Half a Creamed Chicken Sandwich at the Airport by Paul Sharville

Two strangers strike up a conversation at the airport, and make a connection that will linger even though they may never meet again.

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For the past five years, since 1946, Vincent had attended the November dinner at his grandmother's house in Sheldon, Vermont, east of Lake Champlain. His grandmother was widely regarded as the most well-connected woman in Franklin County, at least by those less well connected than she, and she held the dinner at some considerable expense each year.

Vincent was seated at the counter of the Shoo-Fly bar at the Ethan Allen Air Force Base, making a whirlpool in his coffee with the nickel-plated neck of his submerged spoon. He sat, hunched over, reading a leaflet on the many masculine benefits of joining the Air National Guard, including the opportunity to see all of Vermont from the air.

'Excuse me. D'you mind?'

Vincent tilted his head up without changing his posture. He looked in the mirror on the wall behind the coffee machines at the young woman next to him, then swivelled his head to face her. She pointed at the vacant stool.

'Please, go right ahead,' Vincent said.

'Oh great, thanks.' She loosened up and lifted herself on to the stool, wriggling into place by alternately rocking her thighs as she shuffled back in the seat. She caught herself in the mirror and placed a stray piece of blonde hair behind her ear, then extended her bottom lip and blew her fringe up. Finally composed, she turned to Vincent, and put out her hand, slim and straight with a trigger thumb.

'Edie Bachelor, how do you do?' She smiled. 'Are you comin' in or goin' out?'

Vincent stretched his left arm across his thick torso. His voice was slightly strained. His blue jacket was tight across his broad back, and his chubby neck gathered over the collar of his white shirt as he shook Edie's hand. 'Vincent Seymour. I just came in. Headed up to Sheldon -'

'Oh God!' She pointed at the leaflet as if she'd just seen a mouse, jumping a little. 'You're not thinking of joining the Air National Guard, are you? Listen, all of my family are in that. It's where people with a deep fear of flying go to become airmen, because they know they're never gonna havta climb any higher than a top bunk. I mean, heck, I'm not against it completely, but if you have any aspirations for altitude - literally or metaphorically - then the Air National Guard, well, excuse the pun... it'll keep you grounded. Truly.' She raised a finger to the young male clerk behind the counter. 'Can I have a coffee, half a creamed chicken sandwich and a packa Kools?'

She blew her fringe again. 'I swear if I don't eat soon I'm gonna pass out right here,' she said. 'Do you have a proper cigarette? I mean, I like the menthols. Christ, they're what got me started, and for that I am very grateful, but every now and then I think screw Willie the Penguin... I'm lookin' for that hit, you know?'

Vincent reached in his pocket and shook out an Old Gold from the pack. Edie took it, lit it, and blew a thin, controlled stream of smoke across the counter, shaking her head to produce a wavy trail. 'Thanks,' she coughed.

'I'm here visiting my grandmother,' Vincent said, lighting a cigarette. He waited until Edie, who seemed to have lost herself in the pleasure of her own smoking, said absently, 'Uh-huh,' and then he continued. 'She has this dinner for me every year, and I have to meet all of these people at least twice my age who give me advice.'

'Advice? About what?'

'All kinds of advice, so that I can do well. I mean, you know, I appreciate it, but I've been coming for five years, and if I'm perfectly honest, I don't know why she bothers. Not one of them has ever lived outside of Franklin County. I mean, they don't actually know anything... not outside of Franklin County anyway, apart from what they read in the papers.'

'Which is all hooey anyway,' interrupted Edie.

'They're successful and all,' Vincent said, 'but only in Sheldon or maybe in Richford or Montgomery... and they're all cock-a-hoop about opportunity and working ethic, and they're all as keen as Jimmy for me to trail right in there behind 'em -'

'And I bet they say things like, "and that, young man, is how I got where I am today," when what they should be sayin' is "and look where it damned well got me." That would probably be more accurate.'

Vincent laughed. The clerk served Edie her coffee, sandwich and cigarettes.

'You wanna menthol?' she enquired, swinging the pack lightly between her forefinger and thumb. He declined by raising his hand from the counter-top and tilting his head slightly. She tossed the pack down, then started picking at the bread on her sandwich. She had pale, milky forearms, sprinkled with moles, and Vincent could see fine blonde hairs catching the light.

'I'm flying out to get married,' Edie said plaintively. 'It's all organised. All I gotta do is turn up and stick on a dress. They can't do it without me, but if they could, I am certain they would. All I gotta do is turn up.'

She took a tentative sip of her coffee. 'Frankly, I'd sooner not go in to the details. God, this is hot. I really don't think I can drink this right now.'

Vincent turned his cigarette in the ashtray, rounding off the ash. He sneaked a look at her while she pouted over the sandwich: a pretty profile, turned-up nose, high forehead, lips separated and glossed, long eyelashes. She wore a tight-fitting woollen suit. Her legs swung gently in front of the foot ring, ankles crossed, and a pair of black heels hung off her stocking toes. She stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray and started to pick angrily at the sandwich. Vincent saw that a wet line had appeared down her cheek. She wiped the top of her cheekbone with the heel of her hand.

'Are you OK?' he said.

'They think I need to be trussed up and tamed, but I don't. I really don't. I mean, I'm here aren't I? Flying out. I'm doing what they've asked. That makes me tame, doesn't it? Heck, only a tame dog comes when you call her. Wild dogs don't, do they?' Edie sniffed and dabbed her eyes. 'But I do answer back, and state my case, and speak my mind... Apparently, that's not the way to behave. But when I say things, it's not rudeness, nor impertinence... it's passion... for the truth of it all. I can be trusted, absolutely, to say what I mean with my heart to anyone who asks. It's to protect people... to help and... and... say the right thing, the true thing. Heck, a tamed dog would get up an' kill to protect the ones it loves, wouldn't it? That doesn't make it wild still, or even turnin' wild.' She gave up on the sandwich and pushed the plate away.

'I thought you were hungry,' Vincent said softly. 'Don't pass out on me now.'

'Sure, you gotta get to grandma's, I know,' she sniffed. 'Could I have another Old Gold? I can't get on with these menthols. They're not 'Kool'; they're decidedly uncool.' She lit another of Vincent's cigarettes and blew an imperfect smoke ring. She put her elbow on the counter, rested her cheek in the palm of her smoking hand and turned to look at Vincent. She laughed, sadly. 'Of course, they shoot domestic dogs if they go around being too over-protective, don't they? Me? I just gotta go away. I guess I should be thankful I got off light.'

Vincent was staring at the ashtray. He looked clean and fresh, despite carrying some weight from wherever to here. He was a lump, and every piece of clothing seemed to be stretched beyond its prescribed factory tolerances, but the weight suited him in a comfortable way. If he'd have been wearing larger clothing, he might have been meaner.

'Do you tell your grandmother what you think of these little trips?' Edie said.

'Not really,' Vincent said. 'She's pretty sharp. Don't get me wrong. She wants the best for me, and I don't wanna sound ungrateful in any way. She says I have privilege because of her, and I should use it. She says that my parents loved me, but she wasn't able to do for my father what she is able now to do for me. So, every year I go, and she tries to set me up with some advice and... and we go to get me a new suit together, which she pays for, with cash. One time the shopkeeper says to me "So here's a young gentleman off to become part of the tax-paying masses," and my grandmother looks right at him and says, "He will earn as a by-product of advantage; not because he has to but because he chooses to," and then she slams her purse shut and we go someplace else - Tripler's I think - to buy the suit.'

'What was that all about?' Edie said.

'Beats me,' Vincent said, flicking his ash. 'I think she likes pretending to be a snob.'

'I played this game once,' Edie said, 'when I was a kid. It was called Are You a Werewolf? It was this party game where everyone sat in a big circle, and you got a secret piece of paper on which was written "villager", but two people had a secret piece of paper on which was written "werewolf".' She took a draw on her cigarette and exhaled, then she swivelled her seat round to face Vincent. She softly cleared her throat. 'So, once everyone is seated, you have this night phase and a day phase, and... Ok, so I forgot to mention, you have to have one person who just runs the game; like a, like a...' She snapped her fingers.

'A moderator?' Vincent suggested.

'Yeah, like a referee. Ok. So, during the night phase everyone closes their eyes and slaps their hands on their thighs to make a commotion, and then the referee - the moderator - he tells only the werewolves to open their eyes, and they do so, and then they both point to one of the villagers, and that is gonna be their victim for tonight. So, then the referee tells everyone to open their eyes and he tells the victim that he or she is dead - ripped apart and eaten or something - and that person is outta the game.'

'That's pretty fixed for the first one out,' Vincent said.

'It's a quick game, all in,' Edie confirmed. 'And it's a lotta fun to just observe, you know?' Edie adjusted herself in the seat, and placed one hand on her thigh; the other gesturing. 'So then you have the day phase, and now everyone can discuss who they think the werewolves are. Then they get to collectively make one accusation against a player, who is then lynched, metaphorically of course: in other words, out of the game. And that person reveals their identity, and if they were a villager then the group has screwed up and the werewolves are still at large. And it goes on like this. Someone's gonna get murdered, night after night, until the players can root out the wolves and win. But if the villagers get down to just two, the werewolves win.'

'Sounds like a heck of a game,' Vincent said.

'Yeah, people like it. But I can't play it.'

'Why not?'

'Well I always wanna be the werewolf. I just can't be a villager. All that lyin' and lynchin'...'

'But it's a game; it doesn't matter -'

'Sure it matters. It matters, people throwin' wild accusations around. It's a big metaphor for weeding out the ones who don't fit in... for keeping the status quo. God damn it, it makes me so angry! I mean, that's it isn't it? Making us all fit the mould. If you fed the damn werewolves, they wouldn't wanna do any murdering anyway, let's face it. And they teach us that B-U-L-L straight after we start walking around... in fact, as soon as we're ready to start discoverin' stuff of our own accord. Root out the werewolves. Lynch the troublemakers. It's not subtle.'

Edie crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and placed a napkin over the sandwich.

'Do you want that?' Vincent asked, pointing to the plate.

'No, you have it if you want it.' She pushed the sandwich towards him. He removed the napkin, picked up the sandwich with his chubby fingers and bit into it.

'Werewolf like sandwich. Sandwich good,' he said, through a mouthful of bread and creamed chicken. 'Werewolf live with villagers in own duplex.'

Edie laughed a little trippy laugh, which turned to a groan. 'Oh, God, I'm sorry,' she said. 'I rattle on like a yapping little dog sometimes. So, what are you gonna do, Lon Chaney Junior? You gonna go see grandma? In the woods?'

'Of course. I think this might be the last year she tries to advantage me. She may be losing hope.'

'Don't count on it. I bet she's more determined than ever this year, and if not this year, then next year, and every year until she's too God damned old to do any more than hold your wrist like a vice and plead wordlessly at you with those milky old dying eyes.'

'You know what?' Vincent said. 'I'm really goin' out. I've already been to Grandma's. And I killed her stone dead, and the rest of her dinner guests.'

'Oh, well done. Now you definitely can't join the Air National Guard. They won't have you. You're unbalanced.'

Vincent laughed. 'In all sincerity and belief... she wants big things for me, and she certainly doesn't want me to just end up running a small business in Sheldon.'

The tannoy called boarding for American Airlines Flight 262 to Northeast Philadelphia.

Edie slipped down from the stool and smoothed the front of her outfit, flicking a piece of dust from the lapel. 'Yeah, well I'm tellin' ya, she probably does. They got it all sorted out. You just gotta turn up.'


  1. This is a really interesting character piece - what seems like a fairly innocuous chance meeting has so many layers between these two slight misfits. You capture the time really well with your language choices too. This is very well written in my opinion with a strong hint of John Cheever about it (on of my favourite writers of short stories).

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Paul. Much appreciated.

  2. I am amazed! A story 90% dialogue, and it really works! I feel like I just overheard the most interesting conversation at an airport. It’s strange, there is no plot tension…she isn’t giving up her plans, neither is he. They are just talking. But it works. It makes you wonder about the rest of their stories…you get the tip of the iceberg only. Enough to raise curiosity. They seemed real, and they seemed to be being honest with each other…which…honesty…pulls you right in. I love it!

  3. This is a short vignette about two persons at odds with their fates. Edie seems like more of a loose cannon, but Vincent has his issues too. The most noticeable element in the story is the characters’ affection for cigarettes. This is striking, particularly in light of the disfavor into which tobacco has been plunged. At one point, Edie expressed her gratitude for an introduction to Kools. Of course, this was 1951, when the majority of American adults smoked. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that my dad used to smoke Old Golds, which are featured in the story and are among the most cancerous coffin nails about. Thankfully, they mostly have dropped from the scene. Paul gives great attention to detail in his narrative, for example, “Vincent…making a whirlpool in his coffee with the nickel-plated neck of his submerged spoon,” rather than just writing, “Vincent stirred his coffee.” It’s that level of detail which makes the story – which isn’t really about very much – endearing. Thanks, Paul.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful feedback, Bill. Steinbeck and his peers seem to like using cigarettes as plot devices. The modern American writers were my influence for this piece.

  4. The piece harkens us older readers back to the halcyon days of travel before smartphones and the internet.
    It was a time when travelers would chat with one another, when that wasn’t considered weird and threatening, and so sometimes these conversations went very deep. Perhaps it’s easier to disclose hopes and fears when you know you will never see the person again? I remember a train ride I took at age 20 in the late 1980’s, I sat next to an old nun for 3 hours - it was delightful, we chatted about all sorts of topics, general, specific and personal. If it happened today, sadly, we’d both be on our iphones - well at least the 20 year old would.

    Great dialogue - this would make a nice two person play!

  5. Rozanne CharbonneauMarch 8, 2024 at 6:47 PM

    Excellent dialogue and engaging characters. Well done, Paul.

  6. I thought they'd run off together, but I'm glad they didn't do a Hallmark.

    Mr. Mirth

  7. What a dandy piece, beautifully written, capturing dialog, motion, and zeitgeist of post-war America. The way I see it, Vince got just enough for a bus ticket to Portsmith, hocking the Longenes wristwatch his grandmother had given him for his birthday. This after Edie convinced Vince to take the next flight, lured him to her room at the Howard Johnson's, seduced and rolled him. Written in lipstick on the bathroom mirror "Thanks for the plane ticket and the Old Golds." The half-empty pack of Kools lay on the toilet tank. Overweight and suffering a case of clap (thanks Elie) , Vince did not enter the Air National Guard.

    1. Thanks for the feedback and imaginative ending idea.

  8. Lovely details and a palpable mood as two lives briefly meet. Well done. Agree with Adam this could be a great two hander stage short.