It was the blue house on N Bentley Avenue that I was looking for. Rows and columns of suburban homes stretched down both sides of the block. I drove slowly and paid careful attention the house numbers. There is a Toyota Sienna was parked on the driveway underneath a basketball hoop. An immaculate front lawn. It was my second time here. Last time, Doug and Connie picked me up at the Amtrak station in Los Angeles. Why was I in Los Angeles? I remembered we had lunch in Chinatown and walked along the Santa Monica pier later in the afternoon. It was a warm day. Doug and I brought spray cans and we blew our names up on the concrete walls set along the beach. I thought it’d cheer him up; we could be kids hanging out and tagging the rail cars in Roseville again for a few hours.
I parked my car on the curb and reached for a t-shirt in the gym bag I kept in the backseat. I use to go the gym before. Looking in the rear-view mirror, I also remembered that I had not shaved. I was wearing the same clothes that I wrote to see Alice on Saturday. The inside of the collar was dark it smelled like McDonald's, alcohol and cigarette smoke. This is why I was changing into a t-shirt: it took seeing someone I cared for, for me to be conscious of my physical appearance.
I walked up to the door and called Doug. Connie picked up.
“I’m here,” I said.
“John! We’ll be right out.” She was excited but I knew it was a pretend excitement, the kind of air you put on when you bump into an old acquittance while wandering in a shopping mall. Or some place like that.
The doors were painted dark green. The same as the door of our childhood home in San Jose. Doug and I worked on it with our dad during a holiday. I do not remember which one. I only remember that it was a holiday because were off from school. My dad was singing a Teresa Teng song in a soft wavering voice. Except to mock his own singing voice, or when drunk, he rarely sang. After the first few verses, his voice grew louder. When one of the choruses came, Doug looked at me, we were imagining, with some embarrassment, that the neighbors across the street could hear him. But we took it as a sign that he was happy and enjoying doing something with his boys. Thinking about this, I leaned my weight into the paint roller and even Doug look renewed. How old were we? I don’t remember. I only remember that we were painting the front door and our dad was happy singing Teresa Teng.
Later on, when I suddenly told him I was flying to Taiwan. He said, “Teresa Teng sang about Taiwan once.”
“What was it about?”
“A mountain called Alishan.”
Standing in front of the Doug and Connie’s house and remember this, I regret not sending him a postcard from there.
“When I was younger, listening to her gave me strength,” he said about her songs.
Doug and Connie opened the double French doors in unison. The evening sunlight funneled into the entryway like going through a canal. “John,” Doug said. His face was grim but full of compassion. I recalled how I felt when I looked at myself in the rear view mirror. He took a step forward, hitched, and put his arms around me. I squeezed a shoulder.
“What’s up buddy.”
He looked me in the eye. We had always been around the same height throughout most of our life. Before he lost his leg. I can’t remember the last time he looked at me this way, on the same plane of sight.
“I’m out of the chair now.” He smiled and pointed at the prosthetic leg underneath his basketball shorts. It looked real; it looked as if it was trying to be.
“You okay man?”
“Don’t worry about it. Just a long drive.”
“I’m good. Just tired.”
Doug sighed. “Man, it’s good seeing you bro.”
Doug pivoted on his prosthetic leg and led me into the house. “Do you want a beer?”
He turned to Connie, “Get John a Heineken from the fridge.”
“Are you okay?” Connie looked at me while maker her way to the fridge. The kitchen was adjacent to the entryway of the house.
So much concern. I wondered how much of it was my disheveled appearance. Alice had said the same thing on Saturday. When was here, Anne was always asking if I was upset or okay too.Or maybe it was because of whatever discussion Doug and Connie had after I told them I was coming down for a visit, these things don’t happen everyday; after he moved, I barely called.
Maybe it was both.
We sat down on the sofa. Like the lawn, the inside of their home was immaculate. Everything was squared away. On the mantel above the fireplace were photos of Doug in a formal marine uniform. Wide set jaw, eyes full or purpose. Photos of Junior posing over home-plate in a Pee-Wee league baseball uniform. Same look as his dad.
A photo our parents. Old and wrinkly and grinning. The last photo was from my college graduation. Everyone was in it. It was taken in the parking lot outside the university gym. I wondered who I asked to take it, it was someone I knew. Forget it. It didn’t matter.
Doug was standing stood next to me with one arm around our mom’s back, the other around my shoulder. He held up a thumbs up. Our dad stood at the edge of the frame.
“You finally made it man. Now you’re ready to roll in the money huh?” I remember Doug saying in the car.
I looked chubby back in the photo and seeing it now, in such a prominent place, I felt embarrassed.
Connie set the Heineken on the coffee table and sat down, across from us, on the love seat. I took a drink and smiled. She gave Doug a beer too.
I felt warm, a fraction of the feeling I had on the night we had the barbecue for Doug’s leaving to Iraq, when he got on one knee on the soggy grass and propose to Connie.
“Where’s Junior?” I asked.
“He’s at his friend’s house down the block,” Connie said, “He’ll be back soon though. I just called him and told you were here. You can’t imagine how happy he is to see his uncle.”
“Right,” I laughed, “I’m always the cool uncle.”
Did I bring anything for Junior? I may have. I tried to remember what was in my trunk, a skateboard maybe? Or a basketball at least. Junior would like that.
“Sorry to drop in on you guys like this,” I said.
“Not at all Johnny. It’s been too long since we’ve seen you.”
Doug never called me Johnny. Hearing that affectionate y, I felt our roles had reversed. I was the little brother now. It felt natural. I might have always wanted it to be this way.
Looking at sofa, the beers, the framed photos on the mantel, the fireplace, Connie, Doug’s prosthetic leg, the kitchen with its marble counter-top, the green French doors, the way the light flooded inwards when they opened, the mini-van parked outside, the basketball hoop, the immaculate lawn, the rolls and columns of the neighborhood, and Santa Maria and our parents back in Sacramento, that it should have been this way from the beginning, the proper order of things.
Instead of looking my watch, a habit whether I knew the time or not, I glanced at the clock on the wall. It was still early.