The clock teased me in life. As I checked it too frequently, my boredom or discomfort was brought to my attention as I waited for something, anything — it didn’t matter much what it was. I know where it began, though; the clock began flirting with me in my teens, when I waited eagerly on Thursday and Friday afternoons to leave early from one class or another to work an afternoon shift at one of my several jobs. The second hand would complete its minutes-long wink and just as quickly the tires of my truck would kick up the gravel of the parking lot. After speeding home to change into my one fitting dress shirt, I always found my mother still laying in bed, sun shining onto her pillow through the slats of the open blinds.
“Boy!” She would yell across the house, as if I brought the sun in with me. I never understood why she didn’t just leave them closed; I only remember opening mine once in a blue moon — or rather, once in a very sunny day. The light, on those days, would transform my room from a prefabbed square of painted wood panels and mildewed carpet to an aquarium of light, complete with dust mote fish. The day had to be just right, though, or the contrast would drown out any color and bleak shadows would appear behind what sparse furniture I had. It was this withering quality of light that characterized my mother’s room as I entered it on those late mornings to close the blinds for her. I would do so as I adjusted my tie or put on my nametag, then leave without thanks.
Trading the trailer for the driver’s seat, I would stop each day to grab a microwavable burrito or a couple of cheeseburgers. Among the few things my mother provided for me were plasticy TV dinners that I would warm up each night in the microwave, which left everything lukewarm no matter how long it spent inside. Outside of these, I provided largely for myself — allowing my mother to buy the jewelry and cars that were her body and blood.
My father, of course, didn’t know about this — he assumed that the clothing on my back and the cologne on my neck were bought with the fat child support check he sent to my mother each month. He had his suspicions: he knew that I was at work more often than not, that I lived in a single-wide trailer, that my mother’s non-business couldn’t have possibly paid for the piss-yellow SUV she loved so much, but I didn’t explain the $0.00 balance in our joint checking account. He didn’t ask.
My first job, which I worked Monday through Thursday, 6:30 pm to 12:30 or 1:00 am, was at the run-down gas station on the corner of Main and Fifth. You know one just like it. I didn’t care much for selling cigarettes and pricing inventory in the walk-in cooler, but 20 hours of minimum wage work would net enough change to eat out whenever I liked, and whatever was left would cover the alcohol I’d grab for my buddies and me to drink on the weekends. My boss, who spoke very little English and always smelled of red Pall Malls and a Russian potato vodka that I couldn’t pronounce, didn’t know or didn’t care that I’d buy whatever was sitting in the back of the cooler. As I made my way through the aluminum box, shivering through the clouds left by my breath, I would hope to find a decent IPA; I liked the hops even if my friends didn’t. But Oregon was famous for its craft beer drinkers, and it was mostly crappy seasonals or weird flavored stuff that I’d find in the back corner. In any case, it’d get me drunk, and the others didn’t complain too much. Geoff and Maddi normally paid me back. J.P. never did, but I didn’t mind; it gave me an excuse to mooch off him when he bought weed from his friend in California each summer.
My second job, which I worked Thursday through Monday, was as a social media manager for the Deschamps Family Fun Center, which went out of business three years after I left town. It was an exceedingly easy job, consisting mainly of dicking around on the internet and taking phone calls, but I earned my pay. For one reason or another, I was the only one in the place who knew how to do much more than send an email, so they kept me busy with cleaning old technology, organizing files, and keeping our social media accounts up-to-date. Although the business was never successful, the bustle of our holiday events was enough to keep my elderly bosses happy. An old Mormon couple, Ellen and Jean-Paul had, in a way, adopted me — Jean-Paul insisted I call him Pépé, and would raise his thick, grey-streaked eyebrow at me if I addressed Ellen by anything other than Mémère. Pépé and Mémère were well-known around town, which I suspected was because they seemed to be related to everyone. Their thick accents, though, meant that nobody could pronounce their surname without sounding silly or pretentious; we took to calling them The Champs. This habit started with a number of my classmates in middle school, in spite of the protests of a faction of great-grandchildren that defended the original pronunciation, and quickly spread to the whole town. J.P. was the only great-grandkid that got a kick out of the moniker.
This job was my favorite of the three, so I was there more than I was at home. Although my shifts were technically Thursday through Monday, I would often work off the clock during the rest of the week. It was at the end of each of these shifts that Pépé would give me a smiling wink and an astonishingly firm handshake for a man of his stature, leaving a few wadded-up notes in my hand as he withdrew his own.
The last of my Eastern Oregon jobs was as a “grandson for hire.” My mother had seen some viral photo online that gave her the idea, so she made herself my “agent” and pawned off my physical labour for whatever her friends and friends of friends were willing to pay. This was almost always less than minimum wage, and my mother usually took her “fee” of 25% of whatever I earned before I saw any of it, but I didn’t complain. It was mostly yard work, and the scent of freshly-exposed soil working its way into the crevices of my hands lightened my heart. I did a damn good job at whatever I was hired to do, too; I wanted to earn whatever I was being paid, even if it wasn’t much, and my mother would normally be much more willing to let me do as I pleased after working a shift. “Boy!” would be traded for silence for a few days, and the silence was sweeter than J.P.s favorite cider. Oily, half-frozen TV dinner brownies. Seven-in-the-morning, damp-hair-chilling, lung-awakening country air.
Life was okay. While I didn’t like going home, I at least liked The Champs, which made my job with them not only bearable, but fun. They loved seeing friends of mine drop by every once in a while, and since J.P. was in the family, he came to hang out in the office on the weekends. If he spent too much time chatting with me he’d be shooed off, but by-and-large we were able to hang out while I absentmindedly typed out responses to messages we received on our social media platforms or organized the many thousands of photos that had been taken of The Champs’ businesses over the years. I was getting ready to transfer a few hundred of these photos off of an old office PC on an early Sunday morning when I heard the front door close. It was Maddi with a bag of McDonalds and a large OJ. I had mentioned to the group that I had been running late that morning and hadn’t had the chance to pick up breakfast, but I didn’t expect anyone to bring it to me. If it was going to be anyone, though, it would be Maddi, and I was glad to see her. She smelled of mountains and her autumn sunset hair was cool to the touch as I hugged her. She had been taking pictures — probably of the secluded waterfall a few miles north. She and I liked to visit there on the cold, bright mornings of spring.
We didn’t know what love was at 17, but I believe that I probably loved Maddi. I know now that she was hoping for something more than a hug and a thank you to come from that morning, but I wouldn’t become comfortable enough to recognize those things until a number of years later.
It was with the kinds of mornings that Maddi and I enjoyed that came an influx of job requests by my mother, and more than a few of these jobs directed me to The Champs’ backyard for the purpose of installing sprinklers or planting flowers, the latter of which I took great pleasure in. If I had to do “grandson for hire” work, I wanted to be there. Mémère would always come out and offer me tea and “biscuits” as I toiled in the soil, and the chewy molasses crumbs covered my chest. The mess was a part of the experience; biscuits were meant to be eaten outside. Although The Champs would pay my mother directly, I would often find a $20 bill in the pocket of my canvas jacket after getting home. I mentioned it to Pépé the first couple of times, hoping to thank either him or Mémère, but he answered only with a small, smug smile.
I wouldn’t realize until much later that The Champs had been trying to save me. Maybe my young self assumed they were being kind because of some obligation to their god, or that they just felt bad for me. It didn’t occur to me that they may have genuinely cared, as I now know they did; if I knew little of my feelings for Maddi, I knew nothing of familial love. Having spoken to them a few times since, Mémère has said in no uncertain terms that they believed my mother to be a “salope.” Upon seeing my confused expression, she translated: “Bitch.” Pépé only blushed and looked down. “You deserved more.”
In my third year of working at the the Family Fun Center, I turned 18. It was the month of June, and I had just graduated in what was nearly the dead-center of my class, being ranked 23rd out of 48 students. The only person who could be more average than me was Geoff, who got a B- in animal science. I was just about to unlock the front door during an opening shift when Pépé walked into the lobby with a cup of black coffee and a maple bar for each of us. The steam drifted lazily upwards, clouding his half-moon glasses. The smell of the food filled the room and I grinned at Pépé, who wore his mischievous, tight-lipped smile. The smile didn’t last as long as it normally did, though, and he adopted a more serious complexion.
“Please, fils, sit with me a moment. It’s too early to be in a rush.”
This wasn’t terribly unusual, though his wrinkled features were configured in such a way that I felt something was different. There wasn’t any specific emotion about him then, but it was at this time of morning that he usually seemed to be most alive, and at that moment he looked uncharacteristically tired, aging him 10 years. He let out a sigh as he lowered himself into one of the two old wicker chairs that occupied the southwest corner of the room, across from the customer service window that opened into my office. With a gesture of his hand, I was seated in the chair next to him. It smelled of the motes that swam across the beams of morning light.
“Ellen and I have been thinking for some time — do you plan to go to college?”
“Not really. A National Guard recruiter has been on my tail for the past two years, so I’ve considered that, but college is so expensive.” He bit into his maple bar as I continued; “I don’t even know where I’d go.”
We each sipped our coffee and considered a couple of sparrows playing outside the window to our right. They dove and flitted and tackled, and I suspected that a nest would need to be looked after shortly. No jewelry for that momma bird. Pépé frowned and let out yet another tired sigh, drawing my attention.
“Fils, the military is no place for a clever young man to learn what it’s like to live.”
I agreed, and we discussed the reasons that the military was or was not a proper course of action and how Pépé’s son had changed after his service. We tired quickly, though, and conversation changed to lighter subjects for a few minutes before Pépé finished his coffee and waved for quiet. He then procured a brochure and an envelope from his back pocket and handed them to me.
“Don’t open the envelope until you get home. We can chat tomorrow. I need to get back to Ellen, and you need to get back to your desk.”
Pépé’s bones cracked as he stood, walked to the front door, unlocked it, and shouted back over his shoulder “And stop making me do all this work for you!” I could hear the smile in his voice.
The envelope was made of thick, cream-colored paper and was sealed with the family crest of silver wax that adorned every letter Pépé sent. The brochure, on the other hand, was wrinkled and folded hamburger-style. I polished off my maple bar and retreated to my desk in the adjacent room to finish my shift. I had intended to take another look at the brochure, but a steady stream of people ate the time away, and the thought faded from my mind until my shift was over and I felt the weight of the envelope in my pocket.
When I got home later, I went immediately to my room and sat on the edge of my bed and pulled out the brochure and envelope — the brochure, the kind one might find at any information desk or in any trashcan, was for a community college on the coast, in Newport. I had been to Newport a couple of times with Maddi and J.P.. Maddi and I loved everything about it, and J.P. loved the saltwater taffy. He claimed that he hated the coast, that it was too sandy and old, but I doubt he came for the candy.
Breaking the seal, as I had done every two weeks for the past three years, I was confronted by the crisp green folds of $50 bills — too many to count at a glance, but enough to know that it was several hundred dollars. I counted out the last of the 30 bills, equivalent to a full month of pay. A knot formed just above my adam’s apple as I went to the hole in the back of my closet and pulled out the mason jar holding my savings. $1246.
“Content,” Mémère would say many years later, “is the most dangerous human emotion. It makes us believe we are moving when we are stagnant.” Although we are capable of sailing rough waters, as most people must be, we still need to push through to find a place of peace. She didn’t know much of the stoic Buddhists or the easygoing Taoists, but I imagine Buddha would see nothing wrong with content, and Lao Tzu would remind her that water does not push; it finds the cracks and flows along the path of least resistance.
When I was young, I would have struggled with Mémère’s sentiment — perhaps I should have been a Buddhist. I was content with my subpar existence in that small rural town. I had settled down before I was even a man, and it was purely my respect for The Champs that made me reconsider my status. So, when I told my mother that I was considering going to college that June evening, it wasn’t eagerness to leave that pushed me away; it was her rage. Maybe I was giving her a chance at redemption, or maybe I was asking to be helped. In any case, she did not seize the opportunity. I stood in her doorway and looked at my feet as she cussed and spit at me. Her words dug into my skin, leaving bloody marks where they burrowed into my chest. The room was grey in the dim light of the setting sun, coming through the blinds that my mother had opened again. My face grew hotter with every insult thrown, and when I looked up to reveal that my face was wet, she stopped for a moment. She hadn’t seen tears there since I was a child. Neither had I.
There was a lull in the one-sided screaming match and I turned to leave the room. “Get the fuck back in here; I’m not done talking to you!” I didn’t stop, though, and slept on J.P.’s couch for a few days. Each night, after I got off work, he, Maddi, and I would go bum cigs off of each other and climb the trains at the railyard. The moon lit our faces as they distracted me from the change that would soon come.
My mother and I only spoke once again, but I didn’t ask her why she got so angry that night. I assume it’s because she’d have to trade in her SUV for the busted Pontiac that J.P. saw her driving some months after I was gone. I could only thank her for not changing the locks until I had left town, and she could only answer with a tight-lipped nod of the head.
The Champs, by contrast, were ecstatic to hear that I would accept their help. Mémère cried silent tears and Pépé pulled me into a hug. Although he was frail, and I could feel his ribs poking into my torso, there was an energy about him that assured me that I had made the right decision.
“We only ask,” Mémère said, “for two things: first, we’d appreciate it if you’d work the rest of the days you’ve been scheduled so you can train J.P. on all that you do for us. He’ll be taking over when you go.” She wiped her eyes, then, and regained her composure. “Second, get a haircut. I can barely see your eyes. That is no look for a college man.”
Training J.P. was easy, both a blessing and a curse. He was pursuing online certifications related to web development, so our “training” was primarily just handing off passwords and protocols, many of which he was already aware of from sitting beside me as I worked. This meant that we had plenty of time to talk about my move, and it was clear to me then that he was unhappy with my decision; where he was normally the one to goof off and distract me, he brushed off my attempts to make him laugh. The last part of the transition process, though, gave us some reprieve — the way I organized the photo archives was fairly hard to explain, so we were too distracted to talk about anything other than organizational and transfer methods.
On our last day, he leaned back in his chair and jabbed me on the shoulder.
“Now who the hell is going to get Maddi, George, and I drunk?” He asked with a meek half-smile.
I breathed out a week and a half of tension and grinned, jabbing him back. “The real question, J.P., is who the hell is going to buy me weed?”
I left my three jobs, Maddi, J.P., and my mother’s SUV behind on the second of July, and stood on the rocky shoreline of Newport, Oregon alone for the first time at 3:27 pm on Independence Day, 2013. I thought of my now-unpacked apartment and the classes I hoped to register for in the fall. I thought of Maddi and J.P.. I thought of The Champs.
The blue waves washed over the stones below me as I smiled at them. They formed frothing vortexes within the tidepools, and silt swirled past the colorful tangles of anemones. Crabs thrust themselves into the dark crevices of the rock, escaping the rays of light that pierced the waving surface. I noticed them, and they noticed me, and we came to a place of mutual understanding; I was just there to see my new aquarium.