Page 39 of Airport


He wondered if Inez had yet found his note.

She had.

INEZ GUERRERO came tiredly into the miserable 51st Street apartment, and slipped off her shoes, which had been hurting, and her coat and kerchief, which were soaked from melted snow. She was aware of a cold coming, and an all-engulfing weariness. Her work as a waitress had been harder than usual today, the customers meaner, the tips smaller. Besides, she was not yet accustomed to it, which took a greater toll.

Two years ago, when the Guerreros lived comfortably in a congenial home in the suburbs, Inez, though never beautiful, had been a pleasant-appearing, well-preserved woman. Since then, ravages of time and circumstance had come swiftly to her face, so that where once she seemed younger than she was, now she looked considerably older. Tonight, if Inez had been in a house of her own, she would have sought the solace of a hot bath, which always seemed to relax her in times of trouble–of which there had been plenty in the Guerreros’ married life. Although there was a bathroom of sorts down the hall, which three apartments shared, it was unheated and drafty, with old paint peeling, and a gas water heater which had to be appeased with quarters. The thought of it defeated her. She decided she would sit still for a while in the shabby living room, then go to bed. She had no idea where her husband was.

It was some time before she noticed the note on the living-room table.

I won’t be home for a few days.

I’m going away.

I expect to have some good news soon

which will surprise you.

Few things surprised Inez where her husband was concerned; he had always been unpredictable and, more recently, irrational. Good news would certainly be a surprise, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe that there would be any. Inez had watched too many of her husband’s ambitious schemes totter and collapse to believe in the likelihood of one more possibility succeeding.

But the first part of the note puzzled her. Where was D.O. going “for a few days”? Equally mystifying: What did he intend to use for money? The night before last the Guerreros pooled the last of the money they had in the world. The total was twenty-six dollars and some cents. Besides the money, they had only one thing left worth pawning; it belonged to Inez–her mother’s ring, and so far sne had resisted parting with it. It might have to go soon.

Of the twenty-six dollars-odd, Inez had taken eighteen, to use for food and as a token payment toward the rent. She had seen the desperation in D.O.‘s face as he pocketed the remaining eight dollars and small change.

Inez decided to stop puzzling, and to go to bed as she had planned. She was too weary even to worry about how her children were faring, though she had not heard from her sister in Cleveland–with whom the children were staying–for more than a week. She turned out the single light in the living room and went into the cramped, shabby bedroom.

She had trouble finding her nightgown. Some of the contents of the rickety dressing chest seemed to have been moved around. Eventually she found the nightgown in a drawer with three of D.O.‘s shirts; they were the last he had, so wherever he had gone, he had not taken a change of clothing. Under one of the shirts a folded sheet of yellow paper caught her eye. She took it out and opened it.

The yellow sheet was a printed form which had been filled in by typewriter; what Inez was holding was a carbon copy. When she saw what it was, she sat down, unbelieving, on the bed. To make sure she had not misunderstood, she read the contents of the form again.

It was a time-payment contract between Trans America Airlines and D. O. “Buerrero”–the name, she noticed, was misspelled. The contract acknowledged that “Buerrero” had received a round-trip ticket to Rome, economy class; that he had made a down payment of forty-seven dollars, and hereby promised to pay the balance of four hundred and twenty-seven dollars, plus interest, in installments over twenty-four months.

It didn’t make sense.

Inez stared dazedly at the yellow form. Within her mind, questions chased one another.

Why did D.O. need an air ticket at all? And if a ticket, why to Rome? And what about the money? He couldn’t possibly pay the installments, though that part, at least, was understandable. There had been plenty of other obligations D. O. Guerrero incurred that he couldn’t meet; debts never disturbed him, as they did Inez. But apart from the debt, where had the forty-seven dollars down payment come from? The form acknowledged receipt; the money had been paid. Yet two nights ago, D.O. declared that he had no more money than they pooled, and whatever else he might do, Inez knew he never lied to her.

Yet that forty-seven dollars came from somewhere. Where?

Suddenly, she remembered the ring; it was gold with a single diamond in a platinum setting. Until a week or two ago, Inez wore it regularly, but recently her hands had swollen and she took the ring off, leaving it in a small box in one of the bedroom drawers. For the second time tonight she searched the drawers. The box was there—empty. Obviously, to get the forty-seven dollars, D.O. had pawned the ring.

Her first reaction was regret. To Inez, the ring had meant something; it was a last tenuous link between herself and the past, her scattered family, her dead mother whose memory she revered. More realistically: the ring, though not exceptionally valuable, had been a last resort. While it was there, there was the knowledge that however bad things became, the ring would always provide a few days more of living. Now it was gone, and along with it, the minor reassurance.

Yet knowing where the down payment came from for the airline ticket, still provided no answer to the question–why? Why an air journey? Why to Rome?

Still seated on the bed, Inez applied herself to thinking carefully. For the moment, she ignored her tiredness.

Inez was not a highly intelligent woman. If she had been, probably she would not have endured marriage to D. O. Guerrero for almost twenty years; and even now, if better equipped mentally, she would have been more than a coffee-house waitress at a paltry wage. But occasionally, through slow, careful reasoning aided by instinct, Inez could reach right conclusions. Especially where her husband was concerned.

Now, instinct more than reason warned her that D. O. Guerrero was in trouble–more serious trouble than they had yet encountered. Two things convinced her: his irrationality of late, and the length of his intended journey; in the Guerrero’s present circumstances, only some monumental, desperate undertaking could require a trip to Rome. She went to the living room and returned with the note, which she read again. Over the years there had been many notes; Inez sensed that this one did not mean what it said.

Beyond that, her reasoning failed to go. But she had the feeling, a conviction growing as each minute passed, that there must be something, ought to be something, she should do.

It did not occur to Inez to abdicate entirely; to abandon D.O. to the outcome of whatever new folly he might have begun. She was essentially a simple soul with an uncomplicated nature. Eighteen years ago she accepted D. O. Guerrero “for better or worse.” That it had turned out to be mostly “worse” did not, as Inez saw it, change her responsibility as a wife.

Her cautious, measured reasoning continued. She supposed the first thing to do was find out if D.O. had already left by air; if not, perhaps there was time to stop him. Inez had no idea how much of a start D.O. had, or how many hours ago his note to her was written. She looked again at the yellow time-payment form; it said nothing about when the flight would be, or its departure time, though she could telephone the airline–Trans America. As quickly as she could, Inez began putting on the clothes which, a few minutes earlier, she had taken off.

Her outdoor shoes hurt her feet again, and her coat was still sodden and uncomfortable as she went down the narrow stairs from the apartment to the street. In the mean lower hallway, snow had blown under the outer door and covered the bare boards of the floor. Outside, Inez saw, the snow was even deeper than when she came in. The cold, bleak wind assaulted her as she left the building’s shelter, whipping more snow into her face.

There was no telephone in the Guerreros’ apartment, and although Inez could have used a pay phone in the lunch counter on the lower floor, she wanted to avoid a meeting with the proprietor, who was also the building landlord. He had threatened eviction tomorrow if the Guerreros’ arrears of rent were not paid in full. That was something else which Inez had pushed from her mind tonight, and which–if D.O. failed to return by morning–she would have to face alone.

A drugstore, with a pay phone, was a block and a half away. Picking her way through deep snow on uncleared sidewalks, Inez headed there.

The time was a quarter to ten.

The drugstore telephone was in use by two teen-age girls, and Inez waited almost ten minutes for it to be free. Then, when she dialed the Trans America number, a recording informed her that all lines to Reservations were busy, and would she please wait. She waited while the recording repeated itself several times before a brisk woman’s voice declared that she was Miss Young, and could she help?

“Please,” Inez said, “I want to ask about flights to Rome.”

As if a button had been pressed, Miss Young replied that Trans America had direct non-stop flights from Lincoln International to Rome on Tuesdays and Fridays; through New York there were connections daily, and did the caller wish to make a reservation now?

“No,” Inez said. “No, I’m not going. It’s about my husband. Did you say there was one on Fridays… a flight… tonight?”

“Yes, madam–our Flight Two, The Golden Argosy. It departs at ten o’clock local time, except that tonight the flight has been delayed one hour, due to weather conditions.”

Inez could see the drugstore clock. By now, it was nearly five past ten.

She said quickly, “You mean the flight hasn’t gone yet?”

“No, madam, not yet.”

“Please…” As she often did, Inez found herself groping for words. “Please, it’s important for me to find out if my husband is on that flight. His name is D. O. Guerrero, and…”

“I’m sorry; we’re not permitted to give out that information.” Miss Young was polite but firm.

“I don’t think you understand, miss. It’s my husband I’m asking about. This is his wife.”

“I do unjerstand, Mrs. Guerrero, and I’m sorry; but it’s a company rule.”

Miss Young, and others like her, were well drilled in the rule and understood its reason. Many businessmen took secrctaries or mistresses along on air trips, listing them as wives, to take advantage of family plan fare reductions. In the past, a few suspicious, genuine wives had checked up, causing trouble for the airlines’ customers–the men. Later, it was the men who complained bitterly about breaches of confidence, with the result that airlines nowadays made a policy of not disclosing passenger names.

Inez began, “Isn’t there any way…”

“There really isn’t.”

“Oh, dear.”

“Do I understand,” Miss Young inquired, “that you think your husband might be leaving on Flight Two, but you’re not sure?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

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