Jack hadn’t been back to his childhood home in several years. He thought that he would never see the streets he grew up riding his bike on ever again. Once he went away to college in New York City, his focus was fixed solely on his future and never returning to his past. Jack knew he wasn’t meant to stay cooped up in a small town in the south, and he left the first chance he could get.
Yet here he was, driving his silver rental car down the wooded highway towards the place he left behind so long ago. Jack’s news of him leaving for college came as quite a shock to his parents who had always assumed that he would take over running Country Kitchen – the family owned cafe.
His parents opened Country Kitchen in 1952, just one year before Jack was born. It was a quaint cafe painted sea foam green with white windows and front door. The cafe stood on the corner of an intersection on the outskirts of town. Once Jack was old enough to walk he was spending his days at the Kitchen. His responsibilities matured as he did. First he started on busing tables as a kid, and later ended up cooking on the line with his father as he finished his years at high school. Jack could still recall the smell of pancakes, fried chicken, and sausage gravy that would meld together and saturate his clothes by the end of the day working on the line at the cafe.
As Jack made his last right turn onto the street that would lead him to Country Kitchen, he thought about the fight he had with his parents the night he told them that he wanted to be a lawyer, was accepted to Columbia University, and was moving to Manhattan. His dad sat silently on his aged brown plaid recliner digging his hands into the arms of the chair, while his mom would go back and forth between fits of crying and yelling hysterically as she paced around the wood-paneled room. Jack realized that as an only child, his leaving would make it tougher on them at the restaurant. But Jack knew that he had to do this for himself, he had to move away from this small town.
After some time, the room was quiet. Finally, his father stood up and said with a scowl, “If you want to leave your home and everything we raised you with, fine, but I want no part of it.” Then he walked away down the hall and closed his bedroom door behind him.
His father couldn’t understand the life Jack wanted for himself. His parents were born and raised in small southern towns not far from where Jack grew up. “Family above all else” was the motto, and during that time leaving for a big city in search of affluence was considered to be as bad as atheism.
Jack’s mom looked over at him, opened up her mouth slightly, her lips shaking. Then she looked down at the floor and obediently followed her husband into their bedroom, closing the door behind her. That was the last time Jack saw or talked to either of them. He wanted to reach out over the years, but every time he picked up the phone he’d panic and hang up. He’d hear his fathers words ringing in his head each time he reached for the receiver: I want no part of it.
It was just a random coincidence that Jack had to fly into Charleston to meet with some clients for a case he was working on with his new firm. It occurred to him that he was only a few hours from his childhood home, so he rented a car, and before he knew it was pulling off the highway onto the exit leading to his hometown. It was like some sort of instinctual trance took ahold of him and led him to that intersection on the edge of his hometown that day.
When Jack pulled up in front of the cafe, a shockwave went up through his body. The sign had fallen down most of the way and the paint was peeling off of the walls and trim. The closed sign was placed in the front window, and the curtains were ripped and faded. It looked like no one had been there in ages.
He peered in through the windows and saw that a few tables and chairs remained but were either lying on their sides or turned upside down. He looked at the wall above the register and noticed that there was an open space where a photo of his family had always hung in a thin dark wood frame.
He took a step backwards and tried to organize his thoughts. What happened? Where are my parents?
A dizzying rush came over him, and his palms were moist with sweat. He blindly staggered over to his car, opened the door, and slumped into the driver’s seat. His breath was quick, and his pupils were darting around. He threw the transmission into reverse, pulled the car out of the deserted lot, and started driving down the road in the opposite way in which he came.
The road was empty, which proved to be a good thing, as Jack’s car was swerving all over the two lane road. He wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand and tried to slow his breathing. How long has it been since I talked to them? Couldn’t be long enough for something like this to happen to the cafe and I not know, right?
He nearly blew through a stop sign but noticed with just enough time to bring the car to a screeching halt. He paused at the four way stop and looked from side to side in each direction. The sun was shining brightly giving him a clear view. He saw nothing but trees every which way he looked. Jack rolled down his window and listened. It was quiet – the only thing he could hear was the sound of his engine idling. He looked down at his watch. 3:15. He recalled that normally at 3:15 Mr. Perryman would be out tending to his fields with his tiller. He squinted his eyes and cupped his hands around his head to shield the sun. Mr. Perryman’s field was overgrown with weeds and the crops looked all dried up. Mr. Perryman was always a very diligent farmer and Jack knew that — hell, the whole town knew that. You could tell what time of day it was by what Mr. Perryman would be doing on his farm. If you saw him feeding the pigs, you knew it was 6:00 a.m. He’s letting the cows out, it’s 8:00. He’s tilling his fields, it’s 3:15. Everyday like clockwork.
Ok, this is really weird, Jack thought. Where is everyone? The school bus should be rolling right through this intersection right now, too. He knew, because once upon a time he rode that bus. He got out of the car and stood right in the middle of the intersection and waited and waited, all the while looking far down each street in every direction. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes went by.
He looked down at his watch again. 3:38. He jumped back into his car and continued driving. He knew there was still one more place he had to go.
As he drove, he couldn’t shake the odd feeling that overcame him. Everything he saw out the window while driving was familiar to him, yet had a faint atmosphere of strangeness – like an invisible fog shrouded the whole town.
He pulled into the long dirt driveway leading to his family home, an old raised southern style house painted white with a large white oak tree that was covered in vines out front. As Jack drove up the driveway he noticed that the appearance of the outside of the house was the same as the cafe’s. The white paint was peeling, the grass was overgrown, and the glass in the windows was cracked.
He ran up to the front door and twisted the round, brass handle. It was locked. He pounded on the door as loudly as he could.
“Mom! Dad!” he yelled.
Panting, he ran around to the back of the house. He looked though the windows and saw that the furniture was all still there, even the family photos were still hung on the walls.
He pounded on the back door, “Hello? Hello?!” Nothing. No movement. Not even the scurry of a rodent under the deck.
He sunk down onto the deck and put his head down into his hands. What is going on? Where are they?
For the first time since being a teenager, he felt a tear run down his cheek, landing on his hand. He rubbed his hands on his thighs, drying the tear from existence, and in doing so noticed a slight bulge in his right pocket. He reached in and pulled out an old plastic keychain that said “Find us on the Florida coast!” overtop of a picture of a beach with a palm tree and an alligator wearing sunglasses. He thought back to when he was twelve and his parents took him on a trip down to Florida and spent day after day on the warm sandy beach. Jack bought that keychain for his mom in a local souvenir shop right across from the beach where they were spending their days. There were four keys hanging from the keychain. Each one had a piece of white tape with his mom’s handwritten labels saying “cafe front”, “cafe back”, “house front,” “house back.”
He stared at the keys that he was holding in his hands, then stood up and walked over to the back door. Slowly, he put the key marked “home back” into the keyhole, felt a click, turned it, and unlocked the door. He pushed it open and stood in the doorway looking in, a cloud of dust swirling in the air in front of him. He walked inside the dim room, looked around, and stood there in the middle of their family room staring at his father’s plaid reclining chair. It was more worn than it ever was before. Metal springs popped out from under the seat. The right arm was mostly duct tape, and the brown and red plaid pattern was so faded that it just looked really dirty.
He walked over and sat down in the battered chair, and ran his left hand over the rough fabric. He looked up and gazed at the vintage box tv straight in front of him. He felt something else in his pocket, reached in, and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He opened it up and read the words, “Masters, Davidson, Peters & Smith Attorneys at Law – Charleston, South Carolina.”
He closed his eyes, and at that moment he was transported to another room, a very modern, clean room with polished wooden furniture and large abstract paintings hanging on the walls. Jack was seated in a high back tufted leather chair facing an older gentleman with thin white hair and eyes, a wrinkled brow, and long bony hands that were folded together with both index fingers pointing outwards. The man was sitting behind a large mahogany desk. A small stack of papers, two long folded papers stamped with legal seals and signatures, and the set of keys that Jack was now holding in his hands were laid out on top of the desk. The man was mouthing words, but Jack couldn’t hear the sounds that came out.
“Mr. Douglas. Mr. Douglas? Do you understand what I just said?” the man asked Jack.
Jack swallowed and blinked his eyes several times. “Yes, yes I understand. My parents are dead and I have to take care of the house and restaurant back home.”
The old mans left eyebrow arched and his eyes narrowed. He leaned in closer to Jack putting his elbows on top of his desk. “Are you sure you are comprehending what I am telling you? I know this may be quite a shock to you.”Jack nodded and the old man continued, “The doctors said that they both went comfortably. I hope that helps you rest easier. My assistant will assist you with anything else that you may need from here. My condolences, Mr. Douglas, and best of luck to you.”
Jack stood up and grasped the man’s five slender fingers in a solemn handshake, then was led out the door by the assistant. He immediately left the building and drove straight to Country Kitchen.
He sat in his father’s chair and felt the concave in the seat from decades of his dad sitting. He got up and went into the kitchen. The yellow linoleum countertop was cracked and chipped. He could picture his mom shuffling around making soup and bringing it into the family room for his dad and her to eat while both of them were sick. She was probably even sicker than his dad, but would have never showed it. She took care of both of them until the end.
He leaned over and put his hands down on the countertop. He inhaled deeply, and exhaled slowly. His eyes fell upon the top of his hands and he noticed more wrinkles in them then he’d known before. He turned them over and looked at the palms of his hands. Deep lines traveled down the length of his palms, memories buried within the trenches.
It had been a long time since I’ve spoken with them, he thought. I left home when I was 18. I’m 48 now. How did thirty years go by, just like that?
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Over the next few months Jack cleaned out the cafe and then packed up his parents house room by room, sealing each memory in cardboard and packing tape. He donated all of the furniture, clothes, and kitchen wares to a local charity keeping just a handful of pictures in their respective frames, and a silver brooch his mom wore all the time. It was small, about the size of a nickel, and in the shape of a bird.
The last room to pack up was his dad’s study. He grabbed a box and one by one, started putting his dad’s books into a stack inside the box. He came to a thick leather binder with the word “Jack” embossed into it, opened it up, and immediately recognize the first photo. It was the family portrait that hung above the register at the cafe. He continued flipping through the album and noticed little notes here and there written in pen, each one was in his father’s handwriting.
“Jack’s first day at school – September 1958.”
“Jack’s first bicycle ride – March 1960.”
They kept going.
“The time I took Jack up to the waterfall and we went swimming – July 1964.”
“Me and my boy working the line. One of my proudest moments – January 1970.”
That was where the photos ended. He sat down in a daze on his dad’s wooden stool, his mouth hanging slightly open. He flipped through the album, searching for a clue to reveal itself on each blank page. After several empty pages, he came across a newspaper clipping from when Jack won his first court case in New York City with the note “Jack winning his first case – October 1979.”
Then another one, “Jack arguing with the judge – April 1980.”
Another, “Jack winning his fifth case – September 1980.”
More newspaper clippings were glued to the pages with each one noted with his father’s words.
Jack couldn’t believe it. He smiled and then he started to cry. All this time he followed my career? All this time he still cared about me…how could I have been so foolish? Why didn’t I finish dialing those numbers every time I picked up the phone to call them? He sank farther into the stool, his eyes glazing over. He wondered if his mom knew about this book. He wondered if they had ever picked up the phone to try and call him and stopped. So many years went by where they could have shared these moments together. They could have sat in the courtroom watching him. He could have made sure that they were taken care of, that they had everything they needed to be comfortable and happy. He wiped the tears from his cheeks and eyes, then continued to pack up the remaining items in his father’s studio making sure to keep the album aside to keep for himself.
***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****
After he loaded the last box into the van, he turned and stood in the driveway looking at the house, a place he had grown to love and hate while living there for the first eighteen years of his life. A breeze drifted through, playing tag with the ends of his hair. A warming comfort enveloped his body and a bird called overhead as it flew from a branch of the large oak tree. He climbed into the driver’s seat of the small moving van, started the engine, and began driving down the dirt driveway.
Jack came to the same four way stop as he had reached before on that very odd day. A bus full of children stopped across the street from him at the stop sign, then continued forward. Jack waved to Mr. Perryman who was riding his tractor through his fields that ran along the road as Jack drove by. He glanced over and noticed the brand new, shiny “FOR SALE” sign hanging in front of Country Kitchen, the local realtor’s smiling face plastered in one corner of the sign.
He turned on the radio and the song “One More Ride“ by Johnny Cash was playing. And as the lyrics sang, “As the years go by I wonder why I longed to leave my home, and to hit the trail of the iron rail away out there along,” he pulled onto the highway and headed north.