“Still here.” Eugene Ormsbee held his phone gingerly. The reception wasn’t good. If they still said that about cell phones.
“Are you there, Dad?”
“Sure, Rich. Richie.”
He remembered when he called his son “Richie” all the time. He and Ellen stopped when he went to middle school. Ellen had said he’d have enough trouble without a baby nickname. Eugene remembered her standing in the kitchen rolling out pie dough. She loved her kitchen. He closed his eyes.
“I – I have something to tell you, Dad.”
Eugene shook himself.
“Are you there?”
“Yes, Rich. I – I have something to tell you, too.”
“Oh. Well, you go first.”
“Um…last night, well, this morning – ”
“No, Dad, no!” Rich chuckled. “No stories about the raccoons and how cute they are and how they’re almost your pets. This is more – um – important. To me, anyway.”
“Okay. Shoot.” Eugene’s news could wait. He wasn’t even sure he could tell it coherently. A whole lifetime up in smoke. Two lifetimes, his and Ellen’s.
The line crackled. Eugene winced. “Are you there, Rich?”
“—not exactly a bolt from the blue.” Rich paused. “If you know what I mean.”
“Sorry, son.” Eugene gestured helplessly. “I couldn’t hear you. The blue what?”
“I mean this is something I’ve known for a long time. It wasn’t a bolt from the blue.”
“Oh, don’t say that!”
There was a thick, opaque silence.
“Don’t say – um – what?”
“Bolt? Why not? Dad?”
Oh, there was no use waiting. “Rich, you have to know – ”
“Dad, I want to tell you that – ”
“The house burned down.”
The line crackled again. That storm must be somewhere between them, Eugene thought, bringing some other poor person his misery.
“Did you hear me, Dad?”
“Not all of it, Rich. You’re paying something?” Eugene’s voice broke. “The house burned down. This morning. All gone. All your mother’s things. Her ashes! Oh, God, that’s almost funny.”
He put a hand over his eyes and pressed hard. He hadn’t meant to tell his son this way.
“Dad! How – ”
“Lightning.” Eugene wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Storm came up out of nowhere.”
“Oh. I – ”
“Come home, Richie. Can you?”
“Yes. First train. Stay on the line. I’ll look it up.”
“Richie.” Eugene looked at the ground. “Do you have anything of your mother’s? Anything to remember her by?”
“Yes, I…oh, here it is. Four oh five. I’ll be in on the four oh five. Can you come get me?”
“Can you come to pick me up? Dad, are you all right?”
“Yes,” Eugene lied. He couldn’t remember if the car had burned up. No. Lucky. He had parked it in the barn last night, not in the driveway.
“Yes. Four oh five. I’ll be there.”
“I want to bring my friend. Is that okay?”
Richie never had friends as a kid.
“Sure, Richie. Bring whoever you want. But I don’t know where we’ll stay.”
“Maybe with Mrs. Appleton, Dad. She knows about me.”
“Knows? Of course, she knows about you. Richie, she’s known you since you were a baby!”
Eugene knew he was not quite understanding what his son was saying. Richie’s meaning seemed to be leapfrogging away from him, always one jump ahead. Maybe his hearing had been affected. Those hoses, gigantic hoses, the water booming out of them. He closed his eyes.
“Just come, Richie. I’ll be here.”
Somehow they had arrived at a table for three – he, Richie and Richie’s friend, Walter. An early dinner, an awkward time. At the train station they had all seemed to want to get through the first few minutes with expeditious dignity.
Eugene now had a royal blue menu, unopened, on the table in front of him. The waitress had murmured “So sorry about the fire” as she placed it there.
“Shall I give you a minute or two?” She took a quick look around the table.
Eugene sat stricken. Richie was staring at the menu. Walter smiled and said, “That would probably be best.”
Eugene watched Richie tap the back of Walter’s hand.
“How about the chicken sandwich?”
“I think that’s fine,” said Walter. “But no mayo.”
“No.” Richie plunged back into the menu again.
“Too many choices.” Walter smiled at Eugene.
The young man’s blonde hair looked clean and he was clean-shaven. If he even had to shave, thought Eugene. Walter must be in his thirties but he looked boyish. Eugene realized with a start that Walter was waiting for him to speak.
“Yes.” It was a croak and he cleared his throat. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. After what you’ve been through.”
Eugene looked down at his menu. It was a royal blue haze.
“What will you order?” Walter asked.
Eugene kept his eyes on the menu.
“Shall I take a look, too?” Walter murmured.
“Just a cheeseburger.” He pushed the menu away. For a moment he’d been afraid Walter would choose for him.
He’d already had a moment with Walter at the train station. Walter and Richie were on the platform scanning the parking lot, looking for him. Walter placed a tender hand on Richie’s arm. “So Richie’s friend is gay,” Eugene thought.
Odd, he didn’t think his son was gay until sometime later when they were driving to the restaurant. Richie started talking about how Walter made pie crust.
“So careful, so slow, Dad. You’d think he was making a bomb!”
It was an intimate piece of knowledge. Eugene felt numb. Richie.
A cheeseburger appeared before him. Walter and Richie were already eating.
“Let’s go tonight,” Richie said.
Richie had been a paratrooper. Went right in after a career of jumping off bridges all through high school. He was a man of action.
Eugene stood with his hand on the car door handle, his skin as pale as its sheen. Go where tonight?
“I’m not sure your father is ready,” Walter said quietly.
“Oh.” Richie hesitated. “Dad?”
Odd, that. A man of action. If Richie was gay he was no stereotype. Hell, that was a stereotype, a man of action. What the hell did that mean? Eugene couldn’t seem to find a way to think about his son. He opened the car door.
“Sure. You mean home?” What they would see there was not home. “To the farm? We can go now.”
“It’s on the way to Mrs. Appleton’s.”
A man of action. Direct. Except about this…Eugene dredged his mind for the right word: except about this lifestyle.
In the back, Walter leaned against the door looking out as they left town for the farm. The last remaining streetlight discovered his upturned face as Eugene glanced in the rearview mirror. This was the way he and Ellen and Richie would come home after every shopping trip, every dinner out.
“I know this road like the back of my hand,” Eugene said.
Walter looked serenely out the window.
Rich and Walter had walked around the house twice. Eugene stayed in the car.
The fire was long out but had left stinking, dripping canyons of char and ruin. Some of the drywall in the hall was still up, the wallpaper inexplicably as spotless as the day he and Ellen had hung it.
“Maybe I’ll just start there,” he said to himself. He had read about tiny houses. Trendy, he thought at the time. But now he thought he might take that eight foot piece of wall and build a room around it. Live there for the rest of his life. Never go out. He put his hand to his eyes.
The house had always been home to him. He loved sitting in the paneled den, especially in the winter, the woodstove radiating warmth, Ellen pausing in the doorway to smile at him but tethered to some chore that took her away.
And Richie’s presence in the house as a youngster was so fresh, so benign, so shy, like a shoot from a treasured plant in the garden. Their little boy.
There came a point when Richie contracted, huddled in his room with music raging like a bonfire. Ellen said, “He’ll get through it.” Eugene felt like his son was in a cave, testifying with a wild tongue.
“So sorry, Eugene.”
Lucinda Appleton had her arms around him. The last thing he remembered was Richie getting into the passenger seat, shaking his head.
“It’s horrible,” Walter had said from the back.
Eugene patted Richie’s arm but found Walter’s hand there. All three sat back. Eugene looked out the side window. The Addison’s corn was springing up in neat rows, just like it always had.
Richie sniffled, then blew his nose. “Horrible,” he echoed. He blinked. “Dad, where will you live?”
“I don’t know.” The words ricocheted around the car interior.
“You’ve had enough for one day,” said Walter.
Now they were here at Appleton’s and Lucinda had moved on to Richie. She stood with a hand on his shoulder while Richie introduced Walter. Lucinda was smiling, looking down at Walter’s face. She leaned forward to say something. They all smiled.
“Oh, my God,” thought Eugene. “Everything is different.”
He came to himself when Walter put a damp towel on his forehead. He was stretched out on the floor. Walter lifted the towel and refolded it. Eugene sat up.
“What happened?” He turned to his son. “Richie? What happened? What–?”
Richie knelt down. “You fainted.”
Lucinda took Walter aside. They disappeared into the back of the house.
“Was it me?” said Eugene, still a little dazed. He wanted to add, was it me who made it impossible to speak honestly? Was it me who sensed you and rejected you?
It took his son only a minute.
“No, Dad, no.” Richie shook his head. “It wasn’t Mom, either. Especially not Mom. Mom was great. You were both great.”
“Remember when I used to say you were peerless?”
Richie laughed. “I was. No peers for me!”
There was something in Eugene working to get out, to get said or done.
“But I meant it both ways, you know, no one was your equal. No one I ever saw.” Eugene could feel that bulldog look on his face, scrappy, tenacious, ugly, bold. “I would have kicked those kids’ butts if I’d known!”
“You would have done anything for me. And we both would have done anything for Mom.”
“Ellen. Did she know?”
Both his dear ones had had a secret. Together. Without him.
“Remember when I jumped off the Rock Creek Bridge?”
“The police brought you home soaking wet.”
“They put a slicker under me so I wouldn’t get the patrol car wet.”
“Your mother went right over to you. Opened the door. Took you out. Didn’t have to wait to hear them say you hadn’t committed a crime.”
“Bundled me up in her coat.”
Richie was sitting back on his heels. His face had softened. Eugene patted his son’s hand. “I’m okay now.”
“It’s talking about Mom.”
“Yes.” Richie helped him stand. Then, slowly, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I – tried.”
“I didn’t have to tell Mom.”
Ellen. In the kitchen when Richie got home from school.
“Your mother was something.”
“She knew why I was jumping.”
Eugene had a dizzying vision of a young Richie balanced on the bridge’s handrail, the mucky creek waiting below.
“You’re still peerless,” Eugene said. “To me. To your mother and me. You always will be.”
He could feel his spine. Not used to lying on a hard floor. Not bad to know he still had one. After everything.
“I wish I’d told you. Back then. I tried to today. When I called.”
The house was very still. Not even a clock ticking.
“Dad, where will you live?”
Eugene thought of the tiny house. “Mortgage is paid off.”
“No. That’s all gone. Can’t get it back.”
He heard voices from the kitchen. Lucinda and Walter. Richie looked up.
“We’ll settle it later,” Eugene said. He sat gratefully in a soft chair. “There’s a lot of acreage. Maybe build new. A tiny house.”
“But room for us?”
“Yes,” said Eugene. “Room for you.”
From the kitchen came subdued laughter.
“They’re afraid to be too loud,” Eugene thought. The world around him seemed suddenly tentative, untried, a bunch of new shoots exploring air and wind and water.
“Go to the kitchen, Richie.” He waved off Richie’s protest. “I’m fine. I just need a little time. Go to the kitchen. I’ll join you.”
After Richie left, Eugene looked out through the twelve-paned window, which seemed to cut the night into neat, framed pictures. To see it as it really was he’d have to go out on the porch.
He waited a while. He closed his eyes. Then he hoisted himself to his feet and walked to the door.
Mary Clemens lives on a farm in upstate New York with horses, cats, dogs and men. Nothing ever distracts me from my writing. One of my short stories appeared in an anthology published by Haworth Press. Recently, I had an essay published in Upstream.