A Journey Home – A Short Story by Maggie Williams
For such a young man, I sure do look old, he thought as he caught a glimpse of himself in the rear view mirror. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he stared at himself with a look of melancholy. He reviewed the past five years in his head; living and traveling and working on four continents, the people he had met, the friendships he had made, the things he had learned, the adventures he had. He let his head fall, as if he could no longer hold it up, and shook it from side to side a few times. He wondered if he would ever find his wanderlust again.
Realizing he ought to keep his eyes on the road, he mustered up the strength to look up and took a couple more deep breaths, making a big production out of it as if he had an audience that might show him some sympathy. Having made enough money to live comfortably for a few years, he’s on the last leg of his journey home. He’s looking forward to settling down and reconnecting with his family for a while and perhaps even, starting a family of his own.
He had been up for 42 hours with only a few hours of non fulfilling sleep on a plane. So far, his modes of transport on this journey included a camel, a four wheeler, a helicopter, four airplanes and the rental car he’d just picked up at the airport. After such a long and grueling journey from the dessert and the life he’d lived for the past few years, he felt accomplished. He had been strutting around the airport like he’d done something significant; as if he were a man of some importance, but no one around him seemed to notice or care or pay him any mind. Just doesn’t seem right he had thought to himself.
With a couple of hours left on his drive as he tries to get over the culture shock of being back in the States, he stopped for coffee at a small roadside grocery and one pump gas station. He began to notice that familiar accent unique to this particular part of the state and he started to feel as if he were truly coming home. The anticipation grew and he started to get that third wind. It was just after 11:00am on a hot and humid August day, he had stopped along side the road and got out for a few minutes just to feel the heat on his skin and breathe in that familiar air. The crickets were deafening, cicadas were flying all around making that clicking sound with their wings, there was a hint of honeysuckle in the air, and in his peripheral vision, he’d spot the occasional grasshopper clumsily sailing by.
As he drove the winding country roads passing corn field after corn field, he noticed how green it was; how the hills were covered with oak, maple, cherry, birch, and poplar trees and he imagined the soon to come burst of color when the leaves turned. Perfect time to come home he thought to himself.
Occasionally, there was a long stretch of relatively straight, but by no means, flat road. On the approach to each hill it’s hard to see what lies ahead until the crest is reached. From the crest of one, the crest of the next three or four can be seen in the distance. He remembered when he was a little boy sitting in the back of his father’s 1965 red mustang on the way to the farm and his father would announce they were at the hills. He would scoot up on the edge of the back seat and sit in the middle and put his hands up on the front bucket seats or sometimes on his parents’ shoulders to brace himself so he could see straight out the front windshield. He would beg his father to speed up and take those hills and much to the dismay of his Mama, Pop would do just that. As they crested each hill, the car would fall out from under them, giving him the sensation of weightlessness as he rose up out of his seat, just a little. It was like a roller coaster and he always got such a kick out of it.
As he came to the hills on this day, his heart began to beat a little faster and he gripped the wheel a little tighter. He got some speed on and as he approached the first hill he felt some apprehension. His better senses made him wonder what was on the other side and tried to convince him to slow down. He imagined flying over the crest and plowing into a broken down car, or perhaps the road would curve hard one direction or the other and he wouldn’t be able to react fast enough and he’d run himself right off the road or down an embankment. As these images flashed by in his mind he realized there’s probably a good reason why this seems like a bad idea and he wondered if his father had ever had those thoughts way back when.
He overcame his hesitation and kept going, pushing down on the accelerator, he crested the hill and as the car wanted to keep going up just as the road fell away from under him, he felt that exhilaration and queasiness in his belly during the half second hang time and the ensuing free fall. As gravity coaxed the car back to the road for the downhill plunge, he was relieved to see that the road ahead was clear and straight and he saw the next hill. He went for it too, and for the next one, and the next and the next until the road started to level off near the plateau. Feeling exhilaration exaggerated slightly by sentimentalism and having made it unscathed, he exclaimed in his head – what a ride!
He looked at his watch and thought it might be an OK time to pop in on his Aunt and Uncle’s farm, to visit for a spell; since it was only 10 miles or so out of the way. He thought back to the many weekends and summers he had spent there, being put to work of course, but mostly he remembered exploring the barns and climbing mountains of hay bales and running through the cornfields and getting lost and tormenting cows. He always got along so well with his cousins and his Aunt and Uncle whom he always thought of as a second set of parents, and he suspected they thought of him as one of their own.
As he neared the farm, he saw that familiar white cross buck fence on the right lining the road’s edge, which seemed to go on forever. About a half mile further down the road as the house came into view, he slowed down and noticed the gate was open. He negotiated the turn into the drive, which was much easier coming from the other direction. It was tight but he made it with no scrapes. He drove up the gravel road and parked in the turnaround in front of the house. The house looked good, comfortingly familiar; off white two stories with a trim of five year old dinge. The porch, the wood plank floor of which was painted battleship gray, wrapped around two sides of the house and seemed inviting as were the two big oak trees out front. The rocking chairs and porch swing were all strategically placed near the porch steps for an evening of cooling off, enjoying each other’s company and perhaps even an impromptu serenade by uncles and cousins and neighbors with guitars and banjos and fiddles.
He opened another gate in another fence, walked through and closed it behind him and walked up the path to the side door, the door to the kitchen where he figured his Aunt would be. He was right, he could see her through the door in the kitchen but she hadn’t seen him yet. He knocked on the screen door, which made a secondary bang for every knock because the door didn’t fit perfectly in the door frame and the latch rattled as well. That racket would get anyone’s attention and it certainly got hers. She turned trying to make out who was at the door, she didn’t recognize him at first. She made her way to the door and in slow motion, her face lit up and with a big smile she let out a scream and closed the distance to the door in short order. At that moment of recognition, he figured it was OK to come on in and and was just inside the door when he got a full press hug from his adoring Aunt. He returned the hug which lasted a good 20 seconds, partly because he started to choke up a little and he wanted to get it together before letting go.
She wiped her tears away and motioned to her nephew to sit down at the kitchen table while she tended to chores that needed her immediate attention and they continued to talk. He knew instinctively what was next, he could smell it, he saw it. A five gallon pot of vegetable soup was on its third day of simmering on the stove. The smell triggered so many memories. This soup, with big chunks of slow cooked beef as a stock was thick with sweet corn cut right from the cob, green beans, carrots, onions, potatoes, cabbage, and peas, all fresh from the fields. She learned this recipe from her mother, as did her sisters and many of the grand kids. It’s a family staple; sort of a vegetable soup chain family. No matter which family members you visit anywhere in the country, you’ll get this same wonderful soup. She pulled a pan of cornbread out of the oven which rounded it all out. Perfect timing.
He finished the first bowl with ease and every time his Aunt offered him more, he kept accepting. It seemed he couldn’t get enough of it. Each time he was finishing off a bowl, he would use a piece of cornbread to sop up the last bit of liquid and the tiny bits of shredded beef. When he had finally had enough, he had expertly devoured three big bowls of soup and three big glasses of milk.
Absolutely satiated, he leaned back in his chair and slumped down a little, stretching one leg out under the table to get comfortable as his belly pushed up slightly on the edge of the table. He glanced at the cook and gave her a look she knew all too well; a respectful and loving thank you conveyed only in his eyes. He didn’t have to say how good it was, she knew, it’s what she does day in and day out, caring for and feeding her family and she is happy to do it. He knew that even if he had tried to compliment her, she would have cut him off right away. She returned his look with a warm toothy grin that seemed to engulf her entire face as she gathered up the dishes. They shared the feeling that all was right in the world.
She sat down to talk a spell and he caught her up on his adventures of the past few years and she caught him up on the kids and grand kids, who’s pregnant, who’s in what clubs or sports, who’s doing what in the Jaycees, who got promoted, etc. Just then, in walked his cousin whom he had had a crush on when they were teenagers. He was never sure if she shared the sentiment but at the site of him, she lit right up with a familiar smile. They were only second cousins, so the crush didn’t seem so wrong, only just a little. After the shrieks and hugs, she poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table to join the conversation. He flashed back about 10 years to when, as a runner, she led her high school track team to the State championship; quite the accomplishment he thought, local farm girl makes good. She had a scholarship opportunity and he thought she’d make it out of town, but she didn’t take it; that’s life in the Midwest he reckoned. She’s a farmer’s wife now with four kids of her own and she says she’s happy. She and her husband have a farm about 20 miles west.
After a fantastic meal and good conversation with the girls, he decided he’d come back in a day or two to see his Uncle and other cousins who were all out of town for the day helping fix a neighbor’s barn or some such thing. He thought it funny that their neighbor’s place was – out of town. He said his goodbyes to his Aunt and cousin and made his way back to the car. He looked back and waved and wondered if they envied him having gotten out of town and moved on to so called better things. If they did he thought, they were sorely mistaken.
He made his way east and after another enjoyable encounter with the hilly roads, he came around a bend and began the short down hill leg to his hometown. His elevation, the clarity of the air that day and the sun low in the sky behind him, all conspired to present him with a most breathtaking view of the snow capped mountains just beyond the town he grew up in, which was laid out before him. It was perfect. He savored it. A feeling of joy washed over him at the spectacle. He made a mental note that he would have to tell mama about this moment when he saw her, knowing she would appreciate it. He hadn’t seen them for years and he couldn’t suppress a smile as he thought about seeing his parents in just a few minutes.
He thought his younger brother would be there but wasn’t sure about his sister; he hoped she’d be there. Looking around the car, he made mental notes of the things he wanted to bring into the house; gifts and things for show and tell and his wallet of course, the rest could stay in the car for a bit. He was arriving at his folk’s place unannounced just like he had done at the farm, but he figured someone there had phoned his parents and they’d be expecting him. He wondered if they’d be out on the porch waiting for him. His belly was full, it was definitely nap time, his eyes ached from being awake so long, and he squinted in the bright sunlight. He was wired.
As he started to wake he squirmed around in the bed and stretched and groaned, contemplating the day ahead of him. It felt good to be home. He tried to recount the reunion with his folks the night before, but found it difficult. Am I really that wiped out he wondered. As he gathered his wits, he realized he was indeed home, but not the home he was thinking of.
Looking around the room, the elation she had felt began to subside. She was indeed home, the home she had lived in the past twenty some years. She realized there were no snow capped mountains in Florida and this was definitely not the Midwest and she didn’t know anyone on a farm. As she became more and more aware of her surroundings and started to realize it was time to get up and go to work, she lay there and tried to hang on to these warm feelings for as long as she could. She even tried to go back to sleep, to dream, but she couldn’t. The sound of her husband in the hall getting the kids ready for school kept her awake.
She dwelled on how vivid it was; she felt the sense of camaraderie developed over the years of world travel and the satisfaction of a job well done and she felt the resulting exhaustion. Turning on her side and into the fetal position, she grabbed a pillow to hug and began to whimper. She felt completely immersed in the joy of visiting the farm and remembering the childhood she never had and with teary eyes, she sobbed into the pillow uncontrollably at the regret of missing reuniting with her parents. She clenched her fists and grimaced as she grew angry with whatever or whomever woke her.
As some time passed and reality started to set in, the details of her dream began to fade. She could remember the feelings, but not exactly why she had them. She squirmed around in the bed and stretched and groaned, contemplating the day ahead. She felt good and she wasn’t sure why. She hoped she’d be able to hang on to these feelings long enough to get her through the day. Just back from an amazing place, she hoped she’d be able to visit again, soon.
With new found energy, she got up and began to strut, as if she had accomplished something significant, but there was no one around to notice or care or pay her any mind. Just doesn’t seem right she thought.