Looking ahead, James could see the train snake around a curve. Then centrifugal force gently shifted him away from the coach window. In every sense of the term, his future was unclear.
Charlotte had been against this from the beginning. She was right about the timing. Quitting a good job was always risky; with the economy unstable, even more so.
And it might be a pipe dream.
Why had his father always used that term? The old man hadn’t been a drug user. Maybe he meant bagpipes. Or church organ pipes. There was no way to know now.
As a kid, forced to spend his weekends and holidays helping out at his father’s garage, James had sworn he was going to have a job where the grease didn’t soak into his skin. Working on cars, you could scrub yourself lobster red, yet, when you rinsed off the soap, your hands would still be grimy in the deep creases. He’d hated that.
Charlotte kept throwing it into his face, “You’re never going to be happy anywhere. Why not keep a good steady paycheck where you don’t have to be a grease monkey?”
“Maybe it was having my father for a boss that I hated,” he’d replied, almost making himself believe it. “Maybe I hate having a boss, period. Maybe I want to do work that means something.”
“You help people plan their future.”
“I help them lose it…”
The recommendations he’d made to several clients had crashed along with most of the market. He was good with engines. He’d be able to help people keep their cars on the road when they couldn’t afford new ones.
“Well, I’m not moving to the middle of Podunk,” Charlotte had announced. “I have a good job here and I’m keeping it. And I’m keeping the house. You’ll be glad once you come to your senses.”
“You can’t afford the mortgage alone, and I don’t know how much I’ll be able to send.”
“I’ll rent out the spare room. If you’re lucky, I’ll take you back once you’re done with this early-onset mid-life crisis.”
So he had a safety net, of sorts—if she didn’t end up getting some young hunk for a roommate and change her mind about taking him back. The house was in both their names, but with falling real estate values, their equity had disappeared. She could insist on selling and the bank would get it all. That wouldn’t surprise him; they’d been drifting apart even before his father died. It was just as well Charlotte had never wanted kids.
The future was so uncertain. He’d always had a plan, all the steps to get where he wanted to be by thirty-five. And he got there ahead of schedule. Then thirty-five came and went and… nothing. There was no prize; no dreams; nowhere he wanted to go. When the market’s slide started, he realized he’d been working for a system that pretended to care about people. It was all fake. He’d believed his own sales hype.
But the garage, that was different; fixing something that was broken, something tangible that people really needed. He had a lot to learn, though. His father had invested in all the computer-diagnostic gear. Of course he’d still insisted his ear was the best tool he had.
“Jimmy-boy,” he’d say. “Use your senses and the brain God gave you.”
The “boy” always attached to his name didn’t bother him much with forty lurking a couple years away, not like it had when he was a teenager. And now he’d never hear his father say it again. The old man had died in his sleep, holding a photo of the mother James could barely remember. Charlotte had flown out with him for the funeral and the reading of the will.
At the cemetery he’d been overwhelmed by the number of people who came to pay their respects. Mary Jo was even there, and she’d given him a quick hug.
“I’m so sorry.” There were tears in her eyes. “He was a wonderful man.”
Charlotte suddenly appeared at his side and introduced herself as his wife. He was too shocked to correct her. She always said “wife” was a demeaning term inferring a woman was no more than an extension of her mate. Charlotte didn’t believe in marriage.
He’d never told her about losing his virginity with Mary Jo in the back of that old pickup out on the logging road. He’d been too ashamed. They’d been lying on the blanket afterwards, enjoying the sun, when Mary Jo took his hand, then pulled back with an instinctive “euw” from the forever grease embedded by his nails. He’d avoided touching her after that, and when he left for college the next month, he never looked back.
How could Charlotte have cued into that connection?
Not that it mattered. Mary Jo wandered off, talking to other people. His last glimpse of her, a man was helping her into a battered economy car. He didn’t see the guy’s face, but he moved like a young man, and it was a young man’s car. She wouldn’t be interested in rekindling any flame. So she wasn’t the reason for his decision.
There were only four of them present for the reading of the will: the lawyer, James, Charlotte, and the kid who’d been working for his father the last few years.
“Well, James,” the lawyer cleared his throat. “Did your father ever tell you his plans for the garage?”
Most of their conversations had been on the phone and revolved around weather, politics, and James’ progress toward his goals.
“Well, Sean here… you know Sean, don’t you?”
His father had mentioned the kid from time to time. He’d apparently hung around the garage for years before he was finally old enough to work there. They’d never met, but James nodded, to get the lawyer to continue.
“Well, your father decided he wanted the garage to stay open, you know…”
James’ first thought was that his father had put in a clause to assure the kid would have the first chance to buy the place. Then the cold certainty that his father had left the garage to this Sean person settled into James’ stomach.
“What your father decided is to leave the garage to the two of you, fifty-fifty. If you both want to sell, you can do that only after working together at the place for a year.”
“What!” Charlotte was the one who shouted; James was speechless.
“James can’t do that,” Charlotte explained. “He’s got a good job; he can’t walk away from it for a year and expect it to be there when he gets back.”
“Well,” said the lawyer, “he can make that choice. But then the garage goes to Sean.”
“What about the house?” James asked. The idea of keeping the garage might already have been forming. He’d need a place to stay, though.
“Your dad sold the house long ago,” said the lawyer. “You didn’t know that?”
“He never mentioned it. I haven’t been back since I left; he always joined me for vacations. It was the only way to get him to take time off from work.”
He could count on one hand the number of times his father had come to visit, or met him in a vacation spot, but those had been good times, mostly. His father had complained a little about the business calls James kept taking, but that was the norm for James. He was always connected.
“Jim set himself up in a trailer and split the property when I was a kid,” said Sean. “He sold the house to my mother.”
“The trailer and the property it’s on are yours, James,” said the lawyer.
“So I could stay in it and work the garage with Sean here for a year, then we can sell the place and you can get out of this town.” He finished with a nod to the kid.
“That’s fine with me,” said Sean. “I loved working at the garage, but that was because Jim was there.”
“Your father practically raised Sean after his mother was widowed,” the lawyer explained.
James wondered how he’d never known his father was so close to this kid. He had tended to zone out when his father rambled on about the garage and town, but surely it would have registered if his father had talked about this kid like a second son.
“There has to be a way to break this will.” Charlotte’s voice cut through the uncomfortable silence. “James would lose more by giving up his job than he’d ever get from selling a garage in this little town.”
“Actually,” said James, “I’ve been thinking about making a career change anyway. The year here will give me time to sort out the future.”
Charlotte glared at him and walked out.
Now he was on a train, heading back to the home he’d left twenty years ago. Sean was going to pick him up. They’d spoken on the phone several times in the month it had taken for James to leave his job properly. James had let Charlotte keep the car and put most of his things in storage; he’d confided in Sean that relationship was dying anyway. Sean was sure they should sell after a year, which made the commitment less threatening than it might have been. The kid had graduated from high school almost two years ago and was as anxious to move out of that little town as James had been.
“I only stuck around because Jim needed reliable help,” Sean said.
Sometimes James wondered if the kid was the old man’s illegitimate child. He’d never known his father to be involved with a woman, but maybe he’d been too wrapped up in his own life to notice. His father might have split his property and lived separately like that to protect the woman’s reputation from small town gossips.
But Sean’s mother had just lost her husband when she bought the house, that’s what the lawyer had said. James couldn’t see his father getting involved with a married woman, so Sean wouldn’t have been his.
The old man probably missed having a son; James certainly hadn’t been much of one.
Sean was at the station waiting when James got off the train.
“My car’s over the other side of the street,” he said. “Your train came in a few minutes early.”
When they reached the battered economy car, Sean tied the largest bag to the roof, explaining, “My mom wanted to come along, so I can’t put it in the back seat.”
Sean looked over James’ shoulder and grinned. “Come on, he’s here already.”
James turned into a hug, then Mary Jo stepped back and smiled at him.
Defining Moments is a series of character studies and defining moments- short sketches to whet your appetite. If you’d like reading more about one of these characters, leave a comment.