“I just don’t like it, Mary.” John confessed to his wife. “Of all the girls that go to that college, he has to choose his best friend’s younger sister.”
“Oh, please, John.” Mary commented.
She had had enough of his thick headedness today, and this was not the best time to discuss this sort of thing. It was Thanksgiving, a day to be grateful for all of the wonderful blessings God has given you. Mary always felt blessed. And two of her babies had come home for the weekend, so she was not about to let some stubborn ass ruin this day.
“You know damn well it has nothing to do with those two boys being friends,” Mary continued. “Besides, Jessie’s only 14 months younger than James, it’s not a big deal.” She turned back to the turkey. “I’m done talking about it.”
Mary smiled as she basted the turkey. It looked delicious, and it smelled amazing, just like her mother had always made the turkey on this day. The children should be back any moment now, she thought.
John set the table, disgruntled about his wife’s comments and the ensuing situation with his daughter. Boys were so much easier. Although, Jessie was a bundle of joy; a bundle he had a hard time letting go of. James was intelligent, strong willed, and resilient. Jessie was incredibly intelligent as well, but she was softer, more delicate, and subject to long periods of crying in her room, especially when it came to boys.
The front door whipped open.
“Woo woo! Da na na, na na na, na! Tequila!” Jake sang as he danced through the door shaking his hips.
“Hey! Shoes off!” John looked up from the table. “Jake!”
“Sorry, Dad!” Jake said as if it were no big deal. He always came busting through the door with his shoes on, slinging mud everywhere and leaving his prints all over the walls, before kicking his shoes off in random directions.
“Tequila!” He sang again as he kicked his shoes off. He was only twelve, twelve years younger than James, eleven years younger than Jessie. He was elated that he got to drive somewhere with his older siblings. They must have been singing to the radio in the car.
Jake will be the death of me, thought John. He wasn’t planned, but Jake brought joy to the whole family the moment he came into this world. And other than severe asthma, he was healthy, which was something John and Mary had worried about during the pregnancy. John was forty-three when Jake had been born, and Mary had just turned forty. All of his children were healthy, John smiled. John had a lot to be thankful for too.
He couldn’t help but laugh at the young one. “Put them on the rack, dammit, Jake.”
The rest of the children walked through the front door.
Jake sang as he pointed to them, “Da na na, na na na, NA!”
“Tequila!” The other three finished the song and laughed.
“Hi, guys!” Mary said with glee as the kids took their shoes off.
Jake went buzzing down the hall to his room, singing “Tequila!”
James walked over and gave his mother a kiss. She smiled, he was such a handsome boy. Jessie did the same to her father, she was a real American beauty. The children all had John’s athletic body and handsome face, with Mary’s beautiful, light brown hair and brains.
“Hi, Sweetheart.” John smiled and stepped away from the table.
“Hi, Mr. Andrews. It’s great to see you again.” Reg stuck his hand out and smiled his big white smile.
“How are you, Reg? It’s good to see you too.” John meant it. His prejudices and preferences had gotten the better of him earlier, but this was James’ best friend, and James was a great judge of character, a leader. So maybe it was a good thing Jessie had chosen this boy.
“I’m doing really great, sir.” Reg said and smiled again. “How are you, Mrs. Andrews?”
“I’m great,” she smiled, “but you better get your butt over here and give me a hug, mister!”
Reg laughed, “Yes, ma’am!” He walked over and gave her a big bear hug, picking her off the ground an inch or so. “My grandmother made this for you.”
Mary smiled and took the pumpkin pie, looking it over in admiration. “Well, isn’t that sweet.” Mary said. “You tell her thank you very much.”
“Sure thing, Mrs. Andrews.”
“Alright you crazy kids, it’s time for dinner. Go wash up.” She said happily as she set the pie on the table. Then, yelling to Jake, “Jake?! Your hands better be clean when you sit down at this table!” She looked down the hall. “You hear me?!”
Jake called from his bedroom down the hall, “Yes, Mom!”
The children washed up and everyone helped bring food to the table. John and Mary sat at the ends of the long, dark oak table. James and Jake sat to Mary’s right, Reg and Jessie on the left. James and Reg sat closest to John, so they could talk about football, hunting and other manly topics. The little one said Grace.
“Do I have to?,” whined Jake.
“Yes,” his mother said. “You say it so well.”
The little one reluctantly rattle off the same prayer he had prayed for the past three years.
“God is great, God is good.
Let us thank Him for our food.
By His hands, we all our fed.
Give us this day, our daily bread.
“Amen,” said everyone as a whole. They went to dig in and began passing the dishes around.
“Wait!” James said abruptly. Everyone stopped and looked at him intensely. “Can I say something?”
Everyone was stunned. Mary spoke after a moment. “Sure, James.”
James looked almost embarrassed. Maybe he shouldn’t have said anything.
No, he had to say it. They all deserve it, he thought.
“Sorry.” He paused for a moment and looked around at everyone. “I just wanted to say that…”
You could hear the silence pounding the air. The stillness made him feel awkward. “I just wanted to say that I’m incredibly blessed to have all of you. I’ve met a lot of people at school, and…,” James searched for the words, “it’s just made me realize what a lucky person I am to have all of you. I mean it.”
Everyone took a breath. John and Mary exchanged a look of relief. James gave an embarrassed smile to everyone, then looked to his mother and brother. He rustled Jake’s hair and gave a thin smile. Jake beamed one back at him as their mother said, “Thank you, James. We all have a lot to be grateful for.” Everyone agreed.
“Amen.” Reg added.
“Tequila!” Sang Jake once more. The family erupted back with healthy laughter, and added another “tequila!” all together, as they raised their glasses.
Finally, they began to pass the dishes around. It was a plentiful feast, with turkey and gravy, yams covered in brown sugar and marshmallows, fluffy mashed potatoes, delicious, golden brown biscuits, the sweetest corn, dripping with butter, and beautiful, colorful salads crafted by Jessie. Everyone except Jake drank sweet, bubbly wine with dinner to add to the merriness. There was apple, pumpkin, and cherry pie for dessert – because the kids each had their favorites, and John liked all three – with vanilla ice cream, Mary’s favorite. There was so much to be thankful for, thought Mary. This was her favorite time of the year.
After dessert, everyone helped clear the table while John and Mary did the dishes. Mary always played Christmas music at this time. Frank Sinatra’s voice sang faintly over the cleaning. John sang to Mary for a moment, not well. She laughed and kissed him.
After the clean up, the family headed their separate ways. Jake ran to his room to play video games for a little while before his bedtime, Reg and Jessie were headed to a movie, and Mrs. Andrews sat down to stitch and digest, while Mr. Andrews stepped into the garage to tinker and smoke.
“Are you sure you don’t wanna come with us, James?” Jessie asked.
“Yea, man, why don’t you come along. It’s supposed to be hilarious.” Reg added.
“Nah, that’s okay. I think I’m gonna stay in and read. Thanks, though.”
“Okay, man. Suit yourself.”
“Bye, James. Bye, Mom.”
“See you guys.” James waved as he closed his book.
He set the book on the kitchen table, then looked out the window as the two love birds entered the car. Reg opened the door for Jessie, and then he ran around the car laughing and pointing at her. James watched the car roll down the long driveway, then he walked over to his mother, who was sitting in her chair, and gave her a kiss. She’s the sweetest lady in the world, he thought.
James smiled. “I love you, Mom.”
She smiled up at him. “I love you, too, Hunny.”
James walked passed the stairs that led up to his and Jessie’s rooms, then down the hall to where his parents’ and Jake’s bedrooms were located. He opened Jake’s door to find him sitting in his gaming chair with a headset on, staring intently at the screen.
“No, dude, go the other way around, otherwise you will get smoked and we’ll lose.” He urged a friend on the other end of the microphone. “No, don’t be stupid!”
“You alright, stinker?”
“Yea, but Mikey is being, stupid!” he said mockingly in a low voice into the microphone.
James laughed softly. “C’mon, that’s your teammate, don’t talk to him like that.”
“Okay…” Jake knew James was right. James smiled at him and started to close the door. “Hey, James, wait!”
“I love you. And that was really nice what you said at dinner.”
“I love you too, buddy.” James smiled again, “Thanks.”
After he closed the door, James turned and walked back down the hall, towards the living room, passed the staircase and his mother. Mary was quietly focusing on her stitching in the dimly lit room, listening to Frank Sinatra’s soothing voice on the stereo, under a single lamp and the kitchen lights. James moved through the kitchen and out the side door to look for his father in the garage.
Outside, the air was chilly, and the cold air burned James’ lungs as he took a deep breath, and inhaled the fresh air deeply. Although he enjoyed the bigger city life at college, and was considering moving to one after college, he loved the fresh country air and small town life. He reached back into the side door and grabbed a sweat jacket. As he put on the jacket he looked up at the night’s sky. He admired the stars and the glow of the crescent moon. James took another deep breath and a long exhale, still staring out into the depths of space. Then he heard the sound of a hammer, one loud swing.
Turning back, he saw his dad in the garage about twenty yards down the driveway, smoking a cigarette and measuring pieces of wood. John had changed out of his dinner clothes and into his patented work clothes for a night like this: two long-john thermals, blue levi jeans and boots, with his tool belt hanging around his waist; and a cigarette in his mouth, only removing it with his hand when he stopped hammering or measuring. He was in his working and calculating state of mind, so he was only noticing the task at hand and hadn’t seen James step out. John was a fairly large man, muscular, and the only fat that had accumulated on him came with age. He was strong, and tough, too; a worker and a builder. John’s face was handsome, but stern. Most of the time he was a fun, loving man, but if he got upset he was rather frightening, which is something he and James shared.
James walked toward the garage, his father didn’t look up.
“What’s up, Pop?” James said as he leaned against a filing cabinet.
“Oh, nothin’ much, just putting together a little shelf for Jake’s hunting gear.” John looked down the long edge of the two-by-four. “Although, I doubt he will use it.”
James laughed, “Well, either way it will get used. Mom won’t stop picking up after him.” He chuckled again. John picked his head up from his work and gave a thin smile, cigarette still in his mouth. Then he went back to work.
“It took me a while before I started picking up after myself, though” James continued.
“Yeah, I know. He’ll figure it out soon enough.” John hammered a nail, whack! “I hope.”
John took a long draw from his cigarette and stared deeply into his work. I wish he’d quit smoking, thought James, as he watched him work and measure, it’s terrible for him and he’s been at it twenty plus years. James assumed he had the same facial expression and gestures when he studied up at school, minus the cigarette. He stepped away from the filing cabinet and walked slowly around the musty room, observing the antlers of all the deer he and his dad had shot. He looked up at his first buck; a four point, but not a tiny little fork rack, it was a large deer with thick antlers, wrapping beautifully towards its dark black eyes. He wished he had more time to hunt, but school consumed most of his time these days.
“So what you been up to at school, besides studying?” John asked lightly, still focusing on his work.
“That’s pretty much it.” James picked up a screwdriver and tapped it in the palm of his hand. “I read most nights, get some exercise everyday, and go out with my friends once a week or so.” Even though James was just about to turn twenty-three, he was almost completely over the bar scene. It was always a good time, but expensive, and the hangovers had really started to become painful. He was beginning to look more deeply at what he wanted to do with his life.
“ ‘Ats right, keep your head in those books and stay in school. You don’t want to work with your hands all your life, do ya? Go be a doctor, or a lawyer if you must, but whatever you do, stay in school.”
John was giving advice, but it sounded like orders. At least you asked me what I wanted, James thought in a sarcastic tone. School was easy for him. All he had to do was show up and do the work sincerely. That’s all anyone has to do really, he thought, people just don’t want to write papers or read about things they don’t give a shit about. It was old to him, getting orders and being forced to learn things someone else thought he needed to know – that was what high school was, and he was done with that. James wanted to live, he didn’t want a title. He didn’t need a title to know who he was. James wanted to be someone who influenced the world for good; someone who, if he died tomorrow, would have lived life to the fullest and done work worth doing.
“Yeah, I don’t know how much longer I’m gonna be in school.”
The words almost slipped out of James’s mouth, and he knew he had just change the tone of the conversation when his dad looked up at him. John dropped his measuring tape on the workbench – although it was more of a throw – then took a long pull to finish the cigarette, throwing it it to the ground with the same tone he had dropped his measuring tape with. He exhaled the smoke from his lungs and said, “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I just don’t think school has that much more to offer me.”
John looked at him intensly, “What, you think you’re just going to quit?”
“Of course not.” James began to feel uncomfortable. “I’m going to get my degree, but after that I think I’m going to step out into the world, you know, live a little.”
“The working world isn’t a fun place, James.” He picked up the hammer as if the matter was over.
“If you hate what you do, yeah.”
John was getting heated, and he raised his volume. “What’s that suppose to mean, huh?! Are you mocking me or something, smart ass?”
“No. Is this about you now?”
“Hey! Don’t talk to me like that, son. This is my roof, and you don’t know nearly as much as you think you do. Going to college for a few years doesn’t make you a man.”
John was pointing at him, his face was tightening and turning red. They were both beginning to get angry now, and their tempers were about to get the better of them.
“I’m not pretending to know everything, I know I don’t. What does school have to offer me?”
“Yeah, an education,” James spoke quickly, and with an attitude, “at the cost of being in debt fifty thousand dollars and having to slave away for ten years to pay it back. Then the government can take twenty percent of my paycheck, and the financial institutions can have another third or so of what’s left, that way I can have just enough to buy a house and give another third to that for twenty-five years. How’s that for an education?” James peered at his father across the workbench.
“ I excel in every class I take, be it biology or business. School is an institution for practice, it’s not the real thing. My transcript will show I can learn, and the learning I need to do as I become an adult isn’t more school work, it’s learning about the world around me and making a living.”
John matched him in tone, but his voice boomed off the garage walls, much deeper than James’s. “Yeah, and that’s all you’ll be making, a living. You want vacations and nice things? Stay in school and become a doctor, otherwise you’ll work your whole life for nothing.” John attempted one last time to drop it and go back to work.
James, matching his volume, wouldn’t let it happen.“We went on vacations, we have nice things!”
“Yes, we do, and I worked my ass off for them! You’ll do the same if you don’t stay in school.” The two men were staring across the workbench, glaring at each other.
“What’s wrong with that?!” James smacked the workbench. “What’s wrong with working hard? That’s what humans do apparently. We work. So if I’m gonna work, I’m gonna enjoy it! Not go to school for four years after undergrad and then be someone’s bitch for another four to ten!”
James had moved around the bench. He was standing toe-to-toe with his father now, their faces only inches away from one another. James was actually taller than his father now.
Quietly, but with a fierceness James had never heard before, his father said, “Then what are you going to do? Huh, what?”
Father and son were locked, face to face, like two buck deer fighting over territory.
James gritted his teeth. “I don’t know.”
James turned away and began to walk out the garage, “And I don’t need to know tonight!”
“Well your ass is staying in school until you do have a plan!” John yelled as James approached the side door. “You hear me?!”
James slammed the door and strode through the house. His mother stopped her stitching when she heard the door and looked up from her chair. Oh, no, Mary thought. James moved passed her quickly, without looking at her, and headed up the stairs to his room.
“What’s wrong, Honey?”
James didn’t even look at his mother. “Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“It’s nothing, Mom!” James was red, wide-eyed and fuming.
Mary was startled by his tone.
James could see that he had hurt her, and instantly he felt terrible. “I’m sorry, I just,” James choked, “..he just..”
James struggled to breathe for a moment, and felt as though he might cry.
He let out a long breath. “I just don’t want to talk about it right now. I’m going to shower and go to bed.” The harshness had given way to the softer side of him. He hated his temper. It might be his worst quality.
“Alright, Sweetie. I love you.”
How he loved his mother’s voice.
“Love you, too, Mom.”
He walked back down the stairs and gave his mother a hug and kiss good night. As he headed back up, he thought of the altercation he had just had with his father. James was becoming educated. He read books written by some of the smartest men in the world, some were suggested by teachers and some he found on his own. His world was changing, his peers were changing, and the more he thought, the more he believed, “In the end, it’s not the amount of years in your life. It’s the amount of life in your years.”
The last thought James had before he fell asleep was, “I have to do what my heart tells me.”