The Way Things Are Now

Terri Moran

The sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. Ken’s hands had begun to ache from the chill. Although he had finished raking and bagging the leaves an hour ago, he continued to loiter in the front yard, finding things to do to look busy. He was watching the blue Ford Focus parked in front of Mrs. Myrick’s house. A man sat inside the car. Ken hadn’t been back in the neighborhood long, having just moved home in July to care for his father. But everyone knew about the Myricks. The story had been all over the news for weeks when he was a kid. How their son, Ricky, had asked to stay out past his curfew to go to a football game at his middle school and then had just disappeared. Ricky and Ken had played together as kids, gone to school together. Ken remembered him as a good kid, obedient, not the sort to run away. The police suspected foul play, but no body was ever found. Ricky just never came back. Mr. and Mrs. Myrick got divorced not too long after things settled down. Mrs. Myrick still lived alone in the house.

The Ford’s engine revved and its headlights came on. It pulled slowly away from the Myricks’ curb, swung into the driveway across the street and backed out, headed in the opposite direction. The red glow from the taillights brightened as the driver slowed in front of Ken’s house. The passenger-side window slid down, and the driver leaned over the console. Ken stayed where he was, leaving the strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the street in between them.

“Do you know the woman who lives in that house?”

“Yeah,” Ken gave a half-nod.

“Would you please let her know that her son is okay? That’s the message. Her son is okay.”

Then the man drove off. Ken hadn’t asked who he was or how he knew about Ricky. He tried to get the guy’s plate number, but that was after he was halfway down the road and it was too dark to see. Now that he thought about it, maybe the guy didn’t want to be seen, since the light over the license plate was burned out or missing. It was twilight, the Ford was low to the ground, and the guy was across the car, on the driver’s side, so Ken didn’t even get a good look at him. Was he the guy who took Ricky—since obviously if what he was saying was true, Ricky had been alive these thirty years. Maybe he was Ricky. In the darkness, he looked like he could have been around Ken’s age.

But he could have been some crackpot. Old news was easy to find nowadays, and maybe he was just someone who wanted to toy with Mrs. Myrick. Give her hope where no hope was warranted. Ken heaved a bag of leaves onto his shoulder and dragged the other one behind him, through the gate, into the backyard, out the gate to the alley. It was getting colder, and he wanted to get inside, take a warm shower. Watch a movie with his dad. Ken went back out front to get the rake and the box of trash bags, locked them in the storage shed out back, and went into the house.

He could smell the fire his father had made. Hear it too. Ken enjoyed the wood fires they had in this house. He and Sharon hadn’t been able to have a wood burning fireplace in Denver. Well, they could have had one, but if they actually wanted to use the thing with any sort of regularity, they had to opt for gas. Clean burning fuel. Small towns in the middle of nowhere, though, they didn’t try to tell you how to live. If Ken had gone out in the front yard and chopped down his dad’s 100-year-old tree to use for kindling, no one would have said a word. No homeowners associations here. He liked that. People should be able to be in charge of their own lives and make their own decisions without worrying about what everyone else wanted.

“Want to watch Patton tonight, Dad?” Ken called into the living room.

“I’m a step ahead of you, boy. It’s all set up and ready to go.”

He smiled. Things were peaceful here with his dad. He was glad he had moved back. His dad had set aside enough money over the years that Ken didn’t have to have a job, could just live here and take care of things. Mow the lawn in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, shovel snow in the winter. He did the grocery shopping, cooked meals, drove the old man to doctor’s appointments, the household things his mother had done before she died five years ago. It was good for both him and his dad. Ken felt needed, and his dad had someone to care for him as his ability to breathe became more impaired. He’d quit the cigarettes six months ago, but it was too little too late. His oxygen tank went wherever he did now.

The timing worked out very well for Ken. The downsizing had been rumored for months, but it didn’t happen until he had made the trip east to see his father in the hospital. When he got back to work the following week, the layoffs were announced. Fortunately, the agency was small enough that the event wasn’t newsworthy, and Ken didn’t mention the job loss. He just offered to move back and take care of his dad. His brother and sisters were amazed at his sacrifice and willing to let him make it. His father resisted at first, uncomfortable at the idea of his son giving up his job and his life, but Ken persuaded him, pointing out that, really, he was in the best position to make a change. The one-year lease on the apartment he’d moved into when he and Sharon divorced was up in a month, and sure, there weren’t many jobs for advertising executives in Plainfield, but family was important to Ken. He loved his dad.

He wasn’t sure why he let people make the assumptions they did, and at times he felt bad for not setting them straight, except that setting them straight would almost surely invite pity. Divorced, unemployed, middle-aged provided he lived to be 84. Did it hurt anyone? Did he have to divulge every detail of his life? It had been fortuitous timing, and nothing but good was coming of it.

He was glad to have a home again.

“Just let me take a quick shower, Dad, and I’ll be right there.”

Ken bent forward and let the hot shower run on his low back, easing the ache out. He wondered again who the man in the Focus might have been, and, more to the point, he wondered what he should do about it. Clearly, if the guy was just some sick joker, he should do nothing. But how to know that? If the man was the person who had taken Ricky, then the police should be involved. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t have a lot to give them. A guy he couldn’t describe driving a car he couldn’t identify by anything more than its make, model, and color. Why would the person who took Ricky resurface now anyway? Maybe it was one of those deals you heard about every now and then where he was taken by a couple who really wanted a kid. Maybe they raised him as their own, were really nice people (as kidnappers went), and now the man felt remorse for having acted in what clearly was only his own self-interest.

Most puzzling was the possibility that the man had been Ricky. If that were the case, why involve Ken at all? Why not just knock on his mother’s door and give her the reunion she no doubt had been praying for these past three decades? Instead he drives down the street and asks some neighbor guy, some former classmate, to tell his mom he’s okay? What kind of sense did that make? Ken found himself getting angry about the whole thing. There didn’t seem to be any good way to deal with the situation. If he let it go, he’d deprive Mrs. Myrick of knowing that her son was, possibly, alive. If he told her, especially if the guy was some nut, it would just cause her more anguish, when she’d clearly had more than her share. If he told the cops, he’d look like an idiot for failing to get more information and as a result of that failure, they wouldn’t be able to do much anyway. Talk about a no-win situation. He decided to dry off, watch the movie with his dad. Sleep on it.

The following morning Ken sat across the table while his dad ate his oatmeal and read the paper. He scanned the street for blue Fords, but didn’t see any. He watched the kids walking up the street to Washington Middle School, where he and Ricky had gone. Except for Ricky’s disappearance, nothing bad had ever happened in Plainfield. Far as he knew, no one had ever even gotten divorced but the Myricks. Life here had been secure and stable. Boring, he had thought at the time. He’d gone away to college, moved to a big city, got a big job, married, and now had nothing left to show for it. Sharon had sold the house in Denver and moved to Orlando with her new husband. He was 42 years old, unemployed and living with his dad. He wondered how Plainfield could stay the same, when everything else changed so much. Maybe it was that sameness that made it feel like home.

“What do you know about Mrs. Myrick, Dad?”

“Carolyn Myrick? What about her?” His dad didn’t look up from the sports page.

“Just what do you know. How is she doing? Does she have a job? Did anyone ever hear anything more about Ricky? You know, that kind of thing.”

“As I understand it, the police never did find anything else out about the boy. You knew she and Ted divorced—I guess that was while you were still in school. I heard not too many years after that that he remarried. Started another family, I believe. Carolyn never did marry again, didn’t even keep company with anyone, as I recall. Don’t remember her having a job either. She mostly just stayed in that house. Wasn’t the same after everything happened, though. Not like she went off her nut or anything, but she just wasn’t the same, not all friendly and social like she used to be. Stopped tending her flowers and visiting around the neighborhood. And, well, folks were uncomfortable around her after what happened, like they thought her bad luck might rub off. Guess she must have felt that. Pretty much just kept to herself, poor woman.” He took another bite of oatmeal. “What makes you ask about her?”

“I don’t know. Just thinking about Ricky, I guess.”

As he walked up the street, Ken really noticed the Myrick house for the first time since he’d been back. It looked like the kind of house kids would hurry past on their way home at night. There was a low wrought-iron fence around it with a gate that actually hung crookedly off its hinges. He remembered when he was a kid the fence had been covered with sweet peas and all sorts of climbers. Now the yard was bare, except for the blanket of leaves from the giant oak, which, now that it was stripped, Ken could see needed a good pruning.

He crossed over to the Myricks’ side of the street. The house needed some paint, too. That would take a couple of weeks, if someone tried to tackle it by himself. It was a big old house. He reached for the gate, smiling at the squeak when he pushed it open. He rang the doorbell and listened, heard a three-note chime. At least that still worked.

As happened each time he saw someone from his childhood since his return, he was surprised by Mrs. Myrick’s appearance. He remembered a woman in her thirties, dark curly hair, slender, pretty, and in front of him was a little grandmother who almost came up to his shoulder, with her gray hair actually twisted back in a bun.

“Why, Kenny Chamberlain! I am so pleased to see you. Please do come in.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t stopped by sooner, Mrs. Myrick. I really should have.”

“Well, I’m glad you have now, Kenny. Please, sit. Could I get you something? Coffee? Tea?”

“Smells like you might have some coffee on. If you do, I could take a cup of that. Black. Thank you, Mrs. Myrick.”

Ken sat on the formal sofa and looked around the room as she bustled around in the kitchen. It clearly was what they used to call a “front room,” a place where people didn’t spend much time, unless they had company. Ken looked at the magazines arranged on the coffee table in front of him. Quilter’s, Good Housekeeping, A Taste of Home, which appeared to be some sort of cooking magazine. He thumbed through that, wondering just who Mrs. Myrick might prepare such meals for. There had been no other children but Ricky, and he recalled that as a kid he never noticed lots of family at the Myricks’. Even before Ricky’s disappearance, their house had been sadly quiet. Always cared for, always seasonally decorated with a jack-o-lantern on the porch or pictures of cartoonish turkeys taped in the window or red and green lights, but lacking in the bustle and the human activity that bespoke a holiday.

Mrs. Myrick returned carrying a tray with a small coffee carafe and two cups, as well as a plate of cookies. She placed the tray on the table and carefully poured him a cup.

“So, Kenny, what did bring you back to Plainfield?” she asked as she took a seat on the chair across from him.

“Oh, my dad wasn’t doing so well after his last hospitalization and, well, my brother, Phil, lives up in Boston with his family, and Sue and Rose and their families are all back there too. You know, jobs, kids in school. Since I’m the least encumbered, it just made sense for me to be the one to take care of him.”

“Well, he’s quite lucky to have you. The house is looking better than it has in years. And I’m sure he enjoys the company.” She smiled.

“Yes, he does. I think he’s missed having someone to watch war movies with.”

She laughed, and then they were silent for a moment. Ken listened to the refrigerator running, thought about the nice shade that the oak tree probably provided to this room in the summer time. He shifted on the couch, reached for a coaster, set down his cup.

“Mrs. Myrick, could I talk to you about Ricky?”

She had been worrying at a crocheted cover on the arm of the chair on which she sat, but now her hand became still. “Ricky?”

“Well, yes. I just, well, I guess I’ve been thinking about him, what with being back in Plainfield, and I started wondering if the police ever did find out what happened.”

“No. They never did.” She sat for a long moment staring at Ken’s cup of coffee. “He would have turned 43 yesterday, you know.”

“Yesterday was his birthday? No, I didn’t know that.”

“Indeed, it was. I’ve never forgotten the day he was born. Do you know why?”

Ken assumed the obvious answer wasn’t the one she was looking for, so he replied that he did not.

She opened a drawer in the coffee table, took out a photo album, and came to sit next to him on the couch. She turned through a few pages until she found what she was looking for, then she laid the album on Ken’s lap. He looked down and saw a picture of this house as he remembered it from his childhood, painted, cared for. Then he saw the snow, at least four feet of it. “The Blizzard,” he said.

She smiled at him. “We’d never seen snow like that in October, and we haven’t since. Ted was out for three hours shoveling, then I remember he came in to get the camera to take a picture of the mounds of snow. Just a few hours later, we were on our way to the hospital.”

They sat and looked at more pictures. Ricky at Christmas holding up a GI Joe. Mr. and Mrs. Myrick dressed up at a New Year’s Eve Party. A picture of a table set for Thanksgiving dinner with Ricky smiling and pointing to the turkey. Ken stole glances at Mrs. Myrick as she paged through the album. He tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, losing the life she had expected to live. Who would she be, if things had been different?

Mrs. Myrick had been smiling down at a picture of Ricky in a Little League uniform. She gently placed her fingertips on the image, kept them there. “Do you know, Ken, that sometimes I pretend he is here? I pretend he is with me like you are with your dad. His favorite meal was pork chops and mashed potatoes with applesauce on the side. He liked it when I would season the pork chops with rosemary. Strange for a little boy his age to care about that, but he did. So sometimes, what I do, when I miss him especially, is I buy two nice pork chops at the grocery. And I come home and I crush some dried rosemary leaves and I sprinkle them on the pork chops as they cook. The kitchen smells like frying pork chops and rosemary, and it takes me back. It just takes me back. And I set the table, a place for me and a place for Ricky. And I fix his plate and mine, and I sit and talk with him. Because I wonder how he is getting on. Do you understand? I wonder how he does. When I do that, I feel so very close to him, like he never went away.”

They sat in silence for a while, Mrs. Myrick staring at the carpet, and Ken looking at the oak tree out the window. It didn’t have to be today that he passed the message on. He could do it later, when he had a better sense of her, of how she might receive it. It didn’t have to be now. He stood to go.

“Oh, Kenny, I hope I haven’t run you off with my nonsense. It must have been seeing one of Ricky’s friends. I’m so sorry.”

“No, Mrs. Myrick, please don’t think that. I have to be getting home, to get Dad’s lunch ready. I will be sure to come back.” He paused, weighed things. “Maybe sometime you might want to come by our house for dinner.”

“I would, Kenny.”

As he walked away, the leaves crunched under his feet. Later today he’d come by with his rake, bring some oil for that gate. Good could come out of it. Kenny imagined someone out for a walk on a chilly fall night. They might look up, see the warm light of the kitchen shining out into the darkness. The family sitting around the table. Mrs. Myrick passing him a bowl piled high with mashed potatoes. His father cutting into his pork chop. The window, open just slightly to let in the fresh air. The sound of laughter. The smell of rosemary.


“I am a writer living in Phoenix, Arizona.” E-mail: tmoran[at]

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