“Hi, Sugar,” she whispered and I blacked out, standing straight up as her pinked mouth moved and the wind blew and my heart crimped along the edges.
I should have slammed the door in her face, yelled profanities at the closed structure afterward, but instead, I stood frozen, arm suspended above the handle.
The top of my head tingled. This is a nightmare. And then I thought I hate her.
“I took a taxi, well a plane first, I came to help you know,” dark blonde hair lay in drenched strands plastered around her face; black lines streaked down each of her cheeks. She was backlit by the porch, by the rain, and I shuddered.
It was 10 p.m. exactly – I remembered seeing the green numbers on the microwave as I’d scooted, confused, through the kitchen to answer the insistent doorbell.
“Can I,” her voice squeaked. “Can I come in?” Still, I stared, the seconds taut between us, all ability to form syllables lost along the distant space of the more than ten years since we’d last been in this place together.
There was movement at her side and a furry, barking head poked itself from her fuschia purse and into the porch light. She tugged the chihuahua out with ringed hands and shoved the offensive creature toward my face.
“This is Rocky.”
My insides screamed but as I opened my mouth, finally finding my words, there was a pressure on my elbow where Ben had presented himself.
“You need to get out of the rain,” he reached for two of her three large suitcases as he glanced at me. We shot each other telepathic messages until he shrugged and widened the door, inviting her inside with a wave.
As they melted into the house behind me, I moved into the rain and sat on the wet porch as if I could float away on the sea of the storm.
I’d been back for a few days, but hadn’t found the information I so desperately needed.
“Tell me again how you found out Dad was sick?” It was easiest to direct my anger at my 25-year-old twin.
The oppressive green walls of our childhood kitchen had not faded with time, and I sat at the scratched oak table with Ben pestering him for answers yet again. This had become a ritual since I barreled into town the previous week, but his explanations never seemed to satisfy.
“Reese, we’ve been over this. I found a dozen pill bottles in his medicine cabinet. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out something was up.” My brother leaned back in his chair and exhaled. His espresso-colored hair stuck up at different angles, a sea of exclamation marks.
“But why were you going through his medicine cabinet in the first place?”
He tapped out a beat on the table in front of him and smiled. “Would you rather me tell you I needed a band-aid or are you okay with the fact I always go through people’s cabinets when I visit?”
“You count moving back in with Dad for two whole months as a visit then?”
“Don’t nitpick my terminology, sister. Your twenty questions are almost up. And then it’s my turn, I have some questions for you about Charlie.” Behind black frames, his dark eyes were infuriatingly calm. We’d looked at each other like this so many times through the years, his stormy eyes as familiar to me as my own, our prolonged stare full of unspoken questions and an overarching understanding, the mountain of unsaid things between us prodigious and daunting. I sighed and shook my head.
“Ben, don’t be lame. This is serious.”
“Okay, actually, I’ll save us both time. Let’s recap for the umpteenth time. My company is starting a branch here in Omaha. You do remember I work for a marketing firm?”
“I will not deign to answer such ridiculous queries,” I punched his arm.
“Right, well, said Big Deal Marketing firm sent me over to little ‘ole Omaha to be the project manager for our latest plant since I’m a native and ‘know the vibe.’ Maya came with me for the first week, because we hadn’t been up to see Dad since Christmas, and we like to come a couple of times a year anyway. You know, like kids do.”
“Don’t. Just don’t.”
“So here we were. Here, also, were the pills and a little thing called cancer which Dad had hidden from all of us. I called you right away. Anyway, he’s at the end of his treatments. I knew even though …” Ben trailed off at the sounds of bustling behind me.
The determined click of heels and smell of wisteria meant I didn’t need to turn around to know whom I’d see.
It had been two days since Bernice, formerly known as Mom, had shown up like an apparition – more like a nightmare – in the night. I couldn’t stand the sight of her.
The last two days had been a dance of avoidance between the two of us. The day before she’d waited outside the bathroom for me and even at 7 in the morning her slightly chubby five-foot, two-inch frame was bejeweled from head to toe. Her blonde bob was coiffed into big curls, tightly sprayed. I tripped down the hallway in my hurry to escape.
“I only want to help.” Her hopeful yells chased me down the hall in surround-sound.
Her version of being useful was to give us each worried looks in turn and spend hours in the kitchen concocting a variety of casseroles, soups, and hams. She was from Mississippi and her love language was of the greasy variety.
“And why is she here?!” I mouthed to Ben. “Why now?”
He shrugged. We didn’t invite Bernice, didn’t expect to see her, but I wasn’t accounting for her strength of personality, her need to be at the center of any drama. Lord knows, she loves to be needed. I was still confused how she found out about Dad in the first place, but didn’t have the energy to ask.
She ran toward Ben with a weepy look and open arms, and I left.
I ignored Dad’s prone figure on the couch and headed outdoors.
The air was warm, dense, and replete with the sounds of insects chattering. I plopped onto the porch swing and gave myself a push. I had always loved our front porch, it had been my favored escape for as long as I could remember. When things were tense between my parents or when everyone had been in the house for hours glancing through each other rather than at them, I’d abscond being a Hamilton and look for better things outside our walls.
Vines grew along the western side of the porch, sprawling, darkened in the golden hues of the late afternoon light. I’d sneak out in the summer, late at night to be alone and breathe in the air of the stars and dream about a new family and life far away from Omaha.
Dad, the ever-eager architect, had made many changes to our house over the years, but my favorite would always be the pillars and planks that comprised the front porch.
My first and only kiss for a long time was with Carsen Finkle, after a swim-meet in the fifth grade, right outside the pool where I’d just won my heat. But in subsequent years, I’d had my share of kisses on this porch. The summer of my eighth-grade year, after Bernice left, I made out with the entire track and field team on this porch. Ben finally put a stop to it, storming out and ordering Philip Dyer to go home and tell his friends none of them were welcome to come back.
Ben grew more protective after our parents split. Dad worked later and later at the office, so it was Ben who cooked our dinners and biked the packages of hotdogs and macaroni and cheese home from the grocery store.
Dad ate his dinner cold when he finally made his way home, long after Ben and I had headed upstairs to our separate rooms, separate lives. I knew this because I once went back downstairs to talk to our father after I heard the door close firmly upon his entrance, a bolded period at the end of a sentence.
I descended the steps covertly and paused in the kitchen doorway. The tiles were cold beneath my toes, the only part of me brave enough to enter the room. There was my father, head bowed, pushing around the congealed dinner we’d left him hours earlier. My mother had bought us a set of bright red plates around the time I was five, she said it gave our family a bit of class and energy all at once. That night Dad’s tater tots and pizza looked an offensive shade of yellow against the ruby-tinted circle before him.
He held the edges of the cheery plate, and it wasn’t until I moved closer that I saw the tears at the edges of his eyes, vivid and insistent. I turned on my heels and left without a word. He noticed neither my presence nor my absence and in later years, Ben and I dubbed our teenage years “Dad’s Black Hole.” Even before she left, he’d grown absent, cool, distant.
I came home early from school a week later, not bothering to excuse myself at the principal’s office. I couldn’t be at school another second, so I instructed Ben and Charlie to tell the teachers I was sick if they asked and biked home in a fury.
Dad’s truck was parked out front and I raced inside, suddenly cheerful at the thought of a whole afternoon with my father. He stood in the kitchen, his back to me, packing up the red plates. One after the other, he settled them into a large brown box. When he got to the last plate, he held it for so long I thought he’d fallen asleep, but without warning, he turned and threw it at the far wall, shoulders heaving, sobs leaving his body in stuttered cadence.
The crash of it hitting the corner sounded deafeningly through the afternoon quiet of our kitchen. I jumped.
He propped himself against the counter as if the granite top would give him the strength he needed for a lifetime alone.
I moved forward then, tentatively reached to pat his back and convey that I, too, felt weak, let loose.
After a long pause, he turned and offered a forced smile.
With that, he shuffled over to the stacked boxes. He walked with a slow limp, and for the first time, I noticed grey at his temples.
“Wait!” I raced to where he’d halted in the doorway.
“I want two of them.” I placed one of the plates on the kitchen table and aimed the other one at the facing wall.
“This sucks.” I threw the red plate hard and watched it fracture into its new configuration.
“Reese, honey,” I whipped around fiercely, and he stopped himself.
We stared at each other over the expanse of the kitchen.
Finally, “I’ll sweep it up later. Be careful for now, don’t walk around on that side of the kitchen in your socks.”
He didn’t ask me about school or where Ben was.
As he escorted off our dishware, I took the second red plate up to my room and reverentially placed it beneath my second pillow, the serene pink roses on my pillowcase reassuring any viewers all was ordinary.