I’m a vice president of marketing and sales for a corporation you’ve probably heard of — I’ll only say it’s a chain of stores that sells household items. These days, as you know, most business can be done out of the home office, what with faxes, emails, next day delivery, tele- and video-conferencing and so on, but the occasions still crop up when it becomes necessary to hop a flight and do the thing right, actually meet with people face to face. Our territory is mainly the eastern seaboard and I’ve traveled up and down it more times than I care to count. So I am no stranger to air travel. Usually the flights I take are uneventful. Every now and again you get some truly unusual turbulence, the kind where the plane sort of drops right off the table, giving the most hardened flyer a good fright. I’ve witnessed a heart attack or two, fainting spells, an epileptic seizure once, drunkenness, and so on . . . the sort of stuff that makes for good stories over lunch with your cronies. But what I’m about to tell you I’ve never witnessed before and don’t expect to again.
I was on an early morning flight that originated in Tallahassee, Florida. I must confess I was a little disappointed the office booked me on a flight that didn’t serve meals. I’m no lover of airline food, but something resembling breakfast would have been appreciated. I’m not one of those types who can work on his laptop on an airplane, nor can I sleep on one. If they’re showing something on the video screen, I’ll watch it. It’s either that or a magazine or book. Sometimes it’s pleasant to study the other passengers, making idle guesses about their personalities, their histories, what their business is and so on. I’m a happily married man, but an attractive female can hold my attention for a while. Ninety-five percent of the time, traveling by air is just plain humdrum. You sit yourself down, get yourself comfortable and stay there. You get used to it. Everybody does.
We touched down in Pennsylvania and took on more passengers; the plane was hardly half full when I boarded in Tallahassee. The three seats in front of me were empty for the first leg of the flight. In came the new passengers, all glancing at their tickets to double check their seat number and scrambling for just the right overhead compartment bin to stow their luggage. Presently, a young man somewhere in his late twenties approached where I sat. He wore the plainest, most nondescript suit I ever saw, dark brown and made of a thin material that was none too clean. You could see it was either a hand-me-down or purchased at a consignment store; the sleeves were a bit too short for him. His hair was the color of wheat and his face looked like a flat, square shovel with two eyes, a nose, and a mouth drawn on it. His mouth was scribed straight with a ruler, just a humorless, horizontal line. His eyes were watery blue and capped by eyebrows that were themselves two perfectly horizontal lines, like a pair of dashes; they gave him a habitual frown.
He placed a small, dirty cardboard suitcase in the overhead bin and took the window seat. Not long after that, a bustling young woman dressed in a smart, pinstripe business suit broke free of the bottleneck of passengers toward the cockpit and headed up to where we were. She carried a raincoat, a big floppy leather bag with a shoulder strap and a briefcase. She threw the leather bag into a nearby compartment, located her seat, glanced at the young man in the tired old suit who was to be her neighbor, registered a fleeting expression of disappointment, and took the aisle seat. The middle seat between them was empty and remained that way.
Finally, an obese man with a walrus mustache and wearing a very well-tailored suit — Armani, possibly — toddled down our way and took the aisle seat in my row after making a curt nod of greeting toward me. His cologne immediately saturated the air. Like the young man, I had the window seat, and, as it turned out, our middle seat stayed vacant too.
There was the ordinary slight delay in taking off, but finally we were back in the air. I tried to resume reading the paperback I purchased at the airport but just couldn’t pay any more attention to it. I had been out late the night before and had to get up at 4:00 that morning to make my flight, so I suppose I was a little worn out. Within ten minutes, Walrus Mustache fell asleep with his head thrown back and mouth open. How I envied that! How I wish I could pass these often wearisome flights in the oblivion of sleep. I wasn’t alert enough to do anything to occupy myself in a serious way, but I couldn’t sleep either. In the end, I decided to give it try. I placed my head in a spot where I thought it least likely to give me neck strain and closed my eyes.
As it turns out, I guess I did doze off, a shallow slumber that never lost the constant thrum of the airplane engines in it. However, my nap was terminated by the sound of Pinstripe Suit speaking into the satellite phone provided on the back of the seat in front of her. First, her conversation was merely a murmur that gently invaded my consciousness. Gradually, her voice became more strident until finally I heard her say, “That’s bullshit, Ed! That’s bullshit and you know it!”
I cocked open one eye. She was gesticulating with her free hand and I caught the flash of a gold bracelet; I noticed her lacquered nails, which were almost long enough to make her hand useless.
She went on: “No, no, no, it’s not Purchasing’s fault, it’s your fault, Ed. Christ!” There was a pause while — I assumed — Ed pled his case. She cut back in. “Look, I’m landing at Logan in an hour or so. I’ll be there probably by 11:00 at the latest. I want you and your team in my office waiting for me. You hear that, Ed? Ed? Hello?” She took the phone away from her ear, looked at it and said, “Fuck!” Then she roughly placed the phone back into its rest.
I could only see snatches of her features in between the headrests. I knew, when I first saw her, that she was attractive, but now when I saw, say, her ear or parts of her face in profile as they appeared and disappeared from view, and I could observe how healthy and perfect her skin was and notice the luster of her hair and so on, I decided she could be considered quite beautiful. Her personality put me off, though. I come from a different generation, one that still prefers women to be softer creatures than the specimen seated a row ahead of me. She struck me as way too hard-bitten. I didn’t much care for her language.
A flight attendant came by with the beverage cart. We decided not to disturb Walrus Mustache. I took a cup of black tea and then the flight attendant moved along to hand a coffee to the young man and an apple juice to Pinstripe Suit. Pinstripe gave the juice bottle a vigorous shake, uncapped it, took a sip and replaced the cap. Over the next ten minutes she repeated this procedure frequently. It made me wonder if she was slightly neurotic. Finally, she gave the bottle a good, strong shake and the cap came flying off and most of its contents splashed onto the left sleeve of the young man’s coat.
“Oh, shit!” she exclaimed. “Oh, Christ, I’m sorry!”
The young man put his coffee cup down on the tray in front of him and struggled out of the coat.
“I’ll get the flight attendant,” said Pinstripe. “I’m so sorry!”
She pressed the service button and presently a different flight attendant from the one who pushed the beverage cart came over to them. “Oh, look at this!” the flight attendant exclaimed in a motherly tone scented by a strong Southern accent. “My! What happened?” I was amused to see her handle the ratty old suit coat like it was fine material.
The coat was taken away to where the flight attendant promised something might be done with it. Once Pinstripe and the young man were left alone, she repeated to him, “I really am sorry.”
“Don’t bother about that, miss,” said the young man in a soft voice strangely at variance with his stern, almost grim countenance. “This suit’s just about wore out anyway.”
After a pause, Pinstripe asked, “You’ve got business in Boston?” no doubt feeling obliged to make conversation with her unintended victim. Her tone, when gentle, made her seem much more human to me. I was almost inclined to like her just then.
“Of a kind,” returned the young man.
“I suppose it’s more of a mission than anything else.”
There was about a minute gap of silence after that. Pinstripe pulled her laptop computer out of her briefcase and set it up on the fold-out tray in front of her. The young man’s words just sort of hung there. Finally, after launching a spreadsheet program, she asked, while keeping her eyes fastened on the computer screen, “What mission?”
“Well, that’s a bit embarrassing. It’s a family tradition started by my great-great grandfather…” His voice trailed off.
Now, I don’t consider myself especially nosy, but these were intriguing words. It seemed to me it wouldn’t be fair not to explain yourself after having come that far. Pinstripe obviously felt the same way. Her eyes left the computer screen and she glanced at her neighbor. “So what’s that?” she hazarded.
Here the young man chuckled. “You won’t believe it.” he said. “I’m going to Boston to find a wife.”
A shocked silence followed. Oh boy! I thought. What a hayseed! I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed for the poor kid. Could it be true that this rube expected to fly into an alien city, mix with its population and pick himself out a wife just like that? And why Boston of all places?
“Just . . . find a wife?” Pinstripe asked him, showing disbelief in her tone.
“I know what your thinking, miss, and I don’t blame you. I’m doing this more to please my pa than anything, though I aim to give it a full effort. See, my great-great grandfather found his bride in Boston during the Civil War and they eventually settled in Pennsylvania, where the family’s been ever since. Then when my great grandfather came of age and was still unmarried, his daddy ordered him to go up to Boston and find himself a wife, just like that, without never having stepped foot out of the county. Well, he did like he was told, took a train up to Boston, and found a woman to marry in three days. Then, years later, it was my grandfather’s turn and he found his wife that way, too. Then my pa found my ma in Boston when it was his time. It’s worked for every man in my family.”
There was another pause after this. At length, Pinstripe said, “You’re kidding.”
“No I’m not. It’s the God’s honest truth.”
“What’s your name?”
You could see Pinstripe had forgotten all about whatever it was she was planning to do on her computer. “Look, Enoch,” she began, “does your family have access to newspapers, television, radio, internet, modern forms of communication?”
“Of course we do.”
“You might have noticed the world has changed a little since your grandfather’s time?”
“No question about it, miss.”
“So you admit this could be considered a fool’s errand?”
“Could very well be.”
“I mean — what’s your strategy for finding a wife?”
“I have no strategy.”
I heard her laugh, though it was strictly a laugh of amusement — there wasn’t any derision in it. Yet another pause followed.
“Okay, Enoch,” she said at last. “What are you looking for in a wife?”
Enoch took a moment to consider the question. “Well, miss, I’m a farmer, so I’m looking for a woman who’d be good on a farm, naturally. I reckon it’s a little like evaluating livestock, only more complicated of course. If you don’t mind,” he continued, “I’ll use you as an example.” He took a second to appraise her. “You’re young, in your twenties. That’s the right age. You’re in good shape — it’s pretty easy to see you must work out in a gym. That’s good, because farming is hard work. Those long fingernails would have to go, of course, and your hands won’t look so pretty anymore, but I can see at a glance you’d hold up just fine.
“Now let’s see — you’ve got good, strong teeth, nice and straight and white. You take care of yourself, probably do a lot of preventative health maintenance, which is good, it means you won’t break down so often. Healthy complexion, thick, shiny hair, shows you eat right. All that is excellent. Most likely, you’ll live a full, long, healthy life, just what I want.
“You’re educated, that’s plain to see. I’ll bet you’ve got a good head for figures, which would come in handy for working out household and farm accounts. You’re a sharp one, someone who can pick up things quickly. I’m looking for a woman who will know what’s what and not be taken in and cheated. We buy and sell all the time, and a wife who can help manage stock and feed, know the cost and maintenance of farm machinery and so on, is an asset I insist upon.
“Now, children are important and you’ve got what I call good breeder’s hips. I don’t doubt you could give birth four, five, six times and still keep your good form. And this is plain speculating on my part, but I have a suspicion I could count on more sons than daughters from you, which, if you’ll pardon me, fits more into my plans.
“Now, this life isn’t for everybody, but, having said that, I think everybody could benefit from it. It’s a simple life, but that’s the best thing about it. Your hours are regular. You can see the sun rise, smell the sweet smell of hay and grass and ripening vegetables when the dew’s still on them. You connect with the earth on a farm, and the earth, you know, is mother of us all. You work hard and steady, but the strain is never too much and you go to bed at night feeling you’ve done something honest and good and your conscience is clean like it was when you were born. Our neighbors are all from old families, good people who worship on Sundays and keep to the Bible as best as they can. It’s a fine life, really. I think it’s what most people need.”
He said all of this without interruption. No response from Pinstripe followed. I couldn’t see her face, but I imagined her jaw must have dropped clear down to the floor. I suppose I was in shock myself. Never had I heard anyone speak like this to a woman. Such utter frankness and naivete made me cringe. Where had this kid kept himself all his life?
They didn’t talk after that — after all, what could you say? After a half an hour you could feel the airplane start its descent. The usual ritual of trays being put in the upright and locked position and loose items stowed safely away followed. I popped some chewing gum in my mouth and chewed vigorously to keep my ears from hurting due to the change in cabin pressure. All of this I’ve done a hundred times before.
After we landed, the “fasten your seat belt” sign was turned off and everybody prepared to move out of the airplane. Walrus Mustache was awake by now, and I stayed in my seat waiting for him to grab all his stuff. Enoch and Pinstripe rose at the same time.
“Enoch,” I heard her say, “where are you staying?”
“Copley Marriott,” he replied.
“How long will you be there?”
She extracted a pen and a business card from her briefcase. She flipped the card over and scribbled something on its back.
“So I could reach you there if I wanted?” she asked while writing.
“I reckon,” said Enoch.
She handed him the card. “If you want, you can call me at that number.” Enoch quickly glanced at it and then inserted the card into the inner pocket of his suit coat, which had been returned to him and he now wore. “I’m Valerie, by the way,” she said with a smile. A half a minute later, the pair started their way down the aisle.
Disbelievingly, I turned to Walrus Mustache. “Did you just—?” I began. He looked at me questioningly. Then it dawned on me my neighbor had slept through the whole thing.