Saturday, August 2, 2014

Driving with my Father

In those early mornings, he would rise long before I would. I wouldn’t awaken until he would call for me, calling, “Get up if you’re going.” I would mumble some response, usually, “Just a few more minutes,” and turn back over and wrap the blanket even more tightly around me. A day off from school was meant for sleeping in; it meant a late morning filled with nothing to do. I would lie there, shielding my eyes from the light that streamed into my room through the open door from the bathroom down the hall where he was shaving. I could hear the water running most mornings. That meant I had better hurry. No one took less time to shower, shave, and leave than my father.

I would kick off the covers and stretch my skinny legs over the edge of the bed. Sleep had crusted in the corners of my eyes, and my hands automatically would reach to pry the crusties away. Yawning, I would make my way down the hallway, shuffling my feet. My socks would make a swooshing sound on the carpet. My father would be standing, perhaps sitting, in the bathroom as I passed. I would mumble some monosyllabic hello and shuffle down the stairs to the other bathroom. I could have crawled and not gone slower.

It was during my early adolescence, that awkward age of not knowing who you are, who you will be, or who should or want to be, that my father took a job that required him to travel frequently. Four days per week he was gone all day, driving through the tri-state area and stretching the limits of what this term meant, leaving our town, small as it was, to drive up into the mountains to villages that made our small town look like a shining light of cultural wealth, only to return, most often, in the late evening. In the beginning his return was late at night, long past my twelve year old bedtime; he would return home from work, only to rise before sunup the next morning to start his trek again. By the time I would regularly accompany him, as regularly as holidays and snow days would allow, the days were shorter, both starting and ending sooner.

Peeing for the first time of the morning, I was hungry. No time for breakfast though, as in the time it took me to drain my small bladder, I knew my father had finished shaving/brushing his teeth/etc, and was dressed. Breakfast would come soon enough, though. I would pass him at the base of the stairs, him coming down, me going up to get dressed. “Hurry, ok,” he would say. I’d nod, still dazed from sleep and adolescent dreams that were beginning to change, to become more adult-minded, leaving the realms of childhood with their clowns and Disney cartoons, moving into the areas of mature thought and pubescent desire, something with which I was not fully familiar or fully comfortable.

Hurriedly dressing, I would then grab my portable CD player and at least one book, for I would need something to keep me occupied during the long day ahead. Heaven forbid I use this fleeting time wisely. In hindsight, I should have spent less time listening to The Doors and more time listening to my father on these daytrips. But when I was fifteen, I knew that Mark Twain was right and my father knew nothing. Brushing my teeth was a hurried act, and I bounded down the stairs as energetically as my sleeping legs would allow. He would be waiting, finishing his umpteenth cup of coffee, for me by the door or in the kitchen, depending how long I had taken to get ready.

Our day began at Speedway for morning coffee and a pack of Phillies cigars. My breakfast was most often found there. I would look around the candy and snack cake section. I would walk the two feet section several times, picking up several different cakes or candy bars, only to return them to their proper space and divert my attention to some other treat. My father, standing at the checkout counter, waiting patiently with his coffee and snuff and cigars, would call, “Come on. Hurry up.” Endlessly waiting, patiently, though with a hint of sarcastic honesty, would he call after me. My hunger wanted McDonald’s, but we had a long day ahead of us, and the sooner we started the sooner we could get home, for to my father, each day was long. Every day was tiring, the relentless accumulation of miles upon miles chalked up in a car that looked and smelled like someone had been living it. Likely because they had. My father spent more time in the driver’s seat than he did anywhere else. I would grab a pack of Swiss Cake Rolls and a Mountain Dew and meet my father at the counter. 

“Add this to it,” he would tell the clerk, whom he always seemed to know, a friendly acquaintanceship formed over regular mornings of Styrofoam coffee and cheap smokes. I’d take my breakfast and follow my father out the door. I’d eat my cakes as he pulled out of the parking lot and onto the road. Blending into traffic, my father would cross the bridge into Ohio. Ohio Welcomes You, the sign read, staring at us as we waited at the red light. The light would turn green and we would head north; always, it seemed, heading north, regardless of where we wound up. Rarely do I remember us going some other way, into West Virginia, at times staying in parts of Kentucky. Following the flow of traffic up 52, I would eat my sugary breakfast and wash it down with the even more sugary soda, a combination which would surely result in a stomach ache. 

The radio played John Boy and Billy, a morning radio show on which we could both agree during my formative years. The hosts were seemingly country folk, a couple of “good ole boys”—my father’s terms, not necessarily mine, at least in later years, though I suppose the term was apropos; it had a lighter, more innocent meaning, though, when my father used it— who talked about NASCAR, country music and the other goings on in the world. We would laugh at their homespun humor, mostly clean, though when their jokes bordered on the sexually charged or tongue in cheek, I would question what they meant. My father would respond with his usual phrase for situations such as that: “You’ll understand when you are older”; a phrase which I was accustomed to hearing the majority of my life as I sat through adult-dominated conversations and movies. When that stage of being older came, the memories of what I was waiting to understand had long gone, leaving me wondering what jokes I had missed due to my youthful naiveté. 

We would drive along in silence, listening to the radio show until we lost reception. In those years the good ole boy humor was something to which I looked forward on these daytrips. Segments of the show were throwbacks to old radio shows where the hosts acted out some skit, usually with a political or marital joke as the punch line. Not entirely misogynistic, yet not entirely egalitarian. And we would continue in this way as I struggled to stay awake. Any other day I would have been at school at the time, but there was always something about the whir of the car over the road, the radio and the comfort of the seat, perhaps the sweet aroma of my father’s cigar, that lulled me to sleep. The more I combated my drooping lids, the more my lashes pulled together.

I would drift in and out of sleep as we continued. Often my father’s first stop of his route was up to an hour, perhaps two, away, so we had ample to sit in lapses of silence, interspersed with small talk, as I tried to stay awake. I would drift off to sleep, tossing and turning as much as my restrictive seatbelt would allow. In my teenage years I would awaken and shift in my seat awkwardly, an uncomfortable reminder of my developing, hard-to-control hormones. I would always look around nervously, avoiding my father’s gaze, always suspicious of what I may have said in my sleep, and hoping that my father hadn’t heard anything that would divulge the source of my pubescent discomfort. 

My father was my own personal Willy Lowman. He drove around the tri-state to stores, little mom and pop operations, much like the origin of Starbuck’s— though unlike the coffee giant, the grocery stores my father frequented never took off and grew to into multinational organizations— and took orders for a wholesale company. His car was always a mess, cans of snuff and empty pop bottles littering the center console, floorboard, and backseat areas. On the mornings I would go with him, he would always take a few minutes the night before, sometimes the morning of, to clear out a spot for me to sit. The workbooks in my seat were tossed into the back, sometimes landing in a box of similar books and candy samples, other times falling into the floor and resting with the discarded sandwich wrappers and cigar boxes. On occasion I would be sent out of the store to retrieve an order book or catalogue that had been tossed into the back or tucked away to accommodate me when it shouldn’t have been. Those few minutes of helping my father with his work were as close as I would come to following in his footsteps.

We’d pull up to the first stop of the day, often a dingy building in a small town seemingly forgotten by time and God both.  “Don’t bother coming in; I won’t be in here long,” my father would sometimes say as we parked. He would grab his combination clipboard/notebook and get out of the car. I would sit there listening to the radio or reading. Given the areas my father was traveling at the time, a lot of the radio he could pick up was talk radio, having lost The John Boy and Billy Show some time prior. At an early adolescent age I was exposed to the rantings and ravings of Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh—figures whose opinions and beliefs would figure into our arguments into the coming years. They kept me company when my father was in a store. At the time they were amicable company enough; until I grew older and started forming my own opinions and beliefs, I thought the conservative hosts my father listened to were humorous and enlightened, out to crush the liberal agenda and set the record straight. In years to come politics would be a subject my father and I could not broach without an argument. He subscribed to Limbaugh, while I would come to laud NPR in my late teens. I didn’t know that the two were mutually exclusive, but it would seem that these two were polar opposites without any means of reconciliation—at least as far as my father and I were concerned. 

He would return to the car a few moments later, grumbling about how the store “doesn’t frickin’ order. It’s been three weeks since they ordered anything.” I would always just smile or nod as he backed out of the parking spot and turned toward the road. What did I know of struggling business—I was going to be a writer. Or an actor. A lawyer some days. But most likely an artist of some sort. Musician was beginning to creep into my mind. We would head on down the road toward the next stop, sometimes thirty or forty minutes away, other times literally down the block. Passing through these small towns that lingered outside my window, I observed the feeling of stagnant complacency they seemed to emit. The town we lived in was small to me, too small given my then aspirations for my future, though it was a bustling metropolis compared to the towns my father passed through on a daily basis. And the people all seemed content. Their dreams, so far as I saw, were of a slightly larger store, a better crop, a better barn.

At the next stop, perhaps the third of the day, I would go into the store with my father. “Is Jimmy in?” or Sue or Bob, or whoever he needed to meet with, he would ask the clerk behind the counter. “He’s busy right now,” the person would respond. My father would nod. “Tell him Dave is here. I’m with Laynes.”

The clerk would disappear and return seconds later with the manager at his or her side. “Dave, how ya doing?” they would call to my father. By this point in the conversation I had lost interest in the goings on of my father’s profession. I had no aspirations to me a salesman; it was in my father’s blood to sell, and I would learn in coming years that my aspirations lay as far from the retail market as logically possible.

As my father would conduct his business, I would wander around the store, looking up and down the various aisles. I don’t know what I ever expected to find of interest, but year after year I would wander. Many of the stores housed movie rental sections as well, so it was to there that my attention was immediately drawn. I was always looking for some new film that I had missed in theaters or some obscure classic I hadn’t been introduced to yet. I never rented anything at any of the stores; my father was only at each store once per week, and it would have been ridiculous to expect him to return a movie for me and pay late fees to a store three hours from home. Still, store after store, I would turn my attention to that small cinematic section the beckoned to me like a pirates treasure trove waiting to be plundered.

“Moe, let’s go,” my father would call when his business was finished. Moe was a nickname he had always called me, taking it from the Three Stooges, if I’m not mistaken. First used in childhood to distinguish between individuals in a family littered with Davids, it stuck well into my late teenage years. We’d leave the store and head again down the road.

Passing through the small towns with my father, he would often take back roads and rural routes, as these were the roads that held many of his stores. It was from the years of traveling with him that I developed my affinity for scenic routes, which drives my wife crazy. My father, used to the roads, would be unfazed by the winding dips and steep curves. My stomach, used to the flatter, straighter roads of the city, would lurch, twist and drop with each dip the car took. When I was younger I would often grap the door handle and brace myself as we crested each mound. Kicking my feet hard against the floorboard, I would straighten my back against the seat and try to calm my stomach, which was beginning to feel heavy in anticipation of the coming plunge. I would gasp and try to catch and hold my breath each time. My father would laugh and say “wuss,” smiling and shaking his head. The roller coaster ride would continue, and I would groan “whoa” with each dip, thankful when it was over. At times, the road was deceiving. The road would rise and stay there, newly level, only giving the appearance of being a sharp drop. I would brace myself and wait for that bottom that never fell out. My father would laugh and jokingly chide me. “How soon till you grow some balls and grow up,” he would say. It wasn’t a question; it was a statement made with raised, incredulous eyebrows. 

It would be about this time, though sometimes sooner, depending on the station my father had selected on the radio, that I would put in my headphones to tune out the noise, or perhaps I did it because I was at that dissociative stage of my life where solitude is golden and it’s cool to try to separate yourself from your parents, acting as if you are independent, that you don’t have the parental control and influence of everyone else your age; they are suckered into being their parents’ lemming and tools, and you are not, you are an individual, separate from your parents who know nothing. Just like everyone else at that age. 

I would put in my headphones and turn up the noise. At that age, that’s what a lot of it was, just noise. It was during this time of traveling with my father that I was experimenting with music in relation to who I was. I was trying to be cool, so I listened to the music of my peers: hip hop and whatever else permeated the airwaves on popular stations. This was before I developed a love of Dylan, Hendrix, Sinatra, and Coltrane. I would move through this period, my musical tastes changing like the seasons, and only years later would I return to an appreciation for hip hop music as my love of jazz and poetry burgeoned in early adulthood.

My father, however, never would develop an appreciation for hip hop. “Gawd,” he’d groan, “how do you listen to that crap?” I would turn my music up even louder to ignore his chiding. Time would pass and stops would be made, and eventually I would take off my headphones and rejoin my father’s world inside the car. We’d continue in intermittent bouts of smalltalk as my father drove. At each stop that I went into the store with my father, seemingly every time my father turned around, I would ask for money for something: candy, soda, some other form of junk food. It is amazing that I did not start to gain weight until after I settled into the contentment of marriage years later. 

We’d be in a store and my father would laugh, “Boy thinks I’m made of money” to the clerk. He would finish with his business in the store and we would leave. When I was younger, I could never understand why the stores didn’t allow the two of us free stuff. After all, my father was providing a service to these men and women; the least they could do was give us free soda. I never asked him about it, though. He would have lectured me on the ways of life: you have to work for everything; too many people in this country are already getting a free ride that you and I are paying for— something along those lines. It was best not to broach the subject. 

Whenever there was a pretty girl in the store, this would provide the subject of our next conversation. Back in the car my father would say, “Did you see the butt on that girl?” I came to realize in years to come that this was merely a setup. Sex was always an embarrassing topic, especially in those formative years. I would answer sheepishly or not all. My quiet answers were typically along the lines of, “No,” or “I wasn’t looking” or “What?” as though I hadn’t heard. I would avert my eyes from his gaze at this point, looking at the dashboard if I had to, to keep from meeting his questioning eyes.  If that was the setup, next came his true point. During my middle school and freshmen years, when dating was not an issue, given my lack of experience I had with it, he would ask, “You’re not gay, are you?” 

“Of course not,” I would answer sharply. I was still at a stage in my life when I had been instructed, implicitly if not overtly, to deride homosexuality. In years to come, this, too, would be a subject of contention between my father and me.  

“So, then who do you like?” he would ask. I always knew that question would be coming. I was prepared for it and had even though up the perfect answer.

“No one,” I would answer quickly. He would raise his eyebrows in disbelief. He never believed me.  “Out of all the girls in your school, there isn’t one you like?” he would answer. His voice would drip of unconvinced sarcasm. 

“No,” I would answer, my voice hoarse and filled with cotton. My stomach would be twisting and turning, a bundle of nerves because I was lying. My father knew I was lying, and I knew that he knew I was lying. This made the conversation even more tortuous. I would long for it to be over.  My father would accept my lie briefly, turning his attention and the conversation to something else, for which I was immensely grateful. All the years of these trips, each trip lasting several hours, and I never confessed my undying love for any girl until I was a sophomore in high school. It was not until then, when I actively, though irregularly, started dating in high school that my father sighed a deep sigh of relief that I was actually not gay. Given the infrequency of my dating throughout my teenage years, his relieved sigh likely did not fully end, though, until I was married.

We could continue the morning of small talk until around lunch time. My father’s typical lunch consisted of sandwiches or pizza slices picked up at one of his stores, anything he could get quickly on the road. Typically the closest he came to a restaurant meal was White Castle, those tiny sliders he could palm and devour in one bite. My hunger craved a sit-down meal: the typical adolescent diet of McDonald’s or Burger King. On the days I would ride with my father, he would stop at a McDonald’s or Hardees when I scrunched up my nose at the drying-out pizza slices on the small convenience store counters. The crusty fried chicken may have been good, but I was too good to try it. On the rare occasion I would actually, though begrudgingly, try the pizza slices, they were good and I would be genuinely surprised by this fact. But often, though, McDonalds would be our lunch destination. I didn’t appreciate it at the time; I took for granted my father taking the time out of his day, stopping his schedule to accommodate my inconsiderate wants, and never appreciated that he wanted to get his day over with as soon as possible, to move from stop to stop, from store to store, with consistency, to end his day and get home and relax. I didn’t understand that driving day in and day out could be exhausting, and that the longer we sat in McDonald’s and ate, the longer I took, the longer it made his already too long day.

We throw away our trash and return to the car. “How many stops do you have left?” I would ask my father. He would answer without thinking. “Five or six,” he’d reply. He was so used to his schedule that it was no longer necessary to count the stops in a day or to look at a printout or itinerary. We would continue on, taking primarily the state and rural routes that ran us by small towns and villages.

“Hey, hand me that CD in the door,” my father would say. I would groan as my eyes read what I picked up: Just Swingin’. It was some swing CD my father had picked up in a Dallas drug store years before. It was a jump-jive-and-wail project by some unknown band. It came out around the time that the swing craze struck in the last part of the twentieth century, as the boy bands were being left behind and watching their success crumble. The artists on the CD attempted to ride on the coattails of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, each of whom found success in the late 1990s, and at this point in my life I had no appreciation for any of them. I wanted Eminem and DMX.

“Come on,” I’d plead. “Do we have to listen to that?” I would ask my father. I knew by his grin that the answer was yes long before his mouth ever opened.

“Yep,” he would say, taking the CD from with one hand and popping open the case. He’d slide the CD into the player, and as soon as the first horns could be heard, he’d turn up the volume. Riding in a car with a thumbing bass, the car rattling over hip hop beats and thug-life lyrics was one thing, but bumping to songs about “solid squares” and zoot suits was a completely different matter entirely. I would slide down in my seat, slouching, head bent, my eyes averting all other life as the world outside stared into the window wondering what a full orchestra was doing playing so loudly in a tiny car. 

“How can you listen to this?” I would ask. He was doing it, I knew, not just because he liked it. He was doing it to see how tough I was: if I could handle this, if I could sit through this thirty minute CD of hell, then I could handle anything. But as if to make matters worse, he wouldn’t just play the music. While that would have been tortuous enough, he amplified his punishment by singing along while he snapped his fingers and (ever the dancer) bopped and grooved, swaying in the driver seat, as if he were the hippest of the hepcats.

Monday, June 16, 2014

In Writing Class: a Short Play

[Curtain opens to reveal a man, about fifty years old, sitting at a table SL. Before him is an open notebook, spiral-bound, and in his hand is a pencil/pen. He’s staring intently at the blank page. To his right sits a woman of about equal age. To the right of her, across an aisle, is another table, where sit a young man and woman, both in their late-teens or early twenties. Taylor is walking about, looking at students responses as they walk, maybe conversing quietly with some students who aren’t speaking. He will at times return to his seat at the front of the stage, a stool.]

MAN: Look at him standing there, the pompous prick. Un-tucked shirt hanging from under his argyle sweater, dark jeans meeting tan loafers—the epitome of dress-casual. He walked in wearing his gray pea coat, his scarf tied all neatly around his neck, fancy knot resting in the V of his buttoned coat, slick brown gloves on his hands, and I almost couldn’t help but wish he’d choked on the bulbous knot before getting here. And then he has the audacity to tell us to choose our top five regrets from our lives—as if he could know anything about regret, about lamenting the loss of opportunities lingering so close you can taste them, opportunities that never came to fruition, just waggled in your face, taunting you through your failure. The idea of him talking to us about such things, and everyone just going right along with it. Most of these kids aren’t much younger than he is, and they don’t have a clue. Relying on mommy and daddy’s dime to foot the bill here, walking straight out of high school just like this was the thirteenth grade, coming here to goof around and waste time, their precious time, and parents’ hard-earned money. They don’t have life experience, haven’t worked for what I’ve worked, I can tell by the way they sit and text in class, and snicker, passing notes, playing games when they think Mr. Oates—sorry, Taylor, as he told us to call him that first day—isn’t looking. And what does he do? Just tells them to stop, stands by them, as if proximity were enough to quell their obnoxious horseshit. He tells them they’re only hurting themselves, but doesn’t kick them out. Back in my day, students who didn’t want to be there were kicked out, tails between their legs, and lucky if they were let back in. But no, not now. Not here.
But they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. I know ‘cause I was one of them—cutting class, hanging out, doing what I wanted, giving half-assed effort on everything because I was free from high school and making my way in the world, and everything was gonna just fall into place. I wasn’t there to learn; I was there to socialize, to meet girls and get laid. To drink and party. To find myself and who I was. Freedom from parents, first time from home, at my parents’ expense. I see myself in so many of them who sit here, those who ruled high school, the too-cool-for-school crowd who scoffed at the idea of a future where they weren’t the kings and queens of everything, and someday the harsh truth of reality—that greatest ruling bitch of all—will come crashing down on them, and they’ll be sitting in my seat, looking back on a lifetime of choices and mistakes, of opportunities missed, watching the incoming schmucks who’ve taken their place, and the cycle will continue.
And the instructors—my God, the instructors—actually looked like instructors, with their suits and ties, and dresses and heels, they were prim and proper, they wrote, they published, they smoked cigarettes in classes and didn’t give a goddamn if it bothered you. They didn’t hold the hands of their students, didn’t coddle them, and they were slick and prim and proper, and spoke like professors. Not like Mr. Oates—Taylor—with his shaggy hair and hipster black-framed glasses, the kind that had I worn them when I was his age would have gotten my ass kicked for being such a geek or dweeb—both anachronistic terms. And I bet most of these kids wouldn’t know that term—anachronistic—or even where to look that wasn’t online to find it. Do they even teach context clues in school in more? Do they teach anything in schools anymore? My kids can’t even read cursive, can only sign their names because I taught them how. And how much of what they learn here, even here, will they actually take with them, actually remember or use? How much of education has become an exercise in jumping through hoops? He who jumps best scores the best marks.
Taylor assigns these prompts at the start of each class. They’re supposed to engage us, to help us focus, to use critical thinking. And then he walks around the room, watching to ensure that we actually work, as if he doesn’t trust us, though given the work ethics of most of the students around me, I guess I can’t blame him. He watches, discusses, tries to inspire our creativity, offering feedback and support. The first thing he said when he walked into class that first day, just before assigning the first of these prompts, was to call him by his first name, and that his second novel was being published by a major house the next spring. He talked about his education and interests, and the more he talked, the more the girls fawned over him. Kids act like he walks on water, and no one seems able to sing his praises high enough. That’s why Cathy said we should take his class—that everyone loved him, that his class was the best. But he’s so young, fresh out of college himself. And he asks us to write about a lifetime of regret. And all I can do is stare at my blank page, clicking my pen, its mechanic clink thudding with each heavy depression. It’s not that I’ve nothing to write, Taylor, I think as I catch him staring at me and my blank page.  Quite the contrary; I just don’t know where to start. Not finishing school when I was young. Sleeping through classes. Spending two years in a drunken haze. Failing even my English classes—why I’m here now—when English was the only subject I had cared about in high school. Then spending years as a grease monkey. Years spent working on cars when it should have been me earning a degree. Me teaching this class, assigning asinine prompts to people who don’t give a fuck. I’ve probably forgotten more about writing and literature than this kid knows. And yet there he stands, telling me what and how to write, telling me what good writing is. As if he has a clue about anything. Write about my regrets? Hell, I wear mine like a second skin, so goddamn thick I can feel them clinging to me.
[Pause; looks to his right and sighs] And then there’s Cathy, just writing away, her list complete, each regret explained in full paragraphs. Her regrets? I bet I’m in there somewhere, maybe everywhere. Maybe it’s just one long rant about how our time together has seen us devolve from the people we thought we were going to be. Maybe her writing is wrought with regrets I’ve caused: the pregnancy that saw us both leave college in our early twenties, that saw the dreams we had just started to realize slip away—I had just started to take school seriously, just awakened to the possibilities that lay before me, had just decided what to make of myself (I was going to teach, I realized, a long-forgotten or displaced dream slowly coming back to me)—and then she told me she was pregnant with what would be the first of three children, all of whom would have to be put through college—maybe of trips never taken, locales never visited, of Paris, Cancun, the Caribbean; all trips talked about over the years but never taken, no real reason, just a confluence of everyday events that in one way or another inhibited us from going. Maybe she’s written of all the times we talked about going back to school but never did. But more likely she’s written of missed concerts and plays, of sales not taken advantage of, of bestsellers not read. Though, then again, it was her suggestion, her prodding and goading, her insistence that she had tired of my voracious reading and rekindling love of reading leading to discussions of books she’d never read, that led us back to school all these years later. Her insistence we’d be fine financially if I quit my job as a mechanic, our devotion to school renewed and rekindled, did little to quell the worry that burned within me, keeping me up at night, doubt that we could truly do this festering away. Doubt that returning to school now was what we should do when we had talked about it for so long.

OLDER WOMAN: [looks up from writing] Only five regrets? I’ve got a top-five list of regrets for every stage of my life, every year of my life. My husband probably thinks I’m writing about sales I’ve missed, of concerts we skipped, of all those silly inconsequential things we so often focus on in life. And sure, there are some of those that came to mind—we missed George Carlin on his last tour. We skipped the show for one reason or another—I can’t even remember why now—deciding we’d just catch him next time he came to town. He died later that year. Sure, I regret not going, and maybe before taking this class, I’d have written about something like that. Something innocuous, of no real importance, but if this class has taught me anything, it’s that life is made up of so much more than missed concerts and shows, that the major decisions we consider in life are those that we don’t often dwell on. I knew this, of course, but it wasn’t something I ever thought much about, never put into words—articulated—or attempted to analyze. This class has got me thinking about my life, reflecting in a way that I never did before. And I’ve begun pinpointing the moments that changed my life, that led me to here. Each of those moments was spurred by another moment, another choice, and led to another choice that led to another choice that led to another choice, all of them eventually resulting in my being here, now, at fifty-four, going back to school after my children have already graduated college, attempting to better myself after all these years. And somehow, I can’t help but think that to use that phrase “better myself” diminishes everything I accomplished before. But that’s what I tell myself I’m doing, what I tell my husband  we’re doing after all these years. I suppose he agrees with me. Then again, he was always the academic one. Always the reader, the writer. I hated to see him let such talents go to waste. In truth, I’m back here for him as much as I am myself. 
But none of that explicitly has to do with regrets, does it? I suppose not; they’re in there, but not fully discussed. So I guess I’ll start with the first one that comes to mind, the first moment that led me to here. When I was eighteen, Bobby McCarthy asked me to marry him. We went steady all through high school. My, he was something. Smart. Talented. Ambitious. His father owned a small business in town, a wholesale grocery company that supplied to all the stores in the area, and Bobby’d been working there since he was fifteen. Everyone knew that his future was set. He’d go on to take management positions, working his way up the family business until he would ultimately take over after his father retired. It was easy work, inheriting a multi-million dollar company. But he wanted more, was never satisfied with just that. So he did other work on the side, always dreaming of making a difference in the world, of writing, of acting, of doing something to leave his mark, something other than just being a multimillion-dollar grocer. The last I heard he was happily married with a couple kids, boys, and considering retiring. He’d become somewhat of a philanthropist, more so than his old man ever was, donating money to get the new library built back home, a new theatre for the high school. He ended up getting a couple books published. And, don’t get me wrong, I love my life for what it is, but in the back of my mind, I’ve always wondered what life would have been like had I married Bobby McCarthy when I was 18. 
Then I met Harold in college. He was smart and funny; he could always make me laugh, and God, he was charming. It was in writing class that we met for the first time all those years ago. He was a great writer, and I think what first struck me about him was the degree to which he could add to the discussions in class. He showed real promise; even as just an average student, I could tell that. So when he asked me out on a date, I was all too eager to accept. And we hit it off really well. [pause] And then I wound up pregnant. Several of my friends recommended I get rid of it, but I couldn’t do that. Not only was I Catholic, I kind of liked the idea of being a mother. Sure, it had come sooner than I would’ve liked, but I thought it was a blessing, however it worked out. And Harold was a real gem, decided he would take care of me and the baby, would be involved in our lives, but I have to admit I thought that would be end of it. He’d see the kid when he could, send money, all that. I never expected he’d marry me, but he surprised me one night, about two months into the pregnancy. It was just after the end of the fall term, when everyone was getting ready to go home for winter break, and after he had helped me load up my car, he acted as though he had dropped something in the snow and dropped down to one knee. And then he looked up, ring in hand. 
We went back for the spring term, but neither of us finished it. We got a place, got married. And then came the baby. We tried to make it work with school, but we just couldn’t. Harold took a job as a mechanic to make ends meet. Sure, he ultimately owned his own garage, and he was successful at it. But I know he was never really happy with it, not like he would’ve been had he followed through with his education.  And I put aside my dreams of becoming a social worker. Ever since I was little, that was all I ever wanted to do—I wanted to take care of people, to help them. To help those so desperately in need of help. But I didn’t. Oh sure, I had a family to take care of, and don’t get me wrong, that was rewarding, but it was a different sort of rewarding. I suppose, in truth, being a social worker wasn’t always wanted to do. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a fashion designer. This was before fashion became what it is today, but the thought of it excited me so. Everyone told me it was just a pipedream—my father told me I’d have to move to the big city, and he’d rather see me on the streets than do that, for the city was the personification of evil in my house growing up. Everything bad began and was centered there: drugs, excess, sex, degenerates. Even my teachers discouraged me, told me I’d never make it as a designer. They said I lacked the attention to detail, the artistic talent. Maybe they were right. But I guess I’ll never know now. 

Bottom of the ninth, championship game. We were down by two runs, bases were loaded, and I was up to bat. I worked the pitcher to a full count, and I knew I was going to win the game. I could just see it. Grand slam to win it all, and I would be a hero. The king of the high school. It would’ve been the first time we’d won state in thirty years. Everyone was staring at me, on the edge of their seats. No one was so much as breathing, just holding their breath as they waited for the pitch. And I can still see it: the pitcher wiped the sweat from his brow with his glove, went into his windup, and released. And the ball soared toward me, and I swung with all my might, hard as I could, and I knew as soon as it left that bat I’d blown it. Popped it straight down the first base line. The guy caught it without even trying. And you should’ve seen the other team rush out onto the field, celebrating and falling all over each other. We just sort of stood there. I was numb for days. I mean, that was my one chance. The bus ride back home was the quietest trip I’ve ever made.
I think the hardest part about is that I had to face my father after the game. He was on the championship team thirty years ago, and I could tell he was disappointed in us. In me. I should’ve been the hero of that game. But I wasn’t. That was one of those moments I’ll always regret.
So I wound up here. I thought I was going to play professional baseball, but I couldn’t even got a scholarship to play in college. I guess I wasn’t good enough. I never thought that would be the case. My dad’s always told me these great stories about playing in school—the girls, the parties, the profs taking it easy on them. I mean, most schools worship football, but my dad’s school ate, slept, and breathed baseball back in the day, cause the baseball team was so much better than the football team. They won the championship three of the four years my dad played, and he used to tell me that a lot of the profs let assignments slide for the ballplayers, especially when they were winning. And the girls—my God, my dad told me the guys on the team were like gods. They could get any girl they wanted because they were athletes, and everybody wanted to be with an athlete. That’s how it was in high school. I can’t count how many times I got laid just because I played baseball. But I guess those days are over. No one here gives a shit I played baseball in high school. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that bad here—the profs are cool and seem to care, especially Taylor, probably because he’s not much older than I am. The classes are kinda easy, kinda like high school, not that I took those classes that seriously. I don’t know; maybe if I had, this would be even easier. Taylor talks a lot about stuff he thinks we should know, but I got to be honest, sometimes I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. And in science, I’m totally lost. I skipped chemistry most of the time in high school. Mr. Withers was old and about to retire, so he didn’t give a shit what we did. I remember we caught a bunch of shit on his desk on fire. He was oblivious until the smoke alarm went off. He’d been off in the corner scribbling some notes on the whiteboard, mumbling about some formula not making sense. Man, that was a good day. Somehow, I don’t think Dr. Jenkins is going to be so carefree. He makes us actually work, and the lab reports are killer. I’ve never written so much in my life.
And I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about writing for Taylor’s class. We have to write five full essays this term. Five essays in sixteen weeks. I didn’t write five essays in my English class all last year. And everyone says the next level is even harder. I mean, I thought I did all right on my first essay in here. I talked about the topic—steroid use in baseball—and I had some facts to back it up. It wasn’t like I just made it all up. But Taylor gave me a C. He said my writing was all over the place, lacked coherence and direction. I have no idea what that means. He wrote a lot of other stuff in the margins too, stuff about sentence structure and subject-verb agreement and all kinds of stuff I guess I should’ve learned in  high school. But hell, my teacher last year was just glad if we actually turned in our essays. She was nice, but I guess she didn’t really prepare me for this. I wish now she had. 

Okay, so maybe I cheated once or twice. Nothing major. It’s not like I looked over at someone’s test during the ACT or anything like that. Not even on those stupid end-of-the-year state tests they always gave, which were a complete waste of time. My mother told me so, every year. And every time she said it, she acted as though it would be the last time, like that was the final straw and she was going to give up teaching. But maybe I cheated on homework. Me and my friend Sarah always copied our math homework off Tyler in homeroom. He was so much better at it than we were anyway, and he always thought that maybe we’d go out with him if he gave us all the answers. Of course we never did. But that’s beside the point.
So maybe I cheated a bit and I copied parts of my papers, but you learn pretty quick if you’re a teacher’s kid, especially when your mom teaches in the same district, that no one cares. It’s too much of a hassle for anyone to make a deal out of your cheating cause they know your mom will raise several kinds of hell if anyone accuses you of anything that’s going to make them look bad. A student teacher caught me and another girl cheating red-handed and he told the actual teacher, Mrs. Murphy, who made it all disappear. The only reason I know is that my friend Laura overheard Mrs. Murphy telling another teacher about it in the hall one day. And to make it not look like an issue, the entire stack of papers came up missing a day or two later. No one got credit for the work, not even those who did it. Mrs. Murphy said she must have accidentally thrown them away while cleaning off her desk. I mean, come on, seriously? This woman was the most organized woman I’ve ever seen. Everything in her room was neat and tidy. She used to yell at us if we scooted our desks ever so slightly out of their straight lines. And she lost an entire stack of assignments in the span of two days? Yeah, right. 
So what do I regret? Now that I’m here, maybe I regret not taking high school more seriously. High school was a joke, and this place isn’t much better. I mean, come one, this is really a college? I feel like I’m in the thirteenth grade here. The assignments are jokes, a bunch of crap that’s supposedly going to help us in the real world, kind like the stuff in high school was going to help us in college. And the teachers, especially Taylor, are nothing like I expected, telling us to call them by their first names, except those with doctorates—they’re pretty hardcore about us calling them “Doctor this and Doctor that”—and they don’t give us shit about not coming to class. It’s like they don’t care whether we’re here or not. In high school, I skipped class all the time, and everyone was on my ass about it—Mr. Higgins told me that if he caught me one more time, he was going to tell my parents. He never did. He always said that I couldn’t learn if I wasn’t in class. I remember Mrs. Murphy would send students to the office for acting up, and the office would send them right back just a few minutes later. They always claimed that a student couldn’t learn if they weren’t in class. Not like they were learning much while goofing off in class anyway.
That was another thing my mother always bitched about. She’d send students to the office and right back they’d come. She always talked about how in her day the office and teachers both would paddle students who pulled shit in class. Can’t do it now or you’ll get sued. Every August and May I would watch the life drain from my mother—at the start she was dreading the year, and by the end, she was exhausted by it. In between, it was like she was on autopilot, just coasting along until summer came and gave her a few months of rest.
I wonder if she regrets any of it. Going into teaching. I know she probably hates it. How couldn’t she with all the changes that have come along. She always tells us it isn’t like it used to be. So that’s what I wrote my first paper on—comparing how things used to be with how they are now. And I know I’m not the best writer, but come one, Taylor gave me a C. A C! Does he not know who I am? I haven’t made a C in my life. I may see if my mom will talk to him. She teaches English, he teaches English—surely he’ll understand his mistake when she talks to him. 

YOUNG MAN: My school counselor tried to talk to me about college last year. She asked about what I was interested in, what I wanted to do with my life after high school and then after college. Baseball. That’s what I told her. I was going to play through college, make it to the minors, and then work my way up. That’s what my dad did. Played triple A for several years before getting called up. Played one season with the Reds. But then he got hurt. They shipped back to the minors. He played a few more seasons, but called it quits when my older sister was born. Runs a sporting goods store downtown. He seems to like it all right, but I’ve got to wonder if misses it. I’m sure he does, but he never talks about it much. He was always focusing on my playing instead. But sometimes, when he’s been drinking, I’ll hear him in the garage, talking like he’s broadcasting the game. Regardless of what happens in the game, he always has himself as the hero, the one hitting a walk-off to win the Series. But there’s always a sadness in his voice at the end.

OLDER MAN: Regrets—all I can think of is what could have been done differently, each day a different path. Not to mention mistakes made with the kids. There was just so much we didn’t know early on. I guess we learned from everything, all the regrets having taught us something, but what kind of answer is that:  I regret nothing because I learned from everything. Give me a break. At this point of my life, a regret is a regret is a regret—good or bad. Back to school, moving forward, and all I’m thinking of is the past.

OLDER WOMAN: Perhaps my biggest regret, though, is that I wasn’t there for my mother at the end. She never really got over the fact that I left college when I did. She eventually came to embrace Joshua, our first-born, and Harold, though she would often remind me of what I gave up. My mother wasn’t educated; she barely finished high school before marrying my father, and college was never a thought for her. And when I was younger I always thought she held my dropping out of college against Harold and me because she thought I could do better than Harold, but I’ve learned that it wasn’t Harold or the fact that he was just a mechanic that bothered her. It was that she was afraid I would turn out just like her. She wanted so badly for me to get the education she didn’t, and she wanted me to be better than she was. she wanted me to have a life better than the one she had, and she knew education would be the path that would lead me there. But I was too stubborn to see that, so we drifted apart. Sure, we were pleasant to one another, but the relationship wasn’t special, wasn’t close, and at the end, as she lay dying, I should’ve told her what I had learned over the years, that I understood why she was the way she was, that I forgave her her distance and needed her to forgive mine. But I didn’t. I was there, of course, at the end. I told her I loved her, but there was something deep down that wouldn’t let me do more, wouldn’t let me say more. I kept hearing her telling me how disappointed she was I never finished college, that I never became what I wanted, and I know it was because she had placed all her forgotten hopes and dreams in me, as though she would accomplish everything she had forgotten by marrying my father through my success. And I understand it, because I watch my children now, all three graduated from college, and all their success, and I can’t help but feel as though, in some part, it’s my success too.

YOUNG MAN: I guess I’ll be okay as long as I don’t wind up like him, right? I mean, he’s great and I love him, but in those moments he just seems so sad. But who knows, maybe when I transfer I can walk on somewhere. Maybe I can make it. Make my dad proud. Maybe. 

YOUNG WOMAN: But I’m supposed to be writing about regrets, aren’t I? I guess I regret high school. Maybe I should’ve worked harder; then I wouldn’t be here in the thirteenth grade. But right now I regret taking this class. [She notices Taylor walking about the room, looking at people’s writings.] Oh, shit! Is he going to read these? [She stars erasing the last few lines.]
OLDER WOMAN: But here I am, after all these years, finishing what I started so long ago. And I can’t help but think of my mother, and how she’d feel knowing that I’m finally finishing school. I like to think that, maybe, somehow, she knows, wherever she is now. 
That’s close to five, right? Or is it all just one, a continuous strand of events held together only by the fact that had I done something different , maybe they wouldn’t be there at all. 

OLDER MAN: Mr. Oates tells us to wrap up our final thoughts, and I’ve written nothing. Not a single word. Cathy’s halfway through her second page, and even the young schmucks who haven’t lived long enough to have regrets, the kind that burrow deep in your gut and keep you up at night, have filled their lists, numbering their short lives in order of importance. Only five? I can do better than that. I can number my page to one and write the only true answer I have: everything. 

[Standing in the middle of the stage between the two tables. He’s been looking over the student’s writing, smiling at some of what he reads.] They look at me with skepticism, most of them—the older ones especially because I’m so much younger than they are, and the younger ones, fresh out of high school, because I don’t look much older than them. Like we could’ve all gone to school together, or maybe I graduated with an older brother or sister. It takes time for them to understand me, to understand that I know what I’m talking about and that, if they’ll let me, I can help them. Not just with the class, but with whatever comes next for them. I stress that so much of what we talk about goes so far beyond the classroom—communication and relating to others, to the world around them; of analyzing and understanding themselves. And yet some of them just see me as a pompous prick.
That’s what a lady called me my first semester teaching. I was adjuncting then; I’d just graduated myself a few months earlier. I remember her plainly: she was a nontrad, about forty-one, forty-two, and she sat in the back of the class. She butted heads with me after I let slip how old I was. “My God,” she cried out. “You’re how old! My stepdaughter’s your age.” And I knew it was going to be tough to win her over, to convince her that my seeming lack of experience in no way negated what I had to say. And slowly but surely, I won her over. At the end of the term, she looked at me and smiled. “You know,” she said, “when I started this class you were a pompous prick and I couldn’t understand half the shit you were talking about. But you know, you aren’t so bad after all.” I ran into her the term and she hugged me and told me how much my class had prepared her for the next. 
I guess maybe I am making a difference. That’s why I decided to become a teacher. Actually, I decided to become a writer. I was going to be a journalist. I dreamed of a crowded, noisy newsroom, a thin layer of smoke always overhead. I’d keep a half-finished novel in my bottom desk drawer, right next to a half-bottle of bourbon. Both we could be company on long nights at the desk. That’s what I went to school for—to be a journalist. At least at first. The more I got into my journalism classes, the more I hated them. They weren’t representative of what I thought I wanted. I kept dreaming my life would be like a scene from His Girl Friday or The Front Page, but I learned those days are over. So I switched my major to education. If I couldn’t be a writer, I could at least teach others how. I’d teach high school English, always my favorite class as a student. But by the time I reached student teaching, I realized that the education I loved had been replaced by testing and test prep. Gone were the lectures of Dickens and Faulkner, of Hemingway and Twain, replaced with short passages and multiple choice questions. It wasn’t for me. 
So I lucked into teaching here part time, teaching developmental writing classes. After graduation, a former professor put me to work, and I’ve been here ever since. I hired on full-time after I got my Master’s, thinking I would make the transfer from developmental to college-level writing. But I was wrong. The only full-time spots open were for developmental, but I keep hoping that one of the old-timers will retire and I can take the open spot. But it doesn’t seem it’s going to happen anytime soon. 
Part of me still wonders what life would be like if I had finished my journalism degree, or if after college I had moved away. I thought about it; God, I thought about it. Yet here I stay. So when my students say I don’t understand what I’m asking for when I ask them to write about regrets, that I couldn’t possibly understand at my young age about missed opportunities and chances not taken, I want to tell them they have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about. Yet I can’t, for we each must deal with the circumstances we’re given, and whenever we want to just stop and scream at the sky at the top of our lungs for chances missed, we so often just bite our tongues until the blood trickles across our teeth and we spit it out onto the cold hard ground, mixing into a muddied salve to heal our wounds. 
[lights fade/curtain]

Friday, February 21, 2014

Glory Days

Whenever I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I think of small town life, of decaying towns and villages, of people struggling to get by, to make their world a better place, or at least deal with the fact that it’s not what it should be. There is a sense of nostalgia that permeates his work, and I feel as though I can empathize with the characters that inhabit the world he has created through music, a world in which I feel I would be at home. I grew up in a small town, and I now live in an even smaller town, one that has long since lost its glory. Once dubbed “Little Chicago,” my new hometown is nothing like what it once was, and what it once was—an industrial center of regard—was long gone before I moved across the river during my first marriage.
                It is far from where I expected I would end up in life. When I was little, I dreamed of playing professional baseball. This may come as a surprise to some of you—especially those of you with whom I play softball—but in my youth, I was obsessed with baseball. I watched it, I played it; I collected baseball cards, and I could tell you who played for whom, what their stats were, and who was headed for the Hall of Fame; and I imagined that someday, I would play among the greats. I was seven. And I was devoted only in my mind. Every spring, it was as though I started over, my body having forgotten during winter’s stagnate period that it had done the previous summer. Eventually, the summer after eighth grade, I came to the realization that my passion, which admittedly was already dwindling, was far greater than my talent, so I hung up my cleats and retired my glove, my dreams of stardom fading as I locked my bat in the garage, relegating it to an untouched corner where it would remain until my father and I sold it some years later.
                After that, I dreamed of being a writer. Of being an actor. Of being a musician. Regardless of what I was going to do and where I was going to live—New York or Los Angeles, Europe—I was going to be a star of something. A great actor. A beautiful musician. A writer whose ethereal works would resonate with millions of readers, offering them life-affirming truths spread across the pages of bestselling works.


Many of the characters in my stories are middle-aged men who are long past their prime, yet who still live in the past—wearing their letterman’s jackets to the hometown football game on Friday nights; standing along the fenced-in sides of the practice fields in August, watching the crop of new players who will carry on the legacy of which they are a sometimes forgotten part; regaling those around them with the stories of their adolescent greatness—in an attempt to recapture their glory days, days when they were truly alive, days when their greatness was known to those of their small town. I write about these men because I know them. I’ve seen them all my life, but it’s been only in recent years that I’ve started to wonder about them and their stories. What is it that makes so many of us focus on the past, that makes us look backward at what we’ve done in our lives?
                For some, it’s the time spent in high school that lingers in their mind as the best days of their lives. And we tell teens that, that the best days of their lives are when they are young. Maybe for some it is college that lingers as the best days of their lives. Maybe it’s after graduation, the days of new careers, of first marriages, of parenthood. Of self-exploration and the exploration of the world around us. Travelling. Taking risks and accepting the consequences.
                And I often think of “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite songs. The opening verse, about the baseball-playing friend who keeps talking about his glory days, days long gone, echoes in my mind. And then we meet the friend from up the block, a divorcee with whom the narrator will have drinks on a Friday night after work. And perhaps the part of the song that affects me the most is the line “And I hope when I get old, I don’t sit around and think about it/but I probably will/Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture/a little of the glory of…” for I often wonder, when I look back at my life, what I’ll consider my glory days or if I’ll find, like the father from the missing verse of the song, that I didn’t have any.


We assess our lives on so many levels—personal and interpersonal connections; careers and hobbies; successes and failures; the impact we have on those around us—and this, at least for me, serves to muddy my accounting of my life and the events of it. When I’m old, I wonder what scale I’ll use to judge the events and successes of my life. For that matter, I wonder what scale you will use, for surely we’ll approach the analysis of our lives through reflection differently. Will we focus on career successes? On relationships with friends and family? On how well we pursued and used our passions and talents? Or will it merely be a combination of all of these, for maybe we’ll learn at the end that there was so single defining element to our lives, that everything that made us who we were was of equal importance. I’d contend that this is true, yet I still find myself evaluating myself and my life, here at the quarter-life mark, based on individual components, wondering what they all equal.
                I think of relationships. You can count the number of people with whom I’ve slept on one hand (one of whom I was married to for a number of years) and it doesn’t take many more fingers to count the number of people with whom I’ve stopped just short of sex. So what do I know of sex and love and relationships? Admittedly little. Since my divorce, I’ve dated one person and been involved, in some fashion, with one other. My ex-wife lives with her new boyfriend and his son, and I find that most nights, on the nights I don’t have Holden, I’m home alone with my cat, reading, watching TV, or writing. But I found myself giving relationship advice to someone recently, someone whose situation mirrored mine from a couple years ago, and in her, I saw myself. In her struggle, I heard the words I had said to myself for a number of years but was too afraid to say aloud. So I gave her the advice I ignored when others gave me. And I had to laugh, for I thought of a line one of my characters has in Safety in Numbers: “You listened to me! My God, why the hell would you listen to me?”
                And I’ll admit that there are days I’m angry about the direction my life has taken, for I’m nowhere near where I would have expected to be at this point in life, regardless of how undefined my ideas were when I was younger. When Amanda left for the first time, I found myself going through the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, a model I had always associated with death, given that it was in light of Kubler-Ross’ death that I was made aware of her work. A friend reminded me that the model outlined the stages of grief, not just death, and I reflected on that as I found myself experiencing the range of emotions—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—we go through when grieving. The second time she left, I jumped to Anger and then landed on Acceptance, bypassing all the rest. And yet I find myself going back to anger some days—not anger over the dissolution of the marriage, for we agree, as would anyone who truly knew us, that it was for the best, but at the fact that most days feel so much like starting over. A new career, an unfinished MA, looking for new love—all coming when I thought I had my life figured out. I was a married father who taught and wrote—that was the end of my story.

And yet it wasn’t. It was merely a chapter.


I started working at the grocery store when I was a senior in high school. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t leave for the last time until I went to teacher high school in 2012. Seven years (off and on) I spent at the grocery store. But through it all, I knew there was a way out. I was going to college and I could count down the years, the months, the weeks until I would graduate and set off to make my mark on the world, to make the world a better place—and I suppose in my limited time as a teacher, I did that, even if just for a few students. I’ve had too many students come up to me later to hug me or thank me to believe any differently.
                Yet I find myself now in a new career—management, a world of which I know little. I traded my socialistic, humanitarian passions for education for capitalistic drive. I haven’t considered myself a capitalist since I was in my late teens, and I’ve never thought of myself as a businessman or economist, so the talk of profits and losses is entirely new to me. Given my college education, I have the opportunity for advancement, and I’m sure it will come in due time, but unlike when I was working at the grocery store, there is no timetable for change. I’ve been bouncing from store to store to gain a better perspective of management, to learn how other managers do what we do, so that I can take from the best of them and craft my own management style. Yet I can’t help but wonder what my future holds—and when that future is coming.


My high school days were tame. I spent most of my free time playing music, reading, and writing. Watching films and old television shows. Weekends and evenings were spent at Katie’s Corner or The Bluegrass, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking about politics and Bob Dylan and how we were all going to make it out of our small town lives. Some left. Some left and came back. Some never ventured away.        I may have dreamt of living in a big city, and some days I still fantasize about it, but the truth of the matter is that I like small town life. When I was in high school, I told someone that if Mayberry were real, I’d move there in a heartbeat, so familiar and in love with the fictional town was I from my days spent watching its citizens in black and white in my youth. And I find that I can relate to the plight of the characters of Springsteen and John Mellencamp songs, of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. I often feel like one of those characters, lost in some cosmic novel about the plight of the small town heroes, most of them unsung, chasing the fading American Dream.

And most days, I’m okay with that.

We talk about glory days, those best days of our lives when we were the best versions of ourselves, the days on which we reflect later in life. And I wonder what my glory days were, or even I even had them. But the more I think about it, the more I start to wonder if, just maybe, it’s not about having glory days, but, maybe instead, about finding the glory in each day.

Friday, February 7, 2014


Discarded parts to projects long forgotten; a broken dryer with no door; a lawnmower turned on its side, the blade dull, rusty, and loose, up on sawhorses as though left midway through repairs, just awaiting the return of someone to finish it, someone who isn’t coming; and canvas bags filled with baseball gear: scratched helmets and worn leather mitts, stained with oil, crammed in against metal bats with nicked paint and taped grips—this was the scene that Travis and Sarah saw as they pushed open the garage door and flipped on the overhead light that blinked to life slowly. Particles of dust danced in the light, and the overwhelming stench of old hit them as they crossed the threshold, out of the blazing sun and into the cool dimness of the garage. Travis cursed under his breath. Old dust, old dirt, old mold, old gasoline, all of it preserved in the shade of the small, old garage, cool and musty, and as far as Travis was concerned, all of it useless.
            “At least it's cool in here,” Sarah said as she and her brother took in the clutter that had been relegated to the garage where, as children, they had watched their father tinker with projects never finished. He had tinkered away most of his free time when Sarah and Travis were younger, spending most of his free time out away from his family, isolating himself with cigarettes, beer, and a small radio that played the old jazz he had so loved and longed to imitate. But the tinkering had tapered off in recent years, the last ten years or so seeing their father too weak to devote time to fixing items that were not necessary. The last project had been the lawnmower, although Albert had not cut his own lawn for several years; still, he had insisted on working on the lawnmower when it started acting up—coughing, wheezing, stalling. He hadn’t finished it. And the remnants of that unfinished project epitomized so much of what the siblings saw as they looked around: started with the best of intentions, so much of life lies incomplete after it’s all over.
            “Where to start,” Sarah muttered, looking at everything to map a course of action with her eyes, to mentally sort through what was there, what needed to be salvaged, sold, or thrown away. Her eyes locked on three large garbage bags, all lumpy and stuffed in the corner nearest the automatic door on the opposite end of the concrete floor, which was stained with splotches of oil, paint, and other indeterminate blots .
            “The first thing we have to do is air this place out,” answered Travis. He pressed the button above the light switch, the blue one shaped like a small rectangular house. The automated door stayed lowered with not so much as a turn of the metallic gears overhead. He pushed it again; again, nothing. Pushed again; again, nothing. He pushed it again a final time before walking toward the heavy door that refused to budge, fighting the urge to smash the overhead box with the heaviest object he could find. It was another of his father’s unfinished projects, he supposed. “Does this thing not work?” he asked, rising on his toes to press the reset switch. Again he was met with nothing: no sounds, no beeps, no whistles, nothing to indicate anything worked. The door still didn’t lift as he mashed the button above the light switch again and again, grumbling curses under his breath. “There’s a handle on the outside, right?” he asked. It was the second of his questions to go unanswered. He turned to look at Sarah but saw that in the time he had fought with the door, she turned her attention to the outside of the garage, where she stood with her hands on her hips. “I was talking to you, you know,” Travis said as he approached.
            “What?” she asked, finally looking at him. It was as though he’d drawn her from a dream world as she looked around, almost as if to orient herself. “What’d you want?” He’d yet to answer her when he gaze returned to the far corner of the fenced-in yard, an area wedged between the fencing and the garage. He knew immediately what she was looking at, for it was there they had buried Chipper when they were little, the first death either of them had experienced. Travis had been six, his sister four, when the dog had run out in front of a car while chasing a ball that had sailed over Albert’s head. Their father had tried to grab the dog as he ran past, yelling for it to stop, but it was no use, his calls coming too late. Sarah looked away but Travis just stared, stupefied, as the tires from the car squealed to a halt in the road, the body of their toy poodle pressed under a front tire. Their father had dug a shallow grave and placed the limp poodle in it, quickly covering the body with dirt to keep his children from staring too long at it.
            “I was trying to get the garage door to open, and I asked if it worked. The answer is no, apparently. The damn thing won’t budge.” He noticed his sister was smiling now as she stared where once had stood a cross painted with yellow and pink flowers, the grave ornament they had made for Chipper, even leaving flowers for a while. “I’ll go around and see if I can get it to open from the outside.” He turned to make his way down the yard and around the garage, but stopped and watched her for a minute. “What are you staring at?”
            She pointed at the corner. “There’s where Dad buried Chipper when we were little. Silly dog.”
            “Yeah, I know,” he answered, “but I don’t imagine he’s going to come up and help us anytime soon.”
            Sarah didn’t respond to the comment, but shot Travis a hard look. “Do you remember why Dad chose that spot to bury him?”
            “Cause it was out of the way.”
            She shook her head. “Cause that was where he tried to grow that little garden when we were little. They tried to grow…” She rubbed her temples slowly, as if trying to rejuvenate the flow of memories. “Pumpkins, tomatoes… tomatoes… What else did he grow besides pumpkins and tomatoes?” She bit her lips softly, driving her front teeth into the soft flesh and laughed, a habit she had when anxious, one that developed in childhood. It seemed that whatever answer she was looking for never came. “Anyway, everything failed miserably, so Dad went out and dug everything up, trashed it, and then when Chipper died, he put him there because the ground was already soft and tilled from the plants. It was less work that way. And he even joked that after he’d failed so miserably at the garden, it would be nice to put something that there that would do what it was supposed to.” When she finished her story and looked back for her brother’s reaction, he was gone.


Travis hadn’t the time for his sister’s nostalgic musings. His stay was nearly over and still they had much to do and clean and dispose of before his return up North for work, where his life would return to normal, back to the infrequency of visits home that, now with both their mother and father gone, would likely taper off to nonexistence, replaced by phone calls that served as the beginning and ending of any sort of familial relationship among the remaining elements of his family. Now one fewer, he thought, since his father’s passing, and most of the rest of them didn’t truly matter—aunts, uncles, and cousins he’d barely recognized at the funeral; in fact, several times Sarah had had to nudge him in the ribs and whisper peoples’ names as they approached, an effort to save them all form an embarrassing situation in a place it was needed least.
            But for now he was standing at the back of his childhood garage trying to pry his too-fat fingers under the door with no handle—no luck. He straightened from his hunched position, age sending a burning crackle through his knees, and cursed his having now to find something with which to pry open the door. With his luck, he thought to himself, anything of his father’s that could serve as a wedge would be sharp and rife with tetanus, given the state of decay that permeated the old man’s belongings. He figured he’d likely get lockjaw and find his stay prolonged in the form of a lengthy hospital visit.


Sarah had returned to the inside of the garage by the time Travis entered, telling her to help him find a crowbar. She straightened from the bent position she had adopted while rifling through the garbage bags she had spotted earlier and began lifting items from the first bag: clothes, all them clothes— and from the lumpy shape of the other two bags, she suspected they were filled the same—baby clothes, toddler clothes, baseball and basketball jerseys; their father’s sport coats and mother’s sweaters; all of them crammed inside the bag without regard to organization, a likely sign that the other two bags were as haphazardly packed. There was nothing to tie the pieces together, no reason for their being there, other than that they were old, musty, and useless.
            “Help me find a crowbar,” Travis said as he began looking through the tools littered across various benches and tables. “And why are you getting all that junk out? We’re supposed to be cleaning this place out, not contributing to the mess.”
            “But look at this,” she said. “It’s so cute. I’ve seen pictures of you in it when you were a baby.” It was true. There were several pictures of him in the baseball onesie, as his old man had once dreamed of playing professional baseball, a dream that he had been determined to pass on to his son, and his mother had been an avid picture taker; not a photographer by any means, for her pictures lacked the focus, artistry, detail, or precision to be considered art; they were merely snapshots of life taken rapidly, as if the goal were to document as many of the fleeting seconds as she could: pictures of birthday parties and Christmas celebrations where people’s heads were cut out of the frame, Travis playing baseball, his sister playing soccer, baptisms, and formal dances.
            “And,” she continued, “we decided to organize and sort this stuff first, then decide what to get rid of. We can’t just start pitching stuff right away. We may want to keep some of this stuff.”
            “I doubt it,” Travis answered. “I’ve gotten along fine without all this for this long, so I think I’ll be fine another forty years.” He continued to rummage through the piles of discarded tools, all covered in rust or paint or varnish, stacked on the workbench, hung on the hooks from the pegboard on the wall nearest the door, or crammed and overflowing in a toolbox that had long ago lost its lid. Other tools had been stashed in makeshift cubbyholes and drawers, stacked atop several half-empty boxes of rusted screws, their contents spilled so that they rolled each time a drawer was open. There were screwdrivers, Philips and flatheads, multiple ones of varying lengths; there were hammers, some with wooden handles, some wrapped in tape, still others with rubber grips; there were levels; there were drills and bits and an array of heads, and nuts, and bolts; there was a circular saw, two handsaws, and a jigsaw—more tools than the old man could ever have needed, all accumulated through a lifetime of tinkering, each stained, in some way or another, by the work they’d been called upon to do, and far from the pristine condition in which they had been purchased. The larger tools had the old man’s initials—AF, for Albert Frances—burned into them. But there was no crowbar that Travis could see.
            “All this crap but not the thing we need,” said Travis, kicking away some paint cans that were stacked under the worktable; and there it was, nearly hidden under but revealed by the clanging cans. He grumbled about their father’s disorganization as he scooped the rusted crowbar into his hands and made his way back into the steadily rising heat of the day, the Appalachian humidity making his clothes begin to cling to his skin.
            The wedge of the crowbar, rusted and chipped, slid with much effort under the lip of the door, with Travis finagling and twisting and turning to the cool metal until the door lifted ever so slightly, just enough for him to squat and slide his fingers into the gap and lift, the door slowly rolling back out of view as he stood and pushed. He dropped the crowbar into the grass and wiped his hands on his shorts. As he walked back into the garage, he noticed Sarah’s attention had been turned to a collection of photographs she’d found in a shoebox. Travis reluctantly accepted her beckoning him over to look at them so they could revel in the memories spurred by the photos of them as toddlers playing in a sprinkler, or of them at Christmas holding up the presents they’d just opened, each of them with a smile spread across their face. He glanced over her shoulder at a couple of pictures, murmured some snide comment about his head being cut out of the frame, and quickly returned to work, dragging a small plastic swing set and slide out of the cobwebbed corner and out into the alleyway.


That is how they spent most of the day: Travis hurrying to arrange, organize and discard, Sarah reminiscing and holding objects affectionately, almost cradling them, each of them some small part of a puzzle that, when put together, formed the lives they had lived a lifetime ago.
            “I’ve never understood yard sales,” Travis said as he loaded a refrigerator onto a dolly and wheeled it to the edge of the garage. “We spend years, entire lifetimes, accumulating things we think we find important, only to set it out one day on tables out in front of houses and let complete strangers rifle through the shit we claim to no longer need.”
            The objects they had sorted through were beginning to take the form of three distinct piles: one for items they, mainly Sarah, would keep; another for items they would try to sale; and the final for items to be discarded, some of which were already stuffed into large black bags, several of which were already full and tied at the top—closed to further inspection unless ripped apart. Travis deposited the fridge in the pile of items they hoped would sale. Anything that failed to sale would be donated to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, should neither Sarah nor her brother decide at the last minute to keep it. Travis assured her he would not. It was that pile, the pile comprised of items they hoped to pawn off on others, that held the most items: tools, old records and cassette tapes, a VCR, an old phonograph player. Travis would have liked to see it be ever larger, but his sister insisted on keeping several old items, which no one would have probably purchased anyway—sports jerseys; decorations that were aged and tacky and other tchotchkes, remnants of bygone days, just tucked away as though waiting for an excuse to be brought forth, that reason seemingly having been found through decorating Sarah’s modest apartment.
            The third pile was comprised largely of a combination of garbage and stuff they were convinced no one would ever want: old newspaper clippings of people long since dead, magazines that were moth-eaten and yellowing, included among them Parade and Time, and clothes that had been tattered and torn.
            Travis heard the pickup truck rumbling down the alleyway before he saw it, the muffler coughing and spitting as the axels squeaked over the dips and holes in the gravel. Just hearing it coming, he could already envision what it would look like: an older model in need of much repair: a rusted out body, parts likely eaten through with holes; likely large spider-web cracks in the windshield; and a gun rack, likely full, in the back window. He stopped working and stood at the edge of the garage and watched the truck approach. His guess wasn’t far from wrong, though the body was in better shape than he had expected. There was more paint left than he would have guessed there would be, but spots were eaten through with rust, and the muffler groaned louder the closer they got. Two people rode in the front, both men reaching the backend of middle age. One was shirtless, covered in poorly drawn tattoos, while the other wore a sleeveless undershirt that appeared to be stained with grease. Another man rode in the back, his mesh hat turned backward, a flannel shirt tied around his waist, and sat amidst scraps of metal. He was younger than the other two, maybe about Travis’s age. The truck slowed as they approached where Travis stood, and Travis could feel their eyes upon him as they passed. He returned to work, moving more items from the garage to their proper pile as the truck continued down the alley, but it was only seconds before he heard them turn around and head back from the way they had come.
            His back was turn when the first man spoke. “You-uns gettin shit a that stuff?” called the voice from the passenger seat.
            Travis turned and faced the truck. “I’m sorry,” he called. “What?”
            The man in the back of the truck motioned toward the items in the refrigerator pile, a pile that also included a small green fan with a metal blade and a rusted old toolbox. “That stuff there. Are ya’ll gettin shit of it?”
            Travis was still trying to decipher what each of the men had said when Sarah came from within the darkened garage out into the sunlight and answered them. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, we are.” Looking at the items, wiping the sweat from her brow, and she quickly added, “Feel free to take it.”
            “Wait, what?” Travis said, realizing what was being discussed between the group. “What do mean, take it?” he asked. “Come here.” He took Sarah by the arm and directed her back into the garage, into the darkest recesses where the sunlight wouldn’t reach and only the dim overhead bulb provided scant lighting. “You’re going to charge them for that, right?”
            “Of course not.”
            “What do you mean ‘of course not?’” Travis asked. He could feel an annoyance that had been present since they’d begun working edging higher and hotter within him. “We could sale that at the yard sale and get some money.”
            “Really?” she challenged. “Come on, look at that stuff. No one is going to buy that. The fridge hasn’t worked in years, the fan is a safety hazard, and that tool box is so eaten through with rust that I’d feel guilty if I let anyone even think about buying it.”
            “So what the hell are these guys going to do with it?”
            “This is what they do: they drive around alleyways, looking for metal people are throwing out, pick it up, and take it to one of the places in town that buys scrap metal.”
            “They get money for it?! And you want to give it to them?! For free!”
            “They don’t get much. And if we keep it and it doesn’t sale, which I can’t imagine it will, we’ll be stuck having to truck it to one of these scrap metal places ourselves. I don’t have a truck, and I know you don’t. It’s just easier to let them take it.”
            Neither said anything for a few moments, and Sarah took Travis’s silence for agreement. She made her way back to the truck that sat idle on the gravel, and as Travis watched the three men picked through the yard sale pile and loaded up bits of his childhood to be sold as scrap metal, which was at least get more use out of them that he had given them in years.


They sat at the kitchen table later that evening, just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, painting the skies a beautiful mélange of oranges and yellows. It was the time of evening that their father had always enjoyed most, when he would sit on the porch and smoke a pipe, read the evening paper, back when the paper still ran two editions through the week, and tell stories when his family would sit with him. When Travis had been little, he had longed for the end of the day to come, when he could crawl onto his father lap, wrapped in the warm scent of Irish cream tobacco, and listen to his father tell stories from his childhood, most of them true.
            “My favorite,” Sarah said, “was the story he told of Walt Cunningham and the time they tried to steal candy from Walt’s grandpa’s shop. They crept around the store, trying to hide behind displays and poles whenever the grandfather would look in their direction, never thinking that the poles had large mirrors atop them. I think Daddy always said they were only seven or eight, and they would creep around trying to avoid being seen, and it was Dad who finally noticed the old man had wandered from his post. That was when they started to make their move to swipe as many suckers as they could, but just before they could move, they heard a voice behind them. ‘What you need if you’re going to steal candy,’ said the voice, ‘is a distraction.’ Both boys nearly jumped out of their skins before turning around to see Walt’s grandfather crouched down behind them, ready to go with them to swipe his own candy.”
            Travis looked up from his wine and pizza. “Why that one?”
            “I don’t know,” Sarah answered, finishing of her glass of wine. “I think it’s because by the time we knew him, he was old, even when he wasn’t. He was old and working, but life had worn him down so much. Sure he would play ball with us or Monopoly some nights, but there was always something that ate away at him.” She shrugged, her auburn hair cascading over her upraised shoulders. “Of course, we didn’t see it at the time. How could we? We were so young. But now that I’m older, I look back and see how much he did, how much he struggled and gave up.”
            Travis chuckled. He had never thought of his father in that way. In fact, prior to the old man’s death, he hadn’t thought of him much in recent years. He would make it home for Christmas whenever he could, but New York to southern Ohio was a long drive for just a couple days, so the trips became less and less frequent. Sure, there were phone conversations, but they were limited, conducted almost in code, where each of the men would ask how the other was doing, and then listen to the lies they had cultivated over the years, each knowing some truth was being ignored, and yet ignoring that fact as they talked about the weather, work, a recent television program both had possibly seen, though Travis always thought his father was improvising his way through. Grasping at any bit of conversation that would keep his son on the phone for just a few moments longer when all Travis wanted to do was get back to whatever it was he had been doing before his father called.
            “He was devastated when you left, you know,” said Sarah, offering the phrase Travis had expected to be leveled since he had driven down three days earlier. “He wanted so badly for you to follow in the family business. It crushed him when you moved north.”
            Her brother scoffed. “The family business? Sorry if my aspirations in life went far beyond running some second-rate spaghetti house whose claim to fame is that John Kennedy ate there once in 1960.” Travis laughed as he took another bite of his pizza. “I see the new owners kept the pizza sauce the same. Still sweet as ever.”
            “It was in the contract,” Sarah answered.     
            “Swear to God. Dad wouldn’t sell to anyone who wouldn’t agree, in writing, to keep all the recipes the same. And keep me on as manager.” She paused and smiled. “Always looking out for me.”
            “The new owners okay to work for?”
            “I’d hardly call them new anymore. They’ve owned Archie’s for nearly ten years now.”
            Travis sat silent, letting that number sink in— Ten years. A decade. It didn’t seem possible that it had been that long since his father had sold the place; that made it nearly fifteen years since he had left home and moved to New York to pursue work as a writer, only to end up working at an ad agency, falling back on the college degree he had sworn never to use.
            “That was the one thing Dad actually stuck with and finished,” Travis offered. “All that,” he said, motioning toward the garage, “now that’s another story. My God, I’ve never seen so much stuff to sort through, so many parts of a life just scattered around, collecting dust. Just waiting for someone to do something with them. But at least it’s ready to go.” He reached for another slice of Archie’s pizza—The Best in Town boasted the box—and refilled his wine glass. “You sure you can handle the yard sale by yourself?” he asked.
            “Yes, Travis, I’ve managed a restaurant since I was seventeen. I’m fairly certain I can handle a yard sale.” There was an uncomfortable pause before she continued with a sigh. “Are you sure you can’t stay a few days longer? Aunty Betty was saying at the funeral how wonderful it was to see you. Even Reverend Billings said what a pleasure it was to have you back home.”
            Travis shook his head. “I have to get back. I have work to do. Jessica couldn’t even come with me because we had so much work piling up. I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
            “So how are things with Jessica?”
            “Fine,” he responded and kept eating.
            “Come one, what kind of answer is that? Whenever we talk, that’s all you say. Things are fine. I mean, you’ve been together, what, two years? Are you talking about marriage? Kids?”
            “We’ve talked about it. I don’t know; we’ll see what happens. What about you? You’ve not mentioned a boyfriend since Mark left.”
            “Between working, helping with Dad, and raising Brandon, the last thing I’ve thought about is a serious relationship.” Both knew that was the end of the conversation, as it was so often on the rare occasions they had spoken in recent years.
            Travis checked his watch; it was nearly eight o’clock, too early to go to bed and yet too late and dark to work any further. He glanced around the kitchen: outdated calendars, cooking ware, and collectibles that lined the shelves above the cabinets met his view, and he dreaded the coming days when his return would find him and his sister cleaning out the house. “So the house is next, right?” Sarah nodded in response. “I can be back in a few weeks to work on it.”
            “I’ll work on it while you’re gone.”
            “We’re splitting everything, right? I mean, the money for what we sell, right?”  
            “After we pay of the rest of the medical bills, yeah. I don’t know how much there will be left. There wasn’t a will, necessarily. Dad tore up the only one after Mom died and never bothered to write a new one. He always talked about it though. Figured we’d just take what we wanted, sell the rest, and split the money.”
            Travis pushed back from the table and stood up. “It’s a long drive back to the City in the morning. I’m going to turn in.” He hugged Sarah as he made his way past her, looping one arm around her shoulders in a half-hug that found her head awkwardly against his chest. He kissed the top of her head. “Get some sleep.”     
            She held his arm against her for a second before speaking. “He’d be glad you came.”
            “I know.”
            She felt him let go and heard him make his way through the hallway and up the stairs to the bedroom he had occupied so many years ago. She listened while staring at the red that stained her glass as the door to the room directly over the kitchen closed. It was then, for the first time since the funeral, she cried, pulling her feet up into the seat and hugging her legs against her chest, the tears cutting through the dirt and grime that had gathered on her cheeks.


Sarah was back at the house and sitting at the table eating a bowl of cereal when Travis came down the stairs, his suitcase in hand, and leaned against the doorframe. She glanced up from her coffee, but it wasn’t Travis who caught her attention but what he held in his hand. “I’m going to take this,” he said. The clarinet wasn’t in the best of shape, and the case had long since been lost, but it was the one remnant from a past life that Travis was willing to take back with him to the new life he had cultivated without his family, so far removed from childhood.
            “You still play?” Sarah asked.
            “Haven’t played in years,” her brother responded. “I sold mine when I first moved to New York. I needed the money, not that I would have probably used it anyway. Jessica isn’t exactly a jazz fan. She probably doesn’t even know who Artie Shaw was.”
            “That was the one thing you and Dad had in common,” Sarah offered, as though he needed reminded that jazz—old jazz—had been the bond that had served as a common interest between father and son. They would spend hours listening to Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Bob Crosby when Travis had been a child, and on certain occasions Travis would sit in with his father’s band, The Bruschetta Boppers, named as such although they played a softer, earlier jazz in the style of Shaw and Goodman, when he was learning his instrument. Those nights had been magical, nights of which Travis had not thought in ages, and nights that would have likely stayed locked away in the recesses of his mind had he not stumbled upon his father’s old clarinet the night before.
            “Are the Boppers still together?”
            “Every Friday night. Charlie Goodman is still with them; so is Harry Stinson. All the other guys are new; some come and go. Members sort of revolve depending on who is doing what.”
            Travis looked around the house. There was much work left to do, so much that needed to be cleaned and sorted, organized, to squared away in some manner that made sense and could be lived with. It hadn’t changed much in the years since he had been gone, though there seemed to be more stuff accumulated and tucked away in various nooks and crannies of the house than there had been, and Travis wondered how much of it was like that which they had found in the garage: purchased, collected, handled with the best of intentions only to be discarded when something newer or better came along, or when the job proved too difficult or too time-consuming, or when the old man had simply lost interest in whatever it was he had been working on at the time.
            “It might be nice to see them play again.”
            “You could stay.”
            “No,” he answered. “I have to get back. There’s so much to do.”
            “There’s always so much to do. Look at this place—Dad always tried to do so much, between the restaurant and handiwork, taking care of the family, that so many things were started and never finished, touched but never fully used.” And then she paused and asked the question that she had been holding in since Travis had first mentioned leaving the night before. “Why wasn’t home good enough? You left the first chance you got.”
            Travis fiddled with the clarinet in his hand before answering. “I didn’t want to work in a spaghetti house all my life, playing jazz for local customers in a Friday night after the high school football game, a game that people who graduated twenty years before still talk about as though they were out on that field, still in the student section cheering like they were seventeen again. And some of them, for those two hours—well, some of them still are. And I had dreams of something so much better.” And as he answered, he wondered to what extent those dreams had come true, to what extent he was living the dream he had had when he set out on his own, one that had gnawed at him even before he got the chance to try it. “I didn’t want to leave a life like what’s outside, cluttered remnants of something bygone and unfinished, left for someone else to parse through, to try to make sense of after I died. I wanted a life of something so much more than puzzling housecleaning.”
            She could tell by the way he shifted his weight that he was about to leave. “Be careful driving back.”
            “I will. Give Brandon a hug for me, okay?”
            She nodded before rising to hug him. They embraced, each knowing that his next trip would likely be his last, and that their already limited contact would be diminished even more with the passing of their father, the only true bond that had connected them in recent years. Travis kissed her on the forehead and turned to leave. He stopped at the doorway, taking one last look at what awaited him on his return trip in a few weeks.
            “Maybe next time I come down I’ll try to catch the Boppers. It might be nice to see them after all these years. Do people still dance out on the floor?”
            “Yep. Most of them are older folks, some of whom actually grew up with the music. Occasionally some of the younger customers will get into it. I think the high school kids do it because they think it’s cool to be nostalgic for a time they never knew. But it’s fun,” Sarah answered. “It’s a good time for a small town Friday night.”
            Travis smiled. “You really like it here don’t you?”
            “I love it. It’s peaceful, it’s quiet, the people are good and nice. Maybe it’s corny and hokey, but it’s home.” She shrugged. “It’s where I belong.”
            “Well, if you ever decide to visit, Jessica and I have a couch in a small, cramped apartment, and we’d love to have you.”
            “We’ll talk about next time you come home.”
            “Okay. Take care.”
            “You’ll be back in a couple weeks, right?” she asked.

            “Yeah, I’ll call you when I figure out what my schedule is like. I should be able to make it in two or three weeks.” He kissed her on the forehead again before getting into his car. He waived as he drove away, and both wondered if he would actually be back, for housecleaning is grueling, exhausting work, as more and more remnants are swept away.