It’s an old railroad style house fronting a thin street, not far from the train tracks and stockyards. Cole comes out the front door for a moment to check on his motorcycle; he won’t be staying long, but it’s dusk and he knows the neighborhood. The icy wind stings his face like bees.
He’s visiting Lillian, his mother. She’s invited him here, as she does once in a blue moon, although most of the time he doesn’t show. It’s her sixty-fifth birthday, so she says, and maybe it is.
He lived in this house until he ran away at 15 to live with his uncle Jimmy, just home from Vietnam. After a while, Jimmy’s girlfriend told him to leave. When he went back home, Lillian blocked the doorway and said, “You made your bed, go lie in it.” A hard-faced man Cole had never seen before stood silently behind her. The next three years were spent wherever he could find a bed.
Since then, he’s lost touch with his aunts, uncles, cousins. His half-sister Julie is long gone. His grandma Emma lives a day’s drive away in Ohio. He helped her in the kitchen once when he was a little kid, his hands covered in flour. Brushing off the front of his shirt, she’d said, “My, my, you are a messy little shit, ain’t you?” Then she’d given him a sip of her beer.
Growing up, Cole never got used to the sound of the trains. The whole house would rattle; every morning the freight would come through and he’d grab his glass of orange juice before it marched off the table.
And then there was the stink of the slaughterhouse on his mother’s clothes. Lillian had worked shoveling pulverized bone into fertilizer bins for $1.60 an hour, supporting the two of them, stealing marrow bones for soup.
Cole sits at a small table in the room off the kitchen sipping coffee from a mug. It says on the side in gold letters, “Life’s a Bitch, Then You Die.” He sees his mother’s thin form moving around in the kitchen, her gray hair pulled back with barrettes. Her cigarette smoke snakes toward him. He thinks about washing his hands again; there’s still black under his fingernails. He’s been helping out at Lohman’s Garage changing oil and greasing axles.
His mother leans into the room.
He tilts the mug, looks in. “Yeah, sure.”
She brings the pot over to the table and sets it down. She puts one hand on her hip and takes a deep pull off her cigarette, watching Cole pour.
“Some things never change,” she says. “Like you taking your coffee black.” Cole shrugs, doesn’t say anything.
“Where’d you get that tattoo on your hand?” she asks. Her voice is rheumy, full of gravel. “I ain’t seen that one before.”
Cole looks at the tattoo and then up at her, like she’s crazy. “You seen it before,” he says. He got it in prison, but he’s not thinking about that. She’s standing too close.
“What’s cooking?” he asks.
She wordlessly takes a step backward and disappears into the kitchen.
He stands and takes his coffee into the living room. He thinks to himself, “Yeah, some things never change.” It’s the same couch and matching chairs in a tired floral pattern. He sits down in one of the chairs; the springs come to life, grabbing his butt. He gets up and moves to the couch. An ashtray spilling over with cigarette butts sits on a coffee table decorated with burn marks. Next to the ashtray there is a copy of the Yellow Pages.
It’s darker, now, and a light goes on in the house next door. He sees someone pass in front of a window; a male figure, he thinks, but he can’t be sure because they’ve got the shade pulled down. He feels a familiar deep longing that he can’t identify.
He reaches over and opens the door to a cabinet. It used to hold his toys. Now it’s full of crap: old magazines, newspapers, the so-called family album full of dead relatives, ex-cons and missing persons. He drinks the rest of the coffee and sets down the mug, then pulls the old album onto his lap and flips through it. The first few pages are in black and white: a couple of uncles in army uniform, his mother in an apron with clothes caught mid-flap on the line behind her, his grandmother posing in a Sunday hat. He turns a page and the photos go to yellow-faded color. He doesn’t recognize most of these people, except he sees a group of cousins crowded onto a couch, holding up their beers and laughing. They are in their twenties, long after he last saw them, with sideburns and disco shirts and weird hair. He starts back at the beginning, looking for the photo of his father.
A man in a white shirt and dark trousers stands on a beach. His hair is black and wavy, like Cole’s. He is squinting. Sea grass bends in the summer wind behind him against a backdrop of dunes. This is the man his mother loved once, briefly. She took the photo during a weekend they spent on Cape Cod.
When Cole was 14, sitting on this very couch, Lillian told him about Ray Evans, a man with black wavy hair she met in a bar. “Oh, you could have fooled me,” she said bitterly. “He was a looker. And a gentleman – not your blue-collar type. He was educated.” She poured herself another shot of vodka, settling in and getting comfortable with her story. Later, the bottle half gone, she looked at Cole. “But then there was this little accident.” Her eyes glittered. “And if I’d kept my mouth shut, had it taken care of, he wouldn’t of took off.” She’d gone on about that for a bit, but Cole’s ears started roaring and he couldn’t hear what she said.
He had gotten up the next morning for school and gone into the kitchen. His mother stood with her back to him, making him a bowl of cold cereal. He knew she was hung-over and sick, but he wanted her to turn and hold him, and he moved up close to her. She turned and gave him the bowl. “Best eat that fast if you’re going to get to school on time,” she said, turning back to pour her coffee. They were silent, and a few moments later he was out the door. In math class, he ran a fantasy over and over, perfecting it. His mother falling to her knees before him, saying, “I didn’t mean what I said; you know I always wanted you.” Then she’d reach for his hand, and he would pull it away.
Cole hears the wind rattling the window where the man was next door. He puts the album away and stands and heads for the kitchen. He wonders why he’s been in this town for this long, that there’s really nothing to keep him here. Maybe tomorrow or the next day he’ll move on.