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Authors: Howard Owen

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BOOK: Turn Signal
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What Jack has in mind today is more than a second homecoming in two days, though. One was more than enough.

Within 45 minutes, they've laid waste to most of the chicken, potato salad, baked beans and rolls, and Sandy has carefully put everything that's left in the trash bag, and then taken it out and put it in the back of the Cherokee.

When she returns, Jack takes a deep breath and dives in.

“I wanted to talk with you all about something, an idea I have.”

The look his brother and sister give each other is familiar. He used to get that look all the time when he was growing up, from any of the four other people in his family. Sandy appears tolerantly amused. Mike just has that “here we go again” expression. Jack remembers the last time he saw it: When he told him about Brady's last job, which, dammit, had promise. It just didn't work out. He looked that way when Jack told him he was going to write the best damn novel anybody ever read, too.

Shit, Jack thinks. I haven't even started, and they've already said no.

Still, he plunges forward. There's nowhere else to go now.

He spells it out carefully, step by step, as if he were approaching a couple of stray dogs that would turn and run at the first false move. When it comes to money, his older siblings tend to proceed with caution. And any plan involving Brady
and
money would tend to make some people cautious, he concedes.

What he proposes is that they let Brady stay in the house, “renting with an option to buy,” paying $400 a month for the next two years while he saves some money and gets his feet on the ground.

“It would give us a chance to keep the house in the family,” he says. “And Brady was the one who stayed here with Mom, made it possible for her not to have to move to some retirement home.”

“She knew she could have stayed with us, anytime she wanted. All she had to do was ask,” Sandy says, tears welling up. Jack is pretty sure both his siblings loved their mother, but he doesn't recall anyone volunteering to have her come and stay for more than a long weekend. At least he can admit that. Mike and Sandy seemed relieved that Brady stayed after Jack and his wife and daughter moved into their new home.

Mike uncrosses his legs and leans forward.

“Now, I thought we had this all settled,” he says.

“I was outvoted, two to one. I'm just proposing another way of doing things is all. A way to keep it in the family, give Brady a chance to buy it from us.”

“He can buy it anytime he likes,” Mike says. “Hell, I'll even take a couple of thousand off the asking price. Knock it down from 95 to 93.”

Jack looks to Sandy, but his sister is going to let Mike speak for both of them, the same way he did when they decided to sell the place.

“Jack, look,” he says. “We can get almost $30,000 each, after the agent gets her cut, by selling it. You're proposing that we take $400 a month in rent?”

“Just for two years. Then he'll buy it.”

Mike shakes his head.

“I can't see it. I can't see renting this place to Brady. I'm sorry.”

“So is it Brady, or the $400?”

Mike hesitates, then looks out at the abandoned fields across the driveway.

“OK. If you want to know. It's some of both. Jack, I don't know if there'll be a house here in two years if he stays. This place needs some work. And I don't know what all goes on here when you're not around.” He looks up at the large hole in the screen. “Woodpecker, my ass.”

He clears his throat.

“Jack, I know he's your son, but he's 25 years old, and I've just about gotten tired of making allowances for him. Allowances are for kids.”

Jack stands up. Sandy puts her hand on his arm, but he jerks it away as Mike scrambles backward, still seated in the folding chair. Jack wonders if he thinks he's going to hit him. He remembers the fight they had, after the wreck. Mike was 11 years older, 29 to his 18, but even so, it wasn't much of a contest.

Probably, he thinks, an older brother never forgives or forgets that you once beat him up in front of witnesses, no matter how many years go by.

“Make allowances for him?” Jack says. “All I've ever heard you do is badmouth him. I don't think I've ever heard you say one good thing about Brady, true or false.”

Part of Jack's anger stems from the knowledge that Mike's fears are well-founded. He and Sandy both have followed Brady's pinball carom through the past 10 years closely enough not to trust him in a house they own.

He wonders, though, how much of it is them seeing the young Jack Stone in Brady. Like father, like son. The fuck-up gene. Even if his was more or less a one-time thing while Brady seems to be going for the lifetime achievement award.

But, dammit, Jack argues weakly, he's family.

“I'm sorry,” Mike says after a long silence. “We need that money. We could invest $30,000 right now, the way the stock market's going, and it'd be $60,000 by the time he decided or didn't decide to buy, and that's assuming the place was still in good condition.”

He stands, keeping a few feet between them.

“I'll let you have my share of the rent money,” Jack says, although he's sure Gina will not approve. She wouldn't approve of renting the place to Brady at all, just like Mike and Sandy, which is why he hasn't told her about his plan.

“You could use the money, too, Jack,” his sister says. “I mean, it's been a little lean lately all around for the Stones.” She laughs nervously.

“Don't worry about me.”

“He's had three good years out here, rent-free,” Mike says. “He can stay until somebody buys it and is ready to move in. But that's going to have to be it.”

Mike looks down.

“I'm sorry.”

“Me, too,” Jack says, in a tone that tells them his sorrow goes beyond the fact that his son will soon have to find another place to live, maybe with them, although the only thing Gina would like less than letting Brady rent from them is letting Brady live with them.

Brady resurfaced a month before they moved to the new house. He looked like he'd been ridden hard and put up wet, hungry-looking and red-eyed, but he was a welcome sight. Ellen hugged him and fed him, and Jack and Gina moved with their 10-year-old daughter, their terrier and some relief to Woodpecker Way.

It's almost 2 o'clock when they leave.

Jack turns at the bottom of the steps and looks up at his brother and sister.

“He needs a break,” he says.

Mike looks off into the distance, over his head.

“A lot of people need breaks. I'm 59 years old. I'd like not to have to tell dumb-asses a third my age to remember to flush the toilet and not throw trash on the floor at work, and then have them tell me to go screw myself. I'd like to not leave Philip Morris feet-first.

“There's a lot more breaks needed than there are breaks to give.”

Jack stops at the 7-Eleven on the way home to get gas, a half-gallon of milk and a Sunday Washington Post. While he's filling up, he looks across the road, and there's Milo's old Toyota at the Speakeasy Diner. Right beside it is Susan Edmonds' Lexus.

He's glad that at last something on this disappointing, oppressive day has made him smile.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Sometimes, I kind of envy Brady. Well, maybe that's too strong. How can you envy somebody who's been abandoned completely by his mother and mostly by his father? He might be worthy of admiration, though. Brady's not afraid to have people think he's a failure just because he won't do what they think he ought to do
.

He might bomb as an actor. Who knows? From what I've seen, he can't possibly be the worst there ever was
.

When I was 18, I thought my life was over. Everything had gone so irrevocably wrong; some days, I wanted to pull the covers over my head and sleep for a thousand years. You've had your fun, I thought then. And see what it got you. Now it's time to be a man. Life is hard. Here's your shovel
.

Brady, though, he doesn't see it that way. Maybe it's because he didn't have a lot of people lavishing their expectations on him, so he doesn't think he's got to pay this high and terrible price for failing. He can just be Brady
.


If I don't make it in one thing,” he told me once, “there's always something else. There's a lot of jobs. And if I don't succeed in any of 'em, what the hell? Most people think I'm going to fall on my butt anyhow. At least I won't disappoint them.

When I tried to scold him, he said, “Maybe I could try truck-driving. Seems like you've stuck with that pretty good.

It really pissed me off at the time. He knew how much I disliked driving that rig of mine across the country, to and fro like some lost, homeless soul, how it was already playing hell with my back and my prostate. How I missed all those nights I could have spent with my family
.

But he was right to quit, if that's what he felt like he ought to do. I mean, there was a time in my life when I thought I had it all figured out. I was set. The only thing not yet established when I turned 18 was whether I'd go on to the pros or have to settle for a career as an English teacher or a writer somewhere, maybe coach the high school football team, too
.

When all that went to hell, though, I sort of lost my rudder. Everything after that was more or less directed by someone else, like I'd forfeited the gift of free will
.

I read a book a few years ago about a guy who went all over the country, taking the back roads, seeing America. The guy called them “blue highways.

Well, the only blue on my highways was on those interstate signs
.

And, then, one day you pick up a little old man hitchhiking, and he suggests to you, without even saying it, that everything you meant to do has been undone, that your life has been determined for you by others. And it occurs to you that others, no matter how much they might love you and need you, shouldn't be doing that
.

The story of Lovelady and Pettigrew woke me up. Those first pages were like an alarm clock going off in my head. I knew what I wanted to do, what I had to do or go crazy. Of course, maybe I've done both
.

I don't quite understand why the Richmond train station is out so far from the center of town. It's not even in Richmond. You have to damn near hire a native guide to find the place
.

I'm pretty calm, though, considering
.

The parking lot was almost full, and the over-warm waiting room doesn't have many seats left in it
.

There's a mother and two little boys sitting across, facing me. They're black, like most of the other people in here. It's not even 7 a.m., and the mother looks tired already, her breath labored like it has to fight to get out of those huge breasts. She gets winded if she has to yell more than a few words at her sons, or grandsons
—
it's hard to tell which; she might be 30 or she might be 55
.

So, I ask the woman, where are you all going?

And she just looks at me, and the little boys do, too
,
with eyes the size and whiteness of golf balls. Golf-ball size eyes. This makes me laugh, for some reason, and they seem to all three move back just slightly in their seats, barely enough to notice
.

Maybe I'm talking too loud
.


Philadelphia,” the woman says finally
.


I'm going to New York,” I tell them, and I see other people around us look our way out of the corner of their eyes. “I'm going up there to sell my book.” And I pat the bag sitting between my legs, with the now-bulging green folder
—
along with everything else
—
inside
.

Just before graduation, Mr. Wade, my English teacher, called me into his office and asked me what kind of plans I had. Everyone knew by then that I was going into the Navy, that I would not be going to Virginia Tech or Clemson or anywhere else on a football scholarship
.


Jack,” he said, “you have great talent. You are a writer. Don't let anyone lead you in some other direction.

I nodded, acted as if I were listening to him, but I'd already given up by then
.

I'm not sure how much Mr. Wade knew. Maybe he was just trying to give one last pep talk to a former student who seemed to be on the low road to nowhere
.

A man sitting next to me gets up and walks away, although there's not much to do in here except wait for the train, which is already about five minutes late
.


Wonder where that train is?” I say, but no one says anything in response. The youngest of the boys, who can't be more than 4 or 5, is tucked into his mother-grandmother's armpit and looks like he's about to cry
.


Hey,” I say to him, “it's OK. I'm not going to bite you.” And I try to make a funny face, to put him at ease
.

Now he really does start to cry, like somebody's slammed a door on his hand or something. The woman takes both of them to the far corner of the room, by the windows, giving me the kind of glare you'd normally reserve for child molesters. If it wasn't raining, I'm thinking she'd have taken them all the way outside
.

Well, maybe I'm a little intense. I haven't slept much lately. I'll give you that. Maybe it's the clothes. At least I thought to bring a change with me
.

I probably need to run to the bathroom and check myself out
.

People are looking at my face, looking away when I catch them at it, like they sense what I'm planning to do
.

Somehow, thinking about what I did yesterday and everything before it and after it makes me chuckle, although when I catch a glimpse of myself in the glass, I don't seem the least bit what you'd call jolly
.

BOOK: Turn Signal
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