The boy’s parents often told him that if he didn’t stop misbehaving they’d leave the house without him. And then one day they did. “We tried to tell you,” they said. They closed the front door and pulled out of the driveway. They neglected to wave goodbye (they were angry, remember). The boy watched them out the window. He’d never realized how funny his parents looked in their car before. Like little dolls. Or pets.
The boy grew. He trimmed the grass around the front walkway with the mower his father had left behind and mended clothes with his mother’s Singer sewing machine. Around the holidays he invited the neighbors over for hot cider and macaroons. “What happened to your parents?” the neighbors always meant to say, but somehow never got around to it. They asked the boy for his macaroon recipe.
“It’s from a mix,” he admitted.
In high school the boy played varsity baseball and starred in the senior play. He met a girl who wore a ribbon in her hair and sometimes invited her back to his home, where he told her about his parents. The girl cried and kissed him and let the ribbon out of her hair. The boy was accepted into eleven colleges. At night the boy played billiards at his father’s pool table, the one the boy used to hide under when he was misbehaving. Or maybe the boy only imagined that. The thing was, he couldn’t even remember what he’d done to drive his parents away. Something, he thought. He’d done something.
One day the boy was sitting in the recliner he’d recently recovered when his parents appeared in the doorway. (The boy never really believed that expression, but he could see now that it was true; people really could just appear—snap, like that—in the doorway.) There his father was; and there his mother was, too. Aha!
“What did you do to the recliner?” his father said.
The boy took their coats, which were wet with rain. “Would you two like something to drink?” the boy asked.
“We’re not guests,” his father said. He’d grown old; his voice shook. The boy got them some tea.
The three of them sat in the living room and drank tea. Light slanted in from the front windows, making long stripes across the room. The boy studied his parents. His mother was still pretty in her way, but older, heavier, her eyes refusing to meet his. His father wrung his hat in his hands—that same hat!—and regarded the room with clear disappointment. Clocks ticked. Occasionally cars passed outside, renewing the degree of silence between the three of them.
Finally the boy’s father said, “We only wanted to teach you a lesson. You know? So you’d learn.”
The boy’s mother dropped her teacup and held her hands to her face. “That’s all we ever really wanted,” she cried. “Say you understand.”
Anthony Varallo’s short story collection, Out Loud, won the 2008 Drue Heinz Literature Prize (University of Pittsburgh Press). His first collection, This Day in History, won the 2005 John Simmons Short Fiction Award (University of Iowa Press). Recipient of an NEA Fellowship in Literature, Varallo has had stories published in The Gettysburg Review, Epoch, The New England Review, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. He is assistant professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is fiction editor of Crazyhorse. (3/2009)