The front door was still cardinal red. Samantha answered it on the second ring. Her nose was bigger than he expected. Send me a picture, he had texted, so I recognize you. Which was obviously unnecessary, because who else would be living in their house, but he didn’t want to be surprised when he saw her. He wanted to feel like he was coming home.
“Is that all you brought from San Francisco?” She backed away from the door so he could drag in his suitcase.
Four years ago, before the divorce, when she was 9 and he was 11, they used to walk home from school together. She would tell him about the girl drama in her grade — who was fighting with whom, who had a crush on one of the boys. Sometimes he gave her advice, platitudes about sticking up for her friends, but most of the time they just laughed together and made fun of the Olivias. The two girls behind most of the trouble in Samantha’s class were both named Olivia. Once he got settled, he would ask if they were still causing problems.
He dragged in his suitcase and pushed the door shut. “I figured mom would have repainted the door.” He remembered staining it the summer before fourth grade, the summer his fractured tibia kept him off the pitcher’s mound for eight weeks. His father had let him choose the color despite his mother’s scowl, and he picked it out of loyalty to the St. Louis baseball team. Forever after, she threatened to have it repainted whenever either one of them annoyed her.
Samantha sat down on an armchair that he didn’t recognize, holding a textbook in her lap. “She never mentioned it again once you were gone.”
He left his suitcase and reacquainted himself with the house. The living room hadn’t changed much: same olive green sofa, same brown leather love seat that he’d gotten in so much trouble for writing on with his mother’s lipstick when he was 3 years old. Same glass coffee table, though it looked cold without his father’s fantasy baseball magazines all over it. The sameness of it all made him shiver. Pretty much the only thing different was the armchair with Samantha in it, over near the window beside the fireplace. And the biggest disappointment: the same old tube TV in the armoire. He’d gotten used to the huge flat screen that he and his father used to play Madden and Call of Duty.
He walked past her and said over his shoulder, “Just so you know, you’re still not allowed in my room.”
She shrugged. “I never go in there. It’s pretty much the store room. Mom never throws anything away.”
“I was told I’d have to cope with what’s there. It’s part of the ‘arrangement’.”
The arrangement had been worked out by Uncle Charlie, who had provided him a sofa bed for the last few weeks since his father’s heart attack. He could have tolerated the back pain, but he hated Dallas, hated the 20 consecutive September days of hundred degree heat, hated being served waffles in the shape of Texas, hated saying yes ma’am and no ma’am, hated the kids with their pickup trucks and cowboy boots, hated the way his Aunt Alice looked at him like a wild turkey protected by the endangered species ordinance.
Samantha looked up from her textbook. “Have you taken algebra?”
“Three years ago.”
“Really? Were you in advanced math or something?”
“Sort of. I was supposed to be in pre-Calc this year, but now I don’t know. I think they’re going to make me take some test.” On the foyer wall, where the photograph of the San Francisco cable cars used to be, there was now a poster of some impressionist landscape.
“Cool. You’re going to be able to help me with my homework.”
“Sure. Remember how I used to help you memorize your multiplication tables?”
Her eyes went big. “Six and eight went out to skate, when they came back they were forty-eight!”
It was strange to think he and this girl were the same people who used to take baths together, who walked around the house stuffed in the same oversized t-shirt, who once kept a balloon in the air by heading it back and forth 127 times.
“You think it’s okay if I have something to eat?”
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I don’t know. I’m still not sure how welcome I am here.” It helped just to say it out loud, if only to his sister.
“Brian, she’s excited to have you back.”
He squinted, looked at her out of one eye.
“Really, she is.”
He knew better. His mom had texted that morning to say she’d be working the afternoon shift and couldn’t pick him up from the airport. Her friend Denise needed the day off and she owed Denise a favor. You’d think she could have said my son, who I haven’t seen in four years, is coming home today, but whatever. He could explore the house without her watching.
A mishmash of magnet-hung paperwork clung to the refrigerator: lists of emergency numbers, programs from school plays and musical performances, photos of Samantha in her soccer uniform dating all the way back to kindergarten. Nothing of him. He hadn’t brought his baseball photos with him to San Francisco, so his mother must have taken them down at some point, put them away somewhere. Maybe they could find them, make room for them in the collage on the fridge. Assuming she hadn’t thrown them in the trash.
There wasn’t much food to choose from. No string cheese, no salami, no raspberry jam, no Kraft singles, no leftover pizza, no seven layer dip. Tons of peach vanilla yogurt. He’d forgotten all about that. He peeled off the lid, stuck his nose inside. Now it came back to him, the yogurt’s sweet smell reminding him of afternoons at the piano, his mother beside him, demonstrating how to shape his fingers as she held the spoon in her mouth. When he’d finally gotten the Mozart concerto right, she’d hugged him so tight she jabbed the spoon into his ear. He hadn’t thought about that in years.
He shut the refrigerator and went to look. Of course the baby grand was still there. They could never get it out of the room. In fact, it occurred to him now, they must have had to take it apart and rebuild it in order to get it into this room in the first place. Why had he never wondered about that before? Or maybe he had. Maybe it was one of those thoughts from his previous life, seemingly lost forever, that would now turn up every once in a while like the keys to his piggy bank or his Stan Musial baseball card.
Could he still play? He sat on the bench, placed his fingers on the keys. He imagined, if he could empty his mind of all the thoughts that had passed through it in the last four years, the notes would come back to him and his hands would know what to do. He had a momentary flash of hope: if he could sit down and play for her, wouldn’t that be a kind of peace offering? But he was so out of practice. And if he tried and failed, it would only make things worse.
He went back to the front door to collect his suitcase. Samantha hadn’t moved. She looked up when she heard the roller wheels scratching along the floor.
“Brian, can I ask you something?”
She hugged the textbook across her chest. “What did they say about Dad at the funeral?”
“I don’t know. The usual, I guess.”
“Have you been to one before?”
“Then how do you know what’s usual?”
He shook his head, started dragging the suitcase again. “I’ve seen them in movies, idiot. Everyone has.” The truth is he had little idea what the minister said. He was lost in his own thoughts, picturing his father in the casket, or envisioning him hovering above it, cross-legged like some kind of genie. He imagined his father granting him three wishes, but when Brian’s first wish was that he come back to life, he said he was sorry but he couldn’t grant that wish. Brian’s second wish was that he could stay in their house in the city, but his genie-father looked somber and said he couldn’t grant that one, either. At which point Brian decided there was nothing else worth wishing for.
Just before he disappeared into his bedroom, Samantha said, “I would have gone if Mom had let me.”
“You asked her?”
“She said we had a funeral for them four years ago. We don’t need another one. And it’s true. When the two of you moved away, we had a big bonfire. When it was burning, she looked at me very serious and said they are dead to us now. We will never speak of them again.”
“That’s sick. You know that, right?”
“Well, you’re here now. So I guess that proves she didn’t really mean it.”
He knows she meant it. She read the letter he wrote to the judge asking to be put in his father’s custody. From that day until the trial ended, she wouldn’t look him in the eye. And in the four years since, she’d never called. Never even sent a text.
In his room, the bed was pushed against a wall and covered with pastel cushions bordered by fringe. He sat on it, fingered the chenille throw. She hadn’t bothered to move much of her stuff out. A mélange of ceramics topped the dresser and the nightstand. Must be a new passion. His mother was always picking up and abandoning hobbies. The closet would have been plenty big enough for all Brian’s things if it weren’t also a graveyard for coffins full of photography, of stamp books, of terracotta figurines.
Buried in his suitcase, packed carefully within the cushion of his sweatshirts, Brian unpacked his own plastic bag of treasures. His mother had cleared space for him on the bottom row of a bookshelf. He lined up the three trophies he’d brought with him: the MVP award for freshman baseball and the two first place finishes for his team. All the rest — the participation trophies, the swimming ribbons, the middle school track and field medals — he’d left in a box in Uncle Charlie’s basement. He’d probably never see them again. He felt as if his life were drawn on strips of construction paper, and every few years someone took a scissors and snipped away the past.
His clothes didn’t fit into the two dresser drawers his mother had emptied for him. He simply had too many sweatshirts. There was no place to hang them either, with nearly all of the closet space filled by his mother’s once-worn gowns and out-of-season coats. He managed to find a couple of empty wire hangers, double up his sweatshirts, and jam them in there.
That left only one item. The 8”x10” photo of him and his father, taken at the World Series two years earlier. His father had surprised him with tickets for his birthday. The Cardinals were playing in it, and even though the two of them had moved half a country away, they both remained loyal to their team. If he moved the trophies close enough that they touched, if he staggered them, there was room for the photo beside them. It wasn’t visible from the bed — the dresser blocked the view, but he’d see it every time he came into or out of the room.
Samantha was standing in the doorway. She moved the flap of his suitcase open and closed. “I can’t believe you fit all your stuff in here. I told Mom she had to make more room for you.”
“It’s a little tight, but Uncle Charlie warned me not to bring too much.”
“Who’s Uncle Charlie?”
“Dad’s brother. You don’t remember him?”
She shook her head.
“He lived in Brazil when we were younger. But I’ve gotten to know him pretty well since he came back. I stayed with him when Dad died.”
“Oh. I don’t guess you’ll be seeing him anymore now, will you?”
He hadn’t really thought about it. Everyone on Dad’s side of the family, everyone he’d grown close to, his Aunt Rachel and Uncle Allen and his cousins Matt and Anthony, his great-Aunt Millie, his superhot second cousin Shelby, all those people would be yanked out of his life like garden weeds. That was part of the bargain. His mother did not believe in divided loyalties.
A sound rumbled in the background. Like a ghost, the memory appeared. The garage door, rolling up.
“That’ll be Mom,” Samantha said. “You ready?”
“Give me a minute. Tell her I’ll be right out.”
When he made it into the kitchen, his mother was holding a glass of ice water and saying something to Samantha, but they both froze as they saw him. His mother was taller than he remembered her, which made no sense, since he’d grown eight inches since then. For a long time, the three of them stood mute. Brian groped for something to begin with, other than “Hi, Mom,” which felt altogether insufficient. Nothing satisfactory came to mind.
Samantha looked back and forth between them as if watching a silent tennis match. Finally, she said, “Brian unpacked all his stuff already.”
“That’s fine.” His mother drank the last of her water, let an ice cube slide into her mouth, and swished it around. Her eyes fixed on Brian. Her teeth parted slightly, and when the ice dropped with a click to the bottom of her glass, it sounded to Brian like a door slamming.
Standing in this kitchen, under his mother’s harsh glare, his sister watching feebly from the side, he felt transported into the past. As if the last four years had been wiped away like an aborted TV plotline. But he knew it was not his past he was looking at. It was his future. His father was gone, San Francisco was gone, everything that had been his life since he last stood here was gone. And if he was going to survive, he had to do what needed to be done.
He gripped the back of a kitchen chair for support. The wood dug into his palms. He forced himself to look directly at his mother and said, “I’m sorry.”
His mother leaned her bony shoulder against the refrigerator, bumping one of the magnets. A picture of Samantha came loose and fluttered to the floor. “We’ll see,” his mother said.
When he returned to his room, he stood in front of the bookshelf for a long time. It doesn’t work, he told himself. The three trophies were too scrunched up. They’d look better spread out. Much more impressive that way. He picked up the picture of him and his father at the World Series, and with his other hand spaced out the trophies to fill the shelf.
He opened the bottom drawer of the dresser and placed the photograph upside down beneath a stack of sweatshirts.
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