Wayland Davenport had died the same year as my client’s mother. Poor Hunter, Senior, losing his wife and his father at the same time. His mother Mildred was still alive, though, living in a shabby apartment complex in Lincolnwood. When I rang the bell we began one of those tedious conversations through the intercom, where she couldn’t make out what I was saying and I kept shouting into the door mike.
“I’m too old to work,” she screeched.
“Your son’s work,” I hollered. “His photographs. We’re interested in a display — an exhibit. Africa in the 1970’s through American eyes.”
“You’d better go away,” she finally said. “I’m not buying anything.”
I ground my teeth. A woman carrying two large bags of groceries came up the walk, followed by three young children. The biggest had his own small shopping bag but the younger two had their hands free to punch each other. The woman kept muttering an ineffectual “Michael, Tania, stop it.” When she tried to balance a bag on her hip while she fumbled for her keys, I took the bags and held the door. She thanked me with the same exhausted mutter she used on her children.
“I’m visiting Mildred Davenport in 4K but I’ll be glad to carry your bags up for you first,” I said brightly.
“Oh! Oh, thank you. Michael, let go of Tania’s hair.”
She was on four as well, but at the other end, and no, she didn’t know Mildred, more than to recognize her. The kids kept her running all day, and Mildred never left her own apartment, except on Mondays when someone from the senior center came to take her to the store or the doctor.
“Do you know if her son is staying with her?”
“Is that who that man is? I don’t like the way he looks at Tania, I told my husband it wouldn’t surprise me if he was a molester, out of prison and they won’t tell us who’s in the building. We could be murdered here or our children abducted and would the management care? Not any more than they did the time the people in 5A were keeping goldfish in the bathtub and let it overflow into our place. And then the cats, yowling to get out, I have complained a thousand times — Tania, stop pinching –.”
I was thankful when we reached her door. I dumped the bags on the floor, in the middle of a litter of Legos, Beanie babies and half-empty cereal bowls, and fled as the children’s whines rose to howls.
Before leaving my office this morning I had written a short letter to Mildred Davenport, giving her the same story I had tried shouting through the intercom: I was a freelance journalist writing a book on Africa through American eyes and very much wanted to get hold of some of her son’s photographs from the Eighties.
At the far end of the corridor I knocked loudly on her door. After a long wait I heard a shuffling on the other side, and then movement at the peephole. I smiled in a cheery, unthreatening way.
She opened the door the width of a chain bolt. “What do you want?”
I kept smiling. “I put it in writing — I thought that might be easier than me trying to explain it through the door.”
She grudgingly took the envelope from me and shut the door again. The television was turned up so loud I could hear it through the closed door. After about ten minutes she came back.
“I guess you can talk to him but he says he doesn’t know what you mean, he never was in Africa.”
I followed her into a living room where a fan stirred air so heavy it fell back like soup onto my hair and blouse. A television tuned to Oprah provided the only light. Stacks of newspaper and pieces of furniture were crammed so close together that it was hard to find a place to stand.
“Hunter! This here’s the lady.” She shouted over Oprah in a flat nasal.
A figure stirred in one of the overstuffed armchairs. In the flashes from the screen I’d mistaken him for a heap of towels or blankets. Mrs. Davenport muted the sound.
“Who you work for?” he said. “They have money for prints?”
“Gaudy Press. They have some money, but they don’t throw it around.” I looked around for a place to sit and finally perched on the arm of another chair. “They’re especially interested in your work in the Eighties. When you were in Africa.”
“Never was in Africa.” Hunter shot a look at his mother.
“If they want to pay you for your work,” Mrs. Davenport began, but he cut her off.
“I said I never was in Africa. You don’t know anything about my life away from here.”
“I’m only deaf, not crazy,” his mother snapped. “Why don’t you see if you can make some money. Show this lady your photographs. Even if you don’t have Africa you’ve got plenty of others.”
“You go back to Oprah and the lady can go back to her publisher and tell them no sale.” He took the control from his mother and restored the sound; a woman whose car had broken down on the Santa Ana Freeway had been rescued by an angel.
I moved close enough to him that I could see his frayed t-shirt and the stubble of greying hair on his chin. “Your son says you were in South Africa in 1986.”
He curled his lip at me. “I don’t have a son. That I know of.”
“Helen Alder’s son? That the two of you produced after you married in Vietnam?”
“Helen Alder? I never heard of a …” His voice trailed away, and then he said with a ferocious urgency that astounded me, “Where are you really from?”
“Could we go where we can hear each other?”
His mother watched suspiciously when he pushed himself up from his chair, but she stayed behind when he led me to the kitchen. The stuffy air was larded with stale dishwater. The window had a two-by-four nailed across it to keep it from opening. Sweat started to gather at the back of my neck.
“Who sent you to me?” His teeth showed, crooked and tobacco-stained, through the stubble.
“I don’t have any children. I never married. I never was in Africa.”
“What about Vietnam?” I asked.
He shot me an angry look. “And if I say, yeah, I was there, you won’t believe I didn’t marry this Helen whosis.”
“Try me.” I wanted to keep my voice affable, but standing in the musty room was hard on my back as well as my manners.
“I was a photographer. For the old Chicago American before it folded. I covered the war for them from Sixty-three to Sixty-nine. Sur Place bought a lot of my shots — the French were more interested in Indochina than we were. After the paper collapsed I signed on with them as a freelancer.”
“Where were you in 1986? Here?”
He shook his head. “Europe. England. Sometimes New York.”
I took a notepad from my handbag and started fanning my face with it. “When did you come back to Chicago? Do you work for Sur Place out of here?”
His face contorted into a sneer. “I haven’t worked for anyone for a long time. My mother doesn’t like me sponging off her, but she’s paranoid about burglary and she thinks a man around the house, even a washed-up ex-photographer, is better than living alone. Now it’s your turn. And don’t give me any crap about being a freelance writer.”
“Okay. I’m a private investigator. A man claiming to be Hunter Davenport, Junior, asked me to find you.” I showed him my license.
His face began to look like dull putty. “Someone was pulling your leg. I don’t have a son.”
“Fair, very good-looking, most people would be proud to claim him.”
He began to fidget violently with the utensil drawers. “Get the guy to give you a blood sample. We’ll compare DNA. If his matches mine you’re welcome to my whole portfolio. How’d you find me?”
I told him, county birth records followed by tracing Wayland Davenport through old phone books. He’d gone from Cottage Grove Avenue to Loomis, then Montrose, stair-stepping his way up the northwest side until landing at a bungalow in this tiny suburb in 1974. His wife moved into this little apartment four years ago.
“So anyone could find me,” he muttered.
“And is that a problem?”
He gave an unconvincing laugh. “No one wants to find me these days so it’s no problem whatsoever. Now you’ve wasted your time and mine enough. Go hunt up some real mystery. Like who your client is and why he’s stolen my name.”
I stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked back at him. “By the way, who is Helen Alder?”
He bared his teeth, showing a broken chip on the left incisor. “The figment of your client’s imagination.”
I put a business card on the counter top. “Give me a call if you decide to tell me the truth about her.”