Crocket was going to die. His hips were giving out, and the tumor on the back of his neck had grown to the size of a melon, a thick lump beneath his shaggy black and white patchy fur. The vet said it was time to put him down, that it needed to happen today, tomorrow the latest. That’s what brought all four of us back to the house on Caleb’s Road.
Dad’s navy blue Boxster S was in the driveway when I got there, parked where his old Toyota truck used to leak oil, the one he gave to Jacob when he was sixteen. The same truck Jacob crashed in on the 1A highway. He’d switched the busted old truck in for a sleek sports car, which Tommy often referred to as his midlife crisis, but it had done the trick when he left Mom. I still didn’t understand how the new car could fit all his contractor tools, but he seemed to make it work. It had been three years since I’d come home to find his car in the driveway, and for a second I forgot that he was with Rebecca now, forgot that he was playing stepfather to two younger kids, that he’d returned to the old soccer fields he’d watched my brothers and I kick the neon patched ball on early Saturday mornings. For a moment as I turned off the ignition, I was coming home to see my parents together under one roof.
Mom kept the house in the divorce, the red bungalow at the end of the street, once full of moving bodies, hairy dogs and a close family. Now, it looked like it was shrinking in on itself, paint chipping off the dormers, a leaky room in the spring season, the gardens overgrown with wild weeds creeping over the stonewalls my father built at the edge of the property overlooking the water when I was a baby. The once immaculately mowed lawn was burnt and dying in the late August sunlight. Mom told me once that the yard was my father’s pride and joy, and now she didn’t give two shits if his tomatoes grew in the summer. She hated tomatoes, and that was his cross to bear for leaving her for a younger woman after Jacob died.
I heard their voices coming through the open kitchen window as I walked up the front walkway, past the cemented handprints of the five of us, our initials etched beneath each print with a stick. Tommy’s print was so much deeper than mine; he’d put all his weight into his right hand, leaving a crater-sized eight-year-old print in the middle of the walkway that often caught the edge of a shoe, causing guests to tumble forward on the way to the door. Jacob’s hand was the smallest and the faintest, his six-year-old handprint barely recognizable in between the adult-sized prints of my parents. I stared at it for a moment, the faintness of it beside all of ours, and for a moment I was afraid that a strong wind would sweep it away forever.
Dad was leaning back in his old chair at the kitchen counter. His fingers interloped the coffee mug we’d given him for a Father’s Day present when we were still a family. We picked it up on one of our trips to the West Coast to visit his sister’s family. It said in big block lettering, “WORLD’S GREATEST DAD,” with a bad illustration of Venice Beach beneath it. We’d tried to throw it away when Dad left, but Mom had thrown one of her quiet fits we’d come to associate with grief. She ripped it out of Tommy’s hands and gently placed it in the back of the mug shelf. In the years since, on days when the dishes hadn’t been done yet and too many mugs were in the sink, I would see it sitting there, collecting dust and feel that familiar tug as I thought of all the mornings dad had sat at the counter drinking coffee before school. I never thought he’d use it again. But here he was.
“Rory.” Mom looked up past my father. “You came.”
“Of course I came, Mom. He’s Jacob’s dog.”
Mom was wearing a faded old white dress with a bright yellow string belt pulling the fabric tightly against her tiny waist. She was barefoot. Her toe nails were unpainted, and her long, white-blonde hair was pulled in a loose ponytail at the back of her head. It was something simple she always wore, but today it looked different, more put together, as if she’d brushed her hair a little more this morning. I wondered how long it had taken her to pick out her outfit after Dad had said he was coming over.
“Mom, where’s Crocket?”
“Oh, he’s in Jakey and Tommy’s room.”
She had never stopped calling it Jacob’s room after he died. Even now, seven years later. The two beds were still there, the same bedspreads they’d had since they were little, matching blue and white racing stripes. Sometimes when I came home from Boston to spend time with Mom, I’d lie there, looking up at the plastic stars that were still stuck to the ceiling. I could almost imagine him and smell his faded seventeen-year-old boy smell.
“I’ll come with you, Rory.”
Dad slid off the stood, his mug thudding on the wooden countertop a little too hard, black coffee spilling over the rim. I saw Mom grimace and grab the paper towels as we walked out of the kitchen.
In the hallway Dad put his arm around my shoulder, pressing is index and pointer finger into the bone beneath my shoulder.
“How you doing, kid?”
He’d always referred to me as kid, no nickname, just kid. Tommy was Tom gun, and Jacob had been Jakey. But he’d always called me kid, which I had found odd, being the oldest.
“I’m fine. How are you?”
He smiled, letting go of my shoulder.