The Refugees

Thaddeus Gunn


My brother turns to me. He says: I want to go home, but I don’t know where that is. I say to him, so do I. In time, I’ll repeat that line to him. He’ll agree, and we’ll order another round.

Neither of us lives on the street. He lives in an apartment. I doubled up when I bought a house. It has a mother-in-law apartment. It’s a home-within-a-home.

Our parents no longer have a home. The last I heard they live at the fairgrounds. Either they’re in one of their cars or a ramshackle, dog-scented motorhome. I’ll get more details on Mother’s Day if either of their cell phones work. Mom left their rented house. She was unwilling to pay for it and the assisted living facility dad went to after his stroke. Then Dad went AWOL. Now they’re together at the fairgrounds which are—until the change of seasons, at least—vacant.

Before he left the facility, dad asked my brother to help him serve divorce papers to mom. My brother declined. Our parents got married 62 years ago.

My father retired from the Episcopalian clergy. When we weren’t home, we were at church: a house exalted by dazzling stained glass and soul-stirring music. The air thick with rich frankincense. Not a bad second home.

The first one wasn’t bad either. It was a magnificent brick colonial on a boulevard lined with mighty elms. I can still see the beveled glass in the six-pane doors. I can still smell the hedges, bloom-burdened at Easter. I can still hear my dad reading to us in front of the roaring fireplace. While the snow was knee-deep our half-acre yard, dad recited Dulce domum, our favorite chapter from The Wind in the Willows. His voice was pulpit-strong as he told of Mr. Mole stumbling upon that precious thing he abandoned for his new life:

Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way! Why, it must be quite close by him at that moment…

My brother left home at 17 and joined the Air Force. Probably not the usual first career choice for a tuba player, but dad told him he was never going to get anywhere with that horn. So he left his dream of playing in the symphony behind and joined the Air Force band.

Home left me at 15. I joined someone else’s family, taking their mother as my legal guardian so I could finish high school in the same place I started it. I just didn’t want to move anymore.

But that was three moves after we left the big house on the boulevard. I ask my dad why we left it.

“Because I drank.”

Don’t get either me or my brother started on our father’s creative interpretation of what recovery means.

“You quit drinking over forty years ago,” I say, “But you left that house and a dozen others. You’ve moved fifteen times in the past seven years.”

“It’s something addicts do,” he says. “I’m a recovering addict.”

I thought recovering meant returning to a state of health. But what it really means is I will never stop doing this. It really means I get a pass.

When I tell my brother what my dad said, he spits. “He’s addicted to the idea that he’s an asshole. That’s what he’s addicted to.”

I surf real estate websites like some guys surf porn. Desire saws at my bones. I tag favorites by the dozen. 3BR 2.5BA Dutch Colonial. 2BR 1.75BA Georgian Revival. 3,300sf Craftsman bungalow, restored. When the listing status changes to “pending” I mourn. It’s like someone I loved from afar married someone else.

Has this habit interfered with my work? Yes. Has it compromised my finances? Perhaps. Has it affected my relationships? Definitely.

“You surfing house porn again?” my wife asks. “Good lord.”

“Yes” I say, “But honey c’mon. Just look at her dentils!”

My father tells a story of his father, returning home to Retford in Nottinghamshire after the First World War, being told by his impoverished parents as they greeted him on the porch, “We’d have you in Harry but we’ve nothing to give you.” He stayed with an aunt for a while.

“You’d think the aunt’s house was a million miles away, the way he talked about it,” dad says. “I went to England. Saw it. Crappy little place. Hell, it was just up the street.”

My father tells another story of his father, a man who beat him so bad that he decided he’d rather be on a warship off the coast of Korea counting bodies through his binoculars than stay another minute at home.

The Buddha said that every attachment is a chance to understand the suffering of others. Every pain we bear is an opportunity for compassion.

I wonder if former refugees still have the same deep feeling of loss long after they return home. Is there only one home you can ever have, and if it is lost, will you mourn it forever? Perhaps home is ephemera, unreachable by travel, impervious to repossession.

…they found a beaten track that made walking a lighter business, and responded, moreover, to that small inquiring something which all animals carry inside them, saying unmistakably, `Yes, quite right; this leads home!’

I look up satellite images of the old place. There it is, as beautiful as it ever was, even more so now from God’s perspective.


Thaddeus Gunn lives in Seattle, Washington.  His work has appeared in Brevity, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Literary Orphans, and will be forthcoming in the 3rd edition of the “Writing Today” textbook.