fiction

Napoleon

10:17 a.m. Almost twenty minutes late, but I don’t bother to speed. Mom will just have to deal with it.

If I thought you were on time, I would make more of an effort to get to our old house by 10:00. But I know that you’re not. I’ll pull up in the driveway and the only car there will be Mom’s Bug. Then, if Mom’s not sitting out on the porch tapping her foot, I’ll sit in the car and wait another ten minutes for you to pull up in your rusted pickup. Then we’ll knock and she’ll open the door and make some comment about how we’re “never on time.”

I mean, you do you still have the pickup, don’t you? You never were one to spend more money than you had to, but I suppose it could have broken beyond repair by now. Or maybe Amy got sick of you never being able to drive her and her friends places and you finally caved.

But probably not.

Still driving under the speed limit, I turn onto East Gabriel St. First house on the block, and I do a double take.

Gray. Steely, modern gray like my apartment. Not the chipping yellow I remember. It doesn’t match all the cute colorful houses on the block anymore. Some young, sexy real estate agent probably told Mom she should paint it, or maybe she just took it upon herself. Either way, I hate it.

Mom opens the front door before I even turn the car off. I roll my eyes. I can already tell she’s in a particularly testy mood this morning.

“Good morning,”  I mumble as I walk up the steps.

“Morning, Laura” she replies. She asks “how are you?” because she’s supposed to and I answer “good” because I’m supposed.

We walk in together. She mutters something under her breath about my tardiness that I don’t bother to listen to because I’m too busy looking around like a confused tourist. She’s repainted the inside of the house, too, this dull cream color. We stop in the kitchen where she’s replaced the old tile countertops with granite. That probably cost her a lot. It looks like she’s either sold or packed quite a bit of the furniture as well because the place feels empty.

“Well, since your brother’s not here yet, I guess I’ll wait to go run errands,” Mom huffs.

“Why’d you repaint the house?” I blurt out.

“No one’s going to want to buy a yellow house like that,” she snaps. “It was a disgusting color anyway. Why your father…” she trails off.

“Well, I’m gonna start going through my stuff.” I say. “You didn’t sell all my stuff while I was gone, did you, Mom?” I try to say it playfully.

“I’m getting rid of anything you don’t take” she’s looking down at her phone, at the clock I’m pretty sure. I glance at my phone, too. 10:24. I hope you get here soon…

I walk up the stairs. She replaced the railing, too. Whatever. She’s selling the house. She can do what she wants. That railing was pretty rickety… it probably needed… why’d she get a white one, though? It doesn’t work with the stupid cream walls.

I half expect that my old room’s going to be completely cleared out. But when I open the door, it doesn’t look like Mom has touched a thing yet. I glance at the window and feel an irrepressible urge to sneak out the window like I did when I was a kid and get out of this room and this house. But I don’t.

It’s the same quilt on the bed, the same walls, the same lamp, the same… everything. Frozen, untouched, and I wonder vaguely if Mom has even set foot in here since I moved to California.

And yet somehow… I feel an unshakeable sense of discomfort. It’s like I’m intruding, like I’m snooping around in a stranger’s home.

Reluctantly, I start to look through the drawers. Why Mom was so insistent that we both come here and get our stuff, I have no idea. I mean, we both got most of it when we moved out. But I find a few things when I open up the closet. Shirts I can’t pull off anymore, snow gear I don’t need anymore. Above my desk hangs a little ornate cross painting. I take it off the wall to look at it more closely.

I haven’t painted or been to church in a long time.

“You think Jesus will forgive you for being gone so long?” I whirl around and I can’t keep a smile off my face when I see your massive, burly form in the doorframe. “Because I’m not sure I do.”

“Drew!” I rush over to you. You give me a slightly bone-crushing hug.

“How are you, Laura?” You ask, tapping me on the head playfully.

“I’m doing well,” I reply. “How are you?”

Your beard’s quite a bit longer than it was last Christmas. Scruffier, too. “Good, good,” you answer. “How’s the fancy new job?”

But before I start talking, we hear Mom holler to us to come downstairs. You roll your eyes and we take our time walking back to the kitchen.

“So I’m listing the house tomorrow for $249,000,” Mom announces irritably. “I’m headed out now to run some errands. Take what you want. I’m done hoarding all your junk. Anything you don’t take goes to the Goodwill. I’ll text you if I have time to get dinner but I might have to go into the office later.”

She slams the door. I hear her car sputter for a moment, hear her muffled cursing, and hear the car drive away.

“Love you, too, Mom!” you chuckle darkly. I don’t respond. “Well, anyway,” you clap your hands together, “I got a surprise for you.” you say excitedly, trying and failing to keep a devious smile off your lips.

“Okay… should I be scared?”

“You gotta sit on the back porch.” It looks like Mom already got rid of the chairs on the back porch so we bring out two of the worn-out white kitchen chairs and a side table from the living room. You go back to your truck and come back with a brown paper bag.

“I figured… our last time back at this place, this would be as good a time as any…”

I look at you curiously and watch you pull two brandy glasses. Suddenly, I know exactly what you’re about to do and I instantly start laughing. “No… you… you didn’t –”

You beam at me triumphantly, pulling out a wax-sealed bottle of Marie Duffau Napoleon.

“Wow. How much did you have to drop for that, Drew?” I ask.

“Don’t ask such questions.” You take a swiss army knife out of your pocket and remove the wax seal with astonishing ease. Brandy always was your favorite and you pour us both a generous glass full.

I give you a smirk. You know I hate Brandy. For a brief moment back then, I thought I had tricked you into thinking I enjoyed it, that I could tolerate dark alcohol. I wanted you to think I was as tough as your friends. It was just you and me at home and you convinced me to go steal Mom and Dad’s expensive Napoleon out of the cabinet. They hadn’t bought it, I’m sure of it. It was probably a gift from one of Mom’s rich friends. It had sat and sat in our cabinet collecting dust. I kept saying that you could do it yourself, why should I do it for you?

“Laura, I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for you,” you kept insisting in true Ferris Bueller fashion.

You called me “lame” when I protested and the last thing any 15 year-old wants to be told by her cool 17 year-old brother is that she’s lame. So I did it.

It was the first scratching-the-surface-of-rebellious thing I ever did. And you were so proud of me for doing it and so proud of yourself for getting me to do it that instead of taking the bottle to your friends as I assumed you would, you said that I “should reap the rewards.” So we drank from our parents’ cheap wine glasses and “played adult” and mocked them.

“God, I got so sick that night…” I recall as I swish the brandy around.

“Oh I remember. And you only drank one glass,” you laugh mockingly.

“You know, I haven’t actually tried brandy since that night,” I confess. “I don’t drink much, really, aside from wine. There’s good wine in California.”

You snicker. “God, you’re turning into Mom.”

And I don’t know why, but my heart beats a bit faster when you make that joke. I oblige you with a grin that feels uncomfortable on my lips, but you don’t seem to notice.

“You know,” you change the subject, “this house could easily go for 35 to 45,000 more than she’s listing it at.”

“Really?”

“Oh yeah. This area?” You take another sip of your brandy. “I wish you’d visit more often, Laura. We all miss you.” This time, you put down your glass and actually look at me and I feel a distinct desire too look anywhere but into your eyes. So I glance back down at the dark liquid.

“Who’s ‘we all’?” I force a chuckle. “Just you, probably.”

To my surprise, you don’t respond. You take another swig of brandy.

“Maybe you, Amy and – well, you and Amy anyway –” I remark, “can fly out to Oakland for Thanksgiving or something.”

You roll your eyes affectionately. “Hey, you’re the one with the money and the fancy-ass job. You’re the one who can afford plane tickets and shit.”

“It’s really hard for me to get out of work.”

“Sure it is,” you give me a half-hearted smile. I really wish you would stop doing that. “I get it, though. I’d take sunny-ass California over this place any day.”

“Oakland really isn’t that sunny, Drew. It’s kinda cold and foggy all the time.”

“Hey, you do not get to complain about the cold,” you counter.

“How’s Amy doing, anyway?” I ask. “I miss her. She’ll be… what? 14 this year?”

You don’t answer me. Ever so quietly, you stare off into the backyard as though it were the endless horizon. Mom hasn’t torn the fences out yet. They’re pretty rotted, though.

“Did she… uh… like her Christmas gift?” I continue.

“Yeah, she loved it.” I notice you absentmindedly fidgeting at the ring on your finger as though it’s too tight. You stop and pour yourself another glass.

“We really fucked things up, didn’t we, Laura?” You say it so suddenly it takes me off guard. I tense up. But you’re still not looking at me. “You were smart to stay out of that commitment shit, Laura. Damn smart.”

“Well, I always was the smarter one,” I joke nervously. You snicker and choke on your brandy but give a shrug.

“It’s true, though,” you reply. “And you know it is.”

You take another swig, still staring off at that same imprecise spot in the backyard. “You did it, Laura. You knew what you wanted and you got the hell out of this shithole.”

I look down at my own glass of Napoleon and swish it around a bit, trying to convince myself to take a sip. Maybe it’s not as bad as I remember it.

“I hope Amy is like you,” you blurt out. “I hope when she’s older, she knows what she wants and gets the hell out.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” I answer quickly, a bit of sweat tickling my brow. Brandy always could get you to say things you’d regret. But I can’t seem to find any more to say to you.

“It’s fine,” you’re still not quite meeting my eyes and I’m glad that you aren’t. “If Amy turns out half as cool as you, then I’ll know there’s a God. Cause it sure wouldn’t be anything I did and it sure as hell wouldn’t be anything her mom did.”

I hear my phone buzz and seize the opportunity to check it.

“It’s from Mom.”

“Let me guess,” you sound almost entirely humorless this time. “She can’t grab dinner because she has ‘stuff at the office’? On a Saturday?”

“Laura. Working late tonight. Will not be home later. Don’t forget your stuff. xo Mom.

You take another swig, snickering darkly. “What do you say we drive the three hours to Burlington? And you actually stick around for a couple days? I’ll show you around, you can see Amy?”

Once again, I feel myself tensing. I can’t pinpoint why. “I… Drew, I have to work on Monday and I’m flying out tonight…”

“Oh bullshit,” you burst out. “You can do some stuff out of the office if you have to, and can you even tell me the last time you took a day off? And I know paying for a flight cancellation isn’t a big deal for miss big shot ‘Supply Chain Analyst,’ whatever the hell that even is.”

You’re right. I know you’re right. And I don’t know why didn’t tell you, but I actually budgeted to take Monday off, just in case I wound up getting held up for some reason. But all the same…

“Okay,” I hear myself say. You beam so brightly, I feel bad for my reluctance. “But I’m driving.”

“That’s fair. Now, are you gonna drink that or am I gonna have to down it for you?”

I look down at my glass, Finally, I take a sip. I choke and laugh. “Yup. Just as disgusting as I remember.”

*Inspired by the music of Bear’s Den, especially “Napoleon” and “New Jerusalem.”