Jim - February 12, 2001 - 9:13 am
My footsteps echoed through the grand room as I paced the empty redwood floors. The glossy shine of intermingled reds and dark browns were dulled by a layer of dust. I passed by six unveiled windows and stared through them in turn. The flat plains of the Midwest sprawled out to the horizon. A group of orange, black, and grey finches hopped around in a patch where green grass poked through the melting blanket of snow. I stopped pacing and turned to face my dad. “Rianne was your fourth attorney. You can’t keep firing them.”
He sat at the only table left in the house, staring into the end of a cup of room temperature coffee. “I couldn’t help it, Jim. The lady just wouldn’t stop telling me what I ‘must do’.” He curled two fingers on each hand in the air and rolled his eyes.
I walked to the fireplace where our family portrait had hung for the past six years and rested one elbow on the mantel. The shadow of its former existence flickered in my mind like an old reel to reel movie.
Jim - August 05, 1996 - 7:48 pm
My mom was on the other side of the room squaring her fingers against the painting my dad was hanging above the mantel. “Raise the left up about an inch… no, no, that’s too high. Yeah, yeah, like that. Oh, that’s perfect. Come here, come here Frank. You have to see this.”
Dad sauntered over to look at the painting and put his arm around his wife. “I think this might be our best portrait yet. I cannot believe how beautiful our little Mandy has become. Can you believe she was our tiny baby only eleven years ago?”
Mom planted a kiss on his cheek. “She and Jim are definitely the most beautiful children in the world.” Her cheeks flushed with pride.
My sister, Amanda, was sitting on the couch with her face in her hands. “You two are the most ridiculous parents in the world.” She shook her head and looked up at our parents, who were laughing.
I pushed her, and she fell sideways on the couch. “Mandy, you know you love the attention, and you know we’re the best-looking kids in school. That’s why I have to keep beating up your guy friends to keep them away from you.”
Amanda looked through her eyebrows at me. “That isn’t much of a compliment; all the boys in this town are gross. All they care about is video games and being stupid.”
Dad smiled at us. “You’ll think differently about them when you’re a little older.”
“Maybe if I find a boy from somewhere else.” She squinched her face and stuck out her tongue. “All the boys here are gross.”
Dad pulled my mom close and kissed her on the mouth. “Don’t worry, pump, you’ll change your mind some day. Isn’t that right, Susan?”
Mom laughed. “Um. Well, you’re still gross, and when you were her age I’m sure you were even more disgusting than you are now. So, I’m sure she’ll never completely change her mind.” She snuggled close into my dad and sighed. “But, I love you anyway.”
Dad pulled her into a tighter embrace. “Lucky me.”
Jim - February 12, 2001 - 9:18 am
I pushed away from the fireplace and threw out my hands out for emphasis. “Dad! Attorneys are supposed to guide you, that’s why they go to college for so many years. Just like your doctor or your accountant.”
“I’m paying them to get me what I want, not to tell me that my wife gets half of the money from selling the home I poured so much of myself into.” He reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a flask, and poured half of it into his mug. “She sat on that couch,” he pointed the flask at the empty floor where the couch used to sit, splashing a few drops of it onto the ground, “and watched t.v., while gulping her chardonnay. She didn’t put her soul into this house, and now she gets to steal half of my thirty years of labor?” He sipped his coffee, which had become mostly scotch.
I walked to the table and mumbled, “Twenty years,” and then pulled out the high back wooden chair across from him and sat. “It’s how it works, Dad, and she did pour her soul into the home. Maybe not the wood, or the granite, or the screws, but she took care of us so that you were able to pour yourself into the material structure of the house. I would argue that the emotional and spiritual structure of her family was more important and was the only reason you had the energy to pour into this house. Not to mention the countless hours of planning, yard work…”
His jaw clenched tight before he growled, “Shut up.”
It felt like someone sucker-punched my brain. I stared at him with my mouth hanging open. In my twenty-one years of life, I never heard him tell anyone to shut up. Until five years ago, he was never anything except patient, kind, and understanding. I pulled myself together and folded my hands in front of me on top of the scratched and faded grey table. “You’re being ridiculous. Look, all you have to do is stop drinking and then you and Mom don’t have to flush more than twenty years of marriage down the drain.”
The table shook and the small vase sitting on it fell over as Dad slammed his fists down. His deep brown eyes seemed to shine red. “All she had to do is lock the back door and no one would have been able to break into our home,” he said, gulping the contents of his mug, “or be even a little understanding of the pain I’ve been going through.”
I put my hands over my mouth and nose and closed my eyes. “Dad, you have got to stop blaming Mom. Neither one of you are being loving or understanding.” I moved my hands and stared into my father’s glistening eyes. “That vagrant who broke into our home is to blame. You and Mom need to stop taking this tragedy out on each other.”
My father pulled the flask back out of his pocket and poured the other half of the liquid into his coffee mug. “It doesn’t matter now. The house has already been sold, and the closing is next Thursday. I’m tired of living in the shadow of the life I used to have.” He stood up from the table, knocked the chair over, and stormed out of the house. A splash of scotch fell to add one last stain to the well-used table.
Just then, a man knocked at the oversized front doors, which had already been standing open. “Sir?” He silently swung them further open, and the reflection from the sun shining off the panes of glass drifted across the floor.
I stood to follow my dad and called over my shoulder. “I’ll be right there. Have a seat.”
The shadow of the calendar on the black back door was only visible to me. My mom had always been the planner, and my dad, the doer. Her planning genes definitely rubbed off on me. Throughout the years, the two of us had stood for countless hours planning beach vacations, camping trips, winter retreats, birthday parties, and many weekend getaways. I traced my fingers on the door, remembering what it felt like planning out our family adventures. My mind could still see the calendar, which had been stuck on August 1996 for four years until Mom took it down last year.
Jim - August 16, 1996 - 10:13 pm
My mom and I were standing in front of the calendar looking at everything that needed to be finished in the next two weeks.
“Jim, did you call the caterer? We only have two weeks until her birthday.” Her sweet voice was almost as musical as the grand piano my sister was playing in the living room. The notes rang out through the house, making it sound like we were in a concert hall. Mandy was going to play the slow, melodic song she wrote at the University of Illinois Springfield Performing Arts Center. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that Mom had written on the September page of the calendar and circled four times.
“Of course. Aren’t we on track to get everything done at least a week early? What else needs done?”
A dissonant chord from an otherwise harmonious song accented my sister’s frustration at whatever mistake she’d just made, although it was indistinguishable to anyone not so intimately connected to every note. Mom looked at me and whispered, “She’s going to be done playing now. We should head to the kitchen so she doesn’t ask what we’re up to.” She walked to the kitchen island.
I followed her and sat at the white and blue marble island, smirking at her. “I think she already knows we’re planning a birthday party for her.”
Mom cocked her head sideways at me. “Let me have this, James. She’s my little baby and it’s more fun to plan a surprise party.”
I asked, “For who?”
She smiled so large that all of her teeth were showing. “For us, of course.”
We looked at each other and laughed.
As predicted, Amanda came into the kitchen. “What are you two giggling about?” The small whoosh of the refrigerator door swinging open was followed by containers being shuffled on the shelves. After a minute, the refrigerator door chime started to ding. My sister’s head bobbed up and down in the fridge. “Mom, where’s my slice of pie we brought home from dinner last night?”
I grinned at her back. “Oh, was that yours? Mmm mmm mmm, it was sooooo good. It really hit the spot.”
Amanda spun around, ran toward us, and placed her palms on the counter. The refrigerator continued to chime, echoing my sister’s protest. She looked directly at me and squealed. “Mom!”
Mom walked around the island and pulled something out of the bottom crisper drawer before shutting the door. The fridge let out out one last bleep before falling silent. She walked over to Amanda and placed the white foam container in front of her.
“You’re a real jerk, Jim,” my sister huffed at me.
I blew her a kiss. “I love you too, Mandy.”
She rolled her eyes and stood in front of me eating her chocolate covered cherry cheesecake. “Not as much as I love…” She shoved a large piece of cheesecake into her mouth and finished her sentence around the huge bite, “this pie.”
Jim - February 12, 2001 - 9:18 am
I turned the black bronze door handle of the back door and stepped outside. Smoke from my dad’s menthol cigarette stung my nostrils. The pungent aroma was another reminder of the man he'd become. “Dad, please come back to us.”
He sucked long and hard on his cigarette, threw it to the ground, and blew out the smoke. “Son, I never went anywhere. I’ve been right here. It’s you and your mother who left. Besides, the man in the front room is ready to take you to the city.” He took another cigarette out of his pocket and put it between his lips.
I sighed. “I haven’t left. I’m only leaving because you and Mom sold the house and are moving to opposite ends of the country. With each of you more than a day away in either direction, why would I stick around this town? I guarantee that if you stopped drinking and apologized, you and Mom could work it out, and then I’d stay in town with you guys.”
He lit the cigarette between his lips and failed to blow a smoke ring. “Jim, I have no desire to be with that woman. She’s cold, calculating, and unloving.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. “Up until five years ago, neither of you so much as argued with each other. You’re only saying these things about her now because of how badly you’re hurting.”
He shrugged my hand off of his shoulder and took a swig from his coffee mug. “I’m tired of having this same conversation. Please just go to Chicago and let me be. I’ve always wanted to live in Seattle, and this is the perfect chance to do it.”
“I love you, Dad.”
“You’ll love Chicago, you’ll meet fascinating people, and you’ll spread your wings and be your own man. You’ve lived long enough in your parents’ shadow and need to break out of it. This’ll all work out in everyone’s favor, trust me.” He walked through the door as he flicked his half-smoked cigarette, bouncing it off of the wall and spreading sparks in every direction.
I leaned back against the bricks that formed the back wall of our house and drew in a long breath. There was never any chance of changing his mind, and I couldn’t remember why I thought I could. During my twenty-one years of life, I don’t think I’d ever heard him say, “I’m sorry,” or, “you’re right.” I sighed and turned to follow my dad into the house. The kitchen cabinet slammed, and he was pouring what was left of a bottle of vodka into the tallest glass in our cabinet. His unshaven face and tousled grey hair matched the suit he was wearing. It looked like he had been wearing it for three weeks, although he’d had on a white t-shirt and dark blue jeans the day before.
The man still standing in the front entrance and wearing the black waistcoat, cleared his throat. “Are we ready to go?”
Between the chauffeur and me was a large section of discolored redwood flooring that was only visible to anyone who knew to look for it. My gaze lingered on it as memories came flooding back.
Jim - August 27, 1996 - 2:20 am
The garage door ground closed and then fell silent. The crickets chirped louder, and the stars shone brighter, than I ever remembered before. It had been a long day and fantastic evening with my dad at the White Sox game in the city, despite the fact that we lost to the Brewers. My dad even let me drive his prized 1984 white Ferrari convertible all the way to and from the city, rather than using a chauffeur. I was still pretty pumped from the day, but I was happy to be home. After parking his car in the garage, I walked around to the front of the house, rather than entering from the garage. My eyes burned from being awake for twenty-two hours, but I wanted to take one last breath of fresh air before I crashed for the night. The heavy perfume of the white climbing roses added a certain magic to the air, making it seem like the perfect ending to a perfect day.
Then I opened the front door and froze in horror. Dad was crouched on the floor, sobbing and rocking the unmoving body of his only daughter. Her blood was soaking into the floor, and her arms hung limp out of the cradle of my father’s arms. My mom staggered down the stairs with her white cotton robe flowing behind her, shielding her eyes from the bright lights of the foyer. “What’s going on in here…” She froze in instant terror and then fell in a heap to the ground. “No, no, no, what…” Her head was buried in her hands, and she shook uncontrollably. The back door slammed open as someone dashed through it and away into the back yard.
Mom’s hand was shaking as she dialed the phone. Dad stood in rage and then ran full speed after the intruder, while slinging words I'd never heard from him before.
Jim - February 12, 2001 - 9:43 am
I turned from the chauffeur toward my dad and called over my shoulder. “One more second, okay?” I walked over to Dad and put my arm around his shoulder. “Dad, will you please let me know when you’re settled in your new place so I can come visit?”
He took a swig from his glass and shrugged. “Sure.” He put his glass and his palms down on the counter. “Take care.”
I let my arm fall and turned back toward the man who had been patiently waiting for me. “Alright, John, we can go now.”
He stood stoically. “Sir, your dad will be okay. It takes time to process these kinds of things.”
“It’s been five years,” I mumbled, mostly to myself, and then walked through the front door toward the blue Mercedes SUV limousine my father had hired to drive me to Chicago. Before John could get the door for me, I grabbed the handle and swung it open. The overgrown bushes and unkept yard made our four-story farmhouse in Blackland, IL look haunted. I was going to miss the years we spent in that home and hoped that the new owners would have better luck in it than we had.