Fifteen short stories, 122 pages
The Girl in the Floppy Hat
Remember, you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader. (Click for free download)
My infrequent trips to the States, on family business or just business, were almost always uneventful. But the last two had been the most eventful journeys of my life. The first began with a four-hour bus ride from my home in a remote corner of Argentina to the city of Cordoba, where I entered a travel agency a few minutes after three in the afternoon and approached Luciano's desk. He stood up, smiled automatically and held out his hand. As I took it his smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared and he said, "You traveling today...or tomorrow?" and I knew something was wrong.
"Today, of course."
He looked at me, obviously puzzled, then shrugged. "Correct, no problem. For some reason I thought it was tomorrow."
Part of my work as a consultant to agricultural cooperatives is to analyze misunderstandings. Do you know what the problem is? People don't listen. Luciano sat down and clicked away at his computer. I sat across from him and glanced at the calendar on his desk: Friday, January 8. I was about to say "Hey, Luciano, you should keep your calendar up to date and you'd know when your clients were traveling," but instead I opened the newspaper I'd bought at a kiosko outside the agency just before entering and looked at the date: Friday, January 8. My face felt hot and I was glad that Luciano was busy changing my reservation and couldn't notice my embarrassment. I had left home a day early. It made no difference for what I had to do in Florida, except that I wanted to leave on Saturday and arrive on Sunday morning in order to rest one day and get busy on Monday. Now I'd have a Saturday on my hands. Still, it was the first time something like that had happened to me. I might misplace my glasses now and then, but a whole day!
"Wait here just a minute, Sr. Frank. I'm going to the airline to change the ticket."
I went to a café on the next block and ordered a cafecito while I read the newspaper. It was mostly about the economic recession, unemployment and the political party infighting in Argentina and, naturally, the war in Kosovo. All depressing stuff, but more depressing, for me, was the reason for my trip to Florida – to transfer my mother from an Assisted Living Facility to a nursing home and get Medicaid to pay for it. I walked back to the travel agency and found Luciano at his desk listening to another passenger's woes. He handed me my ticket in a plastic envelope and I inspected it carefully.
"All in order, Sr. Frank," Luciano assured me. "You still have plenty of time to get to the airport."
"Did you reserve a car for me?"
"Yes, of course, Interamericano. Have a good trip." He scuttled back to his client and peered into his monitor. "Hey, Julieta," he called to the girl at the next work-station, "what's the code for Santiago de Chile?"
"How should I know? Look it up.""SCL," I said, smugly I fear, as I picked up my bag and strolled toward the door, and they all turned and looked at me.
The short flight to Buenos Aires was on time and uneventful. I passed an hour of the three hour wait for the connecting flight re-reading Carson McCuller's "The Heart is a Lonely Hunter". I had chosen it because it's small and light – not in content but in weight. I bought some pipe tobacco in the tax-free shop and walked around the transit lounge observing my fellow passengers boarding in Buenos Aires as they drifted in. The usual mix of nervous tourists already dressed for Disney World and business people looking like their next important meeting would be immediately after take-off. I saw the girl in the floppy hat shortly before the flight was called. Tall and very thin. Young, too young for the likes of me, unless you take Sean Connery movies seriously. Her hat covered the upper right side of her face. She wore an ankle-length blue skirt slit up to the back of her knees and a wrinkled cream linen jacket and heelless sandals. Bare feet aren't very sensible for air travel. I had to smile when I realized that I was worried about that. You often see underdressed tourists who think that because their destination is warm it will also be warm at thirty-thousand feet and arrive sneezing. But why should I be worried? Maybe because she looked so fragile. The idea of approaching her and suggesting that she put on socks was ridiculous. I'd long since learned that unasked for advice is almost always unwelcome. Besides, where would she get them? I couldn't very well offer mine. The flight was called forty minutes before departure time, the usual procedure for getting hundreds of passengers into a 747 and still depart on time.
I put the book into my carry-on and stood up as the they called for passengers holding seats in rows 32 through 43 to board. The girl, who had been standing the whole time, suddenly sat down and pulled a pair of gray woolen socks from her overnight bag. She took off the sandals and slipped on the socks. I smiled and nodded in her direction: Atta girl.
I had an aisle seat so I wouldn't have to climb over people to go to the john or roam the aisles. A window is preferable if there's anything to see, but we were leaving at eleven at night and arriving at 6.30 in the morning. When I got to row 33, there she was in the window seat. I don't believe in coincidences, which doesn't mean that every time you sit next to someone on a bus or airplane it's part of your karma, but this time I had already been watching her in the terminal and worrying about her feet being cold. I mean what are the odds? Pretty remote.
I said Hola as I placed my carry-on under the seat. She smiled and nodded as she took off the hat, rolled it up and stuffed it into the seat-pocket in front of her.
Jet black silky hair blended nicely with her green eyes. She turned and gazed out the window at the runway lights, which soon became starlights and I opened The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and read the same paragraph three times before giving it up.
"Pollo o pasta?" the flight attendant mumbled with a lack of enthusiasm fully shared by the passengers. My ears were still stopped up so I didn't hear the first word and said "Pasta o qué?" "Pollo," she repeated. "Pasta," I said with a shrug in my voice. My companion ordered the pollo and said to me, "It's chicken." I realized she thought I hadn't understood, being too obviously a gringo, so I said to her in Spanish, "Ah, you wanted to help me, but my ears were only stopped up." She blushed and nodded. I ordered red wine and water and she water only. We ate in silence until I decided it was time to put a deeper crack in the ice.
"This pasta has no taste at all," I said. "How's the chicken?"
"It tastes like pasta."
We laughed. "But the wine doesn't taste like water," I said. "Like a drop?"
She held out her plastic cup. "Well, just a drop." I leaned across the empty seat and poured her several.
"Are you from Buenos Aires?" I asked her.
"No, Santiago de Chile. Do you know it?"
"Yes, I've been there often. Chilean women are the most beautiful in the world, or so I've been told."
"You've been told," she said with a wide-open smile. "And have you no opinion?"
"Oh yes, I agree entirely."
"Thank you, in the name of Chilean women... and you're American."
"Is it so obvious?"
"I saw your passport," she admitted as she went at cutting the chicken with a plastic knife," when you were in the tax-free shop."
That was even before I noticed her. So she's interested. Fancy that.
"Do you live in Florida?" she asked me.
"No, in Cordoba, not so far from Chile really. Do you know it?"
"Only from the air. It's on the Pampas, isn't it?"
"Part of it is, but I live in the mountainous part.
"Oh, that must be nice..."
And so it went until they announced that the movie would be You've got Mail. "Do you have Internet?" I asked her.
She nodded. "I hear the movie is good, but I can barely keep my eyes open."
I leaned between my legs and fished in my overnight bag for a notebook and pen. "Let me take down your e-mail address and I'll give you mine." I moved into the middle seat, wrote my address on a page of the notebook, ripped it out and handed it to her, together with the notebook. "If we miss the movie, which seems likely, whoever sees it first can tell the other about it." Admittedly a weak excuse for moving closer to her and finding out her name. She read my name and e-mail address, hesitated a moment, then wrote her name and e-mail address in the notebook.
"You know, Mireya," I said, feeling pressed for time because her eyelids were already fluttering from the effort to stay open, "I might have the weekend free and go to the beach. Maybe you'd like to come with me."
She looked into my eyes as though asking who I was and what she should answer. I should have been surprised but wasn't when she said she'd like that. "I'm staying with friends in Ft. Lauderdale," she said so softly that I had to lean over to hear. She wrote a telephone number in the notebook. "Perhaps you can call me when you know."
"Yes, I will."
"What beach do you go to?" she asked. "I hope not Ft. Lauderdale or West Palm Beach. I don't like them."
I laughed. "Good, I don't either. I prefer Singer Island. Do you know it?"
"I've heard of it, but have never been there."
"It's north of West Palm, and considerably cheaper."
She nodded and yawned as the movie flickered to life. We watched without sound for a while. She drew her legs up and leaned them on the back of the seat in front of her. Then her head sank slowly onto my shoulder and I could smell her faint perfume. I closed my eyes and slept.
Order below for the rest of this story - and the others.
Remember, you must have Adobe Acrobat Reader. (Click for free download)
About the author
Frank Thomas Smith is an American expatriate who has lived abroad for many years - in Argntina, Switzerland and Germany, where he worked in the airline industry. He now resides in a remote but beautiful corner of Argentina. Five of his books have been published in print versions in Argentina, in Spanish. He is also, as you may have noticed, the editor and publisher of the SouthernCross Review.