They rode by the familiar farmlands and he knew he was almost home. He often thought about home and when that thought burned in his mind he put it out. He was dead. They told him that was the only way to get through it. But they never told him what to do if he found himself alive again.
The sun blinded him and he closed his eyes and allowed its warm touch to stay. He felt the train slowing down as they approached the station.
Mother was so old now. She waited for him on the platform along with his father who stood with his hands behind his back like he always did. When the train came to a halt he stayed seated and a part of him wished to keep going west. She studied the faces that were getting out of the carts looking for the one she knew so well. She stood on her toes and tried to look into the train windows and he wondered if she would recognize him still.
His own mother was not his mother. She was once his mother. Her hair had turned grey, last he saw her it was black as night but now it was painted with grey locks and she looked so little like she had shrunk within two years and she saw him and her face broke into a smile and she began to cry. She tugged at his father’s sleeve and pointed at him her finger shaking.
She still knew him. His mother could still see him.
“Oh Henry, oh Henry,” she cried embracing him. His cheek wet from where she kissed him and where her tears marked him.
His father’s handshake was firm but not as it used to be.
“Good to see you again,” his father said. His eyes lingered on the side of his face for a few seconds before he cleared his throat and looked away.
His mother was glued to his side as if he was still a little boy and if she let him go he will get lost, never to be found or maybe it was the other way now. She walked with a slump the little cross that hung around her neck weighing her down. She glanced at his face a few times thinking he did not notice.
“Oh my handsome boy,” she said rubbing his hand, “handsome little boy.”
Her hands cradled his wrist and she smiled at him. Those capable hands which fixed everything he and his brother needed fixing and now what needed fixing could never be fixed with such hands or any other hands, all these hands could do now was to come together in prayer which fixed nothing.
His father was still the same. He walked slightly ahead of them in a plain white collared shirt that was neatly tucked into his trousers which were steam pressed that morning and his brown leather boots clicked on the ground, polished right before they left home. His hair had thinned in the past two years but he imagined that was natural unlike his mothers greying.
Something beeped on his father’s belt and he looked at it and then placed it back on his leather belt.
“He just got that thing,” his mother said, “apparently its the new thing to have. Did you see anything like that in Europe?”
“Its the devil I say, always beeping,” she laughed, “its bad enough his patients come and go in the house all the time but now they even come and go when we aren’t there.” She lowered her voice, “don’t tell him but I know he feels like a big shot ever since he got that beeping device.” She laughed again.
They lived in a small town in Illinois so small that even the railroad had forgotten to come there. It didn’t matter much anymore, not as much as it did when he was younger when only the Robertsons had a car. His father briefly explained why he bought the Ford as they left the station behind, he heard the train leaving. He told him about the Fords reliability and its efficient gas mileage and he sounded like a car salesman himself.
“That’s nice, pa.” He said.
His mother sat in the back for she had insisted that he sit in the front. She talked for talking sake talking about all the things he had missed while he was away. All two years worth. He listened and didn’t talk much. His father didn’t talk much either but he did look at him every now and then as if to make sure he was still there.
“They’re renovating the school down the road. It’s going to look real nice. Maybe we can finally get a station there too. Wouldn’t that be nice? We wouldn’t have to make this drive if we had one there but then again it’s not like you will be leaving any time soon right?”
The old house was new. Surprise Henry, his mother said, do you like it, we had some extra savings and thought it would be worth fixing the house up a little. You like the paint and see how the steps don’t make any noise now, remember how you were always scared of the creaking at night but you don’t have to worry about that anymore, she laughed, Debra, he’s a grown man now, his father said, he won’t be scared of nothing like that anymore. I’ll show you the new barn, he said, come around, you still remember the way, he laughed, of course, he does, his mother said, it hasn’t been that long. I was joking, he said, look, Henry, isn’t she beautiful, remember how that storm that year tore it apart, how you and Stephen, he cleared his throat, how you were heartbroken over it but look now, its brand new, fixed and everything. You want to go inside?
“Maybe later, pa.”
“Oh yes, of course,” his father cleared his throat again. “Must be tired.”
“Come on you two.” His mother called from the front porch.
The apple tree in the front yard, its branches dipping as if it were bowing, rotten apples littered the floor for the good ones were picked off by the dogs. Mother wasn’t lying, the stairs didn’t creak and there was a wind chime besides the front door and it sang a tune with the help of the breeze. Front door wore a new green coat as the older one’s seams had been coming apart. The screen door was oiled so that it didn’t squeal when his father opened it and he remarked at how smooth it was now.
He coughed walking inside and his mother asked him if he was okay. Her hand jumped to his forehead and started feeling his temperature and he gently pushed it away.
“I’m good, ma.”
“Debra I said not to leave these candles burning.”
“Oh, I thought Henry would like it. Do you like it?”
Mothers candles had impregnated the wooden walls and the couches and floorboards. The new aroma couldn’t be escaped and he knew it would be on him too.
He looked around at the pictures. His own face looking back at him in most of the frames. Open box with the medal inside was placed on the pedestal and the picture beside it caught his attention for he had been seeking that face in the other frames.
Mother saw him looking and she said, “Oh Henry its so good to have you back.” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him away.
He remembered something. Something that he had been looking forward to for a long time now.
“Wheres Charlie?” He asked.
“Poor Charlie.” Mother said.
“He was a good dog.” His father said.
That’s all they said and he didn’t want to know how for he knew enough.
“Why don’t you go freshen up. Take a nap. Your mother will get the dinner ready.” Father said and he did as he said.
He carried his luggage up the stairs careful not to hit the walls his father hated that. He passed by the closed door that would remain closed and into his old room. Right away he noticed something. A cross hung above the bed, above where his head would be. On the cross was a wooden figure of Christ, nailed, bleeding, looking down at where his head would be.
He put the bag at the foot of the door. The bed was neatly made his mothers touch evident in the folds. He sat at the edge of it disturbing it as little as possible. The soft mattress folding under his weight and sinking him deeply. He had gotten used to the dirt fields and stone beds and now the comfort was uncomfortable and he stood up.
He straightened out the blemishes he had made on the mattress and it looked as if he had never been there. He sat down on the wooden chair by his study table. He leaned back into it and folded his arms across his chest and stared at the cross above his bed. He watched it as he tried to put together what his life used to be here but he couldn’t find all the pieces anymore and perhaps that was a symptom of dying. He wondered why he only remembered the things he wished to forget. He was relieved from that thought when his mother called his name.
They prayed before dinner. They had never done that before but he did as his mother wanted and he felt his father did the same as they all held hands and his mother whispered and thanked the good lord for bringing him back home, thanked him for the blessings and thanked him for the food. After they said amen, she kissed his cheek.
“Handsome boy.” She said. Her fingers crept up the side of his face and the tips brushed over the scared ridges and he grabbed her wrist and moved her hand.
“You’ve been quiet, Henry, is everything all right?” His father asked as he cut into his steak. The knife slicing through the flesh and the blood spilling out.
“I’m fine.” He replied.
He wasn’t hungry but ate nonetheless. His mother watched him eat and took satisfaction as if every bite he ate filled her up. His knife gently piercing the tough skin of the meat and the blood drizzled out onto the plate and tried not to look and his knife scratched the bottom of the plate.
“What took you so long to come back? Summers boy came back two months ago.”
Henry took a sip of his whiskey. His father had poured him some and it was the first time his father ever saw him drink. It was a cause of celebration his father had said as he handed him the glass.
“Just difficult getting back, you know, there were so many of us.”
“Did you ever get to see Paris?” His mother asked.
Henry shook his head. “‘Fraid not.”
“Oh, what a shame, it’s so beautiful, your father and I went there for our honeymoon, didn’t we?”
“I imagine its not so pretty at the moment.” His father said.
His mother slowly nodded understanding what he had said “maybe not. That’s a shame.”
“We went by it,” Henry said. “On the train, I think I heard someone say that the smoke was coming from Paris but I’m not sure. I guess I shouldn’t say we went by it.”
His father studies him closely and he felt his eyes on him so he took another sip of his whiskey and then stabbed at the steak in front of him trying to seem busy.
“Get any sleep?” His father asked.
“Do you sleep well enough at night?”
“Cause if your not you know I can help you.” His father could always tell when he was lying or at least when he was masking the truth.
“Summer brought her boy to see me the other week. He had been having a nightmare-”
His mother interrupted. “Is it necessary to talk about things like that at the dinner table?” She smiled as if her smile could take back what they were all thinking.
His father observed him some more and then went back to his steak. He stabbed at it, ripping it apart, blood spilling out and he lifted the torn flesh and chewed on it and then used the whiskey to wash it down.
“We should all go on a vacation someday.” Mother said. “Lord knows we deserve it.” She touched her forehead and then her chest and then either shoulder. He had seen that so many times and he had seen dead men do it just as the living did it and he didn’t see any of it doing anything for either side.
The grandfather clock in the corner of the room ticked and filled the void of silence and the scratching of knives flooded in where the clock failed. He wished to be alone. Be back in his room. The thought of being alone in his room rooted him in the chair and he was glad he wasn’t alone but seeing his fathers eyes staring at him and his mother watching him eat made him wish he was still on that train, running across Europe, the war done with, people celebrating as the news came that they were all going home and that they had made it, survived for another day and perhaps now they can survive till they were old and grey but so many of them slept the endless sleep in some dirty, muddy field and he wished it hadn’t ended so he could sleep with them. He still couldn’t figure out why he was home or why he was sitting at the table and on the chair that he had grown up on and he remembered wishing for this moment when he was freezing in the Italian mountains, the snow makings joints rigid and perhaps it was that wish being granted now but he had wished for so many other things, so many things and why not have any other wish come true, he saw the empty chair beside his father, so many other wishes but he was here now and he had wished to be here and now he wished he wasn’t and he didn’t know what he wished for.
He realized his mother was talking to him and he quickly finished the last of the whiskey.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah…I was just thinking about something…sorry.”
His father watched over the brim of the cup as he took another sip of whiskey.
“I was saying that I almost forgot about the letter that came for you.”
“For me? What letter?”
Maybe it was all a dream and he would be called back and that the Germans weren’t really gone and they needed him back again and he didn’t know he could do it again, he didn’t know if he could stay whole again but he wasn’t whole and he hadn’t been whole ever since those uniformed men had come with the medal and the flag.
She looked at his father and smiled as if the two knew something he didn’t and they had planned all along to surprise him with something delightful and that look erased his fears and the thought of those fears made him ashamed.
“It’s from a Mr. O’Hare.”
“No, no, Alfred O’Hare of the Evening Times paper. Wait a moment I’ll go get it.”
Of course, it wasn’t from Jack. Jack was one of them whose prayer didn’t go as well. Jack was still alive. Jack was alive because he thought about him. He hadn’t thought about Jack for a little while and that killed him. He thought about Jack now and that meant he was alive. He thought about his brother too.
His mother handed him the letter and stood by the shoulder. “Sorry, dear that I read it. I couldn’t help myself.” She rubbed his shoulder and laughed. His father said nothing.
Henry read the letter and it was what he thought it would be. He folded it up neatly and placed it on the dining table.
His mother allowed for a few seconds to pass before she squeezed his shoulder and asked, “well? What do you think?”
“I think I need to go to bed now.”
His father leaned back on his chair with the drink in his hand. He took a sip as the grandfather clock continued ticking. Henry stood to leave.
“I suppose sleeping on it is a good thing.” His mother said. “Come here.” She had to stand on the tip of her toes to kiss him on his cheek. “My handsome little boy.”
He heard his parents talking as he went upstairs. They seemed to be arguing. He walked to the room that was to stay closed. He stopped in front of it for a moment and then started again. He washed his hands. He kept the lights off as he turned on the sink and the water flowed out. Cold water rushing down, washing over his hands as he rubbed them together and stared at his own dark reflection. He could still see it in the dark. His wet hand skimmed over the side of his face. He could still feel it. Jack couldn’t feel it. His brother couldn’t feel it. He felt it and he felt ashamed of feeling it because he could still feel it.
He went to his room.
He sat down at the edge of his bed and read the letter again. He read three lines in particular over and over. Provide living quarters in the city. Be happy to offer a position on the staff. Could use a man of your substance whose done so much for our nation.
There was a time when reading those lines would have sent him into a euphoric state and had him running around wild, showing the letter to everyone he could. Mother had always said he had too much life in him for his own good and the thought of living in the big city, working for a newspaper, these were the things he had wanted and them coming true would have brought all his life out of him.
He realized how much life had bled out of him. It must have gone out of him slowly, drop by drop, perhaps at night when he was asleep so that he didn’t notice the life leaving him as he dreamt those dreams that belonged to someone else and now he sat on someone else’s bed and read the letter that belonged to someone else and he could feel the life leaving him.
His hands trembled as he leaned forward on his elbows that dug into his thighs. The letter fell to the floor. He didn’t think about crying or know why he was but the tears came without invitation and they wet his wrist as they fell from his face. He made no sound. He heard the floorboards creak outside and his mother’s voice saying good night.
He laid down on the bed, fully clothed, a sliver of the moon visible from through the cracks of the curtains on the window beside his bed. Cool air drifted through and a dog barked outside and he could only think of one thought.
He was older than his older brother.