Ray pulls open the kitchen door to a pack of hounds dripping creek crud across the carpet. The last dog skids his hind quarters coating a cabinet with slime over scratches marking the passage of time.
Michael’s height scrawled in pencil when he turned five.
Gabriel’s height colored in purple crayon during the troublesome twos.
Raphael’s height scratched in with a penknife the summer he shot up six inches.
Ray could search for hours, but he’d never find a mark left by Willa.
Michael stretches through the doorway, no apology on his face. He reeks of bourbon, cigarettes, and wet dog. He’s kept his hair long the way his Mama liked it.
“Wish I’d been here when she passed.” Michael extends his hand.
His palm is smooth like a newborn calf unlike the rough layered skin of working folk around here. The boy’s gone soft.
“She waited as long as she could. Now get your damn dogs out of your Mama’s house.”
“They jumped out of the back of the truck before I opened my door. A deer, I think, by the creek.”
Michael surveys the room the way a man checks out a woman from top to bottom and back up again. Nine years since the boy’s been around and even then he only stayed overnight on his way to somewhere else.
“Nothing’s changed,” Michael says, and shakes his head.
He leaves to hunt down his dogs, three leashes in hand. A crash, a yelp, and a violent string of curses his Mama surely would not have approved, echoes from the living room. Muddy paw prints coat the floor as he drags the miserable creatures outside. Ray reaches for the mop and bucket from the closet, and suggests Michael clean up the mess of his making. The boy smirks as if he’s been asked to wipe Ray’s behind.
“I’ll go tie up the dogs out back.”
When Michael heads out the door, Ray returns to the living room. He settles into the chair where Elisabeth sat every evening. The cushions emit her fragrance of lilac and cinnamon. Three times he’s read Willa’s letter, the one she handed him at the break of dawn, along with a key to the house. She’d asked politely if he’d wait to let her brothers inside.
Dear Michael, Gabriel and Raphael,
Welcome home, brothers! Mama would be so pleased. She talked about her angels nearly every day. ‘Archangels,’ I’d say, ‘those special angels held high in God’s favor,’ and Mama’d laugh. She’d been waiting for your visits. I called each of you for months, letting you know how she was doing, and how much a visit from her sons would cheer her. But y’all were busy with your families, your jobs, your lives.
I never planned to stay after Daddy died, two days before my seventeenth birthday. Had high hopes to go to college. I still recall nodding when Mama said her boys needed an education more than a girl did. They’d have families to support. It’s a notion I’ve twirled like cotton candy in my head these many years while you boys scattered away.
Ray set the letter on his lap for a spell and closed his eyes. Elisabeth never did see Willa clearly, blinded by her love for her sons. Ungrateful sons. He warned her they’d break her heart one day.
Oh, Michael, I got your letter with the pictures of your new lake house and showed them to Mama. ‘He’s done well for himself as a guide.’ ‘Always loved hunting and fishing,’ I’d said. She pointed to the pool in your backyard. On hot and humid days, she wished she felt strong enough to travel the three hours to take a dip in it herself. And when I suggested I could call and ask you to come visit, she hushed me. ‘He’s too busy with his own family.’ Mama understood.
When Ray hears a spin of gravel under tires, he lays down the letter and returns to the kitchen where he draws back the crisp cotton curtains from the window. Two heavy-set men, both dark-haired like Elisabeth, step out of a cab. They always looked like twins born so close together, but Ray can tell them apart even from a distance. Raphael in his fine tailored suit holds himself tall and straight like a hard maple. Gabriel in his pressed jeans and Yankee’s t-shirt slumps his shoulders like a weeping willow.
They seem surprised to find Ray in their Mama’s kitchen.
“Where’s Willa?” one asks.
Before he can answer, Michael returns holding the keys to his Daddy’s car.
“Does the Camaro still run? Dust all over the cover. I told Willa years ago she should sell it.”
Michael nods to each of his two brothers.
“You been here a while?” Gabriel asks.
Ray fills the coffee pot, the metal kind with the glass top, the only kind his widowed neighbor believed in using, and sets it on the stove. It’ll go well with the icebox cake Willa made last night.
“Call me when the coffee’s ready,” Ray says.
“How would we know?” Raphael asks, tugs lightly at the handle of the pot.
“It’ll smell done. Watch for bubbling in the glass top.”
After the boys settle themselves at the kitchen table, Ray leaves them thick in discussion about the Panthers’ season and returns to the living room. On the wall beside Elisabeth’s chair are photos of her children. College graduation portraits of her three boys; smaller school photos of her grandchildren—Michael and Gabriel’s kids. Ray straightens the single photo of Willa from her high school graduation. The girl had promise, a talent for words her mother never appreciated. He tried talking sense into Elisabeth one evening, but she straight out told him, he had no say in raising her child. He held back words he should’ve said.
“Writers are a dime a dozen. She’s better off staying with me.”
Ray holds the letter by the light of the window so he can read Willa’s faint handwriting and picks up reading where he left off.
Mama enjoyed those photos of you, Gabriel, and your family in Hawaii. Your two girls look all grown up. Seems like Elaine’s put on a little weight. Mama never thought a statistician could do so well. Remember those days sitting at the kitchen table, you crying over third-grade math? ‘That boy cried more tears in this house than the two of us combined,’ she’d tell me. Night after night Mama sat alongside you, worked hard to take the mystery out of numbers. She said only two weeks ago how proud she was of your promotion to senior vice president. ‘No wonder he has no time to visit.’ Now that very statement tells you, Mama understood.
Hawaii. The boy could fly halfway across the world, but couldn’t fly three hours from NYC to visit his mother. Elisabeth would hush him when Ray spoke ill of her son, but Gabriel showed her no respect. None of those boys did. Still, if any one of them stayed away, well, Ray could appreciate that maybe Raphael had a just reason. He glances down at Willa’s letter, and only then notices he’s crumbling its edges.
And Raphael, I hope your trip from London went without a hitch. You know, just the other morning Mama mentioned that girl Sally from down the road. Remember Sally? You must remember the switch Mama took to your behind. She wondered if life would be different if she hadn’t caught you with the girl. If maybe you’d still be living in this town. But I told her you’d still be the man you are, and that night in your car’s backseat with a girl was wishful thinking.
Yesterday, we watched the slow rise of the sun out her bedroom window, and she asked for a favor. To tell you she was sorry that her heart closed against you, and sorrier still that Martin left your life. He was a man to be admired standing up to her the way he did.
The ink is smeared some in the next section. Over this last year, he often imagined the heaviness of Willa’s heart whenever the lamp lit near her window late at night. Sitting alone in his bedroom, he sometimes wished her Mama would pass in the night to set them both free.
Why’d you think I called you boys on restless nights? I needed to talk to family that wasn’t slipping away. But I guess the slur of my words diluted my meaning. Not one of those calls brought you home. And then I finally understood. Only one call would bring you boys home.
“Ray, I believe the coffee’s brewed. Can you check to be sure?”
Ray turns toward the kitchen, but decides to ignore the cry for help. He heads into the bedroom of the woman he loved dearly. Willa laid out a gray wool suit on her Mama’s bed, the outfit Elisabeth wore for Sunday service every week until she stopped going. The minister dropped by once a month for about a year but then quit coming. Elisabeth figured he got busy with others in greater need of his spiritual care.
Ray reaches for the dusky rose blouse and presses the silky fabric against his face. He inhales Elisabeth. He told her once her fragrance bewitched him. She laughed and shooed him away.
A patchwork quilt nearly hidden beneath her clothing ties together remnants of her sons: the cutout of Gabriel’s first blanket, a thick square of Raphael’s faded jeans and the brown and white swatch cut from the cowboy curtains that once hung in Michael’s room. Ray’s fingers spread across the rough quilted edges in search of Willa’s life and finds no scrap of the girl.
From the dresser Ray picks up a rock he and Elisabeth found hiking the day he would remember all his life. The chunk of stone, the color of rhododendron blossoms, feels heavy cradled in his hand. Ray had waited the full year after her husband passed, a decent amount of time. He figured he could ease the heaviness she long held and finally do the right thing. He asked to be Willa’s Daddy, proper like, like he should have done years before. But when he bent to kiss her, she reeled back like grease flying from a red hot skillet. She wanted no part of what he proposed.
“Can’t step in the same river, Ray,” she said before hitching up her skirt to cross the water.
Two months ago, Elisabeth finally refused Ray’s visits. Willa told him her Mama said it wasn’t proper, him dropping by while she was in her bedclothes.
“Is this cake for later, or could we have some now?” Gabriel yells.
Ray returns to the kitchen forgetting about the letter in his hand.
“What’ve you got there?” Michael asks. He swallows what looks like the bourbon Ray once kept in the back of an old liquor cabinet. Michael’s always been quick to hunt down a free drink.
“A letter from your sister,” Ray says.
“Where is Willa, anyway?” This time, it’s Michael who asks after being here for almost an hour. Ray spreads the letter flat on the kitchen table and sits in Elisabeth’s chair to read out loud to Willa’s brothers. His throat catches a bit and stumbles over her words toward the end.
I can’t complain. No one chained me to this life. But not too long ago, I looked up and figured my best days were behind me. Last night I gathered my things and will leave tomorrow to you boys.”
Ray stops to clear his throat. He needs a clear voice to continue. In his brief pause, it occurs to him what words remain might as well be his. Willa tried her best to keep up the farm and the chores and still care for her Mama. He tried to help when he could, but he kept his distance. Elisabeth made it clear that day at the creek that they’d stay neighbors and nothing more.
“What’s Willa mean ‘leave tomorrow to us?’” Michael asks.
“Just like she said. Tomorrow you boys will handle it all. You’ll receive friends and neighbors. You’ll nod when told your Mama was a well-loved woman and how much you’ll miss her. And don’t be surprised when tomorrow everyone, everyone, whispers after talking with each of you: They’re not as bad as Willa said.”
He explains how they’ll find their Mama’s will in the junk drawer near the sink, resting on top of the clutter collected over the years. The woman refused to rid herself of anything. They would discover what Willa already knew: how her Mama appointed the boys her executors to settle an estate riddled with debt. Ray recalls stopping over to the house to review the will for his neighbor and cringing when Elisabeth explained herself to her daughter.
“Your brain’s never been good with numbers, Willa. Not like your brothers.”
Ray folds the letter, slips it into the envelope marked “my brothers” and slides it straight into the middle of the table.
“You see, boys, you may be angels, but Willa’s tired of playing saint. She’s taken off. Like she should’ve done years ago.”
Michael snatches the letter from the table and reads Willa’s letter from beginning to end. Ray can’t help but smile when Michael reads her parting words.
“So ya’ll know I’m alive, I’ll send a Christmas card every year. Maybe one with an angel.”