The worn gravel popped under his tires as he turned off the main artery that winded through Pine Mountain and snaked its way toward the mountain from which the town borrowed its name. Eric Slater peered off into the distance before his car completed the turn onto his mother’s driveway, beyond the sway of the southern pines that crowded against the road, and eyed the mountain’s gentle slopes. Nothing, it seemed, had changed in his hometown, most certainly not the mountain. He had spent his entire childhood in its shadow hoping to one day escape the gravity of its orbit only to find himself at its feet over four decades later.
A smirk tightened his lips. The grit of a long road trip with the top down speckled his teeth, so he wiped them clean with the tip of his tongue. The dry taste unleashed the thirst that had built up over the last few miles after he had exited Interstate 75 and made a beeline toward the small town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians. The driveway dipped and he heard a scraping noise that, at first, made him wince for his car, but then, he realized he didn’t care anymore. He throttled the accelerator and pulled through the washed out section of the driveway until he climbed the hill and nosed the car into a shade near the edge of the old porch.
He killed the engine and leaned back into his seat exhaling his relief at having finally arrived. His stomach churned, a knot of angst broiled within him. His breakfast hadn’t settled with him too well. Maybe it was true that he could no longer eat greasy diner food without any remorse. He stepped out of the car and hesitated just a moment before he took the four steps onto the porch. If his mom was at home, she hadn’t noticed a visitor, or she was avoiding him. He hoped she wasn’t home.
He took in the old house, inhaled the scent of rotten wood and southern pine that surrounded him. The house, his childhood home, had been built by his great grandfather back when the town was first settled. His grandfather had tacked on a few rooms including a bathroom that had clearly been an afterthought. His father had simply maintained it, replacing old clapboard when it needed it and adding a fresh coat of white paint every so often.
Eric loved and hated the old house. He loved the grand, wide porch that hugged two sides of the house. He and his brother, Robert, had spent many days on the porch playing or waiting out the inevitable southern gully washers that struck during the long, hot summers. He could still see the steam rising off the earth and smell the pristine air cleansed after a hard rain. He took a deep breath trying to capture the wonder of so many years ago. He needed something to remember fondly.
Surprised that his mom still had not acknowledged she had a visitor, he shook himself free of his recollection and stepped toward the rickety screen door and pulled the handle. The warped, wooden door rattled in place but refused to budge. He looked inside the screen and could see that it was latched. The screen door had never been latched in all of his memories of his childhood. That thing had swung freely and wildly in every single thought he had about the old house. He distinctly remembered how it had clattered loudly when he stomped out for the last time so many years ago. It had played prominently in the soundtrack of his early life, but it had never been bolted shut.
He looked at the door on the other side with its rippled glass panes. Yellowed curtains covered the windows, and flakes of white paint shimmied across its surface. He held his breath for a moment and listened. Nothing. He looked back at his car, and, for a brief moment, felt tempted to drive off without a word, but he had nowhere else to go. All of his options had been exhausted. That was the only reason he stood on his mother’s porch at that very moment.
Instead, he turned back toward the bowed screen door and knocked on it. The door clacked and rattled in its frame making more noise than his pathetic knock. After the noise dissipated, he listened for footsteps on the other side. He knew the creaky plank floor announced every single step loudly, so he’d hear his mom approach. Again, he heard nothing. He knocked again but much harder. The sound could have raised the dead.
After a few seconds of unnerving silence, he heard someone stir on the other side. Slow, heavy steps made their way to the door. The curtain parted and he could see his mom’s face, or at least a much older version of his mom’s face, through the mottled glass. She didn’t smile or seem surprised. She wore the peeved look of a woman dealing with an unwanted door-to-door salesman, but she opened the door and stood there behind the latched screen door.
“Eric? What are you doing here?” she asked. Her voice creaked like the old house. She too had been worn down by time. She had white hair now and had put on a lot of weight. Her skin, always brown and weathered from so many summers spent in the fields, looked pale and dry like the red Georgia clay cracked by an endless drought. She stood slightly stooped as if the weight of her life had begun to win the battle of attrition.
“I wanted to come see you.”
“Why didn’t you call first?”
“I-I didn’t think I needed to.”
“I wish you would have called. I’m not ready for visitors.”
Eric didn’t know what to say at first. He just stared at her through the screen. She wore one of those house coats she always wore when she had on a nightgown, but it was just after Noon, well past the time for being dressed for the day.
“Can I come in?” he asked finally.
She looked at him as if he had asked a silly question. “Come on in,” she replied. She opened the door wider as if he needed more room to squeeze by her, but she didn’t touch the screen door.
Eric stood there for a moment and then said, “The screen door is locked.” He nodded to it.
“Oh, sorry, I forget that I keep that locked now.” She fumbled with the latch. Her fingers were swollen and arthritic, so it took her a bit to remove the tiny metal arm of the latch from the eye hole. Eric looked on patiently. He had all the time in the world. There were no calls for him to take. He had no meetings to attend. His email had been disconnected after he had been fired rendering his phone useless for doing anything other than wasting time.
His mother pushed the screen door outward, and he stepped aside and through the door. She turned without a word and ambled toward the kitchen. He followed her, taking in the house that had at one time been as familiar to him as the back of his hand. It felt strange to be home again after so long. Everything looked the same, but it was different.
“Where’s that wife of yours? What’s her name, Carla?”
“Is she not with you?”
“No, she’s back in New York.”
Eric didn’t offer an explanation and his mother didn’t ask for one.
“You want some sweet tea?”
“Sure.” He salivated at the thought of her tea even after all of these years. He could still remember how it tasted on his lips.
He stepped into the kitchen behind her and she padded toward the refrigerator slowly. He took a seat at the shaky, metal table that had served as the dining room for the three of them for his entire childhood. The rubbery seat still felt as uncomfortable as it had when he was a petulant teenager. He still hated how the table had a perpetual glaze of stickiness to it that pinched at his skin, but something about that cramped kitchen with its steel sink and drippy faucet and the dank old refrigerator that rumbled in the corner made him feel like he belonged, like he had found what he was looking for. He allowed a smile to form on his lips, but he quickly suppressed it when his mother turned around with the jug of tea in her hand. He’d save it for another day when, or if, things ever got better again.