He was about to walk into the sprawling blue house on Merton and Fifth. That is, after he had decent coffee (if he could find the cozy weathered spot he’d always gone to), driven past once more (he was confident this wouldn’t be difficult) to better prepare himself, and called Rennie for support.
After parking at a corner he knew like the back of his hand, he slouched about, hands in pant pockets, looking this way and that. There was the hardware across the street with new awnings and paint; there was the staid brick bank; there was the grocery, although with new name and entryway. But no Dot’s to be seen. Instead, a hair salon sat in the coveted corner property. It had been a few years, okay, but Dot’s was an institution, the place everyone met up for a quick or leisurely cup from breakfast ’til dinner.
He dashed into the street between two vehicles to cross the street and he got a better look at things. There had been more alterations; it was looking oddly prosperous in spots. It was disorienting, shiny storefronts jammed between almost ramshackle ones. Then he saw it. “Dot & Daughter” was proclaimed in calligraphic gold and black above the double door. That would be Dot, yes, and …Hannah? He guessed she’d be early thirties now. He was surprised–she had said she was leaving, too–so he crossed back over and went in.
Even though he was stunned by the fancy decor and too many coffee choices beaming at him from the menu, he knew Hannah right off. It was the back of her head he was staring at as he got in line. With heaps of unmistakable glossy black curls as always, she turned and it didn’t seem like years had passed. She looked past him, waved at another customer. He gawked at scattered quaint cafe-style tables and stools, the glass case tempting with baked goods plus pita bread and hummus, veggie wraps, yogurt, cheese and crackers– it was like he was in a big city place trapped inside a small town.
“How you doing? What can I get you?” Hannah greeted him with appropriate cheer as she pushed away a stray spiral of hair.
“Espresso, two shots.”
She noted the order, looked at him a second time with lips parted then firmly closed. One more moment and she frowned, then recovered. “Name for order?”
She dismissed him with raised eyebrow and nod.
He stepped quickly away from the counter, stood along the wall. He could have given his real name. Arley, the nickname of yore; now he was just Arlen. She may not have remembered him, but he suspected she might though he’d changed his look. No shaved head, no scraggly beard and feathery mustache. No black jeans and torn jacket, no heavy motorcycle boots. “Arley and his Harley”, a joke, a stupid one since he never got a Harley. He’d become a grown man. So different from the young man his hometown knew that he surely blended well for a few hours– and then he was gone. It had been right, even necessary to leave years ago. And good to be a bona fide grown up, slowly transforming.
It was taking much longer than he wanted so he zipped his jacket, made for the door. He didn’t want to revisit any of it, no good would come of it; just a stop at the house. But then “Hank” was called out, a hand holding out his espresso, and he was about to down it when he felt her eyes on him. And then another gal’s and guy’s then as he shifted his gaze felt all were looking at him–or trying to not look at him. Just what he didn’t need. Arlen;s heart raced, his stomach turned. He left.
He opened his car door and got in but Hannah was fast on her feet. He lowered his window by half despite a chilly shower descending. She stood there with arms across her chest, leaning in a bit.
“It is Arley Whitaker, right? Come home for a visit?”
He responded with the grin that used to get everybody, easy and warm as a summer breeze. But inside he felt cold as the rain, and miserable.
“Your mama, I guess? Heard she was doing poorly. I hope you’ll come back to Dot’s and Daughter’s before you go. Catch up.” Her gaunt face softened, seemed hopeful.
“How you doing, Hannah Jean? And where is Dot today?”
“Oh, I’m good, married Jeff, got a kid. Mama’s in the back but she’d come out and say hi, I’m sure–“
“That’s okay. On my way.” He started the engine and shifted.
“Nice car you got, must be having better times,” she said, eyeing the pristine, refurbished silver Camaro. “Fast bikes and fast cars forever, I guess!” She then had the decency to slap a hand to her mouth, knowing too late he’d not want to hear it put that way.
“Give your mother my regards, great coffee as always.” He waved at her like he was in some damned parade; she stepped back, staring after him.
Arlen drove off nice and slow as he could, foot just itching to slam the gas, hand gripping the gear stick knob. She was still nosy and naive, but good for her and Jeff, he was better than most he knew.
There was no one and no thing that could permanently lure him back to his hometown. It was one stop for today, and he already half-regretted it. He dared a cop to get him for speeding as he wheeled out of downtown.
He drove right by, eyeing the house, noting the long-faded blue needing a repainting. Surely it hadn’t been like that for almost ten years. The yard was emerald green even in the silvery drift of rain, and mostly tidy as always; the porch swing was gone but nothing looked decrepit. After circling the block, he parked a couple houses down, got out his phone.
She answered right off.
“Arlen, love, you there now?”
Her words came to him like petals floating on a pond, peaceful, gentle. He mused again over her absence; he missed her already. She had said it was his journey, not hers, and he should get it done alone. She’d meet up later. He supposed she was right. It was all before her time, his wrecked life to try to better restore.
“Got a coffee, felt like the town was breathing down my neck so came straight here. I can make it to the cabin by four if this is a short visit. Which it should be…”
“Take it as it comes. It’ll be good or it won’t, but you at least are there.”
He had nothing to add to the bare facts. Rennie knew the whole story, she knew he hadn’t set foot into that house for nine years, and he and his mother spoke briefly only on Christmas. Until the last one, when they had talked a little more, updated a few things. And he’d found she had had pneumonia, had been in the hospital and he didn’t even know; she was still weak. It struck some nerve deep inside. She’d always been so healthy, strong, more resilient than his father who had died at 52 when Arley was in his senior year. Before the even worse thing.
He shook his head. “I know, but what if she–“
“Keep it honest and to the point unless it feels right to do more. Remember? Trust your gut, honey.”
Silence rang between them. He fiddled with his key chain, finally pulled it out of the ignition. The windshield was fogging up; he cracked his window since the rain had let up. Fresh air gave him more calm, some strength.
“It might not be such a good idea, but I drove five hours top do it, so I’m going in. At least I can get to the cabin right after. Spread my thoughts and feelings over Lake Michigan, listen to music of the waves.”
“That’s my baby. And I’ll be there tomorrow by noon or 1:00. I’ll love you back to normal, so no worries either way.”
Arlen released the worst of his simmering fears in a short exhalation.
“Okay, here goes. See you tomorrow.”
At first his feet wouldn’t move up the path. He knew what he had to say. He had called her the night before, said he had some business up north, would it be okay if he stopped by a few on his way. When she didn’t respond, he panicked, nearly told her never mind. Instead she had told him between a deep cough and wheezing that sure, he could come on by. She had said it as if he was in the neighborhood and she was accustomed to his visiting. Then they hung up, both of them shocked by what they’d just done.
The porch was deep and wide and he had half a mind to walk it, get the sense of it and the moment, look back at the street to see how it felt. He didn’t have time. The white door with the stained glass rosette window opened wide, and his mother stepped back as Arlen came into the house where he was raised.
They looked at each other, eyes startled, secretive, and looked away–but not before she took his upper arm, led him in. Her still-firm grasp felt foreign yet too familiar, and yet he let her do it.
The smells, then. Musky and sweet like ancient dried roses (the garden’s) she had kept in a pretty wooden box. Yeastiness of baked bread that has cooled awhile. And still those worn wood floors with a rug here and there. Smooth dark wood banister on a long staircase that led up to dark halls and quiet bedrooms. He averted his eyes from the upper reaches. Where her and his siblings had slept, squabbled, studied.
The living room beckoned with low lighting, same green velvet love seat and deep gold with green couch. The fireplace stood gawking, empty of fond memories of roaring fires.
She began to sit first and, as he had been taught, he waited until she was settled in her arm chair, then sat on the couch.
“This is a surprise, I know,” he said. “I said I’d never return. But we have talked a bit more, I felt I could come, finally. If you wanted that.”
She laughed, just barely, as she coughed easily. “You knew I got sick, about to die, maybe?”
She waved that away. “Not yet. You know how they talk around here, always drama. I make progress daily.”
She settled the afghan over her lap. She was not old, maybe sixty, he had forgotten to his dismay, but she looked almost old in the dusky room. Her hair, for one thing, had gone all steel grey, and was pulled back from her pale, lean face.
Arlen sat back, trying to not think of “Then versus Now”, how different it was despite a strange sameness of the place. Heat rose from his chest, trapped beneath his jacket–she kept the rooms too warm, as before– and he wanted to take it off yet was unwilling to do so. It might be thought a signal, give her the idea he wanted to stay awhile and maybe she would hate that. He didn’t want to, really, although they hadn’t embraced, or acted so glad to see one another at least she hadn’t said anything terrible yet. Nor had he. What words could ease such distance between them, the misery gnawing and creating the deep impasse to separate them?
He’d imagined he’d offer a few but true sentences and be gone. But they now dissipated. And she spoke.
“I made bread. And coffee. Would you like some, Arlen?”
He followed her into the high-ceilinged kitchen with big six burner stove. Fresh bread perfumed all. How she had once loved to cook. The worn teak table in the dining room beyond was set with pretty placemats; a loaf of bread on cutting board with a knife; plates and knives and a butter dish all in a row. The coffee carafe and cups were at the ready.
It was then that a small, persistent lump formed in his throat. The trouble she had gone to. The way it had been before…how they all had been happier more often than not, better off than most, a home filled with industry and ideas and play– and kids and adults who had learned–primarily– reasonable ways and developed good plans for life, together or apart.
“How is your business faring so far this year?” she asked. She buttered two pieces of bread for each of them, poured the coffee. Gestured toward the homemade pear preserves which she’d forgotten he didn’t like much.
“The shop is busier all the time; I have so many new orders this past year. The cars are beautiful once rebuilt, restored. You should–” He had forgotten himself, got excited. He wanted to tell her more but why? It was his unusual interest in vehicles, his mechanical talents that did the damage.
“That’s good, Arlen, you’re doing well then.”
Arlen was good with mechanical things since childhood; his father and he had shared the knack. And it wasn’t long before he fell in love with all things related to engines and wheels, especially motorcycles though his father didn’t, not really. But he encouraged his children in their interests.
In a short few years Arlen gave in to his growing need for power and speed. The desire for not just the fun weekend dirt bike but then a fine sport bike, not the Dodge Tomahawk he desperately wanted to ride one day–but, still, the Honda Blackbird was a dream, its acceleration, its dexterity, how it hugged corners, gave him that charge of adrenaline. And it was true he changed some as he rode more. It emboldened him, gave him a sense of freedom, a confidence as never before. Too much confidence. Arlen the “all around good guy” got a bit tougher and some said wild even as he increased his skills with hands, and his riding. Well, he met people. He met guys who liked those things rather than studying and such so by high school he had slipped from one social side of things to another. It wasn’t bad, he felt–it was just…faster, riskier, and when on a motorcycle this is what counted to him. Challenge and reward.
The slices of bread seemed to melt in his mouth, such richness, smoothness on the tongue, how they filled him. The coffee, though weaker than he’d make, was also a pleasure as they talked some more. Just this sharing of food and drink with his mother was easier than he had thought it could be.
He dipped into the vast pool of family matters. “You hear from Marilyn? About coming for awhile to help out and all?”
She brought a tissue to lips, coughed three times, hard. “In a couple of weeks. She had to take time off her county job, find someone to help out Dan with their two kids. Your niece and nephew…”
“Yeah. I have pictures.”
“When did you last see them?”
It sounded accusing but maybe he was wrong. She looked calm, interested.
“It’s been awhile.” They’d been two and three, respectively. They were now seven and eight, at least he thought. But he and Marilyn were never too close, she was older than he and…Doug, and after what happened, they were in touch twice a year, maybe three times max.
“Do you miss Dad still? I do,” he said before he could stop himself. He should not be going down that path. He should stick to script. Just make amends and be gone.
“Do you really mean, do I still miss Dad and Doug?”
Arlen felt the slippage inside him, as if he was coming off his moorings, fear threatening. He looked at his hands holding bread, put the slice down, lowered them into his lap where his fingers twined into knots.
“It’s funny,” she said, adjusting the afghan on her lap, smoothing the placemat, “how you can finally get used to losing a husband who died of a heart attack, yes, you actually can–with practice of new routines, after much mourning. But a child? That is another process; it never really ends.”
Arlen couldn’t bear to look at her so looked at the large portrait still hanging as it always had, taken one moment in time when they were all presentable and accounted for–all alive in this house.
“But.” His mother’s voice came out in soft breath, then almost a whisper. “But to lose a husband a son and then, despite him still being alive, another son–to lose, essentially, most of a whole family–that is the hardest thing of all, Arlen. The thing that cannot be forgotten.”
He rose then, paced back and forth, gesturing at nothing but the walls, careful to not see her eyes. “I didn’t make him get on, didn’t encourage it, not on that bike, I swear it! Dad had just died, we weren’t even thinking right. I kept saying that after he…I told you then but no one heard me. He insisted, he felt left behind, he had to have some fun he said, even when I told him he shouldn’t get on, I was still learning the Honda’s ways. And Doug jumped on behind me as I was taking off but I didn’t for one tiny second think we would get so far as to find trouble, much less crash on the hilly curve… I’m so sorry, I loved him, too–I’m so sorry, Mom!”
“I know, I truly did later realize it. Come here, son, come.”
He got down on his knees, wrapped his arms around her frailness and she clutched him to her, patted his back, smoothed his hair.
“Forgive me, forgive me, Mom…”
“God forgive us all, let’s leave what’s been lost, be thankful for what we have now,” she said clearly at his ear.
Then closed her eyes and shed tears with him but not like when it was her hard time of sorrows. This time it was for her only son’s return to her. And he at long last released that aching for it all, and felt salvaged by her arms about him once again.
“Here I am,” Rennie called out, hoisting bags of food and other supplies from her truck.
Arlen lay the ax atop the pile of wood pieces he was splitting and pulled off leather gloves. They embraced heartily and he took two bags as they went inside. Rennie removed cap and jacket as she moved purposely across the small living room.
She held out her hand. “You came, Mrs. Whitaker, glad you did. I’m Rennie.”
The older woman rose on steady legs and swiftly passed the dancing, popping fire in the fieldstone fireplace, and took the young woman’s capable hands into her own.
“I’m pleased to meet the woman who loves my son–and be asked to visit this fine cabin. Come and sit, get warm, let Arlen do the work.”
Arlen left the food on the table and returned to the wood, every strike a blow to the ravenous past, every new split log a store against the coming winter’s brittle cold, it’s astonishing yield of snow, All the more reason to gather his family within the cabin. His dad and Doug sure would have liked it. At first that thought jarred him, then felt pretty good. His mother gazed through the window so he raised a hand in response and tossed another log onto the pile.