A WALK HOME

By Mike Perry

A cloud of dust engulfed the big grey bus as it came to a sudden halt in front of the station. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and looked out the window. For a moment he had no idea where he was. Then he remembered. He was home. Or at least what used to be home. The bus ride had been long. All the way from L.A. He thought, “This may not have been a good idea.” He pulled his green duffle bag down from the overhead compartment. It held pretty much everything he owned. He walked slowly down the aisle toward the front. He paused at the top of the steps and once again thought that he probably had not thought this through. He took a deep breath and descended the steps and out into the hot Texas sun. For moment he panicked. No one wanted him here. His dad told him so many years ago. This was stupid. He turned to re-enter the bus, but it was already pulling away. He stood there feeling foolish. Kate’s phone call came back to him. “Michael, your father is dying. Your mom needs you.” Her voice sounded so desperate, with an urgency that he could not ignore. It had been 23 years since he’d last spoken to his father. Twenty-three years since he had been home. Kate was the only person that could have compelled him to make this journey.

His father was dying she’d said. It had been a long time. Would they know him? Would they even want to know him? His hair was long and greasy. His beard was full and spotted with grey. His clothes were ragged and dirty. But he kept telling himself that they would just have to accept him the way he was. But now that he was here, it came to him that perhaps he should have cleaned up a little.

He looked around at the old buildings of his hometown. Buildings that had stood for a long time, perhaps a 100 years or more. Down on the other side of the railroad tracks was the river. He remembered the many carefree days and nights spent there, hunting, fishing, and skinny dipping. His first kiss with Kate had been there. This was his world, or had been until he turned 18. But now he was stuck. All that remained was the long walk home. He’d walked it many times as a boy. Now he would walk it one more time.

He hefted the duffel bag over his shoulder and set out. He thought that most likely he would be heading back in an hour. He guessed he’d be sleeping under the stars tonight, waiting for the bus to come through again in the morning. Camping down by the river would be nice. Just like old times.

He walked.

He remembered how dark and cold his L.A. apartment had been. The only light came from the neon sign outside his window. He was alone and had been for long time. He remembered how the dark blue revolver felt cold in his right hand. How he had gazed deeply into the small round hole at the end of the barrel. He was good shot. He could hardly miss at this distance. His eyes searched the depths of the dark hole for the projectile that would soon end his pain. He could not see it, but he knew it was there, waiting. The thought was intoxicating. His thumb caressed the trigger. He tightened it. Slowly at first, he applied more and more pressure. The hammer rose higher and higher. He put the barrel into his mouth and waited for the release. His heart beat faster. His breath quickened. He remembered how not even the ringing of the phone distracted him at first. But then came the voice, as his answering machine picked up. He tried to resist, but the voice, a woman’s voice, a familiar voice, spoke his name. “Michael….please pick up….its Kate….you need to come home….your father’s dying….your mom needs you!!!!” And then the voice was gone.

He relaxed his thumb. The hammer slowly lowered. Sadness came to him. Despair was still there but it was not as overpowering as it had been a few moments ago. Sadness, but not for himself, for his father and his family. He realized that even now he was ever the boy-scout, riding to the rescue to save the day. Suddenly he had a purpose. The despair and self-pity was still there but something else was there now, need. His family needed him.

He walked on.

He remembered the last time he saw his father. They had argued bitterly when he’d announced that he was fleeing to Canada to avoid the draft. That he felt the war was immoral. His dad really went nuts over that one. He declared he no longer had a son. It was stupid. Two people who loved each other very much could not see past their stubborn pride. He remembered how, as he stormed down the sidewalk, he looked back and saw a man who moments before had been full of anger, now looked broken. But he didn’t slow. He kept walking. That was 23 years ago and he had not seen or spoken to his father since.

He walked on.

He remembered Kate. A smile came to his lips. He remembered their last night together. He remembered the moonlight sparkling off her long brown hair. Her beautiful smile; her soft blue eyes; how eager she was to kiss him; and to be kissed by him. He thought of the many hours they sat together in his old Chevy, parked in her father’s driveway. How they sat alone in the darkness, talking, kissing….touching. How she made him feel. He had thought they would be together forever. She was always there for him, especially when he argued with his father. He remembered their first kiss. They had stood together on the river bridge, bathed in the moonlight, mesmerized by the flowing water below. How she took his hand and turned him toward her. How she looked up at him with eyes filled with unspoken promises. For a moment he was scared, but then she kissed him and in an instant he kissed her back. He wondered if she still lived in town. Surely she had moved on long ago.

He walked on.

He remembered when those who fled to Canada were allowed back into the states. He’d headed straight for California. He figured that’s where he would find others like him. After a few months he began to feel as if he owed something to the world. He applied to the L.A. Police Department on a dare and was shocked when he received his acceptance letter. But somehow he felt as if Providence, or perhaps God, had destined him to be a cop. This was to be his penitence for running away while others of his generation went to war.

He walked on.

He remembered how stupid it was to walk into the back door of that liquor store without back-up. Clearly there had been a burglary. The pry marks and broken glass told the tale. Who knew what danger lurked within? He knew better. But he’d fallen prey to the one thing that had gotten so many brother cops into trouble. He believed he was bullet proof.

The first bullet entered in the middle of his right knee. The second one struck his right shoulder. The pain took his breath away. The last thing he heard was the crunch of broken glass as the bad guy ran out the back door. He awoke in a room of white with his wife and son bending over him.

He walked on.

He remembered the long recovery; the hours of therapy; the helpless feeling. Weeks passed and the pain in his knee never went away. Pain killers were the only way to fully control it. Soon he required more and more each day just to function. Then came the drinking. A couple of beers at night, then a six-pack, then a case, then two. His wife tried to get him help. So had his police brothers, but all he could do was feel sorry for himself? Finally she’d had enough. One morning he awoke to find she had left and taken their son. The drinking got worse.  Finally the police department had enough too. They fired him.

He walked on.

Up ahead was the town cemetery. How many family members had been laid to rest there? He could barely count. He walked through the iron-gate. He thought of past visits to this place. Funerals for his uncles and aunts; for his grandparents. His eyes scanned the headstones. Suddenly there it was, his Father’s headstone, standing tale and straight, proud even, and stubborn, just as his father was. He approached, very softly, very quietly, as if his dead father would hear him coming. He didn’t want that. If his father knew he was here, they might start hurling insults at each other again. He read the inscription, “Maxwell William Braden; Born – April 18, 1925; Died – July 22, 1992. He realized there was more. Below the name was another small inscription. He had to bend close to read it. “Michael, it doesn’t matter, I love you, Dad!”

Suddenly there was no air. Everything began to close in. Closer and closer until there was no space left for him to breathe. Twenty-three years of suppressed emotion would no longer be denied. It flowed upwards like an unstoppable wall of water. A force that could not be resisted. Pushing higher and higher until finally years of sadness, despair, depression and grief suddenly broke into the open; no longer buried, but visible, for all to see. He fell forward across his father’s grave as great sobbing convulsions rolled over him. Uncontrollable tears poured from his eyes. He lay there with his face buried in the new grass and cried until he could cry no more. He wanted to keep crying, but all he could do was say over and over, “I’m so sorry Father. I’m so sorry.”

After a while, he heard it, very softly at first, but it drew him from the depths of despair. Music, singing; not just any music, but church music. As he listened, he heard it more and more clearly. Suddenly he realized, it was Sunday morning. It had been years since in thought of Sunday morning church. He got up and began to follow the sound. With each step the song became more and more understandable. Until finally it came to him, “Amazing grace!” “How ironic,” he thought. “There is no wretch more lost than me and I doubt that I could ever be found.” Suddenly there it was. He was standing in front of the church he had spent so many Sunday mornings at as boy. For a moment he thought to run. He could not go in there. He was unshaven. He could not remember his last haircut. His clothes were ragged and dirty. And he was sure he smelled bad. But the song drew him forward.

Slowly, quietly he opened the door. There were the steps he played on as a boy. There was the banister he used to slide down. Slowly he ascended the stairs and opened the door into the church sanctuary. It was dark at the back. No one noticed him; almost no one. He looked at the rows of people standing in the pews. He recognized many of them. But they looked much older then he remembered. No one noticed his entry, except one little pair of green eyes. Then he spotted his sister. He had not seen her since he left, but he knew her at once. She was no longer the pig tailed little girl he remembered. And the little pair of green eyes belonged to a little girl standing beside her. “This must be his niece,” he thought. Their eyes locked. For a brief moment he saw fear in her little eyes. And then just as quickly, a look of recognition came to them. But how could she know him, they’d never met. The little girl left her mother’s side and walked bravely toward him. Her smile was big and bright. He saw acceptance in her little eyes. She took his hand and squeezed it with all her might. She looked up and said, “Thank you for coming Jesus.”

Just then the music stopped. The preacher, standing in the front, had also noticed his entry. Immediately he raised his hand toward him and said in a soft but clear voice, “Welcome brother! Please come in.” All eyes turned to see. All eyes saw him at that moment. He looked at his sister and at first saw fear in her eyes too. Who was this filthy stranger who dared enter this sacred place? Again he thought to run and would have, but for the grip of a little girl. Then just as suddenly his sister’s eyes softened. Like her daughter, recognition replaced fear. “My God Michael…..Michael….Momma it’s Michael!” His sister sprang from the pew and engulfed him in a monster hug. Tears streamed down her face as she kissed his unshaven cheeks over and over. Others left the pews and surrounded him. More hugs, more slaps on the back. All the while the little girl held his hand tightly. He could not have pulled from her grip in a hundred years.

Slowly the throng of people surrounding him parted. His eyes fell upon his mother as she moved toward him in her wheel chair. Tears were in her eyes as well. He looked down at her. Her tear filled eyes scolded him for a moment. Just as they had when he was a boy. And in an instant, those same eyes forgave him, just as they had when he was a boy. He dropped to his knees and hung his head in shame. The uncontrollable sobs came again. “Mother, I’m so sorry!” She lifted his head and looked deeply into his eyes. “No need my son. Your father knew you would come. He found peace and just before he died he told me you would come”. He dropped his head into her lap. “How did Kate find me Mom? No one knew where I was. I would not be here if she had not called. She saved me Mom.” He looked again as his Mother’s tear stained face. “But Michael, you must be mistaken. Kate died last summer.” Suddenly a beam of light shone through the stained glass Jesus behind the pulpit and struck him in the face. He knew at once that God had sent him an angel and her name was Kate.

 

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