In the weeks and months after my father left, our house felt unfamiliar to me. Although I could picture him standing at the bathroom sink shaving or sitting in the front room chair, reading the newspaper, it wasn’t his ghost that made the house feel lonely and haunted. It was my mother. She was a wreck after dad left, as any spouse might be after coming to terms with that kind of news, that your once happy family would no longer be happy nor together. On any given night, I’d find her crying in the kitchen, in her bed, in the car on the way to the grocery store and in the living room watching the evening news. My father’s absence seemed to affect her more than it did me. I missed my father but she was in love with him—deeply in love from the day they met, and once he was gone, she missed him in a whole and tragic way. However, once those recurring waves of grief had dissipated, there wasn’t much left of the mother I knew; no heart, no soul, no life…until that incident in August my first year of junior high.
Summer was still very much in the air in my neighborhood. People were grilling steaks for dinner and in addition to homework, after school activities still consisted of sprinklers and trips to the local pool. Although kids in town couldn’t start the day until school was out and our homework was done, we ruled the town from midafternoon until the first section of street lights lit up the block. I don’t remember the day of the week, but it was a school night and until about 7:30 that evening, the air felt every bit as hot as it did at noon. All the neighborhood kids had started a game of kickball uptown where we played two games of all nine innings before the sun went down and the lights began to flicker. My mother was distant and in my father’s absence, she had become stricter and more prone to dole out punishments if you were late getting home—especially on a school night. When those lights came on, all the kids ran to their bicycles lying in the moistening grass, mounted them and took off for home.
When I arrived, my mother was sitting on the porch swing with a cup of black coffee and swaying slowly in the evening air. Riding home, I passed the post office, the village council building, through neighborhood smells of scented fabric softener and cut grass, through clouds of gnats that hung silently above Liberty Street where my house sat at the end of the block on a corner lot. Whatever excitement gathered from rounding bases and scoring points got popped like a birthday balloon when I saw my mother’s silhouette under the front porch light.
“You guys have fun?” she asked, looking at me from the shadows of the porch.
“It was. I scored three runs,” I said, trying to keep the conversation positive.
“That’s great,” she said, taking a sip of her coffee and looking out at the empty front yard.
I walked inside, careful not to let the screen door slam behind me and made my way upstairs. It was hard to see her like that, sitting quietly by herself with no radio, no TV show, no conversation to fill the quiet house. She just sat there on the porch swing every night of the week, especially if the weather was nice and even some rainy nights when it wasn’t. She seemed to fill her time with thinking and worrying and reminiscing.
I was lying on my bed, reading the school library’s bent and creased copy of To Kill a Mockingbird when I heard my father’s Ford pull into the front yard. I recognized the sound of the engine instantly and if it was quiet and calm outside, I could hear it up the street as it rolled through town. I got up from the bed and went to the window, peering out into the front yard where the truck was now parked. The driver’s side door opened and the dome light lit up the cab. He had a passenger; a woman a little older than my mother, sat in the seat against the door. I turned and headed downstairs, reaching the bottom step as he opened the front screen door.
“Dad!” I yelled, running and throwing my arms around him.
“Good to see you,” he said, hugging me back, tightly. I could feel my mother standing in the kitchen doorway behind us.
“I thought you said you would call before you ever dropped by?” my mother said. She leaned against one side of the doorframe; her eyes trained on my father.
“I won’t be long. Just needed a few things,” he said.
He headed up the steps and I watched my mother watch him walk up there. He looked like a stranger going up the same stairs he’d climbed hundreds of times over the years. Even when he disappeared behind the upstairs door, she still watched that doorway, waiting for him to reappear with whatever it was he needed to come back for.
“He drives out here, all this way, on a weeknight,” my mother said, mostly to herself.
“Where does he live?”
“In the city somewhere. It’s a long way to be out driving on a weeknight,” she said, still not looking away.
“Maybe he doesn’t have to work tomorrow.”
“He better be working,” she said.
“Maybe they’re going on a trip,” I said. My mother finally looked at me.
“Who’s ‘they?’” she asked, looking down at me, right into my eyes. The question was a mistake and I knew it the moment it left my lips. There was new awareness and life in her eyes and whatever was burning behind them was momentarily directed at me.
“The woman out in the truck,” I said, reluctantly.
My mother shot passed me, nearly knocking me down, heading with heavy stomps for the front door. It flew open, smacking the outside wall of the house with a loud crack. I followed after her, an involuntary reflex on my part, like being carried by the wind of a summer storm, out onto the front porch but where I stopped at the top of the step, she did not. She bolted across the front yard toward the truck. She gripped the handle and yanked the door open, grabbing the woman inside by the arm. She tore the fabric of the woman’s shirt and pulled her into the grass. The woman fought back but, in that moment, in my mother’s hot and primal rage, the woman was never going to get the upper hand. Mom grabbed her by her hair at the back of her head and lifted it off the ground.
“If you ever show your face here again, I’ll kill you. Do you understand me?” Mom said, her teeth clenched but her voice low and relatively calm. “Do you?”
“Y-yes,” the woman said, helpless in mom’s grip.
“What the hell is going on?” My father raced across the yard but mom was already letting the woman go. “What happened?” Mom turned to my father, looking up at him under the glow of the street light. They looked like a couple in an old detective movie, standing in a dim pool of light in the alleyway of some corrupt city.
“Don’t you ever bring her here again,” she turned from him and walked back into the house. I stood there, unable to move, watching my father help the woman from the truck into her seat and collect the bags he’d dropped in the grass. He looked at me and I could tell that he was sad, but he said nothing, just rubbed my cheek and walked back to the truck.
It was still hot by 11:30 that night, so hot that it woke me up. I must’ve been tossing and turning anyway because the light sheet I had draped over my legs was twisted and falling off the bed. The whole house smelled like freshly brewed coffee and it was the first thing I noticed before I even opened my eyes. The bedroom was mostly dark except for the warm light coming up from downstairs and the blue light of night coming in through the window. I got up and went to the window after realizing it had been shut and slid it open. The world outside was noisy with frogs in distant ponds and crickets chirping somewhere in the yard below the window. I stood there a moment, looking down in the spot where mom and the woman had their episode. Orange light from above laid across the grass just beside the tracks of my father’s truck.
It was then that I heard slow, heavy footsteps and the front screen door open. It smacked closed against the frame and I heard the rustling of something being moved around downstairs. Mom was up to something but it only lasted for a moment before I heard the jangle of the porch swing chains. There was a slight crackle and some music began to play. Some guitar picking at first and then Loretta Lynn’s voice chimed in. The swing began to creak and sway and I could hear mom sip her coffee and mumble along to the song. I went back to my bed, climbed in, and stared up at the ceiling. For the first time in years, with music playing softly downstairs, I felt the whole house exhale.
About the author: Michael Williamson
Michael Williamson is a filmmaker, writer, and journalist living in Ohio. He has worked as both a staff writer and freelance reporter for daily and weekly newspapers. Currently, he attends Ohio University where he is a candidate for an MFA in Film.
We ask: What was your inspiration for this story?
This story is dedicated to my late grandmother, Callean, and is based in part on an apocryphal story about her told by my mother and uncle. Though it may be fiction, I wanted the story to capture her spirit and personality, if only as a sketch. I’ve always loved stories that can take you to a place or time that feels like both a memory and a reality.