Chapter 27: ‘The Readers’

It never felt right to come up to that door and have to ring the doorbell. On this occasion, he hesitated like he did not know what to do. Like he did not want to know what to do.

He rang the doorbell, instinctively straining his ear for the sound of it. All he could hear, though, was his mother chirping from inside.

Her voice grew louder, her commands more insistent. Finally, the door opened. There stood his father, looking pleasantly, if blankly, at him. His mother came around the side, and stopped. She seemed to lean back, as if she would address him formally. But really she was ready to pounce.

She widened her arms and said, “How about a hug?”

Yes, how about it?

The door closed and he was inside, feeling the cold press of well-air-conditioned air. He chose the first available seat, not 10 feet from the outside, a buttoned-fabric chair in an indescribable pattern with scarred, varnished arms.

For a moment, he relaxed. The room, so familiar, had an unexpectedly soothing effect.

It was bathed in the blue-white light of a weathering afternoon that streamed in through a picture window to his right. Directly opposite the window was an unused fireplace, and above that was an ornately framed, but utterly ordinary, still life that had been plucked off the showroom wall of a well-known furniture store more than four decades earlier.

The balance was clutter, of course, and mismatched furniture.

Philosophically, the room was a carpeted echo of itself. A menagerie of framed photos populated high shelves. Stacks of books and magazines and folded-over paper sacks and coffee mugs and potted plants dotted areas more easily reached. From top to bottom, ephemera seemed to cling to flat surfaces the way plastic bags and leaves linger below the grate of a storm drain. Until the next big wash.

But unlike the street, there was an order to it. The stacks were (mostly) curated, the loans from the library returned on time, and the furniture was clean and in good repair. In any event, there was little in the scene that would interest the producers of a reality show or, indeed, a distracted social worker.

He inhaled. Notes of cinnamon, and Sun-Maid raisins, and too-ripe bananas, and well-cooked, thoroughly stirred ground beef. The giant television to his left was on, but the sound was muted and he briefly contemplated a green icon that danced across the screen.

Just then, a book slapped him across his lap, cracking the stillness. He was jolted, and nearly tried to stand in alarm. But before he could look at the book, or even see what it was or, indeed, get his feet under him, the book was covered by a crudely folded nest of news clippings.

Then his mother said, “Oh,” suddenly, as if she had been interrupted. “I saw something in the paper I wanted you to read.”

On top of the growing pile on his lap she plopped a chipped yellow plate with a worm-shaped stack of crackers on one side and rough-hewn slivers of cheddar on the other.

She turned away with well-rehearsed deliberation. “Your father,” she said as she bent over an easy chair, “is getting you a beer.”

His father had, at that moment, completed the slow-motion splashdown into his easy chair, which was across the room next to the doorway into the kitchen. His eyes widened in mischievous amusement, and he began reversing the motion back to his feet.

His mother by then had picked up a Reader’s Digest stuffed with more crudely scissored paper, and when his father disappeared around the corner into the kitchen, she had turned toward a repurposed dining room table that sat snug under the window. Papers shuffled. She made a humming noise that evolved into a mild exclamation: “Mm-m-m, gosh!”

He set the plate on the floor and turned his attention to the dusty pile on his pants. The first clipping was in fact an entire broadsheet that was faded to a cheesecake yellow, and even though it was folded in fourths he could tell immediately that it had been saved from the previous season’s college football preview. He paged that one up and leaned it against his stomach. Underneath was an “Annie’s Mailbox” from the previous month, an article from a tourist magazine about free-range bison, and after that a wrinkled recipe for flax-seed biscuits. Peeking out from the top was the splotchy, alcohol-addled head of a popular local columnist.

“Here,” his mother said, standing above him. “Guess which one reminds me of your father.”

She put six comic strips in his left hand.

His father shuffled back into view, carrying a hardcover book.

“I didn’t know you were looking for things to read,” his father said, gently laying a fat hardcover book in his son’s right hand, “so I went down and got you this.”

It was “The Sagas of Icelanders,” Penguin Classics edition.

A new pony joined the carousel in the guise of his brother, who lumbered into view and acknowledged him with a sly glance.

He looked at his brother in a flash of inspiration: “Let’s take your dog for a walk.”

“Oh, yes,” his mother chimed in, “you should do that.” She took a breath and got a little more excited. She slapped his brother’s arm: “You should take him past the school. They have new fences down there. He hasn’t seen that, you know.”

For a moment, no one said anything.

He set the book down on the floor next to the cheese, and mashed the comics on top of the papers and book in his lap, and stood up. Then he left the whole bit in his seat, gave one look to his brother and walked out the door.

His mother looked at his father: “Where’s the beer? Did you drink it? Where did you leave it?”

The door closed behind him and he stood on the front step, a soft, fragrant breeze filling his nose. He closed his eyes and listened, for birds, for the faraway traffic, for his mother.

“Oh, honestly. Did you really go downstairs to get it and then forget?”