"Missing" by Patty Somlo
I saw Mavis Trent for the first time on the afternoon I moved into the yellow and white Victorian. Only the week before, I’d found the apartment, a first-floor studio with a large separate kitchen, in a house that had been divided into three different units. The house straddled the corner at Seventeenth and Taylor, three blocks from busy Martin Luther King, Junior Boulevard.
I hadn’t chosen to move. The building I’d been living in for more than ten years had been sold and all the long-time tenants were thrown out. Being a freelance writer, I couldn’t afford much. So I was forced to consider apartments in a changing neighborhood still considered sketchy.
Best known for drive-by shootings and drug busts, the area around Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard had started to become hot, mostly because the already hot neighborhoods close to downtown were unaffordable. MLK was becoming the place to be for artists, and the cafes, galleries and bars had started to follow.
The July afternoon I moved into the apartment was sunny and hot. My friend Martin and I lugged what felt like a hundred boxes, mostly filled with books, from Martin’s car. When we were about halfway through, I noticed a frail old lady watching us from the front porch of a Victorian house next door.
After we brought the last of the cardboard cartons inside and I’d thanked Martin and said goodbye, I walked next door and stood just outside the wrought iron gate that led to the walkway up to the old lady’s house.
“Hello,” I said, and gave her a sideways wave.
I asked if I might open the gate and come up to the porch.
“That’s fine,” she replied.
As soon as I got to the porch, I said, “I’m moving in next door.”
“That’s nice,” she responded, keeping her gaze focused straight ahead on the sidewalk while she continued to rock.
I learned that her name was Mavis Trent. When I asked how long she had lived in the neighborhood, she laughed and said, “Longer than practically everybody.”
She was African American, her skin more tan than black or brown. Her eyes were a lovely blend of olive green and gold. Her grayish-white hair was pinned into a tight bun. Her narrow face sported high cheekbones. Even at her advanced age, which I guessed to be between eighty and ninety, I could tell she’d once been a beauty.
At first, I was drawn to the old lady because I thought she would keep me safe. It seems an odd thing to believe but I did. Mavis had been in the neighborhood forever. Having Mavis next door proved there was more to the neighborhood than drive-by shootings and drugs.
I also happened to be white. In much of the neighborhood, I knew I stood out, and not in a good way. White people were being blamed for changing the character of the neighborhood, turning it into a place black people could no longer afford.
Mavis represented the last of a breed of middle-class African American homeowners who’d made the area a good place to live and raise children. For decades now, the neighborhood had been ruled by young guys hidden under dark hooded sweatshirts, who gathered on the sidewalks surrounding the low-income housing projects, waiting for cars to slow down and customers to buy drugs. But in the last few years, artists had been moving into the brand new lofts constructed on MLK, while young white business owners were taking over storefronts from the old, black-owned businesses.
Mavis would be my ticket into a feature story about the area. That’s what I told myself, as I pressed for details about her life. Sometimes I’d ask her a question and she would look at me and smile. In those moments, I got the feeling that Mavis knew exactly what I wanted. I had the sense that Mavis believed I was trying to steal her stories. For that reason, she took her sweet time, making me wait and wonder whether I was being given the whole truth or not.
Rain swept down in waves the afternoon Mavis first mentioned her husband. The storm had been forecast to last at least three days, with strong winds gusting to fifty miles an hour.
We were sitting in Mavis’ living room. With its small rounded windows at the front side of the house and no overhead light, only small older lamps scattered on several end tables, the room remained dark. Mavis brought me a cup of weak instant coffee. Made of thin white porcelain, the cup had faded pink flowers on the side. As she carried the coffee over to me, I could hear the porcelain cup tapping the saucer.
Mavis lowered herself into a wooden rocker across from where I sat on the couch. I glanced quickly around the room, trying to take in as much as possible. The room was crowded with stuff, no matter which direction I looked. Small tables and little shelves held knickknacks. It looked like a collectibles shop.
In one of my glances, I noticed the photograph, sitting in the center of one shelf. What struck me was that the shelf, unlike the others so crowded with stuff, was empty on both sides. There was no other way to think about that photograph, except that it had been given a place of honor.
“Who’s that?” I asked Mavis. “In the photograph.”
I pointed across the room to the shelf set against the wall to Mavis’ left. She didn’t turn her head. Instead, she rocked, her eyes fixed on the window behind my head.
She was going to make me wait. I could see that. I got up from the couch to get a better look. As I made my way across the room, I glanced at Mavis out of the corner of my right eye. She still had her gaze planted on the front window.
The black and white photograph was of a young man, whose age seemed closer to that of a boy. What made me consider him a man was the uniform. The cap looked too large for his narrow face. He had dark skin and large eyes. A beautiful smile. I wondered if this young man might be Mavis’ son.
“He’s very handsome,” I said, hoping in this way to get Mavis to talk. But she remained silent. The only sound in the room was the creaking of the wooden rocker.
It occurred to me that the boy might have died, killed in action, perhaps in Vietnam. I studied the photograph again. That’s when I realized something about the uniform suggested the photo had been taken years before that tragic war.
I walked back across the room and sat down on the couch. Mavis said something I couldn’t make out.
“What’s that, Mavis?” I asked.
After lifting her head and looking me straight in the eye, she announced, “I’m waiting for him to come home.”
I assumed Mavis was talking about the young man in the photograph and I wanted to know more.
“How long has he been gone?”
“He’s been gone a long time,” she said, rocking, her eyes closed. When I was about to ask exactly how long, Mavis opened her eyes.
“More than fifty years,” she said. “I been waitin’ all that time.”
My throat went dry. It occurred to me then that Mavis might be losing her mind. I wasn’t sure if I should humor her or try to set her right.
Before I said another word, Mavis spoke up.
“I made a promise, you see. I promised Howard I would wait for him. No matter what.”
I wanted to ask Mavis who Howard was and where he’d gone but at that point, she rose up from the rocking chair, holding onto the right-hand arm for support.
“I gotta go lay down,” she announced.
The following days, I stopped by and knocked on Mavis’ door but there was no response. The rain poured down, as it always did this time of year, without letup. If it had been August, Mavis would have been outside, rocking on the porch. That is, if she was all right.
By the fourth day when there was no answer to my knock, I got worried. Only the day before, I had heard from my landlady that a woman police officer had begun daily patrols up and down Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. Without any idea of when the officer would arrive, I made my way over to the wide busy street in hopes of finding her.
By the time I left the apartment, the rain had finally stopped. Every few minutes, sunlight broke through the dark clouds, causing puddles that had formed in sidewalk cracks and muddy brown creeks running along the roads’ shoulder to shimmer.
When I reached MLK, I saw people gathered here and there along the sidewalk, taking advantage, I assumed, of that unaccustomed brightness. I searched each group, hoping to find someone in a dark blue uniform. Only civilians seemed to be out everywhere I looked.
I kept walking, gazing into shop windows, trying to spot the officer inside. After looking into a barbershop and turning back to the sidewalk, I was surprised to see the officer standing only a few feet ahead of me.
She appeared hardly old enough for such a dangerous and responsible job. I waited just to her right, since she seemed to be engaged in conversation with several older men, who I guessed had been on their way to or from the barbershop.
One of the men noticed me waiting and muttered something to the officer, lifting his chin and nodding at me. The officer turned around.
“Excuse me for interrupting,” I said, and then proceeded to tell the officer about Mavis.
Before the doctors released Mavis from the hospital, she was fitted with a pacemaker that would alert the hospital if her heart didn’t beat correctly. It was fortunate I had gone for help, the doctor said. Left alone much longer, Mavis might have died. She appeared even frailer now and needed more sleep during the day. Luckily, she had an attendant and a nurse came by once a day, so I didn’t have to worry as much.
A few weeks after her return from the hospital, on a sunny April morning, Mavis returned to the porch. I had just walked back from a new café on MLK Boulevard, carrying a latté I was eager to drink and a just-baked currant scone. As soon as I reached the gate to Mavis’ yard, I waved to her and shouted, “Good morning, Mavis. How are you feeling?”
Mavis nodded and shouted back, “I’m doin’ just fine.”
I joined her on the porch, settling myself in the guest rocker and setting my latté and the waxed paper bag carrying my scone down on the little white wicker table between the two chairs. Mavis eyed the cup and bag, so I offered her half, which she declined.
“I want to thank you,” Mavis said, before I had a chance to take the plastic cover off my coffee. “I hear you saved my life.”
“Who told you that?” I asked, lifting the cardboard cup to my mouth and taking a sip. The espresso tasted sweet and strong, the milk still a bit foamy.
“Officer Taylor. She came by to visit.”
Mavis shook her head. A smile slipped onto her lips.
“Now, ain’t that somethin’? We got us a black policewoman. A policewoman.”
She rocked quietly for a moment. I didn’t say anything right off because I had the feeling Mavis wasn’t done.
“I wish Howard was here so he could see her. That would make him proud.”
The minute she said the name Howard, I perked up. Maybe now I could get her to tell me something about this mysterious guy.
“Before you had the stroke, you said you’d made a promise to Howard. You promised to wait for him. Is that right?”
“That sure is right. I promised to wait, and I have waited.”
“How long ago did you make that promise, Mavis?”
“Made that promise sixty-two years ago,” she said.
“That’s right,” Mavis confirmed and closed her eyes.
I didn’t get the rest of the story from Mavis that day. After closing her eyes, Mavis opened them a few minutes later and told me she needed to rest. I helped the poor woman to the master bedroom and tucked her into bed.
Each day after, I checked on Mavis. It quickly became clear that the stroke had weakened her already frail body. She needed more rest than previously. Our conversations wore her out.
I did learn that Mavis would soon celebrate her ninety-third birthday. She was determined, she told me, to remain in her house, no matter how old or feeble she got. At times, she would claim that she needed to stay where Howard could find her. Whenever I asked why she believed Howard was coming, she smiled and said it was in the Lord’s hands.
In all this time, I still hadn’t pulled the story out of Mavis as to where Howard had gone and why she waited for him even now. I also wasn’t getting much information about the neighborhood for an article, what the area had been like in the days when Mavis was young. Instead of my original intention of using Mavis as a source, I now felt responsible for the old woman. Except for the mythical Howard, Mavis didn’t seem to have any family at all. Though she often made references to God, her frail condition had made it impossible for her to attend church. While an attendant bought her food and cooked her meals, I seemed to be Mavis’ only visitor.
I had noticed the barbershop several times when I walked to the café for my scone and latté. Now when I passed by, I took a moment to look inside. Each time I did, I could see a group of African American men sitting around, while a barber worked on another man’s hair.
The following week, I opened the door to the barbershop. When I stepped inside, I heard that old Marvin Gaye tune asking what was going on and men laughing.
As soon as I closed the door, the laughter stopped. The only sound in the place was that old Motown song. Three men sat in chairs lined up against the wall. A fourth occupied the barber’s chair, his torso draped in black cloth.
The barber’s hands were frozen above the customer’s head. He dropped his arms to his sides and asked, “Can I help you?”
I didn’t know what to say. But before I gave it more thought, I blurted out, “I’m Mavis Trent’s next-door neighbor.”
One of the three white-haired gentlemen sitting against the wall asked, “Miz Trent all right?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I mean, she’s recovering from a stroke.”
I swallowed, trying to figure out what I wanted. My original idea, to learn about the old neighborhood and write an article about the effects of the recent gentrification, seemed silly now. Or at least, this seemed a bad way to start.
“Miz Trent need anything?” the man asked me now.
Without another thought, I said, “Well, she keeps talking about Howard. She’s waiting for him to come back.”
I saw the white-haired man look at the man to his left and nod. Then he turned back to me and shook his head.
“Howard’s not coming back,” he said. “Miz Trent never gonna believe that. No. That woman gonna die waitin’ for him.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Howard?” the man asked. “Howard went to the war.”
He licked his lips and then added, “Ko-rea. Went missin’ someplace over there. They never find him. Miz Trent, she even went to Washington. Wrote letters. Demanded they bring Howard home. Miz Trent tole ‘em, ‘You the ones that sent him there. You cain’t just leave him in Ko-rea.’”
“So, he was missing in action?”
“Thas’ right. M-I-A.”
The following day, I asked Mavis if she could tell me something about Howard. She didn’t respond. The old oak chair creaked as she rocked. Tears had begun to run down her wrinkled cheeks. She wiped them away with her fingers.
“That boy sure could make me laugh,” she said then.
“He could make fun ‘a somethin’ that woulda made another person cry. See, Howard’s family was poor. They lived in a place. Well, it wadn’t even a house. It was a garage. Howard’s uncle had made his garage into a room and Howard’s family, his two sisters, a brother and his mama, did everything in that one room.
“Howard’s mama had run away from his daddy down there in the South. Mississippi, I believe. She struggled to keep those kids fed and put clothes on their backs. When I first met Howard, he musta been about eleven. The pants he wore to school, well, they were just way too short.
“I remember, he asked if he could walk me home and I said all right. Now, it had been rainin’ for days and the streets were flooded. He told me that his mama made his pants shorter so they wouldn’t get wet in those puddles. And then he laughed.”
Mavis stopped for a moment and shook her head.
“I saw that boy smile and I fell in love with him right then.
“’Course, Howard didn’t have those short pants for long. That boy figured out how to make money. Soon as he did, he started helping out his mama and buying his own clothes. When we were in high school, Howard was one of the sharpest dressers around. The week after graduation, Howard and me got married.”
Mavis stopped talking and even quit rocking back and forth. I thought I heard her say something softly but when I asked what she had just said, Mavis didn’t respond. I looked over at her and saw that she had closed her eyes. A moment later, I heard her snoring.
I began stopping into the barbershop every morning on my way back from the café. The old men got used to me. Though I didn’t tell them this, they seemed to understand that I wanted to hear their stories.
One morning, the man they all called Red, whose skin was nearly as light as mine, began.
“I tole Howard. ‘Man,’ I says. ‘You don’t need to go fight in no war. Black man don’t oughta be fightin’ for this country that don’t treat him right.’ Howard just looked at me. And then he says, ‘Red. You don’t know nothin’.’
“Now I looked up to Howard. Everybody in the neighborhood did. We was all poor kids and Howard wadn’t no different. But he got hisself a paper route and then was sellin’ candy. Sellin’ peanut brittle, that’s what. Stuff you ate and it cracked your teeth. Oh, I cain’t remember all the schemes that boy had goin’. Nothin’ illegal, mind you. Everything above-board. Howard was makin’ money hand over fist, and so when he tole me I didn’t know nothin’, I sort of had to agree.”
Red sat back in his chair, as the other men in the barbershop murmured their agreement.
“Didn’t hurt neither that Howard was the handsomest guy and he bought hisself the finest clothes. And then he got hisself the prettiest girl.”
“Was that Mavis?” I asked.
Red cleared his throat. The other men started muttering amongst themselves. I waited but Red didn’t respond.
“Well, I probably shouldn’t be talkin’ about this. Man dead and gone. As my mama useta say, best leave the memory of the departed unsoiled.”
“So you’re saying he was involved with some other woman besides Mavis? I thought he and Mavis had been together practically since childhood?”
“That be true. They was together a long time ‘fore Howard went off to the war.”
“But there was someone else? Another woman?”
The man next to Red, who they sometimes called Gus and at other times referred to as Willie, leaned over and whispered to Red and Red nodded.
“What you goin’ to do with this story?” Red asked me now.
I needed to think about that. Yes, I’d been prodding Mavis about her memories of the neighborhood and even came to the barbershop hoping to get material for an article about the way the area used to be and how gentrification was changing it. But what did Howard’s story have to do with that? When had I stopped visiting Mavis for the story and started looking in on her as a friend? And wasn’t I coming into the barbershop because I liked being around these old guys, feeling for a brief time that I was part of the community?
“I’m not going to do anything with the story,” I told Red. “Just curious, that’s all.”
Red ran his index finger over his lips.
“You not gonna say nothin’ to Mavis?” he asked.
“No. I won’t say anything to her.”
“All right.” Red looked at the other men and each one nodded. “All right then.
“Before the war, Howard got hisself a job at the Be-Bop,” Red began. “The Be-Bop was a swingin’ place, right down here on MLK. Wadn’t called MLK then. Was Richmond Avenue but everybody around here called it the Avenue. Top jazz musicians from New York played at the Be-Bop. We was jealous of Howard already but when he got that job, it was like he lived on a different level from us.
“He met her at the club. Now, during the day, white folks didn’t come to the Avenue. But nighttime was different. Ya’ see, there was jazz clubs all up and down this street and white people got all dressed up and come down here to hear the big names.
“So that’s how he met that girl.”
I had a pretty good idea what Red was telling me but I wanted him to say it out loud.
“Are you saying that Howard was involved with a white woman?” I asked.
Red ran that index finger down and across his lips a second time and then shook his head from side to side.
“We tole Howard he was playin’ with fire. Sure, Howard thought he could do anything. But after I seen him with that girl, I tole him, ‘Howard, you gotta quit that.’ He didn’t pay me no mind.”
“How long did that go on?”
Red rocked in his straight-backed chair, his head back, eyes focused on the ceiling. A moment later, he righted the chair and cleared his throat.
“’Til he left for the war. That the real reason he went.”
“You mean, he went into the army because of this woman?”
Red glanced at Willie and Willie shook his head.
“Might as well tell her,” Willie suddenly blurted out. “Already tole her everything else.”
“You wanta tell her yourself, Willie?” Red asked.
Willie looked around at the other men and then scanned the barbershop, as if making sure there weren’t any spies lurking in the corners.
“Naw. You finish, Red. You the one tellin’ the story.”
“All right, all right. I tell it. But you said you not goin’ to say nothin’ to Mavis. That right?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“Okay. Well, ya’ see, Howard done got hisself into a big mess with that woman. He lied to her in the beginning. Didn’t tell her he was married. Howard didn’t think nothin’ about that, ‘cause it were illegal for him to marry a white woman in them days. But this woman went and found out where they could get married. In Canada, she tole him. And then she said she had some good news for Howard.”
Red pulled a folded, off-white handkerchief out of his back pocket. With the handkerchief in his right hand, he wiped his forehead, then both cheeks and his chin.
“So what was the news?” I asked.
Red looked at Willie and Willie nodded his head.
“That white woman tole Howard she was gonna have his child,” Red said.
The barber was done cutting his customer’s hair and giving him a shave. He slapped some after-shave lotion on the man’s cheeks and the room suddenly smelled of lime. The customer, who hadn’t uttered a word, said, “I want to hear the rest of the story. You gonna finish soon, Red?”
“I’m gettin’ to the end,” Red responded. “Gimme a minute here.”
Red cleared his throat and leaned forward a little in his chair.
“Mavis and Howard, they hadn’t had kids,” Red went on. “So Howard was happy when he heard he was gonna be a father. What he wadn’t happy about was this woman askin’ him to marry her.”
Red paused and looked toward the large front window of the shop, as if expecting Howard or Mavis to walk in and interrupt the story. A moment later, though, he went on.
“Now, Howard loved Mavis. But he also loved the white woman. He came by the bar one night about this time. We useta stop into this bar just up the block from the Be-Bop after we got off work at the plant for a beer or two before goin’ home. So, Howard stops in there one night and he tells us he’s signed up.
“I says to him, ‘Signed up for what?’ And that’s when he tole me he was goin’ in the army and hopin’ they would send him over to fight in Ko-rea.”
Red stopped talking and shook his head back and forth.
“He tole me he was shippin’ out in three days. I says to him, ‘Howard. Don’t make no sense for the colored man to fight in that war.’ And he says, ‘I got my reasons.’ Then he tole me about the baby and not wantin’ to divorce Mavis to marry the white woman.”
“He went to fight in Korea?” I asked.
“That’s exactly right,” Red said.
“Was that the last time you saw him?”
I expected Red to answer yes right off but he was silent. As had happened many times in the telling of this story, Red glanced at Willie and Willie looked back at Red. I suddenly realized that there was more to the story than what I had heard so far.
“You did see Howard again.”
Red nodded and clasped his hands in front of his waist.
“Now, you not gonna say anything to Mavis about this?”
“No. I promise I won’t.”
“Musta been two months after they shipped Howard over to Ko-rea,” Red began. “Mavis heard that Howard was missing. M-I-A is what they said. I was livin’ right around the corner from Mavis. She was in bad shape. We all started to help her, bringin’ over food and sittin’ with her. One day about three months after Howard went missing, Mavis says to me, ‘Red. I want you to know somethin’. Before Howard left, he asked me to promise him. Promise me, Mavis, he said. If anything happens to me, I want you to get married again.’
“Mavis started crying then and I tried telling her, like I did almost every day, that they was gonna find Howard. She cried some more and then she tole me, ‘Red. I just nodded my head when Howard asked me to promise him. But in my heart I promised that I would wait for Howard forever.’
“And that’s what Mavis done. No matter what anybody said to that woman, she refused to believe Howard was dead. She useta say, ‘I know Howard. If he was dead, I would feel it. And I feel that he’s still alive.’”
Red pulled the folded white handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his forehead and each side of his face again. He shook his head, cleared his throat, scooted forward in his chair and leaned down.
“I don’t like to hafta say this but Mavis was right.”
He stopped speaking, as if to let the words sink in before he went on.
“Howard was alive,” he said, leaning back and then leaned forward, as if the chair was a rocker. “That’s right. Howard wadn’t M-I-A. He went A-W-O-L. Howard got hisself a taste of that fightin’ and didn’t like it one bit.”
“So where did he go? What happened to him?”
“One night, about a year after Howard went missin’, we was at the bar, havin’ a coupla beers. And who walks in? Howard. Well, we about had a fit. He was skinnier than when he left but otherwise fine. Not missin’ a leg or an arm or an eye. Not like what we woulda expected for a man who’d gone M-I-A.
“He tole us everything that night. That he’d run away from the army and gotten work on a ship. By then, he’d been every place in the world, it seemed like. At first, he said he thought that’s what he would do the rest of his life. Just work on ships and travel around the world forever. But he got homesick. And he wanted to see his child.”
By now, Red’s throat had gotten raspy and dry. He stood up from his chair and started to make his way slowly to the back of the barbershop. I hoped he wasn’t going to leave, as I was dying to hear the rest of the story.
“Where you goin’, Red,” Willie asked, voicing my thoughts.
“I need to wet my whistle,” he said, and continued one careful step after the other to a door at the far end of the shop.
A moment later, he came back out, a cream-colored porcelain coffee cup in his hand. He walked stiffly, as if a slight shove would send him tumbling to the floor.
But he managed to get back to his chair without falling and practically collapsed into it, balancing the cup in front, trying not to spill any water.
“You gonna finish now?” Willie asked.
Red took several sips of water in a row and nodded.
“Gimme a minute here. Got too dry to talk.”
We all waited quietly. I couldn’t help but wonder if Mavis knew. Did Howard come back home all those years ago and not visit Mavis?
“Howard was scared of getting caught. He didn’t want to go to jail. So he tole us he wadn’t gonna stick around very long. Just see his child and then be gone.
“I asked him, ‘Howard. You gonna visit Mavis?’ Howard looked like he might cry and he says to me, ‘Red. I love Mavis. But it’s better that she thinks I died.’
“And that was that,” Red said. “That was the last we seen ‘a Howard. Everybody in the neighborhood always thought Howard went M-I-A and his body was never found.”
As the rains began to ease up and the air warmed, Mavis grew frailer. Even so, she asked me to walk with her to the corner market on MLK. I asked Mavis why she wanted to go to there, as the owner Ali charged three times more for everything, even soap, and Mavis replied, “Just like to get out, that’s all.”
We had almost made it to the market one afternoon when I spotted Red up ahead on the sidewalk. A moment later, Mavis quit walking.
“Are you all right, Mavis” I asked.
Her lips pursed, as if she’d eaten something sour.
“It’s that Red,” she whispered.
“What’s wrong with Red?”
“Don’t wanna say,” she said.
At that, Mavis turned around, facing the direction from which we’d just come.
“I want to go home,” she announced.
The next afternoon, I stopped by to see how Mavis was doing, but she didn’t answer the door. By now, I had talked Mavis into giving me a key, so I could let myself in and check on her. After ringing the bell a second time, I unlocked the door and stepped inside.
“Mavis? Are you all right?”
She didn’t answer, so I headed to the back bedroom.
I was surprised to see her sitting up in bed, staring at the wall.
“Are you okay, Mavis?”
She didn’t respond.
“Mavis. Are you all right?”
I put my hand over her hand and then felt her forehead. Not being a nurse or even a parent, I didn’t know what I was feeling for.
Finally, after several minutes, Mavis said, “That Red. He told me something once. That Red broke my heart.”
I propped several pillows against the headboard and helped Mavis sit back against them.
“Why don’t you rest a minute here, Mavis, while I get you something to drink?”
I hurried to the kitchen and filled a glass with cold water, brought it to the bedroom and made her drink. Her face was flushed. I feared that she might have had another small stroke.
“Are you feeling all right, Mavis?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just got to remembering and that made me mad. Seeing that Red.”
“What about Red?”
“Red was drunk that night,” Mavis said, after several false starts. “’Course that wasn’t anything new. Red was drunk most of the time in those days. It was his cousin Ella’s birthday. Ella was my best friend.”
Mavis looked out toward the window, as if searching for the rest of the story.
“Where were you?”
“We were at Ella’s house.”
Mavis looked away from me again. She was trying not to cry.
“Oh, I wanted to be having fun. But I missed Howard. We hadn’t heard anything about him for, oh, it must have been two years by then. I used to write him letters. Almost every day. I never mailed them ‘cause I knew he was missing and wouldn’t get anything I sent. I kept every one of those letters. I wanted to show him that I hadn’t forgot about him. All those years, every day, he was in my thoughts.”
I made her drink more water.
“Musta been about midnight when Red came in. He grabbed my hand and tried to get me to dance. I told him I didn’t want to dance with him. He got mad and then he says to me real loud, ‘What you savin’ yourself for, Mavis? No reason to keep savin’ yourself for Howard. Howard ain’t comin’ back.’
“I said to Red, ‘You’re drunk, that’s one thing, Red. And I know that Howard’s coming back. I know he’s not dead.’
“Red laughed when I said that. But it was like an evil laugh. He stopped laughing and then he said, ‘You right about that, Mavis.’
“When he said that, well, I got a bad feeling. I remember like it happened yesterday, my face got real hot. I wanted to ask Red what he was saying but a part of me didn’t want to know.
“Before I had a chance to say another thing, Red stuck his face real close to mine. I could smell the liquor on his breath and the stale cigarettes. Then he said, ‘Howard ain’t dead, Mavis. I seen him, so I know.’
“I felt like I was gonna faint. There wasn’t any seats, so I whispered to Red, ‘cause I could barely get a sound to come out of my mouth, ‘I need to sit down.’ Red ran off and came back a minute later with a folding chair. After I sat, he leaned over and told me, ‘Howard came back a year ago.’”
Mavis’ eyes filled and she swatted the tears away with the back of her painfully thin and spotted right hand. I assumed Mavis was going to tell me the same story I’d already heard from Red and I felt guilty for not telling her what I already knew. But to my surprise, Mavis began to tell a different story.
“Sometimes a person wants a thing badly enough, that thing becomes true,” she said to me now.
She turned her head away from me and looked toward the window.
“I wanted to believe that Howard was only missing. Missing temporarily. Like when you can’t find your keys. They’re just missing. You know they’re in the house someplace. You just got to find them. You got to go through everything in your mind, from when you first walked in the door and what happened then and what happened next, so you can check all the places you’ve gone. All of a sudden, you find those missing keys and they’re not missing anymore.
“One day, I knew Howard wasn’t missing. I knew it as surely as Red knew it. I knew it for the same reason Red knew. I knew it but I told myself it wasn’t true. I told myself Howard was missing. And I would wait until they found Howard and brought him home.”
“What are you saying, Mavis?”
Mavis turned toward me now and then looked away again, out that small side window. She did this three more times, without saying a word. Then, in a low voice, so low I had trouble hearing her, she said, “Howard was two-timing me.”
After uttering those words, Mavis slumped down in the bed, her head to one side. Though I’d never met Howard, I couldn’t imagine what acknowledging this felt like to a woman who had waited year after year for a missing husband to return, all the time knowing he never would.
In a raspy voice, Mavis added, “You see, I saw him with her. One afternoon on MLK. I saw him with her. And I saw the child.”
“What did he say to you?”
She shook her head back and forth.
“He didn’t see me. I turned around and ran home. I told myself that wasn’t him, that it was just my imagination.
“A year later, Red told me. Howard had come back. He’d come back to see this other woman and the child.”
Mavis slumped down in the bed again and closed her eyes. A moment later, she was snoring.
I slipped quietly from the room, walked down the hall and stepped out the front door. Instead of heading back home, I decided to take a walk. I thought about Mavis waiting all those years, convincing herself that Howard would return, when deep down she knew he never would. Was Mavis any different from me?
Here I was, a few years over forty. Still single, though I’d dated enough men in my life to be married and divorced several times. It just hadn’t happened. The right guy hadn’t come along. That’s what I told myself, as if the right guy was waiting for me, just around the next corner. Would I go through the next twenty or thirty years like Mavis, pretending that at any moment the man who’d been missing for decades would suddenly show up in my life?
And then I had to ask myself, was it so wrong to pretend and imagine, to believe in the possibility of love? Wasn’t that better than facing the hard cold truth of life and giving up?
Three weeks after telling me that she knew Howard wasn’t missing in action, Mavis Trent suffered a massive stroke and died. The guys at the barbershop gathered up the parishioners from Mavis’ old congregation, the A.M.E. Baptist, for a celebration of her life. There was even a procession with a small New Orleans-type jazz band down the sidewalk. The rain held off that Sunday afternoon, as if everyone had prayed to God to keep the day dry.
Long tables ran along the sides of the community hall, covered with white linen tablecloths. Plates of food – fried chicken, rice and beans, greens, and macaroni salad – covered one long table, and next to that were desserts. There were way more women than men and almost no one young, except for a handful of grandchildren. Nearly all the women had on hats and the men gathered outside to smoke. No matter how many times I looked around at the crowd, I never found one other white person besides me.
It turns out that Mavis left a will behind. She had entrusted a copy of it with the minister of the A.M.E. Baptist Church. Her instructions were to sell the house and any of her possessions that might be worth something and donate the proceeds to the church’s fund for the poor.
Several weeks after the funeral, a group of women from the church met at Mavis’ house to begin cleaning it out. I saw several of them on the porch, as I walked over to MLK to get my morning latté.
Later that afternoon, I asked two of the women whether it would be all right if I took the photograph of Howard home. One of the women, Shirley, shook her head and said, “That poor Mavis. She couldn’t let go of that man.”
Neither Shirley nor any of the other women could see any harm in my taking the photograph. I had already made up a story in my head, that I wanted the photo as a remembrance of Mavis, but no one asked. Without my saying so, they seemed to understand. Not another word was said by any of the women about Howard and that seemed to be the end of it.
The following morning, I started to write. The story began with the main character, Anna Mae, talking to a man we assume from the start of the story is her husband. Anna Mae is telling him about a girl she met, a white girl who just moved into the neighborhood. We soon learn that the husband, Jackson, isn’t in the room with Anna Mae or even in the house. Anna Mae is talking to Jackson’s photograph, not the least bit bothered that Jackson never, ever answers her back.
Patty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for
story South’s Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay of
2013 for Best American Essays 2014. Author of From Here to There and Other Stories,
Somlo has three forthcoming books: a short story collection, The First to Disappear
(Spuyten Duyvil); a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and
Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Her work has appeared in
journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun,
Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, and Women Arts Quarterly, and numerous
anthologies. Find her at www.pattysomlo.com.