Seth settled into the driver’s seat and reset the GPS for home. Mental distractions were always the key to enduring 350 miles of interstate autopilot. The comforting scent of fresh coffee. A string of podcasts exploring the unraveling of today’s human experience with glorious simplicity. Sandwiches his elderly mother insisted on making him that he would reach for in a few hours… or maybe in the next 10 minutes.
Her tiny apartment now cleaned out, a far cry from how it had presented months earlier. All her bills were paid. But the visiting nurses had sounded that tiny alarm, a familiar dog whistle. And with tail wagging, he’d come. FaceTime, when she could figure out how to use it, gave him the renewed peace of mind that he’d lost over time and distance. But she was adapting. And adapting to changing circumstances was her great gift.
Rolling green slopes of farmland as far you can see. Cow smells. Big red barns with creepy Amish distelfinks. Seth saw the place of his birth now as an unfamiliar planet, a place where everyone clung to a past that might not have been as great as they’d remembered. Another 15 miles and he would pick up the interstate out of this peculiar utopia. And he would once again pass that last exit before the interstate. The exit he’d always fantasized about taking. The one that if taken, would leave just three stop lights and 4.3 miles between him and the father he’d never met.
Last month he’d run across something unexpected in a box of mom’s stuff. A yellowed newspaper clipping. 1964. An attractive young couple sat at a table at some local event. Mom, early 20s with an updo like the beautiful, beaming wife of an astronaut. Her adoring husband, the oh-so-familiar looking stranger, beamed right back at her. They radiated a life full of possibilities. Doing the math, Seth would have been conceived that year.
He switched off the podcast and onto an old jazz mix. Rather than block it out, and with nothing but time on his hands, today he would indulge the fantasy.
A left turn, and then a road that felt off the grid. Sparse homes with chipped paint and old front porches. A rusted orange school bus. The United Methodist Church, some cars still in the lot from earlier morning services. A roadside vegetable stand, closed until summer. As the last turn approached, a mild panic set in. Was he even at home? Would this be just a harmless drive-by?
You have arrived.
One car, a white Nissan Maxima, sat in a cobblestone driveway. The hunter green front door appeared ajar. He eased the car to a stop along the edge of the front lawn. After all these years, he had finally done it. A modest, nicely kept single-level home seemed welcoming. Well-maintained flower beds awaited another hopeful spring. Only the Trump 2020 bumper sticker was off-putting.
A soft hello. Gentle movement from within, and then the door opened slowly. A slender elderly woman with shoulder-length silver hair and kind eyes appeared. The years had been kind to her. She seemed to be on her way out.
“Good morning, Barbara. Is Larry home?
Her face held a frozen smile. “Can I help you?”
“I was just in the neighborhood. I wanted to drop off a Father’s Day gift.”
Her eyes widened and the smile disappeared. “Larry, please come here,” she called out, her eyes still glued to him. In a moment, Larry appeared over her shoulder, taller than Seth had imagined. Dark flecks in an otherwise white head of still-thick hair ran around large ears. Hair just like his.
“What can we do for you?” The retired Mayor of Nowheresville’s voice was simultaneously commanding and kind. It sounded used to getting what it wanted. A lanky right arm wrapped around his wife’s waist.
Seth waited a couple of beats. “It’s good to finally lay eyes on you. It’s been maybe 20 years, since–”
“Your letter.” Larry finished the statement. And with that, all parties were on the same page. Nervous half-smiles plastered everyone’s faces. Seth wondered how long they’d rehearsed for this moment.
The couple silently stepped back into their living room, inviting the familiar stranger in. “This must be quite the surprise,” Seth said, as Larry and Barbara found their usual seats. Seth remained standing, perusing walls adorned with photos and religious artifacts. He quickly scanned over the family pictures arranged atop the mantle.
“That’s what you asked me in your first letter.” Seth picked up one of the frames. “Is this Bobby’s daughter?”
Barbara rose, clearing her throat. “Rachel is David’s daughter. She’s a lot older now.” Although nearly 20 years had passed since their brief letter exchanges, it was obvious that Seth’s recall of his birth father’s second family, and in particular his two sons, really unnerved Larry. His taut jaw was the tell.
“So, Seth. What brings you to town?” Struggling to initiate conversation, Barbara immediately regretted the question.
“Mom. Julia. You remember Julia. Of course you do, Barbara. Remember when you worked at the inn. The inn my mom and Larry over there used to manage. Sorry I don’t remember you, but I was so young then. Practically a baby.” Barbara turned pale. “Yeah, she’s still alive. I visit when I can. Thanks for asking.”
Barbara rose as Larry stared straight ahead. “I made some tea. I’ll let you two catch up.”
“That would be great, thank you.” She left the room as Seth took off his jacket and finally sat down on the couch.
“So, your kids have kids. And even those kids are getting old. Hell, you’ll be a great grandpa before you know it.”
“What took you so long, Seth?” Larry’s jaw finally relaxed. “Why now?” Seth saw confusion in his father’s eyes. Or was it delusion? How had he misremembered so spectacularly?
Barbara returned with three glasses of iced tea, setting them on the coffee table on coasters between them. “It was the spring of 2004, as I recall. The year you were getting your hip replaced. You remember that, right?” He paused to sip the tea and let their recall catch up. As they nodded, he continued. “You said you’d heal up from that, and then you would travel. And on that trip, you would come up and meet me and my family.”
“You never came, Larry. The letters just stopped. And my letters had to go to some restaurant… not this place. I only ever knew where you worked.”
Larry was growing tired of the inquisition. “It was for the best, Seth.” Larry looked down. “For everyone.”
“So they never knew, did they?” Everyone looked over at the photos on the mantle.
Larry straightened. “Whatever happened to your stepfather? When I signed onto him adopting you, he seemed like a good man.”
“I covered that fully in one of my letters. Don’t you remember?” He could see that Larry did not.
“Well, I’m sorry about that. I am.” His wife put down her tea and placed a hand on her husband’s knee. “Look, I’m not sure why you stopped by today. I understand you’re curious. For a time, we were, too.” He braced himself and stood, perhaps to wrestle some command over the situation. “You were so young. It was for the best.” Seth then stood, and Larry eyed him with a touch of pride. “Look at ya. You did very well for yourself.”
“So did you.” He smiled back, returning a look not born from pride.
Barbara now stood with them, clearly relieved. “Larry, let’s not forget we promised the boys we’d be over there by one.” She checked the wall clock, then turned toward Seth.
“What’s it been like all these years keeping a secret like that? I always wondered how you both kept that under wraps.”
Larry searched his pants pockets for keys. “We just never saw any reason to talk about it.”
Barbara handed her husband the keys. “I think it would be confusing for our boys. They just wouldn’t have understood.”
“Really?” Seth’s eyebrows flared. “That you got married, then realized your wife and her mother were insane? In the real world, that happens to people. Kinda hard to pretend it didn’t.”
“Look. We’ve always lived a good Christian life here. It’s all we ever wanted.” Barbara steered her husband toward the door as Larry continued. “I just couldn’t do that with your mother.”
The three of them left the house as Larry pulled the door behind him tightly shut.
“We’ve had that here. Together. For fifty-five years, in fact.” Larry finally put a hand on Seth’s shoulder. “And you made it, too.” He smiled broadly for the first time. “God guided you, and you made it. He works that way. You just have to trust Him.”
Reflexively, Seth hugged Larry. It was a full, genuine hug. The kind of hug that fills a small part of a permanent hole. He felt Larry relax in his arms just before he let him go.
“Did God really tell you it was okay to abandon me?”
Larry’s eyes were welling. “I told you there was just no way–”
“Ah, now that’s where you lose me. See, when you say, ‘There was just no way,’ what you really mean is maybe something like, ‘Staying a part of your life would have pitted me against both of them.’ Yes, true. Then move to, ‘They would have fought me, fought us, very hard.’ Also true. Then we finally get to, ‘It would have been harder to make a clean start if I had remained connected somehow to them.’ Yes, all of it, sadly and quite inconveniently true.”
Barbara nearly shouted for them both. “Why are you here? What is it you want? You’re upsetting him so.”
Quickly composing himself, Larry turned back towards them. “Why? After all these years. Why now?”
“I come bearing gifts.” They looked at each other, confused.
Seth smiled. “Well, I do have one gift, and it’s for you both. You can stop looking over your shoulder wondering if I’ll ever come barreling through the door and upend your lives. This will forever remain our little secret.” Larry and Barbara looked suddenly unsure if this was welcomed news. It was cold out, but nobody was ready to get into their cars.
“But there’s a catch.” Seth buried his hands in his coat pockets, noticing his breath rising in the chilly air.
“Keeping me from your kids, and their kids… that’s not the biggest problem. It’s the delusion you’ve been living with for the past 57 years, that you’ve convinced yourself you did the right thing. You didn’t. You did the easy thing. You took the path of least resistance, and it was exactly the right thing for everybody. Everybody but one person.”
The reckoning Larry had subconsciously feared his entire adult life was happening.
And much to his surprise, he welcomed it. There was something holy about the sound of truth, something that pulled you in close to it like a warm flame. The three moved closer to the warmth of that flame.
“Until I was 12 I had absolutely no male role model. No counterbalance. You knew what I was living with. Was that really the best outcome… for me?” Seth didn’t realize he’d started to cry. “I’m fine, really. I didn’t come here to bitch about that.“
The three had unconsciously formed a huddle from the outside cold.
“And for what it’s worth, I forgive you. Completely. I don’t want a relationship with you because … because… that ship has sailed. But what I wish for you is… absolution. Make it right with that God of yours before your time is up.” Seth hadn’t planned this last flourish. “If I can forgive you, imagine how He’ll see it.”
Seth broke the huddle, giving both their arms a light squeeze as he walked toward his car. Larry kept his wife in an embrace, watching him walk away.
Seth started his car, immediately cranked up the heat and watched them get into their car. As he pulled away, he heard himself say it out loud. “I had so much more to give them than they will ever realize.”
As consciousness returned, Seth noticed he had just passed that last exit. The fantasy was getting more vivid as the years passed. But it was too late to ever travel that road. Home was the only place he wanted to be. The coffee was still hot. He looked for a podcast and reached for one of the sandwiches.