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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Burger Shack Story #9 (Next to Last)

[This is the next-to-last of my ten-story cycle. To read any of the previous eight you may have missed, look under "Pages" in the right-hand column for "Burger Shack Story Cycle."]

For the Sake of the Children©

My wife is a person with so much love in her that it just spills out on whoever’s around, whether she knows ‘em or not. You ask me to describe her, and that’s the most important thing you got to know. Another thing. When she makes up her mind, you don’t want to get in her way. You won’t stop her, and you’ll only give yourself grief.

Me, I have a hard time making decisions. Seems as soon as I think my mind is made up, some little gnat of a doubt starts buzzing around my head, and I have to look at the whole situation all over again. Maybe Cheryl, my wife, does that, too, in the privacy of her own mind, but you’d never know it to look at her, and I’ve been watchin’ her, close, for near thirty years.  From what I see, she takes stock, sorts things, makes her move, and never looks back. She’s always satisfied, too, with how she acted, however things turn out. Don’t you think that shows strength of character? I’ve never heard her say she wished she hadn’t done something. It’s only other people getting in the way that sometimes skews events in the wrong direction, despite her best plans, but as long as no one else interferes or messes up she’s never disappointed.

Trouble is, interference can come from anywhere, including from the Lord Himself, who from what my wife says does not always see the little telling details of human lives on earth and so occasionally muddles up what should be clear and straightforward. I don’t think she got that idea in church, but once she realized it was true she never doubted it for a minute. That’s my wife.

Take when we met. I knew right off that Cheryl was determined to be married by June to come, and I saw no reason to put up a fight. Hell, she was a prize! --I mean, heck, not hell. You know what I mean. I don’t tell stories as good as Cheryl, but since you asked I’m trying. We met in September, senior year of high school, and she was a new girl that year, too, but she announced our engagement to our families in Thanksgiving, and all between then and June she was so busy planning the wedding it’s a wonder she graduated from high school, but she did that, too, because Cheryl’s got the energy of five normal women, for sure, and always did. She planned the whole shebang! All her mother had to do was follow orders while her daddy wrote the checks. I kept up with school and worked a part-time job and managed to arrange to go full-time after our honeymoon, and that was about all I had to do myself. Cheryl planned everything else and told me what I had to do— how many groomsmen I needed (four), who they should be, where to rent the tuxedos, how much to hand the minister after the ceremony, what to pack for our honeymoon, and about anything else you could think of. It’s a good thing women take care of that kind of thing. Some brides’ mothers do it, but Cheryl’s never could have done the job that she did herself. She thought of everything.
Here’s an example. It could’ve been a very embarrassing circumstance. Cheryl’s maid of honor, a good friend at the time, a girl named Cindy, well, it turned out she was pregnant, and if Cheryl hadn’t found out and made a substitution there would have been an unmarried witness up there at the altar, showing six months, at least. “And that would’ve reflected on me,” Cheryl told me as she explained the change. The look on her face told me she’d been shocked but was satisfied she’d taken care of the business. Us? Oh, she and I fooled around a little before our wedding, but Cheryl always drew the line where it needed to be drawn. I would’ve slipped over if she hadn’t been firm in her mind.

I guess you’d have to say we’ve had a traditional marriage. Isn’t that what it’s called nowadays, with so many different kinds being had? I went out and made the money, and my wife stayed home and took care of the house and kids. She found the right friends for us and the kids, bought all our clothes, shopped and cooked and cleaned and planned our summer vacations and let me know when things needed fixing or to be replaced or bought new, like when it was time to get a new furnace and put in central air conditioning. I always said, she made all the little decisions and left the big ones to me, like who I should vote for for president of the United States! Things went pretty smooth for us for years.

Then Jenny, our oldest, she got to be a bit of a problem. The way I see it, she was too much like her mother in some ways and too different in others. That is, she wanted to do everything her way, but her way was not her mother’s, and that caused friction.

“It’s just her age,” I told Cheryl when Jenny got her ears pierced, without permission, at the age of twelve. Lots of girls Jenny’s age at her school had pierced ears, and I tried to get Cheryl soothed down, for Jenny’s sake, but what happened in other people’s families had nothing to do with her own, as far as Cheryl was concerned. She’d have been even madder if she’d known the whole story, that Jenny had come to me to ask for permission! That was Jenny, smarter than a squirrel! She knew her mother would say no but hoped she could get around her Pops, twining little strands of hair around my ear through her fingers and giving that impish grin of hers.

“You know you need to ask your mama,” I told her, wishing I could give her everything she wanted.

“Daddy, you’re the man of the house! You can say yes!”

She was long-legged as a spring colt, our oldest child, growing up. I couldn’t look at her without smiling, but I knew my place, too. “I can’t make decisions about girls, sweetie. That’s your mama’s business. You go ask her.”

Jenny pouted and flounced and fired one last shot from the door on her way out. “What is your business, anyway? What do you ever make decisions about in this family?”

It was a mean thing to say, but I didn’t hold it against her because she was upset. I never dreamed she would go ahead without permission. That’s what she did, though, and that my wife hit the ceiling and ordered the earrings removed and finally pulled them out herself. She loved Jenny too much, you see, to let her take a first step down the road of disobedience, a road that could only end up at a very bad place. Poor Jenny! What’s for your own good can sometimes hurt pretty bad. She was hurt and angry, and my heart ached for her, but what could I do?

“Weren’t you a little hard on her?” I asked Cheryl that night. As usual, I had a hard time seeing Jenny as 100% wrong and Cheryl as 100% right. Not that it was my business to tell Cheryl how to raise our daughter and not that she wanted my opinion, either, but I couldn’t help turning the whole thing over and over in my head and seeing it from different angles.

“Absolutely not! Don’t you think I know girls? First it’s pierced ears, then it’s a tattoo, and pretty soon she’s staying out all night and dropping out of school to have a baby!” She chuckled ruefully. “A little late for you to take over my job, isn’t it?”

She had a point there, my wife. I had to trust that she knew what she was doing. God knows she loved our kids like a mama lion loves her cubs!

Well, that was a long time ago. And now we’re a long way from home, but it’s all connected. Say, look at her there, my wife, talking to that girl at the counter. She doesn’t look forty-six years old, does she? More like thirty-six, I’d say. Doesn’t she have just the greatest smile? And her laugh. You’re sure to hear it in a minute if you wait and listen. It’s no little halfway, can’t-decide laugh! When she laughs, she means it!

You know, it’s a little confusing sometimes living on the road. This place, for instance. Rocket’s Burger Shack. We had one back home, not far from our house. Looked just like this one. That kind of thing can be confusing. Then there’s sleeping in the motor home. Some mornings I wake up and kind of panic a little, wondering why the alarm hasn’t gone off and thinking I’m late for work, and I open my eyes and don’t know right away where I am. Then the pieces come back together, and I remember that the kids are grown up and gone and I’m retired and it’s just Cheryl and me, on the road. When I look at her, everything seems all right again. Even if she’s still sleeping, I can look at her and know she’s in charge and that everything will work out.

I know a lot of retired couples in motor homes just wander about willy-nilly all over the continent, but that’s not us. And we’re not working down a checklist of national parks, either. No, my wife’s had a different plan all along. She just didn’t tell it all to me when we set out. She lets me know it piece by piece, instead, stage by stage. Yes, every morning I get what I call my “marching orders.” That’s one of our little jokes.

At first I had no idea whatsoever what any of this travel was about, but now I’m pretty sure it has to do with Jenny. Well, you see, we know where the others are--Eric overseas is a career Marine, and Monica, his baby sister, lives in Hawaii. She works in a big hotel there. Here are their pictures, see? Aren’t they beautiful human beings? And they’re doing well in the world. Cheryl did a great job, didn’t she? It’s just that, well, they’re so far off we don’t get together the way we’d all like. Plus, neither of these two is married, so, no grandkids there.

Well, I’d have to back up a ways to tell you, but I see Cheryl is deep in talk over there at the counter. That’s the way she is, you know. If she was shipwrecked on a deserted island, she’d make people appear and she’d be friends with them in ten minutes’ time! It’s all that love in her, overflowing into the world.

Okay, well, back to the ear-piercing then. It must have been hard for Jenny to go to school the next day without the earrings, just little, bloody, torn holes in her ears. Girls that age, my wife says, can be terribly cruel to one another, so she probably got made fun of, but we really don’t know. All we know is, after that was like a downhill slide. And it was exactly the way my wife had said it would be, which proves that she was right all along, don’t you think? Jenny got her first tattoo when she was only fourteen! We didn’t even know about it for months, not until bathing suit season, and by then had two more! She stopped doing homework completely. Then, age sixteen she sneaked out of the house—her mother’d grounded her for bad grades--and went “joy-riding” with friends in a “borrowed” car. Across the state line! It was two days later we got the call and drove over to the police station, and she was in a cell, like a criminal. The worst part was, she didn’t even seem upset. She acted like she didn’t care what had happened or what might happen next. I really couldn’t understand it, and I still don’t. It was like our child had disappeared and a stranger had taken her place, someone we couldn’t reach at all.

That incident, as wel called it, got arranged—Cheryl made the arrangements, of course—and Jenny didn’t have to go to a juvenile home. “This time!” the judge said sternly. Jenny didn’t even get charged along with the others for stealing the car. Instead she was treated as a kidnapping victim. “Naturally,” Cheryl explained. “She didn’t drive herself across the state line, did she?”

My wife hoped two nights in jail would’ve taught Jenny a lesson. She had Jenny’s bedroom door and window locked from the outside. But it turned out it was too late. Jenny was already pregnant two months before the joy-riding. When we found that out, we weren’t surprised when she got out of her room somehow and disappeared again. I even thought her brother might have helped her escape, though I didn’t mention that to Cheryl, of course.

Cheryl was a rock. “No, we’re not going to the police. She’ll come running back when she needs us,” my wife said. ‘We have two other children to raise.”

I couldn’t help remembering Cindy, the rejected bridesmaid, and wondering if my wife thought Jenny’s pregnancy would reflect badly on our family, but I think she just knew there was no holding Jenny at home any more, however much love was poured on her, and I’m sure my wife had a lot of private sorrow she never expressed. She’s not one for regrets, but she always loved her kids.

So we went on like nothing had happened. We went on with the two we had left, Eric and Monica, until they made their way out into the world, and then my wife was home alone. She didn’t much care for that, so she figured out how I could take early retirement with partial disability, and here we are. “No point staying home to rattle around in an empty house,” she says. Once I asked her what the point is rattling around in a motor home, here today, gone tomorrow, but she only smiled and said, “You’ll see.” It’s been a while, but I figure I’ll see pretty soon.

Yep, pretty soon, I think, because we’ve been here a few days and even had breakfast at this same Burger Shack three days in a row, which is not how the trip was going up to now. Seems to me my wife is watching school buses, too. She won’t say, but that’s how it seems to me. One time she said she guessed that Jenny must be “no kind of mother at all, living in a trailer and covered with tattoos.” She said, “Those kids deserve a real family life, if not with a mother, with loving grandparents,” but then she clammed up and wouldn’t say another word, wouldn’t answer a single question. That’s when I figured she must have in mind finding Jenny and her kids, since those are the only grandkids we have, though we’ve never set eyes on them. Now I figure the reason we’re here must that Jenny’s somewhere close by.

That make sense to you? It would if you knew my wife and how much love she has to give. I think she just can’t stand not being able to give her love to those little kids, her own flesh and blood.

Here’s another clue, a big one. The other day she forgot to lock one of the little cupboards in the motor home, one she says is none of my business, and I got a peek inside while she was in the grocery store. Kids’ clothes, that’s what’s in there. Brand-new kids’ clothes, size 6 boy and size 8 girl. I don’t know how she would even know Jenny has a boy and girl, let alone how big they are, but my wife has a way of finding out things. You see how she talks to people. She talks to everyone, everywhere we go. It’s part of her friendliness, her loving nature, but she finds out things, too. A person has to know things to make decisions and plans, right?

Next? I have no idea! When there’s something I need to know, my wife will tell me. She’s the captain!

Most men wouldn’t care to have their wife in charge, but I don’t mind. She’s smart, and she’s got a good heart. Besides, she’s a take-charge kind of person. And whatever she does is for the best of all concerned. That’s what really counts. It might not look like it at the time, especially to anyone who gets in the way, but Cheryl figures out what’s best for everyone and goes ahead to make it happen. 


Kathy said...

Have you sent in any of these stories to magazines, Pamela? I hope you do so. Like Cheryl, perhaps you can go ahead and make it happen. Best of luck!

P. J. Grath said...

Sending stories to magazines is a project in itself, requiring lots of research and organization. My focus these days is on bookselling. Selling other people's published writing, that is, rather than trying to get my own published.

As to being like Cheryl, what did you think of her, from everything her husband said, and how did you feel about her and about him? I'm very curious about how these characters strike anyone reading the story for the first time.

Deborah said...

Here's what I thought @ Cheryl - manipulative, conniving, unbending, unwilling to consider another opinion and determined to rule. Her husband, as a parent, is worthless - a pansy as we used to say. No backbone, no original thought.

Dawn said...

I've decided to read them all at I hope you have links to the other 9 when you put #10 up...of course I should be able to go back in the archives and find them all...

P. J. Grath said...

There are links to all posted stories on the page called "Burger Shack Story Cycle," over in the right-hand column under the picture of puppy Sarah in the reading chair. After I post the tenth, it will be added to that list.

Deborah, I'm not ignoring your assessment of Cheryl, but what I thought of that couple, their marriage, and their whole way of being-in-the-world changed as the story unrolled. Don't want to say more. Everyone will see them differently, I'm sure.

dmarks said...

Thanks for this latest installation!

I am not posting as much lately, but I seem to get poetry in most of my posts anymore.

P. J. Grath said...

I've noticed that you're not posting often these days but will go over now and look at the latest. Thanks for keeping up with the Burger Shack, dmarks.

P. J. Grath said...

An e-mail came this morning that I want to post here because it's an answer to my question of how people saw the characters. I'm pleased with this response (but know everyone will have a slightly different take):

"I hope I have the right number. This one is about Cheryl and her husband, narrated by the husband, whose name I don't recall seeing.

"Excellent story idea. As usual with your short stories I wanted to read more. At first I was drawn in by Cheryl because of how much her husband loved her. She must be good, if such a gentle and kind man would love her so much. And I didn't put much thought toward her not wanting the pregnant girl in her wedding. Then I started feeling like she was too much of a controlling person, though obviously other people like her who don't know her very well. She seems to be a secret-keeper as well, not a great trait in people I like. Her husband is a total milque-toast who doesn't have a backbone. His allowing her to make all the decisions seemed very suspect to me, as if he was blinded by her manipulations, but just starting to come to a realization that his wife is keeping secrets from him and that might not be a good thing for him. But I could not be totally against either of them; they both seem to have good qualities as well, though that is just the way you wrote it. Sympathetic in a way.

"Well, that's my impression of the characters and their motivations. Overall, I love this story. I wish it were longer. You are such an excellent writer. The voice of the husband was pitch perfect."