The family had been on vacation for only a day or two, when the father realized he hadn’t checked the refrigerator door before they’d left—a foolish mistake, an oversight that might cost them. Especially if the door, released from its magnetic hold, had swung open a few inches, the way it did the last time they’d traveled. They’d had to throw out everything that time. Lettuce, eggs, cheese, plus the holiday grapefruit the father had meant to toss weeks before. The smell had lingered for days, even after the father removed the refrigerator’s cantilevered shelves and rinsed them in the sink. The father couldn’t let that happen again. No. He would drive home and make sure the door was closed tight. A sensible decision. No harm, after all, in checking in.
The drive home seemed longer than he’d remembered, though. So many stretches of dull highways, bordered with trees the father didn’t recall being bare, but maybe he hadn’t been paying attention before? That happened sometimes. Especially on vacation drives, the father behind the wheel while the rest of the family slept, dozed, watched, listened, gamed, or did whatever it was they did with their devices while the father tried to find NPR again on the radio. He was good at that, finding one NPR affiliate after the other, although the family never noticed. They stared out the windows, expressions impossible to read, their ears sprouting AirPods.
The vacation hadn’t been going well. The family visited an art museum, where the father seemed to have gotten lost during an audio tour, his family disappearing to wherever, while the tour guide’s voice invited him to observe brushstrokes, color combinations, and skies swirled with stars. The father caught up with the family later, at a restaurant, but they already seemed to have eaten. The father said he would get something to go, but by the time his order was ready, his family must have already returned to their hotel. The father ate his meal on the walk back, taking bites of a wrapped sandwich and sipping tea from a straw-less lid. That’s what he’d been doing when he remembered about the refrigerator. He had decided, right then, to drive home and check. Certainly his family would understand.
The house was just as he’d left it, front door locked, window shades drawn tight. The father entered: a fragrance of darkened house, redolent of carpet, dust, absence. In the kitchen, the refrigerator hummed and gleamed, in the sudden brightness of overhead lights. The father approached, wrapped his fingers around the handle. And he was about to give the door a tug, to see if it really had been open this whole time, when he heard his cell phone ringing from his pocket, and knew, before he removed the phone and saw the caller’s name on the display, that surely this must be his family, wondering where he was, worried, concerned, fearful, calling and checking in.
Anthony Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines (University of Iowa Press), as well as four short story collections. Recent work is out or forthcoming in The Normal School, Pembroke Magazine, JMWW, Gone Lawn, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. Currently he is a Professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of Crazyhorse(now swamp pink). Find him online at @TheLines1979.