As a cabin crew member, I thought I’d seen it all. Then this family boarded the aircraft.

Mum, dad, their teenage kid, and grandad. Grandad’s best days were behind him, it would be fair to say. Needed all his family’s help to walk down the aisle. He had shades on, and was wearing gloves, a big long-sleeved jumper and a scarf wrapped around his neck and mouth. It was a hot day, so we did find his attire odd, but whatever.

They got to their row and started trying to get grandad settled. Aggressively. Grandad was standing over his seat, but he didn’t seem to want to sit. The family all had their hands all over him, attempting to force him down into it. It was a real struggle. His legs were just not bending into the sitting position. We were finding this all hard to watch, especially as grandad seemed so submissive about the whole thing. So, a couple of us went over to see if we could help. The family resisted this strongly. Didn’t want us anywhere near grandad.

Anyway, it didn’t take long for us to discover that grandad was as dead as a fucking door nail.

A considerable commotion ensued, of course. At one point, the family got themselves in such a state that they neglected grandad. He started to topple over and one of the other passengers had to catch him.

The flight got cancelled because of grandad. A full flight. Absolute carnage. After the dust finally settled, we established that grandad hadn’t woken up that morning. The family were, of course, devastated and just wanted to get home. They weren’t up for paying the fees and doing all the paperwork to get the body shipped. They figured his return ticket was already paid for, so why waste it?

I often think about that family during the hours before we met them. Discovering him in his bed. Coming to that decision and devising their plan. Getting him dressed. Getting him into the car and through the airport terminal, then guiding him through security like a ventriloquist dummy.

I never know whether to laugh or cry.

Since then, whenever a customer is being difficult, I just smile at them. In my head, I’m thanking them for being alive.

24 Comments

  1. Janelle Greco

    Wow, Neil. I really love the turn of this when it’s revealed that Grandad is dead. The image of the family shoving him into the seat really stuck with me, and I really like the phrase, “I never know whether to laugh or cry.” A few things I’m also thinking about here: what was Grandad like alive? Was he surly? Charming? Sophisticated or disgruntled? and I’m also wondering what the family’s reaction is to getting caught. Do they try to insist he’s not dead? Are they indignant or apologetic? I feel like some more details about this family and about Grandad would really bolster the story. I also enjoyed the last few sentences; the career of the cabin crew member is a nice frame for this anecdote about the family. Really nice job!

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks Janelle! I like your suggestions, and it was on my mind when I was writing it that I wasn’t really fleshing out the characters in the family. Plenty to work with here!

  2. Samantha Mitchell

    Hi Neil,
    Is the grandad’s name Bernie? (wink). This premise made me laugh, and I find myself drawn to the voice of the narrator. He seems both cocksure and insecure, which is an extremely interesting balance that you convey here very well. For example, when he describes Grandad as “dead as a doornail,” or ends a sentence with “whatever,” I’m getting the impression of a guy who really has seen it all. But the turn at the end brings out another side of the narrator, one that is reckoning with an objectively morbid experience and letting himself be vulnerable about that experience instead of blase. His “professional shield” lowers in this moment, letting his vulnerability shine through. Aren’t we all, after all, forced to confront some kind of insecurity about our place in the world in the face of another’s death? Anyway, that’s the question this piece made me think about and I find it to be a compelling one.

    Toward revision, I would love to see you consider this situation and how it might play out: what if the narrator let the reader know about the status of Grandad as dead right off the bat, instead of revealed mid-story? I think you could tap into a deeper emotional underbelly of this truly bizarre, morbid predicament if you laid it all out on the table from the get-go. Just a thought experiment, so feel free to disregard.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Neil Clark

      Ha ha I’ve now googled the Bernie reference. I wonder if the person who told me this anecdote had seen that film!

      Thanks for the comments, Samantha – I’m really pleased that it made you reflect in that way.

      And yeah, it was a dilemma as I was writing it about where to reveal the status of the grandad, and it could be a useful exercise to play around with that.

  3. Amy Barnes

    I read the feedback first and didn’t get the Weekend at Bernie’s reference. 😉 Love your storytelling. There is something so great about a plane as setting. You immediately immerse the reader with the arrival of this family and the bundled up grandpa. Your first sentences help set the stage for tension — we know that this isn’t an ordinary situation. You do a great job at continuing that tension and building the expectation of whatever it is that is wrong with the pacing. I’ve read the other comments and am not sure about when you should reveal grandpa is dead. You might not have to tell us. This sentence lets us know:

    He started to topple over and one of the other passengers had to catch him.

    It might be interesting to include the dialogue between the narrator and the family where they explain the situation. There is something touching and a little humorous in the narrator thinking about how grandpa took a journey to the plane and how the family was just being practical. I think you could almost end right there without the closing sentence. The ending with the ventriloquist dummy reflection feels like a great endpoint.

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks Amy!

      That’s an interesting idea about not explicitly revealing grandad’s status. In edits, I’ll try removing it and see how it reads.

      Definitely, the aftermath of the discovery is something I’m going to spend a bit more time on. It’s a good opportunity to reveal something about their characters also.

  4. K Chiucarello

    wowwwweee. okay. this hit me like a ton of bricks. This suggestion may sound bonkers, but the word ‘carnage’ snagged me here (in a very excellent way). What would it look like describing that chaos? Is it over the actual body? Is it just between the passengers? At the crew? I’m picturing things (or people or bodies) actually being torn apart over this. When I hit the ‘Anyways,…’ sentence my jaw quite literally dropped. I think if you were to shorten the paragraph that leads into it by the *slightest there would be more room to spiral on the backside of that. Back to that sentence though — it’s absolute perfection. The ‘fucking’ added in there lands so well. I’m curious if the reveal at the end could be a potential final ending scene. I’m least interested in the after-perspective of the crew member and rather all-in for the family’s take on this. Perhaps you could start at the end (as you do here already) and end at the start (with the family members freaking out and devising this plan). Hope some of this is helpful! Cannot wait to see how this grows.

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks K!

      Good ideas! I work in aviation, so it would be no hassle at all to describe the carnage of having a cancelled flight on your hands. Doubly carnage when you throw a dead body in there!

      The order of the events and reveal is something that’s repeatedly come up in the comments. Might need to sit down and physically storyboard it and juggle things around!

      • Traci Mullins

        Just my opinion, but I don’t think you need to describe the carnage, only because with flash it’s often what’s unsaid that triggers the imaginations. I often hear that we should “trust the reader” to fill in the blanks.

  5. Kevin Sterne

    I love this premise and situation. I love the way you tell it, clear, matter-of-fact and conversational. Such a great rhythm to the story telling. Just well done.

    “Anyway, it didn’t take long for us to discover that grandad was as dead as a fucking door nail.” I think this line works particularly well in nailing down the tone and giving us a great Oh Shit moment.

    I want the narrator to have a more hands-on role in the story. This can just be a few sentences where they’re actively involved on the plane. Maybe ask yourself the question.. why is this narrator the ONLY person to tell this story?

    How did the people on the plane react? this could even be a sentence.

    really great stuff, excited to see where this goes

    • Neil Clark

      Thank you Kevin! Glad you enjoyed it!

      I think you’re right – there’s room for more activity here, from the narrator and the family too. Maybe the other passengers and crew members.

      • Traci Mullins

        I wonder what it would like if the story was told from a passenger’s point of view, just to enhance the shock value. I’m not quite as interested in the crew member’s observations as I might be by a passenger’s, especially if you could describe the passenger’s mindset when he got on the plane. Maybe he was having a super bad day and a dead passenger put it all in perspective!

    • Traci Mullins

      Neil, everything about this piece is delightfully and macabrely surprising. You caught me totally off guard at “dead as a doornail,” and I laughed out loud! I was totally invested in the story then and wouldn’t have stopped reading for anything. I laughed again at the great line about the family not wanting to waste Granddad’s plane ticket (sounds like something I would think!). I thoroughly enjoyed this and wouldn’t change a thing.

  6. Cheryl Pappas

    Oh, Neil, this was great fun. I loved going back to read the beginning again, knowing that the man was dead (and knowing why he “refused” to sit). It’s even funnier on a re-read.

    Right now, this feels like a situation story that has a mini-scene in it (trying to get the grandad on the plane and to sit), but what if you slowed it down and showed us the whole thing? Instead of having the narrator recount from the present what happened, maybe show it to us in the present. You could even find a way to tell that back story of how the family managed to go through all the steps you mention at the end. Maybe having a dead man on the flight breaks down the walls and this crew member ends up drinking a scotch with one of the family members while everyone else is asleep. He could tell him the story of how it happened.

    Just some ideas, but I love where you’re going with this! An unbelievable situation made real!

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks Cheryl – glad I made you laugh!

      Yeah, I did have a big debate with myself regarding what perspective – in terms of both tense and narrator – to tell this story from. Showing it from the present could be interesting, and the back story could then be told through dialogue. Thanks for the ideas – I’m looking forward to reworking this!

  7. Taylor Grieshober

    Hi Neil!
    This was so funny! I agree with Janelle, I love the turn of the grandpa being dead. It is, as we hear and hammer home all the time, “surprising, yet inevitable”. I think what surprised me most and actually threw me a little bit, is the fact that grandpa is walking. I can’t picture how to make a dead person look like they’re walking, so I imagine his family dragging him down the aisle? I know it’s fiction and it’s flash and I shouldn’t be thrown by logistics, but I nonetheless was.
    The voice is super-strong here, colloquial and funny and wise all at once. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Jacob Schrodt

    Wow, so much comedy in something so fundamentally sad. On my second read, I laughed out loud at “Granddad’s best days were behind him.” This is clearly a perfect scene to explore, and I like how the narrator reflects on the family after the fact. I wonder if the piece could use more of this reflection? Is there something more existential to this moment for the narrator than just a bizarre day at work? What might this moment say about how the narrator thinks of his or her mortality? I really enjoyed this. Great work!

  9. Martha Jackson Kaplan

    Neil, Just like others, I love this piece. I fly often enough (pre-Covid) to visualize this piece— and I’ve read enough comments from flight crews about difficult passengers– to feel this acutely. I like the order, like the diction, the images, everything. I have only a couple of suggestions.

    I wouldn’t use dead “as a door nail” for the fucking dead as— find a fresher simile, so many dead things to choose from! And this is your hinge sentence. I would also recommend getting to that point swiftly in the sentence. For example:
    “Anyway, it turns out grandad was as dead as a fucking ____ [you finish– I keep thinking of Texas similes and they don’t work for airlines!] .

    “The flight got cancelled because of grandad. A full flight. Absolute carnage.” — I’d lose ‘because of grandad’– that’s clear without it and a choppier read suggests the commotion that follows. I would then, as had already been noted, more details about the carnage, maybe in some tight list sentences.

    In the very last line, I don’t think you need the phrase “In my head” — because, where else would it be? Unless you would be greeting each passenger with “thank you for being alive” as they board the flight! (That would do it for me, I’d bail)

    In any case, I love this piece. And when the time comes to travel again, this will persist ‘in my head’ on every flight.

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks Martha – glad you enjoyed it and could relate to it!

      You’re right, I could definitely find a better and more original figure of speech than dead as a door nail, Texas or otherwise.

      And I laughed out loud at the thought of cabin crew greeting passengers with “thank you for being alive”. I’ll need to suggest that one to my cabin crew friends!

  10. Bud Smith

    Hello Neil, this is a really cool piece. I see in some of the comments you got a few people who pointed out the Weekend at Bernie’s thing. I don’t think that really lines up with this piece enough to worry about it and its originality, people have been transporting dead bodies since humans began and I can only imagine how much it would cost to move a dead body in some other way, some more official capacity and what that would do to plans and the such (in this piece the flight is canceled but I mean the plans of the family, certainly they don’t want to have the funeral at Disney World or wherever they are?)

    My notes are just general little ones, nipping a few sentences and taking some of the cliche out of the thought process or utterances of the flight attendant. I’ll paste below:

    “This family boarded my aircraft. Mum, dad, their teenage kid, and grandad. Grandad needed all his family’s help to walk down the aisle. He had shades on, and was wearing gloves, a big long-sleeved jumper and a scarf wrapped around his neck and mouth. It was a hot day. The other flight attendants and I found his attire odd, but whatever.
    They got to their row and started trying to get grandad settled. Aggressively. The family all had their hands all over him, attempting to force him down. It was a real struggle. His legs were just not bending. We were finding this all hard to watch, especially since he seemed so submissive about the whole thing. A couple of us went over to see if we could help. The family resisted us strongly. Didn’t want us anywhere near grandad.
    Anyway, I was the one who discovered the man was dead.
    A considerable commotion ensued. The family got themselves in such a state they neglected grandad. He started to topple over and one of the other passengers had to catch him.
    The flight got cancelled. A full flight. Absolute carnage. After the dust finally settled, we established that grandad hadn’t woken up that morning. The family were, of course, devastated and just wanted to get home. They weren’t up for paying the fees and doing all the paperwork to get the body shipped. They figured his return ticket was already paid for, so why waste it?
    I often think about that family during the hours before we met them. Discovering him in his bed. Coming to that decision and devising their plan. Getting him dressed. Getting him into the car and through the airport terminal, then guiding him through security like a ventriloquist dummy.
    I never know whether to laugh or cry.
    Since then, whenever a customer is being difficult, I just smile and thank them for being alive.”

    Real cool piece though, I am left thinking that I can see the grandad so fully and I wonder what it would take to describe the two or three other family members. Just a few small details would go such a long way

    • Neil Clark

      Thanks Bud – that’s really helpful, and yeah I will definitely be spending some time colouring in the rest of the cast!

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