Mildred Barron did not like to smile— not often, at least. She liked knit sweaters and wheat biscuits, but she did not like television or Twinkies. She did not like makeup either. In fact, the scarcity of makeup on her face was disquietingly ascetic, to say the least. She had livid cheeks and an exceptionally long nose. Mildred Barron was reserved, yet dignified. One could tell at first sight that Mildred was—or had been—a lady of some importance. Her black hair was compacted into a bun of infinite density, over which was draped a net of yarn that she had sewn up herself. She did not have many wrinkles, mostly due to the strain of her hair pulling her skin back against her forehead. One habit she possessed was a tendency to purse her lips when dissatisfied. She was not a particularly strong woman, yet the muscles that surrounded her mouth had gotten to be remarkably toned. Her dark eyes had the distinct capability of impaling whomever they settled on. Nobody, nobody could meet the formidable glance of Mildred Barron for more than two or three seconds.
If there was one thing that Mildred enjoyed with a passion, it was silence. She did not own a doorbell, or a door knocker for that matter. Her radio was kept off, and her telephone unplugged. Her tables and chairs never creaked; not even her bed groaned when she lay down to rest. It was almost as if her whole house had been intimidated into quiet submission.
And so, when Mildred Barron awoke at seven thirty on a chilly Monday morning, there was nothing about the cloudy sky to suggest that anything out-of-the-ordinary would be happening that day. She sharply yanked off her sheets and stood up, coldly ignoring the frost on her window. Sniffing dryly, Mildred ambled over to her wardrobe and picked out a stark, brown dress to wear that day. It was at this moment that she noticed the first sign of something peculiar—someone whistling outside.
“The nerve!” thought Mildred. It was way too bitter a morning for whistling. Regardless of the weather, the perfect tranquility that had begun her morning had now been shattered. It was probably that insolent child from next door that she despised oh so much. “…snake of a boy…” she muttered to herself through pursed lips. In Mildred’s opinion, young people should always be judged guilty until proven innocent. The whistling was now fading into the distance. Mildred decided to put the incident behind her, thinking that this episode would be long forgotten after her porridge.
The rest of Mildred’s day progressed naturally. Around midday she enjoyed a cup of weak mint tea and some dry toast, and by three o’clock in the afternoon, the intrusion had been completely forgotten.
At three thirty thereabouts, Mildred had been sitting with a book of Emily Dickenson, enjoying the silence—
“I’m wife; I’ve finished that, that other state; I’m Czar, I’m woman now: It’s safer so. How odd the girl’s life looks behind this soft eclipse! I think that earth seems so to those in heaven now.”
She savored the words like caviar. However, as she set the book down on the counter and rose up from her armchair, there it was again! That horrid whistling!
“Enough!” she snapped, “I am going to put an end to this!”
And promptly, she shoved on her coat with a grunt, and swept out through the front door, slamming it behind her. She looked about and quickly determined the source of the atrocious sound—a grown man, not the boy at all! From what she could tell, the man was in his mid-forties, with black hair and a trimmed beard. He was wearing a beige overcoat with a matching hat, and a brown briefcase. His scarf hung limply from his neck all the way down to his shiny black shoes. But it made no difference whom he was. No one had the right to ruin her quiet meditations. She preemptively pursed her lips and strode over.
The man saw her approach and looked up with a smile. He had sparkling blue eyes and a pair of full, yet not overwhelming, eyebrows. His cheeks had a softened glow that made him look as if he’d just spent a few hours by the fireplace. His nose was large and crooked.
“Hello, Miss,” he said, removing his hat, “My name is Mr. Olvida—Henry Olvida. I just moved in last week—the yellow house up the block. Terribly sorry not to have met you sooner, but I’ve had to start up my job right away, you see. And what is your name, if I might ask?”
Mildred was astounded.
“I’m Millie. Millie Barron. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Olvida.”
“Well, Miss Barron, I—”
“Please, call me Millie,” she urged.
“Why yes… Millie…” He smiled graciously. “And you may, of course, call me Henry.”
After sharing a very pleasant conversation about how cold it was, they waved farewell to each other and parted. Mildred strode back to her house, closed the door behind her, poured herself a generous portion of bourbon, and sat contentedly in her armchair.
She sat there beaming for hours, thinking of nothing but her encounter with Henry. Such a nice man… How I do hope to speak with him again soon… Come to think of it now, it would be so nice to have a man in my life after all these years… another—
Her lips tightened instinctively. She couldn’t. It just wasn’t possible.
She moved to the sink and abruptly set her drink down with a clatter. The glass fell on its side, noisily spilling the alcohol down the drain. Mildred hesitated for a moment but continued into her room, neglecting the upset glass. She lay down in bed and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. She then closed her eyes, muttered something to herself and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The bourbon slowly dripped down the drain.
As weeks passed, Mildred and Henry talked more and more often. Winter’s chill subsided and became spring, and it became much more bearable to hold a conversation outside. Henry’s whistling was no longer a disturbance to Mildred, but a refreshing melody that pierced the dull silence. However, the more Henry grew to be a companion, the more Mildred’s fears were amplified. Every night, she would argue herself into a corner, chaining herself to her austere lifestyle. On one hand, she did not want to spend the rest of her days reading Dickenson to an imaginary companion in the quiet darkness; on the other hand, she simply could not enter a personal relationship with Henry! It just wasn’t possible! And yet, she almost seemed to be… It wasn’t just the conversations, but the way they looked at each other—a latent sparkle in the eyes, a sense of inescapable fascination.
Thus, it came as no particular surprise when Henry, one day, asked Mildred to have dinner with him that night. He had simply cleared his throat and asked her, all the while concentrating very intently on his shoes. Mildred hadn’t flinched. In fact, she had shown absolutely no signs of the terror, the indecisiveness, or the burning conflict that was plaguing her soul. Instead, she had swallowed her sadness, and agreed.
Mildred closed the front door with a hollow thud that made her heart jump. She put her back to the door, shut her eyes and took a few shallow breaths before continuing to her room. Opening her wardrobe, she was struck with a disturbing thought: how dark and depressing all her clothes were! Blacks, browns and grays filled the shelves from top to bottom… Is this really how she had clothed herself for the past several years—shrouded in darkness? This realization was not only disillusioning, but infuriating. She envisioned herself—a figure in black—sitting in the darkness, silently reading poetry, occasionally leaning out the window to yell at a passing child. She had been lulled into a life of dull austerity! Promising to buy herself a bright green dress the next day, she hastily grabbed a dress and stepped into it. There was no longer any doubt in her mind: Henry was her panacea.
The frigid evening bit at Mildred’s forearms as she stepped onto the moonlit patio. Deciding not to walk through the biting cold, she stepped into her car. For a trip down the block, the car ride seemed to take a very long time. If Mildred despised her gloomy life, then why did she have such a sense of foreboding in her heart? She knew that Henry was the answer to her problem, but then why was she uncomfortable in his presence?
At long last, she arrived at the small yellow house. Her uncertainty was bothering her like an itch between the shoulder blades. She put the car into park, feeling much like the young swimmer who scoffs at the high dive but cannot surmount it when the moment presents itself.
Inside the house, Henry had just finished setting out the candlesticks when he noticed the sound of a raspy engine outside. He straightened his tie and began to walk towards Mildred’s opening car window.
“Shall we?” he offered.
“I—can’t.” The words escaped her grudgingly. “I’m sorry Henry, but I—I just can’t.” And with that, she lurched away from the smiling face of her savior, desperately urging the car forward into the silent darkness. Her mind was blank. She drove on, aimlessly turning from street to street, until she found herself in front of a large, iron gate—she was at the cemetery. She passed through the gate, not realizing that Henry was following her.
Mildred stepped out of the car onto a patch of dry grass and headed for an aging gravestone in the distance. Perhaps it was because of the cold, or perhaps it was simply involuntary, but at that moment her hands met and began washing away an invisible grime. She let out a quavering sigh and placed her hands in her pockets. Her mind drifted back to Dickenson:
“I’m woman now: It’s safer so…”
She arrived at the stone and stood there, transfixed.
Just then, Mildred heard a car pull up next to hers in the parking lot behind her. Involuntarily, her legs began to carry her forward, away from the cars.
“Millie!” yelled Henry from behind. “Millie, what—”
But his eyes had fallen on something peculiar. At first, he thought he was mistaken, but he was not. He glanced at the retreating Mildred, and again at the stark gravestone. He cleared his throat, then swallowed and turned back toward his car. The name of Mildred’s late husband had been carved onto the walls of Henry’s mind, as it had been etched into the stone itself.