Monday, September 17, 2007

Chapter 4: A Welcome, Part II

The door thumped shut behind them, leaving him alone with his slumbering infant.

Raymond secured in the middle of a ring of mounded pillows on a cleared part of the bed, Vernon shuffled into the kitchen. He stopped at the counter, pried open a couple of cardboard boxes and stared at them, his gaze shifting left and right between the two while his fuzzy brain tried to remember why it brought him here. His right hand dropped into a box and spider-crawled its way through the contents. Steel wool scratched his fingers, only to be shoved aside. A package of napkins flipped over the lid and landed on the green Formica counter. Canned vegetables rattled in the bottom as his hand encountered something hard and cool to the touch. He grasped it and pulled out a white mug bearing a small, red handprint and straggling letters proclaiming him “World’s Best Daddy.” The mug fell from dead fingers and smashed in the sink. Red shards of pottery stared at him from among the debris like bloody fingerprints left behind at a murder scene.

Coffee. I came in here for coffee. He rooted through the lefthand box and pulled out the coffeemaker. The pitcher had been wrapped and stuffed with newspaper to keep it from breaking. Vernon unwrapped the pot and removed the stuffing. Sniffling, he set the coffeepot in the sink and pushed the faucet lever back. Water rushed into the pot, quickly rising toward the top. He wiped his nose on his upper arm, leaving a pale green trail on the blue shirtsleeve. He shut the water off and left the pot in the sink while he dug the rest of the coffeemaker out of its box. His fingers left bright patches in the gray dust that marred its off-white plastic surface.

One eye on the lights overhead, Vernon held his breath and plugged the appliance into a wall outlet. Nothing happened. He heaved a sigh of relief, set the coffeepot on its warming plate and flipped the power switch. It glowed a welcoming orange. After a moment, clear water started dribbling into the pitcher. You idiot! Vernon snapped the switch off and pulled open the top. He rummaged around in the box and finally located the grounds and filters. Setting the filter in place, he heaped several scoops of coffee inside and switched it back on. He hesitated a moment, yawned, then opened the maker back up and tossed in more grounds. No time to sleep. Got to get to work soon. He shambled past the refrigerator, through the back room and into the bathroom.

The smell from the water heater slapped his nostrils. Slightly more alert, Vernon wrinkled his nose and flipped the light switch on. A pair of bare bulbs in the fixture overhead spread weak light over the room. He glanced up and grimaced. What do they got up there? Forty-watt bulbs? Going to have to replace those before tonight. A quick perusal of the sink and cabinet showed he had no toiletries. Grumbling under his breath, Vernon walked to the front of the house, pausing to check on the coffee – which was percolating nicely – and his son – who was snoring in his nest of pillows – before gently opening the door and stepping outside. A bright sun shone on the world. The cheerful autumn morning felt like an insult after the night just past.

His Camry sat in the driveway; a layer of dust dulled its green paint. The liftgate remained open. Vernon walked to the car and looked inside at boxes stacked in the back. Eyes scanning the cardboard pile, Vernon shifted boxes until he caught sight of a frayed blue strap. Glasses rattled as he shoved a container backward and lifted the handmade denim bag out. The gate shut with a thud and he carried the bag inside. Ray stirred but didn’t awaken as Vernon made his way back to the bathroom.

The bag’s contents clinked and clattered as it hit the counter. Vernon’s hand rested on the zipper while the other caressed the faded denim. How many times had he begged Cheryl to replace the thing? She’d already had it for years when he met her, one of the few successful projects to come out of a home economics class in college. She had always refused, and the bag continued to serve their family like an old servant who grew more tattered with age but bore their burdens without fail and without complaint. Vernon unzipped it.

Shaving cream emerged to stand at attention next to deodorant while his toothbrush and razor loafed nearby. He turned to place the shampoo and soap on the edge of the bathtub, along with a tightly rolled rag and towel. Mouthwash and toothpaste thumped onto the counter. Vernon tossed the bag into the corner next to the water heater and turned the faucet on. Hot water scalded his waiting hand almost immediately.

“Son of a –” The rest died in an unintelligible mutter as he shoved wounded digits in his mouth. The thing’s sitting right there. How long did you think it would take to heat the water up? He spun the cold spigot with his free hand and withdrew his fingers to inspect the damage. They were red, but didn’t look severely burned. He scowled, picked up the shaving cream and lathered his face.

Vernon dragged the razor slowly across his chin, scraping over the skin as it cut through new growth. He tried to watch himself in the mirror, but his mind kept going back to the morning’s conversation with Travis Ware, worrying over two particular points like a dog with a chicken leg.

Where would you go? Ware had asked. Vernon shook his head and stared down at the steaming sink. That question hit closer to home than he cared to think about. Since the death of his parents in a house fire twelve years ago, he had no family of his own, not even an uncle or cousin. The thought of going to his wife’s family was laughable. They never liked me much to begin with. What would they say if I showed up with their daughter and granddaughter mysteriously disappeared? Oh, they'd cheerfully take Raymond, and just as cheerfully leave Vernon out to dry. But a boy needed his father, not his grandparents. Besides, Ware had given him every reason to stay right here.

The water heater kicked on with a fwoomp, startling him out of his thoughts. He picked up the toothpaste and brush and started cleaning his teeth.


Part III coming Friday!

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