Then, without any explanation, Tim stopped being around. Julie was afraid to ask why, and Eric – well, for all Julie knew, Eric was used to father-types being there for a while, then not being there any more. The only clue to what had happened was the time Julie heard her mother crying through the bedroom door.
A year later, the coat was back in mothballs. Fancy perfume and glittery dresses no longer graced their clean but untidy apartment. Mom was working late and coming home too tired to cook dinner. Between the few dishes Julie could cook, Mrs. Fyler down the hallway, and a half-dozen take-out-or-delivery restaurants in the neighborhood, the family got by without candle-lit meals, except on holidays.
Then the first letter came. Julie saw the envelope before her mother did, because it was her job to check the mailbox in the lobby when she came home from school. Julie knew it was Tim’s handwriting, even though there was no return address.
That night, again, Julie heard her mother crying through the bedroom door.
More letters followed – and packages wrapped in brown paper – and for Eric, a birthday card signed “Love, Uncle Tim.” Eric looked happy to get it, but he didn’t say anything. Julie wondered if he could remember Tim.
November came. The Saturday before Thanksgiving, Mom loaded them all into a taxi with a brace of suitcases and took them to the airport. She had explained, the night before, that Tim had accepted a promotion to another branch of the company, halfway across the country. He had asked her to come with him – that meant her and the children, of course – but she had been in the middle of an important project and had her own career to consider, and had told him she wasn’t ready to do that yet. Only now, Mom explained, Tim had asked her to consider it again, and she was ready to do that – to consider it.
So they were going to spend the week of Thanksgiving at Tim’s house, and then they would see what would happen. That’s what Mom said.
When they landed and got off the plane, Tim was waiting for them. Right there in the middle of a very busy airport, Tim hugged and kissed their mother for a long time. Then, more briefly, he hugged and kissed both of the children. There was even a catch in his voice when he said, “Hello, Eric,” and, “Julie, it’s good to see you again.”
Julie fell asleep in the backseat of Tim’s car and awoke in sunlight, in a strange bed, in an upstairs bedroom, in a creaky drafty old house that was as unlike their uptown apartment as any nice place could be.
She explored the house while Tim cooked breakfast, starting at the top and working her way down. Her bedroom, while smaller than the others, had its own balcony over the back porch. Eric’s room was full of heavy, dark-wood furniture and a bed so high that he would need a stepladder to crawl into it. The master bedroom, where Mom was humming to herself while she dressed the bed, was wide and full of sunlight. There was a cast-iron bathtub with feet shaped like a lion’s paws, and a steep, straight banister that looked perfect for sliding downstairs.
At the bottom of the stairs, Julie found Eric watching cartoons on a very old and clunky TV, sitting on a couch strewn with sheets and pillows. This must be where Tim had slept, thought Julie with a mysterious sense of relief.
Julie slouched through the dining room and into the shiny, tiled kitchen, where Tim was making scrambled eggs. He said, “Good morning,” with a smile as bright as that patch of sunshine on the countertop.
“This place smells old,” Julie remarked with a meaningful sniff.
“It is old,” Tim said, as he scraped a pan with a spatula.
“Why did you pick an old house when you could afford to live anywhere?”
Tim shrugged. “Maybe not anywhere,” he said. “And I didn’t pick it. My parents picked it, before I was born. This is where I grew up.”
Julie nodded knowingly. “I see. You’re saving money for something special.”
“That,” said Tim, “and I happen to love the place. Did you see the bathtub?”
“Sure. I’m planning to go swimming in it after breakfast.”
“You have to wait an hour after eating before you go swimming,” said Tim. “Hey, there goes the toaster. Would you like to butter the toast?”