Everything Stays the Same
a short story about going home
“Thank you for keeping my car for me,” Corey said as he hugged Joyce.
“Of course! Anything for you, sweetie,” she said, wrapping her arms around him.
“Thanks for everything,” he said.
“You’re welcome. You know I love you,” she said with a sniffle.
“I know. I love you too,” he whispered to her.
Corey knew he’d never see her again. She had Stage 4 lung cancer. She’d never smoked a day in her life.
“You could come visit me anytime. I’m not going anywhere,” she said, wiping away her tears.
“Yes, you are,” he said, pointing his finger to the sky. “I’ll bring you flowers.”
“Good, cause you know my kids won’t come to visit my grave when I’m gone. Jenny thinks cemeteries are morbid, and Ricky doesn’t have a sentimental bone in his body. How did I end up with such terrible kids, Corey?” she joked.
“Ask my mother,” Corey said.
“I’ll tell her you said hi.”
“Tell her I love her,” he said. He was tearing up now.
He looked up at the sky. The sun was just coming up. A new day and a new journey lay ahead.
“I hope so,” he whispered.
Corey had just finished serving five years in the Indiana State Prison. Joyce had visited him each week. She’d brought snacks, books, and toiletries to him. She’d looked after his few belongings and his car for him while he served his time. She’d picked him up when he got out and let him stay with her while he served his probation. She told him he could stay as long as he needed a place, but she knew he wanted to get out of Indiana now that probation was done.
He and Joyce had met in Tennessee almost thirty years ago. She was a singer in a traveling gospel trio called Trinity that was in need of a piano player. Corey never could read music, but he’d played by ear his entire life. There wasn’t a hymn he couldn’t play. Trinity agreed to give Corey a trial run, but he was soon on the road with them full time until the group disbanded a few years later.
Joyce went back to her hometown in Evansville, and Corey followed. He got a job as a night auditor in a hotel. They went to church together on Sundays and sang in the choir. They performed mini concerts together at the retirement center once a month. His mother always pestered him to come back down south so he could be closer to her and she could see him more often. He should have listened to her.
Millie, Corey’s mother, had died while he was behind bars. Cancer too, but she’d smoked her whole life. Millie had been born in Tennessee. She fell in love with a trucker named Bobby. He was from Florida and swept her away when she was just 17. Millie found herself home alone most of the time, raising their five kids, while Bobby was on the road. Millie knew he wasn’t faithful, but he kept the bills paid and the kids fed so she stayed.
When he did come home, he was an abusive alcoholic. Carolyn, their oldest daughter, was twenty-five by then. She shot and killed him one night when he was in a drunken rage and threatening to kill Millie and the two younger siblings, Corey and Crystal. She wasn’t charged with anything; it was deemed self-defense.
After that, Millie packed up and went back to Tennessee. She swore she’d never go back to Florida, but the kids knew she didn’t mean it. The older kids followed. Carolyn got a job as a mechanic. Chris, the oldest brother, became a trucker like his dad. Cathy, the second oldest daughter, got married and had a son named Brandon. Her husband cheated on her too, and Millie ended up helping her raise the baby. Corey and Crystal were in junior high and grade school.
Millie hated Tennessee and was quickly reminded why she’d left the first time. The kids liked it, but when Crystal finished high school, there was nothing holding Millie there so she went back to the only other place she’d ever known. Florida. Despite what had happened with Bobby there, she liked the warm weather. She liked being near the ocean, and how it rained for a bit almost every day. Her kids had lives of their own, which they all lived in various places at one time or another. But when Millie got sick, each of her kids found their way back to Florida to be with her. Corey would have gone too, but he still had two more years.
Although he knew she wouldn’t be there, a part of him now felt like he was finally getting to go home to her. He planned to drive straight through. Evansville was only fourteen hours from his mother’s home in Brooksville, Florida. If he stayed on the road the whole time, he could do it in twelve. He had one stop to make when he got to Tennessee, but that wouldn’t take long.
Joyce handed him the keys. She’d packed a small cooler of canned soda, sandwiches, and snacks for him and placed it on the passenger’s seat.
“It even smells the same,” Corey said as he opened the driver’s door and got in.
“I kept it clean and drove it a few times. Kept the oil changed and the tires checked. I refused to let Ricky or Jenny borrow it because who knows what could have happened.”
“Thanks, Joyce. I don’t know how to repay you.”
“You already did, sweetie. Your friendship all these years has been enough.”
“Sorry we missed out on five years of it.”
“We didn’t miss out. I came to see you every week, remember?”
“I know,” he said, with tears swelling in his eyes again.
“Let the regrets go, Corey. It’s a new day.”
“Now get going before I pack a suitcase and jump in the back seat. I’m already close to bawling.”
“I’ll call you when I get there.”
Four hours later he was crossing the Tennessee state line. He’d never done anything in Kentucky other than stop to get gas maybe. He couldn’t even remember if Trinity had ever performed there. Kentucky was nothing but a barrier between him and everything from his past down south. It had served its purpose well.
He drove by their old house first. It still looked the same, but he didn’t feel any emotional connection to it. He didn’t feel the need to pull into the driveway and knock on the door to ask if he could look around. The only reason any place feels like home is because your family was there. Even though they’d all been here at one time, his mother wasn’t happy here so it was impossible to make this house a home. He drove by and continued on to the cemetery.
His mother was not the only one he lost while he was in jail. Cathy’s son, Brandon, had taken his life one night. He was only thirty-three. He was such a handsome young man, and being the only grandchild, Millie and the entire family had put him on a pedestal. He’d stayed in Tennessee, even after his mother went back to Florida. Mistakes were made. Depression and anxiety set in. Brandon got into some trouble with drugs. He committed some robberies. One night, he called his Mom to say good-bye. The police were outside and wanted to question him, but he knew they’d take him to jail. Cathy was in Florida so there was no way she could stop him. It was too late. He felt like he’d been abandoned. He told her he loved her and hung up the phone. She tried calling him back again and again. Finally, someone answered. It was the police. Cathy still blamed herself all these years later.
It didn’t take long to find Brandon’s grave. Corey parked the car and got out. He stood there without a word or a prayer to say. Those five years had made him feel like a stranger to everyone, including himself. Getting a call in prison to be told Brandon killed himself was painful. Getting a second call about his mother was even worse. He wanted to find a way to take his own life in his prison cell, but something wouldn’t let him do that. He knew the others, on the outside, were waiting. The rest of his family needed him.
Before coming here, he had stopped at a gas station for a fill-up. When he went inside to pay, he noticed some bouquets of live flowers next to the counter and bought one. He placed it next to Brandon’s headstone and told him they were from his mom. He looked up at the sky again. It was postcard perfect, a rich blue dome with white fluffy clouds all around, the kind of sky you savored every summer in your youth.
“Why do any of us do the things we do?” he said out loud to no one.
He’d now have to drive across the entire state of Georgia. It was the only thing left between him and the Welcome to Florida sign. The band had played Georgia a few times, mostly small towns, but other than that, he couldn’t think of any special memories from there.
Other than a sign telling him he was leaving Tennessee, he wouldn’t have known it. Outside of their major cities, most of the south looked the same until you got to the coast. It was just miles of highways and fields. Plenty of time, too much even, to think. He listened to the radio to occupy his mind, and he changed the station every time a sad song came on.
The sun was setting by the time he’d crossed into Florida and gone through Tallahassee. There was an immediate change in scenery. The highways were lined with brightly-lit billboards advertising various tourist attractions and theme parks. Oaks and cypresses were draped with Spanish moss. The occasional palm tree could be seen. He was just three hours from home.
It was an odd word to describe a place he’d never been to before, but that didn’t matter. It was the closest thing to get him back to his family, back to where his mother had spent her last years on Earth.
Cathy had sent him detailed instructions to get to the house along with a photo of it. It was a single-story brick ranch-style house. It reminded him a lot of their house back in Tennessee. The porch light was on and a large eclipse of moths was fluttering around it. Cathy was sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette.
“You smoking again?” Corey asked as he got out of the car.
“I never stopped,” she said, exhaling a cloud of smoke and then crushing the cigarette out in the ashtray sitting next to her.
She stood up and he ran to embrace her. They both started crying. It was a hug that both of them had needed for a very long time.
“Welcome home,” she said, smiling at him.
“Your hair has gotten so gray,” he said, running his hand through her hair.
“You’ve got room to judge, mister,” she said, pulling the hair on his chin. He had a short beard that was grayer than her hair.
“So this is it?” Corey asked, letting go of her to have a look at the house.
“This is it. Mom’s dream home. Thirty minutes from Pine Island Beach and five minutes from a Wal-Mart Supercenter.”
Cathy opened the door for him so he could go inside. A piano greeted him against the wall in the front room. Its lid was cluttered with pictures of all of the kids. Corey spotted his senior yearbook picture among them.
Walking from room to room, he could see touches of Millie everywhere: the green milk glass coffee cups on the kitchen counter that she used every morning since they were kids, the picture of Jesus kneeling in prayer that had hung above their sofa in Tennessee, and the silk flowers in the pink vase in the hallway. He was glad everything looked and felt the same. He could feel his mother here. He could feel himself relaxing. He could feel a burden being lifted from his shoulders. He knew this could feel like home again.
“It still smells like her,” he said when Cathy showed him their mother’s bedroom.
He walked inside and sat down on the king-size bed. He ran his fingers across the bedspread, enjoying the cool touch of the fabric. He took his shoes off and lay back on the bed, putting his head on his mother’s pillow. Cathy came around to the other side and lay down next to him. They both stared at the ceiling in silence.
“Did you go see Brandon when you were in Tennessee?” Cathy finally asked.
“Yeah, I took him flowers for you.”
“Thank you,” she said.
They fell silent again for a minute or two, both recounting different memories of their mother.
“Cathy, what happened to us?”
“We grew up. We made mistakes.”
“We paid for them too,” he said.
“We sure did, didn’t we? I guess you could say we changed.”
“We didn’t have to.”
“We should have listened to our mother.”
Three weeks passed. Corey was settling in and looking for a job. He could tell Cathy was more at ease having him there. Carolyn lived down the road and stopped by often. Crystal worked and lived in Clearwater but visited on the weekends. Chris was still on the road working as a trucker and had not come back through since their mother’s funeral.
Corey picked up the phone to call Joyce. Jenny answered and he knew. She’d gone in her sleep one night about a week ago.
“I’m so sorry. I should have called sooner.”
“It’s okay. Mom knew you were catching up with your family,” Jenny said.
It didn’t make him feel any better. Joyce had been his family all those years.
“She left you a note. Want me to mail it to you?” Jenny asked.
He gave her the address. An envelope from Indiana arrived in the mailbox a week later. There was a single piece of paper folded in half inside. He recognized Joyce’s handwriting. The note read:
Your mother wanted me to tell you not to tease Cathy about her gray hair.