Monday I was up early and dressed in jeans and a plain tee shirt, since I had no idea what the actual dress code was. I grabbed a coffee on my way in and followed the directions the woman from the interview had given me. In the basement of the school, where I'd never been, was a long hallway stacked with crap on either side – broken desks, a popcorn maker and other junk – and I could hear voices coming from somewhere farther on.
I found the room where one of the custodians was talking to a few people my age – two girls and three guys.
“You Keefe?” the custodian asked.
“Yeah,” I replied with a nod.
“Okay, gang's all here.” He went on to explain how the day would flow and then told us to partner up into pairs for assignments.
“Hey, Derry,” Isaac greeted me as he moved to stand beside me. “Want to partner up?”
“Morning,” I replied and stifled a yawn. “Sure thing.”
Isaac and I were given bags and outfitted with a pointy stick, essentially, to pick up trash, beginning with the grassy areas by the parking lot. Easy enough. We stayed fairly close to each other and struck up an easy conversation.
“First summer job?” I asked.
“Yeah. My dad – Brandon – said it was a good idea. I wanted cash for myself, so I figured why not? Did you have a job before the grocery store?”
“Nah. I'd been there since I was fifteen; worked my way up.”
“Can't believe you went nuclear,” he said with a snicker. “That was just epic.”
I grunted, but said no more about the inciting incident. “Your grandpa seems pretty cool. I was lucky he stepped in to help me out with a new job.”
“My grandparents rock, even though they can be a little weird,” he replied. “Like they always want to spend time with me and know what I'm thinking and doing. It's almost like having best friends, but they're eighty. They’re also schizophrenic and can act twelve whenever they feel like it.”
I stared for a second and then just burst out laughing. He grinned at me, and I asked, “Really?”
“No shit. I'm glad to have them, but sometimes I wish they'd back off, too. Like, I have friends, you know?” He shook his head. “They just liked me right off, just like they did you.”
I raised an eyebrow. “It is interesting how we get along. Your grandpa went out of his way to help me out.”
“Yeah. He said you just don't find that many people who actually provide customer service anymore. People are douches in general, and people behind counters are starting to figure out they don't have to put up with other people’s shit, I guess.”
“I thought I was his lucky lottery clerk?”
“He has, like, three of those.”
“I mean, really, how many times did you actually see him cash in a winner?”
I paused and thought. “Not much. He told me after – you mean he was cheating on me?” I asked, faking outrage, and we laughed.
“Please. He did the same thing to you he does to me. He asks me to look at something and then goes 'Oh, look! A ten dollar bill just laying on the ground. Grab it, Isaac!'” He rolled his eyes. “All his tips to you were just because he felt like it.”
“That's...weird,” I said. “Who does that?”
Isaac paused his work and looked at me. “My family is weird. My dad – pain in the ass that he is – is awesome. I think he got that from his parents.”
Remembering he had said dads before I asked, “Are you adopted?”
“Yeah. Month ago. Dads are on their honeymoon, so I'm staying with the grandparents while they're gone. Kari, too.”
A month? “Huh.”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “I just assumed your dads adopted you as a baby. Kind of old for adopting, you know?”
“I think Hal was about ten when I was born, so that would have been hard,” he said and laughed.
I paused and looked at him in confusion. “Are your dads college kids or something?” I laughed, even though the question was sort-of serious.
“Brandon is older, like forty” he said, resuming his task of picking up trash, and I followed suit. “Hal is younger – twenty-six. My mom used to up and leave me and my sister for a few months, and the last time I ended up staying with Brandon. He decided to keep me.”
I laughed at his explanation, his tone, which was that this all was no big deal. I was a bit amazed that he was blurting out such personal business to a relative stranger. It's different when people do it on social media – no one is right there to question or judge you; it’s just faceless statements on a screen.
“Wait, back up,” I said. “What about your mom?”
He looked over at me. “She did this thing where she'd bail. Go with someone or some damn thing. She'd be gone for months. Me and my sister would have to figure shit out for ourselves for a while. This last time they were going to evict me, and my sister acted like my mom and bailed. Brandon seemed like a decent guy, and I asked him some questions after he helped me out a little.”
“Helped you out a little?”
“Yeah. I did something stupid and someone showed up at my door. Brandon got rid of them, so...did me a solid, you know?”
I wanted to ask about the stupid thing Isaac had done, but I got the feeling he was skirting it intentionally, so I let it be. What could be more embarrassing than a parent who abandoned you repeatedly?
“Brandon sounds like good people,” I said.
“He's a pain in the ass,” Isaac said and laughed. “But yeah, he's the best. He's got a way of explaining things that is annoying as fuck, but makes hella sense.”
I laughed. “Yeah. Sucks when they're right,” I agreed.
“Not that I have to admit it,” he replied cheerfully.
“It's awesome you landed on your feet. Is it weird having guys that are such different ages?”
“Funny, actually,” he said, “At first I had this idea that Brandon was after me, but then we did exactly what I was just saying – he was talking about how sexuality had nothing to do with age or a bunch of other things.”
“What's that have to do with if he was after you?” I asked.
He paused and seemed to think. “Oh, wait, I'm mixing my talks up. He talks so damn much!” he said, laughing. “So with him and Hal – he's like people are attracted to what they're attracted to. Hal got his attention from his appearance, but he really likes blah, blah and more blah. I stopped listening – they love each other and it's cooler than it should be.”
I laughed at him. “You have a cool way of looking at shit.”
He shrugged. “Hal says I contain multitudes. So that's my story, what's yours?”
I chuckled. “Before I do, can I just say you are pretty up front about personal stuff in your life?”
He nodded. “I get it from Brandon. People do what they do because of how they were raised – partly. Like my aunt Maureen. You'd never know my dad was related to her. She's drunk on Jesus juice, or she was.”
“Don't like religion?”
“Don't care, really,” he said, shrugging again. “Personally I have no use, but I don't care if someone else wants that. It’s just she was so overboard for a while – had a mental breakdown overboard – and it affects everyone around her. It's selfish. My grandpa says she seems like she popped her head out of her ass for now, so I guess there is hope. I mean, Christ, I don't want her to go batshit again – I might have my cousin living with me, and my room just isn't big enough for that farting menace.”
I roared with laughter and he giggled at my amusement. “Isaac, you're a funny dude,” I said, trailing off into snickers.
“So tell me. My grandpa hasn't been wrong about anyone I know yet, so...what's your story?”
I shrugged. “Not much to tell. Until a few days ago I was just your average guy – part-time job, going to school, started dating my boyfriend about three or four months ago-”
“You don't know when you started dating?” he asked. “Dude! I know people that are all about the one week anniversary. Its insane!”
I chuckled. “We got together under weird circumstances. He's an artist and I figured out he used me as a muse for a school art competition.” I shrugged, not wanting to go into all the details because it was long and probably didn't matter to him. “But then we just found out my dad cheated with his mom so...weird.”
“Dude. Really? That's bullshit,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said with a sigh. “It's like a slow motion train wreck. We'll get through it.”
“You and your boyfriend are still together? It didn't break you up?”
“No,” I said with a smile. “Jack and I are solid. I admit – I did worry this would be too hard for us to get through, but Jack's proven to be a pleasant surprise every time I turn around. Um, how about you? Dating?”
“Jesus. My dating life is a fucking mess.”
I chuckled. “Why's that?”
“I'm like a chew toy between two of my best friends, Tim and Liz. Liz is a model – literally. Her mom doesn't take her to pageants, just to photo shoots. She's done national work for department stores and stuff.”
“Damn,” I said, impressed. “Successful.”
“Tim's the geeky cool kid that thinks math is fun and doesn't mind helping other people understand it.”
“People he thinks are cute...like you?” I teased.
“And others,” he said, not bothering to fight the idea Tim liked him “So first Liz is hanging out with me and we go to a school dance or two, then she's away for work for a few weeks, and Tim takes over and we're hanging out – oh, and you know what's funny? Tim's freaked out by my dads.”
“How does that work?” I asked, laughing.
“I totally don't know. He's weird. My point is I start to notice Tim acts like Liz does – we sit close, hug to say hello, stuff like that.”
“Close friends,” I said with a shrug.
“Yeah, but then they start having this discussion about who should get to date me. I mean, I'm sitting there and I'm not even being asked, they're just talking about me like I'm up for bid, you know?”
I burst out laughing. “Awkward.”
“They do it to get under my skin,” he said, snorting. “And they licked me!”
“They what?” I couldn't stop laughing. “How? Where?”
“In the lunchroom,” he said, seeming exasperated. “We were talking about things parents say that aren't true. You know, things they say to stop you from doing stuff – don't swallow gum because it'll sit in your stomach for seven years. Shit like that.”
“Okay,” I said, urging him on.
“So I said how my sister had licked this kid’s face once on the playground and the school told my mom, so she had this big 'We don't lick people' conversation with her.” He was grinning and I was trying to hold my laughter in. “So first Liz leaned in and licked the side of my face, and I was like, what the hell? And before I saw him coming, Tim licked the other side – and they both said it was justified, because our parents lied and we do lick people. I mean – really?”
I doubled over laughing at his story. This kid was seriously funny.
“Does your boyfriend pull weird stuff on you?” he asked when I'd stopped laughing quite so much.
“Eh, he's an artist and he likes to draw me,” I said, wiping my eyes.
I decided to put something embarrassing out there, since he'd basically opened his life to me. “He wants to do a nude.”
Isaac's eyes bugged for a moment. “Are you going to let him?”
“I wasn't so sure before, but I think I will. Some time.”
“What changed your mind?”
Ugh. Well, I did that to myself. “I figured he should want to see me naked for other reasons than drawing. Now that he has, I'm more open to the drawing thing.”
“Ohh,” he said, drawing the word out. “I swear to God I think I'm going to lose my virginity in a three way.”
I burst out laughing again.
Later on we walked down the street to a sandwich shop for lunch. My new friend and I traded numbers and were texting our friends and took selfies to better illustrate who we were with. I guess Issac's friends were both telling him I'd better not be into him.
“Tell them I licked you,” I said, snorting with laughter.
When I headed home for the day I felt pretty good. The work was a nice change, even though none of it was exciting or difficult on its own. Zac, as I'd taken to calling Isaac, was so much fun to spend the day with, it hardly seemed like work anyway. I walked into my home in that happy mood to find my parents standing awkwardly in the living room.
“Mom,” I said with some relief. At least it was normal to see her home. I hugged her and she gripped me tightly for a few moments before we let each other go.
“So. New job?” she asked, delaying whatever was causing the tension in the air.
“Yeah. It's good. Made a new friend. Worked out nice. How are you?”
She tilted her head a bit. “I've had some time to clear my head and focus. I'm sorry I wasn't here to help you deal with this...situation. I had to get some distance and clarity.”
“Yeah, I figured,” I said. My dad sat down in a chair, and my mom swept her dress tighter to her legs and sat on the couch, so I sat on the couch as well.
“I made some calls, talked to a lot of people,” she said. “And I think we should go to South Carolina.”
I blinked. “For vacation? Now?” Where the hell had that come from?
“No!” she said, laughing nervously. “To live. Just think! Your last year in high school, maybe able to go to the beach and swim in the ocean every day! Then you can go to the state university there and....” She stopped talking as she looked at my face and then down at her hands. “I think it's a good, fresh start for us, Derry.”
“Mom,” I said gently, trying to master my swirling emotions, kicked up like dirt when you walk through stream water. “I'm a senior this year. I want to finish school here with my friends. I have Jack now. I don't want to lose him. I don't want to move away.”
She let out a shuddering breath and nodded her head. “I can understand your hesitation – it's a big move. Bold. I hear what you're saying about Jack, but I think...there are a lot of other boys out there. Not all of them have mothers that slept with your father.”
“Mom! That's not Jack's fault, for Christ's sake!”
“Well, you can't want to stay here,” she said. Her tone was a confusing mix of reasonable and scoffing. “If anyone deserves to live alone, it's your father. After all, he broke this family!”
“I'm sitting right here,” my father said gently.
“I know where you are,” my mother snapped. “At least I do now. I didn't figure out where you were before, of course. How could you?”
“Stop!” I said loudly. “Just – what the hell? Didn't you guys already scream at each other?”
My mother frowned. “How can you take his side?”
“I'm not taking any sides!” I exclaimed. “We were talking and you went from 'We should move’ to 'Leaving is a way to punish your father'. I'm pissed at dad, too! I lost my shit on him once when he told me, I'm sure I'll do it again – but that doesn't make me want to run to another state!”
“Well, why would you want to stay with him?” she demanded. “He cheated, not me!”
“Because I'm not a fucking prize? I don't go to whoever behaves best, maybe? And it's not just about that. I'm going to be a senior, my last year with my friends before we all scatter and lose each other. And I have Jack, who I love. So it's not just about dad.”
She rubbed her forehead.
“I think we should maybe take a break,” my dad said.
“Oh, shut up!” she snapped. She looked up at him, eyes flashing – and you could see right there where I got my temper from. “You don't get a vote. If you think I'm going to leave my son with you, to learn the finer points of infidelity from his father, you've got another thing coming!”
“I'm not cheating!” I snapped.
“Be reasonable!” my father said, losing his patience.
“Are there any other sluts?” my mother demanded, voice growing louder. “Does Derry have any half-siblings he might want to meet? Is that the real reason we only had one child? Because you were so busy planting seeds elsewhere?”
“If you wanted more children, maybe you could have had fewer headaches!” My father sighed and covered his face with his hands for a moment. “No,” he said softly. “There weren't any others. This was the single biggest mistake of my life, and I'll regret it as long as I live.”
My mother looked at me. “You're coming with me.”
“The fuck I am,” I said with a snort.
She glared daggers. “We'll see about that.” She paused and changed her tone. “You know, you could have Jack come visit – if you guys are even together in a month or whatever.”
I frowned. “I love Jack and he loves me. Why would you say that?”
She looked down at her hands. “Forget I said it, sweetheart. My mind...my mouth is running a little wild.”
My blood was getting tired from going to boiling to cooling off to boiling and back again. I was actually starting to feel sorry for my dad. I absolutely don't think cheating is the way to go, but this was another example of my mom being unreasonable and sticking with it. She'd done that a lot – it was a huge character flaw. The reason she got her Realtor's license was because my dad didn't make enough for her to spend the way she wanted to – and her paycheck was just that – hers. I'd heard them talking about finances before, and my mom's temper always flared. I think my dad should have asked for a divorce instead of cheating. I won't change my mind on that, but I was getting seriously worried that this was about to snowball into a bigger problem.
At least my mom seemed to be calming down again.
“Mom...are you sure you should do this now?”
She bobbed her head. “Yes. I've wanted to move for years, but your father's...job was important as well. Now...I need to follow my own dreams for a while.”
I sighed, unhappy with the situation. I couldn't quite give her an indication that I agreed or was happy in any way. This had been a messy discussion – or argument. It had been a series of lightning quick strikes, and now...now she was going to leave. Leave me behind, leave me with dad. Resentment flashed through me that she'd go, that she'd offer to take me at the cost of leaving everything else in my life behind. Maybe it was childish to feel that way, but I didn't care – she was my mom, damn it. I should count for more than a way to punish my dad.
We talked some more, but it inevitably flared up again, because my mom wasn't getting her way with me. She began issuing threats, then taking them back, then making more. It was exhausting. Eventually she stormed out of the house, screaming that we were both against her. It broke my heart. Losing my family was bad enough, but to be treated like a bargaining chip was...demeaning. Dispiriting.
It pissed me off.
It left my emotions in a confusing swirl. I hadn't cried in my dad's arms since I'd been a kid with a skinned knee, but that night I indulged. It brought a weird sense of relief to have my dad rubbing my back like he did when I was little and I'd skinned my knee or some other little injury and – at that age – could imagine no worse pain.
I showered, but felt restless and headed back down to the kitchen. My dad was sitting on a stool by the long center island with a cup of herbal tea when I wandered in, the tiles feeling cool and smooth under my feet.
“You're up late,” he said quietly.
“Yeah. My mind won't stop.”
“How about some tea?”
I hesitated. My feelings were still mixed, and I was still angry with him, but it was hard to keep it up. “Okay.”
Dad is serious about his tea. He has an electric kettle with a tea infuser; he makes a whole pot at a time and reheats as necessary. He put some Stevia in a mug, because he's kind of anti-sugar, and poured the Chamomile I knew I'd smelled. I sat on a stool near him and sipped the tea. My thoughts tumbled, and before I knew it, my mouth was running.
“Were you and mom unhappy? I mean together?”
He let out a small sigh and placed his hands around his cup. “One of the great truths in life is that things always change. Sometimes the things you don't mind as much when you're younger or when a relationship is fresh become more and more...difficult to deal with.”
“Well, with your mom and I, she always thought I was too financially conservative. She never understood how credit really works and how she paid more for things than she needed to, as a for instance.”
“I know you've sort of talked to me...but I don't totally get it.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Or you weren't listening?”
I tilted my head. “Maybe,” I agreed.
“Well, it's like this. I tell you I'll give you money, but in thirty days every dollar you use of mine means you have to give me a dollar and ten cents. So if you buy something for ten bucks, you owe me eleven. Use one hundred, it costs you one ten. With me?”
“Okay, so let's say you want some nice headphones. Three hundred bucks, but you don't have the cash. So you use my credit.”
“And they cost me three-hundred and thirty instead of three-hundred.”
He raised a finger. “Only if you pay it all right away, because here is the next wrinkle. If you don't pay me the whole thing plus my ten percent – like on that original dollar you borrowed – then you pay ten percent on the one dollar and ten cents – effectively paying interest on your interest. If you're late, I charge you three dollars. And you pay interest the next month on your late fee, too.” He tilted his head at me, asking if I were getting it.
“Okay, so far it doesn't seem that hard.”
“Now is where you have to apply it all, though. So you buy these headphones, but instead of paying it all off – and by the way, usually if you pay it all within thirty days there is no interest, so credit cards can be useful in the short term for emergencies. But let's say you just pay the minimum payment, which is twenty-five dollars.”
“But that's less than I get charged in interest,” I said.
He pointed at me. “Right. So now you have a bill of three hundred and five dollars going forward to next month. You get charged the ten percent – let's just keep it at thirty dollars for convenience – and so the next month your bill is three-hundred-thirty-five dollars. You pay twenty five again – so each month you keep paying, and eventually you pay more – a ton more – for the item, which you may not even have anymore.”
I frowned. “Mom didn't get this?”
“There are a lot of people that forget the idea behind credit companies is to make money,” he said seriously. “They have their place – like for big purchases like homes or cars. But even then – let's say you have three hundred bucks a month you can afford to pay for a car per month. You find a car that ticks all your boxes, but a three year loan puts you at three-seventy-five a month. The salesman says 'No problem, Derry! We'll get you seventy-two months'. And for a seventy-two month loan, you get a nice two-hundred-seventy dollar payment, and you feel happy. Until you realize you're paying interest for five years instead of three, paying more for that vehicle than if you had a shorter loan.”
I thought for a minute. “Is that why mom leases?”
“That's exactly why. She always wanted a newer car, but the payments and interest were never ending. Now, I'm not a fan of leases in general, because you pay for a few years and then give the car back – with nothing to show for all the payments. It's like a rental, in some ways.”
I thought again. “So mom wasn't good with money?”
“Well, I'd say she had expensive tastes,” he said quietly.
“But you loved her.”
He looked up at me. “Of course. Everyone has flaws, kiddo. Sometimes we love them because of their flaws – it makes them a real person.”
“So...why did you do it, dad?” I asked quietly.
He let out a tired sigh and took a sip of his tea. “Your mom and I disagreed on more things as time went by. I don't think either of us was happy, but neither did we seem to know what to do about it. Nobody wanted to be the bad guy and ask for a divorce – but then you could argue it wasn't so bad that we had to get one. And we were so...used to it. The inertia of the way we lived. Money was getting tighter, in my opinion, and we weren't...being intimate. It was a lot of small things that led to a big messy picture of a stagnant marriage.”
I sipped my tea and waited for him to continue.
“So. The pharmaceutical account came up. I met Grace. We were both in the same boat. We commiserated about the pile of little and not-so-little things that were not right in our lives and...it was enough. We took some...solace in each other.”
I looked down into my cup. I'm not sure what I'd expected, but it wasn't that. Maybe I felt like it should have been more...intentionally malicious or something. Something to feel angry and self-righteous about and pound my chest with how wrong he was. I don't know. It just sounded sad.
“I wish you guys would have tried. Or just divorced.” I looked up at him. “This might sound really selfish, but I love Jack and I hate to see him so unhappy.”
He nodded and his expression was sadness personified. “I know, Derry. I let you down.”
After a moment of quiet I asked, “So. What now? I know you screwed up, and you always taught me to take responsibility for my mistakes, and I guess you have. But what happens now?”
He pursed his lips in thought, and I always thought that was kind of funny. He looked like he was sucking on a lemon when he did that. “A lot has been said. A lot of ideas floated. I heard you tonight, and I don't see why you can't be here to do your senior year and graduate.” He paused and looked up at me. “Just being coldly analytical, Jack isn't the best reason not to move. School districts, college opportunities, living expenses – all those are considerations.” He took a breath. “But cold analysis doesn't work for human lives, not unless you’re a computer or a corporation.”
“Jack is important to me.”
He nodded. “I know, son. He's your first real love – and maybe more. Many times these things don't last as long as we think they should or could, which is why it rates a little lower when you weigh pros and cons. But,” he said with a little smile, “you also have to weigh quality of life issues. Your comfort at your school, the security of your friends – the stress of changing schools can be tough, and you're going to have to deal with those new surroundings when you hit college anyway.”
I shifted on the seat. “Mom seemed like she was determined to make me leave with her.”
He nodded his head slowly. “Well. She's angry, and with reason. When we get too emotional we can make hasty decisions and say things...we don't want to.”
“What if she says we have to sell this house?”
“We deal with that with the lawyers, and you shouldn't worry too much about it. Spouses usually can come to an arrangement, though it may take some time until your mom feels a little more stability.”
“Mom's unstable?” I asked doubtfully.
He smiled. “Not what I meant. I mean the situation has her off-kilter and when things have calmed down, she will see things a little differently. That's all. She'll gain some perspective, and she loves you. She's not trying to hurt you, she's trying to hurt me because I hurt her.”
I leaned back a little. “I haven't really heard you, like, yell or anything during this. Why are you so...chill?”
He rubbed a hand over his face. “Because the situation, quite frankly, is fucked. I know what I did, and I know why my family is angry with me. I'm not especially pleased with me, either.” He sighed. “I've lost my wife. I don't want to lose my son, too. Being heavy-handed with you while you deal with your own emotions and fallout from this doesn't help you, and I never wanted to hurt you, Derry. I didn't really want to hurt your mother. I made a terrible, horrible decision. I should have either talked to your mom about fixing our issues or asked for a civil divorce.
“What can I say, buddy? I fucked up.”
I hugged him goodnight and went up to stretch out and wait for sleep to claim me. He was right – he had fucked up. But I realized he was showing me how to have a little grace and tact while being wrong.