On My Doorstep
– Fierce Fiction by Laura Murray –
There are letters from Thom in the mailbox. I smile. Of course there would be letters from him, I’ve been thinking about him all day. I set them aside to sip once I’ve taken Ribby for a walk.
It’s December first, but the temperature’s mild and there’s no snow on the ground. The sumacs provide a brilliant flash of red amidst brown leaves and grey tree trunks; the only colour that hasn’t been shed or peeled away. Looking up I notice empty nests and hives in the branches. The air smells sweet and musky, like rotten apples and river muck. This shift into winter marks a time of introspection and my inner bear’s delighted.
As I reunite with Thom, I find myself thinking: this is what I look like on the outside, on the inside I’m full of hope and joy. When I was reuniting with Beth, I found myself thinking: this is what I look like on the outside, on the inside I’m full of grief and uncertainty. I’m afraid to expose any of it; overly rehearsed at off staging emotion.
Ribby and I follow our hunger back home. I settle in with Thom’s letters. They haven’t been stamped by the post office. Sweet, I can use these when I write him back.
In the first letter he writes about our initial phone conversation, apologizing for having difficulty hearing what I was saying. Is that why he seemed so…serious? The sharp tone of his voice so unlike the lyrical meander of his written words.
He asks why I’m cautious about meeting in person.
It’s only me, Thom, he writes. You know who I am and you know why you want to meet me.
What do you mean I know who you are?
The next letter is longer. He writes about his understanding of himself – calls himself a misfit and an outsider. He talks about the time he spent studying at McGill:
Mostly I went to class for material and opportunity…to mimic and watch people, to play hangman, to go to the pub and to argue about anything. To laugh and make people laugh till it hurt. So I was entertaining and a bit of an anomaly.
An anomaly? Right…
He writes about meeting Beth:
She told me that she saw me standing once, alone, and thought that I looked very comfortable in my body; solid in the space. (I was never sure if that’s why she found me annoying or if it was a compliment).
He writes about the pace of our reunion:
To me it feels like as the momentum of events picks up speed you hit the brakes, it feels to me more like a jerky stop and go ride. After all of these years I just want to hold you and look into your eyes and tell you that I love you. I have not given you much in this life. I’d like to give you this.
I put the letters down. Let out a long slow breath.
“Who is this guy?” I ask Ribby. “I thought he understood that the past six months have been way too intense. Driving back and forth to Massachutes trying to get to know Beth while she was dying. Taking a sick leave from work and in all kinds of therapy. I thought we talked about me needing to take my time with him, that the letter writing has been a perfect fit, that it’s a relief to me we don’t need to rush.”
Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. I get up and open it, but no one’s there.
I step out onto the porch. Look around. At my feet is a small bundle wrapped in red tissue paper.
I pick it up then look left and right before going back inside. Ribby is at my heels.
When I unfold the paper there’s what appears to be a bunch of feathers. As I reach for them I discover it’s a bird’s wing – chestnut brown and richly patterned. The feathers at the base are small and soft, and seem ready to float away. The longer ones are stiff, and seem much more secure. Ribby nudges my knees, nosing in.
“Who would leave me something like this?” I reach to rub behind his ears. Someone who knows that I’m into this kind of thing.
Under the wing is a small velvet bag that holds two rocks – smooth and solid and stirring.
As I lift the tissue paper, a note falls out – written in different colours of crayon on small pieces of lined paper.
Bracken, if you want to meet me, I’m waiting at the bench. On the trail.
It’s signed, Thom – the “h” backwards, and the “o” above the “m.”
Seriously? He thought he would just show up?
“Well, should we go out there and meet Mr. Impulse?”
Ribby looks up at me, tail wagging. He’s heard the word “out” and is more than happy to oblige.
Halfway down the backyard I stop. I unzip my coat and take a whiff – not too skunky. I check my breath – very summer sausage. I root through the garden for a piece of mint to chew on. Run my hand through my hair a couple times. Push up my glasses.
When I reach the trail it occurs to me that I have no idea which bench he’s talking about. The closest benches are to the right. I turn Ribby that way.
A street light shines toward one of the benches, and I can make out the shape of a stocky man. He’s picking up then putting back down a tote bag – taking things out then putting them back in. He’s wearing a ballcap, a red windbreaker and tall rain boots. In the most recent photo I have of Thom, he’s wearing tall rain boots. Ribby pulls me forward.
“Did you just knock on our door and then run away?” I call out as we get closer.
He turns to the sound of my voice. “Yup.” He grins, looking pleased with himself.
“You’re pretty fast in those rubber boots.”
“Yup,” he says, still grinning.
When we’re standing in front of each other, we hug. His arms are strong. He smells like fire, mud and goats. My arms loosen, but he hangs on. Is he shaking?
“Well,” I say when the hug ends. “Shall we head inside?”
“Really?” he asks.
“Um…yeah.” Isn’t that what I just said?
“OK, if you’re sure.” He gathers his tote bag and follows us up to the house.
What does that even mean, am I sure? Isn’t he the one who’s just shown up? Isn’t this what he expected?
“Bracken, you are so much like your mother.” His voice is like water.
“Really?” I turn around. Ask him. “How so?”
“Your style. The way you talk. How you move.”
His words seep in. It’s the first time someone has attributed my personal traits to ‘my mother’ instead of to ‘Beth.’ Rather than tense up, my body eases into his observation – Pooh Bear, dipping his hand into the honey pot. Am I getting used to hearing these comments? Or, is it different because they’re coming from him? My birth father, I remind myself.
“Well, this is actually her coat.” I give a slow twirl. “And these are her boots,” I lift my leg and point my foot. We both chuckle.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” I ask, once we’re inside.
“If you’re having some.”
Oh yes, I definitely need tea. Well, not so much that I need the tea but I need something familiar…to anchor to.
“Were you asking me all those questions on the phone yesterday about what my week was like because you were planning to come?”
“Yup,” there’s that Tom Sawyer grin. “My friend Lynn drives to Ottawa for work. I got a ride from her and then took a bus. I’ll stay with my friend Judy while I’m here, so you don’t have to worry about that.”
Right, he needs somewhere to stay.
“Where does Judy live?”
“I think she’s somewhere down the street.”
He pulls a small piece of lined paper out of his pocket with Judy’s name, telephone number and address. I notice Lynn’s name and number there as well.
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought I was the only one left keeping these sort of notes. But, of course Thom would do it. He also doesn’t have a cellphone.
While I brew the tea, Ribby sniffs Thom like crazy. Even turning over his hands to lick his fingers. Thom shares his scent. Pets Ribby in all the sweet spots.
When Ribby finally looks toward me he’s like, I’m into this guy.
I wink, if he’s cool with you, he’s cool with me. Shivers set off across my skin.
“So,” I set a mug of tea down in front of Thom, “tell me about the things you left at the door.”
His gaze lingers. It feels like I’ve unwittingly entered a staring contest.
“What kind of a wing is that?” I blow on my tea.
“It’s from a grouse. Did I tell you about the vision I had of a grouse in my last energy session?”
“Well, it reminded me that life’s about marching to the beat of your own drum. So I thought that fit. Also, I remembered your story about finding a cardinal feather on your doorstep the day you met Jan and learned how to connect with me. So I wanted to bring that in as well.”
“Oh, and…what about your note?”
“I wrote the note in crayon because there’s a lack of permanence to them. They help present a choice; an invitation. The right to take it or leave it.”
“There’s a running joke about the ‘h’ in my name that I like to play on, which is why I put it backwards when I signed my name,” he adds.
“I wondered about going to the library to meet you, dressed as a clown. But Steph didn’t think it would be a good idea to surprise you like that at work.”
Yeah, no kidding.
“When I got into Peterborough, I walked here and put the letters in your mailbox. After checking back a couple of times, they were gone. That’s when I wrote the note.”
“And then you knocked on the door and ran?” I raise my eyebrows.
“That was a last minute decision. I wanted you to have the option to meet me and it was time for me to make a move. You reached out to me – you were the first one to write a letter, and you were the first one to call. I needed to be the one who came to you, so you could decide whether or not you wanted to meet me.”
“OK.” He’s got quite the juggling act going on here, keeping the spontaneous and the planned both up in the air together. Making it all seem effortless.
“I brought these along to show you,” he pulls two photo albums out from his tote bag. They are those small, spiral bound albums you could get from Blacks in the 90s. Many of my baby pictures are in similar albums at my parents’ house.
He flips through photos of himself over the years – performing and building and riding horses. There are family photos too – of Sara (his first daughter), Hannah (his third), his current partner, Steph, and her…no, their…four kids.
I feel like a teenager, asked to sit beside a grandparent who rambles on about their neighbours. It’s similar to when Beth showed me her family photos the first time. Somehow, the experience pushes me even further to the fringes. It’s like: great, your other daughters – the ones you’ve spent your entire life with. And: isn’t that wonderful – everyone on you Dad’s side of the family has the same smile. I know it’s meant to help welcome me in, but part of me resists. Part of me says, fuck that.
I check the time. My dance class is starting soon.
“If I’m going to dance class, I better get ready.”
“Oh. Of course, go ahead.”
I go upstairs. Breathe, I remind myself.
After getting changed, I close my eyes and stand still. Ribby pads around his mat in circles before lying down with a thud. The couch creaks and there’s a knock from a mug being put on the table. That’s him. I open my eyes.
“And here’s another one of Beth’s outfits,” I say coming down the stairs. “Ta-Da!”
It comes out louder than I had intended, and isn’t met with any response.
“Can I walk you to your class?” he asks.
“Will you know how to get to Judy’s from there?”
“I’m sure I can figure it out”
When we’re outside, he links his arm in mine. I try not to flinch. This fatherly affection isn’t something I’m used to.
He’s a rush of narrative as we walk – what it was like for him growing up in his family, as a brother, as the first born son. It’s too much to take in. I listen to his voice, but let his words stream by. I watch the cars driving down the street.
“Well, here we are.”
He turns toward me.
“Would you like me to wait for you?”
“Oh no, you don’t have to do that.”
“The thing is, I haven’t done any of these things for you. Like take you to dance class or pick you up from school or bake you a birthday cake. And I’d like to. Maybe I could braid your hair.”
I let out a wobbly laugh. He’s not going to actually do it, is he?
“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” I ask.
“I did live here for 18 years, remember? I’ll be fine.”
“Well, I better get in there.”
He stays still.
“We’ll talk tomorrow, right? Make a plan for the day? I know Ben will want to see you.”
We hug again. I figure he’ll hold on, and prepare to linger. I can feel the warmth of his chest through his wool sweater. Fresh baked bread.
As I walk away, I sense him watching.
“Love you,” he calls out.
I turn back and wave, then hurry inside. A symphony of delight.
About the Author – Laura Murray
Laura Murray lives in Peterborough, Ontario. Her writing has appeared in the Windsor Review, Carousel and Tower Poetry. She delights in collecting the magic of moments and stringing them together in words.
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