Korbin’s Last Meal
From the far side of the hill, the melancholic sounds of radio static intermingled with Seasons in the Sun swept over the neighborhood. A car engine backfired and sputtered.
A rusty Ford came into view, swerving down Steel Street towards the uneven driveway of a lonely 1950s ranch. The last house on the block without boarded up windows. The lawn needed cut and watered. Dead grass swayed in the wind, synchronized to the motion of a tattered American flag. Thistle and ragwort grew in place of roses and petunias. Above the front door, a spider tended its web, the only sign of life on the entire block. Below the knocker, there was a faded eviction notice, unheeded and frayed.
A balding, wrinkled young man with bloodshot eyes stumbled out of the truck. Inside, the house smelled of mold and rotten yeast, which didn’t bother him anymore. Flies buzzed, zipping from room to room. Ignoring them, he dropped his keys onto the floor by a cedar shoe rack and hung his coat up on the last hook. It fell on a stack of unlaundered jeans. He never learned how to use the washer. Instead, he learned how to no longer see the growing piles of rancid, stained clothing or the towers of food-encrusted dishes spread about the landscape of his living room.
Family mementos were scattered on the coffee table. His son Jack’s boxing gloves, his daughter Hannah’s pink sweatbands, his wife’s knitting needles, and a stack of books gathering dust in the corner.
“You’re late again, Korbin,” his wife, Julia, said.
“I know. I’m sorry, Jules.”
He rubbed his swollen eyes and flopped onto the couch.
“Working late again?”
“No, dear. Left early. I don’t think I’ll be going back, either.”
Korbin’s jeans hung loosely around his waist, knees stained with mud, hems in tatters. His jacket, golden arches displayed on the breast, stank of cooking grease and sweat.
“You went to see them.”
“That’s the fifth time this week. When are you going to allow yourself move on?”
“I don’t know.”
He kicked off his boots. Chunks of dirt and grass flung everywhere.
“Well, you really oughta stop going back there. They’re looking for who did it. Sunnyside isn’t safe anymore.”
He sunk into the couch and opened a photo album titled ‘Jack and Hannah, 1994.’ He thumbed through the pages, stopping on a picture of two chubby babies in footy pajamas. Jack’s were blue and covered in superheroes, Hannah’s pink with princesses. Jack had the sinister look of an older brother determined to torment his freckled sister. He was damn good at it, too.
“Got it from you, Kor. You sure knew how to push my buttons.”
Korbin growled. “I forgot you can do that…”
Julia smiled, grabbing his hand between hers. “Do you remember their first birthday?”
“You weren’t off work when mom showed up with the cake. The one you were supposed to pick up, I might add.”
He turned on the television, an old tube set he always planned to move out to the garage when the kids went off to college. Julia had promised him a flat screen and a new satellite dish for the living room.
Wheel of Fortune was on, featuring another man from Ohio going bankrupt. Thirty thousand dollars gone… Just like that. A small price to pay, thought Korbin. A price he’d pay any day to get his old life back.
“I’m sure I was there,” he finally said. “Chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream. It was delicious.”
“No, we had a vanilla cake.” Julia sighed, rolled her eyes, and walked towards the corner of the room, facing away. “I knew you wouldn’t remember.”
“That’s right. We had chocolate the next year, didn’t we?”
He flipped to the next page in the photo album, ignoring a budget advertisement for some sleazy bankruptcy lawyer; the business card burned a hole in his wallet.
“Yes, we did. You’re right.”
The single picture on the next page was their son, blue and white frosting all over his hands and face. The frosting was tear-smeared and his cheeks were cinnamon-red.
“Look, Jack stuck his hands right in there. Hannah wouldn’t try a bite. What kinda kid doesn’t like cake?”
Korbin tittered. It started to rain, even when there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky. Given time, more water would leak in through the spot in the ceiling.
“Shoulda fixed that…” Now it’s too late.
“You’ve been a bit preoccupied, Kor. There’s a lot of things you should have done.”
He brought the album closer to him. In another picture, the twins were sitting in their high chairs, wearing glittery, cone-shaped party hats. Jack’s devious face grinned at Hannah who was pouting over a bowl of spilled cheerios. Behind them, the remnants of dozens of birthday presents—piles of action figures, Legos, dolls, and books—attested to what was once, so long ago, their life on Steel Street.
“That was a good year,” Korbin said. “Finally got my raise. Jack and Hannah started talking. They both said ‘Mama’ first, I think.”
“Of course. They didn’t see you that much, Kor. That was also the year Mom died.”
“I’m sorry. I forgot.”
“It’s okay. It all seems so silly now, doesn’t it?”
“Want some ice cream?”
“You know I do.” Moisture glinted on the corner of her eye.
Korbin walked to the kitchen and pulled out a gallon of vanilla ice cream and a bottle of chocolate syrup. When he opened the cupboard for bowls, he found it empty instead. He turned to the sink and dislodged a couple dirty ones. Scratching off dried milk, he added an extra scoop for Julia to the cleaner of the two.
“A couple years later Jack cut a big chunk of Hannah’s hair, remember?” She ignored the ice cream in front of her.
“How could I forget? You never let me hear the end of it.”
“She cried and cried and cried. Nothing could cheer her up.”
“You were so mad.” Korbin ran his fingers through his beard and scratched the back of his neck. “I thought you’d never talk to me again.”
“You were supposed to be watching them, Kor.”
“I closed my eyes. Maybe I fell asleep, I don’t know. I’m sorry. I was so tired and, besides, Jack just wanted to give Hannah a haircut. That’s all. It was starting to get pretty long.”
They laughed. Korbin felt the loving embrace of his daughter—cold and ethereal—and saw the shadow of Jack’s toothy smile on the wall; no matter how hard Korbin tried, he couldn’t forget them.
“I had to. You always knew how to be ‘Mom.’ You were Superwoman. Cleaning, cooking, shopping, helping with their homework. Calming them down whenever they had nightmares. Sure, I worked long hours to support you guys, but I always wanted to be more like you. Stronger. More patient and, uh…”
He shoved an over-sized bite into his mouth and shut off the television. The man from Ohio had built his fortune back up only to lose everything again. Korbin couldn’t stomach it. There’s no end, is there? There’s only one tragedy after another.
“There’s hope, too.”
“Bullshit. No such thing left in this town.”
“Well, you tried. You always tried. Even after the shut down.”
“But I missed Jack’s first fight. My boss called. I left the game for a bit. Then, in the car, Jack asked if I saw his right hook, and I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I told him to hush, that I was on the phone.”
“Worse than ‘hush’, Kor. But he forgave you; we all did. Why can’t you forgive yourself?”
“I missed Hannah’s first gymnastics meet, too.”
He dropped his spoon into the empty bowl, placed it on the table, and pulled open a drawer. Among the clutter of drawings and keepsakes he found the medal his daughter had won that night.
“Look at it. First time out and she won a medal. Who would have guessed that our daughter would have been so gifted on the high beam? They both had so much talent…”
Korbin laid the medal back down, nearly choking on tears. His hand grazed a name tag that read ‘My name is Jack; how may I help you?’ He thumbed it over, tracing the grooves of his son’s name. Lightning cracked and lit the living room, illuminating their 4 by 6 faces on the wall. When it was dark again, Korbin saw them on the insides of his eyelids.
“Jack always wanted to be like you.”
“What do you mean?”
“When I dropped him off his first day at the grocery store, he talked about how you were always working. ‘My dad’s a big shot. He runs an entire factory’, he’d say. He bragged about how excited he was to finally make you proud.”
“He wasn’t even sixteen.”
“What was his friend’s name? That cute, redheaded checker?”
“Ah, Mary Anne. They had a class together, too. Jack was crazy about that girl. He talked about her all the time until I told him to man up and ask her out already.”
“The first time I saw you hug him was when she left after their first date. You threw your arm around his shoulder, mussed his hair, and made him tell you every single detail.”
Korbin toyed with his wedding band. He turned it around and around before holding his hand out in front of him. He took it off to read the inscription: ‘Semper Amare’. Love Always.
“Maybe she was his one,” he said. “I met you at that age, couldn’t get you out of my mind, either. Those legs. That smile. How could I not be happy for Jack maybe finding the same?”
The storm outside calmed to a rhythmic pitter-patter. He picked up a paperback from the corner of the coffee table and blew off the dust.
“Faulkner. Hannah’s favorite author.”
“Did you ever read it, Kor? She wanted you to read it.”
“I finally got around to it. There was never enough time when they were here. Jack grew up too fast; Hannah was too smart for her own good. Remember catching her up late past her bedtime? Always reading, learning something new, writing in her jellyroll journals. I bought her so many journals and colored pens. She never asked for them, but I kept bringing em home. Did she like them, I wonder? Or did were they only making me feel better about being gone?”
“We couldn’t be mad at her for reading, could we?” Julia said. “I wish that had been the most of our troubles, in the end.”
“No, we really couldn’t. I almost had enough saved to send her to school. Somewhere nice. Maybe even Wayne State.”
He set the book of short stories down and took their bowls to the kitchen. One was empty. The other was melted ooze. He left them where he found them. On his way out, he turned the knobs on the gas stove. A gentle hiss filled the kitchen.
Korbin stared into the darkness of the dining room. The table was set for four, cloth napkins folded lazily at each place. In the center stood two brass candlesticks, covered in a thick layer of dust. The gold-leaf candles Julia liked had long since burned down to their bases. Wax had pooled and hardened on the tablecloth and onto the corners of plates and the handles of silverware. He replaced one with a fresh candle, struck a match, and held it to the wick. The flame cast wicked shadows on the creases of his face as it danced back and forth.
He touched his hand to his shirt pocket where he carried the note his wife had written. Anytime he tried to read it his hands trembled and his palms sweat. He had found the note on the kitchen counter beside a wilted azalea pedal.
“What’s wrong, Korbin?”
“It’s all my fault. I should have been home. I would have known who that boy was, that bastard Parker kid. What he was doing under my roof.” Korbin pulled the worn, grease-stained note out and carefully unfolded it. “I know you blamed me. That’s why you decided to leave, too. You never gave me a chance to make things right. To make him feel pain like we did.”
He felt her hand on his shoulder and tried to hold it. There was nothing there but a wisp of chill air.
“I didn’t blame you, Kor. Not once. Those kids were my entire world. I couldn’t go on without them. And I couldn’t watch you do what you were planning to do. But I didn’t want to stop you, either.”
Korbin opened the cupboard in the corner of the dining room. On the bottom shelf was an insidious black safe. Something heavy, steel, and familiar called to him. It had done so more than once during the Parker kid’s trial. He kneeled down to pick up the gun. His fingers fit perfectly around the rough handle.
“He almost died, too, ya know?”
“But he didn’t, did he?”
“Korbin, I’m sorry. I really am.”
As his wife said this, he slumped down at the head of the table. He spread the note out in front of him, clasped his hands in prayer, and read the words out loud.
“Goodbye, Korbin,” Julia had written. “I need to be with the kids. There’s still so much I have to teach them. I hope in time you’ll understand that they need me. And I need them. Remember, I’ll always love you, despite everything that has happened. Maybe even more because of it. You were as good a father as you knew how. Please, let that count for something. For us, it was everything.”
He stopped, scratching his temple with the barrel of the gun. His finger hovered over the trigger.
“Go on,” Jack said, his voice wet and garbled.
“The last part makes me laugh,” Hannah added, wheezing.
At either side of the table, his children waited patiently to hear the rest. He’d never shared the note with them. He’d never shared much at all.
Forcing a smile, he continued. “P.S., there’s leftover roast in the refrigerator if you get hungry. I made the gravy extra salty, just like you like it. If you don’t eat it all in the next few days, you can always freeze the rest later for soup or something. I love you, Kor. You’re going to be okay.”
As a family, they laughed at the absurdity of this last part. At least he could share these final moments with them.
“I’d take it back if I could. I never realized how much you needed me.”
Korbin read the note again, brushing off a maggot. The flies were a constant, deafening roar in the dining room. By now, he was used to the smells that attracted them, but the sound never went away. One alighted on a moldy, green carrot floating on the thick surface of a bowl of sludge.
“I was selfish, Kor. I’m so sorry.”
“Yes, you were.”
“I… I didn’t…”
Korbin slammed his fist down on the table, rattling the dinnerware. Julia jumped, pushing back in her chair.
Hannah glared with jaundiced eyes. Her chapped mouth gaped on rotten jowls, and what was once hair clung in mats to her pus-covered neck. She no longer possessed the childlike beauty he remembered. She was a shambling, hideous thing. A fiend unfit to pass itself off as his daughter. But she’ll always be my princess.
Jack, once so strong and bullheaded, sat opposite, reduced to a spindly shadow of the man Korbin tried to make him. A chunk of his shoulder was missing from where his father had accidentally spurred him with the spade. Bones from his ribcage jutted at uncomfortable angles, splitting rotten flesh.
Korbin leaned forward, grabbed the hardened hands of his children, and closed his eyes.
There they were, one Christmas morning, opening presents and drinking hot cocoa. He was asleep on the couch, warn out and distant. Probably a bit worse for drink, too.
Then the kids were at the school on graduation day, tossing their bedazzled graduation caps into the sky and getting ready to be the adults they had already been for so long. He caught bits and pieces of the ceremony on DVD later that week.
A crack in Hannah’s bedroom door. The stench of vomit and bile, her palms up. Jack slouched against the wall beside her, needle stuck in the crook of his elbow.
Flashing blue and red lights.
White hallways. The persistent, slow beep, beep, beep. Him, standing at Hannah’s bedside as the sound quickened and stopped.
And then they were gone, though when he opened his eyes his whole family was there, right where they should have been all along. Korbin was there, too, clinging to everything he lost.
He let them go, picked up the gun again, and pressed it under his chin.
“You don’t have to, Daddy.”
“Pops,” Jack said, “we aren’t going anywhere.”
He didn’t respond. Instead, he read the letter for the last time and enunciated Julia’s word ‘hope’ with the crack of his 45. He fell backwards in his chair, legs straight up, just in time to miss another family dinner.