THE THEORY that an overburdened, exhausted mind can exercise its own safety valve by retreating into passive semiawareness was unknown to Inez Guerrero. Nevertheless, for her, the theory had proved true. At this moment she was a mental walking-wounded case.
The events of tonight affecting her personally, coupled with her accumulated distress and weariness of weeks, had proved a final crushing defeat. It prompted her mind---like an overloaded circuit---to switch off. The condition was temporary, not permanent, yet while it remained Inez Guerrero had forgotten where she was, or why.
The mean, uncouth taxi driver who had brought her to the airport had not helped. When bargaining downtown, he agreed to seven dollars as the price of the ride. Getting out, Inez proffered a ten dollar bill---almost the last money she had---expecting change. Mumbling that he had no change but would get some, the cabbie drove off. Inez waited for ten anxious minutes, watching the terminal clock which was nearing 11 P.M.---the time of Flight Two's departure---before it dawned on her that the man had no intention of returning. She had noticed neither the taxi number nor the driver's name---something the driver had gambled on. Even if she had, Inez Guerrero was not the kind who complained to authority; the driver had correctly guessed that, too.
Despite the initial slowness of her journey from downtown, she could have reached Flight Two before it left---but for the time spent waiting for the non-appearing change. As it was, she arrived at the departure gate to see the airplane taxiing away.
Even then, to find out if her husband, D.O., was really aboard, Inez had the presence of mind to use the subterfuge which the Trans America inquiries girl, Miss Young, suggested on the telephone. A uniformed agent was just leaving gate forty-seven, where Flight Two had been. Inez accosted him.
As Miss Young advised, Inez avoided asking a direct question, and made the statement, "My husband is on that flight which just left." She explained that she had missed seeing her husband, but wanted to be sure he was safely aboard. Inez unfolded the yellow time-payment contract which she had discovered at home among D.O.'s shirts, and showed it to the Trans America agent. He barely glanced at it, then checked the papers he was holding.
For a moment or two Inez wondered hopefully if she had made a mistake in presuming that D.O. was leaving on the flight; the idea of his going to Rome at all still seemed fantastic. Then the agent said, yes, there was a D. O. Guerrero aboard Flight Two, and he, the agent, was sorry that Mrs. Guerrero had missed seeing her husband, but everything was in a mixup tonight because of the storm, and now if she would please excuse him...
It was when the agent had gone and Inez realized that despite the press of people around her in the terminal, she was utterly alone, that she began to cry.
At first the tears came slowly; then, as she remembered all that had gone wrong, they streamed in great heaving sobs which shook her body. She cried for the past and for the present; for the home she had had and lost; for her children whom she could no longer keep with her; for D.O. who, despite his faults as a husband, and the failure to support his family, was at least familiar, but now had deserted her. She wept for what she herself had been and had become; for the fact that she had no money, nowhere to go but to the mean, cockroach-infested rooms downtown, from which she would be evicted tomorrow, having nothing left---after the taxi ride and driver's theft---from the pathetically small amount with which she had hoped to stave off the landlord... she was not even sure if she had enough small change to return downtown. She cried because her shoes still hurt her feet; for her clothes which were shabby and sodden; for her weariness, and because she had a cold and a fever which she could feel getting worse. She cried for herself and all others for whom every hope was gone.
It was then, to avoid stares of people who were watching, that she began walking aimlessly through the terminal, still weeping as she went. Somewhere near that time, too, the defensive machinery of her mind took over, inducing a protective numbness, so that her sorrow persisted but its reasons, for a while, were mercifully blurred.
Soon after, an airport policeman found her and, with a sensitivity for which police are not always credited, placed her in as obscure a corner as he could find while telephoning his superiors for instructions. Lieutenant Ordway happened to be nearby and dealt with the matter personally. It was he who decided that Inez Guerrero, though incoherent and upset, was harmless, and had ordered her taken to the airport general manager's office---the only place Ned Ordway could think of which was quiet, yet less intimidating than police headquarters.
Inez had gone docilely, in an elevator and along a mezzanine, only half-knowing that she was being taken anywhere at all, and not caring; and after, had sat quietly in a seat she was guided to, her body, if not her mind, grateful for the rest. She had been aware of people coming and going, and some had spoken, but she had brought neither the sight nor sound of them into focus, the effort seeming too much.
But after a while, her resilience---which is another word for strength of the human spirit, which all possess, however burdened or humble---brought her back to a realization, even though vague, that she must move on, because life moved on, and always had and would, no matter how many defeats it wrought, or dreary or empty as it might seem.
So Inez Guerrero stood up, still not sure where she was or how she had come there, but prepared to go.
It was then that the Meadowood delegation, escorted by Lieutenant Ordway, entered the anteroom to Mel Bakersfeld's office, where Inez was. The delegation continued into the other room, then Ned Ordway had returned to speak with Inez Guerrero, and Mel observed the two of them togethet briefly before the door to his office closed.
Inez, through her miasma of uncertainty, was also conscious of the big Negro policeman, whom she had a feeling she had seen somewhere before, quite recently, and he bad been kind then, as he was being kind now, leading her with quiet, not-quite-questions, so that he seemed to understand, without her ever saying so, that she had to return downtown and wasn't sure she had enough money for it. She started to fumble with her purse, intending to count what was there, but he stopped her. Then, with his back to the other room, he slipped three one-dollar bills into her hand, and came with her outside, pointing the way down to where, he said, she would find a bus, and added that what he had given her would be enough for the fare, with something over for wherever she had to go when she got to the city.
The policeman bad gone then, returning in the direction from which he had come, and Inez did what she was told, going down some stairs; then almost at the big door through which she was to go for the bus, she had seen a familiar sight---a hot dog counter; and at that moment she realized how hungry and thirsty she was, on top of everything else. She had groped in her purse, and found thirty-five cents, and bought a hot dog, and coffee in a paper cup, and somehow the sight of those two very ordinary things was reassuring. Not far from the food counter, she found a seat and tucked herself into a corner. She wasn't sure how long ago that was but now, with the coffee gone and the hot dog eaten, awareness which earlier had started to come back, was receding from her once more in a comfortable way. There was something comforting, too, about the crowds around her, the noises, and loudspeaker announcements. Twice Inez thought she heard her own name on the loudspeakers, but knew it was imagination and couldn't be true because no one would call her, or even know that she was here.
She realized dimly that sometime soon she would have to move on, and knew that tonight especially it would entail an effort. But for a while, she thought, she would sit here quietly, where she was.