He had vowed never to return to the house, and in fact, it appeared he had not. Looking right, left and behind his shoulder, Thomas assessed the circumference of the front yard and proliferation of colorful growth in it, then squinted hard at steps and door. This was not the yard he recalled, not the entry into a house he knew.
There were not six wonky brick steps, nor uninspired wooden door with peeling grey paint. These blue steps led to a porch that extended across the width of the charcoal grey bungalow. A proper one, somewhere you’d enjoy wasting time. He observed two white rocking chairs with fat floral cushions to entice a passerby. Well, he had come by and here he was staring at the lighter blue front door like he might see through it if he gazed hard enough. He wanted to discern whether he’d made a grave error. But no, the number–76–under one of two tasteful brushed metal porch lights confirmed his destination. No way could it be his childhood home.
But it was. He could hear her voice–high pitched, on the strident side–and rapid footsteps. He used to take one step to her three. And she never quite caught up. Now they were whole lives apart, not footsteps. And if this foreign-seeming house was any indication, he had little idea what he was getting into once he crossed into her domain.
He pressed the doorbell and there were those reverberating chimes. They hadn’t changed. He shivered in the July heat, but his neck was sweaty.
“Coming, coming!” Thudding feet.
Of course, the house had been more or less Keri’s for a year. Ever since their mother had gone into the nursing home and Keri took over her finances and property matters. And that meant the house was also Milo’s, that husband he didn’t like despite having “met” him only once via video chat with Mom and her. Didn’t they have a kid years back, his mother had said? Brent, Brandon? He knew zero about his half-sister’s life except that she had managed to inherit the house, and early–he hadn’t wanted it, he was set on the West coast. Thomas retained only watery memories of being there after 14, when Jim, her father– by default also his due to marrying his mother (who soon had Keri)–had passed.
It rained and stormed for two weeks after Jim was gone; the neighborhood creek swelled and overflowed. But Thomas didn’t cry. He hadn’t actively missed the man, just felt his absence like a deep cool spot in and near the cracked leather easy chair. But he did miss his mother, who disappeared into her room after long hours of work directing things at the shelter, even taking meals there.
Thomas stepped back and turned away, his long, sandaled right foot on the second step down. Toward freedom, away from the past.
“Tommy. I can’t believe you came. After eighteen years. About time.”
Her voice whizzed over his head. The nickname. He cringed. Took the next step down. She was going to start out complaining, as usual? But he had made it this far so turned and faced the whole situation.
Keri was tall like he was, like their mother (Jim was three inches shorter) had once been, and black palazzo pants made her legs seem unnaturally long, with matching black painted toenails pointed right at him, bare feet like when she was a kid. He raised his head, took in a sleeveless top of tiny red and white threads woven through more black. Her arms also seemed too thin and long–wasn’t she supposed to be heavier and look older?–and finally met her face. Bronzed sharp cheekbones, eyes shimmery at the edges. Thin lips stretched into a smile, revealing two crooked top teeth. No dental work and caps yet.
Her sharp brown eyes took in his length and emotional temperature. She looked like an exotic snake in good clothes. When she moved her bony hands, silver and gold bracelets jangled. He suspected those were Mom’s; she used to wear the same type, he suddenly recalled.Something inside him sank.
“Keri,” he said, forcing a half-smile. “It was a quick trip from the hotel, so I’m here.”
“Don’t just stand there, come in, Tommy. Please. You look decent, I have to say, but quite hot. We put A/C in awhile back, come on, cool off.”
Keri held open the door and he dodged past her. Talk, talk, talk that was Keri despite their rarely communicating all the years gone. As he entered the foyer it fairly gleamed. Polished wood floors reflected light that floated into the living room to the left, down the hallway on the right toward the kitchen and right up the stairwell on far right. The walls were no longer wallpapered, but beige or grey. He froze, tried to meld the old house with all that was before him, and the pieces didn’t wedge together. It was like a stage set or a rented retreat.
“Lots of changes, I know. Here, come through to the dining room and kitchen–that massive wall was taken down–and have a good drink. There’s time to talk, right?”
Why was she being courteous, not sharp-edged? Mean, really, was the word for her back then. Why did she ask for him to come insistently the last time and then demand it after he visited his mother this week? Their mother, right; not just his. And Keri had looked after her the past many years, hadn’t she?
“Still like iced tea with a lemon slice, or something else? I’m out of booze.”
Thomas thanked her and sat. He could glimpse the back yard through the windows and averted his eyes. His one place of happiness, he realized, was right there all those years as his mother mourned, then let her anger seep out as she dealt with Jim’s gambling debts that left them living hand to mouth. Keri knew that was true, but she’d always left the room if the topic came up, hand slicing the air, a refusal to accept.He didn’t care to gamble; he saw it wreck so much. He wondered if she did. Likely not; the house looked too stylish, clean.
The dining table was made of heavy glass and rich wood. He flattened warm hands on the surface as she got the tea; his palms left damp outlines so he put them in his lap. He felt like a schoolboy, clumsy even as he waited, impatient for it all to be over.
The smells were different in recirculated, chilled air. Well, of course they would be. His mother had left the house years ago. She had taken her cheap but good violet perfume scent, and her baking scents and daily fresh orange juice scent and her used books and garden flower scent. Now there lingered random smells: fresh paint, scented candles, furniture polish and stark white lilies–a fragrance of funerals–that stood tall in a clear blue vase before him.
Keri returned with two water-beaded glasses clinking with ice cubes. They were round and small, like tiny golf balls. They had once enjoyed put-put golf, down the street, he mused and shook his head clear.
“I thought I’d never get you to stop by. All the years you might have…when Mom was feeling better, or to help when she was moved one place to another.”
“Well, I’m in California and you all are here in Massachusetts. Now I’m here, Keri. And why? Mom still has time to live, if not a great life, a decent life taken care of by us both. I knew she gave you money oversight and the house, basically. I’ve not argued about it, I don’t care about all that. I don’t come here to see you because it isn’t necessary. And I would rather not. I visit Mom a couple of days every four months–you know that–then I leave. “
“Mr. Big Shot, eh? So busy with hot music, your decadent partying life, is that it? No real time for family even when they need you around…Okay, yes, there’s a reason I wanted you to come.” The words were spit at him.
She threw him a dagger look, those cheeks sucked in more, but he ducked internally, leaned back, legs sprawling out under the table. She leaned in with her glare, then swiftly looked away.
He wasn’t here for more drama so maybe it was time to go.
“Oh, stop. We aren’t kids now. This is why I didn’t see you, in case you forgot. Your blatant lack of acceptance, those well-placed words of derision. I don’t drink now, anyway. Though that isn’t relevant.”
“Well, huh.” She frowned, confused, as if this wasn’t part of the script, then almost smiled. “Nice, good for you. Me, neither. Not since Milo left.”
“He left you guys? When?”
“After Mom went into the nursing home. He’d had enough of everything, her illnesses, my bingeing, house needing too much work and the money of it all. The yard and foundation dug up due to a rat infestation and rebuilt, replanted. Can you picture that? It was the final straw; he’s lazy, self-centered by nature. So he moved out, filed for divorce. Also ,Brad isn’t so easy, he has issues like preteens do, I guess. Milo sees him every other week-end now.”
She turned sideways, looked to the yard so lush and green, then shrugged, and her eyes were unblinking as she fixed on him. “But that’s enough, more than I should have said. What about you? Now that you came, at last.”
Brad, her boy, how old was he? Thomas struggled to recall; Mom sent him a school picture a few times. “He’s almost ten?”
“Last fall. Will be eleven.” She twisted a dark wave around her finger, an old self-soothing motion. “He’s pretty musical.”
Thomas started, sat up. “What does he play?”
“Can’t decide. I am not yet encouraging him.”
“Of course not, you wouldn’t want him to be a good-for-nothing-musician like me.” He laughed despite himself. “What has he tried? What does he love?”
“A few things, trombone, drums, guitar. You should ask him.”
“Is he here?” He looked out the windows, over the rooms. Upstairs, waiting them out? He saw a baseball glove on a chair, a bat in a corner, and he felt a tinge of warmth for what he’d loved, too, long ago in this place.
“No. He might be later.” She sipped her tea, ice cubes tinkling as she swirled them. “I used to wish I could turn this into rum and Coke by swirling it enough. Like an idiot. It got bad, you know…”
“Mom said you had a few too many here and there and I knew there was more to it or she wouldn’t have said so. But I get it, no judgment. I was stumbling off-stage near the end, missing gigs. Got six years in.”
“One, with a daily counting.”
She held up her index finger and he wanted to give her a high five but sat quietly. He noted a crisscross of lines etching her dusky skin. She weighed too little, she looked too worn out but she wasn’t 15 anymore.
“I’m so sorry for it all,” Keri said, bottom lip a quiver, then covered her face with bony tapered fingers.
“Wait, Keri, just wait.” He shifted taller, held up his hands, palms facing her.
“Just let me say it, just this once, and that will be it!”
“Okay–but you have to know it was more than rough those years, what you said to me over and over. How worthless a brother and even a son I was, how stupid to not pass Algebra much less get on the honor roll like you, to not even make the football team. How horrible my trumpet playing was no matter how hard I practiced, how glad it made me. How insane I was to think I could make it out there ‘in any way shape or form, so do us all a favor and just give up!’ Remember that? That’s when I left, at 17. I never forgot that I left behind my mother and a sister. But I also bore wounds, had to move on.”
Keri stood up, started to pace about the room. “I know, I know! I was drinking already and Dad gambled so much and then died in the car accident and Mom was down the rabbit hole with grief and depression. And I was…I was…”
“Look, we all have pain to figure out. Get over. I don’t like to look back, anymore. Let’s talk about now, how Mom is doing today, the house, what you’ve done here–how good it looks.” His heart pounded; the room seemed to sway, he felt dizzy. He should not have come, had to get out or suffocate all over again.
She stopped by his chair, and placed her hands on his shoulders carefully and her pupils opened wide in circles of dark amber. He thought saw the start of tears so he closed his own eyes. He missed that her eyes cleared and were calm.
But she didn’t quit. She never did.
“I was lost, Thomas. Afraid, angry. I needed you. I didn’t know how to tell you so I pushed hard, and then away from you, from all. It was wrong but it happened.”
“Yeah, far away.” She let go of him and sauntered to the back door. “I left and traveled as far as I could go,” he called after her. But he got up and followed.
She was in the roses. Bushes and bushes of them, narrow paths in between–thick blooms of red, yellow, white, pink, peach. He knew their mother liked to garden, then less and less over time. And she hadn’t planted more roses, he didn’t think. Everywhere Thomas looked now there were pops of color and trees grown mammoth, bushes and flowering things new to him. And two wood benches, a small burbling fountain and a trellis with climbing red roses.
It was impeccable and beautiful. A haven. And it was Keri’s hand that fashioned it, gave it all that was needed to flourish.
“Amazing,” he said, “a heavenly place here, alive.”
And then she joined him.
“You appreciate the fruits of my labors? My pet project, a way of keeping Mom engaged for a few years though she mostly directed and scolded from a bench. But she loved the result. I’ve found it just the thing for me after draining work in the Emergency Room. So much blood and ruin traded for so much hearty life. Let me show you around.”
After the tour they were silent and rested on a bench.
“So, why did you insist I visit now, Keri? Besides trying to make amends…which we both need to finish, I guess.”
She ruffled her dark bob. “I’m–we are–selling. I did all this renovation, with Milo’s help and Mom’s fiances, of course, in order to sell it. I don’t want to live here, anymore. Brad and I need a change, a home of our own. Mom is okay with it, and she can use the money.”
“I’m about to put it on the market. I wanted you to see it, and also to ask you–would you care to buy it for investment purposes, maybe? Or maybe you’d like part of the profit since it has great value now, really top dollar for the area. I mean, even Milo may get a small cut. You should have something of what you’d like from here. Right?”
He took a deep breath, released it in an admiring whistle. “You’re offering me our house or money? Wow. But I don’t need or want it, Keri. I left so long ago and come here to find so much changed and for the better. It’s yours and Mom’s to sell. I’m actually glad you’ve enjoyed it. It was not a great place to be for so long. Now it shines, Keri. The ghosts may have fled. Not toxic enough for them, anymore.”
She laughed. Not a considerate or restrained laugh, but as he remembered, from the belly, mouth wide open, head tossed back. Her hand grabbed his forearm and he laughed with her.
She smoothed her black pants, checked her finely lined palms and fingernails so short for gardening and her emergency nurse work. Both hands then collapsed into her lap, finally at ease.
“Yes,” Thomas said.
“So just sell?”
“Keep the money, you and Mom. Not so sure abut Milo…”
“I think you should accept some.”
“I don’t want any, Keri, you know I do well. If there’s something left over, you and Brad might fly out to my beach place for a visit.”
He heard himself and was shocked by his own words, as was she.
“A real vacation in California, at your house?”
“Mom! Who’s out there? Did he come?”
Thomas twisted around to see a young boy, lanky and dark haired and bright eyed, hands in pockets, and his cap with its bill backwards.
“Come and see.”
“Is it Tommy? I mean, Thomas Haines?”
He elbowed Keri.”Tommy, always that Tommy.”
He stood up and extended a hand to him and Brad who came right up to shake it hard, smiling.
“The famous musician from California!..My ole lost uncle! I have your music, too! Hey, I play trombone. Brass, like trumpet.”
Thomas raised an eyebrow at Keri; so that was it, then, for the kid. Like when the trumpet found him, love at first note.
They gathered at the outdoor table, swapping more history. Keri and he were agreed that Jim was a man with heart who went terribly wrong with addiction to gambling, and that their mother was a codependent who loved them the best she could. And she had suffered more than they knew. It was a lot to say and harder to accept. Though he was interested, Brad went inside, his interest waning, and the notes from his trombone sounded true as they wafted through his window.
The afternoon melted into evening so they cooked spaghetti, sausages and fresh green beans. Thomas couldn’t say it was all easy and natural. It was randomly awkward, at moments felt strange to be around her like regular family, as if they had not suffered and learned to sometimes hate or drink into stuporous states– and given up on each other.
And they did all that here, and now they were starting over within an altered house. And it was changing them, sitting at the table across from each other, talking of nothing much yet some of much else, sharing a simple meal, making plans for their visit to his spot on the Pacific Ocean. He’d make the time. Finally, he could make a little room for them. And he saw himself get right in the mix.