Seat 4B on the morning flight from Gatwick Airport to Boston was unoccupied. That was not a surprise since I held the boarding pass for that seat. What was a surprise was the woman sitting seat 4A. She was familiar, but I didn't recognize her. Had I seen the basic blue business suit in an ad? It matched her eyes. Or was it her demeanor, which suggested approachable reserve? I glanced without interest at the newspaper the flight attendant handed to me. Then I ventured a feeble opening. "I prefer the morning flight even if it costs a bit more," I said. "I look forward to dinner in Boston."
"So do I," she said with an enthusiasm that the thought of Boston cooking seldom evoked.
I tried to think of a restaurant that would justify her enthusiasm. "The Oak Room at the Copley?" I asked.
"A good guess," she replied. "But no. Not this time."
The plane took off, ascended. The whine of the engines subsided. I picked up the thin thread of our conversation. "I'm Xavier," I said. "De Taille."
"I know. I saw you at the conference. Mona. Mona Lissette."
"I thought I had seen you somewhere! Did you enjoy the seminars?"
"I enjoyed London." She was pensive. "Actually, I'm glad to have a chance to talk with you. I didn't get the main point of your talk on Wednesday."
"My fault," I said. "It didn't have one. It was a parable. I tell stories."
"And we have to guess at the meaning?"
"I try to make a point with some wiggle room for those who disagree or who know of contrary evidence."
"So truth is buried in your narratives."
"I borrowed the technique from Kierkegaard. I think truth is best approached obliquely and with room for contradictions."
"So you're not a Kantian?"
"A skeptic." I smiled. "And you? A philosopher?"
"Oh no. I'm an applied ethicist. I work for a consulting firm."
"I've heard of your profession. You make ethical judgments for hire?"
She pursed her lips but ignored my faux pas. "I'm called in when there is a problem related to ethics that isn't technical or legal. I clarify the implications of the various points of view and relate them to generally accepted ethical standards."
"Generally accepted by whom?" I asked. The question had a sharper thrust than might have seemed appropriate for the occasion, but she did not take offense.
"The profession in question, or the community. It varies. It's a pragmatic thing."
"And the outcome? Do your clients learn something about ethics?"
"We don't try to save the world. Often it's enough if we can reconcile people who have differing interests or standards. Sometimes we help. It's harmless."
After hors d'oeuvres and a sip of wine of recent vintage served in a plastic bottle I turned my attention once again to my companion. There was something enigmatic about her.
"Have you been busy?" I asked.
"Just before the conference I had a complicated case. I helped a television station that was criticized by a local watchdog group because it carried a great deal of violent material in its newscasts. The examples they offered were colorful. The station management didn't want to change their format because they were doing very well in the ratings. The issue was picked up by a couple of local churches and a PTA group. The station asked us for help."
"And what did you do?"
"We organized a meeting at which all those concerned expressed their concerns. We helped the station manager prepare a statement on the importance of the surveillance function of news. He emphasized that the community is safer because citizens know what's happening."
"Much more. We helped the station design a campaign on behalf of a new playground as well make a significant contribution to it. They designed a campaign for the PTA. They even changed the name of their news operation to 'The Watchful Eye.' It was a great success."
"But what about the concern about violence?"
"When we looked at that issue we thought it was justified by the important surveillance function they provided. We made a public statement to that effect."
"Don't bite the hand...?"
After lunch the mid-flight drowsiness was almost palpable. I loosened my tie and settled back in my seat. Mona adjusted her seat back and appeared to doze. Her shoulder leaned on mine. As I glanced at her I noticed that her blouse, stylishly unbuttoned at the top, had fallen open. A gentle slope rose and fell with each of her shallow breaths. Oh, I thought, to see, to touch... but I digress.
She awoke and, searching for something other than my thoughts to fill the drowsy air, I asked if she had any other interesting cases on her schedule.
"I handle the media cases. We're looking into the behavior of a weatherman." She paused and grinned, as if we were sharing confidences. "A television meteorologist. In his spare time he's a standup comedian. One rainy night he said it was 'raining enough to drown a midget.' He had a sketch of a midget struggling in a puddle of rainwater on the weather map. It got notoriety locally for its bad taste. He began doing more of it. The Sons of Italy have organized a letter-writing campaign because he compared a tornado to a haircut by an Italian barber. They have received many complaints but he's become enormously popular. The ratings of the news show have skyrocketed."
"It sounds as though the parents are proud of their bad boy but want to keep the complaining neighbors off their backs."
She turned to me. "You have a knack for summarizing problems. I'll remember you if we have a case in which a story might help. We could use your credentials."
It was a bittersweet compliment from an attractive woman. I would prefer to be remembered in some other way. "Thank you." I reached across and touched her arm. "But I'm not the kind of philosopher who works well in harness."
We glanced at the video screen which had been lowered from the ceiling. The colors were as violent as the action in the cartoon. The story consisted of people shouting at each other, looking exasperated and shouting again. Our eyes met in shared amusement. "They must have expected more children on this flight," she said.
The film ended. The cabin lights were turned up. People struggled stiffly out of their seats and formed a line leading to the rear of the aircraft. "Do you have a ride from the airport?" I asked.
"Paul will meet me," she said with a Julia Roberts smile. "I haven't seen him for two weeks. We're staying in town for the weekend. At the Taj. He's a bit of a hotel snob." And then, a note of sadness crept into her voice. It seemed as profound as the eternal note of sadness Matthew Arnold found at Dover Beach. "On Monday I fly home to my family in Chicago."
My expression must have betrayed my confusion. "Paul is your husband?"
"Oh no. My husband is a very busy lawyer. We have three children: two boys and a girl. An au pair takes care of them and my husband takes care of her. So to speak. It's an excellent marriage. Mature."
We were silent for several moments. I contemplated the life she had described. She, I suspected, was thinking about Paul. We had no further conversation except murmured good wishes and an agreement to possibly, maybe, if it were convenient, have lunch at a future meeting. Trays were collected. We raised our seats "to the upright and secure position." The landing was uneventful.
In Logan Airport I loaded my luggage on a hand cart. Mona was two persons in front of me at the customs line. After I was cleared by the customs clerk I passed through the one-way door into the reception area.
Mona was looking about. A man, tall, walked up to her. He was wearing a dark suit that appeared to be made of silk. His plain blue tie, also apparently silk, was held with a very small knot. His shoes gleamed. They were made from the hide of an inhabitant of a swamp. The soles, thin as membranes, wouldn't protect his feet from a sharp pebble. Paul.
They reached out for each other. He enclosed her in an embrace that seemed a familiar reminder of past intimacies as well as a prelude to future pleasures. His back was to me. Her head was on his shoulder. She turned her face in my direction. Can an ethicist have an ethical problem? Her smile was enigmatic.
X. S. De Taille is an occasional scholar who writes from a retreat near a trout stream in New England. He normally is unapproachable, although frequently reproachable.