by Melissa Chen
Issue: Nostos (Winter 2019)
Sam walked down the aisle. Most of the seats were empty, and he took one by the window. He leaned over, and slid his bag under the seat, pulling out the most recent almanac published by his house. He looked out the window. They had found his place along the train. Mary was holding the childrens’ hands, and bent over a little with a concerned look to talk rapidly to the younger child, who squirmed and pulled away at her hand. From the anxious expression on his wife’s face Sam knew that the little one must have ran away down the platform, or even possibly toward the train.
Though the incident must have shaken her, Mary spoke with a gentle firmness to little Andy, in the way she always spoke. She finished her lecture and looked up, meeting Sam’s eyes directly. For a moment an exchange of sorrow flowed automatically between their eyes but quickly she smiled and shook her head exasperatedly, clearly in reference to Andy’s naughty behavior. But that only turned Sam’s thoughts from the parting to worries about leaving Mary caring for the children alone for weeks, though he knew she could manage.
His older son, Bobby, was wearing the hat that Sam had bought him at the bull-riding show last year. It was too large and had fallen forward and now obscured his eyes. He was a calm and dignified little figure, even while holding his mother’s hand. The scolding had not invited his interest or on his part any hurtful taunts that children often make when their siblings are rebuked. Afterward, though, Bobby reached over and gave Andy a hearty noogie on the head in a show of brotherly solidarity. Sam chuckled at Andy’s protest.
He sat back and drank in every detail of his family, standing there together.
All at once, the whistle screamed and the pumping and rumbling sounded in the inner workings of the train. Little Andy sprang up and down, his hair flopping, and called out excitedly. Underneath him, Sam felt the train accelerate slowly, carrying him along with a smooth force that made him swallow what was lodged in his throat. Outside the platform, the waving golden fields of corn started to blur.
Three hours later, the train pulled into the station. Sam, who had spent the trip flipping listlessly through his book, took up his belongings and exited the train. He scanned the people moving left and right past him. A family pulling along their luggage, couples chattering over cups of coffee, a balding man wearing a worn suit, a woman wearing a hiking outfit, a group of rowdy young men wearing baseball caps. There was no reason why he expected to be met by anyone.
Sam went to grab a cup of coffee of his own.
“Here is fine,” Sam said shortly to the cab driver at a corner.
The driver took the fare and the tip. Sam’s neck was stiff from the rides. He massaged it as he walked down the cul-de-sac. There must have been a recent rainfall here, because the sidewalk was still damp, and a certain musty smell hung in the air.
Sam walked up and rang the bell. He rang it twice with no answer, and then remembered it was broken and had likely not been fixed. He knocked, impatient now to get out of the cold. A woman answered the door. Her face was plain and remained expressionless even when her eyes fell on Sam.
“The door was open,” she said.
She turned and disappeared into the dimness of the house. Sam followed and closed the door after him. He was in a lightless hallway, but on one opening to the left a gray light was coming in, clearly from outside. A yellow light was also burning at the end, illuminating some little tiled and wood room. Sam moved impulsively toward the sound coming from the farther room, but turned halfway there and went towards the living room instead, stumbling over some things lying on the ground.
He sat down on the sofa and removed his shoes. Jane was still in the yellow room, doing something. Sam tipped back his head and shut his eyes. There was no sleep waiting for him. He got back up again, and went to the yellow room. He stood in the doorway. The woman was washing dishes, with her back to the door.
“Where’s Ma and Pa?” Sam asked.
“Grocer’s. You want something to drink?” She filled a glass with tap and handed it to him without looking. Sam shook his head.
“How is Pa doing?”
“They brought him to a check-up with the doctor yesterday. He seems to be all recovered from the stroke.”
Sam felt a weight starting to rise off of him. He wanted to push further, but he decided to wait to see Pa himself.
“They didn’t tell me you were coming to help out,” he said. “It would have spared me the trip.”
Her silence, intentional or not, made him reconsider his words.
“It’s fine though,” he added. “It won’t be trouble to catch the morning train back.”
Somewhere in the house, something shrieked, startling Sam.
“That’s the baby. Sarah brought it,” Jane said.
“Sarah’s back to?”
She brushed past him, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. Sam watched her go down the hallway, open the door and enter a dark bedroom, where the baby was crying. He returned to the living room sofa and grabbed his bag, pulled out his phone, and tried to call Mary. She was at work now, and he had spoken with her in the cab only some time ago, so she probably wasn’t expecting him to call again so soon. Nevertheless he tried again, but there was no answer.
The house was too quiet for a call anyway, Sam thought. He would drive back from the station and surprise them all tomorrow, so early they wouldn’t be out of the house yet. He picked up a morning paper lying on the coffee-table, and scanned the headlines without reading them, thinking about what little treats he could bring back. He was barely aware of the woman coming in and sitting on the armchair in the corner.
“Heaven knows why Sarah brought the baby,” said Jane. “It just makes extra work.”
“Is she staying long?” Sam asked.
“It’ll take her a while to book a flight back. I’m going to bed. The crying kept me awake all night.”
Sam would have continued the conversation, but it was really unnecessary, now that he knew he would be going home so much sooner than he expected.
The afternoon dragged on for a while and Sam tried to get some editing done.
Some time a little after five the door flew open. A woman staggered in, holding two bags. Closely behind her came an elderly woman wearing a plum-colored coat.
“My it’s cold out there!” cried the elderly woman, rubbing her hands together. She turned to the elderly man who came in after her. “Come in quickly, honey.”
With a sinking feeling Sam suddenly wished he had taken the train back as soon as he saw that Jane was home. Then he felt worse for thinking that. He got up quickly. Sam carefully composed his stride. He tried to smile wide, but not too much. All his facial muscles seemed to have disconnected from his mind, and he had no way of bringing them into control. With Jane it was alright, somehow. But with the others…
Sarah put down her bags. She beamed at him. Then her body went forward but her eyes were restrained like those of a stray cat that approaches a stranger’s offering. Sam hoped that same look wasn’t reflected in his eyes. They embraced, and then Sam wrapped his arms around his mother, who came forward to hug her son with absolute delight and no hesitation.
“How are you, Ma.”
“Goodness, it’s good to see you again, Sam.”
“Pa,” Sam said, and hugged the bright-eyed man who was not changed either, except for a new frailty, which Sam might have imagined.
Sam retreated into the living room, and the others in a haphazard way got untangled from the little hallway and hung up their wet coats and Sarah put away the groceries. The baby woke up from all the noise, and Sarah went to fetch it and Jane got woken up. Now it was only half past five, which may be when some families eat dinner but not the Ackers, because they had always eaten at seven. It was too early to even make dinner, and all the Ackers knew this. So Sarah picked up the baby and started patting it, and turning herself and the baby in a rhythmic circle in the dark. Jane too stayed in the dark, sitting on the edge of the bed, listening to the house and its inhabitants. Mrs. Acker bustled in the poorly lit little yellow kitchen, taking an unprecedented care in ensuring the groceries were put away in their proper places. Mr. Acker looked more like the ill patient he had been a month ago, standing by the sink and quietly staring out the little kitchen window at the backyard garden outside.
There are those periods of time when each individual of a unit are so consumed in their own separate, but contributing task that they don’t notice each other, which was sadly not the case now, as much as they pretended it to be. Each of them was precisely aware of the presence of all the others, and so they seemed to be floating away in different directions from some center with nothing to pull them back together, avoiding each other’s eyes. One of them might call out, but then what?
“Tom, will you lie down?” Mrs. Acker asked gently.
“I’ll sit,” Mr. Acker said, and he sat.
“Sarah?” Mrs. Acker called out. “Will you come in and help me peel the potatoes?”
And though they tried not to recognize it, they all felt an irrational shame that it was necessary to bring dinner on early, but a certain relief too.
Sarah came in, with the baby swinging on her hip. She rested her hand over her Pa’s hand for a moment, to ask if he was alright.
He waved her off good-naturedly. “I’m fine.”
Sarah straightened, and the baby started to cry with hunger.
“You get the baby,” Mrs. Acker said. “I’ll ask Jane to help with the potatoes. Jane!”
Sarah entered the living room, and took a seat on Mrs. Acker’s rocking chair. She glanced at Sam, and gave the baby his bottle.
She rocked the baby until a motherly affection settled in her and she had to ask, with real interest, how Sam’s boys were.
“They’re getting really tall,” Sam said. “Andy’s about ready to start with the little league. How is Davis?”
“He’s doing good with the company. And surprisingly okay with me coming,” said Sarah. “A little worried about me taking the baby, but he gets it.”
“That’s good.” Sam nodded. He felt heat rising to his face, and cleared his throat. “And—
“How is Mary?”
“It’s been busy for her. Busy for both of us. Just like you and Jane. There’s been a lot of—” He couldn’t think of one intelligent word. “Stuff.”
He knew she intended it to be a kind, sympathizing look she gave him but he couldn’t stand it.
“I’m sorry,” said Sam. “I should have made time.”
His mouth was dry. He was becoming frustrated. There seemed to be no possible original, genuine thing that could come out of his mouth.
“I’m sorry. I should have come earlier. There are no excuses.”
Still, it wasn’t right at all. It couldn’t dispel the look she had in her eyes.
“I’m sorry! I don’t know why I haven’t come back!”
“I messed up, okay? I know it! And you can stop giving me that look, even though I know I deserve it and I don’t have a right to be mad at you about it!”
“I love you all. You know that.” And it seemed to Sam that those were the most sincere, brilliant words, and even if they weren’t he didn’t really care because he felt they were. His sister looked down at her baby, who had fallen asleep.
Their ma poked her head in. “What do y’all want for supper? I’ve got roast and potatoes cooking now but I don’t know what it is y’all have gotten used to eating. Come in and have a look at what we got today, Sam.”
The baby was full, and son and daughter followed their mother into the kitchen. There was hardly room, with the steaming pots and the yellow light and the unwashed dishes and the five grown people and a little baby. But now it was impossible for any of them to leave. So they made dinner together. The chatter started bubbling up, small talk at first, but not coldly. Then there was laughter, joking. There was so much more to be said and needed to be said but they had weeks for that…