THE LAST HOUSE ON LANGTON ROAD
by Rosemary Cacolice Brown
The damp and blustery March morning matched Lilly’s mood as she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel of her 2003 Honda—the beater. She’d been waiting for Tommy, her kid brother by ten years, to emerge from the seedy red-bricked rooming house he’d been occupying for a year. Only in the last hour did she decide to give in to his urgent morning call. Pure and simple, she was plain tired of his foolishness, and at this point, with her own life now in turmoil, she could no longer be the guardian angel he’d relied on since he was ten years old, just after Mama passed on to join Pop in the hereafter.
From then on it was pretty hard scrabble for the most part, but she stuck with it, completely invested. But what did it matter? At twenty-three, bright enough with sound potential, he was still like tumbleweed in the wind, living on pipe dreams about making it big in rock music. He’d quit so many jobs she lost count. Now he was practically living on soup and beans until the “big break” arrived. Maybe once in a while a decent meal if he took on some brief employment washing dishes at a greasy spoon or clerking at an all-night gas station. But, always, not for long. Sooner than not he’d bounce back to Dempsey’s Bar on Fifth Street, content as a suckling pup to be singing his own songs while strumming away on his secondhand guitar, picking up peanuts from local boozers for the effort. Why it needled her so, especially lately, she had no idea. It just did.
As she waited the irony didn’t escape her, considering her own unwise choices. After all, six years ago while in early pregnancy with Davey, didn’t she make a horrendous mistake by marrying Ritchie, Davy’s father and all-time weasel that made her life miserable by his deceptions and occasional womanizing? Oh, and by the way, thank you very much, let’s not forget his last act in spades—his neglect to renew the lease on their Baker Street apartment just before taking off with that straw-haired bimbo. Learning of it too late, it was already leased out to new tenants in just three weeks, leaving her and Davey up the proverbial creek. The upside in her woeful tale was her part-time waitressing job at Milano’s Pizzeria where hefty tips were bonus, along with the recent approval on her application for assistance. The downside was her fruitless effort thus far to find one single affordable rental in the locale of her choice, something near Davey’s school that provided special education for his needs. In short, if she came up empty, the outcome wouldn’t be pretty and she tried not to panic—tried being the operative word.
Tommy finally emerged from the rooming house looking, like always, completely oblivious in his whirly-gig world. He rounded the front of the beater, opened the passenger side door and plunked himself in the seat, smelling like soap and leather.
“Hey,” he said, his big brown eyes shining, his smile a little too broad.
She wasn’t in the mood. “You wanted to see me today?” she asked, afraid of what he’d say next. Did he need money? She wouldn’t delve. She had her own problems.
“Yeah, I got something and just wanted to clue you in, that’s all. You’re still looking for a place, right?”
“Well,” he began exuberantly, “last night I overheard some guy, a regular in Dempsey’s, saying he was pretty anxious to rent out a house on Langton Road. From what I heard it’s been empty for awhile—so far no takers—and I just thought you might be interested.”
Lilly’s first thought was why should he suddenly care? She hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him for a month or so, ever since their last heated “discussion” about where the hell he was taking his life. But, dire straits that she was in, she let it pass.
“Langton Road, Langton Road…where is that, Tommy? Did you get an address?”
“No, but he did say it was a mile south of the Billson Forge, the last house on the right. It’s been up for a while I guess…needs a little work, so maybe the rent’s on the cheap.”
Lilly squinted. “What does that mean, needs a little work?”
“Can’t say, just telling what I heard.” Seeming a bit antsy, he pulled a cigarette from the inside pocket of his leather jacket, lit it and cracked the window. “We won’t be able to get inside, but I can get you there—just to check it out, I mean.”
While vague on the exact neighborhood, Lilly knew the general vicinity of Billson Forge. Though not in the area she hoped for, she may have to broaden her search and leave no stone unturned. Perhaps the place was worth a look-see, not to mention the possibility of cheap rent.
“So, wanna give it a shot?” Tommy persisted, interrupting her muse.
“Sure, why not?” she answered, keying in now. She had some time before picking up Davey from his kindergarten class. It shouldn’t take long and they could swing by after and pick him up.
Still, it kept niggling at her, his brotherly concern. Something felt off, and though she tried to kick her suspicion, she just couldn’t—and had to ask.
“What’s going on, Tommy?”
His reply was tinged with annoyance. “What? Chill down, Lil! Christ, I’m just trying to do something nice to help you out, that’s all!”
Okay, she’d drop it. He wasn’t going to cooperate. Pushing the cautionary vibe out of her head, she turned the engine. While she drove, Tommy guided the way with nothing else incendiary exchanged between them.
Langton Road was, give or take, about fifteen minutes out, the house sitting at the end of a long rutted road adjacent to a weed-infested field that stretched on forever, probably ending where the Billson Forge began. Lilly could see the smoke stacks through the front windshield. Just as the wind picked up, a few sprinkles of rain followed, but nothing like last night when it came down in torrents while she lay sleepless obsessing over the dilemma she was in. Pulling into the pock-filled driveway, she stifled a gasp as best she could as she took it all in, feeling as though she had sunk to the bottom of the despair barrel.
Eagerly, Tommy nudged her. “So, wanna get out and look around?”
Lilly didn’t answer. The place looked dismal—no, positively ghastly. But they were there now, so she clicked the door latch and got out as Tommy followed suit, jumping out from the passenger side. A gust of wind then penetrated her thin frame, and as she pulled her gray fleece jacket tighter around her a faint acrid odor assaulted her senses.
“What’s that god-awful smell?” she wondered aloud.
“Probably soot from the smoke stacks over at Billson,” Tommy replied, pointing at their direction. “But, hey, it’s a clear mile from here…probably only happens on windy days like today, I’m thinkin’.”
Ah, yes, his screwball optimism to see gold in pit gravel was in full gear. But for now, on with it. The sooner they finished the grand tour of the place, the sooner they could leave.
Tommy kept at it, for some ungodly reason all pumped up on the ramshackle mess. “Look at it this way, Lil. Do you see it? It looks like a small cottage, doesn’t it? The roof seems pretty good and there’s probably a working furnace, too. A little paint, some grass seed, a few flowers and who knows? Hell, it could all turn out pretty damn sweet, you know?”
Really? That would take a miracle. Tuning him out, she kept moving through the misting soot for further appraisal, ignoring his preposterous notion while he prattled on, pushing the potential of the wretched place.
Approaching the house, Lilly took the lead and rounded the first corner on the right. Maneuvering through the weedy path, two plain double-hung windows were all there was to see, so covered with gritty film there was no hope of assessing what was inside as she peered through them. Quickly moving on, the backyard wasn’t much better, the whole of it cordoned off by a rusty chain link fence. Obviously, children had played there once, as evidenced by a weathered red-benched sandbox, empty now except for one cracked toy shovel and minute bits of twig and paper debris making twirling eddies in the sporadic wind. Again, two more double-hung windows made a total of four. She didn’t bother to peer through them. They were as filthy as the ones she’d just encountered.
Oh, how abysmal it all seemed, just like her life had become! Shaking her head, she softly whimpered as Tommy pulled up behind her, so close she could feel his warm breath on the nape of her neck. Turning, this time she saw no silly enthusiasm in his expression. But she simply dismissed it, eager to round the last corner and hightail out of the depressing atmosphere engulfing them.
Now, almost done and halleluiah! The last narrow path had no weeds this time, just dirt consisting of a slight downward slant. As she trudged through the sucking mud resulting from the overnight deluge, she found nothing more than two more replica windows yet again, just like the others keeping secrets as to what was under the roof. It didn’t slip by her that Tommy was now silent, no longer pushing her to envision something promising in this hell hole that she couldn’t possibly fathom.
Finally at the starting point, Lilly did a cursory view of the entire bleak setting. Suddenly aware that Tommy put himself out to help her today, she feigned a smile. The least she could do was offer a tidbit of gratitude because, at the very least, he deserved that much.
“Well, Tommy,” she fibbed, “I’ll try to imagine the possibilities, like you said. If nothing else turns up, maybe we can come back for a second look.”
His stunning reply spilled out quickly, unabated. “Don’t bother, Lil. The inside is probably no better than the outside of this garbage pit.”
Stunned, confused, she was speechless for a moment, then utterly exasperated by his complete turnaround, and out it came.
“Okay, little brother, what the hell is going on with you? First, you practically drag me here, all gung ho, painting pictures about a cottage, grass seed, flowers and paint, as if this hovel could ever come close to anything like that, and now—“
He didn’t let her finish. “Please, Lil, stop! Let me explain!”
She waited. Where was he going with this?
“Straight out, I’m leaving, Lil,” he began after a long, ragged breath. “I decided two nights ago when I was in Dempsey’s just doing my thing. Some guy on a road trip stopped in, heard me sing, came up to me after and gave me his card. He thought I was pretty good and might have a shot at a real gig in Vegas. It’s not much, just a small lounge at the end of the strip.”
She tried to interject, but he was on a steady roll now, dead serious.
“Look, I get how you feel about my life—and sometimes I agree. Does that surprise you? But music is where it’s at for me, always was, always will be, so this is my first real chance to hit some pay dirt and I have to grab it. Only thing is, I’m having a tough time about it. I’d feel a lot better about going if it weren’t for the fucking mess you’re in. So, I tried to fix things by dragging you to this dump.” Stopping momentarily to gather himself, he then went on. “But I got straight after I saw that broken down sandbox. I thought of Davey and couldn’t believe what I was trying to pull off…and right now I’m feeling like scum for bringing you here.”
His sudden heartrending admission staggered her as she processed his words, observing him where he stood; his hands tucked in the side pockets of his jeans, his long hair whipping in the wind like ribbons tied to a full-throttle fan. And then, like a thunderbolt, it finally arrived—her long-overdue epiphany.
Like Tommy, she also had a confession due. For some time now she’d considered him a pain in the neck, this kid brother who never ceased to concern her. But somewhere along the way he became something different that she never bothered—or cared—to notice; a sensitive, frustrated soul carrying a boatload of talent and hungry dreams, steadfast on where he wanted to take his life. Along with searing regret, in that inexplicable instant her heart opened with newfound love, even respect for him, suddenly aware that she needed his fortitude, his unyielding hope, far more than he needed her.
And now? Oh, how she didn’t want him to leave! Kicking aside an inner warning that she’d be tethering him like a dog to a fence post, she’d give it a go, her gaze meeting his straight on as she tried mightily to will the answer she hoped for.
“Please, Tommy, don’t leave, not just yet. Ever since Ritchie skipped out I’ve had so much on my plate. I felt so alone and miserable and, I admit, crazy-blind with self-pity. When I saw so little of you these past weeks I felt abandoned twice. He was gone and you were here, so I dumped all my frustration, my anger, on you. I see it now and I’m truly sorry…because I do love you so. You know that, right?”
Emotionless, he said simply, “Never doubted it,” his quiet affirmation bolstering her appeal, so she continued.
“And about your music and what you hope for? I was a fool not to realize what was in your heart, so I hope you’ll forgive me for that too…and maybe stick around for just a while longer?”
The quietness prickled with uncertainty as Tommy absorbed the whole of her bare-bones plea. Nervously, he lit another cigarette and shook his head. Lilly was fidgeting now, fingering the zipper of her jacket while the soot-ridden mist gained force around them. But that was the least of her concerns. With his silence, she knew she’d have to free him from her petition so they could return to where they were, just sister and brother, united as they struggled to survive the hurdles tossed their way on their separate journeys.
“Oh, just forget that, Tommy,” she lightly quipped through stifled sobs. “Where was my head? It was just a momentary lapse, that’s all. Besides, we better go now. School’s out soon and Davey will be waiting.”
Tommy didn’t speak until they were settled in the beater. As she inserted the ignition key the clutch of his hand pulled her tired, moist eyes to his, his next words like balm to her battered spirit.
“Look, I love you, too, Lil. Don’t you know that? These last weeks…I stayed away because I felt helpless to support you ever since Ritchie took a hike. I knew any effort I made would come back hard on me…how I lived and what I wanted. You hammered me, but I never stopped caring, got it?”
How true…She had treated him so badly. “Got it,” she simply said.
“So I’ll tell you what, big sister. My Vegas audition actually doesn’t come up for a couple weeks, so I have some time yet to stick around to help you scope out some new digs? If we stay on it, something will pop, I know. But you have to promise me one thing.”
“What?” she answered with quaking voice.
He hesitated, sighed, then took his shot. “That you won’t take him back, even if he begs. You’ve given in to that bastard too many times—I guess for Davey’s sake—but every time he’d hurt you again and it pissed me off plenty.”
“Cross my heart,” Lilly promised. “I’m so done, believe me! All those other times I guess I couldn’t admit I’d made a terrible mistake. Now I can…but do you mean it?”
“That after how I’ve treated you, you’ll still stick around to help me out?”
“Damn straight,” he assured. “So if we’re good here, let’s go pick up Davey. I’ve been missin' the little stinker.”
At that, Lilly’s heart lifted as they softly laughed. If life is full of surprises, then today was blessed with a hopeful one, for Tommy's underlying point in getting her to this god-forsaken setting conveyed one beautiful truth: they’d always matter to each other, come what may. Backing out of the pock-filled driveway, she knew she’d never forget the time and place of their renewed fidelity. Then, pulling away, she stole fleeting glimpses through the rear-view mirror. The last house on Langton Road grew smaller and smaller until the unceasing swirls of misty soot erased her final clear view of it.
BIO: Rosemary writes from her home in mid-50’s suburbia in southeast Michigan. Always at the keyboard whenever time allows, she loves bringing life to a blank page. Early on her work was print-published in small-press magazines. On the Internet, her stories have been published at Long Story Short, Apollo’s Lyre, Green Silk Journal, Houston Literary Review and Fiction on the Web.