“Next stop!” The conductor calls out the town I swore I’d never go back to. It’s the last place I want to be. But the brakes are squealing and my fare’s run out, so I grab my duffel and break my vow.
I’m the only passenger getting off here. It’s cold—cold enough to see my breath and make me wish I’d worn a heavier jacket. The station is just as I remember: broken benches, peeling paint, graffitied signs.
A man’s on the platform, walking toward me. I squint as he approaches, hardly believing my eyes. But there he is, big and beefy, just as I remember him.
“So,” my father says. “The prodigal son returns.” I don’t look like him. I resemble my mother: dark-haired, slender. He gives me the once over. “You look like a city boy.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“Wasn’t a compliment.” Pop spits on the platform. “Don’t know why you came.”
“And yet…here I am.”
He snorts. “Come on, then.”
I follow him onto the sidewalk. He doesn’t have a car—but then, why should he? We aren’t going far. My steps slow as we pass the high school, my head turning in a kind of sick fascination. You know, like when a when a car slams into a telephone pole and you run over to gawk at crumpled metal and broken glass. But then you see the blood and the limp body and you have to look away.
“Won the league championship last year,” Pop says, gesturing. “Had a chance at states, but the boys blew it. Can’t compete with them blacks from the city.” He goes on to cite yards gained, extra kicks blocked, and the colleges courting the star quarterback. I tune him out, until the end, when he sighs and adds, “If you’d made the team back then—even third string—things mighta turned out different.”
“No,” I say. “They wouldn’t have.” I clear my throat. “I had the lead in the school play.” Not that Pop had attended. He hadn’t let Mom come, either.
He makes a sound of disgust. “You wore eyeliner.”
Our old house lurks just around the next corner. It looks the same, too. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Peeling paint? Sagging gutters? Weeds? Pop wouldn’t stand for any of that.
Everything in its place, he used to tell me. Pop was always one for pithy sayings. A clean home makes for a clean life was another favorite. I heard A man knows what he has to do, and does it more times than I care to count.
During that last spring, he preferred You’re a goddamned embarrassment. I can’t even look at you.
He’s thinking that now, I’m sure of it. But what he says is, “She’s not here.”
“I know.” I hike my duffel strap higher on my shoulder and take off down the sidewalk. Pop follows, muttering.
“You broke her heart. Forget about me. But her—she didn’t deserve it. None of it.”
“I never wanted to hurt either of you.”
“Huh. Should’ve thought of that before you made your choice.”
“It wasn’t a choice,” I say wearily. “You might have tried to understand.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. I raised you better than that. It wasn’t a choice, what I found you doing with that other fag in the back seat of my own goddamned car?”
I feel my face grow hot, despite the icy weather.
“At least you could have chosen not to do it in my driveway.” He spits on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb. “And then leaving the way you did, the very day you got done school—”
“Would you have let me stay?”
“No. Choices have consequences. I taught you that, at least. But…” He halts as we reach the intersection. “I was ready to forgive. If you’d apologized. If you’d given it up… You could’ve stayed. Could’ve settled down here in town. Gotten married…”
“I did get married,” I say quietly. “Last year. I invited you and mom.”
Dad’s face flushes beet red. “If you’d gotten married in the eyes of God,” he spat. “To a woman.”
Fuck you, I think. But what I say is, “This is old. Let’s not talk about it.” Because I’ve grown? Or because I’m just the same? I’m not sure.
My mother sent a gift to the wedding. Just that—a gift. No note, no phone call, no well wishes. Just olive drab towels in a plain white box. I hadn’t known what to make of it.
The light changes; we cross the street. The hospital looms, concrete and glass set against gray sky and winter mountains.
We cross the lobby and enter the elevator. The long corridor feels like a gangplank. I gulp a lungful of oxygen. Pop fades away as I step through the door.
The sight of him is a shock. He’s wasted with cancer, his large body little more than a collection of bones piled under a blanket. His chalky skin stretches thinly across the angles of his cheekbones.
A monitor beeps; otherwise the room is silent. My mother’s sitting beside the bed in what looks like a highly uncomfortable chair. Her head’s bowed and a rosary entwines her fingers. Her hair’s gone gray. That’s another shock, though why it should be, I couldn’t tell you. It’s been twenty years since I’ve seen her.
Mom’s head comes up; her eyes widen. “Vincent! You came.”
I lower my duffel. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”
“No,” she says. “I didn’t think that.”
I want to hug her, but I’m not sure she wants me too. She’s crying now, silent tears running down her cheeks.
“How long?” I ask.
She sniffs. “Hours, the doctor says.”
I locate a second chair—a hard plastic one—and pull it up beside hers. I hesitate, then take her hand as I sit. Her fingers are ice cold; they grip mine tightly.
“Thank you for coming,” she says.
“It was no problem.”
“How long will you stay?”
My gaze drifts over the man who taught me to ride a bike, to fish, to fix a leaky faucet. And other, more intangible things, both good and bad.
A man knows what he has to do, and does it.
I squeeze my mother’s hand. “I’m here for as long as you need me.”
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