Original Online Fiction
Homecoming, and Going brings Warren back to his hometown in northern Michigan for a brief, full immersion in the past, with pain and benediction, in this original short story by Chad V. Broughman.
In the skirmish between the strength of the lacquer and the passing of time, a clear winner had been declared at the Pure Heart of Mary Church. Though dulled, the nicks and dings more conspicuous, the pews were taller and straighter than Warren remembered.
Ma lead him to the same place they had sat when Warren was young and where she still did, apparently—left side, middle. As Warren helped Ma pull off her coat, he made a sweeping scan of the same folks he remembered from his youth. They perched in their places, spaced apart like birds on a wire. He turned back around but could feel their eyes on him, a friendly welcome home to one of their own.
As he looked closer, Warren saw grimness in their faces, in a way he never noticed growing up, a kind of lived-in look, marked by distinct, furrowed lines pulling their cheeks earthward. In their clear eyes, though, there was gentleness. Warren did remember that, the soft miens of hardy worshippers. Year after year, these men and women endure Michigan’s brutal winters: shoveling endlessly, wielding axes for bottomless supplies of firewood, and enduring icy winds that cut their faces. Though nature bowed their backs and flecked their skin, Warren could never remember anyone complaining. Then, come spring, they expressed abundant gratitude for the reprieve of fresh rains, full-bodied smells of petrichor and bloom, accompanied by sweet, mellow bird songs.
Sitting in the nave again made Warren anxious. A tree without bark, all its knots and scars laid bare for condemning. As if somehow, they had all heard the parting words of his fiancée just a few days before: “I don’t feel excited when you walk in the room anymore,” she said, then pecked him on the cheek, like a reward for a dog that fetched a stick. “We’re good, Warren, but I need great.”
Deep down, he knew these people didn’t know and even if they did, they would never judge him. This was his baggage, not theirs. It was only now that his demons had finally abated some, took a break from sucking his marrow dry. The more he thought about the vulnerable times of his adolescence, the more he remembered always ending up here, amidst this flock. The quiet kindnesses helped him sidestep any insecurities that should have arisen from growing up without Pa.
On Warren’s seventh birthday, they got word of an explosion at the iron ore mine over in Keweenaw County. Several colliers burned in its belly, but a couple managed to squirm through the wreckage, including Pa. But two days later, he died at the hospital, gas fumes had seared his lungs. After that, the men of the parish always took Warren on their father-and-son adventures—hunting and fishing. Some even made it seem like Warren was doing them a favor by going. Even as a boy, Warren knew what they were up to when they said things like, “Hold on to my pole a minute, will you, lad?” They would pretend to fiddle with their tackle boxes or fuss with their creels. Then—voila!—Warren would reel in a hefty brown trout or occasional pike that they’d hooked for him.
Warren knew none of them had needed his help, not for raising a barn, gutting a deer, or changing the oil. But he had wanted to learn such things, prove to them and himself that he could do anything if given the chance. One afternoon, after Warren came home from felling a tree with Deacon Clyde and his two sons, he heard Ma in her room, thanking God for delivering such mentors to her son.
Sitting in that hard, uncomfortable pew, Warren wondered how many of them had done it all because they thought he could never strike out on his own? Ironic, really. Flying away from the very source of courage that gave you wings.
The man who made it out of the Upper Peninsula, all the way to the City of Angels. Big time screenwriter. In the process, he had turned his back on the steadfast kinship that reared him, forgotten it could still exist. What had he really escaped? Their belief in one another? Their trust in something bigger than themselves?
Like a fierce Great Lakes tide, an unexpected sorrow swept over him. Warren couldn’t quite name it, but it was a thinner version of the void he felt at his Pa’s funeral service.
Though he had the urge to pray, Warren decided it had been too long; it didn’t feel right. Instead, he immersed himself in the soothing broth of wellbeing and safety. Nothing could hurt him here. Not in this hour. Not in this place.
His mind wandered, to the little landscaped sign just off Route 26, pride of the town: Beaumont the Beautiful. And the annual Lilac Festival each July, crowning the new Lilac Queen, grilling frankfurters, and binging on homemade pies made from the bounty of their backyards, rhubarb and boysenberry.
He thought, too, of all the loss and suffering the congregation had known. Yet they didn’t seem to dwell in their hardships, never had. Not when the mine blasted open or even when a stranger came to town back in ’81 and popped their bubble of immunity, bled out the lamb with one clean swipe of a blade.
The man had entered Miss Avery’s classroom dressed like a scarecrow, straight out of The Wizard of Oz. A tall, pointy hat with straw tucked underneath it, poking out enough to cover his ears. For a shirt, he wore a burlap bag that hung down to his thighs—big, plaid patches sewn on the sleeves. Under that were his knickers, patches on both knees. Warren still remembers the rope that was cinched around his waist, dangling at his hip. He had nightmares about it for years after, what that man might have done with it in the quiet hours that followed.
And the painted nose, a perfect triangle, the color of dry dirt. Looked more like a blemish than a facial feature. His grin was lopsided, too.
Sometimes it replays in Warren’s mind in slow motion: the crash into reality that it wasn’t a funny trick Miss Avery had planned—no game for the kids to figure out or play. The noiselessness as the stranger scoured the front row was excruciating, peering at all of them before settling on Lucille, then hefting her over his shoulder like a gunny-sack. Her eyes wide with terror.
Miss Avery furrowing her brow and cocking her head as she crept from behind her desk, slow as a spider. Her voice shaky and low but rising with every word: “Class? What is this? None of you know that man?”
Warren had held his breath, letting it leak out gradually like a tire, praying the scarecrow man wouldn’t hear him exhale or his heart thrashing and come back to take him, too. Then Miss Avery’s wail bounced off the lockers and ricocheted into the classroom. Some of the kids clapped their hands over their ears. One boy climbed under his desk and hummed, evenly, like an old space heater, as he rocked back and forth. Warren hunched over, made himself as small as he could, and begged for Ma to come for him soon.
The town council closed the school for the rest of the week and forbade the children to go outside. Instituted a curfew for the adults, too. In those few days, Warren slept in Ma’s room. She sat in a folding chair at the end of the bed, bolt action rifle in her lap, her eyes shifting from the door to the window and back to Warren.
The curfew was lifted on Saturday and at mass the next day, Father Gleason told the congregation that Lucille’s body was found in a cornfield just over the county line. “She’s gone home, my brothers and sisters,” he said, one hand gripping the pulpit, the other swiping at the tears on his chin.
One of the churchgoers coughed, bringing Warren back to the present. It was an old person’s cough, he thought, loud and gurgling. Then his eyes shifted to Father Gleason making his way to the pulpit, wearing the same old vestments, ghostly white and bulky. But they did not touch the floor when he walked, like Warren remembered. Father had grown a bit of a paunch, his robe tight around the middle now. His hair had thinned and grayed, and the lines in his face were particularly heavy, as if they’d been stitched. But his eyes gleamed.
He began to speak, his voice still brassy, resonant as a foghorn. As the congregation moved through the opening rituals, Warren followed along, all of the gestures and responses recalled by rote. Like riding a bike.
Before starting the liturgy, Father Gleason did something unexpected. He stepped down from the sanctuary with its white-clothed altar and into the nave. He stood silent for a moment, his fingers woven together in front of him—elbows out, head down. “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” His eyes met Warren’s and a wide smile stretched his plump cheeks. “What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”
Warren felt a bit disappointed. As a child, he’d always convinced himself that Father Gleason’s words were meant only for him. It was absurd and smug, he thought now, but recalled how that impression had made each mass feel more special, more sublime.
Ma reached over and placed her hand on his knee, patted it just once, as if she was listening to his thoughts and trying to reassure him. Theirs was a certain brand of love, his and Ma’s. They weren’t the hugging kind. Warren knew it had to do with her acting tougher than she was, trying to fill the roles of both mother and father for so long.
After communion, Ma continued down the aisle, right past their seats. Though baffled why she would leave the service early, Warren followed, more than willing to oblige. He opened the big, wood door and they stepped into the noontide. A cool breeze pushed past them and Warren followed it with his face, feeling the relief that he’d be leaving soon, his visit over. It wasn’t the heavy-weight-being-lifted kind, more like an escape or a loophole of sorts, as if he’d found a shortcut around a gridlocked freeway or broken through a bout of writer’s block on a script with a deadline.
Either way, he decided this would be his last trip home for a while. No more northern Michigan nights with unbroken starlight. No more wide-open spaces. No blues and greens so deep it hurt to see.
He followed Ma to the parish hall next door and waited while she hurried toward the restroom. “I can’t sit through all of mass anymore,” she told him.
Ma explained enough so that he understood she was losing control of her bowels. This first mention of Ma’s mortality frightened Warren. For the rest of the day he hovered near her and that night, he watched her fall asleep in her oversized Barcalounger, hunkered down in the beige padding, reclined as far as the chair could go. Her legs were parted, thick wool socks pushed down to the ankles. She had always been a hefty woman and not particularly concerned about make-up and such things. In public, though, she took great pride in looking tidy and dignified.
Warren felt a tinge of shame, knowing Ma’s Sunday best would be scoffed at in his world. He could imagine her smiling with poise, mistaking others’ smirks for flattery. This was why he’d never invited her to California, unable to stand the thought of her smoothing her house-dress, clueless she was being mocked by cafe waiters and store clerks.
The next morning, Warren kissed Ma’s pleated cheek, promised to call, and left. Neither of them said anything about his next trip home. He’d send flowers, make sure the neighbors checked on her, but it was too much to see Ma like this, the shrinking of life within her.
Warren boarded a puddle-jumper in Marquette and looked out his window, beyond the tarmac. In the distance, the limestone slabs loomed, like guardians over the town. He wondered what Lucille would look like now. Would her hair still be that same butter-yellow, or might it have shaded some? Would she have moved far away from the Upper Peninsula? Probably she would have stayed, chosen a quiet life like all the rest. Too soon, she would have gathered the time-honored lines on her face. Maybe her wrinkles would have become more pronounced each time she went to mass and settled into the seat she claimed for herself at Pure Heart of Mary.
He sure hoped so.
The pilot announced through the static of the intercom that all connecting flights into Detroit were delayed. Then a flight attendant approached—her eyes perfectly round, the color of pinecones, and her skin snow-white. Warren thought her striking and gladly accepted a complimentary beverage for the inconvenience in his travel plans. He ordered a Bloody Mary with a splash of hot sauce, no garnish. The attendant returned promptly, balancing the drink on a brown, plastic tray. He could see from the clear streaks in the tomato juice that there was too much alcohol. As he brought the glass to his lips, he couldn’t help but think of the ornamented chalice that he’d declined at church yesterday—never seemed right, drinking from a cup that so many shared.
The vodka lit up his throat, stole his breath away. But the aftertaste was smooth, taking off the edge already. Warren took a bigger sip, then let his thoughts of Lucille and all things holy fade when the plane finally lifted off.
Chad V. Broughman lives in a resort town in northern Michigan. On the shores of Lake Michigan he teaches English and creative writing at the secondary and post-secondary levels. He is published in several reviews and journals—Carrier Pigeon, East Coast Literary Review, River Poets Journal and Burningword—and was the winner of the 2016 Rusty Scythe Prize Book award. More recently, he earned a “Certificate of Distinction” from New Millennium Writings, won the Adobe Cottage Writers Retreat in New Mexico, and published a chapbook entitled “the forsaken,” which was sponsored by Etchings Press. He holds an MFA from Spalding University and co-edits the fiction/poetry blog, Café Aphra, based in the United Kingdom.
Image Credit: Tricia