When she walks in the door, she sees John in his customary place on the couch, watching a talk show on television. His brown hair has grown long, and is greasy; the waves of it obscure a good portion of his face, except for his protruding nose. He is eating a chocolate bar and doesn't even acknowledge Helen's entrance.
She carries in a sack of groceries, puts them on the counter, and starts to put them away. She talks to John, asks him about his day, but he says nothing back at all. Soon, the only voices in the apartment are the couple in the picture box, trying to talk through their problems with the aid of a television pedagogue.
She paces herself through a few menial household tasks. She checks the amount of toothpaste he has left and whether his toothbrush is in good shape. She peeks in the medicine cabinet to make sure there's plenty of extra soap and shampoo. She changes his bedsheets, and then fills a laundry bag to take with her, to return whenever she gets around to washing the clothes.
The talking head on television is telling the woman that she needs to let go of the relationship, that she needs to fly free again. Helen pauses for a moment, but keeps tossing clothes into the laundry bag.
When she comes back into the living room, she sees that John hasn't moved a muscle. She looks at him and wonders if he even really recognizes that she is there.
She steps onto the front porch and makes sure the door is locked behind her, then she quickly goes to her car, her feet moving quickly down the sidewalk and across the pavement. There is a strong sense of relief in her step, a near joy that her twice-weekly task is done, but by the time she gets to her car, tears are streaming down her face. She unlocks the car, sits down, closes the door, and sobs.
When her eyes are clear enough to look up again, she can see the back of John's head through the window, still in the same place on the couch, watching Dr. Phil.
John and Helen are playing in the sand together, and as Helen begins to build up her sandcastle, a look of mischief covers the boy's eye, and he runs and tosses himself onto her castle just to hear her squeals of derision. "JOHN!" she would scream, and she would start chasing her little brother across the beach, her slightly older legs pumping for all they were worth, trying to catch him as he ran into the ocean.
That moment, with the setting sun framed in the background, and John scampering like mad to the safety of his father's arms waiting for him at the water's edge, with Helen running full bore behind, lived on on Helen's refrigerator, just below her eye level, held in place with a Planned Parenthood magnet.
It was a tradition for Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons: Helen would get her emotions under control and head home. She would carry her own groceries in and change into something more comfortable to wear around the house, and head out into the kitchen to put her own groceries away. And just as she would reach to put something into the refrigerator, that picture from the beach would catch her eye and the tears would start to flow again.
She could scarcely remember her father, standing there glowing in the late day sunlight of that picture. She remembered his face, and she remembered that he used to pick her up and swing her through the air and plant her down on the bed, over and over again, as she giggled at the "Whoooo!" noises he would make at her. His hair was brown, and his shoulders broad, and ... and that is all she could remember, and she couldn't even be sure if she really remembered that much, or if it was the influence of the photograph on the refrigerator.
Helen goes through the slow motions of making herself a salad. Put the lettuce into the bowl. Slice carrots on top of the lettuce. Put a handful of walnuts in there. A bit of dressing. Grab a fork. Dinner. She stared out the window and watched the children playing in the yard across the street.
The hours pass by. She listens to an old Neil Diamond record:
Oh, sweet Caroline
Good times never seem so good
I've been inclined to believe it never would
Neil Diamond's lilting voice fills the empty passages of her home for a while, just to fill the vacancy. After a while, she walks down the hallway, her bare feet on the wooden panels, and stares up at the ceiling, wondering when she would go to bed tonight. What book she would start reading this evening. When she would begin to feel again.
The ceiling doesn't answer.
The nightmares are always the same for her. She is driving down a long, straight, wet road. John, the old, talkative John, is sitting in the passenger seat next to her. Some song is on the radio, some old, old song that somehow he knows the words to, and he's singing along. Maybe it's Hank Williams' Lovesick Blues. That sounds about right.
There is a good deal of water on the road and the car is an economy model, so Helen keeps sliding and hydroplaning here and there. Her fingers are gripped to the steering wheel and she is hurrying for some reason that she can't figure out. The darkened sky is full of thunder and lightning, and yet John keeps singing along loudly and a bit off key, seemingly without a care in the world.
And in the beam of her headlights, her mother is standing. And she begins to hydroplane.
Helen's life is nothing but a series of repeated routines. She wakes up at six every morning, takes a long shower, and fixes herself breakfast. If it is a weekday, she leaves for the office; if not, she does some household chores or, if there is nothing to do, she reads a book until dinnertime. The evenings are much of the same: her eyes in a book, sometimes with a record playing and the sounds bouncing off of the empty walls.
On Sunday afternoon, Helen goes to the grocery store again to buy her usual things and pick up John's usual batch of groceries: a box of Cheerios, a gallon of skim milk, a package of hot dogs and a package of buns for them, a loaf of bread, a pound of freshly cut turkey, and some mustard, because she thought he was getting low on that. John ate the same things every day, at the exact same time: at eight in the morning, a bowl of Cheerios; at exactly noon, two hot dogs with mustard; and at exactly six, a sandwich, either turkey or tuna salad, with an abundance of mustard.
She drives to his house and looks over, expecting to see John's head in its usual place on the couch, but it is not there. Her heart leaps for an instant, but she realizes that he must be going to the bathroom or something similarly menial.
She reaches the front door and as she grips the handle, she finally senses the apprehension that has been running through her since she spotted John missing from his normal place. He's dead. He's in there hanging. the voice says, and she closes her eyes and says a quick prayer; though her faith is long dormant, perhaps someone will hear it. And she opens the door.
The apartment is entirely empty except for an envelope on the floor.
Thank you so much for taking care of me these past few years. I haven't wanted to accept that mom is really gone. But she is, and now I need to find my own way, and I will let you know when I do. I hope this will help with things and begin to pay you back for all that you have done for me.
Your brother, Love,
A piece of paper falls out of the letter onto the floor. She picks it up; a check for $200,000.
She drives back home, taking the longest route she can think of, letting the road flow by her as her mind reconfigures itself to this new reality.
For the last fifteen years of her life, more than half of it, she has been caring for her family. Her mother broke down completely at the funeral and became a ghost around the house, and so Helen took on the role of John's mother, at least in many ways. Her mother would never clean the house or do any laundry or attend any school meetings or anything; instead, she smothered John with her love, making sure that she was simply there for him at any whim. Helen became the functional mother for John while she got to be the emotional one.
So John grew up in a black hole of sorts, held in the grip of a fractured woman. While Helen kept going to school, John switched to being homeschooled, where his lessons were completely disorderly, bent completely to the whims of the moment, like a tripod supported with two legs balanced on a gust of wind. The two of them would go on picnics together, leaving the house a disaster in their sloppy process of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and Helen would look out across the yard and see those two fractured people walking together, and she could not bear to be angry at either one of them.
Then their mother got sick, and she began to spend more and more time on the couch. John scarcely left his mother's side during that long descent, and he was the one there at the end, while Helen was at the pharmacy. When she came back, John looked at her and said, "She's gone."
That was three years ago. John had not spoken to her since. He packed up his things and left the house the day after the funeral, but after that, he retreated even further into his shell, and soon Helen had fallen into a pattern of taking care of him.
So Helen quietly cashes the check and spends a few months tottering around the house, so empty of people but so full of the ghosts that they left behind. She goes to work and then goes home, wondering if she'll hear from John and realizing that she probably never will.
And then one day...
It is a bright Tuesday afternoon in the early autumn and Helen is nearly home when she sees a boy and a slightly older girl running about in an open field, kicking a football back and forth to each other. She stops the car and watches the two of them, completely caught up in their game, running around the field. Free.
She imagines a day, long ago, at a beach.
Soon, a "for sale" sign appears in her front yard, and not long after that, a "sold" sticker appears on top of it. A large truck pulls up to the house and two men carry out some furniture and a few boxes.
Helen looks back into the house for the last time, now empty of all but the memories. And she closes the door.
Maybe it is finally time to start over.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Matthew Hardy, a friend and a young man with an unfinished life. He passed away in an automobile accident on August 6, 2005.