By: Jeremiah Minihan
If he was writing this as a story, he would call it “The Homecoming”. But, George Flannery chuckled, that title had been used many times before. He knew that he would not be writing the story anyway. He looked at the clock again, wondering how long he would have to wait or who would arrive first. The kids were both in Boston, and he had asked them to stay over at the house, since it was now his again, but they did not want to stay.
“Suit yourselves,” he said loudly, to no one. This October evening was cooler than he had anticipated. He thought of checking the thermostats but decided to let things slide. He had always been after Marie to turn down the heat. After a frustrating day at the bank, that was the last thing he needed, a blast of warm, moist air.
George was glad that he had arrived early, before the darkness, to see the new shrubs and trees and the remnants of the flowers Marie had planted. When they had first moved here, she had been unhappy with the older bushes and shrubs and had insisted that they be pulled up. He tried to argue with her, telling her that his father had planted many of them. But she had demanded and he had relented.
On the other hand, she had left the rooms, with the heavy furniture pieces and colorful rugs, untouched, just as his father had left them. Fellow artists used to tease his father about the type of furnishings he had around him. I’m no modern artist, he would grouse, just a traditionalist. These things make me comfortable, he said. And, he would taunt, I do a hell of a lot better financially that those guys with the drips and spatters.
His father, Arthur Flannery, had been like that from young manhood until the day he died.
George turned on a few more lights and sat in the corner of the study. This room was where he had done his writing. Marie had left him alone during those evenings. While he was at the bank, she worked at her sculptures in the cellar. She joked that she did not need the morning north light or anything like that. And she furiously fought each day, he knew, with shapes and ideas. There had been one or two small exhibitions and local shows’ but then she had stopped all together.
His father’s self-portrait hung, as it always had, over the fireplace which seldom was used. It was not a stern or fierce image like something out of Hawthorne. Instead, his father had presented himself in tennis whites, legs crossed, balancing a racket with both hands. He was not exactly smiling, but his expression was one of someone about to smile. His father had liked this picture best. Perhaps it was because it showed a vigorous man of forty, just before the start of the Second World War. But he had painted the picture later in life, as his health was failing. It had always seemed to George, that the image was one of defiance, almost a cheery sort of arrogance.
He was not surprised that Marie had left the picture there. She had never met the old man, but he affected them greatly. That was obvious to all.
George was glad that he had eaten. There were a few items in the refrigerator, but he did not want to have too much stored. After all, it was not clear how long the house would actually be his. If they did decide to sell, though, there was also no confirmation that the house would sell quickly.
George had nearly fallen asleep when he saw the darkish beams twist and descend from the road. The cab swung slowly in front of the house and eased to a stop. He looked out to see the man and woman climb out. They both turned and pulled their suitcases from the trunk.
George opened the door just as the cab climbed toward the street. But the man and woman were smiling, somewhat, and that was a good thing.
Brian was first. “Hello, Dad. You look good.” Tall and gangly as ever, Brian leaned close and hugged George.
Piper was a little fussier. She kissed George meekly with the traditional daughter’s kiss she had used for years. It was not especially affectionate, but it was not completely casual either. She had added some weight, but he would not mention that to her. And he would also have to remember to call her Susan since no professional person would want to be called Piper.
“Come in, kids, come in.” Brian and Piper looked at each other. Then all three of them laughed.
“I’m glad you two decided to stay after all.” He gave them an invisible push inwards and then closed the door.
“When you get older, you can do the driving for me, George.” George looked across at his father and nodded. He was not sure it would come to that. Although his father controlled the wheel expertly as they swung thorough the thin Kittery roads, he had seen the shaking of the old man’s hands earlier. An artist with shaking hands was not a good thing
“You should slow down a little, Dad,”
“I will.” George could only grin. It was as though he was waiting for his father to say something pompous, such as I will take no driving instructions from a fourteen-year old, my boy, or something like that. His father had wanted a companion for the drive to Kennebunkport. George’s mother had remained at their summer cottage but had encouraged the two boys, as she called them, to do more together. Arthur Flannery was always working, of course, with more commissions than he would ever be able to complete.
“Just over here. There. Impressive.” The car wheeled to the crest of the small hill. The house itself, Federal in inspiration at least, dominated the summit. George helped his father with the easel although the old man carried the dented painting case himself.
“This way, please,” the short, elderly maid pointed to the room to the right of the hallway. George had not been to this house before. His father had come earlier to do the preliminary sketches. Now it was time me for paint on canvas, the real thing, as he called it. They both turned at the sound of firm, steady feet.
“Mr. Flannery. Thank you. I’m glad that your busy schedule could accommodate me. And who is this tall young fellow.”
“My son, George, Senator Kirby.”
“Very nice, very nice.” George felt that the senator was assessing him quickly as he must have done with his constituents. The senator was a quick, erect man, looking like the colonel he had been during the First World War. His large mustache had been part of his image since his first days in politics. He had famously promised to shave it off if one event or another might happen. But he had always selected events which would never occur.
Arthur Flannery centered the canvas in silence. He had put on the silly-looking apron he usually wore. The senator continued to chatter, while the artist positioned him near the wide ocean window, making him turn slightly this way and that before he was satisfied.
“My granddaughter is in the kitchen, sonny. Why don’t you say hello. She’s visiting from Minnesota.”
The senator stared at George, smiling until the boy rose and left the room. George followed the singing sound to the kitchen, where the maid was holding a tall pitcher of what looked like lemonade. The girl sitting hunched at the table was thin and dark. She looked up and almost started to smile, but then she bent down again, letting her fingers tap at the squares of the newspaper crossword.
“Say hello to the young man, Barbara. Be polite.”
“Hi.” George paused and continued. “I’m George.”
She nodded. The maid had poured him a glass of lemonade, and he cupped it in both hands. He sat opposite the girl. He was not sure what would happen next. Who would speak first? The maid continued her low singing and occasionally made a comment to Barbara.
“Have you visited your grandfather in Washington?” George finally asked brightly. He knew that was a silly question. Certainly she would have visited the old man. Fawning, pawing aides would have been anxious to please the girl and to please the senator.
“Of course, many times.” She seemed to be smirking, but George also though that if he commented right away, he might keep the conversation going. Unfortunately, he could think of nothing else to say. She said nothing either and he was not surprised when she finished the last of the squares with a flourish and stood up.
“I’m going to my room,” she said to both of them.
“It was nice to meet you, Barbara,” George said.
She did not reply, but only nodded. When she left, the maid stared at him as though he had committed a sharp error. He said nothing, but only slowly finished his drink.
The maid went back and forth and finally told George that the men were finishing their session. As he left the kitchen, George listened to the laughter. Both the senator and his father were puffing on long cigars.
“Senator, I really should be doing this at my age.” He held the cigar up. “My doctors will not be happy.”
“Nonsense. You’re just a youngster, Arthur. Nothing wrong with one of these.” Then he smiled slyly. “When can I see the finished product?”
“Not yet. I still have some work to do in the studio.” They shook hands. The maid smiled professionally. In a way George wanted Barbara to come out, but she did not.
He helped his father with the easel and other equipment. As they climbed into the car, his father kept saying that this portrait was one of the best he had ever done.
At the time, neither knew that it would be the last of his father’s pictures.
George pressed both hands on the counter, bent forward, and nodded at the warm-looking morning. The sun was full already, even at this hour, and there was no frost. He listened as the furnace began its tired whirring. He would miss the place, if it came to that. When his parents were alive, there was always a cook fluttering around the kitchen. Mrs. Reynolds lived in, as he recalled, but once she left, there were daily cooks only, with support added for special dinners and parties.
People often reminisce about warm family dinners, where the food is accompanied by easy chatter and rugged jokes. He could recall none of that. His father, especially when working, kept his odd hours and expected others to bend and adapt. His mother had not dared to oppose.
This morning would be different. He would cook for his children on a way that he had not done in many years — perhaps never. Coffee first, of course, and then the bacon, eggs to follow.
“Hello, Brian. First of the two of you down.”
Brian rubbed his farce, not knowing how to respond. He nodded at the coffee pot and poured a large cup when the dripping stopped. He sat stiffly at the kitchen table, twisting so that he could see George at work on the stove.
“How about you, Dad? How did you sleep?”
“Good, Good.” He turned toward Brian. “It was nice of you and Piper to stay. When did you decide that?”
Brian shook his head. “Just came up with it. We had gotten into Boston and stayed there last night. Just a whim.”
“Well, that’s good. You never know.”
“Right.” George knew that they were both thinking the same thing. Neither knew how much longer they would be in this house. This might be their last time there.
George finished and sat at the table, opposite his son. He could think of nothing to say to him at the moment. Last night, before bed, they had run through the list of Brian’s events: offers of parts, new digs, and the opportunity to direct a program next summer. George was one of those parents, he felt, who was truly interested in his children’s successes and struggles. His own father, he felt, was less interested in what his son, his only child, was doing. That was cold, though, and he knew he should not be thinking about it, after so many years.
They stopped talking and just smiled at each other as they drank the coffee.
Both looked up as Piper entered the kitchen.
“Susan,” George said cheerily. “Susan.” The two young people looked warily at him, seeming to barely tolerate the babbling of a dad. He nodded, accepting their silent scorn. He knew that he did not really know these two. He had not seen much of them in the last few years.
“How did you sleep, Dad?” Piper looked at him casually. He realized that she was no longer calling him daddy, as she used to. Perhaps that was part of her new professional image. Or perhaps it was something else entirely.
“You did not have to do this for us, you know.”
“I know. But I thought it would be nice.” He swirled around the stove, loading three plates. He pointed toward the dining room, cutting off any groans and protests
“I’m not sure how long you both plan to be here– you might be leaving today. See, I thought that was a possibility. And I just thought that it would be nice to all be sitting together. You know.”
Each of them was sitting at the places they had always sat at. It was both comforting and strange. And Marie’s place was oddly empty.
The conversation, once ignited, proceeded in a gently way. They spoke about the weather and travels and old friends and sights. George let Piper and Brian talk about their projects and goals. It was amusing, George thought, to hear them talk about accomplishments. Neither seemed to be outdoing the other, but they each seemed eager to push themselves. There was no attempt to impress him, he thought, but only to make sure that their successes were not ignored.
George let them talk, encouraged them to talk. He knew the questions they would be asking of him.
“What about your writing, Dad?”
George paused. He was not sure how defensive to get. He had the time and god knows he had story ideas and outlines. He used to work on the subway as he commuted. But now he was retired — forcibly retired, you might say– and he had ample time to perfect his writing.
“I keep plugging away.” They nodded. It had been years since he had sent anything out to a magazine or journal. You get to a point, he often said, when you become too careful. You are afraid that what you have written is just not good. Why then would you take a chance and send it out? He could see from their faces that they understood, too. After all Brian must have been used to auditions that didn’t pan out, and Piper’s firm must have submitted proposals that went nowhere. It was tough for artist of any sort.
“I want to hear more from you kids,” he continued. “I follow you. I know you have been doing well. I see the stories and articles.” He tried to smile as if to encourage them to move along, to get to another topic.
“We don’t want you to quit, Dad. But have you thought about some other artistic field.”
Piper followed quickly. “What about painting?”
George started to laugh. He did not want to be dismissive or contemptuous, but he supposed his laughter sounded like that.
This time it was Piper who laughed. “Well, it’s in your blood for one thing.”
“My father, you mean. Of course that is who you mean. Well, do you think I could ever come up to his standards? He had real talent in that area.”
Brian approached more gently. “You need some kind of outlet now that you are retired.” He added quietly, “and now with Mom’s death.”
“Well kids, I don’t know. And as for the last statement, your mother and I had been divorced for these many years””
“Still, Dad, and as Brian was saying, a way to express yourself would be good. Besides, it isn’t as if you and Mom had been hitting each other over the head.”
“No, we weren’t.”
The conversation chugged and stopped s they began to turn to more pleasant topics. In a way George was happy to see them take an interest in him. It was not as though they were closer to Marie than him, but they just merged into their own lanes of careers. There was no rancor or regret, and each of the children made sure to visit with each parent on a somewhat fixed arrangement.
He shook his head as he finished with the cleaning up. He had sent Brian and Piper, notebooks in hand, to look at each of the rooms for objects and pieces of furniture each might want. It was not certain that the household would be dispersed, but things were heading that way.
When the children went to their rooms, Marie talked about her newest sculpture. He was not really that interested in her progress, but he felt that he had to show a little politeness and civility.
I’m going to disappear into the study for a while, he would usually tell her.
That’s fine, she would usually say, and I can clear up here.
George always called it disappearing or some other silly phrase. He never called it work or writing or even private time. He was not sure why he was downplaying it. Maybe he never really believed in what he was writing. Maybe it was as simple as that.
Show us what you have been working on, Brian and Piper would ask when they got older. We would like to see.
But he never did. He would make a casual promise, but he never showed them his work, and eventually they stopped asking. But that was wheat he had expected anyway.
Now, as he thought about it, he knew that he never really firmly stopped writing. It was just he gradually did less and less, until he stopped completely, without ever noticing it.
The pain he felt as he thought about this lessened as time went on. It was as though he could probe with his tongue the space once occupied by a tooth.
“That’s it, then. I guess we are all in agreement, Dad.”
“Well, I don’t know, Brian. Are we?”
“I am,” Susan said softly.” I mean I don’t want the place. I don’t even live in town.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, Dad, I travel a lot for the firm– writing proposals and organizing the construction.” She laughed. “If I was older and more successful, I might keep the place as a second home, a retreat.”
George smiled. He knew that Susan had a partner, a girl a year or so younger than her. He thought of them alone in this house.
“You could keep the place, Dad, if you wanted. Mom wasn’t specific. I suppose it would be funny, coming all the way around again.”
“No, Brian. I appreciate the thought, but I am fine with my small place.” There had been other women since the divorce, but he had reached the point when he knew he would stay single for the rest of his life. There would be no need for any place larger. They all looked at each other. Then George stood and motioned to them
“I don’t think you have been in the cellar”
They hesitated and then followed him down the wide steps, hesitating until he turned on the slow fluorescent lights. Piper and Brian walked across the room, both uneasy as they looked at the tables and shelves, now empty except for tools and jars and rags.
George looked at them, not knowing at first what to say. “Your mother spent many happy mornings and afternoons at first. She never talked about her sculptures, but I could see the pleasure creating gave her. She had no illusions, though. She knew these things were not any good.” He stopped. “Later, I suppose, she felt that she was no good.”
“Don’t, Dad. Not now.”
“No, it’s important that I say a few things now. We probably all three of us will not be here in this room again. I did see your mother from time to time, and I suppose that I should have picked up on things. I knew, of course, that she had given up her work, but I did not know that she had destroyed everything.” He chuckled darkly. “In a way, I’m surprised that she did not do it here, in the end.”
Piper shouted at him. “Stop. No more. Please, no more.”
George knew that it would be time to leave soon. He enjoyed the quietness of the rooms. He thought about walking through each of them again, as if he was in a silent museum, but he did not. He had the children’s’ agreement, and he promised to call the broker that week to get things moving. It would probably not take long. The house would probably be sold as a single unit. The old Adams estate on the other end of the street had not fared as well, and both the land and rooms in the mansion had been cut up.
In this case, though, you had the attraction of a famous artist who had lived and worked there. He though, grimly, that if he owned some of his father’s paintings now — with their current values — he could be settled financially. Unfortunately, most of these had been sold years ago, when prices were more modest.
One minute he felt regrets, and the next he did not. His own life would continue as before. He would not take up any other artistic hobby — how could he paint, for instance, with the images of the great man above him?
Unfortunately, neither of his children seemed interested in marriage. Perhaps that, too, would come. If not, he would accept this, he supposed, as he had accepted other things in life.
Marie’s death pained him. They had struggled through the divorce. He knew that she was not seeing anyone else, but he did not really pick up on her unhappiness. He had basically let her have whatever she wanted. He was seeing Martha at the time, and that was enough for the moment. Perhaps if he had waited, perhaps if he had seen that the relationship with Martha would collapse, things might have been different. He thought about Marie, descending into the cellar each morning, trying to work, trying to create.
When he stood up, it was as if to cast off these thoughts and images. They would do him no good. A sour series of thoughts would ruin the rest of the day. And, with the clean October sunlight, the day actually looked hopeful.
When he turned away from the room, toward the kitchen, he realized that he had started to weep.