ManicHedgehog - The Prodigal In Stone Ferry, Ohio, things don't change. They simply die off. As he sipped from his can of mocha espresso in the parking lot, Michael Burkhardt thought he had found the lone exception to that rule: A Marathon gas station on the main drag. What was once a little two-pump convenience shack was now a twelve-pump, one-stop-shop basking in the neon glow of ads for beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets. It was a rare dose of corporate interest in a town built on blue collars and family values. As he leaned up against the rented Impala, Michael perused a copy of the Wall Street Journal and sipped his coffee in a can, hoping he could wait the day out. It seemed so easy in the sun-splashed corner of his favorite Starbucks, with the San Francisco Bay at his back and a newspaper in his hands. It wasn't so easy in Stone Ferry. Michael folded up the paper and looked at his watch. He was still wound up like a slinky, and he still had somewhere to be. At times like these, he wished he still smoked. With a heavy sigh, he hopped back into his car and started east down Hickory. Stone Ferry had become a graveyard. Old downtown was full of boarded up shops and For Sale signs that had been in the windows for years. The two-screen movie theatre on Third Street, where Michael had his first date and saw his first R-rated movie, was abandoned — its battered marquee announced, "TH NK YO FOR 73 Y ARS! THE SHO WIL GO ON". With the streets barren and the younger generation, including Michael, having moved on, Stone Ferry could rest in peace in the shadow of the great rubber factory. The factory had been the beating heart of Stone Ferry for decades, and when that heart stopped beating, it was only a matter of time before everything around it died. The rubber factory was dead. Downtown was dead. And now Dad was dead. The only surprise to Michael was that the old bastard hadn't kicked the bucket sooner. He probably died with a bottle in one hand and dollar signs dancing in his head. In Stone Ferry, Ohio, things don't change. Michael felt the goosebumps rise on his arm as he turned into his old neighborhood. He let the car drift slowly up to his childhood home. Yes, that was Dad's red Caddy convertible in the open garage, looking as new as the day he'd bought it. And, yes, that was Eric's pickup in the driveway. "Sh**," Michael mumbled as he parked along the street, among a few cars that likely belonged to people who wouldn't be too thrilled to see him, even after all these years. Michael stepped through the tall grass and yellowed leaves of the front lawn, feeling his ankles weighed down as if by a ball and chain. It wasn't too late to turn back, he thought as he stepped onto the porch. No one would ever have to know he had come by to make a fool of himself. And for what? For Dad? The more he thought about it, the worse this idea began to sound. Michael rapped softly on the front door, and every eye in the living room turned to meet his. For an eternal moment, no one said a word. No one's expression changed. Michael simply stood in the doorway, meeting the looks of shock with an embarrassed half-smile. "Michael," Liz muttered. She was kneeling over a box of trinkets and bowling trophies, looking at Michael as if he'd come back from the dead. "Hey, sis," Michael replied. Eric took one step from the dining room and turned up his chin. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Good to see you, too, Eric," Michael said. "That's not how it works, Michael," Eric growled. His face was as red as Dad's Caddy. "None of us have seen you — hell, none of us have even heard from you in years. And you suddenly show up, hoping to be a part of this family again?" "I came for Dad," Michael replied. "Yeah, about 24 hours too late," Eric said. "You know the funeral was yesterday, right?" "I came as soon as I could," Michael said. Eric was now a little more than a foot from where Michael stood in the doorway, well within arm's reach. "I had a conference in Indianapolis I had to be at yesterday. I wasn't even sure if I was going to be able to make it today." "Nice to see you can find time in your busy schedule to make room for your family." "If the man's as dead and buried as you say he is, Dad's not going anywhere. I can still pay my respects." Eric lunged at Michael and slammed him up against the door by the collar. Zeke, who had been frozen by shock until now, was quickly on Eric's back and hauling him away. "Come on, Eric," Zeke said. "Now's not the time." Eric wrestled away from Zeke and glared at Michael. His face convulsed with anger. "This is how you choose to do it?" Eric fumed. "After Dad tried so hard to raise us the right way?" Michael loosened his tie, which had begun to feel as if it were strangling him. "I don't think I need to justify that with a response," he said. "After Dad tore apart this family, nearly bankrupted us, drove Mom away. I'm surprised we turned out alright." He fixed his eyes on Eric. "Well, most of us." "F*** you," Eric said, looking ready to pounce again. "Okay, that's enough!" Zeke shouted, placing a firm hand on Eric's shoulder. "We've got a lot of work to do here. You guys can spill your testosterone later. Eric, finish up in the dining room. Michael, come with me. You can help me clean out the kitchen." Michael followed Zeke through the dining room and into the kitchen, taking care to fire a glance at Eric as he passed. Eric always had Dad's side, even to the grave. Walking into the kitchen was like diving face-first into a dumpster. The stove and sink squirmed with grime. The fridge was open*and belching forth a violent stench. A half-empty garbage bag sat at its foot, and there was probably plenty more where that came from. "I'll take care of what's in the fridge," Zeke said. "Check the cupboards. I'm sure there are some canned goods that are good enough to donate." "Gladly," Michael replied. He opened the cupboard slowly, making sure there were no bats or roaches waiting within before he proceeded. "That was a really sh***y thing you did," Zeke said. "What?" Michael asked. "Showing up here like that," Zeke said. He emerged from the great white beast long enough to display his disappointment. "Showing up when you did. If you're going to come for Dad, the least you could do is show up for his funeral." Michael avoided Zeke's glance and turned his attention to the cupboards. "Like I said, I had a conference to attend. Besides, Dad probably wouldn't have wanted me there in the first place." "You're family, Michael," Zeke said. "If there was one thing Dad always preached, one thing he always cared about, it was family." "Among other things," Michael replied. He pushed aside a can of green beans and pulled out a glistening bottle of brown liquid. "Just one bottle of Crown? Must have been time for a run to the liquor store." Zeke sighed and shut the door to the fridge. "Why did you come, Michael?" he asked. "What do you mean?" Michael replied. "I came for Dad. I came to support you guys." "You and I both know that's not true. You didn't come for Dad, at least not for the Dad you knew. Or the Dad you think you knew. You clearly still haven't forgiven him, even after he's dead and gone. So why now?" Michael set the bottle on the counter. "I'm going to see what needs done in the bedroom." He walked out of the kitchen, feeling Zeke's eyes on him all the way. The path to the bedroom was narrow and cluttered. Michael could have sworn the door frames were a little wider, the ceiling fans a little higher, the afternoon light in the windows a little brighter. Time has a strange way of warping memories. The dent in the wall was still there, across from the bathroom door. The blood was long gone, but the memories were fresh. Dad's investments had gone south, all at once. His company was bleeding cash and cutting staff, and he might be the next to go. No one else in the family really knew how bad it had gotten — he never talked about it until the booze dragged it out of him. But Doyle had one last prospect for him, one last investment. This was the one that would get the family back on its feet again. All he needed was five hundred dollars. Dad still had that distant gleam in his eyes. He still followed the money, as he always had. But he no longer had the sense to find it. Mom was a meek woman, one to always put her family before herself. So it came as a bit of a shock, both to Dad and herself, when she said no. No, she would not authorize a check out of their joint account. It was time for him to move on from a company to which he'd given 20 years of unwavering loyalty. It was time to move on from Doyle and his wild investments. And it was time to put a stop to the drinking. Mom didn't raise her voice; Michael wasn't sure she ever had the capacity to shout. But she was firm, and at the very least, she thought that Dad loved her — that he loved his family — too much to object. The subsequent impact rattled the halls like thunder. Michael remembered coming out of his bedroom and seeing his mother in a crumpled heap on the floor, blood flowing from the back of her head. Standing over her, a silhouette in the moonlight, was Dad, with anger and confusion in his eyes. Anger and confusion, but no remorse. That was the only time Michael ever took a swing at Dad. He spent the next two days in the hospital, mostly for precaution. When he returned home, Mom was gone. If only she could see him now, college educated and more successful than she ever thought he would be. He still believed that leaving Stone Ferry was the best decision he'd ever made. So why come back? Dad's bedroom appeared to be undisturbed. Half the bed was unmade, with the sheets pulled out at the feet and a nightshirt tossed upon the pillows. The other half of the bed was pristine, fully tucked in on both sides, with two pillows stacked neatly on top of one another, and a golden throw pillow at the head. Seventeen years since Mom had left, and nine since she had died, and Dad's bed still looked as if he was expecting another woman. Michael opened the closet to find dozens of white shirts, suit jackets and ties hanging within, accompanied by the familiar scent of moth balls. It had been a long while since Dad had needed to get dressed up, though Michael wouldn't have been surprised if Dad had still been wearing a suit and tie around the house. For most of Michael's childhood, that's the only way the man knew how to function. "Dress for success," Dad preached, and successful he was, for a time. He was always in the Caddy before the end of breakfast, and he was often gone before Michael was up in time for school. On some nights, he wouldn't come home until the darkest hours of the night. Michael learned to stop lying awake, waiting to hear the front door open and Dad's shoes brush softly across the kitchen floor. The longer he was out, Mom said, the more money he was bringing home for a bigger house and a college education. None of that mattered much to Michael at the time, though. He didn't want a bigger house, and he certainly didn't want more schooling. He wanted a father. Dad never did get good at providing that. A wooden box peeked out from darkness underneath the suits and slacks, and Michael had to pull it out to make sure his eyes weren't deceiving him. Yes, this is the same box. He ran his fingers across the script "M.B." carved into the mahogany. It still looked brand new, even after all these years. He released the clasp and opened the box. The shoes within had seen better days. The black leather was creased and missing its distinctive shimmer. On the back of the left shoe, a deep scratch marred the script initials Dad had paid handsomely to have engraved. They didn't have the look of it now, but at one time, these shoes made Dad business royalty. When Dad opened the wooden box, he wasn't just dressing for success. He was dressing to conquer. These shoes had seen the world: New York, Los Angeles, London, Moscow, Tokyo. Dad even wore these shoes during a running of the bulls on a business trip to Spain. He was wearing them when he received his first promotion, and when he used the subsequent bonus to buy his Caddy. And he was wearing them on the day Michael was born. To a young Michael, these shoes were a treasure from distant lands. According to Dad, they had been given to him as a gift by the pope's personal shoemaker. Michael's belief in that story died alongside his belief in Santa Claus, but to a small child growing up in a Catholic household, Dad's shoes may as well have been signed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Michael remembered being about five or six years old, slipping into Dad's closet one weekend and putting on the shoes. Even though he could hardly walk in them without tripping over himself, he'd never felt more important. At least until Dad had come in, and he fell backward, out of the shoes, for fear of punishment. Instead, Dad just laughed, kneeled down and slipped the shoes back on Michael's feet. "Don't worry, Michael," Dad had said. "They're too big now, but someday, you'll grow into them." The shoes were still two sizes too big when Michael wore them to his freshman prom. He was so clumsy and awkward that night that all he could do was stand by the punch table all night and participate in the occasional slow dance. But the shoes still worked their magic that night when he met his first girlfriend and had his first kiss. Now the shoes seemed lifeless. Michael removed them from the box, placed them on the floor and slowly, tentatively slipped them onto his feet. They did not wobble on his feet, nor did they feel two sizes too small. They were a perfect fit, as if they had been made for him all along. Michael soaked in the silence of the house, waiting for the magic to take over. "I didn't expect to find them here." Michael turned around to see Liz leaning against the doorframe. She nodded at the shoes on Michael's feet. "I always thought Dad would take those shoes to the grave," she said. "Yeah," Michael said. "He really loved these things." Liz shrugged and smiled. "Who knows? Maybe he was saving them for you. I always got the impression that he'd give them over to you someday." "I don't think Dad was saving anything for me, except maybe a few harsh words." Liz's smile faded. "Were you telling the truth earlier? About wanting to pay your respects to Dad?" "I guess so," Michael said. "Though it's probably too late to do any good." "Like you said," Liz replied, "Dad's not going anywhere." She unhooked a set of keys on her jeans. "Come on. We'll take my car." Michael nestled the wooden box back into the darkness of the closet. "Where are we going?" he asked. "To see Dad." Liz rushed out to the car ahead of Michael. Michael arrived to find her tossing fast food bags and water bottles from the passenger seat into the back. Michael ducked into the old Saturn and wedged his feet into a pile of papers and trash. "Sorry my car's such a mess," Liz said as she started the engine. Rock music rattled the car for a few seconds before Liz hastily turned it off. "F***, sorry again. I'm not used to having passengers. And I sure as hell didn't expect to have my big brother riding along today." "A few days ago, I wasn't so sure I did, either," Michael said. Halfway down the block, Liz pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit it with the car's lighter. "Smoke?" Liz asked, holding a pack of Marlboro Ultra Lights out to Michael. "No," Michael replied. "I've kicked that habit." Liz took a drag and chuckled. "You?" she said, blowing a stream of smoke out the window. "The kid who smoked like a freight train all through high school?" "That was a long time ago," Michael said. "I've changed." Liz looked over at Michael and smiled. "Look at you," she said. "White-collar, cappuccino-sipping, big-time California man." She paused and flicked her cigarette. "Dad would be proud." Michael conceded a quick laugh and rolled his eyes. But the smile on Liz's face was completely sincere. Autumn had taken over the Sacred Heart Cemetery. The sun peeked through yellowed leaves as it edged toward the western horizon. Michael and Liz passed a Vietnam War memorial and trudged through a field of little American flags that peeked through the leaves. Michael felt uneasy. It had been nine years since he'd visited Sacred Heart, nine years since Mom had died. The gravestones and American flags seemed to stretch even further than before, up over the hill and out of sight. "So what happened, Michael?" Liz asked as they walked. "I went five years without getting so much as a Christmas card from you. Deep down, we all just kind of hoped you weren't dead or in jail." "No," Michael replied. "I just needed a fresh start. I needed to get out of Stone Ferry." "I get that," Liz said, brushing her hair out of her face. "What I don't understand is why you needed to get away from us." "You knew it was going to happen, Liz," Michael said. "We grow up, we make our own lives. That's what happens." "People don't just abandon their brothers, their sisters, their father, when they need them," Liz said. "Sh**, Michael, losing Mom was tough on all of us, but we all stuck it out together. All of us but you." Michael looked over and watched a tear crawl down Liz's cheek. She shook her head and brushed it away, cursing under her breath. That was Liz: always ready to say exactly what was on her mind, with whatever words were damned well appropriate. Nothing like Mom. Michael pulled her in close, and she sighed. "I told myself I'd never come back to Stone Ferry," Michael said. "Well, I'm glad to see you back," Liz replied. "Just...try picking up the phone once in a while, you know?" "I'll give it a shot." Michael felt his heart sink as they pulled to a stop in front of two small gravestones. He knew this spot. He knew the yellowed maple that hung overhead. And he knew the scent of flowers on a fresh grave. "Mom," Michael muttered. There was her gravestone, buried in grass and leaves. The roses at his feet were wilted and decaying into the soil. Directly to its right, bouquets and framed portraits flanked the headstone of a new grave. A faded color photograph depicted a young man with a wide smile and a distant gleam in his eye. In another photograph, that man was joined by a small, meek woman in a flowing white dress. Michael scattered the leaves with his foot and inspected the gravestone. "Martin Burkhardt. April 3, 1949 - October 5, 2010." "So this is Dad," Michael said. "And Mom." "Just the way they had wanted it," Liz said. Michael shook his head and took a step back. "I don't understand," he said, his voice tinged with frustration. "Mom and Dad were divorced." "You know Mom," Liz replied. "She never could hold a grudge." "But he *hit* her! She left us because of him!" "Nine years is a long time, Michael. Time has a way of healing old wounds, and with Mom, no wounds were too deep to heal." "But Dad..." "Dad made a lot of mistakes, quite a long time ago. But everything he did, he did for us. He missed Mom like you wouldn't believe. But when he died, he just wanted to know he'd left his family in better shape than they had left him." She paused and smiled at Michael. "You were the only one he'd lost contact with, but he seemed to know you were doing OK. Not sure where he got the idea, but Dad was always a smart guy." Michael looked down at the grave and realized he was still wearing Dad's shoes. He thought he was ready to say something, but he choked it down. "People change, Michael," Liz said. "You just have to give them the chance." Michael tucked his feet into a bed of leaves. The worn leather had given way, and it felt a little looser now than it had when he'd first put them on. "Yeah," Michael said, after a long pause. "Maybe." Michael shoved his hands into his pockets and shivered, feeling the winds change as the autumn light danced on the faded, smiling faces of the bride and groom.