Family First

I held her hand as we walked up the aisle of the church. We stopped at the front some distance from the coffin. The organ’s dirge reverberated in the vaulted sanctuary. I looked back over my shoulder. It was a sunny day. The muted colours from the stained glass windows shimmered across the heads of the congregation like a bed of hot coals. Most of the heads were bowed. Sobbing came from the front pew. There’s no consolation. I know. In the grand scheme of things, parents should outlive their children. It should be some kind of rule. I reached down and lifted my daughter Jessica onto my shoulder. For a moment, I stood in place, then I turned.

+++++Maureen worked at the local QuikMart. She stocked shelves, did the ordering, and supervised the check-outs. She’d been there three years. They told her that if she proved herself over the coming year, she’d be manager. She believed their promises. We both believed them so, to prove herself, she worked longer hours per day and took little time off. She loved her job. Now, all we had to do was wait for the company to come through.

+++++I couldn’t find work. I’d been looking for months but less and less as the weeks progressed, as we got closer to the end of Maureen’s trial year. If the job came through, I wouldn’t have to work again. That meant I got to stay home with Jessica. It was good for me and for Jessica and for Maureen, too. We both loved our jobs. The situation suited us both.

+++++Maureen was always looking outward, looking for the next challenge, hopping up on the next rung of the ladder, broadening her horizons. She had the personality and the smarts to go with it, not to mention her beauty. Men stopped and stared and turned, following her with their eyes. She strolled down the street with the sure-footed confidence of a seasoned runway model. She wasn’t aware of it and she wasn’t self conscious. It was just her way, who she was. She was a self-made entrepreneur. I was proud of her. If anyone deserved her own store, it was Maureen.

+++++I was the guy who liked closed doors, preferably locked. When home, the picket fence was my outer border, the grass I cut and flowers I watered, my territory, the area I policed. That’s not to say I didn’t venture out. Jessica was my charge, my responsibility in my territory, and my responsibility wherever we went together. Going to the park was a daily routine, and on the way back, an ice cream cone, a slice of pizza, a burger at the local fast-food joint. Sometimes we’d stop by the auto repair shop where Carl, one of my buddies from the Marines worked. I tried to make the most of our time together.

+++++I’d been trained as a high-level mechanic in the Marines. My speciality was damage control. I’d been away for three long years serving my country, fighting a war we’d never stop fighting and one it seemed we’d never win. Maureen and I agreed when I returned that I’d done my part. Now, it was her turn. It suited us, doing the jobs we both loved. It was all working out just fine.

+++++Until it wasn’t.

+++++It was mid-afternoon on a weekday. Jessica and I were watching a movie together, her favourite, Charlotte’s Web, when I heard a car pull into the driveway. I got up from the sofa, took two steps to the window, and parted the curtains. It was Maureen’s company car. Just then the door burst open.

+++++“Donnie! Donnie!” She was shouting my name.

+++++“Jessica. Put on your headphones.” I watched her slip on the headphones. I stepped out into the hallway. Maureen was shouting up the stairs.

+++++“Maureen,” I said. At the sound of her name she turned and stomped over to me till she was standing close, in my face like a Parris Island drill instructor. Her eyes were red and wide.

+++++“They’re…” Tense and trembling, she started over.

+++++“They’re. Giving. The job. To the owner’s son.” A tear escaped the corner of her left eye and slid down the side of her cheek.

+++++“What?” I asked. I stepped away from her.

+++++She seemed to rally and brushed the tear from her cheek. “I have to go back for a meeting.

+++++They’re going to tell me how I fit into the scheme of things now. I just had to come home and tell you.”

+++++“After all the hours you’ve put in, all the hard work. What the fuck is going on?”

+++++“Shhh…Jessica will hear you.”

+++++“She’s watching a movie. Got her headphones on.”

+++++“It’s a family run business. Why I liked it. No corporate bullshit. But…family first, they told me.”

+++++Maureen went back to the store. I sat down next to Jessica on the sofa and worked out a plan. I called my buddy, Carl.

+++++Maureen called me an hour later and asked me to pick her up. She had to leave the company car at the store. They were giving it to the son. I got Jessica ready and we drove to the store. They were “giving” Maureen the assistant manager position.

+++++I dropped them off back at the house. I told Maureen I was going for a drink. Instead, I drove to the auto repair shop. Carl had left me the key.

+++++I could hear the priest swinging the chain censer as I turned into our pew behind the family. Maureen scooted over to give us a place to sit. The store owner’s son had been killed in a gruesome car accident, burned beyond recognition. The fire had burned hot and fast due to the several cases of paint thinner he’d had in the boot. The casket was closed.

+++++Maureen got the managerial job, her very own store.

+++++I got Jessica.

+++++Family first.

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James Shaffer

James Shaffer

James Shaffer is an American living in Europe. He’s had stories published in online magazines including The Film of My Life, Bewildering Stories and The Razor’s Edge. When he’s not writing, he’s watching movies. He is convinced our perceptions of the images we see on film are a template for what we see inside our heads. He tries to create those images in the stories he writes.
James Shaffer

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