Home > The Aviator's Wife(10)

The Aviator's Wife(10)
Melanie Benjamin

But then I realized the kitchen wasn’t empty. Colonel Lindbergh was standing stiffly by a stove in worn brown flying clothes, a leather jacket, his familiar helmet with the goggles in his hand. As I dashed into the room, he looked at his watch, a faint frown creasing his forehead.

“You’re late.”

“I know—I’m sorry. I didn’t quite know what to wear. Will this do?” Ridiculously, I held my skirt out as if I were a German milkmaid.

“It’ll have to, although trousers would probably be best.”

“I didn’t bring any.”

“I didn’t think of that. It shouldn’t matter, anyway. The coat’s good.”

“Thank you.” The inadequacy of my words rang stupidly in my ears.

Without another word, he turned to go out the kitchen door. Without another word, I followed.

Outside, in a wide graveled drive at the back of the embassy, were a chauffeur and a waiting car; how he had arranged for them, I had no idea. We both got into the backseat—he opened the door for me—and the car sped off.

At this hour, only the edges of sky were turning pink; still, it illuminated the streets of Mexico City so that I could get a better look than I had on our way from the train station. The narrow streets were empty. The buildings were almost all the same white, either stone or flimsy slats, with arched doorways and windows, reddish-orange clay roofs. Flowers spilled out of every corner, from window boxes, around signposts, even horse troughs. Vivid reds and pinks, showy flowers that I’d seen grown only in hothouses—orchids and hibiscus and jasmine. We passed an enormous square with a fountain in the middle that looked like a gathering place; I imagined it filled with dancing señoritas in long black mantillas and trumpet-playing men in sombreros.

Mixed in with the old and quaint was new; modern buildings—hotels, mainly—were going up on every corner. Prohibition had helped turn Mexico City into a pleasure place for the rich, and the money they were willing to spend in order to drink freely was in abundant evidence.

So absorbed was I that I almost forgot Colonel Lindbergh, mute as he was beside me. It wasn’t until we headed out of town on a dirt road that I became aware, once more, of his masculine presence. After I finally ran out of things to gape at, I settled back only to find the colonel had wedged himself into the farthest corner of the seat away from me. He was still frowning. Blushing, I tried to explain my rudeness.

“I’m sorry—I haven’t had a chance to see Mexico yet, except from the train.”

“I understand,” he said. Then he turned and stared straight ahead, his chiseled cheekbones and smooth brow immobile.

I thought and thought of something to say; something important enough for him. But I couldn’t, and so we rode the rest of the way in silence. It wasn’t long; soon the car turned off the road and bumped across a wide, flat field dotted with several outbuildings. The platform where Daddy and all the dignitaries must have stood, waiting for his landing days earlier, still remained; now-tattered bunting featuring the colors of both the Mexican and United States flags was suddenly illuminated by the headlights of our car.

Outside the largest structure, a horse stood, tethered to a railing.

The car stopped, and we both got out; I followed the colonel into that building, so large it resembled a barn. Instead of being divided into stalls, however, the place was cavernous. Instead of horses, planes were housed within it. And instead of the fragrance of sweet hay and horse manure, the air was noxious with the fumes from oil and gasoline.

“Good morning,” the colonel called to a man wearing mechanic’s coveralls who scrambled hastily from a camp bed. There was a rifle next to the bed. The man yawned, but then his face creased into a proud grin as he recognized his visitor.

“Oh, it’s you, Colonel!”

“I trust there’s been no trouble?”

“None at all! But of course, you see, I have my weapon. Just in case, Colonel.”

Nodding briskly, the colonel grabbed a wrench and strode in the direction of an airplane parked at the far end of the barn. It took me a moment to realize that this was his plane; the plane. The Spirit of St. Louis.

I took off after him, glad for my flat golf shoes, as there were treacherous puddles of slippery grease dotting the ground. “Oh, Colonel, may I see it?”

“Please, call me Charles,” he called over his shoulder.

“If you’ll call me Anne.”

My escort stopped for a moment. He nodded slowly, as if mulling over the proposition. Then he said, “Anne.”

It was a good thing he didn’t say anything else, as suddenly my ears were filled with the roaring sound of my own pulse. How can I describe how it felt, to have him say my name? Oh, it was rubbish, ridiculous, I knew, but for once I felt as if I might understand the literal definition of the word swoon.

Then he continued toward his plane. “I just want to tighten an axle. I noticed it was loose when I landed.”

“Why did that man have a rifle?”

Charles sighed. “To protect my plane from souvenir hunters. They tore off pieces of it when I landed in France. Since then, I’ve had someone guarding it at all times.”

“Oh.” I scrambled to keep up with him; he was so tall, his stride so long. And I was so short. We passed several planes, and I wondered which one we would fly in. Of course I knew, even before I saw it up close, we couldn’t fly in the Spirit of St. Louis. It was famously built just for one; one courageous, lone flyer.

Who was now on his hands and knees, crawling under his machine. I watched, awed; I had seen this plane only in newsreels. So while I recognized the wide, blunt wings; the cockpit built so that its pilot could see only out the sides, not the front—there was some technical reason for this, I remembered, but couldn’t recall it; the jaunty Spirit of St. Louis painted on the nose, black against the silver of the body; still, I couldn’t help but think that it was so much smaller in person. Just like a movie star; just like Gloria Swanson—I giggled, remembering. How odd to think that this plane was now even more famous than she was!

“What’s so funny?” that reedy voice demanded, from beneath the plane.

“Nothing.”

“When I landed the other day I thought I felt something give. I thought—aha! There it is!” And after a few methodical grunts, the colonel emerged, still on his hands and knees, from beneath the plane; his face was greasy, and his hair flopped down into his eyes. He had a grin on his face as he remained on the ground, resting his back against the wheel of his plane.

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