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In the Barn

by Loukia Borrell

We were driving to Norfolk on a winter morning when we started talking about the things we store in our barn. Some of it is ordinary - bikes, toys, stuff you take to the beach-and some of it marks time gone by - things that belonged to people we loved and lost. Soon, my husband said, his father's things would join the latter category.

I didn't say anything. Gordon's father was battling cancer. I didn't feel like talking about death because I thought about it all the time. I didn't really have words anymore. My brother had died the year before - lost to cancer. Sometimes, I still think he is going to call me on the phone and tell me where he's been so long. Death had eluded me for many years but when it came to my door, it took away someone I never thought I would have to live without.

Several months later, when spring arrived and the daffodils and crocuses had broken through the hard, barren ground, Gordon's words came back to me. I was in the barn looking for my gardening gloves. The barn was cool, musty and smelled a little like an auto repair shop. There was the faint odor of gas, oil and wood. I walked the short distance from the doors to the workbench, hoping I would find my gloves. Instead, I found things that belonged to the men in our lives who were gone. The license plates with the expired tags that used to be on my brother's Jeep. His fishing poles. Ear plugs. A duffle bag with his name, A.J. Louka, and Social Security number written on the side in black marker. Some white rags in a red basket and the coveralls he used to wear when there was a big job to get done.

There were Gordon's grandfather's waders, hanging by a nail. His old level with his initials, A.A., carved into one side, was hanging from a pegboard. Gordon's father, Joe, had things in there, too. The barn used to be his, when he owned the house. There was a blue Maxwell House coffee can filled with nails, a tool box and the new stuff: a memorial card with the Lord's Prayer written on it, a eulogy from his funeral, and a little black book.

The cover said, "Standard Accident Insurance Company of Detroit" in gold letters, with an address for an office in Philadelphia, where my father-in-law lived after serving as a Marine in World War II. Inside was a calendar from 1945 and some miscellaneous information. Birthstones, distances between American cities, how to salute the flag, what to do if you are bitten by a mad dog or a snake, and a page called "useful information," which includes a lot of math about circumference, area and diameter. There were sums and multiplications he had calculated and names. Lots of names of people he met during his 82 years. Old phone numbers, too, the kind that began with two letters. PI-5-9753 for someone named Bud. Guys from Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, and New York. Harry, Henry, James, and Willis. Charles, William and Francis. Probably all war buddies. I flipped through the thin, yellowed pages and read the distinctively male handwriting. It was written in tight cursive letters, in pencil, faded now and a little blurry from time as though the pages had been touched too often.

I put down the book, walked out and went back to my chores, without my gloves. That night, I talked with Gordon about my visit to the barn. He said having those things there made him feel better. "My dad had that book since 1940 something. I didn't even know he had it. When he died, I took it," he said.

I turned out the lights and stared into the darkness. I have plenty of things that belonged to my brother. His Jeep is sitting in our driveway. Boxes of his so-called archives are in storage. I've got his high school class ring, albums, some of his clothes, concert memorabilia, and pictures. And the things in the barn. It is nice to have those things, but as I lay there in the dark, I knew I had something more. Dreams. There, we are talking and spending time together again. I have dreamed of him routinely in the year and a half since he died. In one, I was in a house I didn't recognize with our parents. We were busy doing work around the house and my brother walked in. I kept telling him how busy we were and how there was always something that needed to be done. He was well, not paralyzed and halfway blind like he was before he died. He was able to walk again and he was very calm. He was quiet and he told me he wasn't affected by things that affected us. Where he lived, things were always quiet and peaceful. "It's like this," he said, pulling me to his chest. He put his arm around my shoulder and we were still. I listened to his heartbeat and it was peaceful, just like he said.

I started drifting off. Maybe I would dream about him again soon. Maybe tonight. It was a sanctuary for me and almost, almost the real thing.

"In the Barn" originally appeared in The Washington Post. Loukia is a native of Toledo, Ohio, and was raised in Virginia Beach, Va. She has worked as a reporter and freelance writer for various newspapers and magazines including the Reston (Va.) Times, the Virginian-Pilot, the St. Petersburg ( Fla.) Times, and Hampton Roads Magazine. She is married with three children.