Back Home and Never Again
Stanton McCaffery was born and raised in central New Jersey, where he resides with his wife and son. He has degrees in history and political science, and he manages communications for a United Nations agency. His past fictional work includes “The Stuff from Home,” which was published on AcidicFiction.com in June of 2015.
I can’t believe I’m back. Back here. True, I never got that far, just one town over, but still.
From the outside, in my car, my parents’ trailer doesn’t look much different from the last time I saw it. Maybe it’s sagging a little more. Sinking or something. Or maybe it’s always been this way and I didn’t notice before. You take things in differently when you’re younger, I think.
I park my Oldsmobile under a flickering streetlight. There’s a kid’s rusty tricycle in front of me on the sidewalk and I push it out of my way with my boot. It screeches more than I expected, but I don’t think it bothers anybody. If the park is anything like I remember it, there’s plenty of noises around here at night so nobody’ll be bothered by a squeaky tricycle.
I’ve got bags of clothes and two pillows under my arms. Things for the kids we were able to salvage. They smell like smoke, but with any luck they won’t notice.
The cheap metal steps creak under my weight as I walk to the front door. As always, I put more weight on my left leg than my right. The railing is the same one the place has always had, but now it’s rustier. I pivot on the top step and look around. My wife, June, drives a 94 Ford Taurus that I hate with a fucking passion, but I don’t see it parked anywhere nearby.
When I go inside the trailer I nearly step on Tammy’s head. Even with the lights off I can tell how cramped the place is. It was crowded when I was a kid and now it’s even worse. More people and more garbage.
I bend down and take one of the pillows and put it under her. She’s snoring a little. It reminds me of June and I smile. She’s drooling too. Her blonde hair is tied behind her head and I run my hand through the pony tail. I put down one of the plastic garbage bags and take out a stuffed animal rabbit that I know she likes and put it next to her. One of its ears is burnt, but that’s alright, I think.
Tyler is scrunched up in the C shape created by Tammy’s legs. Like his sister, he’s sleeping with his mouth open, but no drool yet. I put the other pillow under his head and I take out a stuffed dinosaur and put it in his arms. He starts to mutter something in his sleep and I say, “shhh, buddy, it’s okay.”
Standing over the two of them, looking at their faces in the poor light, I feel like they’d be better off if I died in the fire too.
My wife isn’t in the trailer. I’m probably the last person on earth she wants to see let alone spend time with in such a tight space, so I’m not too worried. Maybe she’s at the motel nearby or at a friend’s house. I’ll let her have her space.
Behind mounds of old magazines my parents are sleeping on a pull-out couch. The one bedroom in the place used to belong to them, but I’m guessing they gave it to my brother John after he got out of prison. Priorities change I guess. There’d be more room if someone else slept in there, but there’s no way I’d stand for that. They know that. No one even bothered to ask.
My father’s sleeping in a tiny portion of the bed, his knees bent almost to his chest. This intimidating fixture from my childhood has been reduced to a weasel-looking version of the man I used to know. There’s liver spots all over his bald head. Next to him, leaning against the pull-out, is an enormous oxygen tank with tubing resting on top of it.
Whatever weight he’s lost has been found by my mother. Cottage cheese hangs from her arms that are spread wide like the wings of a fucking pterodactyl. She’s got less hair too, but she’s dyed what’s left of it some shade of purple. You can still see through it to her scalp. Her face is pretty much the same, soft and fat like I remember it.
I put the rest of the stuff down at the foot of the pullout, the place where I guess I’ll try to get some sleep. But I can’t lay down yet, I’m restless, not sure if I’ll be able to sleep right again. I see those kids and that old man every time I close my eyes, screaming and burning and shit, smoking.
Through the windows on both ends of the trailer, both the neighboring places are vacant. No surprise to me, really. Shit, who would want to live next to my brother? I mean, you don’t even have to talk to anybody to find out nowadays. All you have to do is look at one of those directories online.
I take my cigarettes from my pocket and grab a can of beer from the fridge. My two vices. Even after the trouble they’ve gotten me into I can’t seem to kick ‘em. I go out on the front steps and sit down.
There’s a car driving around the park, I can hear it. It’s the kind of car that was made up to sound loud, but now the person driving has decided they should be quiet. Gentle pushes on the gas pedal. I can tell by the spurts of noise from the muffler. It comes around the corner and I think I’ve seen it before, but I can’t tell. All these souped-up jobs look the same. It’s a mid-eighties hatchback. A Honda or a Toyota or some shit like that. It’s red except for a black hood.
When it comes rolling past the driver turns and looks at me. He’s got on a flat-rimmed baseball hat. I can’t make out his face. I get the feeling in my stomach that this means trouble and I know I’ve got that coming.
He passes and I go inside. I lay down on the old carpet at the foot of the pull-out couch and try to fall asleep. Maybe half an hour is all I get. Too much going through my head.
The kids start bouncing around before long. Where’s Mommy, they both ask me. I shrug off the question and tell them she’s just out and not to worry about it, but the questions begging at me too.
My father hobbles over to me while I’m getting my boots on, dragging his oxygen behind him, only three out of six buttons on his shirt buttoned.
“I’m sure she’ll be back,” he says, and then he coughs. “Your mother threatened to leave me plenty, said she’d drive off with you boys, but look, she’s still here.” He waved his hand as if he wanted me to actually look at her standing with him, but she was outside taking out the garbage.
Once I finish getting my boots on I look up at him. “Thanks Dad, but I’m not so sure.”
He shuffles his feet in his old bedroom slippers. They’ve got crumbs on them. “She’s got thinking to do, yeah, but when she stops spinning she’ll land back on you.”
When Tammy comes over with her bookbag on and her hands on her hips the conversation ends. She says we’d better head out or they’ll be late. I’m more than fine with her taking charge, someone has to.
June would usually walk them over to the bus stop from our house, but I need to drive them to it now. I drop them off before the bus gets there, before any other parents or kids get there. They understand, I think. If not, they will when they’re older.
I drive to the Board of Education building and limp in to meet with my supervisor, Ed. He tells me because of unprofessional conduct they’ve got to let me go. I’m not surprised. I’d let me go. Ed tells me he wouldn’t do it if it was up to him, but since the damn thing is in all the papers he has no other choice. Maybe if it was just the house and not the people, but…
It kills me when he brings up baseball. Says I had such potential before that accident. Says it was a damn shame. Don’t I know it.
When that’s all done it’s over to the old house. Nowhere else to go. From inside the car with the windows rolled up most of the way the charred smell is still strong. The right side is burnt to shit and there’s a gaping hole in the roof. The house next door, where they lived, is a black skeleton. It looks like my hand might burn if I went and touched it. There’s puddles all over from the fire hoses, dirty and grey, and there’s a chain-link fence circling both the houses.
My cell vibrates in my pocket and the screen shows it’s June. I ask if she’s okay and where she is. She says she’s fine and that she’s on her way down to her parents’ house, down in fucking Florida. I’m not sure how to feel, angry because she’s left or grateful that she’s bothered to call. She asks if I want to bring the kids down there after we get the home owners insurance money. I say sure, but I don’t really think about it. My mind feels like it’s vibrating.
We hang up and I rub my hand on my eyes. I don’t cry. It’s something I developed years ago. Instead I get this feeling in my stomach like I’ve just been kicked in the balls.
Pushing it away, I pull off in the Oldsmobile and think. I wonder about how things would be if I hadn’t busted my leg all those years ago, angry and riding crazy when John first went to prison for that shit with that 16 year old. I wouldn’t have lived next to those people. I wouldn’t have gotten drunk outside and passed out next to their place with a cigarette in my hand. Fuck.
Back at the trailer park, the car’s back. It’s parked a little ways past my parents’ place. The muffler’s the size of my damn head. The guy’s face is clear now. He has the word ‘hard’ tattooed on his fucking cheek, under his left eye. His name is Angel and I haven’t heard a good thing about him. The kids looked just like him, I can see that now.
At the trailer, John’s peeking out the window as I come up the steps.
Inside, my parents are sitting at the table with a bag of pretzels between them. The TV is on, blaring some daytime talk show bullshit. John comes to me from the window.
Quiet, he says, “You got a problem, little brother?” He looks at my parents to make sure they’re not listening. They’re arguing about something, I don’t know what. “I seen that car around a lot the last few days, you know. Just now, that guy’s looking at you. There something I can help you out with?” It’s before noon and his breath smells like beer.
“Not your problem,” I say.
The TV makes noise about some show and a paternity test. My father coughs and says, “Jesus, John, whydaya watch that crap for anyway?”
“Cause it’s funny Dad,” says John, and he leans in to me. “I could find that guy, you know,” he says, whispering, looking again to make sure they don’t hear. “Whatever thing he’s got with you, I could end it.”
“Leave the boy alone,” says my mother.
“He’s hardly a boy,” I say, but no one acknowledges me. I look at John. “I don’t need your help,” I say, and then I go to the fridge.
My mother gets up and stands closer to the TV. “He looks just like that baby and he says he’s not the father?”
My Dad turns red. “Jesus fucking Christ, Barbara.”
I grab a can of Coke and go sit on the front steps.
Before long my father comes out. He’s got his .22 in his hand, pulling the oxygen in the other. “Fuck, Dad”
He waves his hand. “Eh, it’s what I do when I can’t stand being around those two anymore.” He rests it against the railing. It’s the same gun he’s always had. I remember seeing the thing in his closet when I was a kid and being scared shitless of it. John would go in and look at it.
“What’s what you do?” I say.
He coughs. “The rats. There’s so many of ‘em out here. Your mother don’t want me doing this when there’s kids around so mostly I do it when all the kids around the place are in school. But if you ask me, it’s probably because of all the kids around this place that we got these rats.”
I look up at him and wonder how the hell he hasn’t been arrested for this shit. “You shoot the rats?”
He farts and doesn’t make a face or a remark or anything. When we were kids he’d lift a leg and laugh, but now he just does it. It smells sick, watery. “Sure as fuck I do,” he says. “Nobody else is gonna do anything about ‘em.”
We stay there together and don’t say anything. It reminds me of the time he took me hunting. We didn’t kill anything. Hell, we didn’t even see anything, but it was nice to just sit next to him.
Looking around the park, I think about June. Her family used to live on the other side. Before her father got money from a slip-and-fall lawsuit and picked up and moved down to Florida. Her family was even more dysfunctional than mine. I bet it still is. Her father’s probably just as much of dick. I can’t see that being any different.
After the accident, when I busted my leg on my mo-ped, and after John went to prison, she told me right here on these steps she was pregnant. She cried so much I was fucking terrified. I told her I’d take care of her and everything would be fine. A few months later I got a job cleaning gum off the desks and piss off the floors in the schools. That’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Until, you know, today.
I tell my Dad I’ve got to go pick up the kids and I wish him luck. He’s only got a little time left, I say. The kids hop in the car at the bus stop and I rub both their heads. I’m worried somebody at school will say some shit about what happened, but so far nothing. That they tell me at least.
Days later, after I’ve seen Angel driving around the park, staring at me, many times, John comes to me while I’m outside on the steps. “Guy lives over in Perth Amboy, off a Smith street, some shit hole. I followed him out of here in Mom’s van.”
I squeeze the can of Coke in my hand, dent it. “Oh what the fuck, John? Why would you do that?”
He sits down next to me. “Because I’m worried about you, little brother, that’s why.”
I stand up. “You’re gonna get yourself killed, you moron. And fucking me too.”
“That’s what I’m trying to prevent, you see.”
I notice for the first time that he’s got some sort of prison tattoo on his hand, five dots. “Well how about you don’t do anything, older brother?”
“And you’re gonna handle it? So far I ain’t seen you do much about it.”
I’ve got my hand on the door ready to go in. “I’m gonna let it run its course, John. The guy’s pissed.”
John takes out a cigarette and lights it. “If it’s about what I think it is, something like that doesn’t run its course.”
Something inside says I should be glad John cares, but something else inside says it’s too fucking late. What I did, I did. What happened, happened because of me. But that’s not the whole thing. John’s there too, whether he was really there or not.
That day, the night of the fire, I was standing outside of the high school gym. For a second, for one fucking second, I looked at this girl stretching. The gym teacher came over and said I should get the hell away, said that if he caught me again he’d tell the school administration. Called me a pervert.
I went home and took a camping chair and went out in the yard with all the alcohol in the house and my cigarettes and drank myself stupid because the last thing I wanted to be was like my brother, a fucking pervert. I fell asleep and the next thing I know I’m surround by flames and smoke and all I hear is sirens and somebody tells me that the old man from next door and his grandkids are dead.
There’s some things you can recover from in life, but some things you can’t, especially if they’re your own fault. It helps to find somebody else to blame.
Later that same day Angel’s back. This time he’s closer to the house than he’s been before, almost in front of it. I go over to the car and I feel my heart beating in my chest. He’s got the windows open and I put my hands on the passenger side and lean down.
“I’m sorry, man,” I say.
He doesn’t look at me, just looks forward. “You know what bugs me?” he says, but he doesn’t give me time to answer. “That you still got your kids.” He looks at me now. Both of his hands are on the steering wheel. “But maybe I should do something about that. Burn them up like you did mine. Or maybe I should find that wife of yours and cut her fucking tits off.”
There’s a beating sound in my head. “Just leave them out of this, man.”
John comes outside and starts to walk over. Angel puts the car in drive and peels out before he gets to me. I walk past John and shake my head.
“You can’t let this go on,” he says.
The next day, after I drop the kids off at the bus stop, my mother asks me if I know where John went. She says he took the van.
An hour later I’m out on the steps, a bottle of beer next to me, and Angel comes flying up. He’s pounding the wheel. When he slams the car into park it jolts. He’s out and banging on his chest, a tire iron is in his hand. There’s a fresh cut on his cheek and a tear in his jeans. He rushes to the hatchback and pops it open.
Bent up behind the seats is my brother, his eyes beaten shut. There’s a mound on the side of his head the size of a fist. Blood’s soaking his shirt. It doesn’t look like he’s breathing.
“You sendin’ people after me, motherfucker?!” Angel says, as he charges over.
I stand up with the beer bottle in my hand and say something, but I don’t remember what. The tire iron comes at my head and I step back, the breeze of it on my face. I swing the bottle but lose grip. It crashes somewhere out of sight. Angel swings the metal again and hits me in the left shoulder. The pain is everywhere. I grab with my other hand and he catches me with it on the side of my face.
I’m on the ground with my jaw shattered, spitting teeth and blood. My vision’s too blurred to see clearly, but it looks like Angel’s standing above me with the tire iron above his head, ready to come down, when I hear a shot and he goes down.
I lay there for at least a minute. Then I get to my knees and puke. My hand is on top of something that pinches it. I look down and it’s a tooth.
Angel’s on the ground. A hole’s in his forehead. There’s a puddle of blood forming.
My father’s laying on his side at the bottom of the steps. He’s bleeding from his nose that I assume he broke on his fall down the steps. His .22 is nearby. My mother comes out screaming. I try to tell her to call 911, but what I say comes out garbled nonsense.
She gets the idea.
I crawl to my father and feel his neck. There’s no pulse.
* * *
Now it’s three weeks later. The dust has settled, but the misery and the guilt have only begun to work their way in me.
There’s two urns on the kitchen counter in the trailer. My mother talks to them. I listen when she doesn’t know I’m around. Mostly she says she misses them.
The homeowner’s insurance money came in yesterday. We could rebuild on the old property, but really we can’t. Too much pain there.
June calls on my cell. She’s been calling more often. She’s getting over it, like my father said. She asks when am I coming down to Florida with the kids, like I said. And I did say, but now I’m not sure.
Something’s different now, with me. All of these years I hated this place, resented it. But now I can’t tear myself away.