As he pretends to sleep, I look at his face. Back home, his mother and I spend hours divvying up where he got his features. Eyes and chin from her. Smirk and Santa cheeks from me.
"Something to drink?" I hear a voice say.
It's the flight attendant up the aisle, shouldering the beverage cart toward the back of the plane, where they seem to have seated all the Con Air passengers like us. "Seat the noisy ones by the engines," the manual must say. "When possible, cuff 'em."
The flight attendant grimaces every time she pushes the cart. To see her work makes you think the cart weighs 800 pounds and rolls on only three good casters. She is not bad looking, probably of Swedish descent. And I've always, you know, sort of gotten a kick out of seeing Swedes do physical labor.
"Something to drink?" she asks the next row, pain in her brow.
Let me just say this about the Scandinavians: After their second or third generations in America, their hair becomes sort of stringy and their pores get big as manhole covers. In short, they look much like the rest of us.
"Something to drink?" she asks me.
"What are you having?" I ask.
She pretends not to hear my joke, which is a common response to my jokes: indifference. The flight attendant drops a bag of pretzels on my tray table and turns to the more prepared folks on the other side of the aisle.
"Would you like something to drink?" she asks them.
Next to me is the toddler. We are off to see his grandmother in Chicago, a fact-finding mission on how she is getting along. I have a backpack full of diapers, wipes, pacifiers, string cheese, baby books, antidepressants and cough drops. Pretty much anything you need for a visit to grandma. Oh, and there's a baby bottle full of brandy. For me. For emergencies. Such as red-eye flights to see grandma, a bad idea for which I blame my travel agent.
"I thought you wanted to get there early," my wife says.
"At 5 a.m.?" I ask.
"He'll sleep on the plane," she explains.
"Is O'Hare even open at 5 a.m.?"
The trouble with talking to your wife, I've found, is that sometimes she takes you seriously, even if you are seldom serious. When I suggested taking the red-eye with a 2-year-old, I'm pretty sure I was being facetious. Even without the proper inflection in my voice, isn't the idea clearly preposterous?
In the boarding area, I could see the expressions on the other passengers' faces: "Look at that guy. He's bringing a baby on a red-eye? What's he thinking? There goes my four hours of sleep." One woman, I think she was crying.
"You'll be good, right?" I asked the toddler while we waited to board.
"Of course," he said.
"How do we sit on airplanes?" I asked.
"Pretty much like this," he said, bolt upright as if testifying.
For a week, we rehearsed how he'd sit on the airplane on the way to see his grandmother. Without fail, he aced these little quizzes, sitting up properly with his hands in his corduroyed lap.
Now, two hours into the flight, he is upside down, with the sharp edge of his new tennis shoe digging into my left shoulder. It may require stitches.
At heart, I am a positive guy, but there is little to be positive about now. The baby slept 10 minutes while we were taxiing for takeoff, then bolted awake, sensing that we were about to be launched into space without his mother anywhere in sight.
Now, he stares at me and works the pacifier in his mouth like a bitter cigar, plotting his next back flip off the seat. "Look at this guy," he thinks. "He's taking a toddler on the red-eye. Is he nuts?"
Obviously. Only a nut would take a 2-year-old on the 11:15 p.m. flight out of LAX, departing from those stuffy gates at the far end of the terminal (46 through 48), which never seem to thin out, never. Gate 46B, to be exact, where the air-conditioning doesn't even reach.
Something to drink?
Sure. How about shots?
Chris Erskine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.