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A person who needs no introduction.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Family Talk

"On one night of the year…"

Kurt drove for hours, back to his home town. Flying would have taken longer, so he endured the boring drive along interstates through plowed fields of crops, then state roads to the small town he'd grown up in. The town he always felt he'd escaped from. 

In spite of himself, he was looking eagerly for signs of the familiar. He nodded faintly at a red barn on the outskirts of town, pursed his lips at the closed drive-in theater next to it. The town sign, with medallions for Lions Club and Rotary, could have been the same one he'd left behind 17 years ago. The mall he passed was new to him, though it already seemed to be on the skids, with the anchor store's space at the end given over to a flea market, and two other stores in the middle combined in a church bordered by a tanning salon and a video store.

Downtown, familiar buildings stood, one or two still with the same merchants he'd known as a boy. Others had new occupants, which seemed almost like squatters. Kort's Dry Goods still had their name set proudly in black and white tiles in the front entryway, left unchanged by the Dollar Store that used the space now. Goldberg's still had its sign up, but the store was dusty, and nothing remained inside but some boxes and parts of mannequins. These reminded him of why he was there, and he sighed, turning onto a side street to pass one more familiar address before he got where he was going.

And there it was; the family house. Kurt parked across the street from the two-story brick building with the white wooden pillars on the porch. Lights inside discouraged him from walking up the steps to see if the stains were still there from the time he'd spray painted his five-speed bike. One of the lights was in his old bedroom, and he briefly thought of ringing the bell and asking to look at it. He sat for five more minutes, hand on his chin, sometimes nodding to himself, before he started the car again and drove to the motel he had selected for the night.

"Crosby family still own this place?" he asked the clerk who came out of a back room when he rang a bell on the desk. "James Crosby?" He had a mental image of a tall, red-faced bald man who took no nonsense from anyone.

"Old Mr. Crosby passed on in '02," said the young man behind the counter. "His son sold his interest to a cousin lives in Council Bluffs, and my dad manages the place for him. Cousin's related to the Crosbys, but his name's Bennet." He looked at Kurt's signature on the form with no sign of recognition. "If you haven't eaten supper yet, there's a Dairy Queen a block over, and Plantation Inn is four blocks beyond that. Their chicken is pretty good." 

"I used to eat at the Plantation Inn every couple of weeks," said Kurt. The clerk smiled politely, without much interest.

"Here's your room key. You're in 15A, around back. TV's got basic cable plus HBO. If you need anything, just dial 0." 

"Do you have wi-fi?"

"Sorry, no."

A half hour later, Kurt was walking back from the Plantation Inn with a steaming cardboard container of chicken with dumplings. He paused by the gate of a cemetery and seemed to feel a sudden chill. In the fading light, he peered as well as he could, but couldn't see far back enough to make out the stone he was looking for. 

He stepped closer, observing that the gate was designed to keep cars out, but wouldn't have any effect on a pedestrian, other than requiring a step around one end. The sign said CLOSED AFTER DARK. Kurt nodded again, to nobody in particular, and continued back to his room, warming himself on the box he held.

He ate slowly, relishing the food, which still tasted the way he'd remembered it, flipped through the channels on the TV, finding no local programming, At 8:30, he set an alarm on his watch and went to sleep on the bed with his clothes on.

His watch woke him at 11:15. He got up reluctantly. He put on a dark sweater, and then turned the TV on and flipped channels again for five minutes. He looked at the box that had contained chicken. It was still empty. He looked at his watch. He checked through a black bag with a flashlight and batteries in it. He looked out the room door, feeling the night's temperature. He put on a dark jacket as well. 11:45. Kurt sighed and walked out of the room, carrying the flashlight and the black bag and a camp chair carried in a shoulder tote.

He walked quietly down the sidewalk, avoiding any appearance of furtiveness. At the cemetery, he walked around the gate and then headed toward the back, turning the flashlight on when he was a few yards in. He took a couple of turns, pausing once where two similar lanes diverged, pulling on his lower lip and choosing the right-hand fork. A few yards later, the flashlight beam picked out the stone he was looking for. "Dad," said Kurt. He checked his watch. 11:55. His stomach growled, and he tapped it absently. He took out the camp chair and sat down to wait.

At midnight, he reluctantly turned to the gravestone. "Dad?" he said, and waited. After a minute, "Dad?" again. "Dad, it's me. Kurt."

"Kurt?" said a voice so quiet it might have been his imagination.

"Yes, Dad, it's me."

"Is it that day?" said the voice, almost as quietly.

"Yes, Dad, it's that day. Dad, I wanted to say something to you..."

"You left me alone."

"I'm sorry, Dad. That's what I came to..."

"You left me to die in that place," said the voice, still quietly, with barely any inflection or emotion.

"Dad, I didn't have a choice. I had my family to..."

"You left me there. I used to call to you, and you only came once a month to see me. All the years I took care of you."

"Dad, I had... I have... two children. They had to come first. My duty was..."

"You didn't care that I was rotting there. Just like I'm rotting now. I was dying inside, losing my mind bit by bit. You could have taken me home."

"Dad, I did the best I could. It was too expensive to have you with us, and you were too..."

"Your grandfather lived with us until he died. He never went into a home. We took care of him. He was part of the family. I was part of your family."

"Dad, I couldn't do it. I was working, Margaret was working. The girls couldn't have..."

"You left me to die there. How could you do it?"

"Dad, listen to me. I was raising a..."

"A son's duty is to his father."

"Dad, I'm sorry. Just let me..."

"You couldn't wait to leave me. You ran off. You didn't want to work at the garage with me. I couldn't do it by myself."

"I was going crazy here. It was killing me to..."

"Some day you'll know what it's like. Some day your children will do the same to you. You've taught them to be like you."

"Dad, that's not..."

"I have nothing more to say to you."

"Dad, just let me talk." Kurt waited. There was no response. "Dad, the way you were acting then... I couldn't have you in the same house with my daughters. I couldn't have you unsupervised. You kept trying to do things. You'd turn the stove on and forget it. You could have burned the house down. Dad?"

There was no response. Kurt looked at his watch again, sighed. He folded up the chair and worked his way back to the gate. He heard a voice, urgent, entreating, and stopped to listen, switching the light off. The voice came from somewhere in the darkness, from another part of the cemetery. It was a woman.

"But where? Where did you leave it? You wanted to provide for us, but we don't know where it is!" There was a pause. Kurt couldn't hear anything. "Please, just give me a clue.... no, I know you did... do... but now we need your help! Please!"

Kurt sighed and turned the flashlight on. He shook his head. "They talk to you," he murmured, "But you can't make them listen."

Another turn and he was out of the cemetery. Two blocks, and he was back in his room. He undressed and turned on the TV again, falling asleep in front of it. In the morning, he drove back the way he came, stopping only for another box of chicken. Carry out.

©2013 by Kip Williams