“Breeaak!’ The cry echoed through the nearly empty workroom floor. It was 3:30 am Sunday morning at the St. Martin Post Office and the last break of the workday. The Post Office was nearly deserted except for the unfortunate members of a skeleton crew on the graveyard shift at the deadest hour in the deadest of places. Rod Thorton was one such member of this stripped to the bone crew. He straightened up, popping out a few of the kinks that had worked their way into his knotted back during the last two hours of lifting heavy sacks, and wiped at the sweat trickling from his receding hair line. He rubbed his dark callused hands over his balding head as he made his way past the rows of idle machinery that on any other day would be spewing forth processed mail, but now merely sat idle as he headed for the break room. The break room offered temporary relief from the monotonous isolation of working alone on this shift. Rod jingled the change in his pocket as he made his way to the vending machine.
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“Hey, Monty,” he said in greeting the only other person in this part of the break room. “Three Card” Monty, a recent retiree from the military who had hired in about three years ago, was a gregarious fellow with a wiry gray beard. He had on his usual brown work boots (unlaced), blue jeans, a plaid shirt covered by a green down hunting vest and covered his gray head with a hunting cap adorned by several pins. One pin depicted a large-mouth bass in action; the rank insignia he had worn in the army was dead center; an “I love fishing” pin was in the upper right, and a rebel flag in the lower left.
“Hey, Rod,” he answered, not taking his eyes from the television mounted high in the back corner of the break room. Rod fished some change out of his pockets and perused the selection offered by the vending machine; passing all the over priced junk food, he settled on a jar of fruit juice. The vending machine greedily gobbled his change down its esophagus and, after a noisy trip down its digestive system and a clank in its gullet, it reluctantly spit his purchase. Rod, wiping his juice off on his shirt, sat across from “Three Card” Monty.
“Hey, Rod, have you heard the one about the guy who went to see the Doctor because he ate like a horse?” Monty asked.
“No, don’t think I have.”
“Well, there’s this guy, and he goes to see the Doctor. ‘Doctor! Doctor!’ he says, ‘ya gotta help me. Ever since last week I bin eatin’ like ah’ horse.’ The Doctor picks up one of his big medical books and starts leafin’ through it. The guy says, ‘Everytime I see food I have ta eat it.’ The Doctor picks up another book and starts leafin’ through it. ‘Everything I see, I eat! Can ya’ help me Doc’?’ The Doctor picks up another book and begins leafin’ through it, and guy says, ‘What are ya’ lookin’ for Doc?’ And the Doctor says, ‘Well, since you’re eatin’ like ah’ horse, I’m lookin ta see if I can give you a prescription to shit like ah horse!”
Rod laughed politely as Monty cackled up a raspy storm. He was always trying to tell a gut buster but never quite managed it, but this was a far cry better than most. Rod finished popping the top on his fruit juice and took a swig.
“Hey, Monty?’ He began to ask after his fruit juice had gone down, “Can I ask you something?’
“Well,” Rod started, “I was wonderin’ about that confederate flag on your hat. Do you know that a lot of blacks find it insulting?”
“No!” The question had taken Monty by surprise.
‘Yeah, a lot of black people associate the Confederate flag with the Klu Klux Klan and their beliefs.”
‘No, it’s nothing like that for me. I just wear it because I like it,” Monty defended.
“I know it’s not like “you” aren’t like that personally,” Rod pointed out, ‘yet it does hold some negative connotations for most black people.” Rod began to explain. “I was watching T.V. the other day, the news network, and there was this black lady on, protesting the Georgia State Flag which was also the flag of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Well she went on to say that the Confederacy lost the war and that their flag shouldn’t fly over official government buildings or offices. She said it was an embarrassment to blacks and minorities everywhere to have that flag thrown in their faces.”
Monty had listened patiently, and gathered himself before giving his reply.
“Ya’ know,” he hesitated briefly, “I looked up my family’s history from the civil war and I’ll tell ya; my ancestors fought with the north. I forget which regiment exactly, but it was with an Ohio infantry regiment. So, my family’s history isn’t even along those lines.”
“Well, let me ask you this? How do you think that ancestor of yours would feel if he could see you today wearing the flag of his enemy? The enemy he fought against!”
“I don’t think he’d be too all fired upset. My father, for instance, was in World War II and he brought home one of those big swastikas, ya know the ones with the eagle on it, great big sucker, and he don’t seem to mean nothing from it.’
“Don’tcha see though,” Rod said, “there’s a difference in your father’s bringing back a Nazi Swastika as a souvenir and your parading a rebel flag around everywhere as decoration. Don’t you think it makes Jewish people feel uneasy when they see a swastika? To them it means that the person wearing the swastika, or carrying it around, is a mortal enemy, a follower of Hitler and all he stands for including the extinction of their religion. Then doesn’t it seem natural for black people to associate the rebel flag with those supporting white supremacy and the total enslavement of the black race? For instance, it’s been almost forty years since the holocaust, yet look at the affect it has on Jewish people. Now consider that the Klan marches all the time, and wherever they go they parade around those confederate flags, a definite symbol of what they believe in.’
“Yeah, I can see that, I guess. And, am I not only one of those guys that goes around saying that some of my best friends are black, but I was also in Vietnam. I’ve lived with them, saw some of them die. Liked some, didn’t like others. Not ‘cause the color of their skin, but because of the type of person they were. I know! So don’t tell me, because I know!”
“Do ya know what my eight year old son dreamed the other day? They had been studying black history in school and he dreamed that we lived back in slavery times. The slavers burst into our house looking for me. Him and his brother had to hide under a pile of dirty clothes while their mother begged and pleaded while the men dressed in white sheets beat me, and dragged me from the house in chains. He woke up crying, little tears leaving salty tracks down his face. His little half asleep body jerking in my arms as he sniffled trying to check his snotty nose and stop his crying at the same time. Having a loved one ripped from you is a very traumatic thing even in your dreams.” Rod’s voice trailed off as his eyes focused on his now empty jar of fruit juice, then continued. “My wife and I both know that the day is coming that our children will come face-to-face with racism. So far all the people they’ve met have been either friends, family, neighbors, or teachers or something like that. But, there’ll come a day when their mother and I aren’t around and they’ll run across someone who isn’t in one of those categories, and our children will have a “rude awakening” of sorts, to the reality of racism.”
They sat there, neither saying anything for a frozen moment in time, both staring at the same spot on the table until Rod glanced at his watch.
“Well,” he said slowly rising, “break’s over, time for me to get back to work.” He walked towards the door and tossed the jar in the recycling bin. “See ya later, Monty.’
“Ya,” Monty called after him, “See ya.”
Rod walked back past the idle machinery to the piles of stuffed bags that he had left, they were still waiting for him and he dug in. During the course of his work he couldn’t help but think of his conversation with Monty. He had lied to Monty when he said it was time for him to go back to work, he still had a few minutes left. He felt slightly guilty for what he had said to Monty. When he initially asked the question he hadn’t planned to argue the point, but merely to make conversation. It was always awkward to talk about racial issues, even with someone of the same color, because you never knew how someone would handle it. They could blow their stack and never speak to you again, or not speak to you again because they felt guilty, you just never knew.
The remaining two hours seemed to go by quickly as he glanced at his watch, and suddenly found himself puzzling over how time seemed to fly when you had something on your mind. He looked around at the work he had done. It lay strewn at his feet nearly completed. He knew the next shift would come in and pick-up where he left off, putting the finishing touches on today’s workload. Some of the machinery was beginning to come to life as Rod passed on his way out. He heard someone call his name over the new activity.
“Hey, Rod.” Monty called across the growing din of moving equipment and running machinery and pointed to his hat. Rod looked at Monty’s hat with shocked surprise. There was an empty space where the Confederate flag had been.
“Thanks,” Rod said slowly, “Thanks a lot.”
“Don’t thank me,” Monty said as they shook hands, “I didn’t do it for you.”
Rod didn’t ask him whom he had done it for. It really didn’t matter whether or not he had done it for him, his son, that nearly forgotten great-great grandfather in that Ohio regiment, or even for himself. What really mattered is that Monty had thought about it and made a conscious decision of his own volition and his courage had probably saved their friendship as well.
A gentleman in a beat up, rust colored 'Olds from the last century that was sputtering noxious fumes swerved into Rod Thorton's lane without using a turn signal. As far as Rod Thorton was concerned every dangerous driver on the road fit into one category or another. This gentleman Rod placed in the group he called " Archie Bunkers of the world”.
The Archie Bunkers of the world are those drivers between middle aged to retired and beyond that think they own the road. They usually drive a bone crushing battering ram that should have been outlawed in the '70's. They can generally be spotted as those slow moving, inconsiderate dinosaurs that change lanes without using their turn signals or any other method of communication. The "Archie Bunker" then looks at the person he has just cut off with contempt as if the person behind is at fault and in need of improving their driving skills. Once Archie Bunker has sufficiently snubbed his fellow motorist, he feels compelled to enlighten his new found friend with (his) immense wisdom by shouting an asinine phrase, "mine's paid for, how 'bout yours?" The Archie Bunker may or may not - but most likely will top off this brief encounter with the most common of friendly gestures: sticking up his middle finger.
Rod slammed on his brakes of his ten year old Buick Regal and dropped down 10 miles per hour slower than the posted speed limit, almost getting rear-ended by the driver behind him who laid on his horn for an unnecessarily long time. True to form the Archie Bunker; hearing the horn proceeded to give Rod the signal with his finger that most appropriately indicated Archie Bunker’s Intelligence Quotient. The car behind Rod, a red Pontiac Firebird with white racing stripes, Rod placed in the group: The Young and the Reckless.
The Young and the Reckless motorist is usually the off spring of the Archie Bunkers of the world. The Young and the Reckless group is typified by their darting in and out of traffic as if they were racking up points in a video game for every car passed, even if they passed the same car three times. It is the mission of the Young and the Reckless to maneuver their NASCAR themed automobiles through traffic and lap as many unsuspecting motorist as possible to win a "no-prize", on the way to nowhere for no-reason.
The driver of the red Firebird stepped on the gas. Rod could hear his engine rev as it screamed past him on the right. The Young and Reckless driver sped past the "Archie Bunker" and swerved in front of him and gave an number identical to his I.Q. to Archie Bunker and Rod, as he disappeared into the distance to lap more unsuspecting traffic. Rod flipped on his turn signal and moved into the right lane; the Archie Bunker in front of him did the same without the use of a turn signal of course. Rod stepped on the gas and darted back to the left, easily passing Archie Bunker, resisting the urge the urge to share his I.Q. score and polite discourse.
Rod had sped up to the speed limit and resumed his course for home when a four wheel drive, two tone, Chevy Suburban XLT being driven by a lady who had her attention on the children wrestling in the back seat pulled in front of him uncomfortably close. This category Rod labeled as Soccer Moms.
Soccer moms are those women who have their kids in a million different activities after school and are late to all of them, in a hurry, distracted, stressed and driving a vehicle whose height over the pavement is twice the stride of her middle child.
Rod could see the look of surprise on her face in her driver side rear view mirror as she finally saw him, after she completed her lane change. She waived an apology then turned her attention to the back seat. It is a good thing Rod traveled this way often. He knew where his exit was which was good because he couldn't see a thing from behind the Suburban. Rod proceeded to take the Main St. exit ramp assuming that it would be longer, but safer and less stressful. At the bottom of the ramp Rod merged onto the road behind a white Buick Roadmaster that was creeping along at exactly the right time and place forcing him to stay behind for a couple of miles. Rod could see the pillbox hat sitting on the driver’s head that barely came over the steering wheel.
Rod called this group the Miss Daiseys. The Miss Daiseys were those sweet little old ladies who believed that the slower you go, the more gas you save. This group isn't usually out past two o'clock p.m. Generally they like to be off the street by the time the Young and the Reckless get out of high school, and before the Archie Bunkers get home from work. More likely than not this poor dear had gotten into the wrong line at the Piggly Wiggly, or had a little too much tea at the social, or one of the girls just couldn't get the stitch right at the quilting bee. Whatever the reason, she had found herself out in rush hour traffic in a huge car that her husband had bought for her thinking that bigger cars are safer.
Rod waited patiently for traffic to clear and passed Miss Daisey on the left, and to his surprise that sweet little old lady with the pillbox hat felt that she knew him well enough to declare her I.Q. to him. Rod pulled back into the right lane at the light and was waiting for the light to turn when a black Mercedes Benz S500 with tinted windows pulled up next to him and proceeded to make a right turn from the left hand lane. Rod quickly labeled this group as BMC, (Big Man in Car).
BMC is Miss Daisey's husband. This is the man who thinks his aging wife, who never drove very well in the first place, is better off behind the wheel of a car with a front end so long that she can't see past it. These are the old men who think big cars are the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award; the bigger the car the bigger the life. Their ulterior motive for buying such a big car is to intimidate other motorists into thinking twice before hitting them. The BMIC's can be identified when they try to squeeze their huge cars into no parking zones and handicapped spaces; they can do no wrong, laws are for little people in little cars.
The BMIC in the black Mercedes completed his "illegal for others" right turn from the left lane, barely missing the nose of Rod's aging green four door Buick as it did a nose dive to the street. The BMIC rumbled over the train tracks and disappeared leaving Rod's Buick sitting on its haunches. Rod breathed a quick sigh of relief, he took a second to vent his righteous indignation and stretch his vocabulary before starting on his way again.
At the intersection of Main and Rosewood, Rod could see the whirling red and blue lights of the police and the orange and white flashers of a tow-truck. The tow-truck was just pulling off with a dark green early model Chevy Lumina on its back. The driver’s side front had been pushed in, the windshield and windows lay strewn across the intersection in little sparkling pieces. "That's the same year as mine,” Rod thought to himself as he quickly labeled the driver of the Lumina in the category he most wanted to avoid, the category of Victim.
The Victims are those people who don't make it home safely. They are those who fall prey to other categories. Victims are the ones who have to wait hours for the police to fill out reports and days for the insurance adjuster and weeks for the auto repair shop to bang out a fender before getting their only mode of outdated transportation back on the road.
Rod turned off at Church Street and then into the friendly confines of Shady Lane, placing him in the category he most desperately wanted to be in, the Survivor group. Survivors are the ones who make it home safe without any nicks or dings.
As soon as Rod turned onto Shady Lane he could see the neighbor children playing in his driveway half a block away. He tapped on the horn lightly to let the children know that he was pulling in. He didn't feel like stopping for anything after a hard day like the one he had, and after fighting rush hour traffic the entire way home, he was worn out. He did however stop in the driveway to talk to his youngest son who was playing in the yard with his friends.
"Hi, Dad." Teddy said as his father rolled down the window.
"Hey, Partner. Howya' doin'." Rod said in his best western drawl.
"Alright, Pop. Is it alright if I stay out and play with my friends?" Teddy asked anxiously with a big puppy dog look on his face.
"Yeah, Sure." Rod didn't see the harm in him playing basketball in the driveway with his friends on a Friday.
"Are you coming out to play with us?" Teddy asked as the rest of the kids looked on anxiously.
"I don't know, I'm kind of tired today. Maybe later, O.K.?" The neighborhood kids gave a collective 'aww' from behind Teddy.
"You do look kind of tired, Dad. Maybe you should get some rest." Teddy had such tenderness in his voice that it made Rod think that he must look awful.
"Thanks, thanks a lot, friend." Rod said sarcastically as he pulled his chugging car into the garage to a chorus of "Thanks Mr. Thorton" from the kids in the driveway. "Kids", Rod said to himself, "God bless 'em."
Rod was glad that the house was empty. It was good to be alone for a while. He picked up today’s mail that he found on the counter top. He rifled through it briefly. The usual junk mail; a couple of credit card bills, a pre-approved credit card offer with ten thousand dollar limit that he quickly threw in the trash, a coupon book to local restaurants that he didn't frequent and hadn't planned to, and a large orange envelope with a picture of Ed McMahon and Dick Clark on the cover with the words 'YOU HAVE JUST WON TEN MILLION DOLLARS!' emblazoned on the front.
"Another Ten Million,” Rod said to no one in particular, "a few more of these and I can retire a wealthy man." He tossed the orange envelope on top of a heap of similar orange envelopes. He pulled open the refrigerator; a wave of cold air met him in a refreshing wave. He helped himself to a glass of the ice tea his wife made on sunny days.
He took it into the family room and sat down on the overstuffed couch. He looked around for the remote control but didn't find it. He checked between the cushions, still with no luck. He looked under the coffee table, and again found nothing again. Rod checked the cushions of the love seat, he slid the couch out to check behind it, and turned over the love seat and checked behind the logs by the fireplace. He finally found it when he picked up the couch and checked underneath it. "Always in the last place ya' look," he said to himself as he clicked on the television.
The sounds of neighborhood - children playing, Chet cutting his grass, the traffic up and down Shady Lane - blended together in a seamless symphony of suburban life, wafting through the screen door as Rod settled down to watch T.V. with his remote control in his hand. The T.V. snapped to life, which meant somebody had just turned it off. It was tuned to the 'Tunes Network, which meant it was probably the kids. Rod did a blitzkrieg through the channels; static, local news, talk show, talk show, talk show, home shopping, talk show, local news. Rod channel surfed until he hit the All Sports Channel. To say Rod was disappointed to find a Sports Talk Show on was an understatement. He was just getting ready to check out the Wild Western Network when he heard another car pull up in the garage. Denise, his wife of fourteen years, stormed in.
"Hi, Honey. What's wrong with you?" Rod knew that look. He called it the Big, Bad Wolf look because she was huffing and puffing like she was going to blow the house down.
"I've been up to Junior's School! That's where I've been." She huffed then began again. "The school called me at work today…” she threw her purse and coat down in a chair and huffed and puffed some more, "you wouldn't believe what they said about your son!" She pointed at Junior who always became 'his' son when he had done something wrong. Junior had walked in behind his mother with his head slung so low Rod thought he’d have to unbutton the boy’s shirt to see his face.
“What did they say?” Rod had put down the remote control and his drink and met his wife in the kitchen.
Denise took a deep breath to steady her nerves as she thought about where to start.
"They called me today at work and said he was rolling around on the floor in class,.. under the desk, being disruptive in class and acting like a nut! You'd better do something with him, because I might kill 'em!" Denise stormed off toward the bedroom. She stormed back in even more upset than when she had left, "I can't tell you what a fool I felt like sitting there, that woman tellin' me my son's actin' like a fool ... and there I am; 'Oh no, not my son! There must be some mistake.' .. and he's just a sittin' over there, quiet as a church mouse,.. not saying a thing!" Denise stormed out again, but she didn't stop fussing. Junior slunked even lower as he waited for his dad to start in on him, knowing his mom would be back again and again.
"Junior?" Rod called to his son. "Come here!" Rod lifted up his arm and Junior walked under it like a man going to the gallows. He could still hear Denise in the bedroom ranting and raving about her son making her look like an idiot. Rod sat his son down at the kitchen table. "Now tell me, son.. what's going on with you?" There was a long silence as Junior sat in his seat with his eyes cast down, followed by an even longer silence while Junior picked at the table.
"Come on now,.. I know there's something. What's got you crawling on the floor and clownin’ in class?"
“Well.., “ Junior began slowly.
"Yeah? " Rod encouraged.
"It's nothin' really, Dad." Junior eyeballed the table.
"Nothin' really?" Rod reiterated. "Nothing' really has you Rollin' on the floor in math class?"
"I was just..” Junior swallowed the courage to tell his side of the story. It sank to his stomach with the words that he couldn't find.
"Why don't you just tell me how it started in class." Rod knew he was probing sensitive areas, but he felt he had to get to Junior's side of the story; to get to the root of the problem, or the truth.
"Well, there's this girl I sit next to in class ... I… she knocked my pencil off the desk, I reached over to pick it up and she kind of ... hit me?" Junior paused and looked up, making eye contract with his dad for the first time.
"She hit you?" Rod asked.
"Well, yeah, sort of. She was just … kinda' playin' ya' know?"
"Oh! I see." Rod thought he had a handle on it and tested his theory. "It wasn't just you, there were a couple of you foolin' around in class, huh? Rod sat back and regarded his son out of the corner of his eye. He thought he saw a case of puppy love developing.
"Yeah, sort of. I was just 'acting' like she hit me hard, ya' know?" The words were coming easier the more his father listened.
"Let me see if I got this: you and this girl that you were sitting next to were clownin' in class ... ” Junior nodded, "and she knocked your pencil off the desk, right?" Junior nodded again with a small "uh huh" thrown in. And when you went to pick it up she just kind of 'pretended' to hit you, right?" Another nod, followed by another "uh huh". "And then you decided to roll on the floor like a nut and make a big production out of it, right?"
"Well ... yeah, I didn't mean to disrupt class or nuttin'. It just kinda' happened, ya' know?"
"Yeah, I know. You were just hav'n a little fun, and bein' silly, right?" Rod got another nod and another uh huh.
"Look,” Rod said, looking into his son's eyes, "I don't mind your clowning, just not in class. You hear me? If you want to make this girl laugh you can wait ‘til lunch, after school, between classes, anytime but class time. You got me?"
"Yeah, I gotcha Dad." Junior breathed a little easier.
"Alright, I'm willing to considered this settled as long as it doesn't happen again, O.K? No more clownin' in class, agreed?" Another nod and an 'uh huh'. "Now, you get started on your homework and consider yourself grounded for the rest of the week."
"Well, if this is settled Dad, why am I grounded for the rest of the week?" Junior asked.
"Oh, it's 'settled', the grounding isn't for the school incident."
"Then what's it for?"
"The grounding is because I have to go in here and try to calm your mother down." Rod gave his son a wink as he got up from the table. "You still owe me for that.’
The Fat Free Fundraiser, Rod Thorton had nearly forgotten about it. He had volunteered for it over a week ago. The PTA had called looking for Denise. Rod knew his wife, Denise, well enough to know without asking that she didn't want to do it, so he simply volunteered to do it himself.
Rod had volunteered to work from 3 to 4 PM. He arrived at the school at 2:50pm in his best Sunday/Gointameeting duds; his blue tweed blazer with gold and blue pants, red tie and white shirt. He set out to look for his contact person. Rod didn't know who he was looking for; all he had was a name the PTA rep had given him on the phone, Mrs. Osgood. It shouldn’t be hard to find her, Rod figured. She’d be the only one over fifteen who wasn’t a teacher.
Rod could tell that school had not been out for very long by the number of students still drifting around the halls. He had always hated being at school with those flocks of girls around. Even unto this day in his advanced years, there is nothing that sends a chill up his spine as much as a pack of teenage girls. No other pack animal in the world more vicious than teenage girls traveling in a group of three or more. Nothing more shrill than their biting tongues, and quick wit. Not even the piercing howl of the jackal in the night is as haunting as their cruel laughter. It was probably just a left over phobia of Rod’s adolescence but it still made him cringe nonetheless.
Rod had volunteered to take the first shift. He figured it would be best to go ahead and get it out of the way first since he had to be here anyway for Junior’s Parent/Teacher Conference. Then he would pick up Junior's report card, meet with his teachers, and be done. The problem with going first is that there was no one to ask questions. Adding to the confusion were the volunteers setting up to hand out report cards. They gave Rod misinformation and sent him in the wrong direction. Rod wondered around the building aimlessly, being careful not to show fear whenever a group of three or more teenage girls came near, (they can smell fear like a shark smell blood in the water with the same results: feeding frenzy) until he found Mrs. Osgood.
He found Mrs. Osgood by accident. On his third lap of the school he noticed a woman with a child, struggling with a table. She was trying to get the table through the doorway and keep track of a pre-school aged child at the same time.
"Let me help you with that." Rod offered, grabbing the other end of the table and opening the door she was trying to get through.
"Thanks a lot, I really appreciate it." From the sound of her voice he gathered that her thanks were heart felt.
"Where do you want it?" Rod asked.
"Over here, in front of the double doors." She gestured at a spot against the wall that faced the front doors of the school.
"How's that?" Rod said, setting the table flush against the wall.
"That's fine," she slid her end away from the wall enough for someone to fit behind, "now if you could just slide you end away from the wall a little." Rod promptly complied.
"Perfect! Now I have to get the other table set up at the other door." Rod was fairly certain this was his contact person. She looked stressed and over worked, like most PTA members, too few trying to do too much.
"Are you with the PTA?" Rod asked
"Yes, I'm Mrs. Osgood. You must be Mr. Thorton?" Mrs. Osgood’s brown hair was cut short in one of those "dynamic woman of the 90's" looks for the busy professional woman.
"Yes, I am..” Rod shook her hand and noticed that she was taller than he was. Who weren’t these days? Some of the girls the school were taller than he was. “.. and who is this?" He asked of the shy growth hiding behind her leg.
"This is my son David." Rod noticed she used his the long version of his name. Rod knew from experience that this usually indicated that she didn't like anyone to use "Dave, or Davie".
"Hi, David. How are you?" Rod tried to look at him without looking like he was ogling his mother's leg, of which he made it harder by sliding further behind her. Rod heard him say a sheepish "Fine" from somewhere behind his mother's skirt with a couple of wet fingers hanging out of his mouth.
"You're kind of young to be in Junior High, aren't you David?" Rod asked kiddingly. David smiled a bit with those wet fingers still in his mouth and ducked back behind his mother's skirt.
"No," his mother started to explain, "he's my youngest. I have a daughter that attends here." That was more information than Rod had wanted. He knew David wasn’t in Junior High. It was just a way to get kids to loosen up, by asking them questions and watching their reaction.
"Here," she said, "let's get you set up over here." She laid out some stuff; receipts slips, a pouch with a little change, and a pen. "The person who is suppose to be working with you isn't here yet, but she called to say she'll be a little late but she's on her way. Her name is Cathy, her baby-sitter hasn't gotten home from school yet." This actually told Rod a lot about the person he would be working with; she worked for a living, she was probably a single parent, and contentious about her children and their education.
"That's O.K." Rod said. "Why don't you tell me more about this 'Fat Free Fund-raiser' thing to make sure I understand what I'm suppose to be doing here."
"Oh, it's simple. Instead of having a bake sale or selling candy or anything like that we are simply asking people to donate whatever they can afford. It saves everyone the time, energy and expense spent making pies and cakes, because after you spend money buying flour and sugar and other ingredients you could actually spend more money making the pies and stuff than you make at the bake sale. And everyone I know is on a diet anyway, and the last thing we need to give to these kids is more sugar. So, we're simply asking people to donate whatever they have. We're hoping they'll give generously in appreciation for us not shoving baked goods at them and calling them up and making everyone spend hours in the kitchen. Plus, any donations are tax deductible. That's what the receipts are for." She said all of this pulling David from around her leg and picking him up and putting him down and pulling up her skirt and never missed a beat.
Rod nodded his head dutifully while she talked. She was easy enough to understand but his mind was busy putting the information it had received to good use in developing a sales strategy.
"What's this particular fund-raiser for?" Rod asked, pumping for information.
"We raise funds for several different projects; the 6th grade trip, the 8th grade trip, the school dances and other activities. This particular fund-raiser is for the RIF program. You know what RIF is don't you? Reading Is Fundamental." She explained before Rod got a chance to answer. "It goes to buy books for underprivileged children that get passed around in that big green bus. You know, the bookmobile? Maybe you've seen it?"
Of course he had seen it, everybody has seen it. Somehow Rod wondered if she meant if he had ever been on it, or maybe his children had gotten a book from there. The answer would have been yes to both. He had been on it; the bookmobile had come through his neighborhood regularly in his childhood. His children had also gotten books from the bookmobile. Rod had gone with them to show them his favorites and make sure they got good books.
"I have to run down here to the other end of the hall and set up for the other group." She looked around as if looking for the best way to go about doing what she had to do next. "I'll try to see if I can't get a chair or something for you to sit on." She showed Rod how to make out a receipt, and before she left Rod had spied Calvin. Calvin was one of the kids from the neighborhood that was playing in his driveway just the other day. Rod thought he was a good kid and asked him to give Mrs. Osgood a hand. He didn't look to particularly thrilled but he did it anyway with no fuss. Mrs. Osgood thanked him for finding a helper before she disappeared around the corner.
Traffic was light to non-existent. It was still early, and Rod was getting kind of edgy. Three girls were gathered across from him. Rod checked his watch; time seemed to be standing still. They were talking amongst themselves. Rod didn't mean to eavesdrop on them but in the empty hallway the sound carried pretty well. They talked about boys, which ones were cute and why. They seemed to reach consensus that some boy named "Timmy" was FFFIIINNNE. Then they talked about girls, which ones were ugly, (all of them), and why. "That girl, with the gap in her teeth? She tries to pretend it's sexy, but I know that ain't natural. I used to go to school with her and she had that tooth knocked out in a fight in the 4th grade and they couldn't afford to get it fixed, that's why she's got that gap." The tallest one said. They talked about who was going with whom, "Why does he like that skank?" The short one said.
Rod was just standing there trying to look like he was doing something when the tallest one asked him what time it was. Rod almost froze up. He shook himself, looked at his watch, and tried to report the time of day without his voice cracking.
"3:10". He said in his official 'Mr. Thorton' voice. Success. They went back to talking until one of the girl's ride came. Now there were only two, and they were being quiet. That was good because traffic was starting to pick up. Rod’s first customer was an older black gentleman with a black leather Kango hat on. The gray in his beard was beginning to out number the black. Rod was a little nervous at first, he was not very confident in front of people he didn’t know.
"Hello, Sir. How are you today?" Rod turned on the charm.
"Fine, and you?" He answered while looking around like he was lost. Rod was unsure as to how best to lead into a donation, and now this gentleman was going to do all the work for him by asking him a question.
"Is this where you pick up the report cards?" There it was, as big as day! His opening! Now all he had to do was ignore the butterflies and put his foot in the door and step through.
"No, Sir. I'm here collecting donations for the RIF program. Would you care to make a donation?" He was hooked. He had talked to Rod first. He had asked him a question, and now he felt obligated. He had to make a donation, even a token one. He pulled out his wallet and handed over a five.
"Thank you, Sir. Would you like a receipt with that?"
"Receipt?" The old gentleman looked at up strangely.
"Yes, Sir. The donation would be tax deductible." That caught his ear.
"Yes, I would like a receipt. Thank you very much." While Mrs. Osgood had showed Rod how to make out a receipt she didn't tell him how to rip them off and he ripped off both copies and gave them to the gentleman by mistake.
"Do you know where they're passing out the report cards?" Having made a donation he felt comfortable asking more questions.
“Uh..,” Rod stuttered, the question had taken Rod completely by surprise, he had no information one way or the other, "I saw some people setting up at a table down there." Rod pointed to the hallway over his shoulder. "You might want to start down there." He thanked Rod and tipped his hat as he went down the corridor.
Rod was putting the money in the little pouch Mrs. Osgood had given him when he saw what he thought to be two girls approaching. One looked older than the other did, but not bigger. Rod wasn't sure if the older one was mother, sister or what? The one that opened the door Rod figured was the mother. He decided to use the old 'are you two sisters' line. They walked up to him and asked the same question the other gentleman had asked.
"Is this were you pick up the report cards?"
‘Ah’, Rod breathed a mental sigh of relief. She had asked him a question first, now he had her full attention and she was obliged to listen.
"No, this isn't.” Rod began, then went into his sales routine. “This is a fat-free fund raiser for the RIF program." Her eyes lit up when Rod said 'fat-free'. "Are you two sisters?" He added, taking advantage of the moment. He looked at the mother, then the daughter as if looking for the differences.
"How big a donation do I have to give for a line like that?" She chuckled as she went for her purse.
"We're just asking every one to give what they can ma'am." He added a sly smile.
She dropped a five on the table. "Would you like a receipt Ma'am? Donations are tax deductible." He added as an incentive.
"Sure,” She said, "why not."
"Why not?" He said as he made out her receipt, this time being careful not to rip off both copies. Rod handed her a copy of the receipt. "I think you pick up report cards down this hall." He pointed the way the other gentleman had gone. She tossed her hair to one side and gave him thanks on her way down the corridor.
‘Smoking!’ Rod was patting myself on the back. Two people, two contributions. Five dollars each. The jitters were starting to go away. Just when he thought he was starting to get the hang of it he met with his first rejection. First, an older Hispanic gentleman passed by. He was kind of shrunken with a kind of a scowl on his face. Either his kid was doing really badly or he had learned how not to be bothered by sales people. Rod decided to try my luck despite his menacing visage. He was on a roll, what do I have to loose?
"Excuse me, Sir." Rod got his attention. "Would you like to make a donation to the RIF program?" He never said a word, just shook his head without looking and kept going. Strike one.
Next was a lady being lead by the hand at a break neck pace by a little explosive ball of female energy. They had on matching jean jackets. Mother and daughter Rod deduced with the skill of Sherlock Holmes. Rod tried his pitch on the moving target.
"ExcusemewouldyouliketomakeafatfreedonationtotheRIFprogram." If he had said it any slower they would have been out of earshot by the time he finished. The mother looked over her shoulder and shot him a glance.
"I don't have time right now, but I will if I get the chance," the mother said, her arm being stretched to the limit.
"Ooo, Momma. Wait till I tell Dad you're picking up guys at school." The daughter said. Rod hadn't recognized her until then. That was that crazy girl his friend use to date in High School. She had chased their car on her bicycle for almost a mile. Rod found himself hoping she didn't come back. This was one he was glad got away. Strike two.
Next was a lovely lady in a red coat with feathered black hair and a young boy on her hip. After the last two rejections Rod was on her at the first sign of an opening.
"Hello, Ma'am. How are you today." He asked in his most seductive, charming voice.
"Fine, thank you." She was a little winded but Rod didn't let that slow him down. She set her purse down on the table and Rod took full advantage of her young son.
"I'm very well myself, thank you. Would you care to make a donation to the RIF program to buy books for growing young minds like this one?" Rod pointed to her bright-eyed baby boy.
"Oh," she said like she had just remembered something, "I guess I should make a donation. I'm supposed to be her to help solicit donations. I'm sorry if I'm a little late. You must be Mr. Thorton?" She dug in her purse and pulled out a five. "I'm Cathy. I called Mrs. Osgood earlier to tell her I'd be late, did you get the message?"
"Yes I did, Cathy. Mrs. Osgood said you'd be her around 3:30. It's a pleasure to meet you." Rod had solicited a donation from his partner. He didn't want to tell her that he hadn't donated anything. They made small talk while waiting for another victim. She was a teacher, divorced; her ex-husband had remarried to a younger woman, surprise. A victim approached on the horizon. Calvin's mother.
"Hey Calvin, is this your mother or your sister?" The line had worked once before and seemed to have a lot of mileage left in it. Calvin didn't say anythimg; he must not have been doing to well. "Hi, I'm Rod Thorton."
"Hello, I'm Calvin's mother, Mia." She had on a red outfit with red shoes and a gold ankle bracelet, she was seriously hot!
"Calvin's a fine young man, you must be very proud." She didn't seem eager to agree he must have been doing really badly. "I've seen him around the neighborhood, I know he's a good kid. He might not have the best of grades but he's a fine person. Just earlier today I asked him to lend and hand and he pitched right in without a word of complaint. Can't get that from too many kids today." Rod tried to point out his good qualities. “He is a good kid and I do like him.” The bait was set, now for the hook. "Wouldn't you like to donate to the RIF program so that we could buy books to help more kids grow up to be like Calvin?"
"Oh, you're good." Cathy said. Mia harumph at the pitch, which left Rod wondering: how bad could Calvin be doing? She dug into her purse just the same. She wrote a check for $5.00 and Cathy wrote her a receipt. "You keep going and I'll write the receipts." She said.
Rod was feeling good, like he had missed my calling or something. The Hispanic gentleman was coming back, Rod decided to try his luck again.
"Would you care to donate now, Sir?" Rob asked.
‘Why wouldn't he want to donate?’ Rod asked himself. He didn’t give up.
"Sir, these donations go to the RIF program. Reading Is Fundamental. It's fundamentally important that kids be given books at an early age to improve their minds and imaginations, and as we both know that's what takes you the furthest." No reaction. Rod continued. "It's important that kids get books through the RIF program. So many kids start out at a disadvantage already, and every little bit helps." Still no reaction, just a slight nod to let Rod know he had been heard. Rod was determined to make him donate. He rolled up his sleeves and dug in deeper. "Sir, don't you know how important it is for underprivileged youths to get books from RIF?" He nodded still. "Don't you believe that the ability to read is one of the building blocks upon which all true knowledge is based, and without it nothing can be learned?" Another nod. "And if we can give the joy of reading to just one kid across the country it will be worth it?" He nodded again. "And that one kid, be he black, white or Hispanic; boy, girl or whatever, could take that love of reading, that building block of true knowledge and wisdom, and use it to change the world, to make the world a better place?" Rod had used every sales pitch he could come up with, the elderly gentleman merely nodded. Rod couldn't understand why he wouldn’t donate anything. One lady who was passing by donated part of the $100 dollars she won in the lottery when she heard Rod’s spiel. Why wasn't he? Rod was boggled to no end. He had to know. So he asked. "Well, if you know all of this Sir, why won't you donate?"
"Don't have any money." Rod’s mouth dropped open. It was as simple as that. Rod looked at him for what must have been a long time, and saw himself in years to come. Rod had vowed to himself that he was going to get this man to donate and he’d be damned if he was going to let him get away that easy.
"Come over here," Rod told him, "let me show you how to fill out a receipt. If you can't donate money than you can donate your time, it’s just as valuable." Rod had gotten carried away with himself, flattering, flirting and trying to be the smooth operator. No matter what he said, no matter how many good arguments he had, no matter how many heartstrings he plucked on the man wasn't going to donate because he couldn't, not because he didn’t want to, not because he didn’t believe in the RIF program, today’s kids, or anything else. Simply because he didn’t have any money.
Rod had forgotten what he had come here for, and had begun to speak to hear the sound of his voice. He had become something despicable, a salesman. Not just any salesman, but the kind that would sell refrigerators to Eskimos, reveling in selling product to unsuspecting buyers that they didn’t need, or afford. He was looking for pigeons, trying to taking advantage of peoples weakness and vulnerabilities instead of a being a volunteer supporting a worthy cause.
Rod could tell that the hectic pace and tension of the day had taken its toll on him as he dragged himself in to the house. A note and a dog populated the house. The note was from his wife, it read:
“Rod, won’t be home till late. Fix dinner, left chicken out for you. Love D”.
“Well, Bud,” Rod said and looking at the dog while still holding the note in his hand, “it looks like it’s just you and me and a cold chicken for now.” Bud, a short-legged German shepherd mix, ran around in circles excitedly. “And it looks like you’re ready to desert me too, aren’t you?”
Rod let the dog out into the backyard. He walked back into the kitchen and reached into one of the bottom cupboards and pulled out a stainless steel skillet that he placed on the stove. He turned the front eye on under the skillet. The eye hissed of gas and then burst to life. Rod sprayed a generous portion of non-stick stuff in the pan and set the canister down next to the stove without recapping it. He was always doing that, and his wife would always come behind him and ask if he knew how to put things away, or if he was the last one with that object, or if he was finished with it. For now he merely sat the canister on the counter top and forgot it.
Rod picked up the cold lump of chicken in the refrigerator. It was ice cold, and still frozen into one mass. Rod heard the Non-stick stuff sizzle in the frying pan. He looked at the frying pan, then at the chunk of chicken in his hand and decided that the best place for it to unthaw was in the skillet. The frying pan hissed in protest when rod dropped the iced poultry into it.
Over the roar of the crackling chicken Rod could hear barking from down the street. He peered out the kitchen window, but couldn’t see anything except the neighbor’s house. Rod was afraid he knew where the barking was coming from. He rushed to the back door and yelled for Bud.
“Bud! Bud?” he shouted to no avail. It had to be him. “That dog ain’t worth the trouble,” he said to himself as he closed the back door and went out the front. He looked to the right and when he didn’t see anything he looked to the left. There Bud was, barking at Subu. Subu was the rotteweiler down the street. Usually it was pretty funny to Rod, this little dog barking at a dog big enough to swallow him whole, but not today.
“Come on, stupid!” Rod said as he grabbed Bud gruffly by the collar. Bud put up a struggle. “Come on, before she gets out from behind that fence and eats both of us.” Rod half-dragged and half carried the dog back to the house. “Yeah, you’re pretty brave while she’s behind that fence. I bet if she ever got out you’d be doin’ some mighty fast sweet talkin’, or some mighty fast runnin’. One way or the other you wouldn’t be doin’ all that barkin’, that’s for sure.”
Rod washed his hands before returning to the kitchen. He fished some frozen corn out of the freezer. He was on his way to grab a box of instant mashed potatoes from the cabinet when he felt his foot slide on the linoleum. He looked down to find his foot in a puddle of chicken grease. The chicken had spattered all over the floor. He turned his flame down half way. The grease responded immediately and popped half as much and half as high. Rod dug around in one of the cabinets and pulled out a lid and threw it on top of the skillet to keep the grease spatter down.
Rod threw the corn in a microwaveable bowl and threw it in the microwave with the lid on and punched in ten minutes. He threw a pot of water on the back eye for the mashed potatoes. While he waited for the water to boil and the corn to finish he ran down to the basement and grabbed the mop and a pail. He filled the pail with cleansers; it was his belief that the more different cleansers used the more messes the pail of cleansers would work on. Rod ran went back up stairs with his concoction of mixed cleansers in the mop water. He rang his mop out and put it to the greasy surface. His wife had told him that it was dangerous to mix cleansers, that some cleansers contained catalyst. “Hogwash!” Rod had defiantly declared. Sure enough it cut right through the grease and even managed to sop it up without spreading it around, and it left a lemony scent.
Rod finished cleaning up the grease on the floor and was putting the bucket in the half-bath until he finished dinner. His back was completely turned when he heard a muffled explosion and the microwave door swung open. He turned around to see the exploded corn all over the counter top and on the floor he had just cleaned. He shook his head once and remembered that he was suppose to cover the corn, but not too tightly. He picked up his mop bucket and went back in the kitchen.
It had only taken Rod a few minutes to wipe the countertop clean and sweep and re-mop the floor. He took the mop downstairs to the washroom this time, feeling that leaving it around was a jinx to needing it again. Rod came upstairs to find smoke billowing and the smell of burnt meat permeating the air. He rushed over to the stove and pulled the lid off of the chicken. Sure enough, it gave a new definition to extra crispy chicken. He tried to stab at the chicken with a fork and pry it up from the bottom of its non-stick-covered surface. No such luck. This topside of the chicken was still frozen solid while the underside was seared to the skillet. After an hours worth of cooking and mopping the kitchen twice all Rod had was a trash can full of what was leftover from his microwave powered corngrenade, half-burnt, half-frozen chicken, and a pot of boiling water. It was shaping up to be more of an "ordering out night".
Denise had liked Rod’s exploding dinner story, and the kids had liked his choice of Pizza delivery. Denise made a dinner suggestion for the next time that Rod had to cook “Stir Fry”. Rod and Denise cleaned up after dinner. They cleared the dishes, scraped the remains in the trash, rinsed them and put them in the dishwasher. After the dishes were done, and the kitchen was clean Rod went downstairs to his makeshift office in the basement. It wasn’t much of an office, but really more like a corner of the basement he and Denise had drywalled. He was down there in what he called his ‘bill payment center’ when Teddy poked his head around the corner.
“Dad?” Teddy asked solemnly.
“Yeah.” Rod looked up. He noticed his son was dejected over something.
“Are you busy?”
“No, not too busy. Why? What’s on your mind, Champ?”
“Oh, it’s nothing really. I just wanted to talk to you for awhile.”
“Nuttin’. Just wanted to be with you. Whatcha workin’ on?”
“Just gotta type up some stuff for work, nothin’ special. Why?” Rod could sense his son trying to build up the courage to say something. He sat quietly and waited. He knew here was something near the surface, like a mental splinter. He knew he couldn’t force these things.
“Dad?” Ted asked again.
“Yeah?” ‘Here it comes.’ Rod thought to himself.
“Do you mind if I quit the basketball team?”
“Quit the basketball team?” Rod exclaimed as he regarded his son out of the corner of his eye. There really was something going on here. “Quit the basketball team? Why do you want to quit the basketball team?” Rod composed himself; the question had taken him completely by surprise.
“I don’t know,.. it’s just not fun anymore.”
Rod considered the matter carefully before speaking, being careful of how he phrased his words. “No, I don’t mind if you quit. If that’s what you really want to do. I don’t think it not being “fun” is a reason to quit though. How would you feel if your teammates quit because it isn’t fun, and you were the only one still there? How do you think they would feel? He studied his son who was deep in thought examining his own feelings.
“I don’t know.” It’s the definitive answer for kids when they run into tough questions. Rod thought that maybe he had phrased that wrong. There was something making it ‘not fun’ and he needed to get to that.
“Well, you can still quit if you want to, but let me ask you this:” He let the words hang in the air as Teddy braced himself, “what’s making it not fun?”
Teddy hung his head and shrugged his shoulders and gave an “I don’t know”. Some of the kids pick on me, they won’t pass me the ball.” Teddy’s bottom lip started to quiver. Rod could see the water pooling in his eyes. He pulled his son close to him. “They call me names.”
“Call you names? Like what?”
“They call me ‘fat’, an’ ‘fatty’ an’ ‘fatso’, even James, and he’s twice as big as me.” Rod held his son close to him. He could feel the warm salty tears on his shirt. “Why do they do that, Dad? Why? I never did that to anyone. Not even James. Not even when the other kids where callin’ him ‘Fat Butt’. Why do they do that?” Teddy had been trying to hold it in until now, but now it was of no use, he buried his head in his father’s chest and the floodgates opened and the dam burst.
“Yeah, I could see how that wouldn’t be much fun.” Rod admitted after Ted had quieted down some. Rod fought his first instinct to call up the coach and ask him what kind of zoo he was running. Instead he decided that letting the coach have a piece of his mind would just give him less mind to operate with. He was going to need all the pieces he had to handle the problem at hand. The problem was Teddy, how to get him to resolve the situation so he would be satisfied with it.
“I know I wasn’t very good when I started, but I’m better now, I can shoot, Coach doesn’t let me play very much, and I work as hard as anybody else in practice, they won’t give me a chance Dad.” Teddy sniffled and wiped away his tears with his sleeve. Rod looked at his son, sniffling, salty tear tracks running down his face. He was feeling real pain for a ten-year-old.
“I know how hard you’ve worked, I know how hard you’ve tried in practice. I see how much better you’ve gotten.” He felt it important to validate his son’s belief in himself and his hard work. “I also understand why it isn’t much fun right now. You can quit if you want,” He looked his son straight in the eye, “or you can be tough and ride it out. If you quit now then all your hard work will be for nothin’. All that runnin’ up and down in practice, all those laps, everything will be for nothin’. Or you can stick it out, keep practicing, and work hard, and getting better, and hope for the opportunity to show everyone how much better you’ve gotten. I don’t want you to make up your mind just yet. You go get ready for bed and sleep on it. We still have some time before next practice. You think about it, and we’ll talk about it tomorrow and if you still want to quit it’s fine with me. Just remember: I love you, not basketball.”
Rod could hear Teddy going up the steps. He leaned back in his chair, contemplating his son’s ordeal. Rod hated the pressure that the world was putting on his son. Between Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and the NBA, they had every black kid from Alaska to Zambia thinking they ought to beat every white kid on earth, or they were a disgrace to their race. There was so much pressure to be a budding NBA star at age ten?! Why were they doing this to children? Didn’t they have enough problems growing up black in a white man’s world? He hadn’t been overly excited about putting Teddy on the basketball team in the beginning. He knew Teddy wasn’t very good; he knew the pressure Teddy would be under, but he had wanted to play with his friends. Kids can be so cruel. He hoped Teddy would change his mind. Quitting was too easy.
“Rod?” Denise’s voice carried down from upstairs. “Are you ‘bout done?”
“Yeah.” He yelled back up the stairs. “I’m coming.” He put away his papers in his desk. Made a neat pile of papers to take to work with him in the morning. “A good day always starts the night before,” he reminded himself. He could feel the weight of the day on his shoulders as he carried himself ponderously up the stairs. He stopped in the kitchen for a glass of water, leaving the glass in the sink. He picked up a few articles of clothing the children had left behind before going to bed. He peeked in on Junior first.
“Night.” He said to his oldest son who was already curling up in bed.
“Sweet dreams, son.” He said before going to Teddy’s room.
“Good night, Dad.”
“Sweet dreams, Pal.” He flicked the light switch on the wall.
“Dad?” Teddy called from the darkened room.
“I made up my mind. I’m not gonna quit the team. I made it this far, I can make it the rest of the way.”
“Alright.” Rod nodded agreement satisfied with his son’s character more than his decision. “Sleep tight, and don’t let the bedbugs bite.” He turned from Teddy’s room and smiled, tears welling up in his eyes.
“What’s the matter with you?” Denise asked.
“Nuttin’, Honey, everything’s alright.”
“What about these Junior?” Rod asked his son, as he fondled some no name brand of basketball shoes. Junior took one look and shook his head. Rod pressed on, picking up shoe after shoe, checking price tag and putting it back. Every time he ran into a shoe with a price tag he could agree to his son shook his head like he wouldn’t wear it if it were the last pair of shoes on this earth. So it went, Rod picked shoes based on price, Junior on name, until finally Junior ran over to him with a pair.
“These are the ones I want Dad!” Junior handed his father a demo of the brand with the name of the latest basketball star emblazoned across the side.
“What are these?” Rod asked.
“These are brand new, Dad! None of the kids at school have ‘em yet.”
“Here,” Rod handed the shoe back to his son, “put this back and come back here. I want to talk to you.” Junior obeyed dutifully. Rod led his son out of the shoe store and to one of the sitting areas in the mall near the water fountain.
“Junior,” Rod began, looking his son in the eye, “those shoes are a hundred dollars! How can I justify buying you a pair of shoes more expensive than I would buy for myself? What I mean is; with your behavior this year in school, your grades, your attitude around the house, just everything! How can I justify spending that kind of money for a pair of shoes you don’t need, to show off to people I don't like?” Rod looked at his son. Junior hung his head and looked at his hands.
“Your teachers call me up at work and tell me things like ‘he’s rolling around on the floor’, ‘he’s disrupting the class’, ‘he doesn’t do his homework’. And you want me to look past all of that and buy you a pair of shoes that are to expensive even for a straight A student, who is also an all-star basketball player? I’ve all but given up on the possibility of you passing this year; my dilemma now is getting you to do better next year. You can’t just fool around in class all year round and wait till the last minute to get serious and say ‘I could’a done the work’.”
It doesn’t work that way, son. So how do I do ‘it”? How do I get you to be serious all year long, and put forth your best effort?” Junior didn’t say a word; he didn’t even look up. “Come on, let’s get outta here.” Rod put his hand on his son’s shoulder as they walked through the mall. Junior put his hand in his pockets and hung his head. They walked back to their car without exchanging another word between them. Rod sat behind his steering wheel thinking of all the things he wanted to tell his son, about being a man, being accountable, accepting responsibility, about what the future had in store for him, and just life in general. Rod reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet and pulled out a hundred-dollar bill.
“You see?” He said, showing Junior the bill. “I have the money, right here, right now. There’s nothing stopping me from buying you those shoes right this minute. I want you to know it’s no trick. I didn’t bring you out here to trick you. I could march right back in there and buy those shoes, but I can’t. Not because I don’t have the money, but because you don’t deserve them. You used up any respect you earned before the end of football season. In fact, you were overdrawn by Christmas! Rod could see the tears welling up in Junior’s eyes and he had begun sniffling. “Let me ask you” Rod turned to his son, “What do you thing you deserve?”
“Nothing.” Junior managed to answer in a dry raspy voice.
“I can see buying you a pair of $50.00 shoes because that’s what I’d buy for myself and it’s something you won’t be ashamed of, and kids won’t pick on you, maybe sixty dollars, but not eighty and definitely not a hundred! Not for what I’d be getting for my money. The only reason, the only reason, I can see for buying you those shoes is because I love you and I want you to have them.” Rod ripped off three twenty-dollar bills and gave them to his son. “Here, hang on to this, you can save up enough for the rest.” Junior let loose with a torrent of tears that came streaming down his face in an outburst of emotion that took his father by surprise. Junior was deeply moved by his father’s gesture of love. Rod sniffled to try to hold back his own tears, but in vain. Rod held his son’s head on his shoulder.
“I love you, Dad.” Junior said through a stream of tears.
“I love you too son.” Rod choked on his own salty tears. “I just want you to show everyone how smart you can be, not how dumb, or how funny, or anything else.” They stayed there until the crying was finished.
“Come on,” Rod said to his son as he noticed that the windows had fogged over, “let’s get outta here before somebody thinks something weird is going on in here and calls the police.”
It was late, the house was dark. The sounds of heavily sleeping children fluttered through the house like invisible butterflies. Rod sat by himself in the darkness at the kitchen table pulling off a pair of black Nikes. Today was a memorably day. Today he had worn his son’s shoes: a pair of black Nikes. Not the ones Junior had wanted, but still a good pair.
“Try them on, Dad”, and “You can wear them too if you want”, were out of his mouth before they had even left the store. Junior-Roderick Thomas Thorton, Junior was fit to be tied.
The weight of this day hit Rod like a ton of bricks. This was the first time he had actually worn an article of his son’s clothing and it fit. Oh, Junior had worn his father’s clothes all his life. Rod’s T-shirts were his first nightgowns. Junior had been wearing his father’s socks up to his knees and beyond ever since he was old enough to walk. He had started to wear his father’s shoes to run little errands like taking out the trash or to pick up the mail a few years ago. Until recently they had always looked like clown shoes on him. They were disproportionately big for his body. And flopped when he walked. It was easy to see that his toes didn’t reach all the way to the end by the way he shoes curled up in unfamiliar places. Not so anymore.
Rod had put on articles of his son’s by mistake, only to quickly find out the error he had made. On one such rare occasion his wife had mixed up their underwear and Rod, who was in a hurry discovered the mistake when he pulled them up and they got stuck around his knee. Every once in a while a shirt would get mixed up in the wash and Rod would discover that it wasn’t his shirt, one arm would be jacked up around his ear and his head would only fit halfway through the opening at the top. Rod had even stretched out some of Junior’s socks before paying enough attention. Now all of that has changed.
Rod could remember when they first brought him home from the hospital. He and his wife had given him his first bath in the bathroom sink. Rod would cradle up his newborn son in his arms and notice the similarity in the color of their skin. His wife would work her motherly magic over him. That is when they first learned what babies do when exposed to cold air. Junior graduated from the sink to a bathtub of his own. Rod had still cradled him in his hands as his mother worked her motherly love over him. It was an amazing time; he could still remember the backaches. No matter how careful they were taking off that diaper it always seemed to catch his wife off guard, but not dad. Good son. Kind of an unwritten law amongst men he supposed, “that’s my boy!”
Rod had held him in his arms and gently eased him in water for his first shower. That was special, just the two of them alone in the warm water. Junior’s perfect toddler skin next to his. What was he then? 12 months? Maybe 14 at the outside?
Rod had washed his back when he took his first sit-in-the-tub bath; he might have been two. Junior would stand up in the tub and his shoulders would be so wide,.. oh! He was beautiful to look at. They looked wide enough to carry all the hopes and dreams a father could pin on them. Junior would lift his hands in the air over his head and Rod would lift him out of the tub and wrap a bath towel around him two or three times. Junior would practically get lost in there and pick him up in a big bundle of baby and towel and hand him to his wife. They would throw one of Rod’s old T-shirts on him for a nightgown so he’d be cool in the summer heat. It would barely stay up on him. His little fat feet, lost in the length of the shirt, would get tangled up and threatened to pull it off every time he took a step. His feet smelled good then. They did until he was six.
The next things to go were Rod’s socks. It was an accident at first, like everything else. No one noticed until he put short pants on and the socks came up to his knees. Then it was his good socks, then his dress socks, until he finally preferred them to his own. Now they couldn’t even tell the difference.
During the course of the winter Denise had put Rod’s sweat pants on the boy as pajamas. At first they threatened to swallow him up. Then he started wearing them around the house, then out playing with his friends, then to football practice. Now they were his.
Now he can wear any of Rod’s T-shirts, sweat shirts, socks, and some of his dress shirts. Now he can even wear his father’s shoes. Now he’s taller than his mother is and almost as tall as his father is. Next year he will be taller than him. Rod supposed that soon he would be talking about driving, and before you know it he’ll be shaving. He’ll want to borrow the car to take his girlfriend to the prom, and they’ll talk about colleges and before you know it Rod and Denise’s baby will be all gone. All grown up.
Rod took a deep breath, figuring that much at least was still off in the near future a few more years. As for now, he was wearing his son’s shoes.