my eye and sighs at me. “Wow. You had a totally different flight than me.”

And the words almost come to my lips, something about how there was no possible way to escape it. But what comes out is, “Yeah.” And she grins, surprised, relieved, wraps her stole over her neck and heads out of cramped quarters for the gate.

 

Ryan Sloan’s work has appeared in The Rambler, LA Weekly, Opium Magazine, The Modern Spectator and Painted Bride Quarterly. He’s working on his first novel, The Plagiarist.

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