Part 2 of a new, short project. Or maybe long. I don’t know. You can catch up from the beginning here.
Nicole’s dad grew up in Boston, but ended up living and working in Western Massachusetts because that’s where he was able to find a job. Every once in a while it comes out in her voice, the harsh nasal tones of Jamaica Plain. He was a cop. She always wanted to be a cop. Thinking about him makes me feel warm—we spent much of our childhood at each other’s houses.
“The Lieutenant gave me a couple days off so I could help out, I’m switching some hours so I can cover the Big E clinic in a couple weeks anyway.” She drops the r in hours.
I shake my head. “The what?”
“Ah, well you know, basketball.”
“Right,” I say. I forget—even though Nicole was a giant nonconformist in high school, she inherited two things from her dad. She always wanted to be a cop, and she loves UMASS basketball. When she got out of the Army, she got to combine the two—she’s the newest member of the UMASS Amherst Police Department. Most campus police departments are tiny, but with a student population of more than 30,000, UMASS needs a sizable one.
As Nicole drives out of South Hadley Falls toward my parents’ house, my eyes keep drifting off the road and blurring. I haven’t been home yet—my flight got in at 9 am and I went straight to meet Nicole and then pick up Jasmine. I haven’t been home, and I don’t know what to expect when I get there.
Despite the unusually warm, almost balmy weather, I feel like February. Cold. Lifeless. I ignore the traffic on Newton Street until we approach Mount Holyoke College. The house is on the left.
My parents own—owned—a two story Colonial with a wraparound porch, sagging foundations, and nine acres of horse pasture nested behind the neighboring properties. I don’t know where the horses are, or if they’ve been boarded or taken care of, or if they’re just on the property, hungry (or dead?). I don’t know if the house is locked, or if Jasmine has a key (I don’t) or anything much at all. But I can see the house up ahead on the left, nestled in the shade of a stand of trees. The gravel driveway doesn’t look any worse than it did when I was on leave last January. I missed Christmas by a few weeks last year, but Mom and Dad made up for it, including cutting down a fresh tree and decorating it. I remember when I walked in the house, exhausted from two solid days of travel. When I saw the tree I almost burst into tears.
When my mother saw me, she did burst into tears.
I’m having trouble keeping it together today. It’s been months since I’ve been here, months since I’ve seen my parents, and I never expected to be coming home an orphan.
That’s a word I’d never applied to myself. I don’t like the way it feels.
Nicole seems to sense my shift. She is unusually quiet—a near impossibility for her—as we approach the house. When she turns on the left hand turn signal, the clicking is as loud as helicopter blades. Traffic, oblivious traffic, flows by in the opposite direction. None of them know my parents are dead.
None of them know that I am going to have to figure out how to be a parent to an eight-year-old girl.
Nicole turns left. The tires hit the deep ruts of the driveway and a splash of mud flies away from the car. Then she comes to a stop behind my mother’s minivan and switches off the ignition, blanketing the three of us in an uncomfortable and unpleasant silence. A bird chirps in the distance, and somewhere closer, a horse snorts.
I can smell the pungent tang of a skunk. Not close, but close enough. You can often smell them in the area in the summer time.
I open the passenger door and slide out, my combat boots slipping half an inch into the mud. That’s okay. After today I won’t really be wearing them again, unless it’s for working around the house and grounds. As always, the house looks like it needs work—Mom and Dad loved the idea of fixing up an old house, but in practice it had always been more of a dream and ideal. I love this old house. But I also associate it with unfinished drywall, cracked and dry flooring and drafty windows. Mom gardened sometimes, and often spent hours riding the horses, but Dad’s idea of enjoying the outdoors was sitting on the old rocker on the side porch.
I take a deep breath and listen again. I can hear the horses, for sure. As soon as we get into the house, I’ll walk over to the stable and check on them. In the meantime, I look down at Jasmine, who meets my eyes with an uncertain smile.
“You ready, Pipsqueak?”
She nods. But from the expression in her eyes, I don’t think she really is. She’s an orphan too, and she’s never been in this house without our parents being alive. I pick her up and put my arms around her, and she squeezes her arms around my shoulders. Then I walk up the side stairs and onto the porch.
The grey paint on the porch deck is peeling just a little, and a lot underneath the rocking chairs. A glass, still half-full of sweet iced tea, sits on the table in between the two rockers. The tea has mold growing on the top. Dad must have left it when they went out.
I approached the side door and reached out to open it.
No luck. It’s locked. Of course. The keys are probably at the morgue, and I’m not going there, not with Jasmine. Maybe another day. In the meantime, I need to check the front and back doors and maybe the windows. Worse case, I can probably push one of the window-unit air conditioners in through the window and climb over it.
“Let me put you down. I gotta check the front door.”
I slide Jasmine to her feet, then walk to the front door. She hurries along beside me.
It’s locked. Damn it. I check under the mat and along the top of the door frame, but no luck. This is unlike my father, who could barely remember to tie his shoes sometimes. Maybe Mom locked it.
“I’ll check the back,” Nicole said. She knows the way as well as I did—when we were in school, Nicole spent as much time in our home as she did in her own. In the meantime, I start checking for unlocked windows. Probably several are unlocked, but they might not open easily. Many layers of paint combined with the heat of summer tends to seal windows shut.
“Do you know where Mom and Dad have been keeping the key?” I ask Jasmine.
She shakes her head. I look over toward the garage. I haven’t been in there in a long time, and I don’t really want to go in now. But it seems that if there’s any place the house key might be hidden, it would be on a hook in there.
“Stay here,” I say.
I walk toward the two car garage. It’s detached from the rest of the house, a white building with a shallow angled roof and no windows. Dad always keeps the Austin Healey parked in here, and the van stays in the driveway.
Rather, he kept it in there. Dad’s beloved classic car was crushed by a flying commercial oven. It won’t be in there ever again.
I slowly walk toward the garage. I can feel weight on me as I do so. Some of my happiest memories of childhood are in that garage. I want to go in there, but not right now. Instead I want to wait. I want to go slow, take my time, peel it back like a bandaid.
Nicole comes back around the corner. “I found the key,” she says.
I close my eyes. There’s no way I can express the relief that floods through me. I follow Nicole back up the stair onto the porch. Jasmine is leaning against the front door, uselessly turning the knob. Nicole says, “Hey, honey, let me unlock it.”
We enter the house.
The living room looks the same as always. The wide plank flooring which has needed refinishing since before I’ve been alive; the mix of antique and thrift-store furniture surrounding a broad coffee table. The curtains are drawn back, light streaming into the house. It looks indecently normal.
The floor creaks a little as I walk down the hall toward the kitchen. The hallway smells, and the odor gets stronger as I approach the kitchen. It’s been three days since anyone has been in the house—it smells like something went rank in the trashcan.
The kitchen is brightly lit. The blue flowery wallpaper is peeling in the corners, and fruit flies buzz around the trash can. I brush the lid open and see a banana peel crawling with fruit flies. I shudder, then begin to gather up the garbage to take outside. This needs to be fixed right now.
Nicole is in the living room with Jasmine. I can hear Nicole’s voice but can’t make out the words. She’s speaking in almost musical tones, and I realize as I pull the bag out of the can that I’m crying. Normally Dad would have taken the garbage out later that night. But he won’t be taking any garbage out ever again. As I pull the bag out, the stainless steel can falls over with a crash. I stagger toward the kitchen door and open it up, then walk to the trashcan out back. Flies buzz around the can.
Furiously I wipe my face and eyes. I need to hold it together. I’ve got an eight-year-old sister in there who has been through hell. And she needs my help. I turn and walk back into the house.
When I enter the living room, Nicole looks up. Her eyes narrow a little bit. “You okay?” she asks.
She could always see right through me. I shrug and say, “You know.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Let me get your duffel bag. Why don’t you and Jasmine check out upstairs? She was asking about her stuffed bunny, but didn’t want to go up alone.”
I smile at my little sister. Jasmine’s usually not afraid of anything. “Come on, Pipsqueak. Let’s both get changed and then we’ll go check on the horses.”
I stand up and take her hand.
This (like everything on my website) is copyrighted by Charles Sheehan-Miles, all rights reserved.