“I thought it was larger than this.”
“You were smaller,” my wife offers with her most infectious smile, “Do you want to go in?”
The hollow rhythm of the windshield wipers mimics my thoughts; yes-no, yes-no, yes-no. Do I want to go into a house belonging to my father? My dead father. A house I haven’t been in since I was an eight-year-old boy with greasy hair and ears too large for my head. A house that had never been a home.
I turn off the ignition killing the cadence of the wipers and my thoughts, “I guess we should,” I answer.
On the small front porch shielded from the rain by a drab green awning I don’t remember, I dig the key from my pocket. My father’s neighbor had put the key in the same envelope containing the letter from my father and a copy of his obituary. The letter was addressed to Mom’s old apartment, her landlord carried it to the nursing home, the nursing home called me. Fifty-four is too young to be in a nursing home, but life is too often unfair. I shredded the letter from him and the obit without reading either one past the first lines. I kept the key. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know the answer yet.
We step inside. The house smells like cigarettes and stale beer. Trying the light switch, nothing happens. My wife opens the heavy curtains allowing the drab morning light in. The living room hasn’t changed. It seems smaller, but then so was I. The tan carpet is marred by stains and cigarette burns. The glass-topped coffee table is covered in dust. A dinner plate smeared with mustard and mashed potatoes sits on the edge of the table. An empty glass lies on its side. Whatever spilled from the glass has gone the way of the dead. Beneath the table are a pair of old man slippers and a crusted fork. I wonder if this is where he died.
Across the room a stereo cabinet made from particleboard and veneered the color of weak tea. I don’t remember it looking like that. The glass door is missing. The lights on the amplifier are dark. Next to the cabinet is a metal folding chair where my father would sit for hours listening to his music. The volume always turned to the max. My father believed everyone shared his love for music. I remember him sitting in that chair, holding a cigarette between his lips, rocking back and forth to his music, a glass of cheap whiskey or a bottle of beer always in arms reach. I would watch with childish fascination as the ash from his cigarette grew longer and longer defying gravity before finally falling onto his white tee-shirt.
Another memory surfaces. My father in the chair, I’m watching from the hallway wondering why she was sitting on his lap and crying. I push the memory away…
“Are these yours?” My wife asks. She is holding a stack of record albums she gathered from the bottom shelf of the cabinet. “These are great,” she adds not waiting for my answer.
I look at the jacket covers. “No. Those were his.”
“It’s all your favorite artists on vinyl. That’s cool. Like father, like son.”
I don’t answer.
“Are you okay?” She asks, placing the albums back.
“I am.” I smile at her.
“Where was your room?” She asks, turning to the hall.
Gloomy shadows hang in the hallway. Four doors can be seen from where we stand. One on the left, two on the right, the last at the end of the hall; the only door open. That was their room. The master bedroom. Dark clumps litter the floor. His clothes?
We walk past the first door, the only bathroom. A picture hangs in the hallway adjacent to the bathroom door; crooked to one side. Using the light on her cellphone my wife illuminates the photo.
“You look just like your father,” she tells me.
Like father, like son.
The photograph is one of my mother and father. They are standing on the front porch, smiling. He is holding a real-estate sign with a yellow “Sold” banner placed across the agent’s picture. I can see the green awning. The paint is fresh. Why don’t I remember that awning? Sitting on the porch between them is a big shaggy dog with a stupid dog-grin on his face.
“You never told me you had a dog.”
I stare at the picture. A piece of memory too small to grab. Running in the back yard chasing a dog. Was it the same dog?
“What was his name?” she asks, touching the picture. Small particles of dust, protesting her invasion, float in the bright light of her cell.
“Shiloh,” I answer. It was the same dog. How had I forgotten?
She turns, shining her light down the hallway, “Which room is yours?”
I point at the first door on the right. “Was,” I correct her. “That one, I think.”
Turning the knob, she pushes the door. The hinges squeal.
The room is dark, smokey shadows concealing only emptiness. She shines the light around the room looking for signs of my childhood. All my things are gone. My bed, my toys. Posters of Superman and Thor torn from the walls leaving only silhouettes in their place. The baseball theme curtains Mom bought for my room have been replaced by yellow sheets tacked to the wall. The cellphone light shines on the closet door. Aubrey takes a step towards the closet. I grab her by the elbow too abruptly, stopping her.
“What’s wrong?” Her eyes are wide with surprise.
More memories. Hiding in the closet. Grayscale images of a little boy laying with his head on the cold floor peeking through the space between the door and the floor. Watching for living shadows. Why was I hiding? Watching for him.
“Childhood haunts,” I tell her, shaking comically. “There’s nothing here to see.”
We return to the hallway turning towards the master bedroom. Her light falls upon a discarded sock lying in the middle of the floor, “Like father, like son,” she teases me walking around the dirty laundry. We stop in front of the next door.
Aubrey directs the light to an old sticker stuck to the middle of the door; eye level. The colors have faded to a pale beige. The corners are scrapped and torn as if someone had tried to remove the sticker. My wife angles the phone to gain better light. “Lacie’s Room” shimmers under the beam.
“Who is Lacie?” She whispers.
I stare at the words. A fountain of unwanted reminders rush in like dirty rainwater falling into the unexplored caverns below the street. Memories I strangled for years, hoping to choke the life from them forever. I have lived my life avoiding them. The key to my father’s house burns in my pocket as a reminder of my failure. I should have thrown it away when I shredded the letter. I wish I had never come back here. A childhood forgotten has been revived by the death of a man I hated.
“She was my sister,” I answer, opening the door.
It is her turn to stop me. “Your sister? You never told me you have a sister.”
“Had. Had a sister,” I tell her. “She died a long time ago.”
“I’m sorry, baby.” She touches the side of my face.
These hinges are quiet, well oiled. Well used. Inside everything is the same as I remember. Her bed is made neatly, veiled by a pink and white comforter. Dozens of stuffed animals, small and large, rest comfortably on the over-sized pillow. Her small white desk shines like new under the light. A small lamp and a neat stack of books rest upon the surface. One book is new. Did he buy her gifts after…?
Forgotten boy-band posters from years past hang on the wall. White-frilly curtains hang over the windows undisturbed.
Aubrey walks to bed brushing her hands over the comforter. Picking up a stuffed unicorn, she looks at me, “How did she die?”
Recollections unwind like an old movie reel, rapidly clicking off the years. Black and white. It is strange my memories come without color. I’m an eight-year-old boy standing in the dark hallway. Aerosmith is blaring from the speakers, rocking the whole house. My father is sitting in the chair next to a different stereo cabinet. He has a beer in one hand and a cigarette dangling from his lips. Lacie is sitting on his lap. His other hand is on her knee. The little boy can see the fear in his sister’s face. Tears are running down her cheeks as the man bounces his knee, keeping rhythm with the music. With each bounce, his hand moves up her leg. The little boy is crying. His father looks up, his eyes glaring at the boy. He stands, knocking the crying girl to the floor and dropping the beer bottle. He bumps the cabinet. The diamond stylus scrapes loudly over the vinyl producing an ear-piercing sound. Aerosmith has left the building. The boy hears the monster-man breathing. He runs to his room and into the closet. Slamming the door, he falls to the floor crying. The heavy footsteps of his father are joined by his mother’s voice screaming at the man. The sound of flesh hitting flesh is loud in his ears. He looks through the crack searching for the living shadows. His mother and sister are crying. His father is yelling and cursing at them. More slaps. More crying. Then silence.
Three days later Lacie committed suicide. She was twelve years old.
“How did she die?” My wife asks again, taking my hand.
“I can’t remember,” I lie. “It was a long time ago; I was just a boy. I didn’t understand.”
My wife kisses my cheek. She can taste the tears.
“I want to go,” I tell her.
She places the stuffed unicorn back upon the bed, “Okay.”
On the porch, I close the door behind me being sure to lock it first. A bright sun has replaced the morning rain. The emerald-colored lawn glistens under the sun’s rays.
“It’s a beautiful lawn,” she tells me, admiring the landscape. “Your father must have had a green thumb.” She delivers another kiss upon my cheek, “Like father, like son.”
I drop the key in an empty planter next to the door.
I touch her growing belly. The baby inside kicks in response.
Dear God, I hope not.