Recently, I came across a hard drive from college. I found some of the pieces I had for creative writing workshops, thinking maybe it would nice to share it with the world. This is the only piece that seemed worth the light of day, a short story I wrote in my first year as a creative writing student
N. James Bonassin
Good to See You Again
It was like a dream. He called me out of the blue one day. I hadn’t heard from him in twelve or fifteen years. He was my older brother, but I had almost given up hope of ever hearing from him again. As far as I knew, and as far as I could figure, he had completely disappeared. I didn’t even know if he was still alive. After he graduated high school, he went on a cross-country road trip, from Boston to Los Angeles, before he started college. The plan was that he would see as much of the country as he could before he started school at UCLA. I was only fifteen when he left, so I had to stay at home, waiting for the postcards he had promised to send me. At first, I could expect them to come like clockwork, but one day, they stopped. Everyday, then every other day, then maybe every other week, then not at all, after only a few months, I had completely lost touch with him. I never thought I would hear from him again.
So when the phone rang, and I heard the forgotten but still familiar voice on the other end, I was, needless to say, shocked.
“Is this John O’Callaghan?” the voice asked.
“It is. Who is this?” I responded.
Through a shroud of tears, he managed to say, “It’s Tim.”
I was silent. For a moment, I had lost the ability to speak. Finally, I was able to say, “Is it really you?”
We talked for a little while, catching up. I told him about my wife and kids, but then he had to go, because he was on a pay phone and the operator was asking for change he didn’t have. Before he hung up, he said he desperately needed to see me, so I agreed to meet him in the park around lunchtime the next day.
When I saw him, he was almost unrecognizable. I could tell he hadn’t bathed in weeks. His hair was disheveled, long, uncombed, and stringy. His beard was unkempt, and he wore faded clothes worn down to threads. There were no shoes on his bare feet, and in his eyes, I could see a hardened, desperate man who had been through a lot the past few years. He sat there on a park bench, beneath a tree, with a cheap bottle of whiskey in one hand and a cigarette burned down to the filter in the other. Over the phone, he sounded as though he was in a bad situation, but this was beyond what I could have imagined. I walked up to him and said his name.
“Tim?” Tears began to stream down his face.
“John?” he replied through the tears. He stood up and I grabbed hold of him and held him as he continued to cry on my shoulder, as he held on just the same.
When he was finally able to recollect himself, he let go and collapsed back down on the bench. He looked absolutely bewildered, just sitting there shaking his head. I felt like I should break the ice. I was hungry, so I asked if he wanted to get something to eat. He said, “I have no money left to buy food with.” I told him not to worry about it. We went over to a little deli that I frequented just a few blocks away from the park. We had both ordered the same thing: ham and Swiss on marble rye with everything and a bowl of chili. I took our number and paid the guy working the cash register. We found a table out of the way, somewhat secluded and private, so that we could talk and not have any interruptions from people walking by.
The first thing he said as we sat down, was, “How are Mom and Pop?” I didn’t want to tell him, because he looked like he couldn’t handle any more bad news at the moment. I was saved by the bus boy bringing us our soup and sandwiches. I began to eat my sandwich; he sat there staring at me, waiting for a response. He repeated his question, this time with a little more force. I dropped my sandwich and let out a sigh.
I told him, “Dead.”
As far back as I can remember Mom had never been in very good health. She’d had breast cancer when we were young, and even though she beat it, she never quite recovered. After Tim left home, and stopped sending postcards, Mom got so worried about him she literally made herself sick. Her immune system just stopped functioning after a few years.
I began to tell him that she got pneumonia one day, and how it was over before it began. The first few days we thought she just had the flu, but she didn’t seem to be improving, even with all of the medications we were giving her. We took her to the hospital, but by the time we arrived we were told there wasn’t much they could do for her. They told us that in her weakened condition, the little treatment they could offer would have only made things worse. We were told that the best thing we could do was to let her spend her last few weeks at home, peacefully enjoying the time she had left.
After Mom died, Pop gave up. He continued to run the hardware store until the day he died, but he had lost his spark; his joyful love for life that he’d always had. He had smoked since before I was born and it only got worse over time. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, he started coughing up blood in the mornings. He went to the doctor and learned that he had lung cancer. When they started the tests, it was discovered that the cancer was already in the advanced stages and had begun to spread to other regions in his chest as well as his abdomen.
With his condition, I decided that instead of Syracuse, I would go to Boston College, so I could stay home with him and help out at the store as the night manager. He died when I was in my sophomore year, and I became the new owner of O’Callaghan’s Hardware. I started going to school at night, so that I could run the store during the day.
I stopped my story there and looked at him. He looked as though he’d been run over by a train. “You okay?” I asked.
“That wasn’t something I needed to hear right now,” he responded with a shaky voice. I could tell he wanted to start crying again, but he was too tired. I told him that I didn’t have anyone else to close the store, and I had to get back.
“Tomorrow is my day off,” I told him, and we agreed to meet again the next day at the same time.
When I arrived at the park the next day to meet, he was sitting on the same bench, under the same tree; wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the day before. I noticed something about his shirt that I hadn’t seen before. It said U.S. ARMY on one side and O’Callaghan on the other side. For a moment, it reminded me of my youth, when I protested against the war in Vietnam during the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s.
“When were you in the army?” I asked.
He responded, “My car was stolen at a hotel in Portland, along with everything I owned, when I was on my way to UCLA. I never felt like I fit in at home, and didn’t plan on ever returning. I didn’t feel like I had a lot of options at that point, and never actually planned on going to school, so I enlisted. They sent me to Vietnam in the summer of 1969. I did six tours of duty and returned in ’75. Nothing has really worked out for me since. This shirt and these pants are the only things I’ve got left.”
We both paused right there. He had nothing else to say and I was trying to process everything he had just told me. I asked him, “How did you end up in this place? I mean, what happened that brought you to a place where you had nothing left?” He thought about what he had been through and what he done since he got back from the Army.
“After I got back from Vietnam, the Army sent me back to Portland, only because that’s where I had enlisted so they figured that was home. I had no money, except for my G.I. Bill, which I put towards a car and used the rest for a few months rent at a low cost apartment I found. I got a job waiting tables at a diner, down the street from where I lived. For the first few months, that was my routine. Get up, walk to work, go home, and then do it all over again the next day. I did that nonstop everyday until I began to think if nothing changed I would go crazy.
“Then one day, I was working at the counter. This girl came in and sat down and ordered a cup of coffee. She was cute, I mean gorgeous. She caught my eye instantly. I was off at the other end of the counter by the register, sorting through receipts. I kept on noticing her looking at me. Her name was Jill. We hit it off right away, but I was still so insecure and screwed up that I was afraid to bring anyone into my life, even if it was just on a couple of dates.”
I had to interrupt him here. I was just way to curious to let it pass. “What did she look like?”
“She was nice looking, tall, brunette, blue eyes, looks to kill. She was working as a guide at a backpacking camp. She would take people out on weekend trips, or lead people out on short day trips through the mountains and foothills in Portland and the surrounding areas.”
He paused there, and I could tell that he was thinking of her.
“She came in just about everyday for the next week. She would always sit on the same stool at the counter and order the same thing each time. One day she left her phone number on a piece of paper hidden inside of my tip.”
He stopped there and looked up. “Where is Jill now?” I asked him.
“We got married a year later. We stayed in Portland and had two children, John, he’s ten, and Scott, he’s eight. John looks so much like me; people think he’s my kid brother. Scott takes more after his mother. I haven’t been able to hold down a steady job for the past few years. Jill was feeling like she was carrying most of the load for the family, so she told me that she wanted to separate for a while, until I get things sorted out for myself. I told her that I was going to come back here and try to find you and see if I couldn’t find a job somewhere. I’m going to call her when I get settled and see if she wants to come out. I know I don’t deserve help from somebody I haven’t spoken to in almost twenty years, but you’re my last hope.”
I thought about what I could do for him. Where could he stay? Where could he work?
“Do you remember the old apartment that Grampa used to live in above the hardware store, before he retired and gave it to Pop? I used it for a while after I sold Mom and Pop’s house, until I got married. I haven’t been up there for a few years; I use it mostly for storage. All of the furniture is still up there; I just moved it into one of the bedrooms to make some more room for the extra stuff from the store. It’s available for you if you want it. We can go up there and move things around tonight, my wife and kids are going to the movies.” I stopped and waited for his response. The look on his face made me realize that nobody had done a single thing for him in the past few years. “I have no job and no money to pay for the apartment,” he said.
I told him, “That is why you are going to be working for me at the store. I need some help in the warehouse. It’s not much but it’s a start. We’ll see what we can do from there.”
“I don’t know how to thank you. This is the most anyone has done for me. I don’t know what to say.”
“You can start thanking me by not letting me down. Now come on. We’ll get you some new clothes and then we’ll go back to my place, so you can get cleaned up. I told my wife and kids about you last night and they all want to meet you. I told them I’d bring you home for dinner tonight.”
We went down the street to Sears to get him a pair of shoes, socks, underwear, a few shirts and a couple pairs of pants. We left Sears and walked over to my house.
“Where do you live?” he asked in an effort to break the silence.
“Over on Maple, in that new neighborhood that was being built when we were kids. My wife and I lived in the apartment for a few years, until she got pregnant and we realized that the place wasn’t going to be as comfortable for us. I was using the second bedroom for storage for the store, and the study was my office. I think it should be big enough for you guys though; we just finished adding an addition to the store. We’ve got offices and a new warehouse. I’ve got plans to buy the lot across the street from the store in a few years and start a lumber yard.”
We walked down the street a few more blocks until we got to my house. Our town is so small, that even though I have a car I never drive anywhere really, unless it is dark out or the weather is bad. We turned a corner, and we were there. The autumn colors had already taken over the trees in front of the house. It seemed as though it had happened early this year. I had a feeling this winter was going to be colder than usual.
I opened the door and we went inside. A barrage of aromas swirling from the kitchen instantly greeted us. My wife came out to greet us. “Tim,” I said, “I would like for you to meet my wife, Nancy.”
“Nice to meet you, finally,” she said, hugging him.
“Boys,” I called, “Come out here; I’d like you to meet your uncle.”
My two boys came running down the stairs. They were so noisy, it sounded like a heard of elephants running through a field of grass.
“This is Timmy, he’s eight, and this is Danny, he’s six. Boys, this is your Uncle Tim.”
“Nice to meet you,” they said in unison. Then they ran up and gave him a hug like they’d known him their entire lives.
“Well, I guess you’d like to get cleaned up,” I said. “Come on, I’ll show you upstairs and you can get a shower.”
I left him upstairs and told him to take his time. As I got back down to the bottom of the stairs, I went over to the closet and grabbed an old khaki corduroy jacket off of one of the hangers. I had worn this jacket to protests while Tim was in Vietnam. The outlines of old peace signs and “Make Love Not War” patches were still there. I had removed the patches after Pop died. I figured that I needed leave the protests behind and get serious if I was going to keep the hardware store alive. It seemed somewhat strange giving it to him now, but it was warm and he was going to need it.
He came back downstairs after about forty-five minutes looking more like my brother. He had combed his hair and shaved his beard.
“Hungry?” I asked.
“Starving,” he replied.
Nancy came out of the kitchen and said, “Dinner’s almost ready. You guys sit down and make yourselves comfortable.”
“You’re in for a real treat,” I told him, “Nancy’s a world class cook.” She was cooking in a restaurant when I met her.
We sat down and I turned on the TV. “You still a Patriots fan? I think the game’s about to start.”
“As big as I ever was,” he said, “Although I haven’t been able to watch their games for the past couple of years.”
I turned on NBC, just in time for kick off. The Patriots were kicking. We sat watching the game, cheering on our team, just as we had when we were kids. The only thing missing was Pop sitting on the couch in between us cheering just as hard as we were. It was just like old times. Tim looked over at me just before the first commercial break, and I looked back at him, as if to say that everything was going to be alright.
Nancy came in just then to say that dinner was ready. “John, will you go get the boys and have them wash up for dinner?” I nodded and started towards the stairs.
We sat down to eat, and I then realized that she had been cooking all day long. She had prepared everything. There was ham, potatoes au gratin, rolls, corn on the cob, salad, even an apple pie for desert. We never had meals like this, at least not very often.
“I wanted to do something special, for our special guest, and I figured you guys could use a good meal if it is just going to be the two of you cleaning out that old apartment tonight.”
We were all pretty hungry that night. Everybody went back for second helpings. Every dish on the table was completely clean. The only thing left was about a third of a pie, which would have been eaten had we all just taken slightly larger pieces and slightly smaller scoops of ice cream.
Tim stood up and started clearing the table and stopped when he saw us all staring, silently at him. “It’s the least that I can do; you guys have been so good to me these past few days. I want to start paying you back in any way I can. Go sit and watch the game together, and I’ll be out soon.”
I was just about ready to get up and go help him, when he came out and sat down in the living room with us. I wanted to keep sitting there. The game had gone into overtime, and I wanted to stay and watch it, but he looked pretty anxious to get to work.
As I walked over to the staircase, where I had draped the jacket I had gotten out for him, I looked over and saw him picking up the Sears bags. “Did you want to just stay here tonight, in case we don’t get the apartment completely finished?” I asked.
He said in return, “I think I’d like to stay there tonight, somewhere that I can call my own.”
We walked out the back door to the car, and got on our way. We drove back down Maple Avenue and took a left on 5th Street. The store was located at the corner of 5th Street and 2nd Avenue. It was already about 7:30, so I knew it was going to be a late night.
I parked the car in the back, since the store was still open for another hour or so and I didn’t want to interfere with parking on the street. We went up the back staircase to the apartment and went in through the kitchen. We began to look around and see what all needed to be done.
“Let’s get started with these boxes,” I said. “We can take the back staircase right down to the loading dock in back of the warehouse.”
We got started, each taking a box at a time. We both made about fifty trips up and down the stairs, each taking two boxes, when they were light enough to allow it.
We both collapsed on the floor in the living room, after we had finished with the boxes. I went down to the break room, to get us some water while we rested.
“It shouldn’t take us much longer to get this finished,” I said. “Most of the furniture is still in place, accept for what needs to come out here.”
We got up and grabbed the couch out of the study, then the coffee table, the easy chair, the TV stand, and then finally the bookcase. All the while, we were swapping memories of Gramma and Grampa when they lived up there, and all of the fun times we had coming over to visit after school. We went into the bedroom to make sure that the furniture was all where he wanted it to be. When he was satisfied with everything, we both collapsed down again, this time onto furniture.
“I’ll come up and get you about 7:00 tomorrow. I’ll get one of the supervisors to open the store tomorrow, so that we can go grab some breakfast before I take you into the warehouse to show you the ropes.”
“Sounds good. I’m going to try and get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I stopped just as I was about to turn the doorknob. “Tim, it’s good to see you
And that’s how it started. We got Tim started in the warehouse like we had talked about, and he progressed from there. He seemed to shine at everything I put him into. His incredible leadership skills were evident from the beginning, which made me think about other opportunities for him. After a short while, I made him the warehouse supervisor, and it wasn’t long before he was the warehouse manager.
This whole time, Tim kept in touch with his family. He told them about his successes at work and how he was working towards a better life for all of them. After a few months, he went back to Portland to help Jill and the boys move to Boston. The changes made in Tim from having his family back, were obvious. He was instantly happier and more comfortable than I had ever seen him.
After about a year, I approached Tim with an idea that I had. Tim is now my business partner. He owns half of the store, and I own half of the lumber yard that I had mentioned to him on one of those first days. The whole family lives in Boston now. Tim, Jill, all of the boys, Nancy, and myself. Everyone gets together to play and shop and eat almost everyday. Tim and his family still live in the apartment. He fixed it up to show Jill that he could take ownership of things and that he could be responsible for his family. And I got my brother back, and everything got back to normal.