I AWOKE TO THE LIGHTS of home, jostled from sleep by the Greyhound bus as we rattled down an offramp. I peeled my face away from the windowsill and sat up, pulling the fleece cap off my eyes and looking around. Lexington scrolled past the glass, greeting me with an urban smile I hadn’t seen in a year.
I tugged the hat down over my eyes again and savored the feel of the tires grumbling on familiar surface streets.
The bus pulled into a parking lot, waking me up again. I grabbed my backpack and sidled off into the cool night air. The driver opened the sidewall compartments and helped me pull my bags off onto the asphalt: a black gym bag, a green canvas duffel bag, and a camouflage rucksack, all of them stuffed to capacity.
He grunted as he dragged the rucksack out and it hit the ground with a soft thud. I caught a glimpse of the tag the airport baggage handlers had put on it. It was a picture of a stick figure bending over with a lightning zigzag coming out of his back, and the words “TWO MAN LIFT”.
“There we go,” he said. “Gonna be alright? Got somebody to pick you up?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He hesitated for a moment, wiping his hands on his pants, glanced at me, then got back on the bus and started writing on a clipboard. I took off my backpack, then knelt and hoisted up the rucksack, shrugging into the complex strap frame. I put my backpack on my chest, then squatted to pick up the gym bag and duffel, and shuffled away.
I felt like an astronaut in my rucksack and heavy boots, just returned from a journey to an alien planet.
I made it across the parking lot of the pizzeria next door and was halfway across the next when I had to put the bag and duffel down and rest. Cars shushed past on the four-lane, oblivious white-eyed roaches scurrying back to whatever hidey-hole they lived in.
I panted, my breath a billow of white in the late fall air, and listened to the droning buzz of the sodium mast-light overhead. Exhausted by almost a week of constant travel, I was starting to sweat in my uniform.
I hefted my stuff again and resumed my shuffling quest.
The stark lights of the restaurant were a welcome sight. It wasn’t too busy; there were a couple of families eating supper, kids playing in the enclosed jungle gym, a young couple in a corner booth. An old guy in a threadbare jacket was standing at the front counter.
I squeezed in through a side entrance and crammed the duffel, gym bag, and backpack into a booth and sat down next to my rucksack. My crap and I had pretty much occupied an entire booth.
Once I’d caught my breath, I took out my cellphone and turned it on. I dialed Tianna’s number and put it to my ear.
“Hey,” I said. The plastic bench felt slick and strange against my fatigues. “Yeah, it’s me. I’m home.”
“Where are you?”
“The Burger Queen on New Circle Road.”
“Okay,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
I hung up the phone and went to the counter to order something to eat, feeling self-conscious in my rumpled regalia. I could feel eyes on my back as I waited for my food, unconsciously toying with the wedding band hanging from the chain around my neck. The world around me felt unreal, an elaborate prank.
I sat back down with my boothful of fat traveling companions and dug into my cheeseburger and fries.
I thought it would be an orgasmic experience after so long eating NATO chow like raw cabbage, beat-up fruit, and rabbit stew, but it tasted . . . grungy, for lack of a better word. Dirty, greasy, heavy. It tasted like the junk food it always was.
My first meal at home was a distant memory by the time I saw the pickup truck pull into the parking lot an hour later. I got up and reassembled my astronaut getup, then carried it all outside to where the Dodge sat, idling.
My wife got out and watched me load all my stuff into the back.
“Hi,” she said.
We stood there for a long moment, and she stepped forward and we hugged. I wish I could tell you that it was a passionate reunion like the movies, with lots of feverish pawing and kisses, but I’d be lying to you, and I don’t quite want to get into tall tales just yet. There will be plenty of unbelievable things recounted later, believe me.
The embrace, brief and stiff, broke off and she stepped back. She gave me a vague, wistful smile through the hair the wind was blowing across her face.
I tucked it behind her ear and she said something I couldn’t quite hear. “Hmm?” I asked.
“I said, I missed you.”
“I missed you too.”
She got into the truck; I slid into the passenger seat and rubbed my hands together, savoring the blast of hot air from the heater vent. We pulled out of the parking lot and merged with traffic, my hands warming on the dash.
The silence was uncomfortable, but I didn’t have enough time to get wound up over it and turn on the radio, because our house was only a few minutes’ drive away. We climbed a steep curve, slipping through the looming oaks of the neighborhood night like a snake through a tunnel. The headlights washed up the driveway and over the front of our home, a sprawling 1970’s ranch house.
My teeth started to hurt and I realized my jaw was tight. We pulled up into the carport behind my Mercury Topaz and Tianna put the truck into gear. I got out and took my stuff out of the back, carrying it inside.
I loved that house; the groovy-dude architectural taste made it into a work of Brady Bunch art. It was like a bargain bin Frank Lloyd Wright creation—the whole foyer was visible through a floor-to-ceiling glass window with the front door in the middle of it. Not very secure, but for the rent we were paying, it was Beverly Hills on a Podunk budget.
Almost every wall had a window in it looking through to the next room, and was filled with either plate glass or shelves laden with knick-knacks—or, would have been, if the knick-knacks were still there. As I came in, I realized that the walls were bare and the closet in the foyer was empty.
I carried my stuff into the living room and saw that while my TV, recliner, and the shelf my mother had given us were still present and accounted for, everything else was missing: the sofa, all the pictures, tables, and lamps, the dresser that contained all the vinyl records for the turntable I’d bought her last Christmas, and the big mirror that had been hanging over it.
I went into the bedroom. The bed and dressers were gone. The closet was empty of everything but my own clothes.
The linen closet was empty and so was the bathroom medicine cabinet. I went into the kitchen and opened all the cupboards. The pots and pans were gone, the dishes, the blender, the Foreman were gone. My quesadilla maker was still there. The fridge had nothing in it but a bottle of margarita mix, a squirt-bottle of mustard, and a half-stick of butter.
I came back outside. She was standing next to the Dodge, which was still running.
“Do you have everything you need?” she asked.
I still don’t know if I was actually confused or just playing dumb. Perhaps I only asked what came out of my mouth next because I didn’t want to accept the truth.
“Everything I need?”
Even though her voice was low and soft, the silence of the fall evening made it easy to hear her. “Yes.”
I just stood there, as my mother was wont to say, ‘like a bump on a log’. I didn’t know what to say. I don’t know what I had expected, but it wasn’t this. It wasn’t an empty house. Concessions, maybe. Reconciliations, arguments, reassembly, repair, patchwork. Me sleeping on the couch for a while. Awkward breakfasts. Getting to know each other again. Apologies. Not using pet names for a while.
I looked down at my feet, at the desert dust still ground into the rawhide of my boots.
I wouldn’t need food. I wasn’t hungry. I wondered if I would ever be hungry again.
I sighed and said, “Yes.”
She opened the door, but didn’t get in. I was a deer in the headlights, literally and figuratively, on my feet in the washed-out white of the truck’s low-beams. I had enough time to think about asking her to stay, to think about asking her why she wasn’t staying, to ask her where the dog was. Our dog was not in the house, not in our house, the dog was not home. Where was the freaking dog?
I opened my mouth to speak, but didn’t. She stepped up into the truck and sat behind the wheel.
A few minutes later, my wife closed the door, put the Dodge in gear and backed out of the driveway into the street, slowly put it in drive, and drove away.
I remained there in the dark, a shadow and piece of the night, standing next to my car listening to the distant sounds of the city.
When I got tired of being cold, I went into the house and turned the heat on, then went into the living room and sat in the recliner. The acrid smell of burning dust from an unused heating unit filled the house.
I looked up and saw the blinds over the living room’s big picture window. I had put them up on my mid-tour break seven months ago, when we had moved into the house. It had been a massive pain in the ass but I’d done it for her—they were too big and I had to redo the brackets several times, but I had been happy to do it. I was happy and looking forward to coming home for good.
Home. It was my home. My house. My name was on the lease and the address was on my Army paperwork. I was paying the rent. But I had never lived in it.
I sat in my armchair looking at the lights of the city, ignoring the stink of baking dust.
After a while—maybe an hour, maybe three hours, I’m not sure—I got up and stood in the middle of the living room for a bit, my mind beginning to whirl. My eyes had become adjusted to the darkness, turning the house into a monochrome labyrinth, a mausoleum wallpapered in dingy yellow.
I sniffed. Looking down, I saw the shelf.
My mother had given it to us as a house-warming gift, a five-tiered curio shelf about four feet tall. It was made out of particle-board with a wood-grain veneer, and as fragile as a carton of eggs. Our wedding photos used to stand on it, in a large frame that was made to look like an open book. It also once displayed two music boxes and a backless clock inside a bell jar.
I picked it up, carried it out onto the carport, and slammed it against the cement floor with everything I could muster. It exploded into six pieces.
I picked up the biggest piece, a half-shelf with a leg sticking out of it, and used it to club the rest of the debris. A chunk of the board broke, bounced off my face, and twirled into the darkness. I ignored it. The end of the leg broke off and hit the ceiling.
I threw the piece of wood in my hand and stood shivering with rage, trying to think of something else I could break. The laundry room was immediately to my left through an exterior door. I opened it and turned the light on.
I was looking into a small space with a washer and dryer inside and garden—no, the gardening tools were gone. That was probably a good thing: we had a “Garden Weasel” that consisted of a long handle with three spiky rotors on the end of it and looked like some sort of medieval death-hammer.
The washer and dryer were coin-operated; our last landlord had given them to us when he replaced the machines in the apartment complex’s open laundry. I’d had to pry the quarter boxes out—and to use them, you had to reach down into the mangled timer’s housing and pull a lever. An inconvenience, but worth it for a tough, high-capacity machine.
As I went to close the door, I saw something written on the wall in pencil.
It was very small and gave me chills every single time I saw it. We had discovered it the day we moved in, as we were installing the dryer. At the time, we called it our ‘good luck charm’.
Someone who had once lived here had scrawled, This was a very happy home. 11/26/88
My throat closed up and I held the top of the dryer like a little kid on a boogie board because I could feel it coming. I knew it was there lurking in the dark, cold house, when I saw the blinds, but when I—quite literally—saw the writing on the wall, I felt the top of my heart crack.
As I slouched there gripping the dryer for dear life, the entire thing broke into a thousand pieces.
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