Authors: Terry Persun
he Penn State Engineering Club had its share of heavy drinkers and lightweights, and Billy Maynard lay somewhere in the middle. His grades lay somewhere in the middle, too, and on this, the last party prior to going home for summer break, his enthusiasm for returning home lacked passion as well. Outside the second story apartment the club used as a meeting place, the moon appeared reluctant in its climb up the dark curtain of sky. The stars blinked. A light haze dulled their presence.
Not wishing to go home quite yet, Billy chugged one more beer while standing with his friends. Sam patted his shoulder. “That's enough.”
“Ah, come on, let him enjoy the night!” Joey said.
Lowering his head, Billy said, “Naw, Sam's right. We all ought to take it easy.”
“Not me,” Harold said. “My dad's picking me up tomorrow night. I'll have all day to recuperate.”
Billy sat down and, with Sam's encouragement, decided to relax. They were juniors, came from the same small, Pennsylvania town,
and took most of their classes together. Billy envied Sam's ability to break from home, something Billy wanted to do himself, but found the task much more difficult than Sam appeared to find it.
While the other club members broke into smaller groups, Sam brewed coffee for Billy to take on his all night drive home.
“You sure you don't want to come with me?” Billy asked.
“No. You know how my family eats up all my time when I'm home. My cousins in New York will be easier to live with. Besides there's more work there and I need to save up.”
Billy looked away. “Too bad I couldn't go with you.”
“Your mom's not that bad,” Sam said. “A little psychotic, maybe.”
Billy leaned forward, planting his feet firmly on the floor as though he were going to stand. “She's crazy as shit, you mean.” Billy smiled. “But she's my mom.”
“What about Karla Ann? I bet you can't wait to see her.”
“Not going to happen.”
“What?” Sam sat next to Billy. “Christ, what happened?”
“Been away too long, I guess.”
“That bitch. Can't anyone wait these days?”
“I haven't waited either, Sam. You know that.”
Sam shrugged. “True.” They both laughed. “Stillâ¦” Sam's face looked more serious than it had been.
Billy slapped Sam's knee. “You know, things change when you leave home. I don't belong there anymore, but I need the money. And since Grandpa got me that job with the building crew again, I might as well go. Besides, Mom would explode if I didn't come home.”
“You'll get to see all your construction buddies.”
Sam got up to get the coffee. “You won't reconsider driving home tonight?”
Billy shook his head. “I'm looking forward to getting into town while the sun's coming up. I do miss the way the mountain shines just before sunrise.”
Sam wove his way into the kitchen and came out to hand Billy a mug of coffee. Billy hadn't moved.
“You going to talk to your mom about your grandparents?” Sam asked.
“I don't know. Maybe.”
“Don't you want them to get along? What can a little talk hurt? Last week you said that was part of the reason you were going home.” Sam had that you-know-I'm-right look on his face.
“Maybe it's none of my business. Every time I try to get them to talk, it blows up in my face. It's like they resent each other, like they blame each other for Dad's death. I thought a few psych classes would help me understand what it might be like between them, but now, I'm not so sure. Maybe it just doesn't matter whose fault it is.”
Sam said, “Once you get your degree and can move away, it probably won't matter. They'll never see each other again except when you come to town.”
The party gobbled up their conversation with noise and good-byes as members filed out a few at a time. The engineering club had been a refuge for most of them, a place they belonged. Billy would miss them all.
He finally made his way outside. The coffee had cleared his head. In the small lot behind the building, Billy climbed into the cab of an old blue GMC pickup his grandfather had sold him for a song and a promise. His packed duffel lay on the seat next to him. A box of books rested on the passenger side floor. Sam handed him two large Styrofoam cups of coffee, which Billy set on the seat next to him, letting them lean against his thigh. Steam lifted out the small holes in the lids.
“Keep in touch,” Sam said.
“It's only the summer,” they both said at once.
“Talk to you.” Billy pulled away into the darkness.
For the five-hour drive to Wyoming, Pennsylvania, the road wound through humid river valleys and over the forest-cool foothills of the Appalachian Mountains as it headed for the Alleghenies. The scent of rural Pennsylvania was sweet and familiar. Billy knew the smell.
The rural routes meant tight turns and bumpy, poorly maintained roads. Enough driving variety to help keep him awake.
There was an unsteady vibration in his hands that traveled from the macadam road to the steering wheel.
The moon eventually peeked over the horizon, doubling the pleasure of the drive. Deer grazed in fields not twenty feet from cows. Opossum and raccoon eyes blinked back light as they scurried away from the side of the road.
He recalled his mother's voice when he first suggested going away to college. “You hate me,” Alice had said.
“I need to go,” he remembered saying. “College is the only way I'll ever do anything with my life.”
“Are you saying that I've done nothing with mine? I'm head teller at the bank. I've raised you completely on my own, my husband dead before you were even born.” She began to push out the tears.
Although he always felt most of her fanatic and theatrical ways had been faked, he never knew for sure. “Momâ.”
“No!” she'd screamed, frightening him. “You don't have to leave. There are colleges nearby.”
“Not for what I want to take. Not good ones.”
“How am I to pay for it?”
“Is that it?”
“Don't take that tone with me.”
“I've saved up. I applied for assistance.”
“Without telling me?”
“I knew how you'd be, so I did it myself.”
“What about your grandfather?” Alice calmed as quickly as she got angry.
Billy had recognized the shift in her concern move from losing him to that of money. Anything to weasel money out of his grandparents. “We've taken enough from Grandpa and Grandma.”
“But they said they'd help. I remember. A long time ago.” She turned around and scratched her head. The housedress she almost always wore at home hung loosely over her hips. The flower pattern had faded into an abstract design. She saved her nice clothes, as she called them, for work. “You're not old enough to be responsible for your own money. They could transfer it to my account and I could send you weekly allowances.”
Headlights flashing in front of him brought him back to the dark night road, but the feeling of disgust lingered. That was how he always remembered her, ready to take advantage of his grandparents.
Billy drove slowly over the metal grates of an old country bridge and listened to the clicking of a stone he had picked up in his tire.
As he got closer to home, a lump grew in the pit of his stomach. He periodically tried the radio, but most stations had signed off or lowered their outputs.
He opened his window to let the cab air chill. He lifted one of the empty Styrofoam cups and bit around its rim. Then he went around again and bit off pieces, spitting them back into the cup. He kept doing this until the cup was an inch high. Then he dropped it into a brown bag he used for garbage.
Several miles from home, Billy pulled over and waited for fifteen minutes â the time it took the sun to sparkle over the northern edge of Bradford's Ridge and wash down through the smoky valley towards Wyoming to the south. He sighed. He felt obligated to his mother. She could have given him up for adoption, even aborted him after his father died. Raising him alone had been as difficult for her as not having a father had been for him.
Billy ran his hand through his thick black hair. His mother would make him get it cut. It would be the first thing she noticed. He pulled onto the rural route and slowly drove along newly planted cornfields. He pulled over two more times, once getting out of the truck and walking into a small grove of trees to take a leak.
Two old lilac bushes guarded his mother's driveway. He let in the strong scent. The lawn needed cutting. The house, with its brown siding and dirty white shutters, suddenly seemed dismal. At stark contrast, early spring had drawn new growth from the fertile valley floor. Every imaginable color bud and bloom popped from the ground, first relieving his tension then dissipating it in the morning light.
As he pulled his box of books and duffel from the truck, Alice came up behind him with her arms crossed over her tattered housecoat. “That hair will have to go.”
Billy turned. Her eyes were dark and the wrinkles more noticeable than the last time he saw her. “Nice to see you too, Mom.”
“Oh,” she opened her arms, “come here.”
He set his box and duffel down and hugged her.
“It's so good to see you,” she said tearfully.
“Thanks, Mom. It's good to be home.”
“Well, you wouldn't think so. You never call.”
“Never is a little extreme.” Billy lifted the box onto his hip and grabbed the duffel with his free hand. “Can you get the door?”
The house was dark inside. Alice kept the shades down. A 40-watt bulb lit the hall leading to his bedroom. When Alice opened the door, it was so dark inside Billy had to let his eyes adjust before walking in. He set his stuff on the single bed. “Christ, Mom, open some blinds.” He walked over and pulled the cord on each window blind, letting the morning fill the room. His mother put her hand over her eyes and scowled.
“That's too much this early in the morning,” she said.
“Early light's the best light.”
“Not to me.”
“I'm home now. And it's my room.” He turned back around and opened both windows as wide as he could. “I need air too. This place stinks. It smells moldy.”
“Come out for breakfast,” Alice instructed in a voice that indicated her annoyance with him. “And keep this door closed. I don't want the rest of the house getting cold.” She slammed the door as she left.
Billy blew out every last bit of air he had been holding in his lungs, as though he had just swum up from the bottom of a twelve-foot-deep pool. He sat on the edge of his bed. The box of books shifted and jabbed him in the side. He pushed it away and looked up at the stained tan walls. He leaned back against his duffel and rested for a moment. His eyes were heavy, but he couldn't sleep. He was eager to get up and move, to go out and drive somewhere. He couldn't stay put. Slapping the side of the bed with his hand, he got up and walked down the hall and into the kitchen.
*Â Â Â Â Â *Â Â Â Â Â *
During Billy's absence, Alice focused on her own needs and interests. On the one hand that meant buying expensive clothes, makeup, and getting her hair done. Looking professional at work helped to hide her loneliness. On the other hand the change in focus meant picking up cheap knickknacks and wearing faded housedresses when alone in the house.
Alice also maintained two personalities, one bright and talkative, the other dark and plagued by melancholia. Her home and work personas ran in opposite directions like confused Olympic runners. Every week they got farther apart. With Billy home, she forced those personalities closer for his benefit, but not hers.
Alice stood near the table, a box of cereal in her hand. “I have to work today, you know?”
“Today? You knew I was coming home.”
“We're busy at the bank.” She stuttered, “At this time of year.”
“Tax season's over. That's fine, though. You don't have to explain. I need to rest today anyway.”
She smiled, pulling from her brighter side. “You drove through the night?”
She poured her cereal and milk and sat down to eat. “Hungry?” She stared into her bowl and poked at her cereal with the spoon.
“Yes and no. I'll have coffee,” he said, reaching for a cup to put into the microwave.
“It'll just make you jittery. I'd wait until you slept a little.”
“I'll be fine,” Billy said. When the microwave beeped, he stirred in some instant coffee and took the cup over to the table and sat next to her.
“You're going to get a haircut today, aren't you?”
“Why the hurry?”
“Fine,” she said. “You know how I hate your hair to look shabby.”
“It's not that long.” He stood and took a final sip of the coffee, then poured it into the sink.
“Good. You shouldn't have any more. You should sleep.”
“Before or after the haircut?” He looked out the window over the sink.
“You don't have to be rude. Before the haircut is fine.” She left to get ready for work.
*Â Â Â Â Â *Â Â Â Â Â *
The sun glistened over the wet grass. He'd get the haircut just so he didn't have to hear her complain.
He stepped outside and took a walk around the house. Garden tools leaned against the old shed, weeds growing all around and through them. The grass had been cut around the tools. Some wood was piled behind the shed. He noticed the window that had been broken two years ago by a flying stone from the lawn mower had never been repaired. The mustard-colored paint had peeled off most of the siding. He stepped into the shed. His bicycle stood near the workbench, both covered with spider webs. Dirt motes rose into the air. He stepped back and closed the door. Looking back at the house, he saw that the windows needed a good washing and the gutters overflowed with leaves.