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Your mother just informed me of your intention not to return home for the holiday season, and I have to say, I am disappointed in you.
I’m sure you have plenty of reasons that seem good to stay at school over Christmas. You have your friend, you have a life up there, you maybe even have a girl. I don’t know—these aren’t things you’ve shared with us since you’ve been away. I can understand wanting your own place and your own life, and I’m sure the house where you grew up seems boring and quiet compared to all of the excitement of the big city, but it’s where you came from, and that ought to mean something to you, at least at Christmas.
I have a certain amount of sympathy for wanting to find something of your own, especially at your age, but that should never come at the cost of causing pain to others, especially not those who love you. I cannot count the number of times you’ve promised your mother that you would be home for Christmas this year. Needless to say, she misses you terribly, and the news that you are not coming home has hurt her badly.
You’re a grown man now, or close to it, and I’m sure you think you can make your own decisions. Part of being a man, though, is understanding those decisions, and weighing what they cost. There’s more in this world than you and your wants, son. You’d do well to remember that.
We’ll leave a place for you at the table, just in case you change your mind. Your mother would be pleased if you did.
Father hadn’t signed the letter, hadn’t needed to, really. There was no one else it could have come from. I’d read it when it had first arrived, then I’d tucked it away in a place where I couldn’t find it easily when the mood struck me to throw it away.
And now, here I was holding it in my hands, the last thing that was mine in a place I’d lived in for years without leaving any kind of mark. I was leaving, heading back to Carolina with my tail between my legs and the memory of a failed business behind me. It was time to go somewhere else, to regroup and recover.
Even if that meant going back to a place I thought I’d never see again. In Boston, the wounds were too fresh, the failure too new. Distance was needed. It would just be a temporary visit, I told myself. I’d be in and out, recharged and ready to take on the world again, somewhere else.
So my belongings, the few I’d wanted to keep, had gone on a moving truck headed south, and here I was ready to follow. “A retreat,” a former employee of mine had called it, and she’d been right. I was falling back.
The letter was still in my hands. I felt the rasp of the paper under my fingers—old, heavy typing paper that hadn’t aged well. It was dry and brittle, and carried with it an unpleasant weight of memory and expectation. It was the last letter Father had ever sent me, and the notion of bearing it back to its point of origin seemed suddenly, deeply wrong.
I crumpled it up and threw it on the floor. Then I turned out the lights, hung my key on a hook over the kitchen sink, and went out to where my car—and the road back to Carolina—waited for me.
That letter had been written on the occasion of my not coming home for Christmas my junior year of college. It was the first time I’d felt brave enough to stay away, to make sure that miles stayed between me and that house, that land. It wasn’t that I hated my parents. I loved them both, and they’d loved each other, but in a way that had cost them for loving. I’d never really fit in that house, and living there had been like being stretched over a too-tight frame.
Father’d died six years after sending that letter, five years after I’d graduated and announced I’d be staying in Boston for good. It was his heart that had finally given out, but I had to figure the rest of his organs had been just disappointed they’d lost the race. Liver, lungs, kidneys—the doctors told me they were lined up one after another, ready and willing to go.
Mother went ten years after Father’s passing. I think I was partially to blame for that, though no one ever said as much to my face. My visits home grew shorter and shorter, and I made them less and less often. There was a business to run, after all, and quiet evenings in North Carolina farm country didn’t offer much compared to the nightlife on Lansdowne Street. Besides, there was always a sense of expectation when I did make it home, an unspoken question hovering in the air of when I was going to come back for good. Mother never asked, so I didn’t have to answer, but it hung there between us every time.
I nearly missed her funeral because we were closing a deal for distribution with some Japanese firm that week and they wanted me there for the signing. There would be plenty of time to make it back after the meeting, I told myself, and I almost believed it.
In my darker hours, I wonder if Mother deliberately chose that moment to die, to see if just once I’d choose her over whatever it was I’d found up north. As it was, it was a near thing, and I made it home with only hours to spare. I remember driving like a madman from the airport in a rented car that was too big for my needs and too slow for my wants, but which had been the only one left on the lot. I also remember cursing everyone and everything else for my lateness.
They buried her out back, next to Father but with enough space between them that it was clear they didn’t always see eye to eye. Afterward, we gathered at the house, to share memories and reassure one another that we wouldn’t forget her. Friends of the family asked me a dozen times and more if I was all right, if there was anything I needed, if there was anything they could do. I thanked them all, told them gravely that I was fine, and promised them I wouldn’t sell the property. “Family land stays in the family,” I told them, and I’m pretty sure I meant it. And since there was no other family, no aunts or uncles or cousins out there to maybe cast their eyes on the property, that meant it stayed with me.
Before the last of the well-wishers drifted away, I made arrangements with a man named Carl Powell, a friend of Mother’s, to serve as caretaker on the property in my absence. Carl was weathered and lean, and I couldn’t even guess how old he was. He still had all his teeth and most of his hair, and he’d been an occasional visitor at the house for as long as I could remember. I knew that he had been a big help to Mother in her declining years, and I felt good giving him the key and a check to cover the first year’s worth of maintenance.
“Keep your money,” he’d told me at first, when I’d asked him if he was willing.
“Carl, it’s an old house, and it’s going to need some work,” I replied. “And it’s a fifteen-mile drive for you to get here from your place. I can’t not give you money for doing this.”
“Fine,” he said, but there wasn’t a lot of joy in his voice. “I’ll give you an accounting at the end of the year.”
“I trust you,” I said, which was probably the worst thing I could have said. “Let me know if you need any more.”
“I will,” he said in a voice that promised just the opposite, and he stuffed the check into his pocket. Carl left without another word to me, and hardly any to anyone else.
Reverend Trotter, an old family friend, was the last to leave. He’d given a fine and gentle eulogy for Mother, and he’d been sharp enough to make sure I didn’t have to speak more than a few words about her. Like everyone else in that church, he knew that a few words were all I had.
“Jacob,” he told me, and he wrapped his hands around mine, “the times ahead are going to be harder than you think. You’ve lost both parents now, and that’s the sort of thing that hits a good man hard. If there’s anything you need, or if you just have to talk to someone, don’t hesitate to call.”
“Thank you, Reverend.” I squeezed his hands for a moment, then pulled mine away. “I think I’ll be all right, though.”
He gave me a look that said, clear as day, he didn’t believe me. “That’s a big house full of memories you’ll be staying in, Mr. Logan, and those memories just might come knocking harder than you think. I don’t like to think of you out here by your lonesome in the middle of the night, realizing deep down that she’s gone and you’ve got things you never had a chance to say.”
I smiled at him. “Don’t worry, there’s no chance of that. I have to go back to Boston. I’m leaving the day after tomorrow.”
He blinked and took a step back. “So soon? You sure you don’t need more time here, just to pull yourself together?” He leaned in close and added conspiratorially, “Besides, some folks might take that as disrespectful.”
My smile got a little harder. “I know how to show respect for Mother, Reverend. Other folks can say what they like. Carl Powell’s going to be taking care of the house, and I’m better equipped to handle the legal paperwork back home. Staying here wouldn’t do anyone much good.”
“Staying home might do you more good than you think,” he corrected me, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, I’m speaking out of turn. Chalk it up to worry, Jacob. That offer stands, even if you have to call me from the big city in the middle of the night.”
I held the door open for him. “I do appreciate that, Reverend. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. You take care of yourself, Jacob Logan. Come back sometime.” He walked across the porch and down to his car without looking back, without expecting an answer.
“Some time,” I said softly, after he’d gotten in his car and driven off. The sun was going down as he did so, and long shadows marked my way as I walked back down to where they’d buried Mother. As the sky got darker, the fireflies came out to light my way.
I sat down there by the graves and waited, reading the inscriptions on the headstones a dozen times and wondering why I wasn’t feeling more. It wasn’t until full dark came that I finally stood and wiped the stones clean of the fireflies that landed on them in their hundreds, one by one by one.
Only then did I walk away.
The drive took two days. I could have made it in one but didn’t see the need. The truck with the rest of my belongings was following well behind, following the sort of route that let it leave earlier and arrive later than I would, without any way to check on it in between. In practical terms, that meant that there wasn’t any sort of schedule for me to keep, which was the sort of practicality I liked. I hadn’t called ahead to let Carl know I was coming, and I liked it that way. There was a vague notion in my head of drifting back into town and making as light an impression as possible. Maybe I could be gone before anyone noticed I’d come.
Ten o’clock had come and gone by the time I turned off the state route and found my way through the little town called Maryfield. Mother and Father’s house lay on the other side of it, well outside the city limits, and driving straight through was the only way to get there. There were more lights and shops than I remembered, but not many, and I didn’t feel like stopping to further consider the differences. Two days on the road had me bone tired. There’d be time enough to explore later if I felt the need.
A quick left onto Harrison Farm Road led me right back out of town and into the dark. The road had been mostly gravel when I was growing up; now the asphalt extended farther, and the houses and streetlights with it. But soon enough the last of the lights faded behind me. The town had crept closer to the house, but it still had miles to go before it was knocking on the door—my door, really. For that I was thankful, and there was a smile on my face as I drove off into the dark.
The road narrowed to one lane of hard-packed gravel, bounded on each side with a drainage ditch. Strangers had trouble with the road if they drove it after dark; watching neighbors winch station wagons back up onto the road had been a common pastime in my youth. I knew it, though, knew it well enough to take in the landscape as I drove. I could see the outlines of the trees that lined the road and not much else. The only things visible beyond them were the lights from the few houses I passed and the fireflies in the fields.
It was going to be a good summer for them, I could tell. Already the ground was thick with gold-green light, and the air above the fields danced with those cold sparks. It had been a long time since I’d seen fireflies in that kind of abundance—Boston isn’t partial to that sort of thing—and for a moment I was tempted to pull over and catch one in my hands. Then I thought about the two stones standing out past the pine trees and the empty house waiting for me, and all temptation fled.
The driveway came up on me suddenly, and I had to jam on the brakes to avoid overshooting the turn. Only the mailbox on the side of the road had let me know where the driveway was, and even then I’d nearly missed it. A dark house set well back from a dark road on a dark night is easy to miss, I told myself, and then I realized how truly dark it was. Even with the sky mostly clear and a half-moon shining down, the house I called mine was just plain wrapped in shadow. It had the look of a place that had gotten used to being ignored and liked it that way.
And not only the house was dark; so was the land it stood on. From where I stood, I could just see the road and the neighbor’s property beyond it. There, in the distance, I could see little specks of light dancing in the air. A turn to the east, where the old Tolliver farm was, and I could see the same thing. Mr. Tolliver had been a mean son of a bitch and put up wire along the top of the fence at the property line, and near as I could tell, there were even fireflies crawling their way along that. And I was sure without looking that if I turned back west, toward town, I’d see them there, too.
But on my land, nothing. I could hear the frogs out there in the dark, but sound wasn’t the issue. Light was, and I couldn’t see any clear over to the boundary. No fireflies crossed the line that separated my land from anyone else’s.
I stayed out on the porch for an hour, watching, but none of them ever did.
I finally got tired of waiting on the fireflies and decided to do something useful with myself instead. The hour was late enough that I didn’t feel like unpacking everything from the car, but I could certainly manage enough to get me through until daylight. With a bundle of clothes and a toothbrush tucked under my arm, I slid the old brass-colored key into the lock on the porch door. It went in smoothly, with no sound and no resistance. I unlocked it, looked around, and laid my hand on the knob.
Feeling the weight of years, I twisted it and shoved the door open. It swung smooth and silent on the hinges without making so much as a single creak. I think I would have preferred the noise.
Stepping through into the kitchen, I pocketed my keys and dropped my clothes on the kitchen counter. Even without turning on the light, I knew where everything was—counter to the right, kitchen table farther on and to the left, and light switch on the wall by the door.
It felt the same, too. Ten seconds under that roof and it all came flooding back. Just big enough to feel hollow and just small enough to feel cramped; that was my parents’ house. Hot in the summer and cold in the winter, dark in the daytime and noisy at night—the sensations spun me around and tried to carry me away.
I forced the thoughts out of my head and went back out to the car for a small bag of groceries I’d picked up at a convenience store on the way in. It wasn’t much, just enough to get me through a couple of days as I settled in. The fridge was running, much to my relief, so I tossed the entire bag in there—bread, beer, prepackaged cold cuts, and all—with the intention of sorting it out in the morning.
I shut the door and, after a moment’s hesitation, locked it. It felt strange to do so here, where you never locked your door unless circumstances were strange and dire. It would have felt stranger not to, though. It would take more than one night to break a decade and a half of Boston habits. The car was locked up tight, too. There were things in there worth stealing, I was certain, even if there wasn’t anyone around to steal them.
Satisfied and bone tired, I grabbed my clothes and toothbrush again, and let memory guide me to my old room. Tossing the toothbrush on the dresser, I swept the dust off my childhood bed and found a clean blanket to wrap myself in. There’d be time enough in the morning, I figured, to set myself up properly. Weary from the road, I turned out the lights and lay myself down.
And no light came in through the window.
© 2008 Richard Dansky