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The Golden Hour


JUNE 1941

(The Bahamas)

On the magazine cover, the woman sits on a rattan sofa and the man sits on the floor at her feet, gazing not at the camera but upward, adoringly, at her. She smiles back in approval. She has a book in her lap, open to the frontispiece or maybe the table of contents—she doesn’t look as if she actually means to read it—and in her hair, a ribbon topped with a bow. (A bow, I tell you.) A pair of plump Union Jack sofa pillows flanks either side of her. A real domestic scene, a happy couple in a tasteful home. the windsor team, reads the caption, in small, discreet letters at the bottom. At the top, much larger, white type inside a block of solid red: L I F E.

I’d been staring at this image, on and off, for most of the journey from New York, having paid a dime for the magazine itself at the newsstand in the Eastern Air Lines terminal building at LaGuardia Field. (It was the latest issue, now there’s coincidence for you.) I’d held it on my lap as what you might call a talisman, throughout each leg of the journey, each takeoff and landing, Richmond followed by Savannah followed by some swamp called Orlando followed by Miami at last, smacking down to earth at half past five in the afternoon, taxi to a shabby hotel, taxi back  to the airfield this morning, and I still didn’t feel as if I’d quite gotten to the bottom of that photograph. Oh, sometimes I flipped the magazine open and read the article inside—the usual basket of eggs, served sunny-side up—but mostly I studied the picture on the cover. So carefully arranged, each detail in place. Those Union Jack pillows, for example. (We just couldn’t be any more patriotic, could we? Oh, my, no. We are as thoroughly British as afternoon tea.) That hair ribbon, the bow. (We are as charmingly, harmlessly feminine as the housewife next door.) The enormous jeweled brooch pinned to her striped jacket, just above the right breast—and what was it, anyway? The design, I mean. I squinted and peered and adjusted the angle of light, but I couldn’t make any sense of the shape. No matter. It was more brooch than I could afford, that was all, more jewels than I could ever bear on my own right breast. (We are not the housewife next door after all, are we? We are richer, better, royal. Even if we aren’t quite royal. Not according to the Royals. Still, more royal than you, Mrs. American Housewife.)

The airplane lurched. I peered through the window at the never-ending horizon, turquoise sea topped by a turquoise sky, and my stomach—never at home aboard moving objects—lurched too. According to my wristwatch, we were due at Nassau in twenty minutes, and the twenty-one seats of this modern all-metal Pan American airliner were crammed full of American tourists in Sunday best and businessmen in pressed suits, none of whose stomachs seemed troubled by the voyage. Just my dumb luck, my dumb stomach. Or was it my ears? Apparently motion sickness had something to do with your inner ear, the pressure of fluid inside versus the pressure of air without, and when the perception of movement on your insides didn’t agree with the perception of movement from your eyeballs, well, that’s where your stomach got into difficulty. I supposed that explanation made sense. All the world’s troubles seemed to come from friction of one kind or another. One thing rubbing up against another, and neither one backing down.

So I crossed my arms atop the magazine and gazed out into the distance—that was supposed to help—and chewed on the stick of Wrigley’s thoughtfully provided by the stewardess. By now, the vibration of the engines had taken up habitation inside my skull. This? This is nothing, sister, said the fellow sitting next to me on the Richmond–Savannah hop yesterday, local businessman type. You shoulda heard the racket on the old

Ford tri-motor. Boy, that was some kind of noise, all right. Why, the girls sometimes had to use a megaphone, it was so loud. Now, this hunka junk, they put some insulation in her skin. You know what insulation is? Makes a whole lot of difference, believe you me. Here he rapped against the fuselage with his knuckles. Course, there ain’t no amount of insulation in the world can drown out the sound of a couple of Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp engines full throttle, no ma’am. That’s eight hundred horsepower apiece. Yep, she’s a classy bird, all right, the DC-three. You ever flown the sleeper model? Coast to coast in fifteen hours. That’s something, ain’t it? And so on. By the timewe reached Savannah, I would gladly have taken the old Ford tri-motorand a pair of earplugs.

On the other hand, it could have been worse. When the talkative fellow from Richmond disembarked in Savannah, his seat was replaced by another fellow entirely, a meaty, sweating, silent specimen in a fine suit, reeking of booze and cigarettes, possessed of a sticky gaze. You know the type. By the time we were airborne, he had arranged himself luxuriously on the seat, insinuated his thigh against mine, and laid his hand several times on my knee, and as I slapped away his paw yet again, I would have given any amount of money to have Mr. Flapping Gums in his checked suit safely back by my side. And then. Then. The damned fellow turned up again this morning in an even more disreputable condition to board the daily Pan American flight to Nassau, fine suit now rumpled and stained, eyes now bloodshot and roving all over the place.

Thank God he hadn’t seemed to notice me. He sat in the second row, and by the stricken expression of the stewardess, hurrying back down the aisle this second with the Thermos of precious coffee, he hadn’t mended his ways during the night. I caught her eye and communicated sympathy into her, woman to woman, as best I could. She returned a small nod and continued down the aisle. The chewing gum was turning stale and hard. The wrapper had gone missing somewhere. I tore off a corner of page fourteen of Life magazine, folded the scrap, and slipped the wad discreetly inside.

In the seat next to mine, a gentleman looked up from his newspaper. He was tall and lean, almost thin, a loose skeleton of a fellow, and he’d made his way aboard with a small leather suitcase, climbing the stairs nimbly, the last in line. I hadn’t paid him much attention, except to note the interesting color of his hair, a gold fringe beneath the brim of his hat. He wore spectacles, and in contrast to my earlier companions, he’d hardly acknowledged me at all, except to duck his head and murmur a polite Good morning and an apology for intruding on my privacy. Though his legs were long, like a spider’s, he had folded them carefully to avoid touching mine, and when he’d opened his newspaper, he folded the sides back so they didn’t extend past the armrest between us. He’d refused the chewing gum, I remembered, though the tropical air bumped the airplane all over the sky. Other than that, he read his newspaper so quietly, turned and folded the pages with such a minimum of fuss, I confess I’d nearly forgotten he was there.

As the stewardess swept by, he bent the top of said newspaper in order to observe the fellow up front, unblinking, the way a birdwatcher might observe the course of nature from the security of his blind. I felt a stir of interest, I don’t know why. Maybe it was the quiet of him. Under cover of looking back for the stewardess, I contrived to glimpse his profile, which was younger than I thought, lightly freckled. All this, as I said, I captured in the course of a glance, but I have a good memory for faces.

After a minute or so, the gentleman folded his newspaper, murmured an apology, and rose from his seat. He set his newspaper on the seat and walked not to the front of the airplane, which he’d observed with such attention, but down the aisle to the rear, where the stewardess had gone. The airplane bumped along, the propellers droned. I looked back at the magazine on my lap—THE WINDSOR Team, what did that mean, what exactly were they trying to convey, those two—and then out the window again. A series of pale golden islands the sea an even more alluring shade of turquoise, causing me almost to forget the slush in my stomach and the fuzz in my head, until the gentleman landed heavily back in the seat beside me.

Except it wasn’t the same gentleman. I knew that instantly. He was too massive, and he reeked of booze. A thigh came alongside mine, a paw settled on my knee.

“Kindly remove your hand,” I said, not kindly at all.

He leaned toward my ear and muttered something I won’t repeat.

I reached for the hand, but he was quicker and grabbed my fingers. I curled my other hand, my right hand, into a fist. I still don’t know what I meant to do with that fist, whether I really would have hit him with it. Probably I would have. The air inside our metal tube was hot, even at ten thousand feet, because of the white July sun and the warm July atmosphere and the windows that trapped it all inside, and the man’s hand was wet. I felt that bile in my throat, that heave, that grayness of vision that means you’re about to vomit, and I remember thinking I must avoid vomiting on the magazine at all costs, I couldn’t possibly upchuck my morning coffee on the pristine Windsor Team.

At that instant, the first gentleman returned. He laid a hand on the boozer’s shoulder and said, in a clear, soft English voice, “I believe you’ve made a mistake, sir.”

Without releasing my hand, the fellow turned and stretched his neck to take in the sight of the Englishman. “And I say it’s none of your business, sir.”

His voice, while slurred, wasn’t what you’d call rough. Vowels and consonants all in proper order, a conscious ironic emphasis on the word sir. He spoke like an educated man, thoroughly sauced but well brought up. You never could tell, could you?

“I’m terribly sorry. I’m afraid it is my business,” said the Englishman. “For one thing, you’re sitting on my newspaper.”

Again, he spoke softly. I don’t think the other passengers even knew what was going on, had even the slightest inkling—if they noticed at all—that these two weren’t exchanging a few friendly words about the weather or the Brooklyn Dodgers or Hitler’s mustache or something. The Englishman didn’t look my way at all. The boozer seemed to have forgotten me as well. His grip loosened. I yanked away my fingers and dug into my pocketbook for a handkerchief. The boozer reached slowly under his rump and drew out the crushed newspaper. The Miami Herald, read the masthead, sort of.

“There you are,” he said. “Now beat it.”

Those last words seemed out of place, coming from a voice like that, like he’d heard the phrase at the movies and had been waiting for the chance to sound like a real gangster. His empty hand rested on his knee and twitched, twitched. The fingers were clean, the square nails trimmed, the skin pink, except for an ugly, cracked, weeping sore on one of his knuckles.

The Englishman pushed back his glasses and leaned a fraction closer.

“I beg your pardon. I don’t believe I’ve made myself clear. I’d be very grateful if you’d return to your own seat, sir, and allow me to resume the use of mine.”

“You heard me,” said the boozer. “Scram.”

He spoke more loudly now, close to shouting, and his voice rang above the noise of the engine. People glanced our way, over their newspapers and magazines, and glanced back just as quickly. Nobody wanted trouble, not with a drunk. You couldn’t tell what a drunk might do, and here we flew, two miles above the ocean in a metal tube. I myself had begun to perspire. The sweat trickled from my armpits into the sleeves of my best blouse of pale blue crepe, my linen jacket. The boozer was getting angrier, despite the soothing, conciliatory nature of the Englishman’s voice, or maybe because of it. The force of his anger felt like a match in the act of striking, smelled like a striking match, the tang of saltpeter in your nose and the back of your throat. My fingers curled into the seams of my pocketbook.

“I’m afraid not,” said the Englishman.

The boozer looked like he was going to reply. He gathered himself, straightened his back, turned his head. His cheeks were mottled. The Englishman didn’t move, didn’t flinch. The boozer opened his mouth and caught his breath twice, a pair of small gasps. Then he closed his eyes and slumped forward, asleep. The Englishman removed his hand from the boozer’s shoulder and bent to sling the slack arm over his own shoulders.

“I’ll just escort this gentleman to his seat, shall I?” he said to me. “I’m awfully sorry for the trouble.”

No one spoke. No one moved. The stewardess stood in the aisle, braced on somebody’s headrest, hand cupped over mouth, while the Englishman hoisted the unconscious man to his feet and bore him—dragged him, really—toward the empty seat in the second row. The airplane found a downdraft and dropped, recovered, rattled about, dropped again. The Englishman lurched and caught himself on the back of the single seat to the left, third row. He apologized to the seat’s owner and staggered on. The stewardess then dashed forward and helped him lower the boozer into his seat like a sack of wet barley. Together they buckled him in, while the elderly woman to his right looked on distastefully. (I craned my neck to watch the show, believe me.)

Nobody knew what to say. Nobody knew quite what we had just witnessed.

The engines screamed on, the airplane rattled like a can of nails. Across the aisle, a man in a suit of pale tropical wool turned back to his magazine. In the row ahead of me, the woman leaned to her husband and whispered something. I checked my watch. Only four minutes had passed, imagine that.

By the time the Englishman returned to his seat, the roar of the engines had deepened into a growl, and the airplane had begun to stagger downward into Nassau. A cloud wisped by the window and was gone. I feigned interest in the magazine, while my attention poured through the corner of my left eye in the direction of my neighbor, who picked his hat from the floor—it had fallen, apparently, during the scuffle or whatever it was—and placed it back in the bin. It turned out, his hair wasn’t thoroughly gold; there was a trace of red in the color, what they call a strawberry blond. I turned a page. He swung into place and reached for the newspaper, which I had retrieved and slid into the cloth pocket on the seat before him. It seemed like the least I could do, and besides, I can’t abide a messy floor.

“Thank you,” he said. “I do hope you weren’t troubled.”

“Not at all.”

He didn’t reply. I had a hundred questions to ask—foremost, was the boozer still alive—but I just turned the pages of the magazine in rapid succession until I ran out of paper altogether and closed the book on my lap, front cover facing up, the windsor team locked in eternal amity with their Union Jack sofa pillows. The loudspeaker crackled and buzzed, something about landing shortly and the weather in Nassau being ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit, God save us.

I cleared my throat and asked the Englishman what brought him toNassau, business or pleasure.

“I live here, in fact,” he said. “For the time being.”

“Oh! So you were visiting Florida?”

“Yes. My brother lives in a town called Cocoa, up the coast a bit. Lovely place by the ocean.” He nodded to the magazine. “Doing your research, are you?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “It was just a coincidence.”


The airplane shook. I looked out the window and saw land, shrubby and verdant, and a long, pale beach meeting the surf, and a car flashing brilliantly along a road made of gray thread. “What a pair of romantics,” I heard myself say.

“Romantics? Do you really think so?”

I turned my head back and saw a serious profile, a pair of eyes squinted in thought behind the wire-rimmed spectacles. He hadn’t touched the newspaper. His lanky arms were folded across his chest, his right leg crossed over his left, immaculate, civilized. He didn’t look as if he’d lifted a pair of boots, let alone two hundred pounds of slack human weight.

“Don’t you? But it’s the love story of the century, hadn’t you heard?” I said. “The king who gave up his throne for the woman he loves.”

“A thoroughly modern thing to do. Not romantic at all.”

“How so?”

The airplane shuddered and thumped, bounced hard and settled. I looked out the  window again and saw we had landed. The landscape outside teemed with color and vegetation and shimmering heat. I saw a cluster of palms, a low, rectangular building. By the time we rolled to a stop, I had forgotten the question left dangling between us. The sound of his voice surprised me, but then everything about him had surprised me.

“A romantic would have sacrificed love for duty,” said the Englishman, “not the other way around.”

The airplane gave a final lurch and went still. He rose from his seat, removed his suitcase and his hat from the bin, removed my suitcase and gave it to me, and put his hat on his head. I said thank you. He told me to think nothing of it and wished me a good day, a pleasant stay in Nassau, and walked off the airplane. The sunshine flashed from the lenses of his spectacles.

As I passed the fellow from Savannah, he was still slumped in his seat, held in place by the safety belt, and I couldn’t honestly tell if he was dead or alive. The stewardess kept casting these anxious glances at his chest. I told her thank you for a memorable flight.

“Wasn’t it though,” she said. “Have a pleasant stay in Nassau.”

In the terminal building, as I waited my turn at the passport desk, I looked around for the blond man, but I didn’t see him. He might have gone anywhere. He might have come from anywhere. A fellow like that, he was like a djinn, like an enchanted creature from a fairy tale. Except this wasn’t a fairy tale, this was reality. He was made of common clay. He came from a woman and man, who fell in love, or had not. Who had married, or had not. Had spent a lifetime of nights together, or just one.

As I trudged out the terminal building to the street outside, I remember thinking a vast history lay behind this man, which I would never know.

The Golden Hour
by by Beatriz Williams