Today we share another excerpt from First Words, a collection of early writings by famous authors, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. Our previous posts have highlighted the work of Stephen King and Margaret Atwood. Today’s installment features a short story written by Joyce Carol Oates at age 17 that was published in her high school’s magazine. In this story, Oates explores the elements of family that she will continue to experiment with throughout her writing career.
A Long Way Home
I can still remember the day Albie came home from the war. I can still remember how happy everybody was and how nice things were at our house while we were waiting for him. You might think that I was too young at the time to remember anything that happened so long ago, but when something very important happens it is often more difficult to forget than to remember.
When I got up, I could tell right away that the day was something special. Downstairs everything was clean and shiny and had a fresh, out-of-doors sort of smell, and there were flowers on the table– red, dark red, real dark red roses that Mom had picked from out along the fence. Some new yellow curtains, that she had been making for a long time, were up in the kitchen, and I could smell the warm, sweet smell of pie baking. The minute I went into the kitchen and saw Mom I remembered why everything was so different and so nice– today was the day Albie was coming home.
“Good morning, Jack!” my mother said. She was smiling and looked very happy.
“Morning,” I said.
“And did you have a good night’s sleep?”
She had never before asked me this question, and I did not know exactly how to answer it. I said: “Okay, I guess,” but I don’t think she was listening. She was doing something else, and saying:
“Do you know where your father is?”
“He’s gone down to the station.”
“The railroad station,” she said. She took out a pie and put it on the window sill, holding it carefully with potholders so she would not burn her hands.
“The railroad station is where the trains come in, Jack.”
“Oh, like in the movie we saw last week!”
“Yes, Jack, yes, you’re right!” She looked very happy and even smiled at me instead of scolding me for being stupid as she sometimes did. “You’re absolutely right! Oh, Jack, isn’t it just wonderful?”
“You mean Albie coming home?”
“Why, of course! What else could I mean?” She went to the window and looked out at the road. “You don’t know how afraid I’ve been, all these months. Thinking– just thinking, and not being able to do anything– sitting home here and just thinking and worrying about him . . . so far away. But now he’s here! He’s why, he’s within the state already, and he’s coming this way. He’s coming home.”
“Will we go fishing again?” I asked.
“I want to go fishing today.”
“No, no, you can’t! Today is something special; your brother is coming home,” she said. She was not looking at me. “You have to be dressed nicely and be very nice to him and make things as nice here as possible, so he will realize how valuable his home is. Out on the battlefield, away from his parents and his home, a boy might begin to forget . . . but not Albie.”
“Maybe we can go fishing tomorrow.”
“His letters were so short, and some of them didn’t come for so long,” she went on slowly. “And sometimes . . . Well, they must have been lost in the mails; the mails here are so bad, and of course across the ocean the mail service is absolutely terrible . . . everybody knows that.”
“Wait till he sees how I painted the boat,” I said.
“He’ll love it here. Everything is fixed up for him. I’ve made a pie and we’re having chicken for supper and everything is just going to be wonderful. Compared to what he’s been through . . . he’ll love it here.”
“When will he be here?”
“What, Jack? What did you say?”
“When will he get here?”
“In about an hour.” She turned and looked at me with a smile, but it faded from her face when she saw me. “Jack! I told you last night to put on your new shirt and trousers this morning!”
“But I’m going fishing afterward, and you always tell me to wear my jeans . . .”
“Can’t you understand? Can’t you understand that today is something special?” she asked. She was getting angry, and I did not want to be hit. “Your brother is coming home. Albie is coming home. Can’t you understand that– don’t you have any feelings at all?”
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
“Oh, you’re not really. You’re not; you know it, you just deliberately forgot about it,” she said. “You do anything to make me angry, when you know what headaches it gives me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll put the other things on.” I went out of the kitchen and back upstairs and changed my clothes, and this time I did not come back down again.
I sat by my window and looked out, and it was a beautiful day. There were birds in the tree outside the window, and they all seemed very happy, and everything was perfect. It was a good day for fishing, and I could not understand why Albie would not want to go. He always loved fishing, and I should have thought it would be the first thing he would want to do. It would be for me.
I looked at Albie’s bed. Mom had made a new bedspread for it, a pretty blue one that was a lot prettier than my grey one. Albie ought to like it, she said, because it was so gay and so pretty and he would want things to be gay and pretty after the war and everything. I did not know what she meant by everything, but when I asked her she just said that she did not know herself, and so I forgot about it. Up on the wall was the football letter Albie had got in high school. He had been wonderful; Mom told me he had been captain of the football team and in every activity at school and one of the most popular boys. She only wished that I would be like him, but she said that it did not look as though I would. It was funny, but I did not remember any of these things about Albie. I did not remember him in football games although I know I went to many of them. I did not remember him as sitting around home and being so nice and polite and helping with all the work as Mom told me he was, and as Mom told me I ought to try to be. I remembered Albie only as an almost faceless, pleasant boy who went fishing with me and even let me row sometimes. I remembered that he smiled a lot when we were outside and that he was very nice, while my friend Bill’s big brother would always chase us and never was nice to us at all. I remembered how we would talk late into the night about things, about Christmas and Halloween and school and how he would take care of any of the big boys who acted tough with me when I went to school on the first day. I remembered sled riding in winter and running out on the ice on the creek, and I remembered fishing again, and being taught how to pitch although I was really too young to be able to throw hard.
I remember Albie sitting with the big boys in the back of the bus. I remembered being proud and glad that he was as good as any of them and that he even talked to me once in a while when we were on the school bus. I remembered the day he went away with the suitcases and how everybody had gone along with him to the “station” and I had been left home with my sister, Anna, and how they had all come home very sad and were mad at me for any little thing I did. I remembered all these things although I did not even have to try, and although I did not even know that I knew them. They all came back just like that, and it made me glad to know that Albie was coming home after so long.
Later on I saw the car come into the driveway, and I went downstairs. My mother had run outside and had even let the screen door slam, so I did the same thing. I felt terribly happy and I looked to see if everyone else felt the same way so I would not be scolded or anything, and they all looked happy too and so I did not have to worry. My sister Ann and my mother and my aunt Alma were all out by the car. They were very happy, putting their arms around Albie’s neck and kissing him and saying how glad they were that he was back, and how wonderful it was to see him again. Dad, too, was very happy although he stood back and let my mother and aunt and sister talk as much as they wanted. I went up to the car to get a look at him; it had been so long since I had seen him last. Now that I got closer I felt almost sad, because I did not know what I could say to him, and I suddenly had the idea that maybe he was grown up now and like my father and mother.
“Where’s Jack? Hey, where’s Jack? Oh, there he is–! Hi, Jack,” Albie said.
“Hi,” I said.
“You don’t look very happy,” Albie said. He was smiling in a funny way, and I could see that he was not the same. It made me feel all the sadder, because I had never thought that when Albie went away that he would not come back Albie again.
“I want to go fishing with you,” I said.
“Jack!” my mother said. She was surprised and angry.
Albie looked over toward the creek. “I’ve been thinking about fishing, he said. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
“I go almost every day,” I said.
“Who do you go with?”
“Oh, Bill, now.”
“Do you catch much?”
He looked around at the tear-stained faces of my mother and sister and aunt. “We’ll go sometime, you and I,” he said. “You don’t know how I’ve been thinking about it.”
“About fish?” I asked. “About the twenty-incher you got that time?”
“No, not about fish,” he said. “Just about the creek and how we would go rowing on it, trolling at night.”
“But we never caught much then.”
“Oh, you two!” Mom said suddenly, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Talking about fishing, and at a time like this! Oh, Albie, you don’t know how wonderful it is to see you again–! But I must get a grip on myself, I must calm down. As you can see, Albie, since you went away, I’m not . . . I’m not very– well.”
My aunt Alma put her hand on Mom’s arm and said: “Now you just come inside. We’ll all go inside and talk about things, and then it will be about time for lunch. Wouldn’t you like that? Now, of course, you would. — You’ve gotten thinner, Albie, I do declare! We’ll have to put some more of that fat back on you, won’t we? My, how thin your face is!”
Albie brought his things into the house and put them upstairs in his room, and when he came down again we all sat in the living room and talked. My mother had very much to tell him, although I cannot remember any of it now. My father told him something about a job waiting for him, a good job and a place in the union, too, and how they were always looking for good men. My aunt told him some thing about the family, how old Uncle Pete who had died last winter and how he had suffered at the end, and about Martha, who had had that terrible three hour operation, and about her own troubles that she was having with her heart– or she thought it was her heart. My sister Ann told him about some girl named Cindy that he apparently had known, because he was interested for a while. My sister said something about the girl coming over for dinner that night, but then Albie had stopped smiling. He did not look well.
“I saw Cindy the other day in town,” Mom said. She was still dabbing at her eyes although she did not seem to be crying any longer. “Just the other day, in front of the bakery. Of course she knows all about your coming home, probably even knew about it before I did; I wouldn’t doubt it any–! And we were both so excited; we were both so happy–! Why, even now I can hardly believe that–”
“It’s all fixed up with this man, this Morgan, I was telling you about,” Dad said. “You’ll start in sort of low, of course, but pretty high compared to what you’d get in any other job. Like I said, they’re looking for bright young men to keep industry going. Union looking for ’em too. You’re in, solid, and let me tell you that being my son might have just a little bit to do with it.” He laughed and offered Albie a cigarette, which he took and lit for himself. “Yessir, just a little bit to do with it! You don’t know how good it makes a man feel to be able to help his son out.”
“Do you suppose you and Cindy will be getting married now?” my mother asked. “Such a lovely, wonderful child that girl is! Of course, both of you are so young, so terribly young, but it would be so nice . . . She thinks the world of you, Albie, just like we all do!”
“And about transportation, son. There won’t be any fooling around with buses or anything. You’ll get a ride with some guys I know who go right by the plant– Al Robinson and Steve Martin. You know them, don’t you? Sure you do, you used to go and watch me bowl and they were on my team. Well, you’ll get a ride with them and there won’t be any fooling around with buses– late half the time and so far to walk anyway. Things are all planned. It’ll be just like it would have been if you’d never even left.”
“Cindy’s coming over tonight. Did Ann tell you? Oh, Albie, I’ve made the most wonderful dinner for us– I can’t wait till you taste it! It’s so wonderful to have you back again, to see you . . . You know, you haven’t changed a bit, not a single tiny bit! You’re still my Albie, my little Albie . . . oh thank God you’re here with us and safe!”
Albie looked away from her and kept on smoking the cigarette. I did not remember that he smoked, but somehow it did not surprise me. He wasn’t Albie. I wasn’t the boy I remembered, the boy with whom I had gone fishing and fought and talked and gotten into trouble. He was somebody else. I did not know this somebody else, and I did not dislike this somebody else, but I wanted to like him very much and I felt very sorry for him. I just kept staring and did not say a thing.
Albie looked at me and said:
“Maybe you’re thinking you won’t be wanting to share a room with me.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t mind.”
“Of course he doesn’t,” my mother said sharply. “He certainly doesn’t–”
“Did you miss me, Jack?” he asked.
I did not know what to say. “Yes,” I said after a moment. “I missed you at first because it was so lonely at night, and I didn’t have anyone to go out on the creek with.”
“I sort of forgot after a while.”
“That’s good, Jack.”
“Why, you terrible little brat!” my mother said. “Did you hear him, Harry? Did you hear what that boy said– to his own brother?”
“I’m sorry if it’s wrong,” I said. I was becoming afraid. I thought he might hit me. “I’m sorry, I really am!”
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” my father said. He was angry. “Go outside, Jack. Go outside and play with Bill. Go fishing– go on.”
“Change your clothes first,” my mother said.
When I had gone as far as the doorway, I heard Albie say:
“I’m going to go with him.”
“But, Albie, we have so much to talk about . . . ”
“I know he didn’t mean what he said; he’s so little. Think when you were his age!”
“I want to go out with him,” Albie said. He had not finished his cigarette but he put it out in an ash tray.
“Albie,” my mother said. She began to cry again. “Don’t you want to talk to us> Don’t you want to tell us everything that you did?
“No,” he said.
She wiped her eyes. “Albie, dear! Don’t you see how everything is fixed up for you? Don’t you see how pretty everything is?”
“Nothing’s pretty,” he said.
My mother got up. “Look at these curtains, Albie! Just look at them! Why, I worked for hours and hours to get them done in time for your homecoming, just for you. Don’t you think they’re beautiful? Would you like some in your room, maybe? I could make them if you wanted–”
“I don’t want any in my room,” he said.
My mother went to the table. “Look at the beautiful roses I picked! They’re growing out along the fence yet, the same kind you used to pick me when you were Jack’s age . . . Aren’t they beautiful, Albie? Don’t you think they’re beautiful?”
“They’re red,” he said. He looked sick. “I hate red.”
“Albie, is something wrong with you?” my mother asked. She went to him and tried to put her arms around his neck, but he would have none of it. “What’s wrong? Can’t you tell me? Don’t you see how we’ve fixed everything up for you? Can’t you smell the pie and the flowers, and everything– all for you?”
He would not answer, and she went on, trying to smile as though she thought herself silly: “Albie, you just can’t imagine all the days and nights I’ve worried about you . . . all the things I knitted to send to you, and all the letters I wrote . . . Can’t you say thank you? Can’t you tell me you were glad to get them?” She could not smile any longer and said in a fast, shaking, almost hysterical voice: “The scarf! The one with your initials on it, in your favorite color blue! Did it keep you warm out there? Why didn’t you ever say thank you for it? Can’t you say thank you now?”
He turned away and did not answer.
She took hold of his arm. “I don’t understand what’s wrong with you.”
He kept looking out the window. He said nothing, and I felt sorry for him because I knew he had nothing to say, in the same way that I no longer had anything to say to him.
“Albie, you act as though you don’t love us! You act as though you– don’t even know us anymore!”
She clutched at his arm, grabbing the dull khaki cloth. “Can’t you say anything? What’s wrong?– You’re tired; that’s what it is; you’re tired and hungry and– Just go along now and change your clothes, and after you’ve eaten everything will be all right, everything will be just the way it was before–”
“But it won’t!” Albie said. He pulled his arm away from her slowly, almost reluctantly. “You don’t understand,” he said, as though he himself did not understand either. “It won’t be the same.”
They looked at each other. My mother said,”What . . . won’t be the same?”
“I don’t know,” said Albie. He was trying not to hurt her, but it was a difficult thing to do. “It’s something you . . . can’t understand.”
“Albie– what– where are you going?”
“I don’t know yet,” he said, “but I have to leave.”
“You can’t, you just came home!”
“I have to leave,” he said. “I can’t stay here. I’m sorry, but I can’t stay here.” He felt bad about this, but he knew it had to be done, and he was trying not to hurt her. He was really trying his best not to hurt her.
They stared at him in silence. He left the living room and went upstairs, and when he came down again he was carrying his suitcases. He went right on outside again, not looking toward us, and they hurried out after him.
I went back up to my room. It was all mine now, but I realized it had been all mine for a long time. I sat for a while on the other bed and felt the pretty blue bedspread and even got it a little dirty from my shoes. After a while I got up and took down the big football letter. It had been getting dusty on the wall and I knew that, underneath my shirts in the drawer, it would be much easier to forget about.