You Are Home
Gravel crunched under the tires. The sound of home on Cape Cod. Amy came to a stop at the back of the house and cut the engine. She looked out of the bug-spattered windshield at the neglected house looming before her. Weeds poked through the drive. She glimpsed more weeds from the rear view mirror; the entire drive was being taken over.
Amy didn’t want to get out of the car. The temperature was in the mid-90s. Thick grey clouds hung in the sky collecting water from the ocean. They would burst open in a downpour that still left the air oppressive afterwards.
She opened the car door and breathed in thick air. Of all the times of year to be doing this, she thought as she walked onto the deck. But it was the only time her older brother, Tom, would agree to. August was quiet at his work so August it was. Amy stuck the key in the lock and twisted it around a few times. Perspiration sprung onto her forehead as she wondered why she didn’t come down here on her own in April or May. Because she wanted it to involve both her brothers so that everyone had a say about the house.
The lock finally relented and Amy pushed the door open. Hot, dank air hit her nostrils and she recoiled back into the scorching outside air. She stepped into the family room and grimaced at the worn acrylic pile carpet that always smelled damp and earthy. Her parents had refused to get rid of or change it in their later years. Stains glared up at her, exposed after some of the furniture had been moved out when they put her mother into a nursing home.
In the kitchen, she threw open the sliding glass doors that led out to the patio and pool area to the side of the house. The only thing opening the doors would achieve would be an exchange of hot air but she hoped it would get rid of the stale, unlived in smell.
She drifted through the dining room and formal living room through the laundry room and into her parent’s bedroom and bathroom. Years of being a home had been dismantled to accommodate her mother’s move into the nursing home near Amy in Vermont. The bed was stripped bare. Dresser drawers were half open. Amy remembered hurriedly packing clothes back in February, not thinking any further than what she had to do right then. Everything else in the house could come later. And here it was – later.
She wandered back to the family room and spotted her father’s reading glasses on top of an unfinished book. She ran a finger over the glasses and frowned as sadness hit her chest.
Her father’s accident had happened at the end of January. He had been driving to church when he’d had a heart attack that caused him to veer off an icy road into a ditch. Her mother had suffered a broken leg but on top of that had dementia so couldn’t be left alone. The heart attack had killed her father. The suddenness and shock of it all set Amy on auto-pilot. Hospital visits, funeral arrangements, then the decision to move her mother closer to where she lived so she could oversee her care and be able to visit while her mother recuperated.
Amy glanced at her watch – nearly 4.30pm. She needed to pick up her brother, Tate, from the airport. There was still no sign of her older brother, Tom, who had promised to arrive early afternoon.
Tom was sitting on a chair on the deck by the time Amy returned from the airport with Tate. He thumbed at his BlackBerry and gave an off-hand wave. He loomed larger than the last time Amy had seen him. He bent his head back down to look at his phone and she could see his hair receding at the top of his head.
‘Whoa, who got old, fat and bald?’ Tate said before they got out of the car.
‘All of us?’ Amy glanced at Tate.
‘Flatterer. I’ve been plucking grey hairs out of my head for months now.’
Tate sighed. ‘Let’s go see big brother.’
They got out of the car and headed up to the deck.
Tom glanced up. ‘I’m trying to find a couple realtors’ numbers. I’ll call them now and get them to come value the place tomorrow.’
‘Hi, Tom. Great to see you,’ Tate said cheerfully.
Tom eyed him. ‘I waved. Do you want me to organize a welcome party?’
‘If we decide to sell.’ Amy returned to his original greeting.
‘We have to sell, Amy. Who will live here? Who will look after the place? It isn’t practical.’ Tom flicked through his BlackBerry and sighed in disgust. ‘You can never get a signal down here.’
‘Maybe Tate or one of the kids…’
Tate shook his head. ‘I’m California-bound, baby. I’m not living back here in the cold winter with snow piled up to my neck.’
‘None of the kids want this place. None of them are old enough to settle here. Then there is the money issue. You’ve got your head in the clouds if you think we can keep this place. Are you going to live here?’ Tom raised his hands and shrugged, his eyes narrowing.
‘Well, since I’m the only one who regularly visits Mom and she’s up near me, no. Maybe she and I could move back down.’
‘You can’t take care of her on your own. Dad used to say crime was getting worse. Someone tried to break in a couple years ago. It’s just like any other place now. It’s no haven anymore.’
Tate changed the subject. ‘I’m starving. Let’s go get something to eat. Some classic Cape seafood. Then we’ll all feel better.’
‘Somewhere with air conditioning and Wi-Fi.’ Tom suggested. ‘We should stay in a hotel. It stinks inside.’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Amy said, already tired of Tom’s griping.
‘The upstairs is a wall of heat. None of the air con units work.’
‘We can sleep downstairs. It’ll be cooler. The air conditioning in Mom and Dad’s room is okay.’
‘It’s leaking,’ Tom grumbled.
They locked up the house and got into Tom’s car.
‘Where to?’ Tom started the car.
‘It’s got to be Kreme ‘n Kone, best local seafood on the Cape.’ Tate rubbed his hands together. ‘I haven’t had one of their clam plates in forever.’
‘Clams sound good to me.’ Amy agreed.
‘Do they even have Wi-Fi?’ Tom asked.
‘Then let’s do McDonalds.’ Tate sneered. ‘You’ll get your AC, Wi-Fi and dead atmosphere all in one place.’
‘I’m pretty sure Kreme ‘n Kone have Wi-Fi now.’ Amy tried to placate everyone. She wondered whether it was possible to have a meal together without worrying about the repercussions of no Wi-Fi or email. My god they might have to spend an hour interacting with each other rather than a phone or an invisible electronic entourage.
‘It better,’ Tom muttered as they pulled out of the driveway.
They found a table toward the back of the restaurant and slid into their seats. The table cloth was a plastic red gingham pattern and the wooden chairs captain style. Tom checked his phone as the beep, beep of emails arriving sounded.
Tate put a fried clam in his mouth and looked at Amy. ‘Oh my god, I have missed this so much!’
‘Delicious.’ Amy dipped her clam in tartar sauce and savoured the texture of the deep fried batter and the briny ocean taste of fresh seafood.
‘A benefit of the east coast, for sure.’ Tate rolled his eyes as if he was in heaven. He motioned his chin toward Tom. ‘You’re the only one in the place eating a hamburger. This is a seafood joint.’
Tom glanced up from his phone. ‘It’s what I always have.’ He sneered between Amy and Tate’s plates. ‘The two of you are going to have stomach aches all night long.’
‘It’ll be worth it.’ Tate crunched on the golden coating of the clam and beamed a smile at Tom, who already had his eyes back on his phone.
‘Let’s just eat and get back. There is a lot of packing to do. With all the crap I saw when I walked through the house before you got back from the airport we aren’t going to finish it all on this trip.’ Tom set down his phone.
Amy dropped her fork and looked up at Tom. ‘You can’t call their stuff ‘crap.’ She thought of all the cookbooks, books, photos, CDs and knick-knacks that filled the rooms.
He waved her comment away. ‘Whatever. It needs to get packed up and there is a lot of it.’
‘We need to stop at Four Seas and get an ice cream on the way home,’ Tate said between mouthfuls of clams.
‘The line on a Friday night will be ridiculous,’ Tom said.
Tate grabbed Amy’s arm. ‘A triple scoop peanut butter chip chocolate cone. Huh? Are you in?’
Amy laughed. ‘I think my guts might burst.’
‘C’mon, we have to make the most of what makes this place great and the seafood and ice cream are two. If we go to the beach and eat the cone then it’s a trifecta. We’ll stop off at CVS and get some Pepto-Bismol. We can do this!’
‘We need to deal with the house not swan around the Cape like we’re tourists.’ Tom devoured his hamburger in four bites.
Amy caught Tate’s look and they both sat back to enjoy the rest of their clam platter.
Tate balanced his ice cream cone in one hand and pulled the radio on the kitchen counter toward him. ‘Look at this! An actual radio with an antenna. This is old school awesomeness.’ He turned it on and it crackled. ‘I bet it’s on AM. Mom and Dad were totally AM.’ He studied the buttons on top of the radio and flicked it over to FM. He twiddled the dial until music came blaring out. He turned to Amy and laughed. ‘Hey, how ‘bout that!’
‘I feel like I’ve been warped back to the 70’s. This kitchen, that music.’
‘Hey, don’t fight it. Any station that still plays Pink Floyd has got to be worth listening to. Forget all that canned garbage on the airwaves these days.’ He handed her his cone and started playing air guitar.
Amy swayed back and forth with the cone held in the air like a lighter.
Tom lumbered into the kitchen, wiping sweat from his forehead. ‘I packed most of the clothes in suitcases. They can all go to the Salvation Army. It’s stifling upstairs even with the windows open.’
Tate carried on jamming on thin air.
‘I’m glad this is a goddamn game to you two. There hasn’t been much packing going on in here.’ Tom motioned around the kitchen.
‘We only just started,’ Amy replied defensively. ‘We’ve been clearing the cupboards in the dining room.’
‘Get packing. We’re not here for a good time.’
Tate stopped playing guitar. ‘With you around that’s for sure.’
Tom turned and pointed a finger into Tate’s chest. ‘Maybe if you took things seriously and got down to some hard work for a change. All this hippy, dope smoking bullshit you’ve always pulled. Disappearing to California to be some rock star and what are you – some crappy sound engineer. How do you even make a living out of that?’
‘Oh, so I should’ve followed in your footsteps and become some Walter Mitty travelling salesman all around New York. That’s a better living – selling insurance. Least I’m true to myself.’
‘You’re full of shit.’
‘No, you are. Always telling people what to do.’
‘Let’s get back to packing.’ Amy tried to intervene.
‘Yes, let’s just pretend we’re one big happy family, Amy. Let’s keep up the fairy tale of this place and our family.’ Tom took a bottle of Coke out of the fridge, took a long drink then belched. Sweat trickled down his face.
‘Lay off her. She’s done more for Mom and Dad than both of us and you live closer. New York isn’t a million miles from the Cape.’
‘Oh, so you’re in the clear because you live in California. Distance doesn’t absolve you from responsibility.’
‘Let’s just drop this,’ Amy mumbled. She looked at the counter and noticed the Formica peeling away from the edge exposing the chipboard underneath.
‘No, let’s have this out.’ Tom stood like a mountain in front of them, immovable, implacable, just like when they played tag football as kids. He would never relent or play nice then either.
‘You’re never around. When was the last time you saw Mom? When did you last see Dad before the accident?’ Amy rounded on Tom.
‘Oh, here we go. We’re done with this place. We’re selling and I’m not going to listen to your pie-in-the-sky reasons for keeping it.’ Tom turned to walk out of the kitchen. ‘The sooner I can get the hell away from you two the better.’
Amy and Tate looked at each other in silence, eyebrows arched. The radio blasted from its tinny speakers Starship singing about how they built their city on rock and roll.
Amy shook her head and stepped out onto the patio. The slate was still warm under her bare feet. The sun-bleached pool cover bobbed forlornly. She dreaded to think what the water looked like covered over for as long as it had been. Their parents had given up on the pool three years ago but never drained it.
‘Hey.’ Tate stood next to her and handed her a beer. ‘Don’t listen to him. He’s an ass.’
Amy motioned to the house, lights glowing from all the windows. ‘This place could be something again. It could be a great summer place for the family.’
Tate nodded and sighed. ‘It could. It could also be great for a new family.’
‘You think we should sell too?’
Tate shrugged and took a swig of his beer. ‘I think we all had our time here and now it’s time to let someone else breathe new life into it or ‘sink their life savings into this money pit’, as Dad termed it.’
‘But he didn’t mean it.’
‘He kind of did. It’s an old beast, Amy. The plumbing, the heating, the septic tank, the kitchen – it all needs to get ripped out and redone. Dad knew but it’s a huge cost. That’s why he never did it. He wouldn’t want us to carry that burden. ’
‘Did he talk to you about all this?’
‘Sometimes. He would huff and puff about all the work the place needed but how he wanted to travel more, come out to California with Mom and visit for the winter. He talked about renting a place out there.’
‘I never knew that. I thought they loved it here.’
‘It’s changed a lot since they first moved down here – more tourists, more traffic, more noise. He wasn’t too hot on all the Brazilians moving up here, either. That stuck in his craw. He blamed them for me moving to Cali, if you can believe it. Like me not getting a summer job on the ferries because of Brazilian cheap labour was my reason for moving to the west coast.’ He motioned to the main road on the other side of the fence. ‘Listen to the traffic. It’s endless day and night during the summer.’
‘It’s a beautiful place, though. I’ve always thought that.’
‘It’s a last century idyll that’s being paved over by highways and malls. The New England charm is pretty faded if you really look at what the Cape is becoming.’
‘I always had this vision of lining the outside of the house with twinkling lights and sitting here on a summer night, a glass of wine, family, conversation.’
‘It’s a nice vision.’ Tate leaned into her. ‘But you know Dad would have hated twinkling lights.’
‘We don’t have to take Tom’s ranting decision as final. We’re all executors of the Trust.’
‘No, but we better get back in there and start packing up the kitchen. I just saw him glaring out the window at us.’
Amy opened her eyes and glanced at her watch – 7.18am.
Tom barrelled through the downstairs waking her where she was sleeping in the family room and Tate in the living room. ‘Wake up. I have coffee and donuts. We need to clean up and get ready for the realtors.’
She heard Tate swear as Tom turned on the radio full blast in the kitchen.
By mid-morning Amy and Tate had packed up endless books, CDs and photo albums and thrown out magazines and newspapers by the stack full while Tom showed the realtors around.
Tom’s voice boomed out extolling the virtues of a house he didn’t believe in.
Tate glanced at Amy. ‘It’s good we’re at least getting a realtor’s opinion and then we know what our options are.’
‘Typical salesman.’ Amy piled books into boxes wondering what would happen to them. She envisaged her barn back in Vermont reconstituted as her parents’ house; all their house contents accumulating until the space finally exploded at not being able to contain anymore.
‘Let him do what he’s good at – bullshitting. We can talk about it over dinner once we know more.’
Amy and Tate stopped off at the penny candy store after delivering boxes of clothes, books, and saucepans to the local church. The penny candy store was a favourite place of their childhood. Hours had been spent picking out hot tamale cinnamon balls, Swedish fish, jaw breakers, salt water taffy, candy necklaces and more. The aroma of candy and cranberry scented candles and potpourri mixed with the new textile smell of Cape Cod sweatshirts and the old wood of the 1856 Country Store intoxicated Amy. ‘This place.’ She smiled as she breathed it in.
‘Let’s hit the sugar high.’ The unfinished wooden floorboards creaked as Tate headed to the back of the store where row after row of multi-coloured candy was displayed in old fashioned glass canisters. They grabbed wicker baskets and started picking.
When they returned Tom was sitting outside on the deck. Tate popped a Swedish fish in his mouth and murmured, ‘Busted.’
‘While you two have been gallivanting around I decided on a realtor. They’ll put up a sign on Monday.’
Amy dropped her brown bag of candy. ‘You have no right to do that. Call them back and tell them we haven’t reached a decision. It’s a decision for all of us, not just you. Not just the one person who doesn’t give a fuck about anybody.’ Amy picked up her bag of candy and threw a jaw breaker at him as she stormed inside. ‘Asshole.’
They grilled steaks on their father’s Weber grill for dinner. They all sat outside at the patio table and ate in silence.
‘Can’t beat a steak grilled on an outside grill.’ Tate tried to make conversation.
Amy smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes.
Tom dabbed a paper towel against his forehead. Amy wondered when he would have his first heart attack. Anyone that full of impotent ire was bound to drop one day. She wondered whether it would be behind the wheel the way their father had gone. She looked back down at her plate knowing the look on her face was filled with disdain and that he would call her on it if he caught it.
They spent the evening in different rooms packing what they could with the few empty boxes that remained. Amy had resolved to come down again in September when the air was cooler and pack the rest.
Tom appeared in the family room carrying a box. ‘I’ll go to the Salvation Army and drop this stuff off at the back door. It’ll save us going in the morning before we leave.’
‘I haven’t decided what I’m doing with some of this stuff,’ Amy said tersely.
He let the box he was holding thud into their father’s leather recliner. ‘We’re doing the right thing. This place is so out of the way now. It would be difficult for any of us to just drop what we’re doing and come down here to sort anything out. And Boston is getting worse to drive through.’
‘You’ve made the decision. Let’s just go with it.’
‘If we left the house empty for us to use and something went wrong we wouldn’t know who to call down here to fix it. If we rented it out, we’re all too far away to keep our eye on the place. I’m just trying to make a reasonable decision for all of us.’
‘I know.’ Amy picked up a mouldy Christmas wreath from where the logs for the fireplace were stored and stuck it in a trash bag.
‘And yet you’re still pissed off.’ Tom sighed.
‘I don’t have anything to go to the Salvation Army. You can go now.’
Tom heaved the box up. ‘You’ll thank me for this one day. With all the shitty decisions you’ve made in your life, I’ve saved you from one. You’re welcome.’
Amy whipped around to face him but he was already on his way out the door. Anger exploded in her chest and flashed into her brain. She picked up her father’s slipper that was tucked under the recliner and threw it at the door. It hit with a heavy thud and smacked onto the floor.
Early the next morning, as Tom silently packed his car with the few things he wanted to keep, Amy walked along the grass in the backyard, overgrown weeds poked through, brown in places, scorched from the sun and lack of water. Her father had diligently tended the grass. It had been a rich, dark green carpet, soft and tickly underneath bare feet.
Amy turned and looked back at the house. The fence, once stained grey to fit in with the Cape colour scheme, was now rough and weather beaten, cracked and splintered from too many freezing winters and blistering summers. The paint on the eaves of the house was split and peeling and in dire need of a sand down and fresh coat of white paint. She wondered when it had last been painted. She couldn’t get over the signs of age and wear that she had never noticed before. Now that the house was lifeless and devoid of her parents presence it was all she could see.
After their curt goodbyes, Tom’s car crunched resolutely out of the driveway and disappeared around the corner.
‘Well, that was a happy reunion!’ Tate half-laughed.
‘I wish it wasn’t like that.’
‘It’s his problem. He’s grumpy and unhappy and whatever. He always has been. Forget him.’
Amy looked back at the house, sealed up again, devoid of human care. ‘Are we doing the right thing?’
‘C’mon, let’s stop at the beach before you drop me off at the airport.’
Amy started the car and pulled away. She swallowed hard against tears. Now wasn’t the time. The house receded; the weeds waved her off.
They pulled into the parking lot at the beach. Tate hopped out and headed onto the sand. He plopped down, facing the sea, his back to her. Amy followed and sat down next to him. Seagulls squawked overhead, looming low, waiting for food.
‘The beaches are like this in Cali. You need to come out and visit me.’ He leaned into her in that conspiratorial way he had.
‘You’d get sick of me.’
‘Not my big sister. We’d have fun. We’d get drunk and get Cape Cod’s premier rock station from the 70s on the internet and sing all night.’
‘I’d like that.’
‘You’re it, you know.’
She looked at him quizzically.
‘You’re home now. Your place. Mom nearby. We’ll all come to you for holidays. We’ll even invite Tom and his family.’ He covered his mouth with his hand and said, ‘and hope they don’t come.’
‘I know. Home is the people, not the house.’
Amy spotted two young parents with two young kids building a castle in the sand and laughing as one side disintegrated. It was their time now. For her, it was time to go home.