by Elizabeth Westmark
I’ve reached that stage of life where my sins of omission far outweigh my sins of commission.
The old preacher who befriended you in that tiny town where you were living led us to the small frame house by the railroad tracks.
The dilapidated wooden swing on the porch whispered of better times. We slowly followed the reverend to the front door. He jiggled the key and twisted the loose knob, pushing on the humidity-swollen door until it opened.
Collectively taking a deep breath, we stepped over the threshold.
Oh, dear God, so this is how you were living.
The nearly overpowering smell of cigarettes and old beer mingled with garbage and mildew. A black futon along one wall bolstered with two dirty pillows told me this is where you slept. The view from there would have been just right for watching the hundred or so discount videotapes stacked on a shelf around the TV in the corner.
Where, how, could we begin? My puny bag of cleaning supplies seemed pitiful for the task. Not to mention the emotional tsunami threatening to engulf us. Your Dad had barely moved a muscle from the moment we entered. We looked at one another for a long moment. The pastor’s kindly small talk sounded tinny and far away.
I emptied the overflowing ashtray on the scarred coffee table in front of the futon, and then moved on to the kitchen.
A drain board beside the sink was piled high with clean plastic food containers. I recognized them. We always sent you home with a cooler full of the meatloaf that you loved and other home-cooked foods for your freezer.
The tears that had started in my eyes froze when I turned to see the far wall. Empty cardboard beer twelve-packs were flattened and neatly stacked at angles, from floor to ceiling, like demented wallpaper. I slowly opened each of the kitchen cabinets. Carefully arranged empty beer cans filled each shelf.
I had to get out of there fast, Max, and so I retreated to the bedroom. Morning sun came through the front window and illuminated your perfectly made bed. It looked so crisp, with a designer sheet set and comforter that I was sure your Mom must have sent. The labels were still attached. I could see from your construction industry continuing education exam workbooks on the desk, and partially completed applications for the local junior college nearby that this was the place you would come to work when you could manage to hope.
We couldn’t stay much longer, Max. I hope you understand.
Your pickup truck is still in our yard, parked out by the old red storage building. Several folks have called, wanting to buy it. We don’t return their calls.
Maybe we failed you; maybe not. But know this: the light is still in our window for you, as it always was.
Elizabeth Westmark’s stories, essays and poems have appeared in Brevity Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Girls with Insurance, The Binnacle Ultra-Short 2009, Camroc Press Review, and Dead Mule, among others. She maintains an online writing journal (a blog!), Switched at Birth, from her home in a Longleaf pine preserve near Pensacola, Florida, where she lives with her husband and her old chocolate Lab.