Continuing the exploration of the father-son dynamic that he began in the short story AT THE DINER, author Neil Plakcy expands on the theme with a look at the lives of seven men in the town of Stewart's Crossing.
Chuck longs to escape the rigidity of his life and working in his father's store. Charley fears for the loss of the family farm. Sandy is the one who got out of the small town, then chose to come back. Paul is losing his connection with his son. Harry worries that his son will change in the Army. Nick seeks to keep his relationship with his son stable while his marriage falls apart. Tom is faced with the possibility of illness taking his child.
Through all of their trials and tribulations, the men make a pact to stick together. One night's prank will result in the creation of The Outhouse Gang; a group dedicated to ensuring that, above all else, their dedication to their fathers and the fathers they themselves are destined to become will remain strong.
Chuck Ritter finished his cereal and pushed the bowl away as the cuckoo clock in the living room chirped seven times. Shards of June sunshine pushed through the Venetian blinds and slatted the linoleum floor. His wife Susanna put two pieces of toast on a plate and carried it over to the table, where she sat down across from him. “You’re going to think about the Stock Club today, aren’t you?” she asked.
He shrugged. “If I get a chance.” He managed his father’s hardware store on Main Street near the traffic light in the center of Stewart’s Crossing, Pennsylvania. He was short and stocky and during the day he wore a canvas apron over his plaid shirt and jeans. Stray nails, twist-ties, plastic bags, washers and odd pieces of paper always ended up in the pockets of his apron. He’d take it off at the end of the day, puzzled by how much he had accumulated.
It was like that with his marriage, too. He looked at Susanna in her cloth housecoat that was just like the one her mother wore. She hadn’t combed her hair yet that morning, and the static electricity in it kept the thin hairs stuck together. He wondered how they had come this far, eleven years into a marriage, two kids and two cars between them.
“When we were sixteen years old and I kissed you for the first time,” he asked, “did you ever think we’d end up this way?”
“We were fifteen when you kissed me for the first time,” Susanna said. She bit into a slice of toast.
“No. We were sixteen. It was at Louise Walsh’s party.”
“Her sweet sixteen party,” Susanna said, wiping her mouth with a paper napkin.
“It was July.”
Chuck had a sudden longing for those days, when he was young and free and the world was full of possibility. Susanna had been his high-school sweetheart, the only girl he had loved or made love to, the reason why he had stayed in Stewart’s Crossing. Most of the guys he had grown up with left town for college, and stayed in those college towns, or moved to the big city with their degrees. Or else they’d just wandered off, to other cities, other states, or other suburbs newer and fresher than their home town.
As he put his bowl in the sink and ran water in it, he heard the high-pitched groan of the school bus slowing to a stop at the end of the block. “Kids! The bus!” he called.
Ten-year-old Bruce skidded around the corner into the kitchen first, barely stopping to pick up his lunch bag and run for the door. Lisa, six, was right behind him, stopping to kiss her mother good-bye and grab her own lunch. “Bruce! Wait up!” she cried, darting through the door and letting the screen bang behind her.
Chuck stood up and watched his children fly down the driveway and jump in through the open door of the school bus. Then he turned back to where his brown-bagged lunch was the only one left on the counter. “I’m going.”
“Promise to think about the Stock Club,” Susanna said.
“Promise.” He kissed Susanna good-bye and walked out to the garage, carrying his lunch.
At heart he was still the same kid who’d dished out nails and measured lumber since he was fourteen. Back then he’d never thought he’d spend his whole life in the same small town. He had his sights set on the larger world. He was sure some train would pass through town and drag him along behind it, watching the tracks fade behind him and Stewart’s Crossing disappear in a haze of summer heat and engine fumes.
But he’d ached for Susanna. That passionate churning in his groin and the pit of his stomach had won out over any desire to leave. He’d gone to work for his father and married Susanna one Sunday at St. Jude’s, the Methodist church on Station Avenue. The railroad lines ran just behind the chapel; during the service the train whistle had blown, loud and strong, just before he took his vows.
He got into his pickup and drove the few minutes down into the center of town, puzzling over the way he felt. On the seat next to him was a Reading Railroad schedule to Philadelphia, and he stared at it for a minute, wondering where it had come from. Then he remembered. A few days before he’d left the shop on a break and walked down to the station at the north end of town. He’d stood there for a while, watching the tracks, not knowing just what he was waiting for, before he’d picked up the schedule and walked back to the store. He wondered now, as he drove down into town, if he had settled for life, rather than going out and grabbing it. Was he getting old, sinking into the sludge of life without ever making a stab at getting out?
He admired men like his friend Sandy Lord, who was an attorney. He’d gone to college, and law school, too, and gone out into the world to find his life. He had chosen to come to Stewart’s Crossing, rather than inheriting it as a birthright. Somehow Chuck thought that was a better way to find your place in life, but he wasn’t sure why.
It was a slow morning at the hardware store. Kids were still in school, crops were already planted; the town was in a holding pattern, waiting for the slow inexorable change of the seasons. Every day got longer, lazier. A fine haze of dust rose and then hung in the air when a customer dropped a half-dozen copper elbows on the counter. Throughout the morning, Chuck mused about Sandy’s life and his own, wondering how things might be different if he left Susanna, gave up the store, moved someplace else.
Just after noon, Sandy walked into the back office where Chuck was sitting, eating his lunch. Sandy’s wife Helene was the bookkeeper at the lumber yard on Mill Street, near the river, where Susanna was the boss’s secretary, and the men had originally met through their wives. With a deep sigh, Sandy settled into an old wooden chair and put his feet up on Chuck’s desk. The Lords lived in the middle of a tract of suburban homes, in a big Revolutionary War farmhouse that was falling apart. Sandy was a regular customer at the hardware store, asking Chuck for advice about blocked downspouts, chipped bricks, and buckling floors.
They talked for a few minutes about the onrush of summer, and about Pope John XXIII, who had just died the day before.
“Did Helene tell you about this idea she and Susanna cooked up?” Chuck asked finally, in between bites of the chicken salad sandwich Susanna had made for him on white toast.
“You mean this Stock Club thing?”
Chuck nodded. “Sounds like a bunch of crap.”
“I don’t know,” Sandy said. He wore a pair of round glasses framed by thin gold wire, and he had a habit of pulling them down on his nose when he was serious. “I know Helene and I could use a little extra money.”
“Hell, who couldn’t?” Chuck said. He was already wondering where the money was going to come from for new sneakers for Bruce, who seemed to grow an inch every time his father’s back was turned, for clothes and toys and maybe a color TV to replace the old black-and-white in the living room. He had a momentary flash of life in an apartment in some strange city, every dollar in his pocket his own to spend as he pleased.
“It might be worth it to look into the stock market.”
Chuck shook his head. “I was never much good with numbers.”
Sandy put his feet down and sat up straight. “And yet I’ve seen you rattle off ten different sizes of adjustable wrenches and the kinds of bolts that match each one. You remember that because you want to.” Chuck finished his sandwich, crumpled the wrapper, and tossed it into the trash can across the room.
“Two points,” Sandy said.
“So you think we ought to do it?” Chuck asked. He was wary of the club; it might be just another rope tying him down to Stewart’s Crossing, to his wife and family, to a life that didn’t seem to suit him any more. It might also cost him what little he’d saved. But it was change, too, and change was good, or at least seemed like it might be.
“Give it a try,” Sandy said. “What can it hurt?”