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Back Where He Started
By Jay Quinn
Alyson BooksISBN: 1-55583-859-6
Chapter OneIt was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and, with the kids gone, I could concentrate on my packing. There was very little left for me to pack-just kitchen stuff, for the most part. Everything the kids hadn't wanted to keep for themselves, we gave to Goodwill. Zack had already taken what he wanted. Though the breadwinner got first pick, he hadn't taken much. I supposed, at 56, Zack could be forgiven for not knowing that the 30-year-old woman he'd married would want her own things. Standing in the near-empty kitchen, I remembered my own need to start new once. Here I am again, I thought. Back where I started.
I couldn't really blame Alicia. Certainly she'd want the first child of Zack's new life (I'd say latest if I were unkind) to be surrounded by fresh memories-not cluttered with the slightly smudged and frayed things that carried someone else's history. And what a history it was: incontinent pets, impromptu indoor field goals, cherished planned purchases, and nonchalant hand-me-downs. Many items bore the scars of sudden teenage rages-poorly patched and mended porcelain, chipped plates, and dramatically dinged furniture.
I didn't blame her a bit. Then again, I felt a small rush of amusement wondering how long Zack would have to postpone retirement in order to buy new things for an obviously ambitious and selfish new wife. Discarded for Alicia, I had certainly enjoyed buying new things for myself to start again. I'd put most of them on Zack's credit cards before he asked me-quite nicely, really-to stop.
I rinsed out the coffee pot and loaded the maker with fresh water and freshly ground beans, just like I'd done more times than I could count, standing in just this spot. Night fell with the full weight of late November's fatigue as I waited for Zack. It wasn't yet registering that this was probably the real last time, after so many dry runs over the past year.
I put another log in the fireplace in the kitchen, got a dog cookie for Beau, and watched him turn stiffly and settle on the bare floor by the fire. With a nod from me, Trey's wife Susan had put the old dog's long-loved, smelly, old rug out by the curb with the pile of other unwanted things that were too worn, dirty, or useless either to be kept or given away. I didn't even have a threadbare towel left in the house for poor ol' Beau to lie on. It didn't really matter. From tomorrow on, Beau and I would be living down at the beach in my new, neat cottage. With two bedrooms, two and a half baths, a loft, a deck, and a sun porch-even an energy-efficient gas log fireplace in the "great-room"-Beau and I would be living well, if alone. I considered the cottage my partial-ocean-view consolation prize. Still, after 22 years and three inherited children grown and happy, it was hard not to feel like Beau and I had been asked to leave the show just before the last commercial break, with nothing but Rice-A-Roni-"the San Francisco treat"-to thank us for our time.
I found my cigarettes on the counter along with the new red plastic lighter I'd bought on the way back from the beach. I thumped one from the pack and lit it with all the panache of a smoking veteran. Immediately I remembered how much I'd missed the habit. It had been seven years since my last cigarette, but I figured I deserved the little pleasures in life. Bitterness could kill you quicker than anything else, and I had decided not to be bitter.
I heard Zack's car in the drive, the purring motor clicked off with German efficiency, and the door closed with a satisfied, solid thump. Beau lifted his head, thumped his tail, and looked eagerly to the door through rheumy old eyes. I wished I could say my heart didn't leap anymore at the familiar sounds of Zack's homecoming, but I was bad as Beau. It was hard not to feel like he'd put us both out to fend for ourselves or find a new master. While I considered that, Zack came in large and filled the room, crowding out my thoughts along with the last echo of the sheer happiness I'd always felt at his homecomings.
"Hey-o, Beau! Who's a good boy?"
Beau struggled to stand, but his bad hip wouldn't let him. He rose on his front legs and whined. Zack took off his coat, laid it on a chair, and knelt to shake the old dog's ears and receive his wet tongue on his cheeks. Zack looked up at me and smiled.
"Would you like some coffee? There's fresh ..." I offered.
I saw the quick struggle in Zack's eyes. There was somewhere else he wanted and needed to be, but I knew he wanted to end this well. He'd never really been mean. There wasn't any meanness in him. He had just heard his life rushing ahead to its conclusion without him and grabbed onto something that made him feel young and manly and strong. "I can't stay long," he warned.
"No probs," I offered in return. "I'll get it. There's only Styrofoam cups left, I hope that's okay."
Zack stood and nodded. I felt him watching me, but as I poured the coffee, creamed it, sugared it, and stirred it just the way he liked, he said nothing. Taking the cup, he looked at the fire and said, "Is this wise?"
I sat at the table under his gaze and picked up my cigarette from the ashtray. "I still have a little packing to do, not much. Just my pots and pans. Susan and Trey wanted the everyday dishes and glasses. They're coming back in the morning with a friend's truck to get the kitchen table and chairs. You know our Susan: It was a last-minute decision."
Zack laughed and shook his head. His daughter-in-law's sentimentality was always a cipher to him.
"Andrea and David took the china and the old KitchenAid mixer," I reported. "Schooner wanted the blender and most of the other stuff. Anyway, I'll make sure the fire's out before I leave."
"You should spend the night. It's too far for you to drive after dark."
"Can't. There's not a blanket, pillow, mattress, or sheet left in the house after three trips to Goodwill in Schooner's truck. The kids took what they needed and we've put the rest out for a trash pickup."
"Did you remember to call to schedule it?"
I just smiled and nodded. Even with everything nearly said and done, Zack still got a smile off me. I'd lived with the man most of my adult life and he still thought I was the dumb, gullible 26-year-old I was when I met him. I dropped my spent cigarette into an empty beer can the kids had left from supper.
"When did you start smoking again?" he asked.
"Last week ... Sunday, actually. I stopped on the way home from Mass and got a carton at the grocery store."
Zack shook his head. "A carton. When you make up your mind, you never gone at anything half-assed." He chuckled and looked around. "The kids were like locusts. I thought there'd be more left, even after they took the big pieces to Goodwill."
"There were plenty of small things," I said. "I only took the Karr paintings." Zack and I had accumulated several oil paintings and oil pastels by a particular artist down at the beach over the years. Most of them were small, but there was a fairly good-size portrait of the kids on the beach we had Karr do one year. Trey was 16, Andrea 13, and Schooner was 12 when some weekend guest took the picture we had Karr paint it from.
Funny, I couldn't even remember who took it. I only recall I was bound and determined to have a painting done from it. Those were the years when I read Veranda and Southern Accents, which were littered with pages of ads for artists who specialized in portraiture for the young scions of proper Southern homes. As improper as our family was, I was absolutely committed to providing the kids with all the traditions and accoutrements that their daddy's money and my aspirations could give them.
"Chris, you shouldn't have let the kids have everything. You can't eat off those paintings."
"It's okay," I said. "I've had a good time picking up some great stuff cheap on eBay and at Target. I have everything I need, and Wade Lee has been keeping an eye out for a few pieces of furniture for me in some places up in Norfolk."
"What did you get on eBay? I hope to hell you haven't run through your settlement. I tried to give you enough for some security. I didn't mean for you to go hog wild spending money you don't have on interior decorating. If Wade Lee is looking for stuff in Norfolk, I can image he's looking for antiques, knowing him."
Zack looked tired, a little out of patience, and a little overwhelmed. He'd gone out of his way to make sure I got what he felt I deserved. God knows, he didn't have to give me anything at all.
"Don't worry. I haven't gone crazy. I just want to start fresh and new. Not to be bitchy at this point, but you understand that, I'm sure."
Zack nodded, then said, "I just want you to understand, once this goddamn barn of a house closes, I'm going to pay off the beach place and I'm putting the rest of your share in the annuity I set up for you. That's it, Chris, there won't be any more from me. Have you found a job yet?"
I looked in the fire, then very carefully got another cigarette out of my pack and lit it. Stalling until my fit of temper passed, I wanted to scream, No, I haven't gotten a job! A 48-year-old faggot who's spent the best part of his life raising another man's young 'uns and washing another man's clothes and dishes and sheets and towels and running to the dry cleaners and cleaning up dog shit and waiting on the furnace repair man doesn't have a job skill in hell that anybody'd pay anything for!
Beau raised his head and looked at me from the hearth as if he could hear the shouting in my mind. He shuddered like he expected a scolding of his own.
"I'm very much aware of our arrangement and my own responsibilities, Zack." I said as my temper cooled. "I don't think there's any more of that we need to discuss."
Zack sighed. Either he was too tired to fight or he was impressed with my equanimity. "Well, I'm going to take a last look around. Do you want to go with me?"
I couldn't look at him just then, so I just shook my head. I knew in a minute I'd be okay. I'd made it so far without being a bitch. I could make it through 20 more minutes.
Zack scraped his chair on the hardwood floor as he pushed back from the table. God, I thought, after all these years, you'd think there'd be grooves in the old oak boards underneath his chair. That was a sound I would never have to hear again, and I was glad. I was fucking delighted.
After Zack left the kitchen, I poured out his coffee and reheated mine. If I was focused, I could pack up all the past Christmas-gifted All-Clad, piss out the fire, load Beau into my Expedition, and haul ass. My leaving this house was long overdue. If Zack needed a long last look to torment himself, that was okay by me. But I had spent days, weeks, months saying goodbye to the life this old house had sheltered. I was beginning to feel if I didn't get out soon, I would somehow fade into the walls to become a creaky but unmenacing ghost that the new owners would have to contend with.
The floorboards upstairs betrayed Zack's presence in each of the rooms. I heard the upstairs commode flush while I shoved lids and cooking utensils into a box. I'd have to go back upstairs myself to take the lid off the toilet tank, and pull up and reset that fucking flapper thing so the water wouldn't run for days. I got so caught up fussing over my old resentments and freshly scabbed hurts that I didn't notice Zack in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen.
"I guess that's it," he said, startling me. I turned to see him looking at me with what I didn't want to believe was remorse in his eyes. I still loved him enough not to feel good about that.
"You'll have the attorney FedEx the papers for me to sign for the closing, right?" I asked.
Zack nodded and looked around the kitchen. I thought, Please God, don't let him say anything sentimental. I'll not be able to hold on to myself anymore if he does.
"Aren't you taking the Christmas ornaments?" he asked.
For a moment, I was confused. The Christmas ornaments? I was sure I'd heard the kids arguing about them earlier that afternoon. "Oh, Christ, don't tell me ..."
"They're in the attic, still," Zack said.
He looked like he was going to lose it himself, and I couldn't stand that. Not now. That bridge was cinders and smoke. "Are there any of them you'd like?" I asked.
Zack left the doorway and walked to his chair, carefully stepping over Beau. "Do whatever you want to with them," he said as he pulled on his coat.
"Zack, I thought I heard the kids arguing over them. I had no idea they were still up there."
"Well, I suppose the kids will want them, they were our family's."
I nodded. It was up to me to settle it. But then, it always had been me to settle such things. "I'll take care of it, Zack, I promise."
Zack rattled his keys in his pocket, then pulled them out and laid them on the kitchen table before stooping to rub Beau's ears. "Bye-bye ol' boy. Bye ol' boy dog." Beau tried to stand. Zack reached across the table for my hand, took it, and squeezed it. "Bye-bye, ol' domestic partner," he said without looking at me.
I moved toward him, and as I did, he let go of my hand and picked up his keys. Without another word Zack made it to and through the kitchen door. Beau finally managed to stand and he tried to follow Zack. But when he got to the doorway I caught his collar and held him half in and half out of the cold, watching Zack as he left for the last time.
Beau and I stood in the chilly air long after the BMW's taillights had disappeared. Beau finally looked up at me reproachfully. "In or out," his eyes said. "Pick one." I let go of his collar and he returned to his bare spot by the fireplace and settled down heavily. At a sudden loss, I closed the door against the cold behind me and followed Beau back into the warmth of the kitchen. I had lost my momentum for leaving. I dumped the dregs of my last cup of coffee, now suddenly grown cold, into the sink and made myself another fresh cup. I wanted nothing more than to sit awhile longer in what had been the center of my home and my family. After being so adamant about not accompanying Zack on his sentimental journey through the house, now I didn't want to leave my kitchen. What lay down the road was only a sketch of a life, an idea. Even bare, the kitchen held the complete work of what I considered the best years of my life.
I sat at the table facing the fire and reached again for my ashtray and cigarettes. Over the past 22 years, I'd probably logged more time in that seat than in any other spot in my life. I'd listened Zack's dreams there. I'd nursed the kid's hurts there, as well as my own. Now, Zack's dreams had pulled him away and the kids were gone. Only my hurts remained. I decided to tend them there for just a little while longer, just a few more minutes, before it was time to get up, face the music, and move on.
Given the choice, I doubted I'd ever have moved on. My life with Zack and the kids was far more secure and comfortable than anything I'd ever believed I'd get or deserved.
Excerpted from Back Where He Started by Jay Quinn Excerpted by permission.
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