By Mattia Lombard
“Hello?” The room is cast in shadows, and I rub my bleary eyes.
“Hey Stinks, I need you to come get me.” I can immediately tell that he’s been crying. I sit up in bed. Muffin, the family cat, stirs at my feet.
“Jesus, Elliot. It’s three in the morning. Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m at the Middleboro police station.”
I was four years old when I learned how to count the number of chimes on my family’s grandfather clock. After lunch every day, I lounged at its base and made patterns in the faded carpet with my pudgy fingers, being lulled by the rhythmic ticking and the distant sounds of my mama bustling around the house. On some days, Pa would take a break from the fields and sit with me. When the chime rang three times, I waddled up our drooping oak stairs, my face contorted with the focus and resolve that an Olympic athlete exudes, determined to get to my hiding spot before he arrived home.
A single rose window lit the second floor hallway during the day, and I always hid under the roll-top desk that sat beneath it. As I sprawled among the dust-bunnies, I held my breath for as long as I could, listening hard for the screen door to rattle. The colors of the stained glass shot through the air, painting the faded wooden floor with a vibrant collage.
“Lily, I’m home!” My brother’s feet pounded the staircase, and I squealed with glee. He would lift me up over his shoulders, swinging me around and hugging me tightly, “How much trouble did you get in today Stinks?” I would affirm that I, of course, never got in any trouble, and would giggle at his expression of mock disappointment.
“What’d you learn today?” I always loved hearing his stories.
“Well, in Biology, I learned just how tiny germs are. Do you know how tiny germs are?” His words fascinated me, and he would carry me downstairs and sit me on the couch to talk.
On days Pa finished early, he would kick off his work boots to join us, and let me sit at his feet while he and Elliot talked about things I couldn’t comprehend—from the vastness of space to the legitimacy of organic vegetables to the importance of literature, “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote beautifully, but he never really said anything.” The musicality of their big words and abstractions soothed me into a quiet daze, wrapped up the warmth of the last slanting rays of sun through the window and the smell of cigarettes that clung to both Pa and Elliot’s clothes. Elliot was only fifteen at the time. Mama still yells at him for that, “Elliot, leave that jacket outside; it smells like your cancer sticks.”
The wind whips the cold, winter rain sideways and soaks my sweatshirt through; my hands shake delicately as I light my cigarette, even after sitting in the pickup for a moment. I try and remember how to get to the Middleboro police station from the farm.
With a sizeable complaint, the truck’s engine turns over and sputters to attention. The passenger seat is filled with graded homework assignments, fast food remains, and empty cartons of American Spirits; Amazing work, compelling content, the essay on top reads. I attend community college four days a week, and spend the rest of my time working alongside Elliot. Mama rents the second floor to him now that he’s grown; he runs the farm during the warm months and runs himself into trouble during the rest of the year.
I sigh heavily and lean back, looking out over the desolate fields littered with corn stalks that died and blew over months ago. This winter has yet to produce any snow, and a part of me aches for something to cover up the ugly, barren field.
Mama runs outside in an oversized raincoat that covers her frail frame. Her arms flap and her curly hair blows wildly in the wind to try and wave me down. She looks cartoonish in the darkness of the storm. I crank the window down.
“Take this money for bail if you need it.” He’d begged me not to tell her, and of course I kept my promise, but mothers always have a way of knowing these sorts of things. I accept a sizeable envelope of cash and smile weakly at her worn face; her crow’s feet and laugh-lines are deepened by her concern. On some days I’ll see the softness she had before Pa left. The divorce between them was messy; it resulted in abandoned court dates, a house that felt awkward and empty with one less person, and a dead Christmas tree that was left ignored in the living room for 243 days.
The sun was melting into the field of sunflowers, and the colors between the sky and the acres of forest and farmland all blended into one another. Elliot and I sat on the porch, sweaty and exhausted after a hot, late-summer day that had been spent picking squash and tomatoes. In a few days I would be returning to high school to complete my junior year, and Elliot would work without me during the hours I was in class. The thought didn’t worry us; Mama always joked that if Elliot actually ate the vegetables she forced on his plate, he would replace all of the tractors and rototillers put together.
“Do you ever miss Pa?” My voice was hushed, even though I knew Mama was still in bed and probably would be for the rest of the day.
“Of course I do, Stinks.” He paused, taking a long drink from his beer, “What do you want to have for dinner tonight?” I suggested burritos, and Elliot called up the Jalapa’s, the Mexican place down the street.
We were halfway to the store when Elliot next spoke, “Hey, have you ever been drunk before?”
“Of course not.”
“I’m going to buy you some nice fucking white wine… and we’re taking that tree down tonight, too. I’m sick of staring at it.” I nodded in response, staring out the window as the world rushed by me. I was left to vacuum up the dead pine needles every day without Mama doing the household chores. The Christmas lights had died out halfway through May, but I still couldn’t walk in the living room at night without holding my breath, like people do when they walk past a cemetery. The photos of our broken family nestled in the bare branches peered out, old ghosts searching for the life they had left behind. That night, we sat in the dusty room and threw away all of our ornaments over a bottle of pinot grigio and burritos, talking about things that didn’t matter to avoid the weight of the task at hand.
“Did I ever tell you about that time I snuck out to the turkey farm over on Brook Street?” I couldn’t tell if his words were actually as slurred as they sounded, or if it was just the alcohol buzzing around my head, “Well, I went out there with Cassie and Trevor… it was the night before Thanksgiving…and we set all of the turkeys free. Every. Last. One.” We rolled around the floor laughing for hours. Eventually, the night turned to early morning, and we slid into a morose silence, staring at the empty, barren spot where the tree had stood.
I ended up getting sick in the bathroom, but Elliot held my hair back, and afterwards we both cried over what felt like a final goodbye to our father.
“Hi, I’m here to pick up Elliot Murray?” The rotund man sitting behind the window peers out at me, and furrows his brows before sighing and turning his head to file paperwork. The lighting is florescent, and I feel like I have to squint when I read the signs taped haphazardly to the glass: Click it or ticket. A smiling man proudly displays his seatbelt. Next to that, a torn paper warns about the dangers of smoking recreational marijuana, and yet another belatedly invites me to join the annual BBQ on the town common. August 13th—Bring your own grill! I am tempted to tear it off of the wall, but I decide that it suits the staleness of the atmosphere.
“Todd, will you go get Elliot Murray out of holding, we have someone here for him.” He turns back to me, “He’s not in great shape, I’m warning you now.” I nod, and go to sit in the blue synthetic waiting chairs.
I run my hand through my hair several times before setting them in my lap. There’s a clock, but its arms are permanently settled on the time 2:30. I’d always assumed police stations had cells with iron bars right by the front desk, which would be manned by a pleasant sheriff who sported a handlebar moustache and a strong southern drawl. This place has thoroughly ruined all of my expectations.
I wonder if Mama sat in this chair when she had to pick Pa up from this place so many times. I wonder if that is why she’s too exhausted now to do the same for Elliot. They both have wildness about them; they drink too much, sing too loud, work too hard, and shine too brightly for their own good. People like Mama and I saunter behind, quietly watching them whittle away at their potential with clenched fists. I grind my teeth at the thought.
Todd walks my brother out, and I immediately rush to help support him. Elliot smells briny and dirty, and he won’t make eye contact with me. He’s clearly been sick all over his own shirt.
Once we’re in the car, I throw a water bottle at him. He nurses the drink and mumbles something about picking a fight down at the local pub. I can only manage a deep breath before squeezing the steering wheel in an attempt to find catharsis, “What the hell, Elliot? I love you. I need you to get it together. I can’t do this alone.”
“I’m so sorry, Lily.” The rain is cleared up, and the eastern sky is tinged with pink; it must almost be morning by now. He’s slumped over in the passenger seat, “I’m proud of you.” His voice is garbled, but I can hear the tenderness in it, “I hope that I never have to make this drive for you.”
I assure him that mischief is his job; I never get into any trouble, “You raised me better than that.” I say, overcome by his unexpected praise. The anger gives way to a bittersweet ache in my gut. Despite the screw-ups, the pain, and the failures, he has raised me well. I may not have the wildness that he has, but would I really want it anyways? We did all right without Pa. We’re fine without him, no matter how much we miss him.
He’s snoring softly by the time I pull into the driveway, and the sun begins to peek over the treetops. I turn the car off and sit; my ears ring. In six months from now, we will be up at this time, dropping off vegetables at all of the markets and farmers stands. His eyes will be bright, and he will recount the time he went to a party and evaded the police by hiding in the woods. For a moment, we will forget that we ever had this car ride; we will think that Pa is home working the fields, and Mama is preparing eggs to serve us once we get back.
He stirs, “Stinks?”
“Are we home yet?”
“Yes Elliot, we’re home now.”