Willow Grove, MO
Upon entering his house, it appeared unoccupied. William worked during the day and the younger ones were probably playing at their friends. His family lived in a small, wooden, saltbox style house, with four rooms downstairs and an attic upstairs that had been converted to bedrooms for James and his younger siblings. William slept in the second downstairs bedroom.
Upstairs, three cots served as beds, and homemade quilts kept the children warm during cold winter nights. James, being older than his upstairs siblings, chose the cot next to the window. He loved to hear the train whistle and rumbling of the wheels as it rolled by each night. It helped him fall asleep. The house didn’t have indoor plumbing, and water had to be drawn from the pumphouse near the cellar door. They bathed in shifts, the three youngest at night and the other two in the morning, behind a drawn curtain in the kitchen. An outhouse stood a few yards down the hill. In the center of the front room sat a wood burning stove—the family gathering place on cold winter mornings–that heated the water from the well for bathing.
Before he ascended the stairs, a slight movement in his mother’s room drew James’ attention. Peering into the darkness, he heard a hissing sound, and then recognized the dull red from a burning cigarette glowing in the shadows. Could it be him? He moved slowly to the door and stood silent.
A voice boomed from within. “Switch on the light and come on in, son.”
James flipped the switch on the wall, and the yellow glow from the overhead light revealed his father, shirtless, sitting on the bed and leaning back against the headboard. His dad, a massive man, had a barrel chest, with huge arms and no discernible neck, and most of his upper torso was blanketed in a thick mass of hair. James had always thought of him as a grizzly bear.
A bottle of whiskey, half full, sat on the small table next to the bed, an empty glass resting beside it. His father puffed on a cigarette and eyed James up and down, as if he hadn’t seen him in years. Three years to be exact. James wanted to run and jump into his father’s arms, but he hesitated, not sure what to make of this.
“Are you home now?” James asked, his voice unsteady.
“Come over here and let me get a good look at you,” his father said, while swinging his legs over the side of the bed. James approached his father, hesitantly. “Come on, I’m not going to bite you.”
Drawing close, his father grabbed him by both shoulders, with hands the size of baseball mitts, and squeezed him tight. “I’ll be darned. You’ve grown six inches. Still spindly but getting tall like your mother. Last time I saw you was when you had that kidney disease and missed most of the school year. What was that, second grade?” James nodded his head. His father pulled him close and gave him a hug. “I surely did miss you, boy. And your brothers and sister too. Where are they, anyhow?”
James shrugged. “I don’t know. They’ll be home soon.” A recurring thought irritated him, something he’d been wondering for years. He wanted to ask his father but thought better of it. And then he asked it anyway. “If you missed us so much, how come you stayed gone so long?”
His father gently pushed him away and poured another glass of whiskey. “It’s complicated. I had to find work, so I went looking for it.”
“Are you home for good?”
“When your mother gets here, we have a lot of talking to do. We’ll see.” Tilting back the glass of whiskey, he took a healthy swig, and then he offered the glass to James. “Here, boy, take a drink. It’ll make a man of you.”
James hesitated, but not wanting to appear weak in his father’s eyes, he took the glass and brought it to his lips. The sip he intended turned out to be a gulp, and the burning sensation as the amber liquid slid down his throat caused him to cough and sputter. His father roared in laughter. “Have another. I’ve got plenty more.”
The second drink went down much easier than the first, and before long, a warm sensation washed over him, and a spot on his forehead, just above his eyes, felt numb. He handed the glass back to his father, who poured two more fingers and knocked it back in one swallow.
“I’m tired, Jimmy. Why don’t you switch off that light, so I can take a little nap before your mother gets home?” He reclined on the bed and soon began snoring. James turned out the light as he exited the room.
After changing clothes upstairs, he returned to his mother’s bedroom and stood at the door. The drone of his father’s snoring and the ticking of the clock on the wall made him feel empty. The lack of human activity, conversation, laughter, the closing of cabinet doors in the kitchen, reminded him of a funeral home.
He tiptoed into the bedroom and sat in his mother’s rocking chair. And he watched his father sleep. He wondered why his father acted the way he did. What drove him away? Didn’t he love his children? What would the conversation between his parents lead to? Would he stay with the family or leave again? In thirty minutes, his mother would arrive home from her long day of work. James felt a gnawing ache in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with his earlier sampling of whiskey.
After thirty minutes passed, Nora Autry walked through the front door and called out, “Anybody home?”
James ran to the front room and embraced his mother. Gazing into her eyes, he whispered, “Dad’s home.”
She stiffened. “Where is he?”
“On your bed. Asleep.”
His mother said, “You stay here, son.”
James remained in the front room and watched his mother disappear into her bedroom. Upon the door closing, he sat down on the couch and waited. He heard pieces of a muffled conversation, which went on for a few minutes, and then both his parents emerged. His mother, with tears in her eyes, appeared to be sad. His father said, “Jimmy, here’s a dollar. Run down to the drugstore and buy me a pack of smokes.”
He hesitated, but once his mother gave him a nod, he exited the house and sprinted through an alley, across someone’s back lawn, and down the street to the drugstore on Main. He asked the clerk for a pack of cigarettes, and at first received the evil eye, but after explaining they were for his father, the clerk relented. James ran all the way back home, cigarettes and change in hand.
Upon entering the house, the same punch in the gut feeling James felt earlier, returned. He heard soft sobbing coming from the front room. He knew instantly what had occurred, although still not why, when he observed his Aunt Myrna and mother sitting on the couch, Myrna’s arm draped around his mother’s shoulder while she wept.
He had to ask. “Where’s Dad?”
His mother stopped crying long enough to say, “Go upstairs with your brothers and sister. I’ll come talk with you later.”
James had no intention of obeying his mother and got as far as the first step, where he sat down and listened. From his perch on the stairs, just out of view, he heard his aunt say, “You did the right thing, honey. He can’t expect you and the kids to pick up and go every time he gets the itch.”
Between sobs, his mother said, “I should have gone. Now he may never come back.”
“It’s okay,” Myrna said, stroking her sister’s hair. “He’s been gone more than he’s here and you’ve done just fine. You have all the family around you and you know we’ll do what we need to help out.”
“But I do love him. Why does he stay gone? I don’t understand.”
Myrna pulled her sister close. “Some men, all they can do is ramble. Always chasing something, but never knowing what. He can’t stay tied down to one place, no matter who he hurts.”
His mother cried, “If I’d gone with him, maybe things would be different. Maybe he could settle down.”
Myrna clutched her sister’s shoulders and gazed into her eyes. “You aren’t the problem, Nora. You don’t blame yourself. The fault lies in him. If he loved you and the kids, nothing could keep him away.” By this time, James had heard enough. His dad was gone for good and he knew he would never see him again. It hurt, and his seething anger prevented him from crying.
Upon arriving upstairs, he found all the others stretched out on their cots, not uttering a word. The air felt thick with tension. And loss. With all the drama, supper had been overlooked, and James’ stomach rumbled. The sun dipped below the horizon and twilight had arrived. He lay back on his cot, with thoughts of his father blocking all others, even his desire for food. He struggled to remember the good times, but very few came to mind.
Once, the last time his father came home, he brought a horse to the house, for him and William to ride, and when it bolted and ran away, both boys fell off. Neither of them was hurt, so they all had a good laugh. Another time, a bull escaped from the stockyards, and his father, with several men from the town, chased it down and suffered numerous bruises and abrasions while capturing the beast. He recalled later, his mother tenderly binding up his father’s wounds and them both getting a chuckle out of it. It bothered him that he didn’t have more fond memories.
He lay there, deep in thought, until his head hurt. Then he remembered the cigarettes. Sliding out of bed, he rifled through his pants pockets, but the cigarettes weren’t there. He tried to recall what he had done with them. He must have laid them on the stairs while he eavesdropped on his mother’s private conversation. Silently, he tiptoed past his siblings and back down the stairs. His mother and Aunt Myrna remained in conversation and didn’t notice him retrieve the smokes and return to his room.
Upstairs, James lay back on his cot and debated what to do next. If he lit a cigarette inside, the smoke would give him away. And what if he coughed? So, he crawled out the window, as he had hundreds of times before, and sat on the roof underneath a canopy of stars and lit up a Camel. Being careful, he barely sucked in his first puff, but even then, the smoke in his lungs burned and triggered a coughing fit. And on top of that, his head began spinning and he felt nauseous. Determined to smoke the entire cigarette, he took a few breaths to clear his lungs, waited a moment, and then took another drag. Again, he coughed, but this time, not as much. He continued in this way until he finished, and then he flipped the butt out into the darkness below.
James’ encounter with his father lingered in his mind. While hugging him earlier, he had recognized his father’s unique scent. The smell of sweat and tobacco and whiskey, and the feel of rough whiskers on his cheek, all vivid and distinct. He would recognize his father with his eyes closed. He wanted to love him, but instead, hated him for abandoning the family.
While deep in contemplation, he and the man in the moon engaged in a staring contest. Maybe as a reflection of his own dark mood, the man overhead appeared sad. Soon however, the yellow orb disappeared behind a cloud bank. The resulting darkness concealed the tears falling from his eyes.
“Jimmy, get back in here. Mom’s coming up the stairs.” Startled from his dreaming, he turned to find his little brother Virgil, beckoning from the open window to come inside. He quickly crawled in and resumed his position on the cot. Soon, his mother made the rounds, finally reaching him. Her kisses and reassuring words made it easier for him to fall asleep. Before his mind shut down for the night, a lonely train whistle sounded off in the distance.