Luckily for Garrett, it seemed the closer to departure time you arrived for your flight, the quicker the airline rushed you through check-in. Garrett sat by the window, looking out on New York—wondering if he’d ever come back. Maybe once he earned a few paychecks in Tennessee, he could go back or try his hand in California. He could start over; maybe get involved in the entertainment industry like he had always wanted. All he knew was he would get out of Tennessee as fast as possible.
Someone sat down next to Garrett. He looked over; hoping whomever the person was he or she would not want to strike up a conversation. The girl sitting beside him was a petite blonde with big batty green eyes and perfectly white teeth.
“You have family in Nashville?” she asked, a subtle Southern drawl dripping out.
Garrett nodded, but was instantly turned off by the beauty next to him. Normally, he wouldn’t care where she was from if it led to a pretty girl in bed with him. However, at six-thirty-am on a flight back to the last place he wanted to be—it would take a super model throwing herself into his lap to get him in the mood to be interested in flirting with a Southern belle.
She stuck her hand out to Garrett.
He didn’t let her finish. He plugged his ear buds in each side of his head.
“It’s too early, sweetie,” he said with a crooked smile before leaning his head back and shutting his eyes.
His voice was crass; not at all polite.
Metallica already blasted into his ears from the iPod Cara had gotten him the Christmas before he went to prison. The young woman couldn’t believe how foul the man next to her was. She could tell he had a slight southern accent hidden behind his fake New York one, and decided he wasn’t worth her time anyway.
The plane landed in Nashville and Garrett had fallen asleep with his ear buds still in. Tamra Jean stood up and looked over at him. She wanted to leave him there, but instead, decided to get her own revenge for his rudeness. She reached over and yanked the right ear bud out.
“Wake up, Sunshine!” Tamra Jean yelled directly into his ear.
Garrett jumped and looked at her like she was insane.
She smiled, “Nice meetin’ you.”
With that, she turned and made her way down the aisle of the aircraft. Garrett groaned and gathered his carry-on and coat.
Walking down the passageway of the gate, nerves hit Garrett. He hadn’t been home in twelve years. Kevin had come to stay with Garrett in New York about six years ago, but the visit didn’t end well.
“Rett,” Kevin had said to me in an even tone while I was shaving.
I sometimes kept some scruff, but it was getting thick. The girl who was getting us the VIP table at the club liked me clean-cut. I was more of a messy-haired, t-shirt kind of guy, but I know how to get what I want.
Kevin, on the other hand, fit the part to a T. His dark hair was cut short and perfectly styled while his outfit looked neat.
“Yeah?” I asked.
He was younger than me by four years. Growing up, I always felt the need to protect him—especially from our father, which got me more black eyes than I could count.
He was always a little shy, too. I wanted to show him a good time and to teach him how New York girls were.
“Tonight,” I began before Kevin could continue. “Just follow my lead. This girl’s got a lot of hot friends. They’re not like the girls back home, Kev. You can’t just stand with your hands in your pockets and play the nice guy act and hope they come to you. You have to be aggressive with these chicks.”
“I’m not into chicks, Rett,” Kevin said.
I froze and stared at him in the mirror. He was standing behind me. We had the same blue eyes, but they were totally different. His were wide with worry. Mine were wide with disgust and confusion.
“What?” I laughed.
He was always a clown.
“Stop messin’ with me,” I said, my southern twang coming through more than I would have liked.
“Brother, I’m not messin’. I’m gay.”
“No way, man…” I turned around. “That’s not funny, Kev.”
“Rett, I like guys,” he shrugged.
I stared at him. I didn’t understand how that could be, especially with our upbringing. Cayuga wasn’t really pro-homosexual, much like the rest of the South in general. Our father would call us “fags” if we watched anything other than sports. He surrounded us in testosterone—and here my brother was telling me he was gay?
“Kevin, have you even tried girls? I mean, you can’t let your shyness make you believe something you’re not.”
He laughed, “I’ve tried girls. I am gay—I’m sure of it. Mom knows and I’d like your support.”
I shook my head.
“I just—it’s not normal.”
“Oh, I’m not normal?” Kevin asked, taking a more aggressive stance.
“No—you’re just following what the trend is. Is that why you came here? You want to hang out with the open-minded freaks in the village?”
“Fuck you, Rett.”
Those were the last words my brother spoke to me.
Garrett made his way off the plane and turned his cell phone on. He saw a text from Kevin saying he would meet him by baggage claim. He took the escalator downstairs.
A recording came over the loudspeaker.
“Hi, this is George Strait. Welcome to Nashville!”
Garrett groaned to himself, already sick of the Music City novelty. In Nashville, everyone was a musician or songwriter. Every year, more people moved to the city to try and make it big. Garrett remembers all of his visits to the downtown area. All the tourists and college kids far away from home would throw on a cowboy hat and some boots. They’d start saying “y’all” and learn all the words to Johnny Cash songs. They thought that was all it took to fit in.
Garrett used to find it funny as a kid, butnow he just found it annoying. That wasn’t all there was to being country. Being country was deeper than that, and Garrett never felt like he fit in. He wasn’t religious, even though Nashville is the buckle of the Christian Bible belt. He wasn’t an American pride type who had a lot to stand for either. He never rode a horse or a tractor, owned a cowboy hat or even loved Elvis. He was sick of people mistakenly thinking Graceland was in Nashville instead of Memphis. He hated the tourists who took pictures with Elvis statues at chintzy gift shops. It just all seemed silly to him. He wasn’t even into football. Next to God, football was religion down south. Garrett preferred something a little faster paced like basketball.
In Cayuga, the smallest suburb of Nashville, even though it was only thirty minutes away, things were slightly different. People were a little more satisfied with simple jobs like bartending or carpentry. They didn’t have big dreams; they just needed to pay the bills. The country couture that’s all over CMT these days was scarce in Cayuga.
There were some residents, however, who thought Nashville was the “big city” and wanted to get jobs with a major corporation like Gaylord, who own the Opryland Hotel & Resort among other businesses. Even still, the people who lived in Cayuga were more practical about their goals.
Garrett wanted none of the above. He didn’t fall into the satisfied with small town life category nor did he embrace Nashville’s city living. He wanted to move to the real big city: New York. He wanted life to move faster. He wanted people to stop with the fake smiles and phony politeness. In his opinion, southern hospitality was a farce. Southerners just faked it better. That’s one thing Garrett never was: fake.
He stepped off the escalator and looked at the baggage carousels. He found the one where his luggage would be and stood there, glancing around. His eyes scanned past a man and then landed on him again.
“Hi Rett,” Kevin said, his hands in his jean pockets.
Garrett almost didn’t recognize his baby brother. His hair had a trendy, hipster style to it. Kevin always had a full head of wavy hair he had no idea how to manage. His clothing was neat and crisp, as if a J. Crew catalogue put his outfit together.
“Kevin?” Garrett had to question.
“It’s me,” he shrugged, as if he didn’t want to show too much emotion at their reunion.
Kevin was definitely different from the kid Garrett grew up with. He was always timid, unsure of himself and could be classified as a geek. With his new look, Garrett could see Kevin being someone he’d see in Manhattan, rushing through people to grab a cup of coffee on his way to work.
“You look good,” Garrett said, not being able to deny his brother the compliment.
“You look like shit,” Kevin retorted.
Garrett snorted, running a hand through his messy sandy-blond hair, “You know I’m not a morning person.”
“Right,” he laughed. “Like the time of day really has anything to do with you being an asshole.”
“Wow,” Garrett sighed. “So is this why you wanted me to come home for Thanksgiving? To be a jerk to me?”
Kevin smirked, “I’d love to say yes, but I don’t waste energy on negative people who don’t give a damn about anyone but themselves.”
Garrett nodded and watched the carousel for a moment.
“If you don’t want to waste energy on me, why are you here?”
“Mom had to work at the hospital.”
“You should have let me take a taxi.”
Kevin laughed again, “With what money, Garrett? You’re broke, remember?”
“Not for long,” Garrett sighed. “I’ll find a job. Save up and be back in New York before you can say Lady Gaga,” he said, purposely making eye contact with his brother.
Kevin folded his lips and nodded, not even surprised by the stereotypical remark.
“What does Mom think of your…” Garrett began. “Your lifestyle?”
“Oh, you mean my homosexuality?”
Garrett gulped at the word.
“She’s okay with it. It took her by surprise, but unlike some people, she’s a little more open-minded. She loves me for who I am, which is something you can’t say. Mom hates who you are,” Kevin said with disgust in his voice.
Garrett swallowed the lump in his throat.
“If she hates me so much, again, I ask why am I here?”
“Because as much as you continue to hurt her and everyone around you, Mom loves you because you’re her son.”
Garrett noticed his luggage—which were a large duffle bag and a nearly broken old suitcase—on the conveyer belt and snatched them. Kevin didn’t say another word to him as he began walking to the parking garage. Garrett struggled behind him with his luggage.
He unzipped his winter coat and rolled the window down as Kevin drove on the highway toward Bristol and Memphis. Jason Aldean played on the radio and Kevin sang along under his breath. Garrett groaned to himself, wishing he were anywhere but in that Ford Focus listening to country music with his distant brother on his way back to Cayuga.
He tried to close his eyes praying he’d wake up from this nightmare. Then again, Garrett Baker wasn’t exactly a man of God. He remembers ditching church as a teenager. He’d sneak out with Shelly Anderson during the worship music and make out with her behind the magnolia tree in the back of Cecelia Christian Church.
His parents had been married in Cecelia’s and Grandpa Benjamin Carney was buried in Cecelia Cemetery across the street. Granny Kate had donated time and money to the church weekly. She’d bake every Sunday. She ran food and clothing drives. Granny had always been Cecelia’s living saint while Garrett was its “dying soul” as his best friend’s mother, Liz Putnam, had once said to him.
Garrett was not liked in Cayuga. He was an unruly child and bullying teenager. He was also a womanizer, who easily charmed his way out of things when he needed to. Granny Kate had pull in the town and always stood up for her grandson, but laid into him behind closed doors. He spent many weekends mowing lawns in the town “voluntarily” thanks to Granny’s reprimands. She was strict when his mother had no idea what to do with him. Granny Kate would keep him out of trouble on the weekends by giving him household chores.
Though Garrett acted like he hated the chores and being forced to spend his time with Granny Kate, secretly he enjoyed getting away from his home. His mother was depressed after his father took off. Before he left, things weren’t much better. Beatings and breaking things were a constant. Garrett practically ran to Granny Kate’s and dragged Kevin out of the house with him. He knew his father wouldn’t dare come after them at Kate’s. She was fearless and Stephen Baker feared her. He believed she was able to invoke some kind of evil spirits upon him. He was crazy like that.
Aside from Granny, there was her dog, Brownie, who was just as much Garrett’s dog. Garrett loved animals, especially Brownie. Garrett and Brownie were inseparable when he was a child. He hugged her when he was scared to go home. He played with her when there was no one else to play with. She was the only one who loved him no matter what he did. Brownie didn’t know about his F in English or how he put gum in Cori Davis’ hair. She didn’t judge him for making out with Shelly behind Cecelia’s during Sunday service either.
As Kevin’s car passed the “Welcome to Cayuga” sign, Garrett couldn’t help but think if Brownie were alive today, she wouldn’t care that he had been incarcerated four times or that he had abused drugs on and off for the past ten years. She’d run up to him just wanting him to scratch behind her ears and play tug of war with her.
Garrett watched the houses on hills he remembers too well. Some look a bit more run down now, but none of them changed much. Mrs. Waverly, his second grade teacher was walking to her car as they drove past. Her house still had the same chipping yellow paint. Cresley Corners, one of three neighborhoods in Cayuga, was still desolate except for the old-fashioned candy store that advertised discounted Goo Goo clusters and Moon Pies.
Garrett stared for a moment remembering how he and his best friend, Rob Putnam used to steal a handful of Goo Goos every Friday after elementary school. They’d wait until the storeowner, Mac, was on the phone with his girlfriend. They’d run out of the store giggling over Mac using words like “Sugar Pie” and “Hot Lips”.
Garrett wondered about how his old friend Rob was doing. Though, to him, Rob was always referred to as Putz. They were best friends since kindergarten, but Garrett hadn’t spoken to him much since he left Tennessee. He regretted that, among other things in his life, but Garrett doesn’t like to admit it. In his mind, regret was pointless. He couldn’t change anything he had done and he wasn’t sure he could ever be the person anyone wanted him to be.
Kevin turned the corner and the house came into view. It was located on the edge of Cresley Corners and Wyatt Place—a neighborhood that was just one large block long. The only house that appeared different in all of Cayuga was the Baker house. What was normally white with weathered wooden steps that Kevin had fallen down and broke his nose on was now blue with concrete steps.
“Who fixed up the house?” Garrett asked, opening the car door.
“I did,” Kevin said, walking up the driveway toward the steps.
An old green Chevy pick-up sat in the driveway. It was their father’s, but their mother, Amanda, couldn’t bear to get rid of it. She stated it was useful to keep a truck around, but really her sons knew it was because that’s where their father proposed to her all those years ago before the drinking got out of hand.
“She still has the truck?” Garrett sighed.
“Of course,” Kevin said, popping the trunk. “The damn thing doesn’t even run anymore.”
“You should fix it up like you did the house.”
Kevin rolled his eyes, “I’m handy, not a mechanic. Besides, I’ve been trying to get Mama to junk it.”
“If you got her fixed, you could sell it,” Garrett reasoned.
“You know she’d never sell ‘er, Rett.”
“She still loves him, huh?”
He looked over at Kevin, making full eye contact with him for the first time in six years.
“Not much has changed. I’m still haunted by that son-of-a-bitch,” Kevin sighed.
“Have you heard from him?” Garrett asked, kicking some dirt off his boots.
“He still calls her in the middle of the night. She thinks I don’t know.”
Garrett groaned and looked back at the house. Kevin headed up the steps, leaving his brother to grab his own luggage. Garrett went into the house and was surprised at how much the décor changed.
Growing up with little money, furniture was sparse and hadn’t kept up with the times much. Now, the rooms are much more luxurious with a cozy couch, overstuffed chairs, plasma TV and a nook in the kitchen just like Granny Kate had. Garrett stepped closer to the nook—it was Granny Kate’s. He sat down on it and imagined a serving of cherry cobbler in front of him and Brownie at his feet. For the first time in a long time, he smiled.
“You can sleep on the futon in your old room,” Kevin announced, walking into the kitchen.
“This was Granny’s nook.”
Kevin nodded, “Yeah. It was the only thing Mama took from Granny’s house after she passed away.”
“What’d she do with the rest of the stuff?”
“It’s still in the house,” Kevin shrugged.
“Still?” Garrett asked. “It’s been almost a year.”
“Mama doesn’t let go easily. She’s still trying with you after all this time, isn’t she?”
Garrett stood up and went to walk past Kevin. He grabbed Garrett’s arm, stopping him. Kevin was just over six-foot, and even though he was younger, he towered over Garrett’s five-foot, nine inches.
“When you didn’t come home for the funeral, Mama was more upset with you than ever. I thought she was done.”
“You mean you hoped?” Garrett stared at him.
Kevin let go of his arm.
“Just like you always hoped she’d let go of Daddy.”
“So you think of me the same way you think of him?”
“Rett, how else am I supposed to feel toward you?” Kevin sighed. “You’re a lot like him, only you don’t need alcohol to be a bastard.”
Garrett shoved Kevin out of his way and began to drag his luggage upstairs. Though Kevin was taller, Garrett was stronger. Even just the light shove sent Kevin back against the wall.
Garrett’s old bedroom had changed the most drastically. What was once covered with basketball trophies and model cars now had framed landscapes on the walls and a mahogany desk with a Mac computer on it.
A photo of Kevin with Little Jimmy Dickens sat on one corner of the desk and on the other side was one of him and Tim McGraw. Garrett wondered how his brother met them and remembered how much of a country music fan he had always been. He assumed Kevin won meet & greet passes of some sort.
He placed his carryon on top of the futon before looking out the window. All he could think about when he looked out that window was his basketball flying through it. His father had aimed it for Garrett’s head. He wound up having to pay for the window repair with his paper route money.
Kevin walked upstairs with his car keys in hand.
“I’m going out. Mama will be home in a couple of hours,” he said. “There are leftovers in the fridge if you’re hungry.”
Garrett just nodded as Kevin left as fast as he could. After the door slammed, Garrett walked down the hall and into his mother’s bedroom. The crucifix was above her bed just like it always had been. Her dresser held many framed photographs that also hadn’t changed much over the years. Most of the photos were of him and Kevin playing around with each other as children.
Kevin had always looked up to Garrett; in turn, he had always protected Kevin. He missed his kid brother, but he just didn’t see Kevin the same anymore. Aside from being gay, Kevin was all around different—bitterer, more forward and more confident. Garrett wasn’t used to it and he wished it would be as easy as climbing trees together and pretending to be superheroes.
He wandered back downstairs and into the kitchen. Rummaging through the refrigerator looking for a beer, and coming up empty, he settled on heating up leftover stir fry, which was his least favorite dish his mother made. He was sure his mother and brother were both aware of that, and they somehow planned to leave him with the stir fry out of spite.
After eating, Garrett passed out on the couch in front of a rerun of Seinfeld. He woke up to his mother grabbing his dirty plate off the end table. She didn’t even look at him before heading into the kitchen.
Garrett rubbed his eyes as he sat up. He turned the TV off before walking into the kitchen to see his mother washing his plate.
“I would have done that,” he said in a gruff voice.
Amanda Baker shrugged, “I doubt that.”
He stood there, not saying a word as she finished cleaning his plate. She turned off the water and turned around, leaning against the sink and drying her hands on a dish towel.
Garrett noticed she hadn’t aged much in the past twelve years. Her curly blonde hair was as thick as ever and her face waspractically wrinkle-free. She looked much younger than she was. She looked tired, though. Tired from work, but maybe tired of him.
“I’ve missed you, Mama,” Garrett said, and he hadn’t realized it until that exact moment.
“You could have fooled me, Rett,” she laughed, but not because she was actually amused.
“I didn’t mean to stay away so long,” Garrett said.
“I don’t believe that,” she shook her head, with tears in her eyes.
“Don’t cry. Please, just don’t,” he sighed, aggravated.
He hated when his mother cried. He had seen her cry more often than not.
“You better get your shit together or you’re really going to be a bastard just like your daddy,” she exhaled deeply.
“Oh, the bastard you’re still holding onto?”
“Someone has to care about him just like someone has to care about you.”
Garrett nodded, “I’m not asking anyone to care. I don’t have to be here if you don’t want me to.”
“We’ll talk in the morning,” she said tossing the dish towel on the counter. “I’ve had a long day and I just want to sleep.”
She walked toward him, kissed his cheek before leaving the kitchen. Garrett was surprised by how much his mother wasn’t affected by his return home. He expected wide-open arms and gushing words of love. Instead, Amanda Baker was like Kevin—bitter and wiser.