Houses and Homes
The houses in Port Lake all bore the markers of Saul Bauchmann. During the laying of the foundation, he would score his initials into the slab and slash the date and he told his son, Richard, that this was so the whole damn town would know he built it. Whenever Richard passed a Bauchmann home, he searched the concrete until he found his father’s initials and the stench of sawdust and coffee filled his memory. He ran the tip of his finger in the grooves and thought he had touched the callouses left there by the men who built it.
Saul Bauchmann worked until he reached sixty six and, even in his old age, he did not retire of his own volition. During construction on a home near the hills that held a scenic view of the skyline of Port Lake, Saul craned at an odd angle to hammer into a stud. The ladder wobbled and danced for the first time in fifty seven years. The crash shook the half-built home. When the other workers found him, his back arched over a stack of lumber as if he were attempting a backbend his body had been ill equipped to perform. Richard and Homer Bagby loaded him in the company truck, laying him flat in the bed with the loose screws and nails and drove reckless to the hospital where Doctor Jamison admitted Saul to surgery. Richard called his brother, Kyle, at West America Bank and asked him to pick up their mother, Wendy, and bring her to the hospital which Kyle asked why he had to be the one to be with mom. Three hours later, Doctor Jamison emerged from surgery, still wearing his mask and scrubs. Wendy Bauchmann stood, supported by her two sons, and listened to Doctor Jamison describe in medical detail how their lives would be forever altered.
Kyle visited Saul everyday of his two week sojourn and snuck Rolos to his father, who denigrated the hospital food and the fat nurses and inquired about Richard and the business regardless of Kyle’s intentions to steer the conversations elsewhere. Other times, Kyle brought Wendy to sit at Richard’s bedside. They held hands and watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy and Access Hollywood, time allowing them to partake of one another’s presence that spoke beyond words. Richard came the day of his father’s release, arms crowded with snacks and movies. Saul beamed and laughed as Richard dumped the gifts into his lap. He placed a paternal hand around his boy and they spoke of the business and memories from his days playing AAA for the Reno Aces and how Richard had a hell of an arm and could throw out a runner at home from the left field wall. Richard wheeled his father as they left the hospital. Kyle escorted his mother as they trailed behind and he reminded her of why they had come to the hospital.
Richard and Kyle split the costs of the lift installed on the stairs and Saul thanked Kyle for the thoughtful gesture and hugged Richard’s neck from his wheelchair for a second longer than the usual embrace. The brothers stood and watched Saul use the lift for the first time, Wendy seated atop his lap as the metal seat buzzed its steady climb upward. Saul smiled down at his boys but Kyle’s eyes followed behind the lift at the framed photos left ages ago that glowed with bitter memories of watching Richard play the River Cats at Raley Field in the dry, appalling heat and he could still feel the bleachers ache against his bones as they did all through high school. He heard, in his father’s cheers and praises, that, though they shared the same birthday, Richard arrived first.
After assuring the lift worked, Kyle and Richard drove to Winkie’s and drank Sierra Nevada as they joked with Vlado about how the kid who washed the dishes in back had a girl’s name and Vlado laughed a bellowing, chattering laugh as he walked away. After the drink had settled through their veins, Kyle asked Richard how Cheryl and the girls liked Albuquerque and Richard, sloppy with drink, slammed his mug against the table in a spray. Kyle smirked behind his raised glass and finished off his second pint and apologized in a sardonic mumble. Richard scratched his scalp and flopped his chin into his hand, eyes toward the jukebox. They paid their tab and left Winkie’s without a word. Richard staggered to the car and drove away, leaving Kyle to walk home and wonder if this was the night Richard would die.
When Kyle teetered through his front door, his wife sat in her bathrobe, awash in the television’s glow. She evaluated her husband from his head to his muddy boots then turned the television off and walked past him to their bedroom. He watched her leave and, removed the folded blankets from the back of the couch and laid down, stuffing the pillow under his disheveled brown hair.
The first three months since the accident, Kyle came each week to check on his father. He found him sitting in his stained comfy chair, reclined and vacant, watching anything cable had to offer. He responded to Kyle’s questions with shrugs and short sentences and drank three to four cans of Squirt a day. Kyle cautioned his father of his health which Saul remarked that he knew and cracked another can open. He tried to coax his father from the house and offered to take Wendy and him on a ride to Safeway but he only sneered and asked Kyle to tell Richard to make sure he doesn’t underbid customers since competition is stiff. Once a month, Kyle brought his teenage daughter to visit. After forty minutes, the joy wore from Saul and he descended deeper into the chair and away from everyone. When they left, his daughter asked if they could limit visits to Papa’s to Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Richard visited in sporadic binges, often coming by at random hours of the day. Sometimes he fumbled for the key between the bottom brick and the foundation and let himself in in the black of the morning to sleep off his drink. Often coupled by swollen lips and cut knuckles. On those mornings, Saul would buzz down his lift and wheel himself next to Richard and watch him sleep and lean forward in his chair to pull the quilt over him and then pat his peppered head. When he awoke around noon, Saul would sit at the kitchen table with Richard while he nursed a hangover and black coffee. They talked of carpentry and business and how, if he hadn’t been crowding the plate, that ball wouldn’t have hit him and he’d be playing in the majors right now. His mother came in, hung around his neck, and asked him about the girls and he grimaced so intense his teeth clinked against the porcelain of the mug. Richard stood, brushing his mother back, and poured the remaining coffee in the sink. He said goodbye and headed for the door, shutting on his father’s warning to pay his permit fees or he’d have the city of Port Lake on him like stink on a dead man.
Just after high school, Kyle had worked for Saul Bauchmann while Richard moved to Reno to play baseball. Saul bragged to Homer and the other workers about Richard and showed them his playing card while Kyle ran lumber through the skillsaw and picked up nails from the site. Despite his urgings, Saul never gave Kyle enough responsibility to satisfy his desire to work. While Saul had lunch with Homer at Burger King on Hamburger Hill, Kyle remained at the construction site and drew on scraps of lumber among the discarded piles of materials. He imagined and engineered brilliance in his mind, often homes he wished he could build for himself. Though Kyle left these scraps where Saul would find them, his father never mentioned them and chucked his art into the trailer to be hauled away.
Kyle worked until the day Richard returned from Reno, limping and divorced. Saul embraced him and sat on some buckets as they caught up while Kyle continued to sweep. Without consulting Kyle, Richard moved back into his parent’s home and shared a room with his brother. The room no longer fitting for two grown men and his father unwilling to concede his man cave to accommodate his sons. The three men all worked for the business and crammed into the Ford F-150 to drive to the job sites. The craft came easy for Richard but Kyle often found him joking with Homer Bagby and the others and laughing while leaning against a studded frame. Sometimes Saul joined in and work ceased for a moment of joviality. A month after Richard’s return, Kyle met a woman while doing some repair work at Lakeside Apartments on Lakeshore Boulevard. Her long neck and bugged eyes charmed him and they dated for six months before marrying. Saul asked Kyle to make Richard his best man and Kyle agreed without looking into his father’s eyes. At the reception, Richard snuck sips from several random champagne glasses and fought with Kyle’s father-in-law before his limp crippled him and he fell into the wedding cake. An image Kyle’s wife never allowed him to forget. They rented a house near Tropical Palms Mobile Home Park and became pregnant just shy of their one year anniversary and Kyle, weighing the reality that he may have to leave his father, applied at West America Bank as a teller after hearing about the vacancy from his realtor, Nick Jerusalem. The day Kyle told his father about his resignation, Saul Bauchmann put a stern hand on his son’s shoulder and told him he understood and that you gotta take care of your own now. Kyle, when reflecting on the exchange, often questioned if his father had been smiling behind his green eyes.
Every Friday after Kyle left for the bank, Kyle and Richard would sit down at Winkie’s and talk about their lives in veiled, guarded manners until the drinks loosened their tongues. Then the thoughts and memories flowed, both bitter and sweet. Kyle recalled how they would scoop up tadpoles in paint buckets from the creek that ran along the fence of their property and he and Rich would watch them sprout legs or he talked of the times when they decided to ride their bikes to Santa Rosa but only made it fifteen miles before Officer Pribble picked them up and hauled them home. Richard almost snorted beer from his nose at the memory. Then his thoughts turned bitter and he remembered the day when Cheryl asked him about the away games and he broke down crying before her and a week later he received the divorce papers and then the court hearings for the girls and he spoke of these events in such somber pity for himself Kyle regretted the bitter thoughts he held for his brother. He drove Richard back to the house and helped him to bed, but slept on the couch and watched infomercials in the dark.
The brief empathy Kyle felt for Richard faded two months before Saul’s accident. While driving home from the bank, Kyle passed Winkie’s as the fading sunlight sunk behind the hills over the lake and saw Richard’s silhouette in the alley next to the dumpster with another figure. He slowed and pulled along the curb out front and waited, watching the alley entrance. Richard emerged and Kyle noticed the wad of filthy bills wadded in his hand before Richard slipped them into his coat pocket. The side windows of Kyle’s car began to steam and fog. As Richard entered Winkie’s, two high school boys left the alley, a prescription bottle in their fists. Though they weren’t in their uniforms, Kyle recognized them from their photos in the Record Bee. He idled in his car and failed at settling his gut. He pulled onto Main Street, missing a collision with another vehicle.
The next evening, Kyle asked Richard if he wanted to go with him to K-Mart to buy some catfish bait and lures for the weekend. As they walked to the back of the store, Kyle fidgeted with the buttons on his shirt, clasping and unclasping in a clumsy manner. They perused the tackle aisle and Richard commented on how the bait stunk like hell before Kyle asked him about the alley behind Winkie’s. Richard paused, the bag of bait crunched in his hand. He chuckled and tossed the bag on top of the tackle boxes but would not admit anything. Kyle stepped closer and pressed his brother to not dabble in any of that stuff because it ain’t worth it. Richard looked into his brother’s eyes and Kyle, deep within the pupils, absorbed the rancor billowing like blackened clouds. The ends of Richard’s nostrils twitched before Jerome Peppers appeared in the aisle and asked if he could help them. Kyle turned and forced a smile, saying no thanks but when he looked back, he caught Richard’s back disappear into another aisle. They drove home baitless and reticent.
Their lives mingled on holidays in a pattern neither wished to address. Richard an uncle by name to Kyle’s daughter. During Thanksgiving, Wendy would speak in separate to her boys and beg them to reconcile for they only had each other. When she asked this of Richard, he cursed and grumbled and poured another glass of wine.
Since Saul’s accident, Kyle and Richard’s lives collided and they resumed their weekly rounds at Winkie’s. These moments of passive bitterness and surface conversation connected them in a way neither wished to acknowledge. As if the love hidden within their spirits pulsed through a current of animosity, ebbing and flowing through teeth and tongue and weakend by what they consumed. Some nights they fought while others they recalled the past and the tree fort they built in the old oak that bottomed out and caused Richard to fall ten feet and break his arm. They would laugh in their drinks and snap to serious talk of dad and mom. Scenarios imagined if mom’s memory got worse or dad’s condition deteriorated beyond what they would control. Kyle dropped Richard off at the house and watched him balance himself through the door and he would drive home and sit in his Chevy Cavalier outside the house, watching to see if the television glowed. Some nights, he slept in the car.
A year after the accident, Kyle’s phone rang at midnight and his father’s frantic voice clamored through the phone. Kyle grabbed some shorts and a jacket and drove to his parent’s home. All the lights, even the outside lamps, shone in the darkness. He entered through the side of the house and came into the kitchen. The look in his mother’s eyes terrified him and he could feel her terror and confusion as the knife quivered in her hands. She demanded to know who they all were and pointed the blade from Kyle to Saul. Kyle and Saul’s voice clashed against one another and Wendy’s puzzlement grew and she screamed, dropping the knife and cutting her own foot. When Kyle attended his exhausted and bleeding mother, he saw Saul wheeled toward the kitchen sink and wiping at his eyes.
A week later, Kyle drove his mother to the Port Lake Retirement Center behind the Social Security Office. He tried to call Richard again but he would not answer. He assured his mother that he would bring dad and Richard to visit and she nodded in her moment of clarity and faced her bed and television the remainder of Kyle’s time there. Kyle returned to the car where Saul sat in the back seat, staring at the entrance to the retirement center and beyond the walls at a disconnected future. He tried to reach Richard but, by the fourth ring, he hung up. At the house, Kyle pushed his father up the ramp and into the living room and asked Saul if he could do anything for him. Saul turned his aging face with those sagging eyelids that revealed the red lining inside his eyes and said he could do one thing. When Kyle asked what it was, Saul looked beyond him at photos framed on the walls and, in a whisper, asked him if he could break every clock in the house.
Bauchmann Construction wavered and Richard’s inconsistency tarnished the amount of bids they received. Homer Bagby, after severing part of his finger, had left and the other workers found better work in Santa Rosa where there were more constant jobs to be had. Kyle dropped by a job site during his lunch and found Richard dancing with a Natural Ice can clutched in one hand, a hammer dangling in the other among the skeletons of the building. Toby Keith distorted through the dusty and dented, radio speakers. The summer heat just arrived and sweat poured from under Richard’s ballcap and resembled tears he knew not that he shed. Kyle, hidden behind the transparent walls, watched Richard dance with phantoms alone in the half-built home and swallowed hard. He watched till Richard tripped over a level and crashed onto the plywood flooring and sound billowed from his lips that wavered between sobs and laughter. Without a word, Kyle turned and left.
The summer sun arose and a hint of smoke lingered like haze atop the hills. At the home, Wendy could not recognize Kyle and she never received the chance to recall Richard. The nurses told him that it had spread and he should be prepared any day now. Kyle told his wife and she rubbed a hand on his arm and asked him what he felt he should do. He drove to his father’s house and found him as he always did among the candy wrappers and cans and cartons littered around him. Kyle commented on Saul’s blood sugar but Saul only scoffed at such caution and watched old baseball games on ESPN Classic and told Kyle how he remembered sitting with his dad when this game aired and how he loved baseball because time had no control over the outcome. Kyle stared at his father and remembered his own memories of the smell of frying oil and garlic at Candlestick Park and how Will Clark lined a single past the second baseman that brought Matt Williams home from second in the bottom of the ninth and how the sunflower shells erupted from his father’s lap and he hugged Richard and Kyle in one embrace that melted them into one another. Kyle reached into his pocket and called Richard but received no answer and left a message saying he needed to talk with him.
He drove toward the job site, Winkie’s, and even the police station but could find no trace of his brother. He asked locals and store owners and Vlado said he had seen Richie leave the night before last after the Holiday boy came in and bought drinks for everyone. Kyle wondered where his brother had been for two days and found the number for Cheryl on-line and called her. When asked, she said she had no idea where he was and hung up the phone. Soon after, Kyle’s wife called and asked where he was and he replied that he was looking for his brother. She said nothing and Kyle remarked he needed to do this and she mumbled irritated and hung up. For the next few hours, Kyle drove around Port Lake searching for Richard. Without any success, he searched his memory and then drove to Rodman Slough at the north end past Highway 29.
Driving among the trees and reeds, curving a windy path, he came to the bridge over the slough and pulled onto the dirt. Richard’s truck sat parked but no one could be seen. Kyle walked along the water and looked atop the reeds and the ducks that dipped into the depths. At the end of the brushy path, under the low overhang of some branches, he found his brother slumped and stinking and surrounded by an army of empty cans and bottles. He knelt beside him and the half-open eyes stared out upon the water and Kyle sat with his elbows on his knees and told his brother all the times they should have broken the clocks together. The tears formed in slow motion from Richard’s eyes and the burdens welled within him and he grabbed Kyle’s collared shirt and buried his face into the soft fabric. The stubble pricking Kyle’s skin through the shirt with each hiccup and sob. Kyle held his brother and absorbed the filth and stench. His watery eyes found the manzanita bush and saw their initials carved and vibrant in the greenish-yellow wood. Those innocent hands unaware that their legacy would repair such a long and arduous road. Under the manzanita, they poured out from within as the fires raged and burned on the hills surrounding them and reflected from the water as the walls constructed within them broke down with each tear, with each apology uttered.
About the author:
N.T. McQueen is the author of the novel Between Lions and Lambs and The Disciple. He received his MA in Creative Writing from CSU-Sacramento under the direction of Douglas Rice. He has won two Bazzanella Literary Awards and his work has appeared in issues such as the Calaveras Station, Gold Man Review, eFiction, Burning Daylight, Camas, and others. He lives in Northern California with his wife and three children.