Snow fell softly. The old man pulled his threadbare wool coat a little tighter to ward off the cold. He reached up and scrunched his worn and tattered hat down until the brim was just above his gray wiry eyebrows. He shuffled up to the walkway and stopped to look at the old house. It was a white two story wood frame home with black shutters and an old slate roof. Paint was peeling in some places and the shutters had faded with age. The bushes in front needed trimming in the spring. The front porch was just as he remembered it – an old wood 2-seat swing still hung suspended by chains at one the end of the porch, and the vintage metal patio chair, that could use a coat of Rust Oleum, still sat in the same place. He could hear the squeaking of the porch swing somewhere in the cobwebs of his mind. His eyes closed as he remembered the sound. She was once with him on that swing. The corners of his mouth formed the start of a smile, but the image in his mind quickly faded away. The front door was freshly painted a festive red, different than the one he remembered. A holiday wreath hung below the porch light – just above the doorbell. A brass plaque on the door was etched with the last name of the woman he had tracked down – “McIntyre” – the current owner of his childhood home.
He looked down at his scuffed brown shoes and thought again about turning around and leaving. Too much time had passed. He knew he would never find the answers he was searching for, but he had come this far. Maybe it was still there, after all these years. He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, shuffled up the walk, grabbed the black rot iron railing for support, slowly climbed the 3 wooden steps up to the porch, and stood in front of the freshly painted door. He stared at the doorbell for a moment, then pushed the button.
He heard footsteps on the other side of the door, then the muffled click of the deadbolt sliding back. The door opened and the woman smiled at the old man. “You must be Jim.” she said. “Please come in. I was so glad you called and told me your story about growing up in this house.” She opened the door and stepped aside as Jim nodded his thanks and entered his childhood home.
“I put on a pot of coffee, or I could make you some tea. You must be freezing. Here, let me take your coat.” Jim shrugged off his coat, removed his hat, and handed them to the woman who draped them over the familiar banister by the staircase leading upstairs. “Thank you.” he said. She led him down the short hall to the kitchen. Jim sat down at the small table and looked out the window at the backyard. It seemed smaller than he remembered, but the tree where a tire swing once hung, and provided hours of summer delight, was much larger now, and its canopy would certainly shade the once sunny yard where they had played.
“Would you like cream and sugar?” she asked as she placed a mug of coffee on the table in front of him. His memories of the past flickered away as he nodded yes. She turned and opened the refrigerator, picked up the carton of half & half, got the sugar off the counter, and put them on the table. She poured a mug of coffee for herself and then sat across from Jim.
“It must feel strange coming back to the house where you grew up. I’ve only lived here for a few years, having bought the place from the Gotliebs several years ago. She lost her husband and her kids moved her to a retirement center just off the town square. They didn’t need the headaches of owning another house, so they put it on the market and priced it to sell. I lucked out – right place, right time – and bought it after my husband and I divorced. I don’t have a lot of money to fix the things that need fixing, but I’ve tried to spruce it up where I can. “The door looks nice.” Jim said. “The place is smaller than I remember, but I feel like it was only yesterday that I played catch with my friends in the backyard, or sat on the on the front porch swing with…” Jim’s voice trailed off. His eyes watered. The woman noticed and reached across the table to put her hand on the old man’s arm. His hand was shaking as he picked up the mug to take a sip of his still black coffee.
“After the war dad got a job at the textile factory as an oiler for the machines, and used his GI Bill to buy this house. I was pretty young, but I remember it seemed old even then, and dad was always puttering with his projects around the house. There were other boys in the neighborhood that I played with – right out there in the backyard.” Jim said as he pointed out the window and took another sip of his coffee. “And there was a girl.” His fingers drummed softly on the sides of his mug. The woman listened quietly as Jim summoned the words to continue.
“Her name was Martha. She lived right next door. We all went to school together – not always in the same classroom, but we were pals and stuck together. The guys anyway. Martha always tried to hang around with us, but you know how that goes. We were young bucks and hadn’t seen the need to let a girl hang out with us. She was plucky and didn’t take to us saying ‘no’ to her. She’d just show up in the park when we were going to play ball, or at the drug store when we’d walk down to get a pop. I guess she wore us down, because Martha just became one of the guys – we never gave it a second thought. Well, I guess I did. There were a few times that Martha and I would sit on the porch steps as the other guys walked home after playing in the backyard. We just sat and talked until her mom yelled out their front door that it was time to come home for dinner.”
The woman got up from the table and refilled their coffee mugs. Jim smiled and thanked her. He wrapped his hands around the mug and let the warmth sooth his gnarled fingers. Moments of silence passed before Jim continued.
“By the time we were in high school my buddies started getting their driver’s licenses and finding girlfriends. Some played sports, others of us had to get jobs. I ended up working at the hardware store on the highway after school. We still hung out together – mostly on weekends – but on the way home from work I’d walk by Martha’s house. She would be sitting on her front stoop as I turned the corner and walked up the street. Even from a distance I could see her look in my direction – my heart would skip a beat when she smiled. As I got closer Martha would get up and meet me on the sidewalk in front of her house, take my hand in hers, and walk next door to my house where we would sit on the swing together. We’d just talk. We laughed a lot.”
“There were some days when I’d come around the corner and not see Martha on the front stoop. My heart wound sink, then I’d remember she had a dentist appointment or activity after school. One day, as I walked by her house on the way home, I saw an envelope propped up by the stoop. I slowed down and looked. Squinting, I walked closer. It had my name on it. I reached down and picked it up. I opened it as I walked up the steps to our front porch. Inside was a stick figure sketch of a boy and a girl, walking, and holding hands. I smiled, folded the paper up, and put it in my pocket. That night I went down to the basement and got one of my dad’s old cigar boxes that he used to keep screws and nails organized. I took it back upstairs and put the drawing in it. Every boy has a secret hiding place for a Playboy or a pack of cigarettes. Mine was behind a loose board in my bedroom closet. It wasn’t very big, but I never had a lot of contraband to hide. The cigar box fit in the small cubbyhole if I turned it on it’s side. The board fit snuggly over the opening to my secret compartment.
Over the next two years we were inseparable. The cigar box got filled with notes, drawings, trinkets, gum wrappers folded into silver hearts, theater tickets folded into airplanes, birthday cards, IOUs for a present when one of us had some extra money, a matchbook from a restaurant we went to, a fishing lure from a fun evening fishing off the public dock at the park, and a chapstick that had touched her lips. I had to use an oversized rubber band to keep the lid closed. Those years were the best years of my life.”
Jim grew quiet and the woman stood and said “Would you like a tour of the house? I don’t know what things are the same and what things may be different, but I’d like to know what you remember.” Jim nodded and got up to follow her. They walked down the hall, back to the front door, and turned to go into the living room. The front window looked out past the front porch to the sidewalk and street. “This is where our Christmas tree was placed.” Jim said. “I remember how big it looked with all the lights – those big bulbs we used to have. And the gifts under the tree.” He looked around, taking in the memories. The room had been painted a different color (and he wondered how many times, and how many colors, and he wondered if the floral wallpaper of his youth still remained under various coats of paint). The hardwood floor, cold on his young and always barefoot feet, was now hidden under the somewhat soiled and worn carpet. The woman saw him looking and offered an apology – new carpet was one of the things she wanted to get for the house. Maybe next year. If the car made it through another winter without needing repairs. Or new tires. The list is long, but carpet is on it. Jim smiled at the woman. She looked away.
To break the uncomfortable silence, Jim said “I remember the dining room being green. Dark green.” They walked back past the front door and looked around. It was much lighter now and the hardwood floor was still there and looked quite nice. Someone had had it refinished along the way. The woman sat at the dining room table and Jim sat, too. “Did you and Martha stay together? Did you get married? It seems from the way you’ve talked about her, that you two were meant to be.” His hands rested on the table, his fingers woven together, and he stared off into the distance as his mind wandered back in time.
“After I graduated from high school I got a job at the textile factory where dad worked. Martha enrolled at the community college and started taking classes to become a dental hygienist. We began making plans for the future when the letter arrived. I had been drafted into the Army. While this changed our plans, we decided to pack as much into our summer as we could before I had to report to Ft. Lewis for Basic Training. That summer we became more than friends, if you know what I mean. We just didn’t see the need to wait any longer, and knew the future could have risks if I was sent overseas (which I knew was more than certain). During that wonderful summer more than a few items were added to the cigar box which remained hidden in my closet.”
“I made it through Basic Training and went on to my AIT school that fall. My orders arrived after I graduated and I had a 3 week leave before I left for Vietnam. Martha and I knew we could get through the year apart and would just put our plans on hold until I got back.”
Jim’s eyes watered up with tears and he rubbed to clear his reddened eyes. His chin quivered as he tried to continue. “I was 2 months into my tour when the letter arrived from Martha’s mom through the Red Cross. Martha had died in a car accident on her way home from class.” Jim started to sob at the table. The woman got up and walked around the table to put her arm around his shaking shoulders. Tears ran down her cheeks, too. The old house was silent except for the anguished cries of the two who shared one’s pain.
The daylight had faded. The woman stood to turn on the dining room light, and dimmed it with the switch. “Jim, would you like to see the rest of the house? Your room? You came back for a reason, and I’m glad you’ve shared part of this journey with me. But there is more to see. Something to find.” Jim wiped his shirt sleeve across his eyes. The woman walked into the kitchen and came back with a box of Kleenex. Jim thanked her as he pulled a couple sheets out of the box and dabbed his eyes. “I would like to see my room” Jim told her. They got up from the table and walked back into the entryway. Jim started up the stairs and then turned to look back at the woman who was still standing by the front door at the bottom of the stairs. “Take your time, Jim. I’ll make some more coffee. Maybe I’ll see if I still have some brandy in the cupboard.” Jim nodded and turned back to go up the familiar stairs for the first time in so many years.
He walked by the first bedroom – his parent’s back then – with just a glance. Then past the small bathroom (which still looked very much like he remembered – no major upgrades – and the memories came flooding back). The next door was his old room. He stopped in the doorway and looked in. The floor, the window looking out over the backyard, and the electrical outlet below the window (one of only two in the room). Jim chuckled when he thought of all the gadgets he tried to plug in at once, and his dad yelling when a fuse blew – plunging the house into silent darkness. The room was a guest room now – not filled with all the “guy stuff” that filled this room years ago. He walked inside and sat on the edge of the bed. The closet door was in front of him. It was closed. A calendar hung on the door where his dartboard used to hang. He looked closer and saw the tiny holes, painted over, but still visible, where darts that missed the target stuck in the door. There were quite a few – he laughed when he remembered how bad he was with darts. His friends were even worse.
The smile faded away as he recalled another letter he received in Vietnam, three months before he could come home. His dad had lost his job when the textile factory had suddenly shut down. He had found another opportunity, but they had to sell the house and move across the state. Money was tight and they had to move quickly. Before he could write back to tell his dad about the cigar box in his closet, the house had been sold, the movers had boxed up their things, and his dad had relocated for his new job.
So many years had passed, and the house had changed hands how many times? He wondered if someone had discovered his secret hiding place and found the cigar box – his only remaining connection to Martha. She was still the only woman who had ever captured his heart. Hearing his name called out by the First Sergeant at mail call had always been a high point in his day while “in country” and away from home. Letters from Martha warmed his lonely nights. The day his name was called, and the letter arrived from Martha’s mom, everything changed. Too far away to help, too far away to grieve, and too busy in Vietnam to even cry. He kept his promise to Martha – to keep his head down and come home in one piece – but it was never even considered that he would come home to shattered dreams. Jim never found his footing. He wandered from one job to the next after leaving the service. He stumbled from one relationship to another – never finding again what he once had and lost. It was this lonely journey that brought him back here. To this house. This room.
Jim stood up slowly. His legs stiff. Tired of wandering. He moved forward and approached the closet door. His boney hand grasped the old glass doorknob. Firmly. With long lost determination he turned the knob and pulled the door open slowly. The closet was dark and smelled faintly of mothballs. He reached forward for the string that used to hang from the bare light bulb. It was still there. He gave it a tug, but the bulb was burned out. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone, pushed the home button, turned around, and used the soft light to illuminate the wall just above the door. As a boy he had to stand on a box to reach the board, but today his fingers found the edge of the wood where it stuck out just enough to get a grip with his fingernails. He pulled and the board moved. Another tug and the board fell to the floor. Jim closed his eyes and said a prayer to a god he had given up on many years ago – maybe he pleaded, maybe he bargained, maybe he just yelled at god to make this right. He kept his eyes closed as he reached over his head and into the cubbyhole. His fingers touched the cigar box then lifted it out of his secret hiding place (which evidently had served its purpose well for over 50 years). He sat down on the floor of the closet and wept as he removed the rubber band that had grown brittle with age. The lid sprung open exposing a box chocked full of a lost love’s treasured mementos.
“Jim? Are you ok?” The woman came into the bedroom carrying a tray and saw him sitting in the closet. “I thought you might need some light – I brought a flashlight. And some brandy. Can I join you?” She saw a genuine smile crawl across the old man’s face. “Yes, I’d like that, very much.”
For the next hour or two, and the better part of a bottle of brandy, the two new friends sat together on the floor in the dark closet, lit only with a flashlight, and went through all the simple contents of the box – each having a story – and celebrated one life lost, and another life found.