“What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Mom! It’s been a while…”
“Well, you’re here now. Come in. You’re letting out all the dust.”
Maybelle stepped aside and opened the door for Tom to enter. She offered her cheek for him to kiss.
The house had the smell of home. ‘Only here,’ Tom thought. ‘It never changes.’ His childhood unfolded before him.
“Staying for dinner? Might as well.” They went into the kitchen. She called out, “Al, look what the cat dragged in.”
“You have a cat?”
“Figment of speech. No cat.”
Al entered. “Hi, Tom. You drinkin’?”
“I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
Al filled a glass with ice and poured some bourbon into it. He slid it across the counter to Tom who took a sip and shut his eyes.
Maybelle busied herself with dinner.
Tom’s younger brother, Billy, stood in the doorway. He was taller and weighed more than Tom.
Tom said, “Ring-a-ding, Billy! You put on a couple of pounds.”
“Have not.” Billy would not get drawn into a debate.
They looked at each other with masked wariness. Once close, they spent little time together after high school.
Billy asked, “Are you an assassin?”
Maybelle asked, “They send you to Afghanistan?”
Al interjected, “Maybelle…”
“I keep busy. I always seem to be getting on a plane.”
“You two, make yourselves useful. Set the table.”
Once seated, Tom said grace while the others served themselves. Billy chewed on some bread and watched Tom without interest.
The sound of cutlery ringing against china punctuated the sparse conversation.
“Good food, Mom.”
When young, kids are naturally talkative and lively. While growing up, Tom and Billy always sparred verbally and at times physically. But like a balloon with a slow leak, over the years, it all went flat. Lively exchanges were rare in this house.
Aware of his limited time, Tom put the effort in without much success. He tried to learn about his family and old friends not seen in years.
Life went on. No big changes. Somebody died. So-and-so has a baby. Not much to say.
The lack of curiosity about his own life didn’t surprise Tom. But it disappointed him. His life being no open book, was mainly due to disinterest.
After college, Tom didn’t join Al in his tax preparation business. In Al’s opinion, Tom opted to pursue a fantasy rather than make something of his life. In college, Tom joined a missionary organization and he didn’t look back.
Billy still hadn’t found his way. Television occupied much of his time. Taxes held no interest for him either. Nothing did, to be honest.
Tom remembered something and smiled to himself.
“Dad, do you remember that time you lent me Mom’s car?”
They all looked up from their dinners.
“I took it for a weekend. To go visit some girl I met my freshman year.”
“I lent you the car a lot. It doesn’t come to mind.”
“I left early. Threw my stuff in the back seat and headed south. I’d been driving for about twenty minutes, I guess, with the radio blasting. Then I saw you following close behind me, flashing your lights.”
Waiting, they all looked at Tom.
“I was embarrassed because I’d been driving pretty fast. I had no idea how long you were behind me but it must have been a while.”
Tom paused. The eating continued.
“We both pulled over. I was in a sweat because I didn’t know what I’d done wrong. You got out and were still in your pee-jays. You left in such a rush to catch me, you didn’t get dressed.”
“You said I had the cooler. You thought I’d left with the cooler you needed for the barbecue. I opened the trunk and… no cooler.”
“Yeah. We stood there looking at each other, feeling pretty silly over the situation. You caught me speeding and completely unaware you were following me. And I’m sure you felt foolish standing there barefoot in your pajama bottoms.”
Al pursed his lips and shook his head. “Didn’t happen. Must have been someone else.”
“No. I remember, Dad. The weird thing… here we were, each feeling kind of ridiculous. We were standing on the shoulder of a highway with cars whizzing by. It could have been an opportunity to connect.”
Billy asked, “So what happened?”
“That’s why it stands out. To me anyway. When you saw I didn’t have the cooler, you just got back in your car and drove off.”
“What should I have done? If it happened, and it didn’t. Hardly a ‘Hallelujah’ moment, Tom. I thought you had the cooler. And you didn’t. So what?”
All eyes were on Tom. He realized everyone expected him to come up with some profound statement.
Maybelle said, “What’s the point, Tom? You told us this big long story and now you’re going to leave us with… what? That’s it?”
Tom struggled to make sense of this disconnect. It seemed so obvious to him. He spoke English. What couldn’t they understand? Were they from Mars?
“I can think of several things,” he said. “We could have laughed together. It was pretty absurd. You might have warned me about speeding tickets. You didn’t even say ‘goodbye’.”
“Mainly, because it didn’t happen.” Al put a fork full of potatoes au gratin in his mouth.
Tom continued, “It wasn’t a big deal. It was actually a very small deal. We were both embarrassed and you obviously had no reason to hang out in the middle of nowhere in your skivvies. I get that. I just always remembered it as one of those little… an insignificant moment… You know, when everything could have changed.”
Billy said, “Sounds like Dad was pissed because you didn’t have the cooler.”
Tom had nothing to say to that. Maybelle started clearing the table.
Billy asked, “Do we have ice cream?”
“Freezer. Make some for your Daddy.”
Al held up two fingers. “Two scoops!”
Billy looked at Tom who declined. He left Al and Tom at the table looking at each other.
Tom said, “I should get to my hotel. I have an early flight.”
“Come again, when…”
“I know, I can’t stay so long.”
Al smiled. “You know I’m joking, Tom.”
Maybelle came out of the kitchen. “Leaving? You just got here.”
“Early flight. You know.”
Maybelle escorted him to the door and opened it. She leaned in for a kiss on the cheek. Tom turned to go.
“Goodbye Tom. Don’t be a stranger.”