Joshua Lawson lives in Richmond, VA. He has previously been published on the literary blog Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk and has stories set to appear in upcoming issues of Badlands and The Broadkill Review.
You Earn it in the Epilogue
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” she said.
No one had asked.
Save myself, there was no one to ask, and I couldn’t talk through the sobs and the snot running down my face.
“I don’t know,” she said. She’d said more, she’d stared into my eyes, into my brain, into my heart, her words more like gravity than sound. Then her eyes widened, looked through me, and she didn’t know, and she left.
Even then I could tell when she passed, could tell when I had stopped holding onto a human and started holding on to a thing. She was limp, and heavy, and dead. Dead like so many bad guys strewn across the wet kitchen. They were more than just bad guys, or at least, in the years to come they would steadily gain nuance in retrospect, but then, kneeling on the white tiles slick with water and blood, with my mom’s dead skull in my lap, the raining emergency sprinklers never letting up, they were just the bad guys she’d killed to save me.
Just before she died she’d become death. She’d morphed into some sort of terrible, gnashing mouth with Swiss Army Knives for teeth. Blades of all manner were heaved and thrown about, pots and pans and meat tenderizers concussed one assailant after another, the gas stove ignited and turned one man into a flaming shadow. Always she would make her way back to me in the corner, the home base she was protecting, before fanning out again to unleash unspeakable hells. Eventually they were all bled-out, beaten and burned, dead on the wet floor. Then, as if on cue with the passing of the last of them, she stumbled and fell.
Her hair was darker and it clung to her neck and her face in thick wet streaks. Every picture I see of her now, her hair light and flowing, seems strange, fake, posed. In that kitchen, that was her. That was real. The light, flowing hair in pictures makes her feel all the more gone.
It hadn’t started in the kitchen of an Asian fusion restaurant. There was a nightclub and a parking garage, even an aquarium along the way. I either watched or heard my mother kill a lot of people that day, but she hadn’t done it all her own. We’d left Burt in a dumpster a few blocks away in some dead end alley. He’d taken one to the belly. My mother swore she wouldn’t leave and he insisted she do just that. They compromised, and he wound up in the garbage, her promising him and me she’d be back for him in no time.
I still remember, nestled into my mother’s neck, peeking out as she closed the lid on him. His hands were wet on his stomach and he smiled and I still remember thinking “I don’t get it.”
Twenty years later. UNKNOWN NAME. UNKNOWN NUMBER. A servant to curiosity, I picked up.
“Champ! What’s the good word?”
“Champ.” He said it over the phone two decades down the line with the same perplexing vigor and charm he’d managed to muster from his damp gut as a dumpster lid closed on him.
“Burt! Where you been man? I haven’t heard from you in forever.”
“I’ll be back stateside in a few weeks. Gonna be passing through your neck of the woods. Show a debonair charmer you peasants’ excuse for a dinner?”
“Few weeks? Yeah, yeah I’m sure I can scrape something off the road by then.”
It wasn’t rare to go years without seeing Burt.
I was overwhelmed. That first time, after. The last thing I remembered was ascertaining that the men coming into the room did have guns, but they weren’t going to hurt me. When I woke up I was dry and clean, in a hospital room as white and fluorescent as the kitchen had started out, but softer. I asked a nurse if I was in heaven. I wasn’t. Then I remembered my mother. It took much longer to remember her grizzled associate. The man who took a shotgun blast for us. For me. The man we left in a dumpster. It took so long to remember, in fact, that it was not until he wheeled his way into my room, bright-eyed and brave-faced, that I thought of him. I was so happy he was alive and so ashamed that I’d forgotten him. I was overwhelmed and I burst.
He hoisted himself out of his chair, arms shaking, and onto my bed. He hugged me and didn’t say a word and eventually I calmed down.
I hadn’t seen Burt since a month or so before graduating high school. We emailed sporadically throughout my college years, usually talking on the phone a few weeks too late for each other’s birthdays or Christmas.
We met at a diner about five minutes from my place, which had become a regular watering hole due to no better reasons than proximity and the neon sign depicting an alligator snapping its jaws. Burt had never been one to dillydally – apparently when they’d found him in that dumpster he was fashioning a spear out of a mop and a CD – and that hadn’t changed with age. I’d given him the address to my bachelor pad, a first floor loft with a view of a brick wall, but about half an hour before he was set to arrive he requested we cut out the middle man and meet at the restaurant.
When I laid eyes on the man again his salt-and-pepper stubble and locks had gone white. With his sunglasses and battered, unbuttoned dress shirt he cut the image of Santa Claus’ severe older brother. But beneath the smooth, snowy hair and beard he was still there, in the eyes and in the smile. He was still trim and sturdy and he held himself with a poise that suggested an athleticism beyond my own.
“How you doing, bachelor?” he chuckled, wrapping me in a hug and handing me a card for the nearly year-old occasion of my college graduation.
“I’m great man, it’s great to see you.”
“Great to see you too, kid. Guess I can’t call you that no more. Jesus, is that five o’ clock shadow?”
“Damn straight. And it only took me three days to grow.”
“Ha!” That was Burt’s laugh. Never plural, never in waves, always a single, sharp, staccato roar. “Atta boy. C’mon let’s eat.”
“Hell yeah. This place is great. Did you see the alligator?”
The door jingled, announcing our long-awaited reunion to the wait staff. Across the diner an older woman with bushy gray hair told us to sit where we like. Burt made his way to the booth furthest from the entrance and sunk into the side facing the front door.
“What’s good?” he asked. “Filet mignon? Prime rib? You’re buying, yeah? Maybe I’ll try both.”
“Go for it,” I replied, genuine in my offer, but knowing all-to-well that at some point toward the end of the meal I would use the bathroom, and he would take care of the check then insist upon my return that the meal must have been on the house because of how handsome he was. Nevertheless I had my card at the ready.
“How you doing, sweetheart?” the gray-haired woman asked, undoubtedly recognizing me from my weekly appearances.
“I’m great ma’am, how are you?”
“Hey, another day,” she trailed off at the end of the statement, as she always did. “Now who’s your friend?” she asked.
“Ma’am, this geezer is family,” I replied, before Burt could answer. “Like all the best parts of a dead beat dad and a creepy uncle rolled into one.”
“Ha!” Burt chimed in. “That’s right ma’am. This ugly little boy is like my redheaded stepchild, my greedy nephew and my proctologist all in one. Kin to me.”
“Good lord,” I rolled my eyes.
Burt ordered a coffee with cream and I got a water, both of which arrived promptly. True to form Burt wasted no time making his selection from the menu, some elaborate burger and a salad. I went with my usual favorite, the country fried steak with mashed potatoes, and we were off to the races.
“So how’s life kid? You running around with anybody special these days?”
“Every now again,” I smirked, the slightest bit nervous as to how much detail he would ask me to go into.
“I always knew you’d grow up to be a scoundrel,” he smirked, with something like pride. “Not up to anything too crazy I hope.”
“Just crazy enough.”
“Good, good. That’s what I like to hear. Don’t go settling down on me just yet, eh? You might not be a kid anymore, but you ain’t no old-timer just yet.”
“You don’t have to tell me gramps,” I laughed. “Where you off to next?”
“Shoot, I got a few options. Think I’m done in the Mideast for now. Might take one of these gigs bullying bears for tourists and miners and shit up in Alaska. Got a buddy been up there for a while, can get me squared away.”
“One of these days you’re gonna tell me you’re retiring. One of these days we’re gonna sit down to dinner and you’re gonna ask to live in my attic. Bullying bears. Good lord, man. When you gonna chill out?”
“It’ll happen. It’ll happen,” he said with a quick exhale, like a muted laugh. “It’ll happen. Give it time.”
“I mean, look, you wanna work yourself to death, go for it. Just more money for me to inherit, right?”
“Ha! Scoundrel. Nothing but a scoundrel.”
I laughed back. Often conversation with Burt amounted to a sort of dark one-upmanship that felt like poking around a minefield. A laugh from Burt, despite its explosiveness, was a sure sign you hadn’t hit anything actually explosive just yet. Over the course of our friendship my luck had proven absolute thus far. Burt’s not so much, a result of that perfect storm of my hitting puberty and his making a joke regarding my virginity.
“And how’s your work going? Goddamn, can hardly believe I’m asking the kid about work. Time flies.”
“It’s good, it’s good. It’s fine. Pays pretty well. Good bachelor gig. Nothing I can’t leave at the office.”
“Yeah?” he leaned back in his seat, eyes flickering to the door for the briefest moment.
“Yeah. The people there are nice. They don’t treat me like a kid. Half of them think I have kids already. Sometimes I lie and say I do. Pretty conservative bunch though, honestly. Kind of people you spend college making fun of. Kind of people you sort of write off as the problem. They aren’t so bad. I mean, some of the shit they say is so, so dumb. But they’re good folks I think. I mean I feel like they’re definitely the problem, but, like, not on purpose.”
“So you’re doing what now? Computers, yeah? Cybersecurity or something?”
“Data entry. Not nearly as exciting. But yeah, basically computers. A lot of sitting, a lot of staring at a monitor. I don’t know. Sometimes I think about, if I were an alien or something, if I were observing me from the outside, right, and was just making note of the verb I was doing? Like, the external, calorically-fueled action that took up my workday? It’d just be staring and typing and sitting. But I guess there’s a lot of stuff like that. Like you drive across the country, but the only thing you actually, physically do is move an ankle a bit and turn your wrists from side to side. I don’t know. I have a lot of time to think now.”
“Hm. So, data entry?”
“Yeah. They kind of give us the raw data and then we put it into a specific format based on, you know, rules and stuff.”
“Sounds pretty dull, kid.”
“Oh yeah. Very dull. A lot of down time. I do a lot of listening to podcasts and zoning out.”
“Like, internet radio shows? But there’s thousands of them. And you can listen to them whenever you want. Honestly they’ve been really great. I feel like I kinda get to keep my education going with some of them. There’s this really good history one. And there’s one that’s just about a different random thing every week where they research the hell out of it and kinda provide background. It’s cool. A lot of really interesting stuff in the world. I bet there’s some you’d really dig. And you don’t have to have an actual radio, just internet, so you could listen to any of them wherever you are.”
“So you floating your résumé out there at all? Looking for something a little more your speed?”
“Yeah, I have to update it with the stuff from the new gig.”
“You need any help, or you need a lead on something different, maybe something that involves some standing up, you know I can give you a hand. Ain’t no need for you to be wasting away behind a desk if you aren’t happy. Say the word I’ll have you out there with me, beating the shit out of grizzlies.”
“I think we both know I would get eaten alive. Not even by a bear. I’d probably be killed by a beaver or something.”
“Ha! Kid, you’re tougher than you let on. We both know that.”
For a second - the kitchen. The bad guys.
Burt cleared his throat and leaned forward, pulling his mug toward his chest “But it don’t have to be Alaska or nothing. Just, you know, I know a lot of folks. Your old man gets around. I’d be happy to help.”
“You do get around,” I muttered. “I know, I know. Thanks Burt. I’m not looking for a new gig just yet, but if I need your help I’ll definitely let you know.”
“You ain’t even looking?”
“Nah, man. Not yet.”
“Hm. Alright, alright,” he glanced at the door again, sipped at his coffee. “So the rental has one of them crazy ass backup cameras on it. Seriously, crazy shit. You gotta come check it out when we’re done here. Maybe try it out. Changes everything. Real distracting. Feel like I’m more likely to back into something now.”
“Oh yeah, some of my coworkers have them. It’s weird. Living in the future.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you gotta give that thing a whirl.”
The waitress returned and topped Burt’s coffee off. He looked to the door, giving me nothing. I realized I’d done a lot of talking and lobbed a question his way.
“So, any new illegitimate kids from this last excursion?” I asked.
“Dozens,” he smirked. “Let me tell you, if I could round them all up, I’d have a football team. And not just the starting line-up. I’m talking third, fourth string.”
A canned line. The line I knew I’d get in response to the question he knew I’d ask. Burt had never married. Never had any kids. There were various significant other shaped holes in the story I knew of his life, but I’d never pressed him too hard on it. And there was one giant pit in the narrative that was Burt. A pit in the shape of my mom that I couldn’t bring myself to consider for more than a moment because it said too much.
“None quite as charming as me, I’m sure.”
“Don’t get cocky, kid.”
“I learned it from you!” I shook my fists in feigned defiance, almost knocking the country fried steak the waitress had begun to wordlessly deliver. “Oh gosh, sorry ma’am.”
“Not a problem,” she chuckled.
Wasting no time, Burt dove into his plate the moment the waitress’ hand let it go. Just into my late twenties I could already sense my metabolism maturing in ways that seemed to still somehow elude Burt’s. There was no stopping him. His fork would be refueled and back at his lips before he’d even swallowed the last bite, like some sort of raggedy perpetual motion device. I waited for him to talk, to ask more questions, but he was ravenous.
“Good?” I inquired.
“Mm,” he confirmed, mouth full, eyebrows raised in punctuation. “Mm?” he repeated, eyebrows lowered now, his loaded fork motioning at my plate.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, so, so unhealthy, but damn do I love the fried steak here. I mean it’s steak, and it’s fried, so I only get it like once a week. Twice if I’m hungover Sunday morning.”
“You working out?” he asked, a hand over his gnashing teeth.
“Yeah there’s this rinky-dink gym in my building with a few treadmills, so I’ll usually run on one of those for twenty minutes a few times a week.” He glanced at my plate, but it felt like he was peering through the table at my stomach, assessing the legitimacy of my claim.
“What do you do to work out when you’re, you know, siring about the globe?”
That quick chortle again, like a muffled cough.
“I don’t know, nothing special. Living, you know,” he took a bite. “Doing the gig. A lot of walking. A lot of carrying shit around. Nothing special.” Another bite. I realized he was putting me to shame and followed suit. We ate in silence for a time.
When he finished his plate he went to the bathroom. Excited beyond belief I bolted over to the waitress with my card and had her run it through in a hurry that proved unnecessary, as the old man took his sweet time. By the time he returned I’d finished paying and eating. Now I just had to hold off on going to the bathroom long enough for him to squirm and figure it out.
“Oomph,” he grunted, collapsing exaggeratedly back into the booth. “Now that’s eating.”
“Glad you dug it. Definitely my favorite place around here.”
“Yeah? Just cause the steak?”
“I mean, whatever you get here is always good, and it’s super close to my place, so I can just walk over anytime. They’re open pretty late too, so that’s nice. If I’m bored on Friday night or something I can swing in for a bite.”
“Gotcha. Well kid, you ready to move along?”
“Let’s do it,” I replied eagerly.
He waved at the waitress and mouthed “check,” to which she gave the thumbs up and hollered “you’re good to go sweetheart.”
“Ha!” I stood up in my seat and pointed in his face. “Ha! You’re losing your edge old man! Who’s the handsome one now?”
He shook his head, defeated, rolled his eyes and groaned.
“Well done, kid. Well done.” It was a terse, unsportsmanlike admission of defeat. Less than I’d hoped for. “C’mon give this backup camera a look.”
“…alright,” I said, unable to mask my disappointment. I waved goodbye to the waitress and followed Burt out the door. Outside the restaurant he flung his keys at me over his shoulder with a nonchalance I couldn’t quite replicate, my fumbling hands just stopping them from clanging onto the ground, much to the entertainment of any patrons peering out the window.
“I’m telling you kid, it’s a whole new world, these backup cameras. Just the beginning. Mark my words, your grandkids will never learn how to drive a car. It’ll change everything.” The shape-of-things-to-come in question proved to be an exceptionally mundane four-door sedan in exceptionally mundane gray. He climbed into the passenger’s seat and closed the door. Inside I inched the seat back and fiddled with the mirrors before turning the car on. The speakers sung the round, bouncing tones of 90s hip-hop for a moment, before Burt hit the power on the stereo, then his hand raced mine to the gearshift, holding the car in park.
“I checked the parking break,” I assured him, rolling my eyes as I flashed back to a particularly ill-conceived early driving lesson in a robust truck.
“We gotta talk,” he said, looking me in the eyes with as much fatherly authority as the man could muster. “And I ain’t trying to bring these vibes to your place.”
“Are you okay?” I asked, getting the words out just before being gripped by an unexpected sense of panic. I looked at his white hair, his white beard, the lines under his eyes.
He looked out the windshield, headlights breezed by in either direction in front of us. Across the street folks filtered in and out of a convenience store.
“What are you doing?” he finally asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what are you doing? Here? This job you have? This sitting and staring you’re doing all day every day? What are you doing?”
“What the hell? I’m working. I’m living. I don’t know. What the hell?”
“Are you happy? Is this stuff, is it stuff you like?”
“It isn’t stuff I hate.”
“Look. I love you. You know that. I love you. I’m proud of you finishing up school. I’m proud of how funny you are and how fun you are. I’m proud of this adult you’ve become.” He looked me in the eyes, but his pupils waivered sporadically, almost sheepishly. “But I feel like you’re doing nothing, and I’m not going to watch you do nothing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re being modest about what you do. But I’m worried. I’m worried about you. And I love you. And so I’m asking you, as someone who loves you, what are you doing?”
“What?” I found myself confused and relieved and annoyed. “What the hell? I mean I’m sure as shit not doing nothing.”
“Are you, I don’t know, contributing? To the world? To something? I mean don’t sell yourself short here. You’ve been through the ringer. You’re smart. You’re educated. Those aren’t things that are just inherent. You are somebody. I know it. You know it. You’re somebody, and you can do something. And I kind of feel like you’re not. You’re just sitting. Staring. You’re just… not.”
“What do you want me to be doing? Curing cancer? I’m not a doctor. What do you think I can be doing? You have any idea how many people I work with? What about all them? Are they just doing nothing?”
“Yes. Yes. They’re all nobodies doing nothing and they’ve probably been doing nothing for twenty years. They’re old and they’re done. Not you. I hear you talk about your job and you sound like a fifty-year-old. You sound like someone at a bar in a sitcom for Christ’s sake.”
“It’s a good job. It pays well.”
“And that’s how they’ll get you. That is how they will get you kid. They’ll give you just enough. And I will not let them reel you in. I will not let you sit and stare until all your potential dries up inside of you.”
“Man, what the hell do you want from me? What, you want me to be a firefighter or a cop or some shit? You want me to travel around the world with a gun? You want me to serve?”
“You’re goddamn right I want you to serve.”
“When in your time with me have you ever gotten the idea that I would ever join the military? When have you ever thought to yourself, realistically, that I was a fit for that life? That I was a fit for your life? That I ever wanted a life like that?”
“Don’t give me that shit. Don’t be a smartass right now. Don’t be a kid right now. There are other ways to serve.”
“You know I just spent four years in a liberal arts college, right? I’m not going to be draping myself in a flag anytime soon.”
“Hey!” he shouted. “Quit acting like a punk for two goddamn seconds. I’m not talking about a flag. I’m not talking about the military or your country or guns or war. I’m talking about serving. I’m talking about giving yourself over to something bigger than your own damn self for two goddamn seconds, so quit making excuses. I’m not giving you shit. I’m trying to help you.”
“Oh, you’re not giving me shit? It was hard to tell from all the shit you’ve been giving me.”
We stared across the road at the convenience store, Burt’s hand still on the gear shift. My face was hot. My teeth were clenched. I hadn’t felt as close to crying in years.
“This is going to be bad, what I’m going to say,” he started, exhaling reluctantly. “But I love you. And I think you maybe need to hear it.”
I closed my eyes and turned to face my own window. I knew.
“I know you never asked for it. I know you never would have asked for it in a million years, in a billion years. It isn’t a matter of blame or guilt, but look, sacrifices were made. Sacrifices were made for you. I know you didn’t ask for them, but they were, and you wouldn’t be here right now if they hadn’t been. You wouldn’t be here right now if… if they hadn’t been made.”
“You were built for more than this,” he began talking over me.
“Fuck off,” I repeated, louder.
“You can be doing so much more than you are and you know it.”
“Fuck you!” I shouted.
“No! No fuck you! Fuck you for being a selfish prick. You are somebody goddamnit. To some people you’re everything! And you could be doing something. Something to help someone. Right now, somebody doesn’t have something you can provide, but you aren’t. You aren’t offering the world anything that’s yours, not your humor or your insight or your perspective. You’re offering the world your ass and your eyes from nine to five Monday through Friday and fuck kid, I don’t want to say it but the truth is if sacrifices hadn’t been made, if things had gone another way, there’d still be an ass in that seat. There’d still be eyes on that screen. And the world still wouldn’t have everything you’re choosing to keep to yourself right now. Jesus, don’t you want the world to know you survived?”
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I hissed. “Who the fuck are you? I get it, you know I get it, that you took one for me. And I love you for it. I love you for it. But I loved you more because you never lorded it over me. Because you never cashed in on that debt because, I thought, you understood that it was a check a ten-year-old could never fucking comprehend and sure as shit could never pay. I can’t pay you back. I can’t pay Mom back. Is that what you want to hear? Did you need to hear it? I was ten, Burt. I was fucking ten. I lost my mom. I didn’t ask for that. I was ten and I was afraid and I was fucking ten.”
“Tough,” he shot back, calmly, immediately. He took a breath. “Look, you got no debt with me. You’re right. You were ten. You were a child. And it’s grown ups’ jobs to keep children safe. You don’t owe me shit. You don’t owe your mom shit. That would be an impossible debt to repay. No one has ever expected you to pay it back. But Jesus, kid, I can’t sit here and pretend that I didn’t expect you to try. Because I fucking expected you to try.”
I wiped my face on my arm and rested my head on the window, squinting against pairs and pairs of headlights, retreating to my corner to recuperate.
“I don’t know,” I muttered. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. Just do something. Anything.”
I’d shown him my chin and he went for it, maybe not for the T.K.O., but he went for it.
“You know what man, we don’t all get to just walk into the life of some action hero,” I said, still resting on the window, feeling the night through the glass on my forehead. “Most people don’t have the chance to get shot saving a kid. Thank God you did, but you and I both know that’s a position I’m not going to ever end up in and damnit you and I both know if it was a position I wound up in I’d take it to the gut just like you did. And then what? Would I be good then? Would I have contributed enough then? Would I be allowed to have the job I have? You know what, man? I’m not trying to be a dick here, but what else have you done that’s so great? Besides just lucking into standing between a ten-year-old and a gun, what’s the name of the fucking ivory tower you get to spit on me from?”
“Fair enough,” Burt replied, turning to face out of his own window. “I don’t know. I never claimed there was a tower. And I’m not spiting on you. Quit being dramatic. This isn’t about you living up to me, it’s about you living up to yourself. But I’ll tell you this - I tried. I tried and I’m trying. I don’t know if I’ve given anything worth a damn back to the world. I don’t know if some small thing somewhere is better because of me. I don’t plan on changing the whole world one bear fight at a time. But for better or worse I’m giving the world what I’m good at. And maybe, if I go up there and escort some prick on his little vacation I’ll be the difference between some punk-ass dentist’s kid being an orphan and some punk-ass dentist’s kid having to sit through a shitty vacation slideshow.” He took his hand off of the gearshift and put it on my shoulder. “Maybe that’s why I’m giving you shit. Maybe I just want to earn my keep through you. But I don’t think so. I’m not asking you to change the world, I’m just asking you to try. Please. Just try. You’re so fucking smart. That mind of yours, that youth, don’t waste it. I don’t want you to keep it to yourself. You know your mom wouldn’t have wanted you to either. And I know you don’t want to. I think maybe it just hadn’t occurred to you. I think maybe you’re just doing what you think you’re supposed to be doing, because you’re a good kid. Because you’re a responsible kid. But, I don’t know. Cut it out.”
“There are desperate people out there with families and kids and real responsibilities that would kill for my job, Burt,” I blurted out, clumsily trying to keep my head above the moral waters that had rushed in around me.
“Sure. But would you?”
“No. And those folks wouldn’t either. They’d kill for the money. They’d kill to support their families. But you don’t have to, so you don’t get to use that excuse. Shit, if you’re so damn worried about desperate people, quit and let them do your job.” He removed his hand from my shoulder and brushed back his white mane. “I swear I didn’t come here to have this conversation. Had no idea it was going to happen. But you’re important to me. I know I ain’t your dad, I know I’ll never be your mom, but damnit you are my kid. You are the kid I have in my life. You’re the little piece of the future I get to annoy before I die. You mean a lot to me, and to hear you talking about just, just doing nothing, kills me kid. There are cracks in this world, real cracks that I know you could fix. I don’t know what they are or where they are and you might not either, but they’re out there and you aren’t going to find them sitting down. You gotta look and you gotta try.”
“You know, when you dragged me out to your little mobile dungeon here I thought you were going to tell me you were sick. I thought you were going to tell me you were fucking dying.”
“Ha! Of course you did. I told you I didn’t think it through, I didn’t plan this.”
“Go figure,” I chuckled.
“Maybe I was just trying to get you pissed off at me, soften you up for the big reveal. I got the birds flu.”
“That’s the one.”
“Yeah, yeah you’re a goner.”
“Don’t I know it,” he smiled. “Look. I’m not an idiot. I know you aren’t some one-in-a-million messiah or some shit like that. But, but everybody can serve. Everybody can serve something bigger than themselves, you know? Everybody can help. And I guess I just thought that, that maybe not a lot of kids get reminded about that once they grow up and get cozy. I mean that’s what we teach you to do, that’s what we want you to do. Get grown up and cozy and safe. And I didn’t want to sit here with you, while you’re still a kid, maybe an old kid, but a kid, and tell you that’s it. You win. You beat the game. I know you have a good job and you make good money, but that job you’re at is not an endgame. It shouldn’t be an endgame, anyway.”
“I know. I don’t want to end up there. I don’t want to, I don’t want to grow up there.”
“And you won’t. I know you won’t. Because you’re not finished. You’re not finished when you get out of school or when you get a job or when you get married or have a kid or any of that shit. You’re not finished until you’re done.” He put his hand on my shoulder again. “You are just getting started. Don’t forget that. And, you know, don’t forget to try. And to help. And stuff.”
“And stuff,” I agreed, nodding my head.
He gave a long, dramatic exhale, though I was not entirely convinced he was exaggerating.
What a mess.
“You know,” I offered. “Everybody and their mother has a backup camera. Seriously. Like, every one of my coworkers. It’s like, congressionally-mandated. I can’t really sit here and pretend I’m impressed. The future is now old man, the future is now.”
“Whatever, punk-ass. C’mon and show me this mansion you sold your soul for.”