Forty-five is sixty-five for seventy-five Kansas Road. The house is the same age as he but twenty years older in appearance. Time is full of langoliers.
Twenty-seven years—Is that how long it’s been? —and a humble, stable, happy childhood home has come to this. Beat up. Disgraced. Empty. Alone in the dark. Just like him.
If the sun were up, someone might recognize him, maybe, maybe not—hopefully not. He wants to be alone, and left alone, in his aloneness. It’s almost the midnight hour. The clock will strike that very minute when the present becomes the past and the future becomes the present, a nightly miracle, really, another day of life granted. Another chance. An exciting shift. The edge of something. Sad on the one hand, a happy expectancy on the other, sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. He wonders if Robert Burns ever stood across the street from his own childhood home on a cold and wintery night such as this, staring into darkened windows, the past long extinguished, a candle burnt to the dish, no more wick.
A loosened shutter beckons to him with the help of a gusty wind. Come closer, old friend, where have you been?
Reluctant but just as obedient, he crosses the empty street to the empty house. His heart is no longer empty but painfully full, like a fat grape ready to burst through its own skin. He steps onto the frosty lawn. As if by magic, wherever he looks, lights click on one-by-one, illuminating this familiar stranger’s face, this outlander, this middle-aged prowler searching and sifting through memories. A knot forms in the pit of his stomach, longing for a do over, or maybe just forgiveness.
Once upon a time, he was the son who wore the coat of many colors but, unlike that Joseph, he didn’t have the willpower or integrity to flee from temptation. Nevertheless, he allows his mind to take him back, back, back to the innocent days of long ago. He peeks through the front bay window.
His father’s hair was raven black again. He was sitting on a recliner, legs up, chewing on the cap of a yellow highlighter, reading a book. He was clicking his toes through colored socks, a funny habit.
His mother’s hair was strawberry blond. She was moving just beyond the living room, past the recliner, back and forth in the kitchen. She was humming a happy song.
At present, in real time, the wind begins to howl. The ghosts of his past have been let loose. Bare branches click against each other like cold, arthritic fingers. He flips a hood out from underneath his leather jacket and pulls it tight over his head and ears. He leans closer. He listens. His mother stops humming for a moment to call his name. Joseph! Joe! Coffee’s ready!
Joe Carraway, older and younger at the same time, could smell hot coffee coming through the cold glass window which suddenly rattled when one of his brothers jumped from a top bunk and landed with a loud crash into the toybox (that one joined the military and served with honors but came home in a flag-draped box on his twenty-fourth birthday). There was a cat, like comic relief, swishing her tail, ready to pounce and scratch another brother who was taunting her (that one was always trouble and told that he would never amount to anything, but he surprised everyone and became a godly minister). There was another brother, the oldest, who was painting beautiful pictures in the strict privacy of his bedroom (he would go on to become a moderately successful artist with a breathtaking portfolio).
The forty-five-year-old Joe watches an eighteen-year-old Joe pouring coffee into a large mug that advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.” He was carrying a thick book of poems by Thomas Hardy. He’d just finished reading, The Newcomer’s Wife. He dog eared the page and set it down.
Suicide would have been the coward’s way out, he reminds himself through the window. His breath steams the pane. The scene changes.
The kitchen table is spread for Christmas dinner. She is there! Cassandra. Cassie. Recently turned sixteen. Two years younger than him. He was in love. His pulse thumped with excitement.
Dark shoulder length hair, poker straight, forming blue static sparks against a green sweater, extra cute. Her eyes were chocolate brown and wide with innocence, at the tippy end of childhood and the very beginning of adulthood, that minute in time again, like the magic of midnight.
Through the window, everyone stood suddenly, their chairs scraping backward as they scrambled for napkins and a towel. Cassie had spilled her drink. Young Joe reacted without thinking and blotted her green sweater with his napkin. He felt the firm mound of her fully-formed breasts and stopped, paralyzed with a powerful surge of discomfort, a gentlemanly realization. His face heated and hers turned red. Thoroughly embarrassed, she shoved his hand away and said, “Get off.” She apologized a week later. All was forgiven and forgotten. They were inseparable after that.
Love blossomed with the spring. Or maybe it was lust. That’s what Cassie’s father called it when he found out.
It was July. The air was hot. The sidewalks were dampened by sprinklers. The air smelled of mowed lawns and wet cement. A breeze didn’t offer much relief from the heat but carried with it the unique brackish scent of the Delaware River into the air-conditioned South Jersey town. He and Cassie agreed to meet in the wide-open privacy of a certain field, under a tall shade tree. Cass wasn’t much of a talker or a reader but she was a good listener, her eyes moving back and forth between his eyes and lips as he explained how the author of Moby Dick dedicated that timeless work to Nathaniel Hawthorne. “Isn’t that great, Cass?” She said, “Mm-hmm.”
Just as he was about to resume his literary lecture, she interrupted him with a honey smooth kiss, a kiss of a different kind, her tongue pushing with a rhythm and force suggestive of something more, something deeper. Shoving him from a sitting position to his back, she climbed on top of him, peeled off her top, and unclasped her bra. Her beauty fell out. “Remember these from Christmas, Joe?” He couldn’t respond.
He’ll never forget those chocolate eyes looking down at him, staring so intently into his, asking his permission without ever forming a sentence, unbuttoning his jeans, pulling him out, sinking him in with a gasp and a sigh. She screamed but not in pain. He almost passed out at the sharp, back-arching intensity of that first explosion but the sweat dripping from Cassie’s face kept him alert. He remembers tasting her salt. Afterward, she napped naked on his chest, her heart pressed to his, smiling. Her sweet ovulation blended with his pungent seed, another aroma added to the summer air, unique to them, their sex oozing out for the first time, disappearing into the green grass and clover, unseen—reappearing again late in August, when she discovered she was pregnant.
On a calm, firefly evening, he was laying on his stomach (like James Joyce), penning an essay required for entrance into a university level English program. He wanted to write. He wanted to teach. He wanted to spend the rest of his life with Cass, fulfilling her dreams then putting them to paper, days twice lived. But an angry fist pounded on the front screen door and changed all that. Even the crickets stopped chirping. Cassandra’s father, dark red in the face, towered over his own protective father, and tried to push and bully his way into the house.
“Your son raped my daughter!”
Eighteen-year-old Joe’s mouth fell open. The essay lay abandoned on the floor, never to be retrieved, crumpled by panicked feet.
Middle-aged Joe starts to cry. “Pick it up, Joe! Pick it up!” He’s banging on the window of the abandoned house. He wipes hot tears in a cold wind. When he can see clearly again, he dares to look back inside, knowing nobody outside his family ever believed he was innocent and it ruined his life. They tried to accuse him of statutory rape. Though the charge didn’t stick, the question on his record remained. So did his shame, like small town scarlet.
Cassandra stuck with her story. That’s what hurt the most, far more than his broken nose, his shattered heart. One day, He understandably but unwisely showed up at her house. He truly loved her. It would all work out. It was a simple misunderstanding—a lie told in fear—that’s all. There’s a baby on the way—their baby! “Cass!” he called. Her father opened the door and, with one powerful swing, punched him right off the porch. He fell to the lawn like a rag doll. Blood poured down his face, into his mouth, and in-between his teeth. “Stay away from my daughter!” he screamed. The neighbors were watching, of course, and talk, talk, talking. Next came the embarrassment of a restraining order, as if he were a threat or a danger.
So he left town and never returned. Until now. A loner. A writer with haunted eyes.
The wind is brutal and speaks to him with icy truth. He walks over to a tree he climbed as a boy, now old and bent as the house, but wide enough to block the wind. He pulls out a cigarette and a lighter. Zip. Zip. A brief orange flame. Hot nicotine fills his lungs. He sends a stream of smoke into the air and walks the yard in a stream of consciousness, remembering better days, hearing childhood voices, savoring the ghostly laughter of those he loved so deeply. For a moment, the house is young again, bright and happy. “Oh, I hear you! I hear all of you!” he says. Eager to tell a story. Any story. Their story.
One final look into the bay window. His parents, ancient and sickly, eyes gray with cataracts, and oxygen tubing to the nose. They turned to him, “Joseph! Joe! Is that you?” He touches the cold window. Leaves his fingerprints there. Yes, I’m here, mama, papa. “The son we thought was dead is alive!” Yes, I’m alive—painfully alive—I love you.
He crushes out his cigarette. His parents were crushed in a car accident on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. They died together. He came to say goodbye.
He takes one final look at the house. It will be demolished soon.
With a lanky stride, he walks a quarter of a mile to the end of Kansas Road, past the elementary school he attended as a child, past the field where love was conceived under a shade tree no longer standing, past sleepy, occupied houses—some awakening—all the way to the river. It’s the break of dawn. A new day. The twin span bridge arches in the distance. His parents exited this life together and entered into heaven, hand-in-hand. A fog horn sounds. He wants to cry. He wants to smile.
A cargo ship off in the distance. Far away. Small and slow.
The same cargo ship. Suddenly very near. Big and fast.
This is parallax. Illusion and reality, both. Two different lines of sight.
This is life. The past and present, both. A foreshortening at the midnight hour.
(Story first appeared in Village Square magazine, a literary publication of Writers Village University)