Humans have always connected deeply to the idea of home. In Bryn Chancellor’s nine stories, home means, in part, the physical spaces: the buildings, cities and towns, the fragile, imperious landscapes of the region. But home is also profoundly rooted in intangibles. Set in urban and rural Arizona, home, for the characters in these stories, is love—familial, romantic, and unrequited. It is loss and grief. It is the memories that surface late at night. It is mystery and longing and a shining flicker of hope.
In the title story, a locksmith prowls empty houses and befriends a young mother as he and his wife grapple with a tragedy perpetrated by their son. During an overseas trip, a daughter grieving for her father struggles with her mother’s altered appearance; an irrigation worker meets a troubled teenage girl in the darkness of her flooded yard; and a daughter and her estranged, ailing mother stay in a dilapidated cabin while a mountain lion stalks the woods. Through chance meetings between strangers, collisions within families, and confrontations with the self, characters leave and return, time and again, trying desperately to find their way home.
About the Author
Bryn Chancellor is an assistant professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her short fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, and elsewhere. She received the Poets and Writers 2014 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award in fiction.
Read an Excerpt
When Are You Coming Home?
By Bryn Chancellor
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
When Are You Coming Home?
Robert Cannon kept busy in his new part-time job as a locksmith. He'd spent thirty years running his own handyman business, everything from window repair to ceiling fan installation, plumbing and electrical to carpentry. He was quick and reliable, and his boss — a man half his age who wouldn't know a pin-tumbler lock if it hit him in the face — called on him often. In this new city, Cannon drove the unfamiliar neighborhoods with a map open on the seat next to him while his wife took swim lessons down at the Y. People were always moving, landlords switching the locks for the next tenant, and the jobs blurred into one another: empty rooms, vinyl blinds with slats missing, the odors of cigarettes and cat urine in the carpet submerged by the fumes of cheap paint. Remove knob, pop out cylinder plug and rearrange pins, pop it back, reattach knob. In and out, easy-peasy, a tidy paycheck to flesh out the savings. That was fine. He didn't need the money so much as he needed to keep busy.
His boss called early that morning. We got a live one for you. Lady's all upset. Right-o, let's get on over there, pronto. At home, Cannon sometimes made a joke of his boss's strange patter: Right-o, buck-o, let's get that dinner out pronto, he'd say to Jenny, and sometimes she'd smile before she caught herself. The job was in an older neighborhood in central Phoenix, not far from where he and Jenny had rented a little condo off Central Avenue, their own house up north in Flagstaff locked up tight, the phone disconnected, the utility bills forwarded, Jenny's piano covered with a sheet. Cannon had taped a small Out of Business sign in the window of his shop.
The job was on a street called Heatherbrae. Cannon said the name aloud, liking the airy sound of it. He pulled up to the curb and left the engine idling with the AC on low as he gathered his paperwork. Though it was only March, the days down here were already well into the eighties, thin blue skies and sunshine that burned his pale skin through the truck windows. He rummaged in the glove box for the tube of sunscreen he'd put in there. His hand fell on a plastic baggie of keys, spares he'd kept from earlier jobs. He held them up to the light for a moment before he tucked them away.
In the Heatherbrae yard, a cardboard sign stuck on two sticks and plugged into the grass read YARD SALE. EVERYTHING MUST GO! Several blankets stretched across the browned-out Bermuda grass. On the blankets were heaps of clothing, mismatched dinner plates, a food processor, an old rotary phone. Dangling from a branch of a small olive tree was a wedding dress. As Cannon got out of his truck, a woman stepped from the doorway and flung an armful of what appeared to be men's flannel shirts onto a blanket. The woman stood next to the blanket with her hands on her hips. She'd been crying, he could tell, her face blotchy red. She was young, maybe late twenties, with brown hair that corked off her head in tight curls. About Felice's age, perhaps a bit older.
She looked at Cannon. "I'm not ready yet. Come back later."
"Ma'am." Cannon held up his hands. He pointed at the magnetic sign on the door of his truck. "I'm here for the locks."
She stared at him a moment and then nodded. "Oh. Right. There's only two doors, front and back. I'll show you." She waved him to follow her. He stepped over the edge of a blanket, over an old manual typewriter and a box of books. He caught a title, Serpent-Handling Believers.
The house was a small postwar brick ranch, with low ceilings, plaster walls, a great room with painted concrete floors, and casement windows with the cranks missing. Inside, a little girl sat on a giant yellow pillow on the floor in front of the television. Cartoon noises echoed in the sparsely furnished room.
"Gigi, turn that down. Good grief." The girl kept staring at the cartoon characters on the screen. The woman picked the remote off the coffee table and turned the volume down. "I don't usually let her watch TV. Look at her. It's like crack." She ruffled the girl's hair and dropped a kiss on her forehead. The girl kept her eyes on the screen. The child was about Cannon's granddaughter's age, six or seven. Cannon had seen his grandchildren only twice in four months, since his daughter-in-law's funeral. His son's burial. The other grandparents had custody, of course, no question there. No question.
The woman said, "I lost my purse. Left it right in the shopping cart." She thumped her forehead with the heel of her hand. "My license has my address on it. It's probably overkill, but better to be safe, right? There's the back door there. Can I get you something to drink?"
Her hair was a bit of a wonder, actually. He had the urge to pull on a curl, to watch it spring back. "No, ma'am. I'm fine. I have water in the truck."
"I'm Kyla," she said. "Holler if you need anything. I'll be in and out."
"Bob," he said, though he'd been Robert his entire life. "Thank you."
He set his toolbox near the back door and pulled a new set of keys from his bag of tricks, as Jenny called it. He pictured her down at the Y, in her swim cap and goggles, which left deep indents around her nose and eyes and hairline. She had never learned to swim and had always been terrified of the water. When they moved down from the cool pines of Flagstaff to the desert of Phoenix, with all its flashing backyard pools, she'd decided to give it a try. What else am I going to do? she said. I mean, really, what? She took private lessons with a young man who competed in triathlons, his arms and seemingly hairless chest lean and roped with muscles. Jenny practiced floating on her back or lying face down in three feet of water. Prostrate, she clawed and clenched at the young man's hands as if she were sliding off a cliff. She'd flail upward, gasping, until her feet touched bottom. At home, in the condo's heated community pool, she'd get a death grip on the tile gutter and practice putting her face in the water, blowing bubbles, her silver hair poking out from the edges of her cap. Every time, she jerked up for air as if someone were trying to hold her down. Cannon could swim fine, and he offered to help her practice, but she didn't want his help. At the pool, he sat on the vinyl patio furniture in the shade with the newspaper unread on his lap. The smell of orange blossoms and cut grass hung like fog in the air. He obsessively rubbed sunscreen along his pale neck and into the deep wrinkles on the tops of his hands.
He had the back door knob off when he noticed the little girl, Gigi, standing next to him. She hopped on one foot and the other. Her hair was cut as short as a boy's, but he could see her mother's curl in it, little swirls along her scalp. The shortness of the bangs suggested she'd gotten hold of the scissors, and the short cut was a fix-up job.
"Can I help?" she said. "Daddy lets me help. I'm a really good helper."
Cannon picked up two screws he'd set aside. "You can hold these for me." She grinned and held out cupped hands. Cannon's hand trembled as he set the screws in her palms. He put the cylinder plug back together, popped it back in its slot, and tested the new key.
"Looks good." He held his hand out. Gigi, the tip of her tongue taut against her upper lip, poured the screws from her hands as if the screws were precious gems.
"You're a good apprentice," he told her.
"I know." She nodded, eyes wide.
"Let's do the other one, then." He picked up his tools and headed to the front door. Gigi trailed behind him, jumping from foot to foot as if doing hopscotch. His grandchildren did that, too. He balled his hands, willing them to be steady.
"Daddy and Judy have a cat. His name is Mr. Cat. Do you have a cat?"
Cannon shook his head. He knelt in front of the door, and just then Kyla came bursting through it. The knob hit him in the throat, taking his wind, and he fell onto his backside.
"Oh, God. Oh!" Kyla bent over him, her hand at her mouth. "Are you all right?"
Gigi ran toward the kitchen. "I'll call the police! 9-1-1! 9-1-1!"
"No, please. I'm fine." He coughed. "I'm fine."
"Gigi, stop. Put the phone away. It's all right."
Kyla held out her hand, but he ignored it. He grunted and struggled upright. As he stood, a wave of dizziness hit him, and he slumped against the wall.
Kyla reached up under him. He gave in and rested some weight on her shoulders. She smelled of sweet shampoo, green apples or some kind of berry. She said, "I'm so sorry. I'm such an idiot." She led him to the sofa and then got him a glass of ice water. He sipped at it, touching his tender throat.
In the corner of the room, Gigi dug around in a set of toy bins.
He said, "It's good she knows to call for help. These days."
Kyla glanced at Gigi. "Her father taught her that." She gave a short laugh and nodded at the room. "I'm getting ready to sell this place. I'm done with memories. Time to move on."
Gigi carried a toy first-aid kit and a doll. She held out the doll to Cannon. "That's Florence. You can hold her if you want."
Cannon took the doll. It had matted red curls and was missing a button eye. Gigi opened her kit and held up a roll of white gauze. She hopped up on the sofa next to him.
Kyla said, "Gigi."
"It's all right," Cannon said. The ice in his glass rattled as he set the glass on a coaster. Gigi started to wind the gauze around his head. She dropped the roll, and it unraveled down his arm and to the floor. Gigi breathed on his neck and kept winding the gauze. Chill-bumps rose on his arms.
Cannon watched the ceiling fan spin. It was a little off balance. He spotted a crack in the plaster near a window. He said, "I do repair work. If you need help with the house. I'm retired technically, but I do it on the side for a little extra." He hadn't meant to say it. He hadn't done anything but locks at all down here, but that didn't mean he couldn't. He pulled an old business card from his wallet, scratched out the number, and put his new cell phone number down. He handed it to her, holding his breath as she looked at it. Would she recognize the name and connect it to headlines? Such news had a way of traveling.
But Kyla smiled and put the card in her shirt pocket. "That's very nice of you. I probably will take you up on that. I promise not to knock you off a ladder or anything."
He smiled back. Gigi bandaged his hands, loose coils between each finger.
"I'll take care of you," the girl said.
* * *
When Cannon got home from work, Jenny was in the pool, which was in the center of the U-shaped condo units. He saw her shiny purple swim cap as he pulled into the covered parking space. She didn't look up as he approached. She held tight to the wall, blowing bubbles and jerking her head up for a breath every three seconds or so.
"Jenny." He leaned down and tapped her head, and she let out a garbled scream, flailing upright.
"Good Christ. You scared me." Her eyes were unreadable behind the tinted goggles. She flexed her hands on the wall. They were white and shriveled at the tips from the water and chlorine. "You're home early."
He said, "It's late. You're pruned up. I think your back's burned. Come inside."
He expected her to argue, their standard exchange lately. Instead she waded to the steps, climbed out, and toweled off. She'd lost weight from her already small frame. The suit gapped at the top and sagged around her legs. She snapped off her cap and goggles. Dark red indents marked her eyes and nose.
"I'll lotion your back," he said.
"I'm fine," she said.
Inside the condo, Jenny set to work making supper, still in her short toweling robe over her damp swimsuit. All the tile made the place sound empty, though it came furnished. Cannon missed the sound of Jenny's piano, her flawless posture, the way her long fingers seemed to float over the keys. Cannon set the table and watched her tense, sloped back as she moved in the short space between stove and sink and refrigerator. After thirty-five years, he knew how she moved. He knew a pressure was building in her. She hated confrontation, avoided it until the emotions she had tamped down erupted, forced out like flames from a ruptured gas pipe. In those hot moments, he'd seen her tip over sofas, break whole sets of wine glasses, and bash in the hood of a car, though she never struck him or their son. She'd gotten better over the years, learning to talk it out, keeping it more of a controlled burn than an explosion. But Robert Jr. never had learned. Cannon had seen it in him as they worked together in those last weeks, saw it in the tight hunch of his son's back as he turned wrenches and hammered nails and changed air filters. There was a flat edge in his son's voice when he called Felice: That's not what I meant. Don't put words in my mouth. Who's going with you? It's just a question. It's just a question. After a call, he sat slumped and pale in the passenger seat of the truck. Tamping it down. No sense in prodding him, Cannon had thought. He'd talk when he was ready. But he didn't.
Cannon looked down at his hands. His son's hands had been exact replicas, down to the long nail beds and thick knuckles.
"Jenny," he said.
"Don't pick at me right now, Robert," she said. "Leave it be, all right?"
"I'm not picking," he said. "I was going to tell you about my day."
"No you weren't."
"So now you can read my mind?"
"Here we go," she said.
He looked at his palms. Working hands. Rough hands.
"He had your temper," he said to his wife.
Jenny didn't answer. She picked up the pot of peas she'd set to boil on the stove and turned them onto the floor. They steamed in a green pile on the ceramic tile, the water spreading into the channels of grout. She stepped over the pile and hurried to the bedroom, her plastic shoes smacking the tile. He got a whiff of chlorine. He could hear the bathwater running. Soon, she would be in the tub, making herself float facedown in the shallow water. Breathing, breathing. It grew dark as Cannon sat at the table. Finally, he got up and headed to his truck.
The moon shone bright through the thin branches of the paloverdes and jacarandas lining the driveway, and he gazed up at it for a long moment. The city's light pollution, though, dulled the stars. Back home, constellations and planets burned diamond-white against a velvet sky. As he backed out of the drive, he pulled the baggie of keys from the glove box and set them on the seat. He hadn't started out keeping them. One afternoon, he'd found an extra set in his shirt pocket from that morning's job, a little brick house for rent on Osborn Road. He'd gone back to hand over the set, but the landlord was long gone. He'd put the key in the lock, an absentminded test, but when the door unlatched, he stepped inside the empty space, shutting the door behind him. He walked through the rooms again, the carpet soft under his boots. He noted a crack in the plaster ceiling. He flipped lights on and off, knocked on walls, straightened a blind in the master bedroom. He turned on the faucet and let it run, hand-tightened the P-trap nut under the kitchen sink. After ten minutes, he locked the door and went back to his truck, back to his regular day. Now, in the evenings when he couldn't sleep, or like tonight, he checked on these places that he knew by street names: Osborn, Montecito, Glenrosa, Indianola. Sometimes he simply drove by, and sometimes he went in, wandering the dark rooms, listening to the creaks in the silence. Nothing nefarious. He had no intentions. He just had an urge to check on things, these homes that did not belong to him.
The rental house on Osborn was still empty. He parked in the driveway and let himself in the front door, calling out a hello just in case. No one answered. The electricity was off, so he walked through the dark hall, running his hand along the drywall. In the back bedroom, he opened the closet where the breaker box was. He stood there, trying to decipher the labels on the panel, wishing he'd brought his flashlight. He rattled a clump of wire hangers.
He never said it aloud. In Flagstaff, where he'd lived for his entire fifty-four years, he'd never had to. Everyone knew. They knew Robert Cannon and his family: wife Jenny, son Robert Jr., daughter-in-law Felice (freckle-faced Felice, whom Cannon nicknamed Dots), two young grandchildren. Cannon had met Jenny at the university back when she had brown straight hair down to her waist and gave piano lessons to help pay for tuition. Jenny taught music at the high school for twenty-eight years. Cannon built her a house, a wood and stone split-level off Lake Mary Road, the same road he'd grown up on, where they hiked, biked, and in winter cross-country skied in the woods behind the property. Cannon was the do-it-all handyman, owner of his own business, Cannon and Son — trustworthy, fast, affordable, like it said on their cards. He'd coached soccer and Little League, and Robert Jr. had too. They went to Lowell Observatory on summer nights, stood in the cold, pine-scented air and gaped through the telescopes at the moon's wavy craters, at comets and planets and other fuzzy celestial objects. They traveled to nearby destinations and once to Europe, for his and Jenny's twenty-fifth anniversary, and they would do more when they retired. That was how he believed he was known, how he wished to be known, how he knew himself. That life was bountiful beyond what he could have ever imagined. But now. Now. Everyone knew a different version. They all knew what he could not say aloud.
Excerpted from When Are You Coming Home? by Bryn Chancellor. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments When Are You Coming Home? Wrestling Night Meet Me Here Water at Midnight Any Sign of Light At the Terminal All This History at Once Fossil Light This Is Not an Exit