And now, the third place finisher in the 2010 Summer of Fiction competition.
Anger, guilt, grief. Larry explores them all in this touching story.
by Larry Gottschamer
I can’t believe the old bastard’s dead.
The battered, rust colored Cadillac lurched as Riley braked to keep from missing the driveway. And the place looks like shit. I don’t even recognize it. He turned to nose the fat car into the overgrown opening.
The Caddy pitched and wallowed down the rutted drive like a ship in heavy seas. Reaching the end, he drifted to a stop and killed the engine. As he rolled down the window, pungent swamp scent filled the car, bringing back his childhood. It’s been so long I can’t tell if it smells like shit or flowers.
He sat quietly looking through the dirty windshield at the house. The wipers left a pair of surprised eyebrows over the smeared bugs. Gonna have to clean that before I head back. I’ll stop off at the Texaco.
Riley threw his shoulder into the door, listening to the hinges squeal as he swung out from the tattered seat. The door closed with a dull thump. He leaned in through the open window and grabbed the smokes off the dash. He fished a lighter from his shirt pocket. As he rounded the car, he noticed with a critical eye how sad the old car looked. Needs new tires, too. Maybe I can swing it next payday.
Propping a worn cowboy boot on the bumper, he lit a cigarette behind a cupped hand. The sweet smell of tobacco floated into the humid air and chased the mosquitoes away. He scootched up on the hood, put both run-down boots on the chrome bumper and felt soothing warmth seep through his jeans. The quiet ticking of the cooling engine melded with the songs of bullfrogs and cicadas. Who was he kidding? He’d driven the long way to get there and now he was taking the long way to get in the house, but there was only so much putting off he could do. He’d made every excuse to stay away while the bastard was alive, but he couldn’t procrastinate a funeral.
I shoulda come back to see him.
Riley faced the house and took a deep pull on his smoke. Tired and weathered, the bungalow stood in quiet desperation. The dark stain of neglect and age climbed its unsteady walls while the roof line sagged from the weight of too many years. The deck sagged as well, but in a tighter spread like combers pushing in from an angry sea. The old live oak, around which the driveway curled, bore a bright lightning-strike scar down its trunk; the exposed heartwood gleamed in the hollow light. In the yard, the weeds overran the once manicured lawn.
Riley was almost done with the cigarette when the bedroom light came on. Through the oak, he saw the glow from the back of the house and watched the hall light, then the front room and finally the porch light progress toward him.
“Riley, that you?”
“Yeah.” He palmed what was left of his smoke hoping she wouldn’t see it.
“Well, you comin’ in?”
“I’m stretching. It was a long drive.”
“You’re smoking.” He could hear the disapproval in her voice.
The door thumped shut and Riley sighed. He flicked the butt into the gloom and watched the trail of sparks bounce off the damp soil. Sure as shit ain’t gonna start a fire. He pulled his green army duffel bag out of the Cadillac’s room-sized trunk and slung it over his shoulder as he entered the house.
“Put that in your old room. You hungry?”
“Not really.” Riley bumped down the narrow hallway. Opening the door, he looked around in surprise. She hasn’t changed a thing; it looks exactly like when I was a kid. Even the bedspread’s the same. How old is that fucking thing? He dropped the bag on the floor and returned to the kitchen. “But you know how driving makes you wanna eat?”
She gave a soft smile. “I figured. It’s a long trip down from Tallahassee. I made up some chicken and noodles. Take jus’ a sec to heat it up.”
“Ah, Ma, that’s sweet.”
“Hush, now. Go wash up.”
He moved past her to the kitchen sink and watched her profile while she rustled in the fridge. “How are you doing?”
“Good, by the grace, though it’s been a tough patch.” She looked at him over her shoulder. “He wanted to see you.”
Riley pushed at the creases on his forehead with a tired hand, hoping to wipe off the guilt. “I know, Ma. I’m sorry. I thought I had more time, you know? I didn’t expect him to—” He paused and rubbed his forehead again with the other hand. “I don’t think he woulda cared much anyway.”
“Riley, don’t.” She eyed him and shook her head. “He was jus tryin’ to do the right thing by you. Problem is, you’re more’n alike than you want to admit.”
He sighed. It was old ground. No need to tramp it again. “What are you gonna do?”
She turned in surprise. “Do? Well, I guess I’ll bury ’im. And git back to living. There ain’t been much time for that lately.”
Well, here goes. “You know, Sheila and I thought,”—he watched as she scooped chicken and noodles into a chipped enamel pot and put the lid on—“well, we thought maybe, you should come up to Tallahassee.” She shook a wooden match out of the Mason jar she kept by the stove and ran its head across the striker thumbtacked to the wall. The match hissed to life and the brief flare highlighted her face. Riley suddenly realized how old she looked. “At least for a little while. See if you like it. We got that extra room and all.”
She faced him, pointing with the wooden spoon. “James Patrick O’Riley, I know what you’re doin’. And I ain’t gonna stand for it.”
Oh, shit. Here we go.
“Your father, bless his heart, was a cantankerous old beast, and the cancer didn’t help. He withered and dried up like an old fig and was more than a cross to bear, and now he’s gone. An’ I need to git on with my life. I spent the last eighteen months carin’ for him. Givin’ him his meds, even wipin’ his ass. When the end finally came it was blessedly quick, but now it’s over. And tomorrow we’re gonna give him a proper burial, jus’ like he wanted.”
“Yes, Mama. That’s why I came.”
“No, Mr. O’Riley. You’re here ‘cause you think your poor old mama cain’t take care of herself no more. You and that girl of yours wanna keep an eye on me.” She snorted. “Smother me’s more likely.” She broke into a singsong voice. “Mama, you doin okay? Mama, how you feeling today? You look tired; maybe you should rest. Mama, lemme do that for you.”
“Ain’t no ‘But Mamas’ round here. I was born here and raised a pack of you kids, and I sure as shit—”
Oh fucking Christ, now she’s cussing.
“—ain’t going to Tallahassee.”
“Okay, Mama. Okay.”
She glared at him before turning to give the noodles a stir.
Shit. That went well. Wait’ll I tell Sheila she was right. She’s gonna love that.
He could see Mama’s shoulders shake and crossed the kitchen in one step. Putting a hand on her back, he felt the old bones rolling beneath his palm. She continued to stir the noodles, banging her feelings into the pot.
“Carin’ for the living is the easy part. It’s carin’ for the dyin that’s hard. I can care for myself jus’ fine.” She released the spoon and faced him. “It’s easier now that he’s gone, son. I know that’s an awful thing to say, but it’s true. God have mercy on my soul.” Her face twisted and something inside of Riley broke. “It’s the God awful truth. Ain’t that jus’ terrible of me?”
“Oh, Mama, I should’ve come home sooner.” He should’ve come home for her rather than staying away to punish an angry old man. Mama was the one who suffered from his absence. Riley gathered her into his arms and listened to her sob until her tears ran dry.