It was only a few weeks after my mother’s funeral when my father told me not to come home again. If not for the coldness of his voice, I might have assumed he was passive-aggressively trying to shame me for having stayed for so short a time, having returned to my son and my husband. But my father’s aggression had never been passive. He was not a talker, never much of a communicator at all, and so, over the years, in order to understand anything from him, I honed the art of interpreting his every word, gesture, and intonation to a fine art. When he said, “Don’t come home,” it wasn’t a gentle reassurance, it was a warning. “Don’t come here,” he said. And then hung up the phone.
I booked a flight to Boston for the next morning and sent my boss an email saying I’d be gone for a few days but would be working remotely as much as I could. I called Sally and Amy, our neighbors across the hall in the building, and asked if they would be able to look after Zack a bit this week, and they were as supportive as always, said he could come have a sleepover with their son Paul if Ron needed any time just to work. Once everything was set up, I told Ron, and he was annoyed at first, then concerned, but he could see that I was in no mood to answer questions, and he didn’t ask many. “Are you all right?” he said, and I said yes, but he knew it was a lie. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about us. Just take care of your dad.”
I barely slept. All night, and all day during the long flight, and then during the two hours’ drive north in a rattling tin can of a rental car, I kept trying not to think of my brother Corey, about his death a year before, kept trying to consider everything as separate from that. It wasn’t separate, though, and I knew it. If my brother hadn’t killed himself, if my mother hadn’t withered away, if I didn’t blame myself for a heap of it and then hate myself for the blame, I would not have been so quick to fly across the country and drive through the night to a world I loathed.
Shortly before he died, Corey told me I was the most selfish person he had ever met. He said I made Ayn Rand look like a philanthropist. He was angry because I wouldn’t agree to buy him a plane ticket to Seattle and let him live with us while he bummed around looking for a band to play with or a rich patron who would appreciate his paintings or a vegan anarchist collective that would let him work as their cook. In that moment, he forgot all the money I had given him over the years, all the free meals, all the connections I had tried to make for him that he screwed up in one way or another, all the hours I had listened to him moan about his endless string of doomed relationships.
I keep telling myself all that, keep reminding myself what Corey forgot.
It doesn’t do any good. When I think of Corey, I think of him taking me down to Boston for my sixteenth birthday to see the Fourth of July fireworks, staying with college friends of his and hanging out on the roof of their apartment building, which had a great view of Back Bay, and discovering a Corey who, away from home, moved through the world with wonder, who was able to smile, laugh, play. I think of long, barely-punctuated emails telling me of his ever-changing philosophies of life and love and politics in his first year of sobriety: Christian socialism one month, rationalist nihilism another, queer paganism the next. I think of taking him to the airport and not being able to stop hugging him, and him gently disentangling himself from my arms, wiping a tear from my eye, and saying, “Don’t be so sentimental, little sis. We’ve got a million tomorrows.” He skipped to the security gate, turned back to blow a kiss my way, and then disappeared. I never got to hug him again.
By the time I arrived at the house, it was nearly midnight. I hadn’t called my father, and I feared just walking inside—he went to bed by nine o’clock every night, but he had never been a deep sleeper, and more than once during my childhood he had grabbed the shotgun from the gun rack in the front hall and gone out to see what one sound or another might be. I remembered him twice shooting into the night, once at (apparently) nothing, and once at a pack of coyotes that were making their way across the yard toward the chicken coop. He managed to shoot two of the coyotes as the pack ran off. One, the shot took the top of its head off. The other was wounded, one of its legs destroyed, and even though this was almost thirty years ago, I easily hear in memory the coyote’s whimpers and cries as our father slowly walked toward it, then shot it again. (I was only eight or ten years old, and our mother quickly grabbed me and sent me back to my room before I could reach the front door, but my window looked out over the scene, and I watched it all. Corey was in his early teens, and since he was a boy and older, our father called out, ordering him to help drag the carcasses into the woods. Later, dawn still some hours away, Corey came back to our bedroom, took all his clothes off, left them in a pile near the door, huddled shivering in his bed, and cried himself to sleep.)
Not wanting to end up like a coyote, I parked the rental car at the end of the long driveway, tilted the seat back, and slept until morning.
I woke to my father knocking on the window near my head. The glass had all steamed up overnight. I realized he couldn’t see in and didn’t know it was me. I opened the door and stepped out groggily.
“Good morning,” I said.
“I told you not to come.”
“Right. And I hadn’t even been considering it. But you hung up the phone before we finished talking. So I figured I ought to come check on you.”
“You should go.”
“Jesus, Dad, I’ve flown three thousand miles, driven through the night, and slept in my goddamned car because I didn’t want to disturb you. The least you could do is offer me some coffee.”
“Eileen,” he said, my name heavy on his voice, a sound torn by yearning and fear. He paused then and scrunched his eyes as if a sharp pain hit his forehead. “All right,” he said. “I suppose it’s fine right now. Come on.”
“Hop in, I’ll give you a ride,” I said.
“No,” he said, and so I drove down the quarter mile of gravel driveway to the house while he walked behind. I tried not to go too fast so as not to blast dirt and stones at him. He walked slowly, steadily, his face impassive as always, but somehow in the impassivity I couldn’t help but see anger, though now I think it was more likely fear.
In the cool autumn daylight, the house looked as it always had, a farmhouse forever in need of new paint, new shingles, new windows, new boards. Somehow, it kept standing. The barn beside the house was even worse: weatherbeaten, leaning a bit to one side, the hayloft door warped and broken, the roof sagging. Two milk cows and a few sheep called the barn home and didn’t seem to mind its sorry state, but I hoped perhaps if I got the promised promotion at work that I might be able to afford to have someone fix up the barn.
When we were kids, there had been more animals—chickens, ten cows we dutifully milked, a dozen sheep, random goats, a couple horses, some dogs, plenty of cats. Once, we even had a llama: certain protection, a neighbor named George Swanson told my father, against coyotes and other predators, because llamas are curious creatures that walk in a straight line toward whatever they are curious about, and this singular focus unnerves more cautious animals. George Swanson knew a guy who was selling llamas and got us what he said was a good deal on one. It was a stupid, spitting creature. A few months after it arrived, the llama got killed by coyotes. “George Swanson is a fool,” my father said, and never mentioned the llama, or George Swanson, again.
Inside, the house was just as it had been for the funeral. When Corey and I were growing up, our mother had done a good job of keeping the old place as clean as could reasonably be expected, but after Corey’s death, she lost interest in most things, including cleaning, and my father had never had any talent for, or interest in, housekeeping, so I had been shocked to see how dust-encrusted everything was, how dirty were the kitchen counters, how many unwashed dishes filled the sink, how much laundry had piled up, how thick were the cobwebs clinging to every corner. I had cleaned as best I could, finding comfort in it, even as I was disgusted by how bad things had gotten. It was mindless work, meditative but purposeful, with clearly visible progress. It made me feel generous, like I was able to add some good to a rotten situation. I had felt that if I could get things into better shape, then my father would be able to keep it up and carry on.
He had not. Cobwebs and dustbunnies filled every corner. Thick, rank air hung in the rooms. The kitchen sink was completely filled with dirty dishes, and dishes covered the counters, as well.
I pried the kitchen window open. “Have you done a single bit of cleaning since I left?” I asked. My father stood across the room, silent. “At least the coffee’s hot,” I said. “Thank god for small graces.” I washed a mug out in the sink, poured some coffee, and opened the refrigerator to get milk.
The refrigerator was filled with food: meat, eggs, squash, tomatoes, zucchinis, potatoes—more than I could quite comprehend. I burrowed around and found a bottle of milk, sniffed it to make sure it was fresh, and poured a bit into my coffee.
“Are you stocking up for the apocalypse or just for a big party?” I asked, jostling the bottle of milk back into the refrigerator. I took my mug and sat at the kitchen table. My father continued to stand across the room.
“You should go,” my father said.
“I just got here,” I said. “I’m pretty exhausted. And I’m concerned.” I sipped my coffee. “I’m not leaving.”
“It’s not what you think.”
“Oh? No? Really?” I stared, unblinking, at him. “What I think is that you’ve given up. You’re letting it all go. I understand. I sympathize. We had a life here, a good life sometimes, and now . . . Well, it’s done. Right? What’s left? It’s done. Maybe it’s time to admit that and move on. You could get good money for this land, big money. You could sell and get a nice condo somewhere, live comfortably. Hell, come out to Seattle. A new life.”
“No,” my father said.
“Why not? What’ve you got here?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” I said.
“It’s not good here.”
“Clearly. And that’s what I’m saying. Places around here have been selling for crazy money recently. It’s as good a time as ever to get out.”
“You don’t understand,” he said, and walked out of the room.
If I hadn’t been so tired, I probably would have chased after him, forced a confrontation, because I was in the mood for it—seeing the state of the kitchen had shocked me, and shock makes me lash out. But I was also exhausted from all the travel. I needed sleep. So instead of chasing after our father, I went upstairs to our bedroom, a room which had stayed mostly the same since Corey and I were kids, and I lay down on my old bed and was soon asleep.
My father’s hand on my shoulder woke me. “It’s time to go,” he said.
I sat up. “What time is it?”
“Afternoon. Three. You need to go.”
“Eileen.” Once again, as he spoke it, my name sounded thick with meanings I could not parse. “Please. You must. Go.”
“The earliest I can fly back is in three days. So you’re stuck with me.”
He breathed deeply and lowered his head. He said nothing. He stood up and stared at me, his face looking as weathered as the barn, lips tight, eyes conveying not anger or resolution or fear but simple resignation.
“I’m as stubborn as you are,” I said. “Always have been. You called me a mule once, do you remember? And mom laughed and said we’re both mules, you and I. Corey was the soft one, you said so yourself, and it was a cruel thing to say but it was also true. So no, I’m not leaving, not until I’m sure you’re going to be okay.”
He nodded slightly, turned around, and walked out of the room.
I sat down on the bed. I felt as exhausted as before I had slept, perhaps more so.
I heard the front door open and close. I looked out the window next to the bed and watched my father walk across the yard and disappear in the barn, then reappear in the hay loft. He stood there, looking out at the horizon beyond the house. I remembered my mother saying that she wanted him to tear down the barn, even burn it down, salt the earth beneath it. But he refused. The animals needed it, he said. The hayloft was off limits, though. Even he didn’t go up there.
Staring at my father standing in the loft, looking out at the sky as if seeking some world beyond what his eyes could see, I hated him more than I had ever hated him, more than I had ever hated any person or any thing, hated him more than I hated Corey for the ruin he had caused. Corey, at least, I had understood. Tying a rope to a beam in the hayloft, wrapping the rope around his throat, and jumping off an old chair to snap his neck made a certain terrible sense. I hated him for leaving us, for leaving me, for causing pain, but I also knew he had ended his own pain, and partly I hated him for that, too, because I could not follow him; I would not inflict such pain on my husband and son, at least.
Staring at my father, I wanted him to collapse and fall out of the hayloft onto the hard ground, to explode in blood and bone. But I wanted, too, to catch him, wanted him to fall into my arms so that I might comfort him as I would a child, allowing him, for the first time, to let tears fall, let a wail of pain scream forth, let all his harm and hurt go free.
He did not collapse and fall, did not weep or wail. He left the loft and soon I saw him carrying chicken feed out to the coop from the barn. I went downstairs to try to make some sense of the chaos.
He came in after dark, as I was cooking up ham, eggs, and potatoes for dinner.
“Food’s almost ready,” I said. “Sit down and we can eat.”
“No, it’s no good,” my father said.
“What’s no good? The food? Looks perfectly good to me. Smells great. Tastes—” I scooped up some eggs and ate them. Spat them out.
They were not eggs, they were dirt, sand, a mouthful of sawdust. Dry texture, no taste.
“Cans in the cupboard are fine,” my father said. “The milk’s okay so far. Water, coffee, dry beans.”
“The refrigerator? All that food?”
“Not for us.”
I coughed, nearly choked on the remnants of what seemed to be egg but was not.
“It’s no good.”
I sniffed the ham. With a fork, I cut a small piece, brought it to my mouth, touched it with my tongue. The meat screamed of rot and I recoiled, dropping the fork to the floor.
My father wandered off to some other part of the house as I dumped the food in the trash and then looked through the cans in the cupboard to see what I might make a meal from. Various beans, vegetables, fruit. It was easy enough to put some beans, tomatoes, and corn together in a pot and call it chile. I found an old shaker of pepper and a few jars of spices. The flavor wasn’t bad.
“Want any?” I asked my father when he came back into the kitchen.
“Sure,” he said. I scooped chile into a bowl for him. We ate together in silence.
After dinner, my father told me it would be best if I went to bed, or at least if I stayed upstairs. I asked why, but he wouldn’t say anything. Annoyed, I huffed upstairs like the bratty kid I once had been. That was when I remembered to call Ron. He had left a couple voicemail messages and sent texts asking how I was doing. I’d managed to send one quick text saying everything was fine and I would call him when I got a chance. Reception was terrible at the house, but there was a landline phone in the bedroom, a line my parents had put in as a 16th birthday present to me, though it was at least as much a present to them: they would no longer have to listen to me on the kitchen phone talk endlessly with my boyfriends. (Corey had left for college by then. He never talked on the home phone with his boyfriends.)
“Are you okay?” Ron asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Dad’s weird, but he’s always weird. Everything’s weird here.”
“But he’s okay.”
“I guess so. It’s hard to tell. I mean, something’s wrong. He won’t tell me what, though. I’m trying to get him to sell the place. The faster he can do that, the better it will be. There’s nothing here for any of us anymore.”
“Zack wants to talk to you.”
“Put him on.”
I expected Zack to complain about school. He hated everything about third grade. His previous teacher had been wonderful, but for third grade his teacher was older and a bit more distant, a very by-the-book sort of woman. But he didn’t want to talk about school.
“I took a nap this afternoon and I had a dream,” he said.
“What sort of dream?” I asked.
“It was about Uncle Corey,” he said.
“Oh?” Zack and Corey had only spent any real time together when Corey visited us that last time, and I hadn’t thought Corey had left much of an impression. Certainly, Corey had not seemed interested in Zack.
“He’s in the basement and he’s sad.”
“Basement? What basement?”
“In grandpa’s house. He and grandma are down there and they’re sad.”
“What are you talking about Zack?”
“They’re so hungry, mommy.”
“Help them, mommy,” he whispered. “Help them.”
Ron got on the phone. “He misses you,” Ron said.
“What was he saying about Corey, what’s that—he was whispering—”
“He’s crying because he misses you.”
“No, Ron, before that, he was saying about Corey, about grandma, the basement—”
“What are you talking about? He’s just crying. He’ll be fine. Are you okay, honey, what’s—”
The phone went silent. I called Ron’s name, but he wasn’t there. No dial tone. I hung up the phone, picked up the receiver again, but there was still nothing.
I opened the bedroom door and stepped out into the hall.
A sound like wind through a cave echoed from below. As I approached the stairs, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, but saw nothing. I turned back to the stairs and there was something, a shape, hanging like fog in the air, like a nightgown caught in a breeze I could not feel, a face, somehow familiar, like a face in clouds, a mouth open as if wailing, but the whole world was silent, and I thought I saw arms reach out to me, only inches away, but then gone in a gust of wind.
I ran down the stairs to the kitchen. Now the whole house filled with a low, deep sound, mournful and resonant, a sound that ought to have rattled the windows and vibrated through the floors and walls, but the house was utterly still. The lights in the house were on, but they seemed ineffectual, as if the house were dense with smoke, smothered in shadow. The only light piercing the dark slipped out under the door of the basement.
The door was locked. I pulled it, rattled it, but the lock held firm.
From behind the door, down in the basement, my father called out in a desperate tone I had never heard from him before: “Stay up there, Eileen! Go back to bed! Stay away, for god’s sake, stay away!”
The basement door and its lock were older than me, possibly older than my father, and they were weak. The kitchen table was small but sturdy, with a metal frame and formica top. I used it as a battering ram. On the third blast against the basement door, the table went right through and I nearly plunged down the stairs, catching myself by reaching a hand out to the doorjamb, then, hardly pausing to think or even quite catch my balance, running down the stairs into the damp, murky basement.
It was, as it had always been, the basement of a farmhouse—not a nice, dry, finished space, but a hole in the ground with walls made of stone and a floor of packed dirt. Light came from a few bare bulbs strung from the beams of the ceiling. I had never much liked the basement (who could?), but Corey had been terrified of it his whole life. When we were children, it was where our father sent us for punishment. As the most persistent rule-breaker in the family, I ended up in the basement more often than Corey, but it was worse for him, and once our father even made him stay down there overnight. Corey was a teenager then; I remember it clearly. At the time, I didn’t know what he had done that so enraged our father, and nobody would tell me, but years later, Corey said he had been in the barn loft pretty literally having a roll in the hay with Brad Miller, a guy a few years older whose father was famous in town for murdering a man in a bar fight. (Soon after our father caught him and Corey in the barn, Brad ran away from home and ended up in difficult circumstances in Boston; I never learned the details, but Corey heard from him now and then, heard he was HIV positive, heard he was living on the streets, heard he was dead, maybe of disease, maybe of drug overdose, the stories conflicted. Corey had tried to help him a few times, but he never knew what to do, and I said maybe there was nothing to do, maybe this was just who Brad was, and Corey said no, not at all, that was not who Brad was at all.) When our father caught them together, he dragged Corey out of the barn and hardly paid any attention at all to Brad, as if, Corey told me, trying not to see him, not to see what was happening. All his fury and fear poured into Corey, and our father dragged him into the house and pushed him down the stairs so hard that Corey said it was something of a miracle he avoided broken bones. Our mother frantically asked what was going on, and that was when I came into the room, having been upstairs, working on homework or playing with dolls or taking a nap, I don’t remember. Our father wouldn’t say anything, wouldn’t explain, just said, “He is filth. Filth.” I’ll never forget the fierce disgust in his eyes, the hatred with which he spat the words: He. Is. Filth.
(After Corey’s death, I asked our mother why she had never defended him. It was callous to ask the question then, and perhaps a callous question to ask her at any time, but I needed an outlet for my pain, a scapegoat. I don’t think she was ever in her life so angry at me, and I gave her plenty of reasons to be angry through the years. “Always,” she said. “I always defended him.” She grabbed my shoulders with strong hands and stared right into my eyes. “Just because I hid the bruises from you doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”)
The air in the basement smelled of earth and mildew, but there was another smell amidst that more familiar one, a smell that brought no memories but which nonetheless I associated with rot, a festering stench of decay.
Our father stood at the opposite side of the basement from me, near a shadowed corner. In the corner, two figures sat on either side of a mound that, as I got closer, I saw to be a mound of food—meats, fruits, and vegetables like the ones that filled the kitchen refrigerator, all indisciminately piled on the floor. The light in this part of the basement seemed to bend away from the figures, which looked to me to be less substance than absence, but once I got closer, I knew they were some form of our mother and Corey. They reached hungrily into the mound of food, but they did not eat it, not with their mouths. Our mother stuffed the food into a gash in her stomach from which steaming, bubbling puss oozed forth. Corey squeezed bits of meat and vegetable matter into a wide laceration in his neck.
I felt words filling my ears, but I cannot say I heard them, certainly not in the way we hear words when spoken.
“This is not nourishing them,” I said to our father.
“It is all I have left,” he said. “What do they want from me?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“They keep telling me they are hungry.”
“Yes, but not for this. Not for you.”
“I didn’t make them come back.”
“And yet,” I said, “here we are.”
I told the police that I used the table to break through the door, and that my father was certainly dead when I got down there; the shotgun had not left a whole lot of his head intact.
As they asked questions, I barely lied about any of it, but I did not say anything about our mother or Corey, lest they send for a shrink and a straightjacket. A few small bits of food remained in the basement, but otherwise there was no trace of what I had seen. Even the refrigerator was now empty of anything except an old bottle of ketchup.
I also did not tell the police that the shotgun had been upstairs, that I had brought it down to the basement, that I handed it to our father, that I then returned upstairs and waited to hear the shot.
They were incurious, easily satisfied, repulsed but also compassionate. Soon enough, they let me go home to Seattle.
After some weeks of adjustment, medication, and many naps, we pretended to go back to our normal lives, and after a while I realized we weren’t pretending any more. I got the promotion I had hoped for. Ron kept busy and said he felt fulfilled. We moved Zack to a small and rather ragtag private school that Ron and I both thought was too much like a hippie commune, but Zack loved it, couldn’t wait to go to school each morning, and that was all we wanted or needed. I paid the taxes on the farm and gave the livestock to a neighbor. We talk now and then of selling it, but I am happy to let it rot.
This summer I took a series of cooking classes, trying to find a hobby, some activity that would not be about my job. Ron and I had always split the cooking based on who was busiest or most (or least) motivated, but now I’ve taken over, and it has helped me feel connected not so much to our mother, who did all our cooking when we were growing up, as to our father, who provided the raw materials. I try to shop mostly at farmer’s markets, and the farmers have gotten to know me. I would like to say that I see some of my father in them, but I don’t, not usually—Seattle farmers tend to be more friendly and open than any New England farmer I ever knew, which is an unfair generalization, but one I can’t shake. It’s when I get the food home and start prepping it that I feel my father there, looking over my shoulder with something like pride and even mischievousness as he sneaks a slice of apple or a wedge of tomato for himself, and I do not know if I remember or imagine a similar scene from childhood, our mother at the counter, our father in and out of the kitchen, a rich smell filling the room from roasting ham or baking pie in the oven, our mother instructing us all to bring ingredients or to watch out for steam and heat, telling me to take care of my little brother, our father smiling, teasing us all good-naturedly, and laughter pouring in like sunlight from just beyond my sight.
We sit now each night at our table, a table Zack sets with plates and silverware and napkins, that Ron brings my food to, and we have learned to smile again with each other, learned not to hide the dreams that nightly help us find our words.
“Your mother thought steaming eggs instead of boiling them was ridiculous,” Ron says tonight, and I chuckle, because I knew she would think it was a silly West Coast affectation. “But she’s impressed,” he says. “She might even try it herself.”
“Uncle Corey wants you to cook more fish,” Zack says.
That’s strange, as Corey never liked fish. During his visit he said it was the thing he hated most about Seattle (the ocean, the fish).
“People can change,” Zack says. “Maybe he’ll cook fish for us one day.”
“Maybe,” I say quietly, chewing a bit of duck that I think now, from the texture, ought to have cooked a minute less.
People can change. I would like to believe that, Corey. Of myself most of all.
“He wants to know,” Zack says, “how grandpa is doing.”
“Yes,” Ron says to me, reaching for my hand in a familiar way, “your mother is concerned.”
Soon, I hope, I will be able to tell them what they want to hear.
I no longer dream of a table strewn with their blood and bones and offal, no longer reach for the sharpest knife whenever my son and wife—my husband—are near. And yet I dread to sleep, dread to be left with myself in the night, a place once wrenched with screams and now silent except for my breath and memory, from which I then fear to wake in the morning and find, despite it all, I still don’t trust forgiveness, still cannot taste the nourishment that sits before me.