It Happened Over Dinner©
The idea was born on a frigid night, the sun already hidden behind the horizon, leaving the sky murky blue. It was the middle of winter, some time in February in the dead-beat quiet area of Hancock, Vermont. The clouds were scattered, but heavy and deep grey; snow was coming soon. My chest hurt at the idea of snow. Mom always loved the snow.
“Hello? Jupiter to Zane,” my best friend Johnny teased, jabbing me in the side with one of his drum sticks. My guitar case scraped the pavement, and I shoved him back and punched him in the arm for it.
“I don’t think Pop’s gonna bite on this, Johnny,” I said, running my fingers through my hair to readjust my Mohawk. I had recently restyled it and dyed the tips red to contrast with the natural midnight black, and I didn’t want it to fall after only three days.
“How do you know?” Johnny said. “Wasn’t he in the army or something too?”
“Marines,” I muttered. I switched my guitar case to my left hand to prevent Johnny from kicking it as he clomped along beside me.
“Exactly! Come on, bro, the entire band is enlisting. You should too,” Johnny said, hopping in front of me and walking backwards. His black hair swished over his shoulders, the green ends looking like a band of electricity as he bounced from side to side. I shot him a glare and stopped in my tracks, my boots sloshing in the muck from last week’s snowfall.
“You don’t know my dad,” I said. “He’s not the same guy you met five years ago.”
“Well duh. Having your wife die on you right after you touch American soil changes a man,” he said. “Look, Z-Man. I’m just saying you should ask. You never know what he’ll say.”
“He’ll be pissed.”
“Or ecstatic. What dad doesn’t want his kid to follow in his footsteps? My old man’s probably gonna throw me a party. Maybe I’ll finally get laid. You know how Tanya is.”
I shook my head as Johnny rambled on about his latest fling and the party he would supposedly be having. Pop was already disappointed in me. My grades from last semester weren’t that great, and he didn’t buy it when I told him the first semester of college is always the hardest. He also didn’t approve of my band, Beneath Insecurity. Originally we had planned on using the garage at my place because while it was small, at least it was warm. He had vetoed that plan. There was no way in hell he was going to permit me to join the military while I was living under his roof, especially if the entire band was doing it. Pop was pretty high-strung, and we hadn’t gotten along in recent years, not since the doctor hadn’t been able to find a healthy liver to replace my mother’s cancerous one. I was surprised the man hadn’t tossed me to the curb, but I was sure it was because my mother made him promise not to.
“Come on, Z-Man. Don’t be a sissy,” Johnny pleaded, his blue eyes gleaming. I ground my teeth at the insult as we approached his driveway. His house had the same layout as mine: two bedrooms, one bathroom, no basement, and a tiny one car garage. The only difference was that his house was clean on the inside. My blood simmered at the knowledge that my house was absolutely filthy. Pop hadn’t even done a load of laundry since Mom’s death. It hardly seemed fair that I was the one having to scrub toilets and fold his underwear when I was the one in school trying to “make a man” out of myself. I scowled.
“Yeah,” I said flatly. “Yeah, I’ll bring it up tonight.”
“Sweet.” Johnny smiled and twirled the drum stick in his right hand and through his fingers before pointing it at me as he ambled up his driveway. “See you tomorrow?”
“Four o’clock,” I recited, holding up my guitar case. “Let’s hope Quinton and Felix are on time for once.”
“Amen to that, dude,” Johnny said as he shook his head. “Ya can’t have a band without a bassist and a vocalist.”
“That’s debatable,” I said.
As Johnny burst out into song and threw himself through the side door of the garage, I turned and walked away. While he was my best friend, Johnny was also a nutcase. It had been his idea to enlist in the military, and if Johnny was doing it, Lord knew Quinton and Felix had to join the bandwagon. I was skeptical. However, as I felt the dread boiling into my chest at the thought of having to go home at seven o’clock on a Friday night, I thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. It’d be nice to get away from home, to spread news of the band and meet a few women along the way. Plus I didn’t know anyone who didn’t want to shoot one of those impressive guns. Not only that, but it might be exactly what Pop was hoping I would do. Johnny had a point. What father wouldn’t want their son to follow in his footsteps and defend the country? I smirked to myself and picked up the pace, my guitar case barely holding me back. With my nineteenth birthday coming up in a matter of weeks, and with my lack of current employment, there was no way Pop could say no to this. I knew it.
It happened over dinner. Pop was sitting in his flattened brown corduroy chair mulling over nearly-burnt cornbread and snap peas as the little television to his right rambled on about the coming winter storm. I was sitting on the couch, picking the burnt ends off the cornbread. Clearly I had left it in the oven too long, but I never trusted box directions. Mom never had either, and her cooking always came out great. Mine on the other hand was a tragic mess. Grimacing, I set the paper plate down on the rickety coffee table. Better luck next time, Z-Man.
“Zachariah, you killed this bread,” Pop said, tossing his plate down on the table. Several crumbs flew off the plate and tumbled to the floor, along with a few peas. I tensed, loathing the way he said my legal name. He just couldn’t call me Zane like everybody else, could he?
“I followed Mom’s recipe,” I said flatly. “Just like you said.”
“You left it in too long. Your mother never left it in that long. It’s burnt. And the peas are mushy.”
“Gee, Pop, thanks for noticing all the hard work I put into the meal.”
He shrugged and pulled his good leg up into the chair with him. His other leg was more of a stump, and the prosthetic piece of it was lying on the floor beside the chair. Pop always claimed that he lost his leg after he was shot in the knee while saving a native damsel from a terrorist or something like that. The story was always different, so I never knew what to believe. All I knew for sure was that he lost it in the Marines. In fact he had been given a purple heart for it and was able to retire under an honorable discharge.
Despite that, and all the benefits he received, he hadn’t been able to find Mom a liver in time. Since then, Pop had refused to pay the bills or keep up with the house. Regardless of the money we had put away somewhere, we were living in a dump. And he was going to criticize me over some overdone cornbread and mushy peas?
“Where were you?” he asked, muting the television. His narrow green eyes locked onto my chocolate brown ones, and I sighed.
“Band practice, Pop. Remember? I’m in a band?
“That’s right, that’s right,” he muttered. “What’s it called again? Public Scrutiny?”
“Beneath Insecurity,” I said, picking up the plates and stomping into the tiny kitchen. I wanted to toss them into the trash, but the bag was full again, and there was no way I was going back outside. I’d just gotten warm. Instead I tossed them onto the counter top, and immediately they faded into the background with the rest of the used plates, foggy glasses, and sticky silverware.
“Hey Pop,” I said once I was back on the couch. I brought one knee up and draped my arm over it, running a hand through my Mohawk to make sure it was still standing.
“What,” he grunted, scratching his salt-and-pepper beard stubble as he stared at the silent TV. His bulging belly was covered by a thin grey t-shirt, and his frizzy gray hair looked matted. Over all, he looked pretty crabby. I took a deep breath and popped the knuckles on my now shaking hands.
“I think I wanna join the military,” I said, keeping my eyes away from him.
“Excuse me?” he asked, turning to face me again. I shrugged, still withholding my gaze.
“I wanna join the military,” I said again. “College sucks. I’m no good at it. And I need a job. Why not the military?”
“Why not the military?” Pop snapped. “Boy, how many legs can you count on me?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I sighed, finally turning in his direction. “I know. But hear me out.”
“One!” he continued. “I only have one!”
“I really think this could be beneficial for me,” I explained. “You hate the band anyway, and nobody wants to higher a full time college student. Not only that but did you know over half of the people my age have enlisted?”
“You wanna lose your leg too?” Pop asked. I scowled.
“I’m not going to lose a leg, Pop,” I said. “I just think it’d be good for me. Don’t you want your son to follow in your footsteps?”
“Footsteps? I only have one leg!”
“Come on, Dad. Johnny and Felix are gonna enlist too. We were gonna do it together,” I said, sitting up.
“If Johnny and Felix were running in front of a train, would you do it too?” he asked. I shrugged.
“I dunno. It would depend on why.”
“Zachariah Robert,” my father snapped. “You’re not joining the military. It’s not safe for you. End of discussion.”
Rage boiled in my gut. Not safe for me? Since when had my father been concerned about anyone but himself? I narrowed my eyes and put both of my feet on the floor, my boots crushing an empty beer can.
“Not safe for me? Get real, Pop,” I retorted. “You just don’t want to be left alone to wallow in your own filth.”
“Watch your mouth, boy,” he growled. “Remember who puts the roof over your head.”
“Barely,” I said. “It’s more like a junkyard than a house. Look at the crap lying around.”
“Did you get the mail today?” he asked. “I think my package of pills should be coming this week.”
“Pop, focus.” I massaged the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes for a minute. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. “Either you let me enlist or I’m moving out.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” he grumbled. “You can stay in college and get a degree.”
“If I stay in college, I’ll fail. If I fail, I’ll be stuck in this dump forever. And if I’m stuck here forever, you’ll probably throw me out when I’m forty and unemployed, and then I’ll end up in a box near the interstate,” I said.
“So don’t fail.”
“Are you doing this because you miss your mother?” Pop asked, steadying himself in his chair. “Tons of kids don’t have moms, Zachariah, and they don’t join the military and get their legs blown off.”
“Damn it, Pop!” I exclaimed, kicking the coffee table out of the way. It skidded across the fraying carpet, hitting the wall next to the television.
“That was our nice table, Zachariah.”
“Forget the table,” I said between deep breaths. “Yes. I miss Mom. But I want to be productive. I want to do what she’d want me to do. All you do is sit here and watch that ancient box you call a television. You don’t do anything. You think Mom’s happy about that?”
“I want to travel, Pop. I want to spread the word about my band. I want to meet girls and make friends, and I want to do something with my life. I don’t want to sit here and rot away like you. I want to make my mother proud.” I sank back down onto the couch and ran a hand down my face, nudging the empty cans and pill bottles at my feet.
For a while, Pop was silent. He didn’t spare me a glance, and I didn’t have the nerve to look at him. A mix of fear and anger was eating away at my heart, and head was killing me from all the yelling. I never did like confrontations despite my rebellious nature. I took my time catching my breath, wishing I had left my guitar and boots by the door instead of throwing them into my bedroom.
“Do you think your mother wants you to follow your friends and put yourself in a situation that you haven’t even thought through?” my father asked softly. I glanced up at him and found his eyes on me again.
“No,” I said.
“Then why are you so adamant on doing it? Your mother wouldn’t want that. Hell, she didn’t even want me enlisting, and I was a grown man,” he explained. “You’re still a kid. And she would rather you be in what’s-his-nuts’ garage playing obnoxious music and failing school than enlisting in the military to try and make something out of yourself.”
I let that sink in for a moment, picturing my mother’s face. I could see her with her long black hair, her dark brown eyes, and her thin figure pacing around the living room worrying over whether or not Pop was coming back alive for Christmas that year. My heart sank.
“You think?” I muttered, sitting back against the cushions. Pop nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “Why would your mother want you to be miserable?”
I just stared at him. As if realizing what had just come out of his mouth, he sat back in the chair, his face solemn. We stared at the television for a little while longer, letting the tension in the house drift away. Maybe he was right. Mom probably wouldn’t have wanted me to choose the military, especially if Johnny and Felix were going to. She’d always told me not to follow anybody but Jesus. Somehow I didn’t think Jesus would want me enlisting either. In fact, the entire thing just seemed stupid now. A glance at my father showed that he was thinking along similar lines. His eyes were drifting around the living room, taking in the mess that lay before us. He looked tired, and maybe even a little sad. For the first time in a long time, I thought I saw my father feeling. Mom wouldn’t want him to be miserable either.
He looked up at me as he reached down to grab his prosthetic leg, and my eyebrows shot up in surprise. The last time Pop had been active at night… Hell, I couldn’t even remember.
“What do you say we clean this place up a bit?” he asked, turning off the television before strapping on the prosthetic.
“Ah… Sure,” I said, standing up and grabbing a few beer cans from the floor. “It’s gonna take a while though. We’ve got dishes piled up six ways to Sunday.”
“One of us washes, one of us dries,” he said, limping into the kitchen. I stared after him, dumbstruck and confused.
“Who are you and what did you do with Pop?” I muttered to myself. As the sound of water came on, I sighed and ran my hand through my hair again. The Mohawk was still standing. This time, when I removed my fingers, there was red dye residue on my fingers. I glanced between my hand and the kitchen.
“You gonna make me do all this by myself, or are you going to help an old man out?” my father said, poking his head out from around the doorway. I smirked a bit and headed towards the kitchen.
“I’ll wash,” I said, taking my place at the sink and grabbing an old cereal bowl. “Have I told you about the band’s latest piece?”
Copyright © Kat Jenning//Shade Shadows 2012-2016