We Can't Go Home Again

from the book We Can't Go Home Again by Max Andrew Dubinsky

The phone rings.

I ask Sarah if she minds. She wrinkles her forehead, upset that I would still think to ask such a thing. 

I answer. Hello, Jane.

My sister speaks, “Dad’s dead,” and something inside me collapses. All the faulty wiring and veins tangled around my heart are yanked from deep within like ripping plugs from an unsuspecting outlet. I fold the newspaper I am reading into thirds so my hands have something constructive to do.

Sarah cries for me.

You don’t have to be on the phone with Jane to hear her through the receiver.

Fernando, the guy behind the counter, he refills my coffee. Tells me someone was in here earlier looking for me. “He was wearing a suit.”

The look on Sarah’s face says this really isn’t the time.

I shrug. The place is empty.

I ask Fernando if he got a name.

“Are you in trouble with the police?”

I want to know if Fernando asked for ID.

“No, but he was in a suit, you know? So I just figured.”

I take the Red Eye back to Ohio. It’s raining when I arrive.

The day they brought me home from the hospital, he spray-painted my name against the backboard of the basketball hoop in the driveway.

A tornado in June ripped it into oblivion. 

Mom hugs me at the front door. She wants to know why I wasted my money on a rental car. The scar down her left cheek makes my face itch.

The house smells of burnt coffee and over-stayed welcomes.

There’s a photograph around here somewhere with his arm around me. We’re both wearing silly hats. I’m sure it’s in a box or at the bottom of a drawer.

I spend an hour in the dark on the basement steps trying to remember what it was like sitting here at seven-years-old eating dinner alone because I talked back at the table. Somehow all this dark is scarier now than it ever was before.

It rains for the funeral. There’s a tingling sensation beneath the skin on my face where he hit me the first time. 

Someone puts an umbrella over my head and the feeling’s gone.

It’s always fucking raining here.

Jane is conveniently missing from the day’s festivities.

“Quite the turnout,” Mom says leaning into me.

He knew a lot of people.

“But did any of them really know him?”

A woman I don’t recognize cries and shakes, holding herself because no one else seems to want the job. At least someone here has the dignity to show a little respect.

He danced in our living room with my date to the Prom, and I didn’t know how to tell him to stop.

Sarah calls. Tells me someone came by her apartment. Some guy in a suit. Looking for me. “What kind of trouble are you in?”

I tell her not to worry. I’ll be back tomorrow. But lock the doors and check the windows. Maybe she should stay with her brother.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Mom asks.

I stare at the tree I fell from when I was ten and broke my leg. He told me to get up, stop crying, and cut the grass. I haven’t cried since.

I tell Mom there’s nothing left to talk about.

I find Jane at home in the front yard with her son. The rain has stopped, and he’s stomping on earthworms.

“You’ve grown up,” she says.

At least one of us had the guts to do it.

“Someone came by here earlier today looking for you. He was wearing a suit. I thought he was part of the precession or something. Turned out he wanted to know if you were in town.”

I bailed him out, I tell her. Paid his debts. Dad came to me in tears, looking for help. Jane doesn’t believe this. The part about the tears. I don’t blame her. I was never very good at lying.

Anyway, it’s me they’re after now. That, at least, is the truth.

Jane wants to know how I could be so stupid.

I tell her it’s hard not to love your father.

She asks where I am staying. I tell her at a motel.

“You can’t go home again,” she says. She smiles. She puts her hands on her hips like she always does when she knows she’s right.

My nephew, all smiles, stomps the life out of a big, juicy one.

Jane invites me inside for dinner. 

A car pulls into the driveway. The crying woman from the funeral steps out, an old shoebox tucked beneath her arm. Crows feet scratch at her eyes. She looks uncomfortable in those heels.

“Dad’s girlfriend,” Jane says to me, but I wasn’t asking.

“I wanted to give you this at the funeral,” the supposed girlfriend says. Her voice makes me desperate for a glass of water. “But it was raining and I feared it might get damaged. It’s all he owned in the world. He would look through this box every night before bed.”

I take the box because Jane has turned away, her attention redirected at my nephew and the massacre he’s heading up in the driveway. The girlfriend steps back as though she’s passed along the torch, her duty done. She gets back in the car without a word.

I remove the lid on the box. It’s filled with old photographs of us. Jane. Me. Dad. Laughing. Smiling. In love. I dig through memories long forgotten, a sadness welling up inside in which I have no control—broken pipes spewing water. On the backside of a particular photo—Jane sporting a cowboy hat and boots to match at the age of ten—Dad wrote in his jagged, crippled handwriting: Janey. My everything.

Jane is still crying in my arms when the rain starts again.

I never got to tell him I forgave him, and he never once said he was sorry. But I’ll be dammed. He loved us.