Homage, Ouachita County 2005

Nicholas John-Francis Claro

In baggage claim, he stood and waited amongst a slowly growing group of tired-looking travelers all waiting to collect their things. He recognized some of the people; they had been sitting a few seats in front or across from him, most of which letting out some sort of groan or yawn after the plane touched down on the tarmac, waking them. Then the conveyor belt suddenly jerked alive and the metal began to sing: a red, domed light flashed without noise and within seconds rolling suitcases, taped-up cardboard boxes, and other belongings clanged down the slope plate toward half-bent torsos, outstretched arms. He, Neil Crawford, had tied a bright yellow ribbon to the handle of his suitcase (something his wife had suggested to make it stand out from possible lookalikes) before rushing out the door at three in the morning to catch the Red Line to the airport. After ten minutes Neil began to worry his bag might possibly be in the belly of another airplane. And, after nearly another ten passed, the red light went out and the belt whirred to a halt—his fear was confirmed.

At the airline’s customer service desk, a terse woman, who never once seemed to look him in the eye, instructed Neil to fill out a small piece of paper where he was to provide the following:

            (1) A detailed description of the misplaced property.           

            (2) His name, along with a phone number he could be reached at day/night.

            (3) An address where said misplaced property could be delivered to once it was recovered.

“How long does this usually take?” Neil asked, handing over the form.

“Depends,” the woman said. “A day, two.”

“Should I wait around for a little?”

“I wouldn’t.”

Long sashes of fading jet streams, their borders taking in the pink of daybreak, were strewn across the sky. Below this, Neil paced back and forth on the sidewalk and listened to the steady cadence of car ignitions flaring to life from the short-term parking lot while he spoke on the phone to his older brother, telling him where he would be waiting and why he didn’t have anything on him.    

“Well, that’s just bad luck,” Dennis said, coughing into the phone. “Anyway, I’m passing Cave Springs now, so I’ll be there before you know it.”

“Take your time,” Neil said. “Really, there’s no need to rush.”

Neil heard the distinct clatter of Dennis’s two-toned 1984 Ford Bronco before he saw it. His brother revered that SUV, having bought it the same year it came out on the lot, when Neil himself was twelve years old. Dennis, then eighteen, had spent the previous two years working twelve-hour days six days a week mowing and drying hay for feed. Always, with each visit, Neil half-expected his brother to arrive in some different vehicle, where he’d use up the first few minutes of the five-hour drive to Ouachita County to tell him his personal symbol of hard work and youthful pride had finally, and forever, broken down. When this eventually happened, Neil thought, he figured Dennis would mount the license plate above the front door, or hang it from the pegboard in his garage next to a tacking hammer or dovetail saw.

As the noise grew closer, Neil stopped and stood in place.

Even though they made eye contact, Neil’s brother still honked the horn a few times before pulling up to the curb. When Dennis leaned out of the window, Neil saw the Carhartt hat he had on was wet with sweat at the edges, and the plain, white tee shirt he wore was stuck to his skin, stained yellow at the pits.

“You’re traveling light,” Dennis joked.

“Mind holding off on the big brother shenanigans today?” Neil said as he rounded the Bronco. 

When he had the door open, Dennis said, “Make sure you mind the bag on your seat. I don’t want you smooshing our breakfast.”

Neil picked up the bag, which was a light brown paper sack with a fast food logo printed on the side of it. It was warm and the bottom of the bag was wet and shiny from grease. It smelled terrible, but he hadn’t had a thing to east since the day before. After Dennis turned onto the highway, Neil reached in and pulled out one of the sandwiches, unwrapped it and handed it to his brother. Neil chewed slowly, grinding the bread and meat and vegetables into a thin paste each time before swallowing. When he finished, he sucked the grease from each of his fingers. 

For all he had cared, given the traveling he had done that day, Neil would have been just fine eating dinner that evening in the clothes he had come in. But his mother was insistent he shower and change, since he smelled as bad as he looked. Neil had sweated a lot, not only the ride long drive, but also profusely on the hike into, and out of, the forest, which totaled nearly ten miles. He had lost his tolerance to the humidity years ago, and there were slashes of salt on many areas of his shirt, and the khakis, usually tight-fitting, sagged and hung baggily from his legs like the large folds of extra skin on people who had lost a great amount of weight in a very short period of time. Neil told her about his suitcase, that what he had on was all he had brought with him. And, with any luck, his things would arrive sometime tomorrow.

As it were, Neil was much too thin to fit into his father’s clothes, who was a very large man now, had been large all his life, though in his younger years in a much different, more attractive way. After he got back from his own house, showered and dressed in a flannel without sleeves and a pair of jeans, Dennis offered to drive Neil back there to grab a change of clothes, but then he looked Neil over and said, “Scratch that. You could probably squeeze yourself entirely into one of my pant legs.”

Then came the soft grasp of his mother’s hand against Neil’s bicep, followed by the slight, childlike tug on his arm. She led him out of the room and to the stairs. His mother was pale and thin, now perpetually hunched over, as if the bottom half of her body struggled to support the top, and Neil had to help her up the stairs, her pausing briefly on each.

Neil wondered when anyone had last been up to this room. He couldn’t call it filthy, but it was the kind of dirty that comes with neglect. One of the many posters on the wall, a rock band opposite the east window, was faded and warped. A large spider’s web swung in one of the nooks where the wall and ceiling met. The carpet looked like sand. In the dim light from the overhead fan (three of the four bulbs were out), Neil made out the layers of dust like fine silt covering the tops of the two dressers, the face of a mirror attached to one of them, and the arms and seat of a rocking chair, the windowsill.

“There’s a box in there,” his mother said, pointing at the closet door, as if were a great distance away. “Mike was going to wear them to graduation.”

The pants were on top. Black slacks folded once over. Neil glanced at the back tag and slung them over his shoulder. The shirt was of such the kind that came packaged in thick plastic. He took out several pins holding it in its box-shape and removed a strip of cardboard from beneath the collar. He held it out in front of him. It was crosshatched with wrinkles, but apart from that, it looked like it would fit. In the bathroom, he kept the water running after he got out of the shower, turning the handle until it would go no further. Within a matter of seconds, steam rose from the bottom of the tub, semitransparent and white as woodsmoke. Neil hung the shirt from the rod and waited a minute or so before turning it over. When he was satisfied, he turned the water off and fanned the shirt out in front of him several times. The wrinkles weren’t gone completely but were now hardly noticeable. He stepped into the pants and buttoned them.

There was no way he could have known it then, standing in the steamy heat of his childhood bathroom, that this visit would be the last of its kind. In another week, he’d be back at home with his own family. And after they’ve had dinner and washed up, and after he’s tucked in his two little girls and read cover-to-cover, twice, their favorite storybook, he will sit with his wife on the back deck in wood-slatted chairs, listening to the rain ping against the corrugated metal awning, having a glass of wine. He’ll tell Becky about the looks his family gave him after he came downstairs to join them at the table, wearing, as he’ll refer to it “that goddamn shirt.” 

“I won’t do it again,” Neil will tell his wife, shaking his head, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“And you don’t have to,” she’ll say.

This time is going to be different, he thought. Neil wiped the condensation away from the mirror, stood back a few feet, and looked himself over. The shirt fit him pretty well. He rolled up the sleeves, creasing each one just below his elbows. The only problem was that it was a little tight around the neck. Neil coughed and swallowed hard.  He unfastened the uppermost button, gave himself a little room to breathe.

#

Nicholas John-Francis Claro studied English and creative writing at the University of Arkansas and resides in Fayetteville. His work has appeared in Existere: A Journal of Arts & Literature, the Idle Class, and others. He is currently at work on his first novel.