“You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s.” — Robert Frost
The snow came every day that week before Thanksgiving, and the temperatures were 15 degrees below the average. The flurries, squalls and whiteouts didn’t leave much of a trace behind them, though the chilling weather meant that some of the weekend’s snowfall remained. Perhaps the season would yet be mild after this initial arctic blast, at least, with fuel prices higher yet than last year, that was Fred’s hope. And then he reminded himself that, without the mortgage, paying the bills was no longer an issue. It was a bewildering adjustment.
Fred had added a scarf, cap and gloves to his usual attire, and he often wore the scarf throughout the day, both because FKRS was rather drafty with its ancient double-hung windows, and because he thought it made him look European. He did the same thing at home.
Krasnoski still looked down his thick nose at Fred whenever they passed in the hall. An isolated part of his mind registered the daily pinprick of contempt with an innocent, uncomprehending sorrow, but more overtly, it angered him. While Dame Amanda had her reasons and Colin Radnor probably had no opinion because he was out of the office as much as possible, Krasnoski acted as if he was enduring an unbearable stench whenever Fred was near, making Fred dread those times when Rolland sent him to address Krasnoski on some matter of finance requiring an opinion or a signature. It was hardly surprising that many of the staff had the same attitudes as their boss: either FKRS hired snobs in their own image or the more liberal-minded staff came to mimic their superiors out of self-preservation. Of course, Fred wondered if Krasnoski didn’t perhaps have an extra irritation with him.
Ike seemed busier than ever, and more exhausted, but curiously, his only reaction to questions of the workload was a shrug and laugh as he filled a jar of elixir. The last two weekends he’d even gone running in the morning—in the snow! Fred had heard that exercise was a great stress-reliever, so perhaps Ike, out of necessity, was heeding that advice. It seemed to be having a salutary effect. Or perhaps he just liked the approaching holidays.
Just this past Saturday, in fact, when Fred returned from his big outing with Constantia, he’d heard laughter. Ike, upstairs alone, laughing. It was obviously not the TV. Fred made himself the excuse of a trip to his library, glancing in at Ike as he passed. The iPhone, that’s what he was looking at, a broad grin still lighting his face. Fred sat down in the squashy armchair, arms falling limply over the sides, books that he did not seize at his finger ends. It struck him that dusk was falling and that he would look the fool if Ike should find him, in the dark, staring down the hall.
Maybe that was fine. Maybe Ike would laugh at that too. Because Fred was happy and at peace and the community of people laughing together and enjoying life would be inside his house, not overheard on the bus, or from the porches or lit backyards of the neighborhood. He felt, for once, part of life.
And because of all of that, he was in an especially celebratory mood. Thanksgiving arrived, cloudy and snow-swept, with Ike and Fred due at the Duckworth place mid-morning. Ike warned Fred not to eat breakfast because his mother was the empress of forced feeding, so they settled for a round of strong coffee.
Between gulps of coffee and stolen glances at his cell phone, Ike was devouring a UFO book with a big-eyed alien on the cover, while Fred tapped numbers into his calculator. Investment toward financial independence had become a real option, which required careful planning, though only half his mind was engaged on the task. The other half disported among imagined scenes of the traditional holiday feasting and camaraderie of a normal, happy family in their suburban paradise.
“Three generations…” Fred had said with wonderment when apprised of the likely attendance, a Norman Rockwell image flashing through his mind, at which Ike merely shook his head and went back to his reading. Constantia planned to spend the day with her parents in McKees Rocks with Paulette in tow. That had been a change in plans, but it had spared him his debut in the “new boyfriend” role at a mass Andreolakis family inspection, and Ike had heard the news with delight and extended an offer to join him instead.
Rather than attempting to follow Ike’s convoluted directions inevitably involving places which no longer existed, Fred let him drive. Ike streaked along the meandering back roads to Penn Hills, through a subdivision with streets named for trees, finally pulling into the driveway of a yellow split-level with brown shutters. Even with snow scattered across it, the lawn still looked as if it had been recently mowed. Any intruding leaves had been raked away and bagged; no further foliage seems to have dared the immaculate expanse. A planter of tall grasses, petunias and marigolds stood beside the front door, but the frosts had taken their toll.
“Hey, Dad,” Ike called as they entered a deeply-carpeted living room, illuminated only by the technicolor banner of a huge flat screen TV tuned to the NFL channel. The king in his kingdom. Somewhere beyond, a second paradise beckoned: a woman’s voice singing and aromas that made Fred instantly hungry.
“Hello, son,” his dad said, clasping Ike’s hand briefly as the two younger men approached his recliner. He wore a neat plaid flannel shirt tucked into jeans, a new Steelers baseball cap covering graying hair.
“Mr. Duckworth,” Fred said, with a half bow.
“You must be Fred,” Mr. Duckworth said, sitting up, a beer in his hand.
“Yes, sir,” Fred said, shaking his hand. “It was very kind of you to invite me into your home.”
Mr. Duckworth brushed away the comment. “Your Mom and sister are in the kitchen. Beer’s in the fridge,” he said, turning back to the program as the commercials ended.
Ike motioned Fred to follow him and they emerged from the dark television-cave into the brilliance of the kitchen. The oven radiated the mingled aromas of turkey, stuffing and yams, pot lids rattling on all four burners. A dish spun lazily in the microwave. At the kitchen island, a pink-cheeked teenage girl was pulverizing something with a hand mixer.
“Hi, Ike,” Angie sang out, looking up from her mixing, and then glancing quickly away when she noticed Fred. Her sandy blonde hair swung like a pendulum at the slightest movement.
“Hey, Peaches,” Ike called back. He got a shy smile for his effort.
Mrs. Duckworth emerged from the hot work of basting the turkey and beamed up at her son. Her hair was askew and her apron, decorated with bright red cherries, was patterned as well with the juices and debris of meat, vegetables and fruit in several varieties. An artist was clearly in her element.
“Ike,” she said, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Are you doing all right, dear? You look tired.”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
She stepped around him, her arm circling his waist and landed a kiss on Fred’s cheek, though he had to lean down to help. “We’re glad to have you with us, Fred. It’s sad to be alone on Thanksgiving. It’s such a family time.”
“I thank you for inviting me, Mrs. Duckworth. It was most generous.”
“Oh, nonsense!” She examined his slim frame. “I hope you are up to some hearty eating—looks like you could use it.”
“He can eat, Mom, believe me.” Ike had found two beers and handed one to Fred. “You need to meet Angie.” Coming up beside his sister and giving her a one-armed squeeze, he said, “This is my friend, Fred Fuchs.”
“Hi, Fred,” she said in a whisper that was barely audible over the mixer.
“Pleased to meet you,” Fred said, bowing low. Angie looked up at that, hiding her giggle with an idle hand.
“Need help with anything, Mom?” Ike offered.
“Not at the moment, dear.”
Ike leaned back toward the roaring cave. “Dad, we’ll be in the garage.”
“Bring in another case of beer when you come back in, will you?”
Ike acknowledged that he would, then showed Fred through the mudroom and into the garage.
“Thought you might like to see my dad’s workshop.”
The big, white Duckworth truck with the golden cartoon duck on the side was parked inside the garage, and beside it, his mom’s dark green Saturn. Ladders, a pink bike, baseball bats, gardening tools and lawn chairs were stored on racks around the walls; on shelves above, neat cardboard boxes were labeled Christmas, Camping, or Ike. A heavy punching bag hung from the ceiling a few feet from the cars; behind it, a door led into the workshop.
Ike flipped a switch inside the door and a suspended fluorescent light flickered into life. Fred gazed from the stack of magazines to the neat red tool cabinet under the work bench, from a broken chair with one leg clamped in a vise to a large Shopmaster machine that looked capable of making anything. Beside a small window that looked onto the back yard, hundreds of tiny drawers were stacked in a cabinet containing every imaginable screw, bolt, nut, nail, hook and fastener manufactured in the last three decades.
“This is your father’s place?” Fred asked, entranced by the sheer order, competence and mechanical aptitude.
“Yeah. I was allowed to work in here with him after I was 12—after I proved I knew how to use all the equipment safely.”
As they went through into the yard to look around, Fred whistled.
“An in-ground pool?”
“It’s what I miss the most about this place.”
A sudden noise at the mud room door was Ike’s dad heading out to the truck. A strange look of panic and determination crossed Ike’s face, and he left Fred without a word.
“Dad,” Ike said, laying a hand against the driver’s side door. “Got a minute?”
Mr. Duckworth looked around for Fred, who was standing at the shop door with a magazine in his hand. “I’m going to get your grandmother. Can’t it wait?”
“It won’t take long.” He hesitated at his father’s impatient look, he pressed on. “I was wondering if you would consider bringing me into the company. Duckworth Construction. With you.”
The older man’s face constricted. “What’s wrong with FDR, or whatever it is—not paying you enough?”
“No, Dad, that’s not it at all. It’s just—I like the hands-on work better; I like houses better.”
Mr. Duckworth shook his head in disgust. “Amazing how much money it cost for you to discover that rather obvious fact. I could have told you that five years and $50,000 ago.”
Ike stared at him, not trusting himself to speak.
“You spent six years learning the family business, but you threw it away to be an architect. Construction wasn’t good enough for you—then.”
“Oh, but now. Now after you had to be an Architect—Aren’t they paying you enough?”
“It’s not like that—“
“Trust fund kids turn their noses up at a jock from Penn Hills? Look. You wanted to go to school and I gave you what you asked for. We paid for five whole years at that school.”
“I had a scholarship for two! Besides, you and Mom always told Ange and me you’d pay for college. You want me to pay you back? Is that it?”
“What I can’t stomach is a son who is ready to quit after only five months on the job. Did you think you’d come out of school King of the World? No one cares about your high-brow ideas. You’ve got to fight for a piece of the pie, same as everybody else—and it doesn’t come five fucking months after graduation.”
“You don’t understand. Dad, this isn’t architecture—it’s a—factory. A nut house. I didn’t spend all those years learning to design to get stuck drawing toilet partitions for sixteen weeks.”
“It’s this goddamned helpless attitude of yours, Ike! It never changes. One little thing doesn’t suit you, and everything’s a disaster, it isn’t going to work, chuck it all. You give up and belly ache about how unfair it is. After all the work we put into your pitching, you gave up your scholarship. Still, we paid.”
“My arm was destroyed!”
“Don’t start in with the sob stories now. Christ, Ike! Pros rehab after surgery all the time. Now you want to give up your career, and I’m supposed to bail you out? I can see it, five months from now you won’t like that either. I’ve got not use for a quitter. If you’re fool enough to give your bosses this act, it’s no wonder they leave you with the shit jobs.”
He took his hat off, wiped his forehead on his sleeve. “I’ve told you before—you either work your job or you work for yourself.” Ike had a retort, but his dad cut him off with a chopping motion. “End of story. The answer’s no. It’s time you stand on your own. Make your mark, then we’ll talk.”
He got into his pickup and pulled out of the driveway without a backward glance.
A minute later, the statue came to life. Ike walked to the rack and pulled down a blue aluminum bat, a thing he’d not touched in almost four years, hefted it in his hands and walked back to the middle of the garage. Though no longer competitive, his body still knew how to give what was asked, and with explosive power, he coiled back and swung the bat into the bag.
The impact sounded like ribs and organs being pulverized. He struck again.
A growling storm raged against the punching bag, each time, with practiced power-hitter form.
“Leave me alone!” Ike yelled with teeth bared.
That was the last swing. Ike looked momentarily helpless, bat dropped in a loose grip at his side, sweat beading his face, his muscles shaking from the exertion. He took a deep breath and shook it off.
Fred was alert, ready for whatever was coming next, but there was nothing coming next. Ike hung the bat in its place beside the others.
“You OK?” he asked cautiously.
“Never mind,” he said, making what was supposed to be a smile. “It’s such a family time.”
Ike grabbed a case of beer and Fred followed him back into the house. Fred had left home at sixteen for a hundred good reasons, but somehow, not until now, had he ever understood that maybe everybody had reasons.
An hour later, Grandma Duckworth joined them for dinner. She liked to talk, even if hard of hearing. They all sat down in what seemed to be accustomed places, and Ike’s mom bowed her head. “Let’s say grace,” she said, smiling around the table at each person. “We are gathered together today in the sight of God to reflect on all his gifts. May He bless every one of us—me and Wally, Mom Duckworth, Angel and Isaac, and our new friend,” she looked up here and lavished a warm smile on her guest, “Fred. Lord, we are so thankful for all—“
“Amen,” Mr. Duckworth said, pitching his napkin into his lap and reaching for the platter of turkey slices.
Wine was poured, even for Angie, and they dug into the feast. At the head of the table was the turkey, and below it, disported among the celebrants were dishes filled with mashed potatoes, stuffing and turkey gravy, candied yams, olives, pickles, creamed corn, roasted carrots, brussel sprouts and cranberry orange relish. Pumpkin pie and minced meat pie waited in the kitchen for dessert, topped with vanilla ice cream. French vanilla.
The football game was left on in the other room. Periodically, Mr. Duckworth burst out of his seat to watch a replay.
Ike was studiously silent, seemingly preoccupied with the food on his plate. The three women chatted together, or rather mother and daughter attempted to weave the elder Mrs. Duckworth’s mumblings into their conversation. Ike’s mother, well aware that something had transpired between her husband and Ike, who were violently ignoring each other’s existence, tried to include her son.
“Have you heard from Francie, dear? I can’t imagine that girl in New York City. ”
Ike was startled. “Who?”
There was an awkward pause.
“Why anyone would want to live in that infernal cesspool, I have no idea,” his dad said, taking more turkey and mashed potatoes.
Ike answered his Mom. “She hasn’t written.”
Mr. Duckworth snorted. “Let that go, too? Now there was a woman any man in his right mind would have snapped up.”
Ike closed his eyes, hand frozen in the act of taking seconds of yams, a small smile twitched for a moment and then faded.
“She’s probably frightfully busy, dear. It wouldn’t surprise me if those big New York firms are worse than yours is for overtime. Too bad you don’t get paid extra for it.”
“He’s a salaried professional, Anne. That’s why they give these inexperienced young kids such big paychecks.”
“Well, it still doesn’t seem fair to me. If there’s that much work, they should hire more people, shouldn’t they?”
“Not and run a tight ship. This economy is too rocky to be playing Pollyanna. Stick with what you know and you won’t make a fool of yourself every time you open your damn mouth.”
Ike dropped the casserole lid back into place with a loud clang. Everyone at the table froze as Ike stared at his dad, who simply returned to patiently cutting his turkey into same size pieces.
“If she doesn’t write you, she’s just mean,” Angie said.
Ike kicked her under the table and she kicked him back, smiling at an old secret.
“What I want to know is how many boyfriends you have,” he said, ladling gravy over the turkey, stuffing and potatoes that filled his plate again.
“None!” she blurted, red in the face.
“That’s not so,” Mrs. Duckworth said. “A very nice boy, Donald—“
“Daniel—” Mrs. Duckworth repeated. “—took Angie to the Homecoming Dance. We met him. A very nice young man. Wasn’t Daniel a lovely boy, Mother?”
Mom Duckworth’s head shook again. “When the sailors came back—that was the day, I tell you. Rows and rows of lovely boys, in those spanking white uniforms–”
There was a grumble from Mr. Duckworth that no one made out. Mrs. Duckworth placed her hand upon her mother-in-law’s, and leaned in to whisper something to her.
Angie closed her eyes for a moment and squared her shoulders. “Is it true you won the Cash5?” she asked Fred, who was seated to her left.
“Yes, I did. It was quite surprising,” he said modestly.
Ike lifted his eyes to Fred, steady, cautionary.
“Did you win a lot?”
“Enough. Just enough.”
“How much?” she asked eagerly, turning all the way in her chair so that she was facing him.
“Don’t be rude, Angie dear. Fred is our guest,” Mrs. Duckworth said.
“To be honest,” he said, looking into the bright young face, determined that at least one person at the table would be treated with some dignity. “I don’t remember the exact number. It was, however, enough to pay off my mortgage with about $800 dollars to spare. I will get a little painting done around the house in the spring.”
“Wow,” she said in a hushed voice, turning back toward her plate. “You should do something fun with the money.”
“I did. I bought the freedom to do as I please.”
“That’s so cool,” she said with deliberation, shoveling a spoonful of mashed potatoes into her mouth. Then alarm overtook her. “Wait! I’m not saying that so you’ll give me something—”
“Have no fear. I would not think that of a girl in red high tops.”
She laughed, swinging her ponytail, glancing at her mother, who smiled back at her. Mr. Duckworth looked disgruntled again, which made Ike shake his head at Fred.
After the meal, the boys staggered into the living room to watch football with Mr. Duckworth. Fred would rather have chatted with the women in the kitchen, where there seemed to be laughter. Ike was apparently informed enough about the teams playing and other relevant facts pertaining to their standings, injuries and coaching history to hold his father off any further criticism. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying the game together wholeheartedly, almost as if the earlier exchange had never happened.
Shortly after the next game came on, Ike went into the kitchen. Fred suspected a leave-taking, for which he was more than ready. When Ike re-emerged, he shot a meaningful look at Fred, who rose. They both shook hands with Mr. Duckworth, who did not get up, as the game was not in commercials.
Angie and Mrs. Duckworth met them at the door with a paper shopping bag loaded with several big Tupperware containers of Thanksgiving bounty.
“It was good to see you, Ike,” his mother said, kissing him good-bye. She tapped the container on the top. “This is what you asked for.”
Strangely, he blushed. “Thanks, Mom,” he muttered, ducking his head for the door.
“Hey?” an indignant young voice called after him.
He smiled, placed the bag on the porch and turned back. Angie threw her arms around her big brother’s neck, his bear hug lifting her off the ground.
“Keep kicking, Peaches,” he whispered, kissing her soft cheek.
She waved furiously at Fred. “Bye, Fred!”
He lifted a hand in farewell to both Angie and her mother, while tossing his keys to Ike. He knew he’d be happier driving right now; besides, Ike knew the quickest way home.
Find the earlier chapters here.