I’m thinking about collecting a bunch of short stories and since my writing has always been a random mix of genres and topics, I thought I’d create a wraparound story to somehow justify the eclectic assortment of tales. This is the beginning of one of the ideas. Do me a favor, give it the old once-over and let me know what you think. Right track? Wrong track? All opinions are welcomed. Cheers!
The key was nearly as old as he was and the lock he slotted it into definitely predated his birth.
“There’s a knack for opening this door,” Warren Burke said, as he jiggled the key a bit in order to get the lock to turn. Grabbing the doorknob in both hands, he gave it a sharp twist and lifted it at the same time while he put his shoulder to the old wooden door in order to force it open. “Used to stick in the summer and I had the damnedest time as a kid trying to get inside.”
He was greeted for his effort with a blast of air that had been still for too long and had grown quite stale.
“We need to get these windows open and air this place out,” his wife, Nessa, said as she moved past him and made a beeline to the living room.
“You relax,” Warren said. “Let me do it.”
“I’m pregnant, not made of porcelain,” she said over her shoulder, in a tone that said you relax, as she made her way to the first window.
Warren knew she hated when he became overprotective, but in his defense, it was his first time at fatherhood and his wife was seven months pregnant with their twins. No names had been picked out because Nessa was a firm believer in the jinx, having lost a baby during pregnancy in her previous marriage.
And while Nessa pulled curtains apart and opened windows as far as they would go, Warren stood in the foyer and stared at his childhood home that seemed so much smaller than he remembered it.
This place was welcoming once, from the open door to the wide hallway. On the walls were the photographs of a family who so obviously loved each other. The floor was an old-fashioned parquet with a blend of deep homely browns and the walls were the greens of summer gardens meeting a bold white baseboard. The banister was a twirl of a branch, tamed by the carpenter’s hand, its grain flowing as water might, in waves of comforting woodland hues. Under proper lighting it was nature’s art, something that soothed right to the soul.
He hadn’t realized how long he’d been rooted to that spot until Nessa came to him after opening all of the downstairs windows.
“Hey, you okay?” she asked.
“You know, if you’re having a change of heart, we don’t have to put the house up for sale.”
“You know as well as I do that we can’t afford two houses. This place is too small for the four of us, the neighborhood’s gone to pot, and there are too many bad memories here.”
“Okay, your house, your rules.”
“My father’s house,” he corrected.
“That he left to you in his will, so technically…your house.”
Warren sighed. “Let’s make three piles in the living room: things in decent shape that we can sell, things in fair shape that we can donate, and junk to throw away.”
“And one more pile,” Nessa said. “Things that we keep.”
“I don’t want anything in here.”
“I’m not thinking about you and your unresolved resentment toward your father, I’m thinking about our children who have no beef with their late grandfather, who deserve to know where they come from. Don’t fight me on this because you’re going to lose.”
“Then that fourth pile is your hassle.”
“Thank you,” Nessa said and kissed her husband on the cheek. “Now, I need to crack the upstairs windows.”
She turned but Warren caught her gently by the arm and said, “I know how you get when you’ve got a project. Take it easy, take it slow, we’ve got plenty of time. Please, for me.”
It was Nessa’s turn to sigh, as she nodded her head in reluctant agreement.
* * *
The sorting process started in the attic. That was Nessa’s idea, start from the top and work their way down. And it became apparent quickly that no one had been up there in years.
Boxes that held Christmas decorations, handmade and store-bought Halloween costumes, pots and plates, photo albums (which Nessa snatched up immediately for her To Keep pile), old moth-eaten clothes, suitcases, and a locked steamer trunk. All resting under a thick layer of cobwebs and dust.
The thing that caught Warren’s attention was the locked steamer trunk. He had been up in this attic as a boy playing pirates with his imaginary friends and this trunk had always been the treasure chest he had to protect from thieving scallywags. He could have wasted time rummaging through the house in hopes of finding a key, but chose, instead, to look up on YouTube how to open the lock with a screwdriver.
Inside he found his father’s military uniform, duffle bag, maps, MREs, an M1911 pistol, a box of ammunition—
“The uniform and MREs are an interesting piece of history, but that gun and ammo are not finding their way into my house,” Nessa said forcefully.
“No complaints here,” Warren agreed, carefully placing the firearm and ammunition to the side. “I’ll call the police station and let them know we’re bringing the gun in on our way home today.”
“Good. So, what else is in there?”
Under a layer of old clothes, Warren lifted a heavy case by its handle. He set it on the floor, flipped the latches and opened the lid to reveal an old Underwood manual typewriter.
“I wonder what’s this doing in there,” Warren said, more to himself than his wife.
“I think that’s pretty obvious,” said Nessa.
“Uh-uh, you don’t know my dad. I’ve never known him to write a thing in my life.”
Nessa peered into the trunk and spotted a parcel wrapped in brown Kraft paper and tied like a present with twine that the typewriter case had been hiding. Normally, she would have let Warren open it out of respect for his father’s personal belongings, but curiosity had gotten the better of her, and she was pulling one end of the twine to undo the bow and unwrapping the package.
Inside the Kraft paper wrapping was a pile of papers, some white, some yellowing, and some gone brown like autumn leaves.
“What’s that?” Warren asked, glancing over at the papers.
“Typewritten, double spaced, looks like a manuscript to me, and it’s got your father’s name on it: Geoffery Burke.” Nessa handed the top sheet over to her husband.
“No, that’s impossible—”
“I’ve got a stack of papers in front of me that says different,” Nessa rifled through the stack. “But I think I’m wrong about it being a manuscript. It looks more like a bunch of individual stories, and the bottom half are all rejection letters. You never know, sweetheart, this manuscript could tell you about your father and his past.”
Warren glanced at the stack of paper in his wife’s hands, then looked away. He busied himself by packing up the typewriter.
“Maybe it can’t tell me anything at all.”
“Why are you being like this?”
“Being like what? You want to sit here and create a fantasy life for my father, a man you never met—”
“And whose fault is that? I begged you to reconcile with him because I wanted to meet him, I wanted to know where you came from, and you denied me that, just like you denied him a son. He died all alone because you were too pigheaded and proud to bury the hatchet! Why would I want to be married to someone so callous and coldhearted?”
The temperature in the attic suddenly dropped twenty degrees and though they were mere inches apart, the distance seemed a thousand miles at minimum. Warren was at a loss for words, processing the enormity of Nessa’s outburst. Nothing but the sound of breathing passed between them for an eternity.
It was Nessa who broke the ice for she was always the bigger person whenever they argued, saying, “I didn’t mean that.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Okay, but I could have phrased it better.”
“I know you mean well,” Warren said. “But you have to understand that when I think about my father, I have two opposing sets of memories. The earliest ones, the distant ones, he was a happy man and when my mother became sick, he was the positive one, trying to keep everyone’s spirits up. My mother lost her battle with cancer when I was 10 and my second set of memories, the ones that stick, were of him shutting down emotionally.”
“Honey, he just lost his wife.”
“Yeah, and I lost my mom and my dad, too! He wasn’t a writer, okay? He was a contractor that threw himself into his work and forgot he had a son. He never raised a hand to me but sometimes I wish he had.”
“You don’t mean that.”
“At least then I would have gotten something from him besides indifference. He’d go to work each day, working as many double shifts as he could to pay off the hospital and funeral bills and when he came home he was barely human. Eating, brooding in his room, drinking himself to sleep. And who had to pick up the slack? Who cooked and cleaned and made sure things around the house got done? Me! With never a word of acknowledgment or thanks.”
“Do we really have to have a conversation about men not being the world’s best communicators?” Nessa said. “Tell me, how often do you thank or even acknowledge me for everything I do around the house?”
“But that’s different.”
“Please don’t fix your mouth to tell me that I’m your wife and that’s my responsibility—”
“Uh-uh, nope,” Warren shook his head. “Do not turn this into one of your rants on chauvinism. You know exactly what I meant.”
“Here’s what I know, when you want to be, you’re a sensible man who knows better. Is it a shame that your father shut down when your mother died? Of course, it is. And if he were still alive and shunning you, you’d have every right to be bitter about it. But he’s gone, Warren, and you shouting at his ghost isn’t going to settle the matter or change the past. Any grievances you had with your father should have been placed beside him in the coffin and left at the cemetery.”
“Life isn’t that simple!”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Nessa said, taking hold of her husband’s hand. “Life is that simple. It’s us with all our expectation baggage that makes it difficult. Your father tried to handle his grief the best way he knew how, a lesson he probably picked up from his father. But what your father didn’t do was hang his depression over your head like a dark cloud for the entirety of your life. You did that all on your own. And you can stop doing that, as well. If you can’t manage it all on your own, guess what? You’ve got me to help you out. But I’ll tell you what I’m not going to help you do, and that’s dragging that dark cloud over into our family. Our baby deserves a fresh start with a cloud-free daddy, and I aim to see he gets just that, comprende?”
In every argument there comes a point where continuing to quarrel is futile, realizing this, Warren said, “Okay, since you’ve got all the answers, how do we go about dispersing the cloud?”
Nessa held up the stack of papers in her other hand. “This might give us a head start.”
“You want me to read his stories, stories he kept hidden from me all these years?” Warren tone made his opinion of his wife’s suggestion crystal clear.
“No,” Nessa clarified. “I want us to read the stories together and maybe we can talk about how they make you feel.”
“What, like I’m in therapy?”
“No, like you care for your wife and your unborn child and you’re willing to take this first step to make peace with your past for the sake of your family’s future.”
“It really means that much to you?”
“You can’t even imagine.”
“All right,” Warren said. “Here’s the compromise: we’ll read one story together, and if I’m not feeling it, we pack the rest away, never mention them again and find some other way to help me move on.”
Nessa set the papers down, spat in her palm and extended her hand, saying, “Deal!”
Warren eyed his wife with bewilderment. “You don’t expect me to—”
“Spit, candyass, and let’s seal the deal.”
Warren sighed, hocked a loogie into palm and grasped Nessa’s hand firmly. “Choose wisely.”
Nessa flipped through the pages, examining titles until she plucked a sheet from the pile. “How about this one?” she smiled.
Up Next: The Epilogue
©2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys