An Excerpt From
Until She Comes Home
Malina Herze stares down on her dining-room table, her lovely dining-room table, and clutches a red-handled hammer to her chest. Her best linen, line dried and ironed this morning, still bears the round stains left by two water glasses. They sat on the table for almost four hours before Malina poured the tepid water down the drain. A highball glass still sits alongside her husband’s place setting, the ice melted and the drink inside ruined. On paydays, Mr. Herze likes a scotch and Vernors. That’s today. Payday. Every Wednesday of every week—the day he brings home the sweet, musky smell Malina has washed from his shirts for exactly one year.
That must be why, at this late hour, Malina’s driveway stands empty. It’s been one year. An anniversary, of sorts. There’s no reason Mr. Herze should stray. Malina’s waistband is looser than the last time she wore this skirt, hangs lower on her sharp hipbones. She’s not one ounce heavier than she was twenty-five years ago when she and Mr. Herze wed. He was almost thirty then; she, seventeen. He liked her the way she was—thin and slight. Don’t go changing on me, he had said. And she hasn’t. She weighs not one ounce more. No reason for Mr. Herze to stray. No good reason.
Walking from the dining room to the foyer, her white heels most probably denting the linoleum, Malina drops the hammer in her brown leather handbag, the largest of all her handbags. The tool, taken from the pegboard over Mr. Herze’s workbench, is rather heavy given its size. If called upon to defend herself with it, she may well have to use both hands. The women, Mr. Herze’s girl most certainly among them, come on payday when the men are sure to have money. They stand in the broken-out windows of the warehouse next door to the factory where all the men work. Most say the women are colored. Even now, Malina can imagine the smell of Mr. Herze’s girl as if it has come so many times into her home that it has seeped into the walls and the upholstery and the flocked drapes hanging in her living room.
In the hall mirror, Malina smooths her hair, reapplies a red lipstick suited for evening, wipes a black smudge from under one eye, and, lastly, pulls on her driving gloves. Once outside, she glances up and down Alder Avenue. Perhaps none of the neighbors have noticed the empty spot in her driveway where Mr. Herze’s car should be parked. Every night, he arrives home at 5:45 sharp. Every night, save this one, so of course, the neighbors have noticed. Even now, a few curtains ruffle where they’re peeking out to see if her husband has yet arrived home, and directly across the street that ridiculous Jerry Lawson goes so far as to wave at Malina. Clad in no more than an undershirt and boxers, the man stands at the end of his driveway, where he’s watching over that wife of his as she strolls their baby down the street and back. Nearly a month ago, Betty Lawson marched into her house, a new baby swaddled in her arms though she had never carried one in her belly. Adopted, all the neighbors had whispered. Before she suffers any further embarrassment, Malina hurries across her brittle lawn, slips into her car, and slowly, because the glare of the streetlights does so trouble her, drives toward Willingham Avenue.
Every morning, Malina and the other ladies board the bus and travel to Willingham Avenue to do their daily shopping. From the deli or the bakery or the cleaners, the ladies can look to the end of Willingham, where it dead-ends into Chamberlin Avenue in a T-junction, and see the factory where their men make a living. While dashing about, bags slung over their arms, the ladies can also see the warehouse where the colored women gather on paydays, but the ladies are afraid of what they might see there and so they cling to their wares and take only fleeting glances.
Malina rolls to a stop in front of Mr. Ambrozy’s deli and turns off the ignition. At night, under a glare that isn’t so troublesome because most of the streetlights don’t work in this section of the city, the shops have lost their foothold and seem to hover, loosely rooted, above the dark street. Next to the car, the easel where Mr. Ambrozy writes his daily specials still stands in the middle of the sidewalk. He never erased today’s specials—thick-cut chops and flank steak—and the white chalk letters are smeared as if someone drew a finger across them. Double-checking that the doors are locked, Malina rests her head against the seat, closes her eyes, and begins to count. At her last appointment, Dr. Cannon insisted this would relax her and that she need only practice the technique.
When she reaches twenty, her heartbeat has not slowed and the tightness in her throat has not softened. If she tells Dr. Cannon of this failure, he’ll say that she need only practice more often and that the failing is hers.
As expected, Mr. Herze’s car is parked in the lot next to the factory where he spends his days. While the other men labor with the tool-and-die machinery, Mr. Herze acts as their boss. The simple rust-colored brick building is surrounded by a chain-link fence that sags in some spots and is rusted through in others. The factory is hanging on, just barely, Mr. Herze sometimes says. Staring at the lone car looking more like a shadow than an automobile, Malina has no idea what she is to do now that she has found her husband. She’d had plenty of time to formulate a plan as she sat alone at her dining-room table for several hours, a supper growing cold and dry in her kitchen, the empty spot in her driveway shouting out to the neighbors, but she squandered the time with anger. It’s quite likely, in the hours, days, weeks, or months to come, she’ll remember this as her first mistake.
A dozen or so times over the years, Mr. Herze has forgotten his lunch and Malina has delivered it to him. She has always used the side door just off the parking lot when visiting Mr. Herze on those days. This is the door that opens. A person—a small, dark person— appears in the doorway. She stumbles because the door is so heavy. Malina has done the same several times. A woman, or perhaps she is still a girl. Little more than a child. Long, thin legs. Narrow hips. She wears tapered blue slacks that hug her ankles and a white blouse and is no taller than Malina, both of them childlike in size. Of course she would be small. Petite, even. Just like Malina.
Standing partly in the shadows thrown by the building and partly in the glow of the closest streetlight, the girl rights herself and tugs at the tail of her blouse. This person, this small, dark person, doesn’t glance about as if feeling guilty, and neither does she look behind as if wondering who might have followed her. Instead, she turns sharply to her left and, taking strides that appear quite long, not because she is tall but because she is slender and lean and certain of her movement, she vanishes into the shadows that hug the side of the factory. Malina reaches for the ignition, tries to throw the car into drive before she has started the engine, and fumbles with the parking brake, but she drops her hands to her lap when the girl reappears.
She moves with the same sense of purpose, or perhaps she moves with the confidence that comes from having done a thing several times before. Her back is straight and her chin is cocked high, almost as if she is proud. The girl, the small, dark girl, pushes a baby carriage. Malina falls back against the seat. The girl crosses through the parking lot, turns onto the sidewalk, and walks toward the Detroit River.
Of all things—a baby carriage.
Grabbing the leather bag from the seat next to her, Malina throws open the car door. The air here is cooler than on Alder Avenue and tinted with the smell of dead fish and damp, rotting garbage. It’s the river. During her days spent shopping on Willingham, she forgets that the river runs nearby. She should get back into her car, start up the engine, drive home, and return to her upholstered seat at the dining-room table. The veal and creamed cucumbers will be ruined by now, but she could serve them anyway because Mr. Herze does so hate waste. She knows from all her married years that if she is to walk down this street, she is putting herself in the path of a danger not even her hammer will be able to fend off. But there is a carriage, a baby carriage. She’ll be quick about it. One glimpse is all she needs. What harm could such a small person do her? Any one of the ladies would do the same.
The girl is past the factory and half a block ahead of Malina. The high-pitched squeal, rhythmic and slowly fading, must come from the carriage’s metal wheels. Reaching the sidewalk and falling into the girl’s wake, Malina stops, can’t help herself, because the scent lingers—the same sweet, musky smell Malina had pulled from her hamper on every payday of every week for exactly one year. Up ahead, just past the factory, the girl turns right and is gone. Malina hugs her handbag so the hammer doesn’t knock about and follows.
Malina has never ventured this far south, has never had cause. When she reaches the spot where the girl disappeared, she stops. The familiar shops are behind her now; ahead, an unfamiliar street that eventually empties into the Detroit River. Keeping her feet on the sidewalk, she tips forward and looks down the dark alley that runs along the factory’s southern edge. She squints, leans farther. Still no sign of the girl. Here again, she should turn around. If not for that empty driveway, an embarrassment like none other except perhaps a baby carriage, she would run back to her car, head down, hoping not to be recognized and, despite the terrible glare, drive as quickly as she could back to the house. So many years of carefully grooming herself to behave just-so. Supper at six, breakfast at seven, shirts hung on only wooden hangers, collars lightly starched, newspaper untouched until Mr. Herze has his turn at it. The list goes on. When she was younger, she wrote down these things and checked off each reminder with a freshly sharpened pencil. After so many years, she should no longer need reminders.
One deep breath propels her. She steps from the sidewalk into the alley. A cool draft sweeps past. The sound of the squeaky wheels has faded. There is the quiet slapping of the river water and then a woman’s voice breaks through the night air and then another answers her. They are muted, as if coming from behind a closed door. There must be another building at the end of the alley, perhaps where the girl lives. So many of them do that now—live in abandoned buildings as if they haven’t anywhere else to go.
There is the squeal again. Warped metal wheels, wobbling, struggling in the alley’s soft, dry dirt. A carriage. Obviously a baby inside. A caramel-colored baby. Mr. Herze is soft and white, pasty white, with hair that was once blond but now is a thinning ridge that runs ear to ear leaving the top of his head bare. The girl, however, as far as Malina could tell, is dark brown. The baby would be a soft, warm color, somewhere between their two shades. Malina takes a backward step, lets her arms hang at her sides.
Mr. Herze’s baby?
She thinks again of the smudged easel. Like the muffled voices, the easel is a reminder that people are here, somewhere nearby. She slides one foot in front of the other, forcing herself into the alley. Dust will be gathering on her shoes. When she gets back home, she must remember to clean them with a damp cloth. Unsnapping the kiss-clasp on her brown leather bag, she pulls out the hammer and wraps both hands around the red handle.
A few more steps and Malina has walked beyond the reach of the streetlights. The only remaining light comes from a window in the factory’s second story. It’s little more than a yellow pane that does nothing to brighten her path. It’s Mr. Herze’s office. It must be. Holding the hammer as if it were the handle of a frying pan, she follows the girl’s path. The air continues to cool. It dries the damp spot on the back of her neck where her thick hair meets her lace collar. The steady pulse of the river follows her, growing no louder, no softer. She must see inside that carriage, has a right to see inside that carriage.
“And who the hell you think you be?”
Squeezing the hammer in both hands, Malina lifts it overhead and swings it toward the voice. The heavy forked head sails through the empty air, missing its target and yanking her off balance. She stumbles, drops her only weapon.
The woman who stands in front of Malina is plump. She has round, black cheeks and her eyes must be brown, although there isn’t enough light to know for sure. She stands Malina’s height but is much wider. It is not the girl. Malina leans toward the dark figure, squints to make certain. If she wanted, she could stretch out one hand and touch the woman’s face. To avoid the temptation, Malina crosses her arms. This one is not like a child at all, but like a woman. A round, rotund woman. Her stubby legs are planted wide and her back is straight. She leads with her chin as she bends forward, puckers her lips, and stares at Malina.
“Damn,” the woman shouts. Her breath is sweet, like a half- eaten peppermint.
From the end of the alley, another voice calls out. “What you all doing down there?”
Malina inches away. Her white cotton blouse clings to her back and her hair has most certainly wilted. The round woman stares. Her black cheeks and thick upper lip glisten.
“I know who you are,” the woman says, smiling, perhaps even laughing at Malina. “Bet you’re wondering what’s inside that carriage.”
Malina shakes her head, takes a few more backward steps, spins around, and hurries down the alley.
“Hey,” the woman shouts. “Where you going? You forgot your damn hammer.”