When they returned to the dorm, Joey and Willy climbed out and Joey said his goodbyes to Willy’s peculiar grandmother. He shook Willy’s hand as he told him to be careful on the ride, and Willy pulled his friend close and hugged him.
“I told you she was eccentric,” Willy whispered.
“Tell her I’ll see her again sometime, and we can talk more.”
The truck tail lights disappeared around the corner, but instead of walking up the stairs and to his dorm room, Joey strode away from the building and down the street into the night. When he neared the main streets of town he caught a taxi and told the driver where he needed to go. Close to his old house. What better did he have to do?
The evening had grown cold and the wind toyed with the bare tree limbs as Joey turned onto his old street. Most of the houses were dark. A dog barked in the distance. And finally his home, dark as a tomb but otherwise as he had left it, came into view.
As Joey passed he eyed the neighboring homes, Mr. Johnson’s place, dark and sinister though in reality it was nothing of the sort even if Mrs. Johnson had been ill, and the Nellums place on the other side, also dark. Joey glanced up and down the street then cut quickly beside Johnson’s house and into his own back yard shrouded by trees and some flowering bushes he had planted almost fifteen years ago now.
Joey tried the back door and found it locked. Instead of going to the side door and possibly being discovered, Joey took a few steps and inspected the back window. Sure enough, the screen was still loose. Procrastination sometimes paid off. Six or seven years ago, he locked himself out, and instead of waiting for Michelle to return home, he pried the screen and used a garbage can as a step stool to hoist himself into the window. He fell climbing in though and broke a dish and two glasses. Michelle never let him live it down. He wondered if there were dishes in the way this time.
Joey was much more limber than Joe, and the climb through the window was easier. The exertion served to warm him up as well. Joey hopped off the sink and closed the window behind him. The room was dark in the cold house, and the lack of power had taken with it the popping and “living” sounds that a structure possesses. But with the outside light streaming through the window and his knowledge of the layout of the house, Joey had no trouble navigating through the kitchen and into the dining area. He went around the corner and into the almost pitch black living room area. Somewhere near the mantle there was a flashlight.
Feeling through Michelle’s knick knacks she collected brought a wave of something he had yet to experience: the feeling of coming home. He felt the cool steel of the long flashlight and picked it up. But before he turned it on, he sighed deeply in the darkness, breathing in his past and letting the memory soak his soul. A part of him longed to call the whole deal off, here and now. He could pick up the pieces of his life. He could go back to being good old Joe Daily. He could find something to occupy his time.
But what good would it do now? Could he somehow get Michelle back? He knew in his heart what Michelle would say, and he tried to push the thoughts away. He turned on the light.
The couch sat as it had. The rocker looked alone and worn. The television was dark. Joe wondered why he had returned. He had almost succeeded in leaving all this behind and never looking back, but for some odd reason the place had beckoned his return.
Making certain he kept the light low and inconspicuous, Joey ventured down the hall. He glanced into the guest bedroom for no particular reason, didn’t need to use his bathroom and passed it by, and then came to his own bedroom. The bed was still unmade. Unlike Michelle, he seldom made the bed unless company might be coming or when he went on one of his rare cleaning sprees.
Maybe it was the sight of the bed or possibly it was the accumulation of the hectic day and week, but suddenly Joey was overcome with fatigue. He considered finding his way back to the dorm, and on second thought decided that he would stay in his house for the night. It was his after all.
Undressing down to his underwear in the cold house, Joey climbed under the covers and pulled them up around his neck. Lying on his back he could almost imagine the various designs that he and Michelle used to imagine forming all manner of creatures and situations as they lay back in the bed during those times when nothing called for them to arise and busy themselves. His imagination played tricks on him as he dreamed he could smell her fading perfume mixed with the light scent of soap that always danced in the night when she climbed into bed beside him.
“I miss you girl,” Joey said aloud in the quiet stillness.
As if he could feel her press against him, he rolled away and dreamed that she was behind him, her arm draped over his shoulder, her soft breath in his ear, and then he fell into the deepest slumber he had experienced in months.
Joey awoke to the sound of Mr. Johnson calling his dog, “Heeyah-heeyah, Tippy, heeyah”, like a cowpoke out west. In that disoriented moment between sleep and awake, Joey almost thought he was Joe and that nothing had changed. Maybe it was a Saturday and he did not have to rise early, and then he remembered that today was Thanksgiving. Michelle would be… And then, he realized he was awake and things were not the way they were and he was not Joe Daily and Michelle would not be cooking Thanksgiving dinner.
Joey peeked out the window and saw Mr. Johnson standing hands in jacket pockets at the edge of the house, surveying the back yard and the small side yard, then spitting between his teeth. Tippy, his skinny black and white Boston Terrier mix, had returned and was prancing at the man’s side trying to gain his attention. Joey dressed and crept out of the bedroom. Though he needed to go badly, he couldn’t bring himself to use the bathroom commode. The water would be off. He couldn’t do it.
Joey left the back door unlocked as he slipped out and closed it behind him. An indented wall where he usually left a gas can provided enough cover for him to relieve himself behind the house. Then he cut through the Nellums side of the yard and was almost out onto the road when he heard Johnson yell.
“Hey, you, what are you doing?”
“Oh, hello sir.”
“I asked you a question. What are you doing?” Johnson asked walking stiffly in Joey’s direction. Tippy pranced beside him.
It was time to see what he had learned during his time as Joey Goodman.
“I was having a look at Joe’s house. I’m his nephew. Arthur. Nice to meet you.”
Joey walked in Johnson’s direction extending his hand and smiling. Though he was reluctant, Mr. Johnson took the hand and shook it half-heartedly before sticking his own hand back in his pocket and scolding Tippy to quit jumping on his leg. He must have gathered his wits enough to continue the line of questioning.
“I didn’t know Joe had a nephew.”
“There’s probably lots you didn’t know about Joe,” Joey said and then wished he hadn’t when Johnson’s eyes danced hotly.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, he was sort of a private person,” Joey said. “He didn’t go around talking about family and things much.”
“I knew Joe better than you might think,” Johnson said, looking down to Tippy.
Indeed he did know Joe well. Johnson was the first person Joe had met when they moved in over twenty years ago. Between the two of them they had helped each other bury three dogs, both crying each time, and helped jumped start each other’s vehicles more times than they could count. Johnson had sat on the front steps with his arm around Joe late into the night when he lost Michelle, and when Johnson’s wife got sick last summer Joe walked the halls of the hospital with his friend until they could bring her home to convalesce where she was most comfortable.
“You talk about him like he’s gone,” Johnson said.
Joey realized he had been using past tense, but in a sense Joe was gone. Joe Daily was in the past.
“I mean, we haven’t seen him in a long time,” Joey said.
Johnson readjusted his weight moving it from one hip to the other and studied Joey’s face. The old man’s eyes narrowed.
“You sure you’re his kin?”
Joey laughed at the statement and said, “I’m sure. He’s talked about you. I don’t know why he wouldn’t mention me. You have a wife. Margaret. Sweet woman. Likes to can peaches.”
Joey’s smile vanished. Looking down now at the top of Mr. Johnson’s head, he wanted to wrap his arms around the little man and tell him everything would be fine. He should have been there. Now, everything in Johnson’s countenance gave away his sense of loss.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Johnson.”
Johnson looked back up to Joey’s eyes that must have revealed something. There was no way Joey could have disguised and hidden his own pain.
“Are you sure we’ve never met?”
Looking over his shoulder as he began to walk away, Joey replied, “I’m not sure about much of anything anymore.”
Instead of catching a taxi this time, Joey walked all the way back to the dorm. The team had an off day, and Joey stretched out on the bed until late that afternoon. Then, he ate a can of beanie-weenies and went to bed.