A Life in the Family: Chapter 3

(First chapter posted at Dublin Galyean on Dec. 18)

In the weeks before their annual Big Sur vacation, Corinne used to argue with her son about how long he would stay. Last year, he lobbied for not going.

He said nothing this time. He had quit his job at Ralph’s soon after what his parents now called “The Declaration of Dependence.” Besides, once he had dropped his two college prep classes at PCC, he had plenty of time. Even at his age, he realized he couldn’t expect to skip the family trip just before leaving for basic training.

Everett knew Jimmy would rather be making the rounds of his friends, male and female, and suggested to Corinne they might want to cancel. Then they found out boot camp started at the end of August, not in October as Jimmy had first thought.

“We are going. ALL of us,” Corinne had said the day Jimmy discovered the change.

She was on her way out the door in a lavender pant suit with a mauve scarf that just brushed the curve of her butt. She looked good in anything, Everett thought. Out of, too. Her hair was tucked into a French roll and hinted at the possibilities of what might happen when she let it down. He looked longingly at her, his tender soulmate whose fear still had the best of her.

What made it worse was Jimmy couldn’t have been more talented. He swung a baseball bat like Ken Griffey, Jr., sang tenor in a community doo-wop group, and scored at or near the top of every exam, national or local, he had ever taken since third grade. Not too difficult to see why a recruiter had slobbered all over him. Recently he was cast as Hal in Picnic, which had been produced by an amateur theater company in Sierra Madre. The local paper gave him the best review. If the high school drama teacher was right, he was better at acting than anything else.

Why he would give it all up for a uniform, Corinne couldn’t understand. But none of that mattered now. Her baby was going to war, and he would be changed by it.

Or he wouldn’t come back.

Car packing had not begun, but both Thumper and Sheriff could tell something was afoot. Though Saturday, Corinne had to go into school, but only for a few hours, she hoped. Unlike Everett, she worked summers, but her administrative staff, unchanged for the last ten years, was always dying to show her that they could run the school without her.

With her at work, Everett wondered what he and Jimmy could do with their time together. No basketball games on TV, just baseball, which they only liked to watch in person. Any major cleaning that needed to be done would take more time than they had, so Corinne would not expect it.

Everett smiled, trying to look expectant. “Want to toss the ball back and forth?”

“Football?”

“Baseball. I think I know where our gloves are.”

Jimmy rolled his eyes but let his expression be absorbed by a nod. “Front yard or back?” he said with upturned hands.

“Your choice.”

Jimmy headed toward the patio. Sheriff, the chow mix, trotted past him and up the embankment to sniff under the hammock. Not finding any food left by Everett last night, she loped back to Jimmy and offered her belly.

As he rubbed her, he felt the first tinges of sadness. He had the support of his athlete friends and just enough resistance from Claudia to feel desired. But he would miss the dogs, who slept with him and whom he had been feeding every morning since junior high. He knew he would miss his parents, eventually, but laughed as he wondered how long it would take.

He wanted to explain that it had little to do with them. He had wanted to go ever since his cousin, Eddie, had returned without one of his legs. Jimmy knew all the bogus arguments for invading Iraq and even agreed with his father that Americans had been lied to, but it was more about Eddie and some of Jimmy’s friends who were already there, not the mad man, Hussein.

Besides, he needed to prove to himself that he wasn’t afraid. Just like he had as the lightest running back on his team. He could take anything those massive linebackers from Pasadena High could throw at him but, at his first practice three years ago, he was afraid to throw a block at a scrawnier defensive back, whom he outweighed by at least 20 pounds.

Now, he was terrified of what he would find in battle, as afraid of shooting someone as being shot. Some nights, he couldn’t get to sleep until after midnight. His father didn’t know, but he had not only read the Crane poem but had memorized some of it. He had no trouble picking up the irony. On those restive nights, he would sometimes repeat part of the second stanza until he went to sleep:

The unexplained glory flies above them,

Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom —

A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Everett began to panic when he didn’t find the gloves, only a bat and catcher’s mitt with the camping equipment. He knew he only had a few moments before the idea lost what little appeal it might still have for a boy going to war. Then he remembered there was some little league stuff in the attic and grabbed the ladder.

Before squeezing himself through the opening in the hallway ceiling, he shouted to Jimmy, “I’ll be out in a minute.”

Scurrying sounds made his heart pound. He dreaded this crawl space, and every other one for that matter. Corinne usually replaced the A/C air filter though he always swore to her that, in an emergency, he could do it himself.

Before he flipped the switch, he saw the gloves in a shaft of sunlight like a museum display. Instead of reminiscing himself into tears and postponing the short scoot across the two-by-fours, he lunged for the gloves, in the process tearing his shirt and scraping his elbow.

Out back, he threw Jimmy a glove,

“You okay?” Jimmy was looking at Everett’s bloodied arm.

“I had to go up in the attic.”

Though a bit melodramatic, Everett hoped Jimmy raised his eyebrows to acknowledge this courageous feat — claustrophobic father braves horrors for possible last game of catch with son.

They tossed the ball back and forth a few times, ignoring what both were thinking. Everett had a silly thought that became almost reasonable the more he repeated it to himself: playing catch would keep his son from leaving.

When Corinne arrived just before 1:00, the car was almost packed. Father and son had loaded the camping equipment and their own bags into the back and were only waiting on her to finish filling her suitcase and choose the food that needed to be kept cold.

She did none of her usual nagging, even no second-guessing about what clothes they had on. While she wasn’t teary-eyed, her occasional smile was limited to her mouth.

Just before they walked out the door, she asked if Everett had put a hold on the newspaper and mail, but her heart wasn’t in it. Instead of waiting for an answer, she walked past him down the steps and across the yard to the car.

“Yes, ma’am,” Everett said saluting, only to pull his hand down abruptly, shaking his head to admit his faux pas and looking to Jimmy for some support. None provided.

Corinne’s eyes blazed like she was about to rip into her hapless husband with some biting retort. Instead, she pulled her UCLA hat over her eyes, as if she couldn’t bear to look at him.

Before ducking into the font seat, she nodded grimly, like she was about to tell a mother her child was being suspended. “Okay, let’s do this thing.”

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