Willis LaMont was larger than life working the grill of Bobby’s Big Burgers in his white apron and blue bandana wrapped around a head filled with ideas and regrets. Genevieve, on the other hand, was curvy but petite and everyone always told her she looked the same as she did when she was a teenager. Ageless. Bright and beautiful as the day is long. The day they met was the day that would change Willis forever and restore in him a faith he’d long lost.
Willis knew that his life could change in an instant because it had many times. A case of mistaken identity had landed him in prison for five years and now he was getting his rhythm back, even if it meant heat and smoke and knives almost as sharp as the tempers in the kitchen at Bobby’s Place on Middleton Road. He always wondered, if things could go so wrong against him, couldn’t there be an equal chance that things could change his life in an instant for the positive?
Why not, it’s all just chance, right or wrong place at the right or wrong time, right? He often pondered that while slapping down baloney on the grill, watching it turn from flat to plumped up in seconds.
It was 1985 when he walked into a smoky bar looking for a cold drink and some company. Having just moved into the neighborhood from his old Southside apartment to be closer to his job, Willis wanted to get out and walk the new streets, see what was out there for him on a Saturday night. Willis LaMont cut an imposing figure that would catch anyone’s attention. Sitting at the bar that crowded night, he engaged in laughter and banter with a couple of younger guys who were obviously several drinks ahead of him.
They, looking over at him nonchalantly, would include him every now and again in a joke or a disagreement about who the best-looking woman was in the place, that kind of thing. But soon he could feel the shift, the molecules rearranging around him as the two men began arguing over something related to money and when it erupted into a fist fight, somehow Willis got mixed up in it, trying to pull one guy off the other and then the gunshot.
Just moments before, everything seemed so cool and nice.
“Hey, y’all look like you could be brothers,” the skinnier one of the two said holding up his tall neck beer to Willis, then pointing it to his buddy, standing big and hulking next to him with a mischievous grin on his face.
“Nahhhh. Well, maybe my older brother with less hair,” the bigger man said.
Willis just laughed and shot back, “We’re all brothers, brothers!” and they had a good laugh.
It all happened so fast. Yes, it did. A phrase he would repeat many times later that night. It was like one of those old cartoons where two characters are fighting and all you see is a spiral of swirling energy and dust, no discernable bodies, no faces. Willis soon found himself underneath the skinny stranger who just moments before had been drinking and dancing around and having a good time, his blood now trickling onto Willis’ hands and clothes as he held his head, telling him “You’re gonna be alright, man, just talk to me, look at me.”
The terrified stranger about to meet his maker stared up into Willis’ warm eyes, searching his face, his soul, taking it all in as the last sight, the last face he would ever see. Then, with a kind of calm surrender, he released a final breath.
By then, the place was emptied out and Willis knew the cops were on their way, he could hear sirens in the near distance. He glanced over at the bartender crouching low in the corner on the bar phone and wondered what he should do now. He slowly extracted himself from the weight of this skinny stranger, heavier in death, setting his head gently on the floor and edged slowly towards the door and out into the night. A night that should have been ordinary, unremarkable, but was not.
Small huddles of people were milling about the block in hushed whispers as he walked, shooting covert glances at Willis as he passed. He was, after all, covered in blood and his stature could easily be mistaken for threatening, even though his friends on the Southside would all tell you he was a gentle giant, a sweetheart and a loving friend who’d take the shirt off his back for you.
But no one in the bar or on the street that night knew Willis and when the cops picked him up three blocks away they said witnesses claimed he was the shooter and there he was standing there with blood all over his clothes and everything.
“Two women who were in the bar and a gentleman, they all said you were there right in it, right in the fight. You were the last face they saw before fleeing the scene, the last person seen with the victim. They can identify you in a line-up,” Willis heard loud and clear, through ever-so incredulous ears.
He tried to explain himself right then and there on the street as they were cuffing him and again at the station but he didn’t have much of a defense other than, “I didn’t do it.”
Fast forward through a trial with no real evidence against him but a jury that plainly was, Willis LaMont ended up with a long sentence and little hope. Five years in, the real killer was picked up for assault and battery and somehow confessed to the other crime, too. Willis was on laundry duty, sorting whites from orange, the day the warden called him in to his office and the announcement was made.
“Now, it’s going to take a bit of time Mr. LaMont, but you’ll be free to go soon,” he had said to a Willis LaMont who could barely believe his luck.
A few weeks later, the last face he saw in the joint was the only guard who had ever talked to him like he was a person, John Mason. A man who empathized with his story of mistaken identity as something that just happens to black men in a city. As John Mason handed Willis LaMont a bag of things to take with him out into the world again, he patted him on the back and said, “Good luck to you, Willis, find a new path. God Bless.”
The path wasn’t exactly paved in gold but he was happy to have his job at Bobby’s. But something had to give, I mean, he was not given this second chance to waste it away flippin’ burgers and watching fried baloney change shape. No, there had to be something more than this.
Genevieve walked into Bobby’s Place on a late afternoon well after the lunch rush, with a cute little smile on her glossed lips and a sparkle in her deep brown eyes that would catch anyone’s attention. Willis caught sight of her in an instant as she took her place at the lunch counter front and center, mesmerized he watched her with a curiosity he hadn’t felt in some time.
“What can I get ya, Miss,” Ethel queried for the 308th time that week.
Jaded and worn out, aging Ethel couldn’t muster up much more than that most days but somehow this bright beauty felt like an apparition in an otherwise dismal landscape.
“Well, good afternoon! Thank you for asking,” Genevieve shot back. “A coffee, please, while I look at the menu.”
“You got it, Miss,” Ethel said, smiling back at Genevieve, suddenly energized by this young woman’s shimmering presence.
“I’m on break,” Willis shouted out to the other guys in the kitchen who barely deigned to look up or react.
Untying his apron and hanging it up on a hook, he wandered out to the counter to pour himself a cola and get a closer look at the enchanting young woman. Genevieve looked up from her menu to lay eyes on Willis just as he was turning from the soda tap to face her. Genevieve couldn’t believe her eyes, could it be?
This man standing in front of her looked exactly like the pictures she’d been looking at her whole life, pictures her mother had shown her of the uncle Genevieve had never met, her mother’s brother, a mystery man her mother told stories about as she rubbed her hand softly across the framed pictures on the mantle, petting a memory, a love that was lost but never faded.
The two siblings had lost track of each other when Genevieve’s mother went off to college in New York City, traveled to Paris, met a rich financier there and married. She had become too sophisticated to care about her small potatoes brother and what he was up to. She’d had appearances to keep up, after all. But Genevieve knew her mother missed her brother and that she’d known she had wasted years being high falootin’ and snobbish, discarding him like yesterday’s trash.
Now, years later, divorced and living alone, Genevieve’s mother had more money than she knew what to do with but nothing more to spend it on of any true worth. She’d confessed to Genevieve she’d wished she could see her brother again, make amends, spend precious time with him.
“Lord, just see his beautiful face again.”
“Willie? Er, I mean, Sir, excuse me. Are you by any chance…Willie LaMont?” Genevieve asked with astonishment in her voice and in her eyes.
Willis had barely taken his eyes off her since she got there so when she suddenly spoke right to him, he was quite astonished himself.
“Yes. Yes, I am, Miss. Well, I’m Willis. Willis LaMont. And who might you be?”
How could this beautiful young woman know my name, be paying attention to me, he wondered. Right here in this hole in the wall on the edge of town, miracles must, do happen?
By the time Willis’ break was over, he’d learned all about his long-lost sister Charlotte and her fortunes, his beautiful new niece who just happened to wander into Bobby’s that day because a sudden flat tire on her car was being fixed across the street. Genevieve told Willis about the framed pictures on the mantle. And the longing in her mother’s eyes. Her heart.
Willis LaMont even shared a little of his own story with her empathetic ear. Genevieve, fighting back tears, quickly perked up and told Willis how a meeting of the two could be arranged quickly and easily by her if he was willing.
Willis told her he was not a grudge holder and that he would love the opportunity for rapprochement with his sister Charlotte.
“The last time I saw her face she was just a budding eighteen, the world was her oyster. You look just like her. In a smaller package. Real beauty, that is. Unique, one of a kind beauty,” Willis said as he was getting up off the stool to return to the kitchen to finish his shift.
Scribbling his phone number on a beverage napkin and sliding it across the counter to Genevieve, he winked at his niece.
“If yours was the last face I saw on this Earth, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”
© 2020, Mary Corbin
The Last Face I See is from the “Life Lines” collection. Featured artwork: “Mr. Willis’ Game” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission. This story was first published in Chance Encounters.