There is a giant clock built into the high white wall above the concourse hallway. The brass hour hand is at least three feet long, the minute hand nearly twice that. There are no numbers, just twelve evenly-spaced dots where the numbers should be.

He leans against the construction wall and ponders this, imagining a conversation around a mahogany table big enough for a dozen, but occupied by two.

"What about a huge clock?"
"A clock?"
"Something big and bold would be perfect in that space."
"A clock right above the arrival egress? Why? So people can see just how late the planes are?"
"Do you have to be so cynical?"
"I work in city government. It's my job."
"I think people would appreciate a clock."
"Fine, but no second hand."
"I wasn't planning on…"
"Second hands make people nervous. Reminds them of school."
"No second hand."
"And no numbers either. Just lines or dots or maybe tiny airplanes."
"Why no numbers?"
"Because that makes it harder to tell the time."
"Which is obviously the point of a clock…"
"Hey, you're a designer. Aren't you people all about form over function? Just do something grand and artistic and barely clock-like."
"We could save a bunch of money and just paint the time right on the wall. It would be right twice a day…"
"Now you're thinking."
"I was being sarcastic."
"You were speaking my language."

He counts a dozen travelers staring at cell phones and wonders if their children know how to read a clock face. He looks over at the arrivals hallway. A lone figure in regionally appropriate clothing carefully chosen to appear casual and welcoming (jeans, western shirt and an oversized cowboy hat) stands next to the “No Entry” sign, facing an empty hall. This will change soon.

They come in waves. Not predictable waves, like the ocean, every seventh larger than the previous six.

Some are ripples. The commuter jet crowd. Families who aren’t in a hurry.

Some are tsunamis.

He pauses on that word, tsunami. He used to love that word, the way the “t” gently pushes the “s” to the front of the mouth, sacrificing itself for the sake of a clever spelling. But joy has been squeezed out of the word. By Indonesia. And Japan. And heartache.

The first wave is a ripple. Two flight attendants shoot into the atrium with the rhythmic shoe-tap of certain destination, their suitcases trailing like reluctantly obedient children. Then comes a man in an ancient brown wool suit and matching hat. He is a man out of time. Or oblivious to it.

A husband appears, scanning the congregated masses held captive by red ropes and fear of the TSA. The man finds his wife and the stress of a dozen days away melts away in recognition. She is still his. They will drive home in silence, he thinks. Not because they have nothing to say. Because there is so much.

He looks away when they kiss.

A group of tourists is next. A Japanese man behind the rope raises a small American flag and calls out to them. They answer with nods and waves and he becomes a benevolent pied piper, leading them to the starting gate of an American adventure near the Avis counter.

And then a surge. Fifty or more pour out of the gateway, some pausing to search for familiar faces, others dodging the pausers to head straight to baggage claim.

Among the pausers, a woman about his own age. Thirtysomething. She is wearing a white gathered silk shirt, khaki green skirt and sandals. Her dirty blonde hair is a frazzled mess, kinked by unseasonal humidity, flattened by an unexpected nap. Her skin is that of someone who pleads daily with the sun for a special exemption from harmful UV rays. From a dozen feet away, he can see the freckles on her neck. He imagines the constellations.

A patchwork leather bag hangs from her right shoulder, a muted rainbow of yellows and blues and reds. She grips a book with her left hand. He strains to read the title, but it is pressed against her hip. God hears his plea and she is jostled by a man who doesn’t stop to apologize.

The book lands face up.

The Art of Racing in the Rain. He smiles.

She picks up the book at looks directly at him. Blue eyes. Denim blue. And then she does the unexpected. She walks right up to him.

“Are you the person I’m looking for?” she says. Her words tumble out like jacks across a tile floor. “I mean…” she blushes, “I’m looking for Tom. Are you Tom?”

He is not Tom.

“Not today,” he says. “Yesterday I was Tom. But today I’m Jeff.” This brings her perfect, crooked smile.

“Sorry,” she says, “You look sorta like him. I mean like his picture. I’ve only seen his picture.”

“Great book,” he says, and points at it.

“Oh, I know. Don’t you just love it? But so heartbreaking…”

Before he can queue up an appropriate response, she spies him over his shoulder.


Tom is handsome. Tom is late. Tom is walking toward her with brisk steps and apologetic eyes. She mouths “sorry” with soft, unpainted lips, then turns and walks toward Tom. They share an awkward hug. Tom is smitten. He can’t take his eyes off of her.

They begin to walk away. Tom reaches for her hand, she gives him the book instead. He looks at it, she says something and he shakes his head.

Just before they reach the hallway that leads to baggage claim, she glances back over her shoulder and smiles.

You look sorta like him.

He turns to face the arrival concourse, leans back against the construction wall and watches. An hour later, the giant clock built into the high white wall tells him it’s time to go. He walks a little slower than usual to the bus stop. He lets two buses go by before climbing up the familiar steps of No. 273.

“Well?” says the driver.

“A few interesting characters,” he says.

“You gonna put me in one of your stories?” says the driver.

“You never know,” he says.

He slides into the first available seat and pulls out his notebook. He gives her a name. Penny. It feels slightly ironic. Perfectly ironic.

He stares at the page during the ride home, but nothing appears. He stares at it again at his desk until he’s too tired to think. The next morning at breakfast, the page with a single word on it stares at him.

“Penny,” he reads aloud. Still nothing.

And then, he knows. There is no story.

There is only Penny.

The next day he will be Tom.

Just in case.
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