I came to slowly, found myself hugging Mom’s legs from behind.
“Honey, your father could be home any minute. You can leave your animals where they are for now. Just clear off the ones near the table where your father will see them.”
After another pause, “Denis. Honey. Please?”
I got ready, but “Sergeant Carl” didn’t come home for a while. I washed up and changed to “fresh clothes for your father.” They were warm and smelled of ironing and I caressed them softly to my cheek as I turned back toward my mom scurrying around at the other end of the house; folding the ironing board up with a hoarse, friendly skraaack! Hiding baskets of folded clothes quickly in the closet, smoothing the wrinkles out of her apron but then taking it off anyway, folding it neatly and placing it in its drawer.
I sat down in the hallway,[imagining] young men perched around their crackling fire, swapping stories. A lonely twang of harmonica, the boys’ songs filled with longing, as much for God, and the beauty of the land, as for loved ones left behind.
Suddenly I felt as much as saw Mom snap to attention, slap on her best smile, and launch into a flurry of activity. The quiet tunes faded but left their shadows. Out in the driveway, Dad was belting out a robustly cadenced song about caissons rolling and field artillery. No longing or reverence, just stampeding over the enemy with arrogant pride.
We heard the war song and knew where he’d been. We knew he’d come in smelling of cigarettes and beer. He marched to the vestibule, into the house, and slammed up against our alternate reality. I didn’t need to look up to watch his face and spirit sag, forced to once again acknowledge the son who would never be a hero. I knew he’d be staring at me as he greeted my Mom. Checking his disappointment at the door, stuffing his sense of loss into private pockets he thought we couldn’t poke into.
After a long moment of readjustment, of just standing there, putting World War II buddies back onto his own inner shelves, he stepped the rest of the way into our home and, as much as he could, into our lives. He turned away, eased his sample case down onto the floor of the closet so slowly that it didn’t make a sound. I heard the metallic scrape and clinkling as he dropped his coat onto a hanger. With his back to us both, he asked Mom, “How’s the boy?”
“Denis is fine,” Mom reminded him of my name. I knew she’d then offer me a wink and a smile. I tried to smile back, but my chin was too deeply buried in my neck….
“That’s good, good,” Dad said. “I need to wash up.”
He stood there a moment after turning back around; a moment that felt long and heavy, like a gray rainy day. He was wearing his special salesman shoes. Orangeish brown wingtips. “Twenty-five dollar Florsheims but worth every penny. A man’s gotta show he’s a man, that he’s got control of his world.” Looking down at them as we all stood unmoving, I could have spat out that long practiced defense, but it would only have left me feeling guilty and broken. I was holding him back.
There were dustings of peanut shell powder below his knees and two or three small spills or splashes, some crushed shell webbing in the cuffs Mom had ironed to perfect steak knife creases, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
Mom’s feet had changed from the stained tennis shoes that always reminded her she was “home with her favorite little fella,” to conservative, respectable pumps. Barely moving now, they shifted and rocked through their choppy but timeworn minimalist pas de none, like they wanted to run forward and pull back in the same instant.
Dad was home.