The IHOP disappeared first, the one Jake went to with Momma and Daddy, then just Daddy, the few times he’d been back. The waitress at the diner up the road had no memory of it. Yes, she was sure, and pressed him on how he wanted his eggs.
The QuickyLube went next, the one he had meant to go to after the funeral. He found a coupon in Daddy’s mail, which was funny, because he had always said a man should change his own oil. And clean his own gutters, and shingle his own roof. You’d think life itself hung in the balance the way he went on, even years after Jake left home.
I’m just trying to look out for you, son, he had said over the phone, that last time. I don’t want nobody cheatin’ you outta your hard-earned money.
Maybe Jake should have known then something was off. Daddy’s view on his career, repeated just about every holiday and birthday, had always been that “Stories ain’t an honest man’s work.”
He drove by where he had seen the QuickyLube, but all he found was a patch of weeds. He pulled over and asked his GPS where it was. All he got was, “No Result,” like it had to be his fault.
He headed back to the house. Wyatt was waiting in the driveway. They were going to tow Momma’s old Buick out to Leroy’s Scrap Yard, but Wyatt had no memory of the scrap yard, or of Leroy. The nearest place to offload a junk car was two towns over.
On the way back, Jake asked Wyatt about people from high school, people who had stayed like he had, but Wyatt only knew about half their names, looked at him sideways on the others. Everything on the county road was gone but a few old barns, bleached and yawing, or the odd trailer on a lot carved out of the pines.
Jake asked where everybody was. Wyatt asked, “Everybody who?”
The bait and tackle shop was still there. The post office and the VFW were there. The pecan stands were there one day, gone the next. Jake dialed Wyatt’s number and got that voice that tells you your call cannot be completed as dialed, like it has to be your fault. Same with his agent back in the city. Then the cell signal was gone. He turned on the old TV, the one he grew up with, more furniture than appliance, and got nothing but static.
He tore down the state road, drove through nothing but forest. The radio dial was empty. By the time he got back, the VFW was gone. The bait and tackle store was a patch of weeds. He found a lone state trooper idling by the road and asked, shallow-breathed, about this place and that place. “Never heard of them,” the trooper said, and gave Jake a look like he didn’t know whether to help him or search his car for drugs.
He imagined the house would be gone, but there it was, weeds and dinge and all. The neighbors’ houses were gone. By morning, only the post office was left. He went inside, shaking, asked the lone clerk where everybody was. She looked at him sideways and asked, “Everybody who?” Did she even know the name of the town? She said people used to call it something or other, but now it was just an outpost of the town up north on the state highway.
He drove north, found nothing but forest. By the time he got back, the post office was gone. Only the house was left at the end of a dirt road. The photographs on the wall had just him and Daddy. The two of them at the lake, holding slender trout and tight smiles. Daddy’s eightieth birthday, minus his buddies from the VFW, just the two of them and Daddy’s oxygen tank around a cake.
He sat in Daddy’s old faux suede recliner and tore at the air. The walls grew tighter.
“No,” he said, and the collapse slowed.
“No,” he said again, and the walls expanded.
“This is where I’m from,” he said, and all the pictures reappeared.
“This is where my parents lived,” he said, and Momma reappeared in them, smiling like she’d never gone away.
“They had two neighbors,” he said, and made up names for them. Through the windows on either side, he saw the houses were back.
He spoke the town’s name, and the road outside widened. He got in his car and started driving.
“Wyatt lives here,” he said, and a house appeared on a newly cleared lot.
“I went to high school with him,” he said, and Wyatt walked out from behind a shed, waving.
“Wyatt has a girlfriend,” he said, and she appeared in the kitchen window.
A box of Daddy’s stuff was in the passenger seat, bills and receipts and what not, which Daddy had always kept as if life itself hung in the balance. Wyatt remembered each diner, every auto parts store, told stories from over the years since Jake had left.
The box gave more than it could have held, things of his that Daddy must have kept. Ribbons and certificates, reviews of his stories from over the years. Then his yearbook. He spoke a name on the senior class page, and the girlfriend changed, and Wyatt was wearing a ring. He spoke another name, and a ring appeared on his own finger.
He was there when Jake got back to the house. He was in the pictures on the wall, smiling alongside Jake and Daddy and Momma. Through a window, Jake saw him out back on the riding mower, cutting a wide path through the overgrowth.
The cell signal was back. He imagined the QuickyLube and the IHOP were back, too, but that part could surely wait.
Jake sat in the old recliner, remembering.
Michael Getty is a writer who lives with his husband in St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in publications such as The Healing Muse, THAT Literary Journal, and Pidgeonhole(s).