The boys were outside, listless, pretending to play in the snow. Brady tried building a snowman, Sam plowed it down, rushed into it like a linebacker. Brady stood back and watched, waited for Sam to move along, and started to rebuild. There was a lesson of endurance there. Or a precursor of insanity. Maybe both. Maybe it was all the same genetic material.
Connie was generous with the coffee. It was strong and black maybe the only thing we agreed on.
“So how are you, Connie? Really?”
She thought about it. “Tired. Unprepared. I feel like I’m in some kind of race and my car won’t start.”
I wanted to ask her if she’d heard anything from Ruth, but resisted. This was the first real conversation we’d had in years without recriminations.
“The boys have grown,” I said.
“They always do. Sam is a handful, Brady not so much. But he will be. He reminds me of you, David. Quiet and thoughtful. For now. All it’s gonna take is one incident, one small leaf falling from the tree, and he’s going to be the one who dishes out the heartache. You were alright until Dad died. You were different. The daydreamer. I know I was away at college, but what good did it do either of us?”
“You got a daughter out of it.”
“Don’t get me started.” She stared into her cup. “Yeah, it got me a daughter. And it got me ostracized. Who knew I’d end up as the good kid? The one who stayed. The one who moved us here. I did all the heavy lifting, David. I earned my place back into the family.”
“I didn’t know it was something I needed to earn.”
“Bullshit. Of course you did. You left the minute you could. You took that camera with you and fired away at everything that moved, women included. I’ve heard the tales. Family gave you a name, and that’s the only thing you kept. I gotta check on Mom. You stay put. She doesn’t know you’re here yet.”
I got up and poured myself another cup. The flight made me tired, and the drive even more so. The coffee was keeping me balanced. “Mind if I wander around? Check out the old place?”
She shrugged. “Stay out of my purse and we’ll be fine. If she’s still asleep, I’ll give you the tour. If she’s awake, it’ll take me ten-fifteen minutes to tend to her. Maybe twenty. You know your way around. It hasn’t changed much. And I guess you know where the bathroom is.”
“With my eyes closed.”
“No, with your eyes open. Jesus, David, you really are like a kid sometimes. Behave.”
And that qualified as a Connie joke.
The rooms looked smaller than I remembered. Emptier. Of course, Connie was right. I only lived here until I was 17. Still a kid, restless and suffocating. What did I know about restlessness? Or suffocation? I wanted out. I couldn’t bear the weight of all the changes since Dad and Grandpa died; any changes had to come from me. Exciting changes, not dull, repetitive ones. I was trying to live with a new routine that seemed forced and unnatural. Put on a happy face, everyone, this is new and exciting! We won’t say improved, because that would be wrong, but it’s new! God, I needed to leave. I regretted the circumstances, but not the decision. But what 17-year-old kid knows about kindness? There is no kind time to leave, no easy preparation. I bolted. A couple of goodbye kisses and promises to stay in touch. A hundred-and-twenty bucks in my pocket and I was off to rule the world. I was an ass, but I still couldn’t think of any other way.
My old bedroom upstairs had changed the most. Now it looked dingy and small. I guessed it was Sam’s room now. Posters of teen queens on the walls, an unmade bed, the smell of dirty socks and musty shoes. Probably a Playboy or Maxim tucked under the mattress. A throw-rug balled up in one corner, covering a skateboard and a pair of grungy underpants. A kid’s room, but a different kid. I didn’t belong here. This was not my home, and the memories were festering inside me, a dull thudding echo of a restless time.
I stood outside the room for a long time – it seemed long – and didn’t hear Connie come up the stairs to get me.
“She’s awake,” she said.