Short Mysteries

Missing Persons

My spade sliced into the damp dirt like a knife through a peach. I scooped dirt out of the hole to plant fruit trees in my backyard. Instructions stapled to the wrapped root-ball said the trees had to be planted eighteen inches below the surface in a two-foot-wide hole.

I widened the hole, piling dirt in a mound next to my bare-limbed fruit trees. I was a foot deep when my spade clanked on a solid object. I pulled out the spade and sliced down six inches to the side. Clank again. I tried six inches on the other side and my spade slid deeper into the dirt. When I pulled the dirt out, I uncovered the edge of the inch-deep metal object my spade had stuck.

I scraped dirt away from the top to expose the surface. It was about eight inches long and six inches wide. I jabbed my spade underneath and popped it out of its earthy hold.

I lifted the metal box out of the hole and sat down on the pile of dirt. The box had a pale green patina, two metal hinges on the back, and a clasp in the front. The lid was frozen shut. I reached into my toolbox for my pruning shears and ran the tip under the lid. I forced the clasp open and lifted the top.

Inside was a bundle of letters tied with a string. Beneath the letters were three black-and-white photos. The top letter was addressed to Harriet Summers at 873 Windsor Lane. That was my address—the home I had bought last fall after moving from the Midwest. I flicked through the letters, admiring the colorful canceled stamps of fifty years ago. All the letters were addressed to Harriet Summers except one. The exception was the earliest letter addressed to Harriet Gaithers at 1019 Waverly, a tree-lined street down the hill that ran through the historic district of town: classic old Victorian homes from the 19th century that had been included in the National Register of Historic Districts.

I carried the box to the gazebo and sat down on a bench, feeling the soothing warmth of the spring sun on my face. The air was fragrant with apple and cherry blossoms. Spring flowers were in bloom: orange, purple, and yellow lantana; scarlet and orange African violets; rosebushes in red, pink, white, and peppermint; and clusters of tulips. Robins flitted from tree to tree, hopping across my lawn, chirping cheerful notes of spring. One landed on the dirt I had dug and stabbed its beak into my dirt mound. It pulled out a juicy worm and tipped back its head to swallow it before flying to a nest in a tall oak tree. A hungry chick was about to have a meal.

I set the metal box on my lap and picked up the first picture. It showed a happy gathering of college students dressed in identical sweaters and gray slacks. They stood in a semicircle around a St. Bernard dog that had a banner with a white letter “H” draped over its back. The students’ arms were raised in a college cheer.

The second picture was of a handsome young man, his blond hair parted off center in the fashion popular in the 1930s. He was holding the St. Bernard’s leash in the first picture. In the third picture, he was standing by a seaside cliff with his arm draped around the shoulders of a pretty young woman who was in the first picture. Her right arm was wrapped around his thin waist, her left hand raised to shield her eyes from the sun. She was dressed stylishly in a 1940s way, a strand of pearls around her neck, hair in a permanent wave swept to the side, tight skirt below her knees. In the background was a rustic inn with a sign: Manleigh Inn.

I untied the string and opened the letter with the earliest postmark. In the upper-left corner was the sender’s name and address: Arthur Parker, 65 Folsom Avenue, New Dublin, California. In the right corner was a canceled, faded red three-cent stamp of the 50th anniversary of statehood for North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington. Inside was a one-page letter:

June 18, 1939

Dear Harriet,

My sadness is profound. We have said our last good-byes; I leave in the morning, and you will not be with me. The last three years with you have been the happiest of my life. But I support your decision that we must move on with our lives. I have three years of law school at Yale ahead of me, and you will begin a teaching position in September that you have desired since you were a little girl. You will be a wonderful teacher. Your students will love your wit, energy, and wisdom.

I know we will write even though we cannot see each other for years. I won’t be able to return, since my scholarship requires I work summers at the New Haven legal aid office.

Your love has been the most important part of my life. I will never forget you, Harriet. I wish you well and will always remember the special times we spent together at Hampton. I hope you will wait for me, even though I know you desire marriage and a family. My heart is sad because we will have to live apart for so long.

Love always and forever,

Arthur