Breaking In

By Anne Colwell

Twebravis sat in the porch rocker and watched a brown rabbit appear and disappear in the long grass of the front lawn. He and Tina had bought the two white rockers when they’d first moved into the house. Home Depot had rows of them arranged in front of the store right after Easter with a big sign that said “Summer’s Coming!” Tina sat in one and rocked back and forth, looking out over the parking lot. She said that it would be nice on summer nights, that they could watch the lightning bugs and rock on the porch like grandma and grandpa.

Never got next or near to being grandma and grandpa, Travis thought, but she wasn’t wrong. It had been nice back then – the porch and the rockers, the lightning bugs, the lawn trimmed and edged and cared for. The lawn. Travis lifted his cap and put his hand through his hair. He’d never have let it look like this. A disgrace like everything else. It had all been nice, and then, in one blink, in no time at all, it was a mess.

A baby tulip poplar was taking root in the middle of the yard where it was sunniest. Long tufts of winter wheat stuck up out of the grass. Travis reached out with the toe of his boot and rocked the empty chair beside him. He remembered doing that with Emma, rocking her while she blew bubbles from the plastic jar Tina had bought her at the grocery store. It was just two years ago, Travis thought. Emma was four. June. Already a fool. He shook his head. Just didn’t know it yet.

Travis put both hands on his thighs where the heat of the sun was baking through his jeans. He knew he should go; he had planned to spray Beacon Middle School before the day was out, but he wasn’t ready to leave.

Looking out at the overgrown lawn, Travis missed his father with a sudden and ferocious pain that tightened like a muscle cramp when he tried to move. Maybe it was the heat, the afternoon. Maybe it was that he had just turned thirty-seven the week before, the same age his father was when Travis had become aware that his father had an age and that it meant something. Maybe it was the thought of going to spray the school.

His father had won the contract for the four district public schools years ago and on afternoons like this in July and August, in the muggy heat, they’d go into the empty buildings together with the big tanks of Haunt. They always started in the cafeteria. Closed up for months, it smelled like feet, like cheese. Spraying along the tops of the walls, behind the cabinets and shelves for storing the food, the plates, he watched roaches cascade down onto the tile floors, a brown downpour, their legs still wiggling. The whole building was strange, desks pulled into the halls, piled on top of one another, legs up, and the classrooms emptied to the cinderblock and quiet.

Travis remembered standing in the door of the classroom where he’d sat all year long, in the fourth row, two seats back, listening to Mrs. Miller, his seventh grade teacher. He was thirteen. Even then, the change from the lively room he knew, with posters and books and furniture, to the empty cold shell in front of him had seemed surprising and sad. Two months later, that September, he would picture what the school had looked like in July. He would walk down the halls and remember the desks piled along the walls, the cork boards bare, and he would think that, even though it all looked real, it was more pretend than other people knew.

 

Travis got up to go. He readjusted his cap and watched as the rabbit spooked at his movement and darted away. Then he walked down the cement path toward his truck but instead found himself walking around to the garage and punching in the code. The mower was still where he left it when he’d put it away last fall, empty and cleaned in the far corner. It won’t take any time at all, he thought, and before he could talk himself out of it, he found the gas can and filled the tank and started. By the time he’d finished the front and gone around to the back, he’d convinced himself that he was doing it for Emma, doing it so she could enjoy the lawn, play outside. It was why they’d bought the house in the first place, wasn’t it? It was what they’d said. “So the kids would have a place to play.” He wondered, not for the first time, if any of this mess would have happened if Tina had been able to get pregnant again right after Emma, like she’d wanted to.

Travis pushed the mower in around the trees at the far edge of the yard, the sweat pouring down his back and legs, soaking through his jeans. He felt good, watching the tall grass give way to the ordered lines he made, feeling the vibration of the mower up through his hands, lifting his cap and wiping the sweat off his forehead with his bandana. When he finished the front and back, he edged out the walk and the concrete block around the back porch. Then he wrote Tina a note and stuck it in the screen door:

“I stopped to get my mail and noticed you hadn’t had a chance to do the lawn. I hope you don’t mind. I just had some time between jobs. T”

Emma called at 8:00 to say goodnight to him, the way she did every night they were apart. His phone lit up with her picture blowing him a kiss and they went through their ritual greeting: “Hello, my little can of sweet corn!”

“Hello, Daddy, I miss you!” After they said good night, Emma said, “Wait just a second. Mommy wants to talk to you.”

 

He’d spent almost his whole thirteenth summer helping his father. His father would strap the metal canister to his back and send him wriggling down, all hips and shoulders, into crawl spaces, reminding Travis to hit the cracks and the duct work, the places the bugs sneak in. They spent their days driving around in the truck, drinking Dr. Pepper and listening to Froggy99 Country Radio.

It was that same summer his father caught him upstairs at the Kramer’s house with the Playboys. He’d been spraying in the bedroom closets when he’d found the magazines spilling out of a cardboard box. Travis edged himself into the closet and crouched down, opening the first across his thighs, looking over his shoulder.

She held out one of her breasts to him in her hand. Her white blonde hair and pale skin made her look to him like the angels in his Sunday school catechism, but her lips and fingernails were red. He stared at the patch of blonde hair at her crotch and felt himself harden, felt his cock pushing up through his jeans, into the magazine. He had been so caught up that he hadn’t even heard his father walking up the stairs or into the room.

Later in the truck, he sat silent as his father talked about respect, about private property, about what it meant for people to trust them to come into their houses. “Don’t you understand?” he said over and over. “How would you feel, huh? How would you like someone you didn’t know with their hands on your things?”

“I never meant . . .” but his father cut him off and he felt choked with the need to explain and the particular hopelessness of thirteen.

“You did it. Don’t you see? Who cares what you meant. It’s what you did that matters.”

His father was a soft-spoken man, and before that day, Travis knew his father was angry mostly by the way he pressed his lips tight together or dropped his shoulders and hung his head. Before that day, he had never heard his father raise his voice, never seen him hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. His father kept looking over at him and then back to the road, kept saying, “Do you hear me, Travis?” And Travis answered, “Yes, sir,” astounded that it wasn’t the naked woman his father was angry about, but the fact that he’d looked at or touched anything that wasn’t his own.

 

Tina thanked him for the lawn; she said that she’d kept meaning to get it done or to pay someone to come do it. Travis winced at the thought of someone else cutting the grass, wrecking the mower blades, doing the whole job half-assed.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve always liked doing it and I don’t mind, and if . . .”

“Oh Lord, Travis,” she said, “I can’t ask you to do that.” He heard plates clattering in the background and pictured her washing up after supper.

“You’re not asking me. I’m offering. Just let me do it until . . . well, for the time being.”

She was quiet for a long space and he could hear the silverware clinking and the water running and he could picture everything she was doing, the phone scrunched between her shoulder and her head, the messy bun falling out of her hair, the last of the sun just sliding out of the window above the sink. She was looking out that window at the trees. She was thinking. Travis felt his breath get shallow. What the hell, he thought, what the hell is there to think—

“If you’re sure you don’t mind . . .”

Travis was surprised at the flood of relief and he loosened his grip on the phone, almost elated when she said it. He felt like something crucial had been hanging in the balance.

“I’d like to,” he said. “Thank you.”

 

When he walked in the door the first time, the smell surprised him. Wood smoke and coffee.  He always noticed the smells of the houses he sprayed: cleaning chemicals and soaps or grease or onions, but it was the first time he’d walked into a smell that was his own and not his own anymore. He’d put in a wood stove three years ago and he used to love making fires on winter mornings, getting the logs just right so the fire would burn all day.  The smell never left, summer or winter; Tina complained it got into the curtains, the cushions, but Travis liked it. He loved the heft of the logs as he picked them out of the pile, loved figuring out how to stack them over the twigs and trash so that they’d burn, so that he could keep the house warm.

He hadn’t meant to break in, though that’s what Tina called it later. It was August, a brutally hot afternoon, one of those days when the sun seemed to sizzle in the sky. He’d finished mowing the lawn and had drunk all the water in the gallon jug and he was drenched through with sweat. When he walked up near the house to fill the jug with the hose, he looked in the window. Seeing that shaded room, the familiar furniture, Emma’s jacket hanging on the banister, it was like seeing a friend who you’d heard had died walk down the street toward you. Something you thought was gone suddenly right there. He looked in through the window for a long time, remembered sitting on the green couch with his feet up on that coffee table watching football on autumn Sundays, remembered the day they’d found the lamp at the yard sale on Bay Street.

Then he remembered that he had his key.

That first time he just walked around once. He didn’t touch anything. He walked into the cool air and he shivered. He filled the jug at the kitchen sink and Snowy came and threaded through his legs, purring, and he picked her up and scratched her head. When she squirmed, he reluctantly let her jump down, then walked through the rooms downstairs and looked at what was the same and what had changed. Tina put a vase of silk flowers in the empty spot on the bookshelf where his books had been. Not that there were so many. A couple of hardbacks from the college courses he took before he dropped out and the paperbacks his dad had loved, World War II spy stuff and Hemingway. He thought of them packed in the boxes in the closet at the apartment. He tried to think of the last time he’d been alone in the house before the day he moved out, the last time he’d been alone in the house happy. He couldn’t recall. He remembered only the two months he slept on the couch, waking up angry, jaw clenched, acid climbing from his stomach to burn his throat.

 

The next time he went in, he went upstairs. It was right after Labor Day and the leaves were already starting to turn. The nights were getting cooler. Travis mowed, then checked the leaf blower and put the gas can in the truck to fill it up for next time. Then he walked up to the porch and looked around at the blank faces of the neighboring houses before he slipped the key in the lock and slid the door open. He stood for a long time in the quiet entrance, looking up the stairs to where the light spilled down from the window in the bathroom. He watched motes of dust float through the afternoon light. It made him remember sitting in church on Sunday mornings as a boy. The house was quiet like that and cool and still.

He noticed the hardwood stairs scratched in places from the cat or from Emma dragging around her toys, the mechanical monsters he used to hate that had no off switch or volume control.  He wondered if she still had the pink plastic puppy, the one that used to scare the shit out of him in the middle of the night, it’s eyes randomly lighting up in the dark, it’s mechanical voice, “Take me for a walk, arf!” Now, he didn’t see all her toys. Now he didn’t help her pick them up or trip over them at night. Now when he came to get Emma from the house he’d once bought, once owned, he knocked; he stood in the doorway like an unwelcome guest.

When he got to the top of the stairs, Snowy came out of the bedroom and rolled on her back in front of him, purring when he scratched her belly.

“I missed you, too,” he said. “Are you happy to see me again?” He scooped her up and carried her, cradled like a baby, into Emma’s room.

On the floor, there in the tangle of Barbies and stuffed animals, were the pajamas she’d worn the night before, the cotton shorts and T-shirt with the princesses on them that just a few weeks ago he’d gotten out of her suitcase and tried to dress her in to go to the playground. “Those are my jammies,” she told him, hands on her hips, shaking her head. “You’re a silly billy!” He’d felt like a fool again, a bad father. He looked at the toy chest he’d built her; Tina had painted it pink and Emma had covered it with flower stickers. He imagined organizing the room, straightening up the dolls and the toys, throwing the pjs in the laundry basket in the closet, but instead he walked down the hallway and looked at the bathroom. He and Tina had put in the blue tile floor themselves before Emma was born, on a winter weekend, listening to Lyle Lovett and talking about what to name the baby.

 

Before he went downstairs, he pushed the door of their bedroom open a little wider and looked in. Tina had bought a new light green bedspread with yellow flowers and new pillows. On the little shelf that used to hold their names in wooden letters, only Tina’s name remained. She’d taken down the framed picture of the two of them holding Emma right after the christening and replaced it with a more recent picture he’d never seen — her whole family standing on the beach, all wearing blue jeans and white shirts, squinting into the wind, smiling. Tina stood beside her sister holding Emma in her arms. Travis shut his eyes and turned his head.

Just for a moment, he looked at the bed and remembered Tina’s body, the curve of her ass in his hands, the warm feel of her curled into him when he woke in the night.  Then he thought of all that had happened, of other hands touching her, the cancer doctor she’d slept with. He wondered if she still had the necklace the guy had given her. She’d worn it right in front of him, lied, told him she’d bought it herself. His throat tightened. He pulled the door back to where it had been.

 

When he got back in the truck, he slammed the door and put the keys in the ignition, then he turned and said to his father, “I know. But I bought the house, took care of it. It was mine. I just need to . . . ” But Travis knew his father could not understand. “I haven’t touched anything,” Travis said. “I haven’t done anything but walk around and look. Just look. I need to figure out how it, it went wrong, and . . .” Travis saw his father’s mouth thin to one hard line as he tried to explain it all again, tried to make it make some sense.

Travis had been talking to his father more than ever in the last few months — standing in a basement trying to come up with an estimate he’d ask him what he thought, driving between jobs he’d say out loud, “How about we get lunch?” Not that he’d ever really stopped talking to his dad or seeing him there in the passenger seat. It wasn’t that he believed in ghosts or was religious enough to think anything one way or another about his father’s soul — he just hadn’t ever felt the need to stop talking to him, to imagine his replies.

 

By the fall, Travis had a routine. Every other week when Tina was at work in the afternoon, he’d stop by and mow the lawn, maybe rake the leaves. As the weather got colder, he pulled up the flower beds and got them ready for winter. Every time he came, he went in the house. The only thing he ever took was water from the tap. The only thing he ever touched was the cat.

Tina told him how much she appreciated his help; sometimes she would pack a Tupperware of his favorite cookies or a loaf of baked bread into Emma’s backpack. “Mommy said to say ‘Thank you,’” Emma said, hauling out the little container, handing it over. When Emma went to bed, Travis would throw the cookies away. He couldn’t say just why they made him furious, but they did.

Travis began to dread the cold. He thought that maybe he could offer to shovel when it snowed, but other than that, there wouldn’t be much to do. He wished he could ask her to let him come over mornings and make a fire, but he knew how strange that sounded.

 

The last Wednesday in October was Halloween. Jack-o-lanterns grinned at him from either side of the front door. The grass didn’t need cutting really, but Travis raked the leaves and set the mower high and went over the whole lawn one last time to get rid of the thatch. Before he went into the house, he sat on the porch in the white rocker just for a minute. The wind had kicked up and it poked cold fingers through the spaces between buttons in his barn coat. The coat was the only piece of his father’s clothes that he’d kept, though his mother had offered him anything he wanted from the closet. Travis wrapped his arms around himself and looked out at the leaves sifting down onto his clean lawn, blowing everywhere he’d just raked.

His mother had called that morning to ask about Thanksgiving: would he have Emma? No. Did he want to cook at his apartment or come to the house? The house, of course. He couldn’t imagine how depressing it would be to try to have a turkey dinner in his little apartment, his two saucepots and the microwave. He wished then that he’d had brothers and sisters the way Tina did, a house full of noise and laughter to look forward to. Tina’s family had invited Travis and his mother to join them for Thanksgiving ever since the first year he and Tina started dating. He knew his mother loved cooking with the other women in the kitchen, laughing and drinking wine, the children running in and out wanting glasses of milk or another piece of chocolate. Last Thanksgiving, he’d been dating Megan and he’d had Emma. The four of them had gone to a restaurant.

On the phone that morning, his mother said, “It’ll be nice, just us again, like it used to be. You’ll be home.” But it wasn’t home. It hadn’t been home for years. He was supposed to be the one to have the home now, to have someplace to bring her, to have the family and the dinner and the kids.

“Do you want to go out again?” he said. “We could go back to . . .”

“No,” she said. “No.” She wouldn’t even let him finish.

“Don’t worry, Travis,” she said. “It’ll all be fine. You’ll see.” But he believed he could hear her disappointment, so loud she had to talk over it in that high cheery voice. Thinking of how her voice sounded again as he sat on the porch, he looked down at his stained brown work boots and shuffled through the moments he’d lined up as suspects, trying to find the exact one in which he’d failed at life.

 

On Friday evening, he drove over to the house to pick up Emma for the weekend. Tina opened the door. She still wore her purple scrubs and purple rubber clogs and she looked tired, the word that came to Travis’s mind was “bruised,” she looked bruised. She asked him to come in for the first time since the divorce, and he followed her to the kitchen, listening for the sound of Emma somewhere in the house.

Tina sat down at the kitchen table without a word and motioned to the chair across from her. He moved a stack of folded laundry and perched on the edge, his elbows on his knees. Snowy threaded through his feet. On the table in front of him were papers and books, a picture that Emma had drawn of a lopsided blue and pink heart under a sky full of crayon green stars. Travis looked down at the picture and up into Tina’s face.

“She’s at my mom’s. I need to talk to you. I need to . . . I don’t know how to begin even.”

“Are you okay?” Travis said. “Are you sick?”

She shook her head and looked so sad that Travis’s mind skipped and his stomach hollowed out. “Emma?”

“No, no. Nothing like that. It’s you, Travis. It’s you. What have you been . . .” Travis spread his knees and dropped his head into his hands. “You’ve been breaking in. You’ve been breaking into the house. My house.”

He didn’t move. He didn’t breathe because there was no air. My house. As if he’d never lived there.

“I want to know why, Travis. I want to know what’s going on.”

When he looked up at her, she opened the laptop computer on the table in front of her and turned it around. The shock of seeing himself on the screen brought him to his feet where he stood frozen, not able to turn away. The footage was black and white; he watched himself step through the front door. There was a clock running in the corner, a date. He saw himself take off his cap and he saw his own eyes, strained and sad, looking up the stairs. He remembered that day, the clouds gathering in the windows in the background, and he remembered that it had rained later. He remembered each movement as he watched himself make it, and yet everything about the video looked foreign, as though someone else had been able to imitate him exactly.

“I didn’t know you’d put in cameras,” he said. “You didn’t need to . . . you should have . . . .” He got up and walked to the sink and turned his back to her and to the ghost of himself climbing the stairs, getting closer.

“Explain this to me, Travis. Talk to me. What are you doing? Why are you doing this?”

Travis shook his head and stared out at the trees disappearing into dark beyond the kitchen window, their lines being erased. At the far edge of the woods he could see the lights of his neighbors’ houses. A mist gathered in the swales, and for just a moment it looked to Travis like snow. Soon. That would come soon.

His gaze shifted and he saw his own face reflected in the dark window like another image on a screen. On the computer, he heard the other Travis walk down the stairs, his boots loud on the hardwood, leaving. He felt thinned to nothing,  unreal as the pictures of himself on the screen, in the window, poisoned by shame. Tina shut the computer and said his name.

Travis hung his head. His ears roared and every muscle tightened and shook and it took him two breaths to realize that it was fury, that fury was coursing through him. Tina was talking to him, saying something about “Promise me never to.”

“Promise!” The word came growling out at her. “Promise you?” Suddenly, without meaning to, he was screaming. “What promise could mean anything to someone who . . . someone like you . . . what promise . . .” In the sink in front of him he saw his black-and-white mug with her lipstick print on the edge. A Father’s Day gift from some year before all of this. This. He picked it up and held it by the handle and slammed it into his own reflection.

The mug hit the face in the window and both exploded.

Tina knocked over the chair as she rose. She made a sound that might have been his name. The cat bolted from under the table. Then came a moment of amazed quiet. Travis could hear his own breath coming hard, like he’d been running hard and had just stopped. He looked at his hand. The cut was long, but not deep.

“I never meant . . .” They said it at once. Tina started to cry. He rubbed one eye and looked again at the broken window. He turned toward her and, then, slid his back down the cabinet, closed his eyes, sat on the floor.

He felt Tina crouch in front of him, felt her pick up his hand, felt her fingers on his pulse. He opened his eyes. “I’m alright,” he said. “I’m not . . . I don’t need a nurse.”

She wrapped a dishtowel tight around his palm. “What do you need?” She let go of the hand, sat down on the floor beside him, her knees pulled to her chest.

Travis could smell the lemony soap she used. The question threaded itself through her smell, through the odd quiet, through the cold pouring through the window above them. What did he need? The words moved away from him, hanging like shadows in the corners of his mind. He stared at a red spot of blood on the sleeve of his father’s coat. He listened to Tina breathe. He thought, I need to sit here. I need not to move until I know, until I understand.

The glass of the window cracked again above their heads.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said, and on the word “that” a section of the window fell to the counter. They both ducked their heads, startled. Then Tina started laughing, a sad laugh with the tears still behind it. He looked over at her, at the lock of brown hair hanging across her face, her eyes half-moons above her sad smile. He trapped her hand awkwardly between the floor and the bloody towel. He said, “Let me come over tomorrow. I can fix it.”

* “T” quotation: John Adams, 1817.

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Anne Colwell, a poet and fiction writer, is an Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Delaware. She published two books of poems, Believing Their Shadows (Word Poetry 2010) and Mother’s Maiden Name (Word Poetry 2013) as well as a book about Elizabeth Bishop (Inscrutable Houses, University of Alabama). She received the Established Artist in Fiction Fellowship and the Established Artist in Poetry Fellowship from the Delaware State Arts Council, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Arts Fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and three Work-Study Fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her chapbook, Father’s Occupation, Mother’s Maiden Name won the National Association of Press Women’s Award for Best Book of Verse. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, including: Valparaiso Review, Mudlark, r.kv.r.y, Southern Poetry Review, Gargoyle, Prime Number, and Octavo.


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