Somewhere in the Middle

Don’t want to be ordinary. Who does except old man Doc at the barbershop, or Sally Worth who runs the diner on Main. But not me. “You understand!” Staring at himself in the steam frosted mirror. He can hardly hold his stare. The warmth of the shower didn’t protect him from the chill he felt striking his spine like a bolt.

Family of four. Two boys, 9 and 12. Lower middle class suburban life. Cul-de-sac street. Drizzling rain descends from a perplexing sky. Ordinary aluminum sided duplexes and houses, ggray or tan and white, carved out of forested hills of Norway spruce and maple and sodden marshes filled with aged white oak. The Manor Grove Development Phase IX. Their house is one of the gray duplexes. They share it with a 64-year-old single Irish man, who rarely makes an appearance outside on his front porch. And when he does he’s typically fighting a fit of gurgling smokers cough. Always mixed with expletives about the Goddame weather, the Goddame crap in his yard, the Goddame grass has gone to hell, and anything else that crosses him. Everything does. The boys are deathly scared of him and always hop up or down their porch steps to avoid the crosshairs of his bewildered judgemental stare.

The old man suffers from dementia so he hasn’t been able to figure out how to get his Medicare payments straightened out. He’s been winging it for weeks. Actually, he worries about how to resolve the problem. He hasn’t shared this with anyone and has noone to share it with, except Molly. His dementia is enough to cause him to not remember the trouble he’s having each morning when he awakens. So every day is for him a repeat of the last one. He’s just happy to have plenty of spam, pimento cheese, and white bread to eat with his mouthful of decaying tobacco stained teeth. Molly, the hispanic girl who works at the general store on the corner of Main and Vine, brings him more supplies and other vitals at the end of each week. She knows where he keeps his checks and lose money laying around so is mindful and only takes what she’s owed. She refuses to clean up after the old man though and just yells at him to “straighten out your disgusting house you dirty old man!” Other than that he’s often seen nursing a lukewarm Pabst Blue Ribbon with a Pall Mall menthol cigarette dangling between his right index and middle fingers through his open window in his wooden rocking chair. Simply stares out in the distance and curses, a thin string of smoke circling upwards getting entangled in the slowly revolving dusty ceiling fan. “Goddame hot outside,” he said.

Dad works for the local plant that manufactures wrought iron used for industrial gate assemblies. Most of these end up in security gates in front of state and federal government buildings. It’s been heard around Prospect that some of their wrought iron even ended up in front of the White House, but no one has ever been able to substantiate that claim. Regardless, it is a source of pride for the community — the plant that is. The plant gives 305 people jobs and has been fairly stable for the last five years, but he’s growing worried the management is about to make some drastic changes. He has no idea what management is doing or talking about because they only talk amongst themselves, and when they’re upstairs at the plant, it’s behind closed doors. He and the others working near his welding assembly can hear occasional shouts and footsteps from above, but nothing more. But that’s all he, his friends and fellow union members worry about since the other plant in Portersville shut down and moved to Mexico fourteen months ago. The union boss is well liked; Harvey Monty’s been a welder since he could walk is the going legend. He’s been a leader and mentor since dad got the job as a journey-level welder several years ago. Dad’s apprenticeship dragged on for two years longer than he wanted, but he finally got through with it and moved up to the plant. Harvey took dad under his wing and got him into the union.

Mom is an elementary school teacher. They both believe in God but have grappled with a lot of financial hardship due to caring for their ailing parents which has severely tested their faith.

Dad winces every time he looks at his son’s sneakers and sees their worn shoelaces are tied to other worn pieces of string, and mom has put masking tape over the holes in the soles of them. This isn’t the life he was thinking about for himself or his family. Then again, he wasn’t planning on having kids, nor ones so early either. Now he takes things as they come and he simply feels behind, on paying bills, the mortgage. Simply providing what his family needs is a daunting task that has taken a steady toll on him. He drinks steadily and gets agitated a lot. The other night he punched a hole in the neighbor’s wall when they started arguing about the plant closing down.

The local politics of Prospect go by unnoticed for the most part. Nobody cares enough about the elections of local officials, for sheriff, for school boards, for the tax collector. It all seems to move on its own, behind the curtain of the realities of life in Prospect. Lester Selby sits on the County Board of Commissioners and for all dad and mom know, always has. He comes across honest and trustworthy. He owns the local hardware store that dad has seldom frequented. Prices are just too far out of reach for what he needs so he usually looks for garage sale items as he’s driving from one project to another over the weekends. If they don’t have what he’s looking for, he’ll hit one of the eight local junk yards. Seems that a new junk yard sprouts up each year. Mom reflected on this the other day by saying we should turn our house into a junk yard like the Ike’s did. People may actually give us money for our junk. It just keeps piling up, especially since we took mother’s stuff.

Lester began his career in local politics much as his father and his grandfather before him. The people of Prospect aren’t concerned enough to know that Lester comes from a long line of politicians. After finishing his Associate’s degree from Mt. Mary’s Community College he took a small inheritance to buy the hardware store from Peter McGeffers who fell ill from leukemia and decided to sell out before the sickness overcame his life. Peter went on an adventure during the last year he drew breath that took him to parts of the world that no one in Prospect could imagine. After Lester became a steady hand at the wheel of the hardware store, he put his name in the ballot box for a seat on the County Commission. After a thin showing during the election, he became the youngest Commissioner in the last fifty years, and he enjoyed every minute of his work. Robert’s rules of order was something that he thrived on and made sure each member of the Commission and anyone entering the hallowed halls of the Commission followed precisely. So far, his biggest accomplishment to date was supporting the local dairy commission’s institution of a small tax on milk sourced from outside the tri-county area. And not to be forgotten, Lester had the small grass ball park where all the kids in the area played baseball named after himself.

The boys are happiest when playing outside with their friends in the neighborhood. Cops and robbers. Running through the wooded areas surrounding their neighborhood. Looking for caves and exploring creeks and swampy marshlands extending beyond anywhere the boys could fathom. They’ll bring back squirrels they shot with their old Daisy BB guns their dad bought used from Louie’s; the local pawn shop on Heritage Road, or a small trout they caught barehanded and struck against a rock to kill, or any number of salamanders running through Yellow Creek. Mom was never thrilled to receive their fresh kills but was happy that they’d rather be outside than playing their Xbox. She didn’t realize the Xbox stopped working about four weeks ago when the younger boy spilled his milk all over it by accident. His older brother didn’t know about that either. It was the fastest he’d cleaned anything up, but was petrified when he discovered that the Xbox stopped working. Since it was early summer and they didn’t have school, outside was where all the action was anyway.

The younger brother was just happy he had this secret to keep about the Xbox and feared the wrath of his older brother if he found out. He’s still got a big bruise on his shoulder from his brother punching him three times in the right arm for hiding his slingshot. He didn’t want to take another beat down. Their school was walking distance, and they were elated to end the year with the annual tug-of-war contest a week ago. Each grade toiled against opposing teams. The winning team from each grade stood wait until the sixth graders finished and a sixth grade champ was declared. Once each grade had a winning team, starting with third grade all the way up to sixth grade, that’s when the final contests would begin.

The older brother was in sixth grade. The younger in third. They both ended up on the winning team for their grades and were super psyched. So there were four teams standing; third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders ready for battle. The teachers lined up the fifth graders to take on the third graders, and with a huge stroke of luck and a kid named Tommy Finn, who was more than a little large for his age (the kids poked fun at Tommy’s largess but his size could only be outdone by a deep seeded self-confidence that endeared him to everyone he met), the third graders pulled off the initial win. This had them waiting for the fourth and sixth grade contest, that drew enormous chants from all the other kids who watched. The younger brother cheered for his older brother, but deep down was scared if he had to go up against him. The sixth graders made short shrift of their fourth grade competitors so now the final match was lining up.

It was the first time in several years that the third graders actually made it past the first round, but here they were. The third graders were hopped up on adrenaline and going bonkers. The sixth graders were equally pumped, but they appeared to carry smirks on their faces indicating they figured this was going to be easy. The teachers had each team take hold of the rope and Mr. Kelly, the gym teacher, lined up the flag marking the middle of the rope with the centerline on the soccer field. He shouted “PULL!” and there began a struggle that brought awe onto all the onlookers’ faces; teachers and students alike. The flag marking the middle of the rope didn’t move for what seemed like forever. It hung there trembling like a scared puppy alone on a street corner. And then suddenly, you had to be there to believe it, both teams let go of the rope at the same time and both teams fell backwards on top of each other. The boy that Tommy landed on screamed out in pain. Every kid fell into a heap on their side of the rope and then there was just silence. Mr. Kelly, after taking it all in, just started wailing and laughing hysterically. And so did all the rest of the kids and teachers. The older brother got a slightly bruised cheek from another kid’s head smacking him in the face, but he was still laughing. The younger brother was face down in the grass with his friend Kenny laying on top of him. Everyone had a good laugh on this last day of school.

The mom’s elementary school was the next county over. She’s been waiting frustratingly long for a position to open up at her sons’ school. She believes this year Tammy Buchanon will be retiring from teaching third grade so suspects that spot will be primed for her. Because she’s not involved as much with her local church, because she’s been spending most of her free time tending to her ailing mother and father-in-law, she doesn’t realize that her high school nemesis, Susie Matthews, has already gotten the Principal to give her the job. This involved Susie doing what she does best. Namely sowing his oats like she’s done with every step in her career. The Principal is the well known Brian Bestough who won the high school football tri-county championship as their quarterback back in the 90’s. Susie has always had a thing for Brian, but she never was able to get on his radar until just four weeks ago. Brian has been happily married to his college sweetheart, Marla Simmons, for just over ten years now. His escapade with Susie was something he never expected to happen. He had thought about her since they were in middle school.

Mom drives an early 2000’s nondescript tan Ford Taurus station wagon. The back right hub cap went missing four months earlier, but they haven’t had a chance to check the auto junk yard for a replacement. Dad drives an F-250 truck to work. He also works as a welder on the side to make ends meet. Mainly picking up odd jobs in the tri-county region to do simple repairs for small businesses. It barely helps financially because the equipment he needs is expensive, but he manages to come across lucky projects that ultimately makes it worth his while. Plus it keeps his mind busy and keeps him from having to deal with his crazy wife and kids. They’ve been married 12 years and in love for the first three. They argue a lot about the little things. They’re constantly tired, angry, and frustrated. They don’t have anything to spare. They’re burning themselves out just to keep their eyes above the waterline. They both feel like giving up one day and fighting a little more the next. After their younger son was born, mom continues to have unexplained panic attacks, doesn’t sleep well, and also suffers from strong bouts of depression. All this equates to a communication nightmare on the homefront.

Dad lost his ring finger in a gear assembly at the plant three years ago, but he healed up and continues to work the same job. He’s in the local union and Harvey helped him to get a small sum for his injury. Management fought him tooth and nail but ultimately realized they could make him go away for a few thousand dollars. That quickly got eaten up by their bills caring for their parents. The Prospect Park Care and Nursing home where both their parents live is a burden they’ve carried for the last three years. Dad’s father, just after surviving a severe stroke, has been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer. He started chemotherapy four months ago, but the doctor says he will stop the treatment after the next round if he still doesn’t see any marked improvement. The doctor has given him a 30% chance he’ll survive into the New Year. His mother-in-law is also being taken care at Prospect Park for the late stages of Alzheimer’s. Mom decided she needed to put her mother in the home this past Spring when she received a call from the police that her mother was walking around Main Street with just her bed sheets wrapped around her. Mom couldn’t take it anymore. Couldn’t muster the strength and energy needed anymore. She didn’t want her mother in the home but that was the last straw. Her mother was living in the Diamond Hill trailer park and they spent a long weekend reducing the heaps of belongings and piles of junk, old mail, and the like to a manageable amount. They moved her to the home and her junk beside their own piles of junk.

They don’t live above their means, and never eat at the locale restaurant. It’s actually just a truck stop but that’s what Prospect offers it’s folks. They consider themselves neighborly but not overly friendly. They feel the same way about most of their neighbors in their depressed area of Prospect, Pennsylvania; a community that sprouted up some fifty years ago about forty miles outside of Pittsburgh.