The Return

Walter stepped out of the car and shielded his eyes from the noonday sun. The familiar crunch of gravel beneath his boots and the warm winds lofting across the expanse sent his heart racing and a sheet of perspiration to coat his neck in a way that was specific to each homecoming. He was surrounded by the farmland of his youth, with the ample stretches of green pasture set up against the swaying of corn, already knee-high, as livestock wandered within their gates and farmers scaled the land in cotton harvesters and tractors. He felt like a boy again, spending his summer afternoons sitting in the bed of his father's pickup truck, watching with his sisters as his father performed daily maintenance on the land, eating ice cream that cooled his throat and stained his shirt, hands seared from blisters spent wrangling the backyard tire swing.  If he closed his eyes he could easily slip back into the memories of the past. But for now, he had a job to do.

Sidestepping the clumps of aerated dirt in the lawn, he made his way across the front porch and knocked on the screen door. White and chipped, it stood preserved as he had always remembered it to be, with the hinges rusty and the door handle slightly askew. From the depths of the home, he saw a figure make their way towards him, shadowed by the brightness of the sun streaming in through the glass door to the backyard, their steps heavy against the tile.

"Is that you, Walt?" the figure said, and he felt the start of a smile flit across his face.

"Yeah, Ma, it's me."

Dorothy Tremblay stood behind the mesh of the screen, looking up with the same green eyes she had given to him, skin creased from years in the sun, and her knot of black hair beginning to grey with the passings of time. Age had shortened her, her usual printed dress hanging loosely on her shoulders, the hems brushing the tops of her feet encased in the blue slippers that had been a Mother's Day gift in 1977. As her gaze focused behind the thick of her rounded glasses, her eyes welled with tears of recognition. She threw open the screen and flung her arms around Walter's waist, head buried in the linen of his shirt, arms unable to wrap around him tightly enough, though try she did.

He returned the embrace and moved them through the threshold into the foyer. It seemed no matter how many years passed, the smell of patchouli and cloves still clung tightly to every surface. It was the overwhelming scents of his childhood and what always sparked nostalgia for the home of his youth.

"You've lost weight," Dorothy said after pulling back. "Do they not got food in Boston?"

"They have food, Ma. Of course they have food."

He reached into his pocket and handed her a napkin, which she used to dab her eyes delicately.

"I must've forgotten what you look like. It's been so long being here, cooped up all alone, no children to visit me."

"I thought Marge was coming around."

Dorothy waved a hand in dismissal of this. "She comes and goes. I mean, it's Marge. She does nothing for me. You know I love her, she's your sister and all. But she's got no skill. Can't cook, or clean, or do anything remotely helpful on this farm. It's like living with a ghost. If my fridge didn't disappear every time she came around, I'd forget she was even here."

"That's real maternal, Ma."

"Oh you know what I mean." She shuffled down the hall and into the kitchen. A bowl of cut apples was sprinkled with cinnamon. More waited to be spliced. "But everyone's gonna be coming down for  this, you know. Marge, of course. Daphne. Uncle Lou. Aunt Gem. Cousin Steve. The Smiths, if they can make it back from Atlanta in time. And the Johnson's said they'd help with set up if we needed it."

"The whole crew."

"Of course. They all miss your dad."

Whenever Walter thought of his father, all he could picture was the plaid shirt he favoured wearing during work, tucked beneath the denim of his overalls and frequently stained with some sort of drink or fertiliser or bit of blood. As skilled as his father was, he always managed to cut himself one way or another and the blood would flow profusely, even more so than the average person. Walter had associated that sort of sensitivity to the Tremblay line. But upon retrospection, it was because of the cancer.

He cleared his throat and began cutting the rest of the apples.

"You need to make them smaller, Walt."

"They are small, Ma."

She flung the dishtowel she had been using to dry the sink over her shoulder, leaned against the counter and said,  "Are you making the pie?"

He knew this trap. But obediently, he set down his knife and replied, "No Ma."

"Then listen to me and make them smaller."

So he did, painstakingly picking each and every new slice from the bowl and chopping them into thirds as his mother looked on with that watchful gaze of hers, its intensity magnified by her glasses's lens. It seemed all she could do to keep from crying, for she still kept the napkin crumpled in the grip of her hand.

As he chopped, he remembered watching his mother do the same thing his whole life, her hands expertly picking the fruits from the grocery store, feeling the density of each, smelling its tender spots and bring them home and lining them on the counter, cutting and slicing and dicing the variety into pies, fruit salads, snacks for when his friends came over. Each time she asked if he wanted to help, and each time he shook his head and went outside, or to his room, or to a friend's, ignoring her want to transfer some skill onto him, a part of herself that he could keep with him when she was gone.

"You've become quite a chef," she said after a prolonged moment of silence. "Been practicing?"

"I have a girlfriend who bakes, actually. She runs a pastry shop down the street from my office."

"A girlfriend. Huh." Dorothy crossed her arms over her chest and nodded to herself. "I didn't know you were seeing anyone."

"It's not very serious."

"Serious enough for you to learn all this." She motioned to the pile of apples in front of him. "But how could I ever know? You never call."


"I know, I know. You're all busy in that big city office of yours." She resumed drying the sink. "Boston."

"Why do you have to say it like that, huh?" Walter placed his knife down and scooped the remaining fruit into the bowl. "I call when I can."

"You call when you feel guilty. That's it."

"Guilty of what?"

"Abandoning me. Leaving your sisters. Deserting your father when he clearly needed you to take over in his last few months--"

"Ma I can't do this again."

She began scrubbing the sink with more force, leaning into the counter and concentrating her anger at an ink stain that was never going to fade. Her dress ballooned out around her, swishing as her body moved in the rhythm of the scrubbing, exerting the whole of her to create the needed force to admonish the blemishes. The collar of her dress shifted ever so to the left, exposing the nape of her neck. When did she get so thin?

Walter sighed and softened his voice. "Ma, what do you need me to do?"

She turned around and threw her towel into the sink. He knew she loved the attention, it was evident in every one of her dramatic flares. Even with his father she had always revelled in making a large scene, whether it be within the confines of their bedroom or in the middle of a restaurant.

But it was her gaze that kept him silent. There was a seriousness in its depths, a stress his had never once felt.  She bit her lip, eyes unwavering from his own. "Be here, okay?"

"I am here!" The protest came out before he had the chance to reconsider.

She yanked the bowl from him and slammed it over the ink stain.

"Here, Walt. Not on that phone of yours or that fancy computer. Here. This whole weekend. No matter what."

"Alright, Ma, I will! Jesus."

She erected a finger and pointed it right at him, as if wanting to drill a hole straight through his forehead.  "Don't you go swearing now, Walter Paul, I won't tolerate it."

And just like when he was fifteen, he felt the lull of his eyes rolling and the familiar words tumbling out of his mouth in one long, exaggerated, sigh. "Alright, Ma. Sorry."

As she made her way out of the kitchen, Walter could hear her mumbling her most infamous mantra saying, "Jesus-ing me. The nerve on that boy! I oughta, oh but I can't. Jesus-ing! The goddamn nerve of that one...."

And as if no time had gone by, he was back within the familiar grooves of his childhood.

Property of Morgan Davies and The MAD  Exposé