I guess I should have known it would be an odd trip when the pilot told us as we were approaching Memphis that we could expect “a little choppiness, but nothing untoward.” Untoward?
I was going to Oxford, Mississippi, last spring to lecture at the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. I did that and made the usual calls. I pigged out on biscuits and gravy at Smitty’s and catfish in Taylor. I stopped by Square Books, where the owner, Richard Howorth, will shoot the breeze with you, if you want to do that, or leave you in peace to drink coffee, smoke your pipe, and read Fred Chappell’s poems, if you’d rather do that. (Chronicles is on the magazine rack—that’s how good a bookstore Howorth runs.) At a truckstop in Senatobia, I picked up a couple of cans of Sun-dried Mississippi Possum (“Killed by a truck on Highway 51 north of Nesbitt”). Back in Memphis, I swung by the Rendezvous for a mess of ribs, said howdy to the ducks at the Peabody Hotel, returned my rented car, and checked into the airport motel for an early Sunday morning flight.
Just a routine trip to North Mississippi. Nothing untoward.
But the next morning, in the airport men’s room, I did run into something strange. I was minding my own business (believe me). A character with a gray flattop haircut, a pallid beer-belly visible beneath the bottom of his tropical print shirt, was shaving at the sink. He spoke.
“Worst trip I ever had in my life.” I was the only other person there, so he was obviously speaking to me, but my mama always told me not to talk with strangers in public restrooms. So I tried my best to look sympathetic, without actually engaging him, you understand?
“Yeah, I could write a book.”
Well, I had no choice, so I asked where he’d been.
“Been down to Costa Rica. Going back to Anchorage—Alaska? Got robbed down there. Whore took all my money. Five-fifty in cash and another 1,500 in travelers’ checks. Left me $27. Worst thing was, she took my return ticket. Had to buy a new one— pay full fare. Costing me 500 more from Memphis to Anchorage than the deal on my old ticket. Had a great deal. . . . Weather was lousy, too. Heat wave. Hottest weather this time of year for 12 years. Some said 30, but I think it’s 12. Sweat just running off me. Couldn’t breathe. Come from the North like me, you’re not used to that stuff.”
“Be glad to get back home, huh?” (He was between me and the door.)
“Oh, yeah. But the trip was a success. Real success.”
Now I was actually getting curious.
“Went down there to find a wife. Took an ad—you know, in the newspaper. ‘Seeks companionship. Possibility of permanent arrangement in the U.S.’ Sort of thing. Forty-one replies! Interviewed eight or nine of them. Meant to do more, but just too hot, you know? Women are desperate down there, get to the States. Beautiful women, too. All ages. Had ’em 15 to 49. Had one gal, 25, spent three days with me. Bathed me three times a day. Kissed me and everything. Walked around with me, you know, holding hands. Her 25! And me—” He shook his head. “That’s the kind of wife a man needs, you know.”
I asked if he’d found any keepers.
“Yeah. Gonna marry her. The oldest. She’s 49. I’m 65, you know— we’ll be more compatible.”
What was she going to make of Alaska weather?
“Oh, we talked about it. I had a picture book, you know? Big color pictures of Alaska. I told her, she gets cold, put on more clothes. Down there, I get hot, what’m I gonna do—take off my skin? No, she’ll be all right.”
Another patron came into the men’s room, which inhibited me, if not my new friend. Besides, I saw my way clear to the door. I told the man I was glad his trip hadn’t been a total loss.
“Oh, it was a winner. A real winner. I just had a hard time.”
I thought about this episode most of the way across Tennessee. And of course I thought of all the questions I should have asked him. Like whether he’d been married before, and whether he spoke Spanish, and how he got the idea, and how the 25-year-old took the news that she hadn’t made the cut. I wasn’t meant to be a reporter, obviously.
I thought, too, of a 60 Minutes special I’d seen on the subject of off-the-rack wives. The predictable people had produced the predictable responses, and I hadn’t learned much from it except the extent of the practice. I remembered that my reaction had been to reflect that this kind of thing has been going on for as long as there’ve been frontiers. Is the problem (say) too few women in Australia, too many in England? Too few in Minnesota, too many in Sweden? The answer suggests itself.
But this is different. The current traffic in wives doesn’t result, like the old, from demographic imbalance. It speaks instead of economic crisis in the Third World and cultural—well, shall we say “strain”? —at home. There’s obviously a U.S. market for oldfashioned girls, and the Third World is well on the way to cornering it. Do I hear calls for protectionism?
This is a sad business, in so many ways. It’s sad, obviously, that a young Costa Rican woman is so desperate to get even to Alaska (Alaska!) that she’d invest three days and what’s left of her pride in cuddling with a physically repulsive gringo old enough to be her father—hell, in Costa Rican terms, old enough to be her grandfather.
But spare some sympathy, if you can, for a lonely and unattractive man who wants someone to help him face old age and the long Alaskan nights—a man with so little going for him that he’s surprised and delighted when women treat him nice, even though he knows perfectly well why they do it. A guy, moreover, who has no one with whom to share his surprise and delight but a perfect stranger in the Memphis airport. That’s sad, too.