No one ever told me what happened to Mama. Never. I had to find out on my own.
I suppose BethAnn thought she was doing me a favor. I suppose they all thought that. I was angry with my mother for a long time for taking me away from my home and my family and bringing me here, for palming me off on relatives. For getting rid of me. So I guess maybe my great-aunt thought I wouldn’t care about it……or maybe it was too terrible to put into words…….or maybe she didn’t know herself.
I remember asking Mama why we were going so far away. On the bus for hours, just her and me. She looked at me so long I thought maybe I’d asked something bad. “It’s gonna be better this way,” she said finally. And she didn’t hug me or kiss me…….
“Why didn’t Wendell come, too?”
“He doesn’t need to come. Maybe Daddy won’t notice we’re gone as quick if Wendell’s still there.”
I understood that. We were always hiding things from Daddy. It was usually pretty hard to know what would make Daddy mad, so we spent a lot of time trying not to let him know things.
“And if Wendell don’t know where you are, he can’t tell Daddy,” she said.
That didn’t make any sense. For one thing, where I was, was on the bus. And he must have known that. Unless Mama didn’t tell him. And for another, “Wendell wouldn’t tell, Mama.”
“No,” she said. “I know.”
Confusing. I decided to ask him what Mama was talking about when we got back. He’d know. There were a lot of things he didn’t know, like multiplication and spelling and stuff like that, but lots of things he did, like what grownups were likely to get mad about, and what they meant when they said confusing things.
But I never got to ask him anything. My mother dropped me and my little suitcase off with her aunt BethAnn up the coast, and went away, and I never saw any of my family again. Till now.
He was standing right in front of me, holding his hand out, to shake mine. Right there. The brother I’d loved so much when we were small…..He carried me piggyback when I got tired walking home from school. He pretended to read stories to me when I asked him, even though I knew he didn’t know all the words, and he knew I knew. He let me creep under the covers with him at night when I had bad dreams, or when Mama and Daddy were fighting.
.……..he was a stranger now.
He frowned. “I know you?”
I didn’t know how to answer that.
Before I left Haverly, and the house I’d lived in for twenty years, Mama’s cousin Julie said, “Don’t go looking, honey. I don’t know what you’ll find, but it could be you won’t like it. Just stay here with us. That Mark, that works at the drug store, he’s sweet on you, you know.”
I knew that.
“And it’s about time you settled down, started a family.”
“You know I can’t settle down,” I said. “At least not with a pharmacist.”
“Why not?” she said. “I don’t understand why not. You‘re gonna be an old maid at this rate.”
I didn’t understand it for sure either. I just knew it wouldn’t work. And it had something to do with the letters and papers we found in the old house when we were cleaning it out. Letters to BethAnn from my mother, asking how I was, telling BethAnn to tell me how much she missed me. And the newspapers…….
Of course, Bethann hadn’t said a word, hadn’t shown me anything or even so much as spoken to me of my family, all the time I lived there. And then she was gone, passed away six months before I saw the letters, and I couldn’t ask her anything about it.
If my Mama missed me……that changed everything. Everything.
No one in the family who was still living would admit to knowing why I was here instead of L.A. I had to find out on my own.
“I know you?”
I shook my head. Couldn’t manage to say yes or no……
I’d expected to find the Wendell White that lived in Bisbee, Arizona was a black-haired pudgy Irishman. Or a stooped old man. The wrong Wendell White. I suppose I really thought I wouldn’t find him.
He’d grown. Intellectually, I knew he’d be a man, probably with a family, he was older than me…..but I was surprised the first time I saw him. I remembered the eleven year old; the man was disconcerting.
He looked tough. He looked like he wasn’t somebody to mess around with. I watched him once from my car, not long after I arrived in Bisbee, watched him handle an obnoxious drunk on the street that was bothering everybody that walked by. Unfortunately for the drunk, Wendell arrived just in time to see him stop a girl riding by on her bike.
She was about 12. “Hey, I gotta go,” she said, and stood on the pedals, but the man had his hand on the handlebars, holding the bike still. When my daddy was tight, he always looked like any stiff wind would knock him over, but he was really strong nevertheless. You didn’t want to be within grabbing distance then.
I watched Wendell striding down the street toward them. You know how sometimes, you just know something’s going to happen? You can see separate paths converging, and you know there’s going to be a collision. He was too far away for me to see the look on his face at first…..but I could tell by the way he walked. I could tell by the swing of his arms, I could see his hands close into fists…..
The drunk reached for the little girl’s head, and got a handful of her hair. “You’re a purty little girl, ain’t you?” he said. “You got a boyfriend?” He leaned over, kinda stumbled, almost tumbled him and her and her bike on the ground.
“Let go, mister.” The girl pushed at him. He pulled her by her hair, pulled her close, and kissed her on the cheek.
“Where you live?” the drunk asked. And then Wendell was close enough for me to see the look on his face. Not mad, not outraged, just….intense. Focussed. I think maybe the man felt it, all that energy concentrated in his direction. He let go of the girl’s hair, let go of the girl’s bike, put his hands up in the air.
“I didn’t do nothing, Deputy. I was jist havin’ a conversation. She’ll tell you. I didn’t do nothing.”
“You ok, Sandy?” Wendell said. He reached for her, put his hand on her shoulder.
She wiped at her face. “Yuck. Yeah, I’m ok. I gotta go, though, you know? Or I’m gonna be in trouble.”
Wendell nodded. “You go on home. Tell your mom to come talk to me if you’re late.”
He turned back to the drunk. “Let’s go, Ward.”
“Where? Go where? I ain’t goin’ nowhere. I ain’t goin’.” He staggered a step or two backward; a light pole stopped his retreat.
“You’re goin’ to jail. Three strikes, you’re out.”
“I ain’t goin’. I didn’t do nothin’.”
Wendell reached for his arm. The drunk knocked his hand away.
“Keep your hands off me, ya punk. I tol’ ya, I ain’t goin’.”
“You can go feet first, if you wanna. But you’re goin’.” He grabbed the drunk’s arm, and jerked him around, started walking back in the direction he came from.
I couldn’t hear what they said to each other after that. They were facing the wrong way, they weren’t talking as loud, they were walking away. I figured the drunk was whining; Wendell’s answers were short. He just kept walking.
They hadn’t gotten very far when Wendell stopped. Little more than half a block. His face changed; not professional any more, it was frightening to see. I’d seen that look before, on my father’s face. I knew exactly what was coming next. And I couldn’t look away.
I don’t have any way of knowing what the drunken man said, but whatever it was, he shouldn’t have said it.
He knew it, too. He yanked his arm away from Wendell, backed away, held his hands up. Wendell followed him. The drunk growled something I couldn’t quite make out, then swung. Missed when Wendell dodged. Did it again, same result. Wendell grabbed his shirt and slammed him against the side of the building. The drunk flailed, kicked, I heard him swearing. Wendell punched him hard in the belly. Again.
I felt sick. I’d looked for so long, come all this way…..I’d been looking for my brother, and instead I saw my father. The look on his face, the way he moved…..little things I thought I’d forgotten were all right there in front of me, so familiar…….
The drunk dropped to all fours on the cement. I waited for Wendell to finish him off. The man began to retch, Wendell grabbed the back of his collar and dragged him to the curb in time for him to empty his stomach in the gutter. Now, I thought. I waited.
The drunk cursed at Wendell, called him a couple of things that made me blush, and neither of them were aimed at me. Some people just never learn. Wendell stood up straight, took a deep breath, and after a minute, said, “Can you walk? Or do I have to drag you?”
Cursing, the man slowly got to his knees, then to his feet. “You didn’t have no call to do that. I didn’t do nothin’. I don’t know why you cops can’t leave me alone.”
“Yeah, yeah. Come on.”
And I watched them walk down the block and around the corner, Wendell with his hand around the man’s arm, holding him up when he stumbled, pulling him forward when he hung back.
I was confused. Wendell looked…..brutal. Rough. A little scary. But if he was a man like our father, he’d have taken advantage of the situation. He’d never have let the man get on his feet again, he’d have finished him off while he had the chance. And he didn’t do that. So……who was he?
I spent the years after I left L.A. learning to sew and trying out for cheerleader at Haverly Junior High. Going to the malt shop. Going steady. Forgetting where I came from. It was easy enough to do, in my great aunt’s house so far from my childhood.
How had his life gone? What sort of person had he grown up to be? That’s when I decided to wait. To stay in town and find out who Wendell White was before saying anything to anybody about who I was…….I was assuming I would still knew who I was by then…...
I didn’t know, at first, why Aunt BethAnn saved the newspapers, along with my mother’s letters. I kept them, though; I didn’t throw them away. When I finally took the time to go through them carefully, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I knew she must have saved them for a reason. Finally….something. Four lines on page 12---Leonard M. White, buried at the county’s expense, the place, and not so long ago, just a year or so. Nothing else. But it gave me a place to start. The cemetary records told me almost nothing. The county records didn’t have much more, except…….the next of kin. Wendell.
I cried. Right there in the clerk’s office. There was my brother’s name, he was alive, and now I could find him.
Except I couldn’t. There was no address in those records for him; there was no address anywhere.
The death certificate, after it arrived in the mail, gave me an unsettling clue. My father hadn’t died of liver disease, or pneumonia, or anything so prosaic; my father had been shot. That sent me back to L.A., to the newspapers at the library, but there was nothing in any of them about it.
If it hadn’t been for my cousin Monte’s sister-in-law, that might have been the end of it. But she knew somebody who worked in the police department in L.A., somebody who worked with the records. Somebody that she said knew everything that happened. And so she asked her. Gave her the date and the name and asked her to find out what she could find out.
Everything took so long. Looking through newspaper after newspaper, and not finding anything. Requesting records and waiting by the mailbox. Waiting till Monte remembered to ask his sister-in-law, till she asked her friend, till her friend called her back, till Monte called me…..After a while, I lost sight of the goal. I felt as if I’d never find out what I needed to know. Looking, asking, waiting became a habit with no reason. It was just what I did.
And then one Thursday evening the phone rang. I knew it was bad as soon as he started talking. “I can’t tell you on the phone,” he said. “You need to be there, to see the files for yourself. Go to Hollywood Station, ask for Ginger; she’ll help you.”
So….back to L.A. a third time, to the police station. I told the policeman at the desk I wanted to speak to Ginger if I could. “She works here,” I added. He looked doubtful, but picked up the phone anyway.
“Hey, honey.” A woman with an extremely deep voice and her hands in handcuffs sidled up next to me and leaned against the counter. At least I thought it was a woman. Her blonde hair was swept up on top of her head. She was dressed in a slinky blue dress with a slit up the side. “I betcha I’m at least as much fun as Ginger. Put your hand right there,” and she thrust her hips forward…..and I realized she couldn’t possibly be a woman.
The policeman put down the phone, leaned over and gave the woman a push. “Get back there, you. Hey, O’Malley, come and get Gorgeous George here. Sorry, ma’am,” he said to me. “You can go on up to the third floor.”
I didn’t see any other criminals. I thought maybe I would, but there weren’t any on the stairs, and the third floor must have been just offices and records rooms. It was a little disappointing. The man in the blue dress was the most interesting thing that had happened to me in weeks.
The walk down the hall on the third floor felt like all the afternoons spent in the library, it seemed like a quiet and uneventful place to do a little research…….
“Are you going there to get away from me?” Mark asked.
“Of course not.”
He was silent.
“All right, I’m thinking of moving there, but not because of you.”
“Haven’t you been happy here?” he said. “Don’t you have a life here? What can you find in Arizona that’s better than what we have here?”
“Don’t push me, Mark. We’re not engaged or anything. This is not such a big deal.”
“Just tell me. It’s another man, isn’t it?”
What could I say to that?
It was easy to find a room to rent in Bisbee. It was easy to find a job. I looked through the help wanted ads and found four listings that I thought might be suitable. The Cosmopolitan Dress Shop was the first place I went. The woman who took my application was friendly, the interview with the owner of the shop went well, and before I knew it, I had a job.
The woman had introduced herself as Lynn; it didn’t hit me until I was walking down the sidewalk afterwards that the name on the papers I held in my hand was White……
No, I thought, that’s just too much of a coincidence. Just not possible.
I was sure it was just a coincidence for a week or so; she called her husband Bud, not Wendell. White’s a pretty common name.
And there was no Wendell White in the phone book, so maybe Ginger’s information was incorrect. Or outdated. Maybe this was a wild goose chase, and I’d end up back in Haverly in a month or so no wiser than when I left. I was almost hoping that’s what would happen.
In the mail at the shop one morning, a letter for Mrs. Wendell White…..I held it up…..”Yes,” she said and smiled, “That’s for me.”
He walked into the dress shop, Lynn walked over and put her arms around him, and just for a minute, I thought I could see what she saw in him…..it was easy to see he was happy to be there; easy to see, when he looked at her, how he felt about her.
I was paralyzed, couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, couldn’t breathe. I thought, certainly he’ll know who I am, he’ll recognize me, and then what will I do?
He held out his hand. “Ma’am,” he said. So polite. Daddy was never polite. Of course, Wendell must have acquired that little bit of social gloss, or he couldn’t have been a policeman; he couldn’t have married a sophisticated woman like Lynn.
His hand at the base of her spine as they left could have been possessive. It could have been a warning, both to Lynn and to any males in the vicinity, he could have been saying, “She belongs to me, and don’t you forget it”………but it looked more like a caress…..
I dreamed about my father that night. Woke up in a sweat from a dream I could only vaguely remember, half-realized dread tugging at the back of my mind. I got up, put some water on the hot-plate, and sat at the little table……I was done with my cup of tea before I realized how much I wanted someone to lift the blankets, let me in, and hold me tight.