The day Dennis came back to Royal City after graduating from NC State, his mom threw a party for him. It wasn’t just family gathered around a pound cake; there were at least thirty people in the backyard. They had all brought their own meat and his dad, Frank, had the Weber fired up . There was an icebox full of beer and soft drinks and a raucous game of horseshoes. Dennis clinched the win with a ringer and everybody threw up their arms and yelled. After that he wandered around the yard, sipping beers with people who had known him since he was in diapers.
He stayed on his parents’ couch that night. Before going to sleep, he checked his email from the desktop computer in their living room. His inbox was full with nothing that looked important. A request to join the alumni association. A few messages from list-serves he needed to cancel: Young Republicans, Inner Varsity. And there was Jeff, his roommate of the last two years, just moved to New York City:
Just realized I still have your driver and 7 iron. Sorry about that – bring them down over Thanksgiving. As far as the job with Analex, it’s nice. My first salaried job, and I have to say I like it. Hope you can make it up here soon. If not, I’ll be down in NC soon enough.
Dennis knew that he should write back, but he was tired. He shut the computer off and stretched out on the couch. Frank was already asleep in the recliner, Pale Rider on TV and a few empty Budweisers next to him. Dennis tried to watch but was asleep in minutes.
Dennis was the first in his family to earn a college degree. Neither of his parents finished high school. Frank dropped out when he found out that Dennis was on the way, took a maintenance job at the Alcoa plant, where he had been ever since. The rigors of having a newborn proved too much for Patsy and she quit school a few months shy of graduation.
But Dennis had always liked school and he had watched his father come home bitter and exhausted from the plant every night and head straight for the bottle. All told, twenty people from Dennis’s high school class moved away to attend college. Dennis was one of the few who graduated.
Dennis almost didn’t come back. In the spring he had gone to New York City with Jeff and talked to a few companies. No job offers, but even when they called to reject him, they said he would be snatched up soon – a computer engineering degree , solid portfolio, respectable internship the summer before senior year.
But New York turned him off. He had never been there before – never been north of Virginia – and it was jarring. People jostled him in the streets, car horns blared incessantly, and on his first trip to a bar he ordered two drinks and was shocked to receive a tab of $20.
In May, a week before graduation, he still hadn’t decided on a job when he got a call from Todd Thorpe, the principal of Stonewall Jackson, Dennis’s old high school. He was also the football coach and a deacon at River of Life Church, where Dennis had gone all his life.
“Your daddy says you’re looking for a job.”
“Well, we have a spot that’s yours for the taking. Mrs. Callahan’s retiring.”
Mrs. Callahan had taught home-ec and typing for years; she also taught technology when the school finally got a computer lab in 2001.
“You’d just be teaching technology – no home-ec.” Todd laughed. “Last thing I need is a fella right out of college teaching folks how to cook.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Dennis said. “I don’t have a teaching license, though. Just a computer engineering degree.”
“Not a problem. You can do something called ‘lateral entry’. You work on the teaching credentials in your spare time. You’ve got three years to get certified.”
“Sounds interesting. Thanks for thinking of me.”
“Absolutely. Much as I can, I hire folks I know. That way there’s no question about character.” He cleared his throat. “Don’t jump in headfirst, now. Think it over and call me back in a few days.”
Dennis thought about it and called back the next day.
“I want the job.”
“I figured you’d say that. Glad to hear it. Get with me whenever you come home and we’ll work out the details. I was hoping you’d help with football, as well.”
The more Dennis thought about his new job, the more he liked it. It was everything New York City wasn’t. He was returning home, doing something honest and simple. Maybe he would do this for a career, maybe not. He wasn’t thinking long-term, just happy to finally have a direction. The life of his parents – never-ending cycles of hard-work and little change – now held an unexpected appeal for him. After being distanced from it several years, enjoying the leisure of college, he wanted to get back.
The previous summer his internship was in Charlotte and he had stayed with Jeff’s parents. Throughout his senior year, he found himself visiting Charlotte with Jeff when he had a free weekend. Jeff’s dad was a financial advisor and his mom a lawyer. They lived in a three-story house in Ballantyne, an affluent Charlotte suburb. Dennis went to their stylish mega-church, ate at nice restaurants (where Mr. Wraley always paid), and tried to sound intelligent around Jeff’s older sister, a striking brunette who was in law school at UNC Chapel Hill.
He had a blast visiting them but slowly he began to feel ill at ease. It started with Mr. Wraley’s Mercedes – a gleaming red S-class that cost just shy of $100,000. It began to have issues, and the dealership gave an estimate of nearly one thousand dollars for repairs. Mr. Wraley would have paid but Dennis insisted on taking a look. He immediately saw that the alternator belt was loose and fixed it in half an hour.
After this Dennis began to notice other things. Jeff had never mowed a lawn, never changed his own oil. Then there was the time Jeff visited Royal City to help with the harvest and it was obvious that he hadn’t worked outside a day in his life. Four years in the ivory tower, and Dennis had transitioned from embarrassment about his upbringing to pride.
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Literary Fiction, Noir, Pulp Fiction, Short Stories