Thursday, April 16th, 2017
White River Junction, Vermont
So it’s come to this: my father standing at the conveyor belt in the mixing room, yelling about ingratitude, throwing empty mayonnaise jars at my head. And this is without a doubt the most honest moment we’ve ever shared.
“You ungrateful little shit!” he yells, launching another jar. It shatters on the wall behind me, chipping the brick. “This company fed you,” he roars. “It clothed you!”
“So what,” I bark. “I’m not putting on your old suit. Living your dream.”
I wonder if he misses on purpose, or if he’s just blinded with anger. His next shot clips my shoulder.
“Forget it! I’m not taking over your business.”
He launches a jar into my thigh.
“You spoiled brat!”
That one really hurt.
Why did I ever come back to my hometown, to his factory? My big escape didn’t work out. I got away for a while, but I didn’t start over. It just didn’t take, and I was still nowhere, with nothing to do, just farther away. Then my car died, and I couldn’t fix or replace it without asking him for money.
“You see this?” he bellows, holding an empty jar by the mouth while he jabs at the words on the label. “This is who you are.”
The label says “Schmidt & Sons Mayonnaise.”
“This gave you the life you don’t appreciate,” he lectures. “This keeps our town employed! You will show it some leadership, and some goddamn respect.”
He shows his respect by hurling the jar at me, missing, and damaging the wall.
I’ve backed up against the bricks to keep from falling over, my fingers rooting for purchase. This wall is older than either of us. It used to be an outside wall, where it was battered by horse drawn wagons last century; more recently by my grandfather manhandling tables in this room; and ever since by carts and hand trucks and all manner of things moved by my family and their legion of workers. I used to run my hands across this wall, imagining my finger a stylus playing the dings and scratches like the grooves on a record. What stories would they tell, of the lives of those before me? Of my father as a boy, of my grandfather as the man who turned this room into the heart of our family business?
A jar skims my ribs. It digs a little chip from the brick, recording the sound of breaking glass and my father’s fury.
“You know what you are, Jamie?” he asks me. “A dreamer, an idealist. You got no sense, not a practical bone in your body.”
It’s amazing how hatefully he says dreamer, and idealist. It makes me hope that I am one.
The company needs me, he says; the town needs me. He won’t say that he needs me, and the other things sound more flattering when he’s not screaming them. But I know what he means: he has pride, and a name, to protect. Also, he is the largest employer in a very small town, whose workers need continuity and stability and someone to keep their jobs safe from being downsized by some corporation.
He took the business over from his father, and expects me to eventually take it over from him, to protect his legacy and our security and the town that’s depended on our factory since before it was ours. They don’t need me, personally, just someone to faithfully play the role…as he had, for his father. I get that.
I just don’t want that life.
Sell it to a foreman, I’d told him. His own father had been a foreman when he bought the company on credit. That suggestion didn’t go over well… Just sell it to someone with the sense, with the skill, with the desire, to carry it on, I said. I’m wise enough to realize that isn’t me, but apparently not clever enough to have built a better life elsewhere. Yet.
At least I’m trying. I wonder if he ever did.
Maybe he always wanted to please his father. Maybe he dreamed of mayonnaise. I don’t know, he never talked about that, only about duty, leadership, and values. Heady stuff; manly stuff. He never spoke about fears; never a word about passion, inspiration, or love. Only the kind of hard work and values, he said, that built America.
Gag me with a silver spoon.
He advances, smacking the jar against his palm. I hobble away from the wall, meeting my father halfway. I’d rather punch him than stand here silently, staring him in the eye. But I won already when he made this physical. I just wonder when he’ll realize it.
“You will serve this community,” he growls, “and you will live a clean, upstanding life, so long as you bear my name.”
My name is James Schmidt the Third. I go by just Jamie.
He swings the jar, hitting me upside my head. I’m on the floor, surprised by how much the concrete hurts my knees. His shoes point like accusations as he looms.
The final blow doesn’t come. I look up. He’s staring at the label, where our family name is scuffed and stained with my blood, then throws the jar against the wall. It breaks in slow motion, the label fluttering to land atop the shards.
“A Proud Family Tradition,” it reads.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
But I haven’t changed my mind.
* * * * *
I lick my wounds on the bridge over the White River, feeling the factory’s presence behind me, staring at a statue of my grandfather.
The village council put it up on a corner of land by the town hall, when I was a boy and thought it was neat. Now it’s kind of embarrassing to have a family member immortalized in copper, larger than life, gazing across the river at his factory and our little downtown as if he owned the place. He did, to an extent, as my father does now. Ownership of something you’ve built, though, feels different than the receipt of something you’re given.
Some of the people I went to school with, years ago, are working now in his factory. Some of their parents work for the factory, and have since before I was born. No wonder I don’t feel comfortable sliding into management. They’ve been here all along. The idea seems feudal. Perhaps they’d agree.
Many of them live in apartments my family owns. They worship in the church my grandfather endowed, pay their taxes at the town hall he refurbished, and deposit their pay at the bank he once chaired. It’s a small town and there’s no escaping his legacy.
He was a teenager during World War II, my father told me, working as a brewer’s assistant in Munich. He survived 71 heavy bombing raids by American B-17s, a fact my father takes undeserved pride in, and then survived the Soviet occupation. They relocated the men from his village, placing him in a new life, with a new job, in a new city. He was retrained as a condiment maker, never to brew again, expected by law to lead the life assigned him by forces that seemed irresistible. The conflict had destroyed his home; the Politburo controlled his fate.
The worker’s paradise, they promised, was his inevitable reward for diligence, for duty, for shutting up and following orders. Do as you’re told, they said; be grateful, they said; you have it much better than those poor saps who think they’re free.
He escaped as soon as he could.
My father never told me the details, as if he feared they might be instructive.
So I don’t know how he came to America, or why he chose our village, only that there were no breweries so he plied his trade for the condiment company along railroad row. He learned English. He became a foreman. Other businesses moved to bigger cities and this one faltered, good fortunes elsewhere being bad for small towns. Grandpa bought the business on credit. To keep his employees from moving away, he bought the apartments across the street and fixed them up. His loyalty was rewarded in kind as he grew the business, showing his gratitude further by refurbishing the town—remaking it in his image, sure, but not to its detriment. The people didn’t need a savior, just a break, and someone to look out for them. He did, and when he passed, they spoke his name more reverently than even the name of the man of God who buried him.
That’s the legacy my father had to live up to; the one I’m supposed to follow.
No pressure or anything.
This is the best spot to commune with grandpa. The trees part around his statue, the factory pulls from behind me, the view includes a number of buildings with the same brickwork—grandpa had one aesthetic, and really went for it. I’m proud of his legacy, though I’ve done nothing to earn it. It will always be part of my past.
It just doesn’t feel like part of my future. Grandpa didn’t maintain, either. He fled into the unknown, and he built something cool.
* * * * *
I can’t go home, at least not tonight, so I haul myself up the stairs to Grace’s apartment and knock on her door. We dated in high school, and a little since. Her door needs paint, the carpeting is worn and the hallway scuffed, because no one lives in hallways, they just pass through them. On the other side of her door is a home—a place I can lay low and get my head straight. She’s my closest friend, which isn’t saying much.
The door opens. I stumble through. She catches me, spinning me against the wall so I don’t wind up on the floor. She doesn’t kiss me, though I wish she would.
“What happened to you?” she says.
“He finally believes me.”
She sighs and shakes her head. “Not this again.”
“This time is different,” I say, angling my head so she can see the swelling.
“I’ll say.” She touches it gingerly, wincing before I do, and leads me to her bathroom sink. “Who started it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Well if he started it,” she says, “then yeah. I guess he believes you. What are you going to do though? I mean…you can’t just leave town.”
“I did once.”
“Yeah,” she says. “And how’d that work out?”
Grace left, too, for college. That she’s back is testament to the gravity of one’s hometown, especially when you don’t have anywhere else to be. Except she never wanted to run away; merely to get away a little while and come back with a degree and whatever memories she made.
“He called me a dreamer,” I say. “An idealist.”
“I’m sure he meant them as insults.”
“But they’re not,” I say, pulling my head from the sink. In the mirror I see myself as I am: mid-twenties, hollow cheeks, feral eyes. A far cry from who I’d like to be. The water drains down my neck, soaking my collar.
“I mean, how can you build something if you don’t dream?” I ask. “How do you know what’s worth building, what’s worth fighting against, if you’re not idealistic? Do you just take things as they are? That’s lame.”
She feels attacked—Grace, God love her, is a pragmatist. A few weeks ago she outlined her next twenty years as we lay together, our sweat cooling. She has a whole plan for making a life from her job at the Center for Cartoon Studies a block away, for buying a house up the hill in three years, for taking a full year off whenever she chooses to have kids…after she meets the right guy. To my relief it doesn’t seem to be me.
“Where else did he hit you?” she asks. I take off my shirt and show her my ribs, my shoulder. Her brows knit. She touches the swelling with the back of her hand, feeling the heat.
“He beat you with mayonnaise jars?” she says. “That’s just so…”
“Yeah, I know.” She leads me to her bed, pulling the covers back and lying beside me with her clothes on. “You know,” I say, “the street outside—”
“Yeah. There’s a first time you ever went down that street. Probably as a baby. There’ll be a last time, too. Probably on your way to the cemetery. You ever think about that? The way it connects your past, your future, just by being there?”
“Not really,” she says. “It’s one way on this block. If you’re looking for some kind of deeper meaning, maybe start there.”
“You ever think how it connects to Route Four? To the interstate? And all the places they go, all the driveways? The house you’re gonna buy someday, you can drive there now, you just don’t know which one it is yet. The place you’re gonna be buried—”
“I want to be cremated.”
“The point is,” I say, “that life is an adventure, and the trail could be anywhere. At any moment. Just right there, out the window!”
“Then why don’t you go, if it’s right there.”
“I’d rather stay with you.”
Her look says she’s not buying it.
“You’re afraid,” she taunts. “Besides, this is where you’re from. It’s your future. You’d just come back again.”
“Like you did,” I remind her.
“And look what I have to show for it,” she says. “A job. An apartment. Stability.”
“Where’s the excitement?”
“There’s a time for that. And it was fun. But then there’s being responsible, so the rest of your life isn’t wrecked by the things you used to think were exciting. I’ve moved on. You think it’s boring.”
“Well, no one beat me up today.”
“Can I just go to sleep? Can I pretend we’re a happy couple and when I wake up everything is going to be fine? Of all the nights…”
She gives me a peck on the cheek.
“I’m sorry this happened to you,” she says, and I believe her. “You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Gentle rocking wakes me sometime later. She doesn’t seem to notice me. I know that curve of her mouth. That heave of her chest. So she suspected a different kind of night when I called—that makes sense. Now she gasps, and whispers someone else’s name.
What did I expect? I can’t blame her.
“Call me when you feel better,” she says, as I slip out her door.
* * * * *