Blue woke up before dawn every day that first week. He and his friends accomplished most of the challenges they had set forth for themselves in a list that was penned at the back of the class during the waning hours of the school year, including a grueling bike ride all the way to the sign that read "City Limits," where they planted a small flag with their coat of arms on it as if they had founded some faraway land that had been untouched by humans until their arrival. The expeditions and wild adventures took a toll on the boys, though, and soon Blue found himself sleeping well into the morning and lounging in front of the television for marathon stretches of bad daytime reruns and corny game shows hosted by an alarming number of men with toupees. His Pop usually came home after dark. Blue always had supper ready when his Pop walked in the door, holding his back and limping slightly on a bad knee.
Blue knew how much his Pop hated to work, especially at the plant. He also knew that there was always money for groceries and clothes and that his Pop never called in sick or missed a day. The first wisdoms that most parents instill in their children are "share" and "look both ways before you cross the street." Blue's Pop had his own adages that sounded more like "you gotta do whatcha gotta do" and "ain't nobody gonna give you nothing for free." Like most working stiffs, Blue's Pop was known to crack open a cold one at the end of the day. He slowly drank his one beer, maybe two if his shift manager had "been on his ass" particularly hard that day, and never more. Blue noticed that his Pop had grown harder over the years. His hair was gray and his skin seemed pale and thin. He talked less, worked more, and rarely slept more than five or six hours, usually in his lazyboy with the television on and an ice pack on his knee.
Thirteen-year-old boys tend to conceal many things from their parents, and Blue was no exception. He had a lingerie catalogue expertly stashed in his closet and his latest report card was somewhere deep in the local landfill, but his biggest secret that summer was one that most boys would not voluntarily hide from their father. He was working. Odd jobs mostly. Yard work, car washing, dog walking, house painting, arbitrary errands for old ladies. Anything really. He was a working stiff. It was in his blood. When he got home he would make dinner and have a tall glass of orange juice, two if someone had shorted him or "been on his ass." Blue didn't spend a dime of it either. All of it went directly into his special hiding place, previously reserved for fireworks and Playmates.
Blue had received the inspiration for his brilliant scheme one Friday when his Pop was particularly put out. He had come home later than normal, broken and tired. He didn't speak and went straight to bed. Blue had started a habit that summer of waking up in the middle of the night and switching out his Pop's ice pack with a fresh one in hopes that his knee would heal faster. That particular night his Pop was asleep in his bed instead of the lazyboy, so Blue crept stealthily into his room. He noticed a crumpled piece of paper on the floor and, like most boys his age, he couldn't help but take a peak. It was his Pop's paycheck for the week. Four hundred and nineteen dollars and twelve cents.
The idea didn't completely gel at first. It kind of stewed somewhere in the back of his mind until it hit him a few hours later as he lay awake in bed. If he could come up with four hundred and nineteen dollars and twelve cents, then his Pop could take a week off from work. It was so simple, yet so ingenious, that he couldn't believe that he hadn't thought of it sooner. They would go somewhere nice or simply lounge around the house and maybe work on a jigsaw puzzle or fix the garage door and the bathroom sink. It didn't matter as long as his Pop could rest. There was only one problem. How was he going to come up with that kind of money? It would be an overwhelming undertaking. Blue pulled out his penny jar and dumped it on the floor. Two dollars and sixty-seven cents. It was a start.
The next day Blue rose early and rode his bike to the flea market. After some spirited haggling with the local junk peddlers, Blue took what he considered top dollar for his Schwinn. Twenty-five dollars and some change for the bus. It would have been just the twenty-five dollars but Blue had seen his Pop wrangle with the slick-talking car salesman when they bought their Buick. He would never forget how coolly his Pop slid that piece of paper across the desk, and how the oily salesman smirked and shook his head. "If I took this offer, Mr. McAllister, I'd be losing money." Blue was horrified. His Pop had insulted Jerry. Good ol' Jerry who had given them cold sodas in the bottle and promised to take care of them like family. Jerry had to talk to his boss and he left the room, shaking his head in disgust. Blue turned to his Pop, who must have sensed his concern, because he put his hand on the back of his neck and rubbed gently. "You gotta hold your ground with these jerks." They got their Buick for the exact figure written on that slip of paper. Ol' Jerry even ended up throwing in some free oil changes and a tank of gas.
Blue walked home from the flea market, pocketing the fifty-cent bus fare. He strolled through the streets lined with abandoned warehouses and factories that had come to define his town. He remembered pillars of smoke on the horizon and the stench of hard work and mass production in the air. Now the buildings reminded him of colossal statues. Memorials to a better life for a place that had slipped into a deep slumber and would never wake again. He thought of all the backbreaking work, the long hours, the sweat and pain. He thought about his Pop. "You gotta do whatcha gotta do," and he knew that as much as he despised it, he was going to have to do what he had to do.
Blue figured out that he had ten weeks. There were eleven weeks until school started, but the last week was for him and his Pop. If he worked every day, and he would, it would take around five and a half dollars a day to reach his goal in time. It was imperative, though, that his Pop not get even a whiff of his plan. The next morning, as soon as his Pop was out the door, Blue sprung out of bed and into action. No job was too lowly. No pay was too small. He hunted and searched, begged and pleaded, and even hassled and harassed. By six o'clock he had managed four dollars and twenty-five cents. It would have to do. He needed to get dinner ready so his Pop wouldn't suspect anything.
At week's end Blue was off pace by almost ten dollars. The schlep-for-hire business wasn't as prosperous as he had hoped. It was taking a toll on his body as well. He had hammered his thumb hanging a shelf for Mrs. Prescott, and dropped a can of paint on his foot at the hardware store. His Pop wasn't holding up very well either. He came home one night grimacing in pain. His knee was the size of a grapefruit and his mood was sour to match. The next morning there were three empty beer cans by his chair. Blue felt the sinking in his stomach as he picked them up. That day he made ten dollars and fifty-five cents.
Blue found that he actually began to take pleasure in his work. He appreciated the little things about it. Taking his shoes off after a long day, the taste of cold water from a garden hose on a scorching afternoon, and, most of all, the feeling of crisp bills in his sock as he walked home in the evening.
Blue kept meticulous notes on his daily earnings. He was excited to see his progress. It was a steady march toward his ultimate goal. Four weeks left and he was ahead of schedule. This actually worked out perfectly, because now Blue could give his Pop some notice before he had to put in for his time off from the plant. That was the moment Blue was most excited about. He couldn't wait to see his Pop's expression when he handed him the money and told him about their week together. They would embrace and his Pop would just shake his head in disbelief and joy. Blue hoped to have a little extra money too. He would treat his Pop to a steak dinner downtown. His Pop would order his beer in a bottle and Blue would have a giant piece of chocolate cake for dessert. Afterward, they might even go see a movie. He'd never seen a movie with his Pop.
Blue had his best day the following Tuesday. He made five dollars mowing a yard in the morning, then six raking leaves and cleaning gutters. In the afternoon he helped four women with their groceries and by the time he had swept a sidewalk and cleaned some picture windows at a lawyer's office he had almost twenty-five dollars in his sock. He got home in plenty of time to shower, pop a few frozen dinners in the oven, and wait for his Pop.
At nine o'clock he couldn't take it anymore and ate his dinner. At ten o'clock he put his Pop's beer back in the fridge because it was getting warm. By eleven he was running to the window every time a car would pass on the street. It wasn't like him to be this late. He wondered if maybe there was a problem at the plant and his Pop was the only one who could fix it. He watched the news. Surely they would mention it. Maybe his Pop would even be on camera, explaining exactly what went wrong and how he had saved the day. The workers would be huddled in blankets behind him, patting him on the back and thanking him for saving their lives. Maybe the mayor would throw a party in his honor and he would receive a medal or a key to the city or they'd build a bronze statue of him in front of the plant.
Sometime early in the morning Blue drifted off in a chair by the front window. He dreamed of his Mama as she rocked him gently with her icy hands. She sang softly, her sharp breath surrounding him in a shroud of warmth and comfort. His Pop was there too, beaming down at him as he gently caressed his wife's shoulders with his sandpaper hands. His Mama smiled with a gloomy, distant look in her eyes. His Pop whispered gently in her ear and she nodded, and then let Blue go. He felt the wind run cold over his body as he fell. It was a dark and endless plunge, but all that Blue could think about was that he'd felt the sinking feeling in his stomach before.
Blue was awakened by the back door being opened. He recognized the thud of his Pop's heavy boots on the kitchen tiles, then the suction of the refrigerator door opening. He rose slowly, unsteady from the fall, and walked into the kitchen. His Pop was downing a beer with unusual vigor. His shirt was unbuttoned and his hair a tangled mess. He threw the can in the sink and went for another.
Blue instantly recognized the dim look in his eyes. He felt like he was falling again. He wondered if his Pop's hands were cold.
"Get outta here," his Pop slurred.
Blue backed up. His ears tingled and a swell rose in his throat and seized his breath. He grabbed for the doorjamb, but missed and tumbled backward. His Pop appeared over him instantly. The swell in Blue's throat exploded into a shrill cry. His Pop sat him up tenderly and embraced him.
"It's all right, son."
He felt like a rag doll. His Pop's breath was bitter and harsh and his stubble was rough on his cheek. Finally, Blue's tears slowed, and as they broke the hug he wiped his nose with his sleeve.
"They let me go," his Pop whispered, as if he just couldn't say it aloud.
"It's okay. I've got money."
His Pop was amused. Blue was bursting at the seams. He wanted to tell his Pop about the jobs and the money. But not tonight.
"Does that mean you're gonna be around tomorrow?"
His Pop winced as he stood. He offered his hand to help Blue to his feet.
"That's what it looks like," his Pop answered.
"Maybe we can go see a movie or something," Blue asked as he was pulled to his feet.
They stood eye to eye. Something in his Pop's eyes said that he had just realized how much his son had grown up, right under his nose, completely unnoticed.
His Pop gently rubbed the back of his neck. His heavy, cracked hands weren't the least bit cold.
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